WASHINGTON - As it prowls the street corners and riverbanks of central Baghdad, the M1A1 Abrams battle tank has already completed its first mission - to astound and intimidate a mismatched enemy.
But the truest test of the formidable weapon comes next, as the 67-ton beast patrols a cramped urban streetscape in which it was not designed to fight.
Some military officials warned against bringing the heavy and cumbersome tank into Baghdad, fearing that it would collapse bridges and chew through the city's crumbling roadways. The Army is already building a smaller, lighter armored vehicle called Stryker, whose usefulness could prove ever more apparent as the Abrams colossus rumbles through an aging and deteriorating city.
"There's certainly a reason that the Army has gone into West Baghdad, a part of town noted for its wide boulevards, and not into eastern Baghdad, which is basically a vast, festering shantytown," said John Pike, a defense analyst for the Northern Virginia think tank GlobalSecurity.org. "There's certainly a trafficability issue with a vehicle that large.
"I think the Abrams tank has proven its usefulness," Pike said. "But a casual observer would be forgiven for thinking the Abrams is obsolete, given the Army's emphasis lately on lighter wheeled vehicles."
The U.S. military's largest and most powerful land vehicle has won victories in Iraq before. During the Persian Gulf war of 1991, the Abrams tank pounded hundreds of armored vehicles with its 120 mm cannon, which outranged its adversaries, on average, by more than half a mile. Of the 1,848 Abrams tanks then sent to Iraq, only 18 were disabled or destroyed - all by land mines, operational mishaps or friendly fire.
The M1 Abrams tank was conceived in the early 1970s, and most Army and Marine Corps units are now equipped with an upgraded M1A1 version first built in 1985, with a bigger main gun and more durable armor plating. The Army's 4th Infantry Division has a newer M1A2 version, with updated electronics, but those tanks are only now arriving in Kuwait.
Today, the Abrams tank is fighting the kind of war scarcely contemplated when the vehicle was designed with the open spaces and hardened roadways of Central Europe in mind. American generals fretted openly in 1991 about driving their mammoth killers into Baghdad, where they feared bridges and roads would crumble beneath the weight and the 12-foot-wide tank would become trapped in the narrow streets.
"Everybody was nervous as a cat," Maj. Gen. B.B. Bell told U.S. News & World Report several years after the war. "Had we been forced to go to Baghdad, many of the bridges and causeways would not have been able to handle our tanks."
Even if the roads don't crumble, the Abrams tank is not ideal for block-by-block fighting in a city like Baghdad, analysts say. Its 1,500-horsepower gas turbine engine emits enough heat to cook a nearby infantry soldier, and its main gun fires with enough force to cause a concussion. The Abrams tank is also a challenge for military logistics. It burns a gallon of fuel for each half-mile it travels, and needs a steady drink from tanker trucks following behind.
"Once we can get it wherever you want it to get, it creates mayhem. They're very happy with it," said Army Secretary Thomas E. White, in a speech late last year. "But it takes awhile to ship it there, and it eats a lot of fuel."
While regarded as one of the strongest armored vehicles in the world, with a skin made out of a classified mixture of steel, titanium and depleted uranium, the Abrams tank has its weaknesses. Parts of it, particularly the top and the rear, are less fortified, a concession to the added weight of additional plating. And like any tank, the tracks can be vulnerable to mines or well-placed explosives.
The war in Iraq has written several new chapters in the history of the Abrams tank - its first close-quarters fight, for one, and the first Abrams crew member killed by enemy fire.
Perhaps no incident pierced the tank's aura of invincibility more than television images broadcast Sunday, showing Iraqi fighters dancing atop the blackened shell of an Abrams tank on the highway between Baghdad and Karbala. Iraqi officials took a group of Western journalists to view the charred carcass, and a Special Republican Guard soldier told them: "We destroyed it with an anti-tank rocket," according to several news agencies.
The U.S. Central Command says the tank was merely disabled, and that American forces rescued the crew and then destroyed the vehicle from the air to keep it out of Iraqi hands. A jagged hole on top of the main turret and a 6-foot crater in the ground nearby seemed to support the American account, according to reports.
Still, it was the first irrefutable evidence of an Abrams tank destroyed in combat. And it followed similar stories filed by journalists in Iraq recounting how other Abrams tanks were disabled or destroyed, sometimes by Iraqi ground fighters with handheld weapons.
Several news agencies reported early in the war that two Abrams tanks from the Army's 3rd Infantry Division were struck in the rear by Iraqi missiles near Najaf, which would make them the first Abrams tanks ever destroyed by enemy fire. Some reports said the Iraqis used a sophisticated Russian anti-tank missile called a Kornet, though Russian and Ukrainian officials have denied selling such a weapon to Iraq.
More stories surfaced as forces approached Baghdad. London's Daily Telegraph said the commander of an Army Abrams died Friday near Karbala when his tank was hit by ground-launched rockets. A reporter for The Sun, traveling with the Marines, wrote of an Abrams tank "smoldering on the highway, its ammunition shooting and spraying like a fireworks show." The Los Angeles Times said an Abrams caught fire Saturday after being struck by a rocket-propelled grenade. The Chicago Tribune said a Marine Corps tank was badly damaged by a suicide car bomber.
The Central Command won't comment on individual tales of battle damage, and it is unclear whether all of the news reports are about different tanks. Central Command confirms only one deadly incident involving an Abrams tank: The driver of an M1A1 was shot and killed March 27 in southern Iraq, and the tank then fell into a river, killing the three crewmembers. Some Pentagon officials suggest that Abrams tanks have not suffered as much damage as journalists believe, and that several tanks were towed to maintenance depots for repairs.
"I don't think anyone's had the chance to sit down and reflect on the success or failure of any given operation or piece of equipment," said one Pentagon official. "That will come later."
But even if several Abrams tanks are destroyed by the end of the war, many military analysts expect its reputation for relative invulnerability to endure. A handful of battlefield losses is unavoidable, they say, and the tank is still vastly superior to its opponents. The Iraqi military began the war with more than 800 Russian-made tanks, according to Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Of those tanks, "all but a couple dozen have been destroyed or abandoned," he said at a Pentagon briefing this week.
"I think we're seeing how really useful heavy armor is in a situation like this," said Thomas Donnelly, a defense specialist at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank. "We're obviously not going into the narrow, twisty streets of old Baghdad with these things, but otherwise those tanks can go anywhere we please."