'I Served on U.S. Army Abrams Tanks—Giving Them to Ukraine Is Risky'

It was in the summer of 1995 when I, an 18 year old recruit, first drove an M1 Abrams tank.

August in Fort Knox, Kentucky, was oppressive to say the least, but I don't recall any of that. I was excited and nervous. I didn't even have a car driver's license yet but here I was about to drive a 60 ton tank around a carefully planned course.

I remember that the tank didn't feel at all cumbersome or slow. It jumped at the twist of your wrist, and turned nimbly at the slightest input of the t-bar steering column. The driver's seat is amazingly comfortable. The other seats, not so much, I would find out later. But the view when unbuttoned, which means the tank hatch is open, is very good.

What it takes to be a tank gunner

I would go on to serve nearly 10 more years on tanks during my time in the U.S. Army, serving in every position; loader, driver, gunner, and briefly, commander. The vast majority of my career was as a gunner, which I was very good at, to the point where I lost my tank commander slot because the battalion executive officer took me as his gunner. A bittersweet honor to be sure, but an honor nonetheless.

To be honest, driving the tank is not typically a very difficult task, in fact many units assign the newest member of the crew to drive, meaning the next man to eventually move into the gunners seat is in the turret with the tank commander and gunner to prepare for his (or "her" now, but tank crews were male only during the time I served) promotion to the aptly named "Gunners Hole."

It was from the gunners seat that I departed out of Friedberg Germany and entered into central Baghdad under the crossed swords of the ironically named Victory Arch in 2003 as part of the 1st Battalion 37th Armored Regiment (37th Armor), also known as 1-37 Armor Task Force "Bandits."

U.S. Army Veteran Girona Served on Abrams
Glenn Girona with his platoon in Baghdad in the summer of 2003. Girona is pictured front right holding a M240 machine gun. Glenn Girona

Having had a chance to evaluate most modern tanks in service as of 2002; the German Leopard 2A6, the British FV4034 Challenger 2, The French LeClerc, and a substantial number of old Soviet and current Russian tanks, I can say that the M1 Abrams series, especially in its current iterations, earns its place at, or sharing the top, of the tank food chain.

Why the Abrams tank needs a well-trained crew

As amazing and terrifying of a machine as it is, it is those four people inside that determine how well that amazing tank performs. While a bad tank can certainly cause a good crew to perform poorly, a perfect tank will not get a crew that needs some more training past gunnery qualification.

Yearly tank gunnery qualification is the highlight and defining event for tank crews, reputations are made and broken, wagers and friendly (sometimes not so friendly) competition abound at every level from tank crew to platoon, company and battalion.

Tank gunnery is no simple matter, during my time the Table VIII intermediate tank qualification was graded on a scale from 0 to 1000 points with 700 being required to simply Q1; which means qualifying on your first attempt. Getting a Q2 or even Q3 is humbling for a crew and not entirely uncommon.

A score of 800-899 is marked as superior and could earn the crew an Army Achievement medal. Scoring 900-999 is marked as distinguished and could earn the crew an Army Commendation medal. To receive a 1000 point perfect score was extremely rare, I only saw one in my time. That person received an Army Commendation medal and plenty of bragging rights.

To see how an undertrained crew can affect performance in a strong tank, I believe we should look at how a number of Iraqi manned M1A1 tanks were decimated or captured by ISIS with their relatively inferior armory, how dozens of Saudi M1 tanks were damaged or destroyed in Yemen against the same adversary, or even how Turkish crews faired in Leopard 2s, widely considered to be superior to the Abrams, in Turkey, also against the Islamic State. To me, this demonstrates that if the most expensive part of your tank isn't the training provided to your crew, any extra spent on the tank is likely wasted.

Joe Biden Russia-Ukraine War Abrams Tanks Ukraine
U.S. President Joe Biden with Secretary of State Antony Blinken (left) and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, DC, on January 25, 2023. The US announced January 25 that it will provide 31 Abrams tanks to help Ukraine repel Russia's invasion, mirroring a similar move by Germany in the face of dire warnings from Moscow. ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images

Now the U.S. is providing M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine.

Ukraine's Armed Forces has proven itself far braver, more competent, and motivated than the most ardent Ukrainian supporter could have hoped a year ago. Likewise, the Russian Army, far from being the unstoppable wave or adversary once feared, has shown us the results of a poorly trained and led conscript army whose equipment and logistics have been so devastated by rampant corruption.

The risks of providing Abrams tanks to Ukraine

When we would analyze Russian designs, equipment, and tactics during my time at the Fort Irwin National Training Center in California, the temptation even back then was to dismiss their army as a Potemkin Village, but we always had a word of warning with our jokes, a quote often attributed, possibly incorrectly, to Sir Winston Churchill, "Russia is never as strong as she wants to appear, but never as weak as she looks."

No matter how well the Ukrainian tankers have trained, their experience on the M1 Abrams Series will essentially be zero. There may be some old American tankers in the Ukrainian foreign legion, but that number is likely small. Yet providing the necessary training and building a cadre of experience is the work of years, not weeks or months.

Regardless, any semi competent Ukrainian tankers, used to serving in the cramped confines of the Soviet-designed T-72 and T-80 tanks they have, will find their capabilities improved with even some quick training on the Abrams.

Abrams tank U.S. Ukraine-Russia War
A M1A2 Abrams battle tank of the US army that will be used for military exercises by the 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, is pictured at the Baltic Container Terminal in Gdynia on December 3, 2022. The military equipment arrived in Poland as part of the Operation Atlantic Resolve, augmenting the air, ground and naval presence along the Eastern flank of the NATO. On January 25, 2022, President Joe Biden announced that the U.S. would provide 31 Abrams tanks to Ukraine. MATEUSZ SLODKOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

The ability to shoot, move, and communicate, are core to any successful tank crew. Doing it with better equipment will help, but the experience to fix the small problems that crop up will be critically missing. The Ukrainians will need to be able to answer questions such as: Are the turret hydraulics broken or did someone accidentally turn the tiny hydraulic release valve? How many spare track blocks and road wheels are there? Are the boresight procedures completed correctly? Is there anything available for mechanics to pull an almost 70 ton Abrams tank out of a mudhole a second lieutenant guided a tank into? Pulling a 45 ton T-80 tank out of a hole is going to seem like child's play in comparison.

Tactically, compared to even the most modern Russian T-90 tank (which is a substantial upgrade of a T-72 but still basically an older design with lots of foreign tech installed) an old M1 Abrams will be a revelation. Logistically, however, it may be more than a war ravaged country, fighting against a numerically superior force, can handle.

In my experience, tactics win battles, but logistics can win wars.

Many may remember the image of ISIS flags flying over a fully intact M1 Abrams in Iraq in 2018. Are we prepared to see one with the Russian tricolor over it? Already, Russian internet trolls have posted propaganda of a knocked out Abrams tank, falsely claiming it was in Ukraine.

Imagine the propaganda coup for Russia if it actually happens. The videos of completely isolated and stationary M1s in Iraq being hit by ISIS anti-tank missiles still haunt my dreams. I worry about that happening again, but this time in the Russia-Ukraine war. There are burnt out Russian tanks everywhere in Ukraine, no one bats an eye anymore. But I suspect a single burning Abrams will be top news globally.

In my personal opinion, the small number of M1s sent to Ukraine are more symbolic than anything. Powerful but too difficult to employ with the resources and training available and too important to lose. It does however lead the way for other countries to provide their own tanks (though posing the same logistical issues) and demonstrate to President Vladimir Putin a commitment to support Ukraine.

But at this point, there is no doubt that Russian intelligence has had access to evaluate M1s from several different generations. Despite the bluster, anyone with real knowledge in Russia is aware of its capabilities against their current tanks. I fear what will happen if a 21st Century version of the notorious and deadly 1991 Gulf War armored combat between Iraq and the U.S., the Battle of 73 Easting, were to occur.

Yet I hope for success for my Ukrainian brothers and sisters in arms, should their performance prove to once again, exceed expectations.

Glenn Girona is a U.S. Army veteran and CRM program manager for UMGC Europe.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.