Something’ felled an M1A1 Abrams tank in Iraq – but what?

Shortly before dawn on Aug. 28, an M1A1 Abrams tank on routine patrol in Baghdad “was hit by something” that crippled the 69-ton behemoth.

Army officials still are puzzling over what that “something” was.
According to an unclassified Army report, the mystery projectile punched through the vehicle’s skirt and drilled a pencil-sized hole through the hull. The hole was so small that “my little finger will not go into it,” the report’s author noted.

The “something” continued into the crew compartment, where it passed through the gunner’s seatback, grazed the kidney area of the gunner’s flak jacket and finally came to rest after boring a hole 1½ to 2 inches deep in the hull on the far side of the tank.

As it passed through the interior, it hit enough critical components to knock the tank out of action. That made the tank one of only two Abrams disabled by enemy fire during the Iraq war and one of only a handful of “mobility kills” since they first rumbled onto the scene 20 years ago. The other Abrams knocked out this year in Iraq was hit by an RPG-7, a rocket-propelled grenade.

Experts believe whatever it is that knocked out the tank in August was not an RPG-7 but most likely something new — and that worries tank drivers.

Mystery and anxiety

Terry Hughes is a technical representative from Rock Island Arsenal, Ill., who examined the tank in Baghdad and wrote the report.
In the sort of excited language seldom included in official Army documents, he said, “The unit is very anxious to have this ‘SOMETHING’ identified. It seems clear that a penetrator of a yellow molten metal is what caused the damage, but what weapon fires such a round and precisely what sort of round is it? The bad guys are using something unknown and the guys facing it want very much to know what it is and how they can defend themselves.”

Nevertheless, the Abrams continues its record of providing extraordinary crew protection. The four-man crew suffered only minor injuries in the attack. The tank commander received “minor shrapnel wounds to the legs and arms and the gunner got some in his arm” as a result of the attack, according to the report.

Whatever penetrated the tank created enough heat inside the hull to activate the vehicle’s Halon firefighting gear, which probably prevented more serious injuries to the crew.

The soldiers of 2nd Battalion, 70th Armor Regiment, 1st Armor Division who were targets of the attack weren’t the only ones wondering what damaged their 69-ton tank.

Hughes also was puzzled. “Can someone tell us?” he wrote. “If not, can we get an expert on foreign munitions over here to examine this vehicle before repairs are begun? Please respond quickly.”

His report went to the office of the combat systems program manager at the U.S. Army Tank-automotive and Armaments Command in Warren, Mich. A command spokesman said he could provide no information about the incident.

“The information is sensitive,” he said. “It looks like [members of the program manager’s office] are not going to release any information right now.”

While it’s impossible to determine what caused the damage without actually examining the tank, some conclusions can be drawn from photos that accompanied the incident report. Those photos show a pencil-size penetration hole through the tank body, but very little sign of the distinctive damage — called spalling — that typically occurs on the inside surface after a hollow- or shaped-charge warhead from an anti-tank weapon burns its way through armor.

Spalling results when an armor penetrator pushes a stream of molten metal ahead of it as it bores through an armored vehicle’s protective skin.

“It’s a real strange impact,” said a source who has worked both as a tank designer and as an anti-tank weapons engineer. “This is a new one. … It almost definitely is a hollow-charge warhead of some sort, but probably not an RPG-7” anti-tank rocket-propelled grenade.

The well-known RPG-7 has been the scourge of lightly armored vehicles since its introduction more than 40 years ago. Its hollow-charge warhead easily could punch through an M1’s skirt and the relatively thin armor of its armpit joint, the area above the tracks and beneath the deck on which the turret sits, just where the mystery round hit the tank.

An RPG-7 can penetrate about 12 inches of steel — a thickness far greater than the armor that was penetrated on the tank in Baghdad. But the limited spalling evident in the photos accompanying the incident report all but rules out the RPG-7 as the culprit, experts say.

Limited spalling is a telltale characteristic of Western-manufactured weapons designed to defeat armor with a cohesive jet stream of molten metal. In contrast, RPG-7s typically produce a fragmented jet spray.

The incident is so sensitive that most experts in the field would talk only on the condition that they not be identified.

One armor expert at Fort Knox, Ky., suggested the tank may have been hit by an updated RPG. About 15 years ago, Russian scientists created tandem-warhead anti-tank-grenades designed to defeat reactive armor. The new round, a PG-7VR, can be fired from an RPG-7V launcher and might have left the unusual signature on the tank.

In addition, the Russians have developed an improved weapon, the RPG-22. These and perhaps even newer variants have been used against American forces in Afghanistan. It is believed U.S. troops seized some that have been returned to the United States for testing, but scant details about their effects and “fingerprints” are available.

Still another possibility is a retrofitted warhead for the RPG system being developed by a Swiss manufacturer.

At this time, it appears most likely that an RPG-22 or some other improved variant of the Russian-designed weapon damaged the M1 tank, sources concluded. The damage certainly was caused by some sort of shaped-charge or hollow-charge warhead, and the cohesive nature of the destructive jet suggests a more effective weapon than a fragmented-jet RPG-7.

A spokesman for General Dynamics Land Systems, which manufactures the Abrams, said company engineers agree some type of RPG probably caused the damage. After checking with them, the spokesman delivered the manufacturer’s verdict: The tank was hit by “a ‘golden’ RPG” — an extremely lucky shot.

In the end, a civilian weapons expert said, “I hope it was a lucky shot and we are not part of someone’s test program. Being a live target is no fun.”

John Roos is editor of Armed Forces Journal, which is owned by Army Times Publishing Co.

Courtesy Joe Vialls and Rumor Mill News