Ride inside an Abrams tank gives mildest hint of armored war

Imagine your trusty Barrcalounger gone mobile.

In the tiny world that is the driver's compartment of the M-1A1 Abrams tank, it's hard to remember what's just outside your cocoon: 63 tons and $3 million worth of heavy metal and lethal weapons that make this the most powerful land vehicle in the allies' ground war against Iraq.


As it makes its combat debut in the Persian Gulf, the M-1A1 will be watched carefully by those who previously have only seen its capabilities on paper and in mock warfare. It's designed to run faster, shoot more accurately and see more clearly at night and through dust, fog or rain than its predecessors.

Yet driving this 1,500-horsepower behemoth with a 500-gallon gas tank is an incongruously comfortable affair -- if all you're doing is taking it for a spin on a paved lot at the Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground in Harford County.


That's where officials recently allowed a Sun reporter to test-drive an M-1A1. Unlike real battle conditions, in which the crew would be on bumpy, unfamiliar terrain and under constant threat of enemy fire, this five-minute tour of a small lot was characterized mainly by an inconsequential drizzle and no obstacles larger than a couple of stationary and unarmed vehicles to avoid.

Adding to the Sunday-drive-on-cruise-control feel is the fact that the driver's seat is semi-reclined, in keeping with the tank's low-slung profile, the better to crouch from enemy fire. The driver leans back slightly with legs extended at about waist level.

To get in, you climb up the side of the tank and disappear through a circular hatch down into a compartment just long enough to sit in and just wide enough to flex bent elbows up and down. To start the engine, you press a rubber nipple on a panel on the right side. Release the parking brake -- by pulling on a lever much like those in many cars, except heavier and harder to disengage -- and you're ready to go.

There's just one pedal on the floor, the brake. Acceleration is achieved with throttles on either end of the motorcyclelike T-bar that you grip. That's also how you steer.

"Oh, man, I love it," declares Norm James, an M-1A1 test driver at Aberdeen. "This one is a lot more laid back and faster compared to other tanks. It's got automatic transmission. The M-60 [its predecessor] was a two-speed manual; this shifts on its own.

"All it really needs," he adds with a laugh, "is a rearview mirror."

You can drive with the driver's hatch open and your head above it or closed and looking through a periscope. Either way, the driver wears a helmet equipped with a microphone to communicate with the three other personnel on board -- the commander and the gunner, who are seated to the right of the turret, and the ammunition loader, who is to the left. The tank is equipped with night-vision capability.

For all its high-tech weaponry, though, there's something slightly medieval about the tank -- it's like a motorized descendant of a knight in armor atop a steed, charging with spear pointed at the enemy.


The spear in the M-1A1's case, though, is infinitely more deadly -- a 120mm cannon developed by the Germans and designed for "accuracy and lethality on the battlefield," according to Ralph Scutti, M-1A1 test director at Aberdeen.

The tank also carries three other guns: a .50-caliber machine gun the commander's hatch for shooting at trucks and two 7.62mm machine guns, one mounted on the right of the main gun and one on the left side of the turret, "for engaging the ground troops," Mr. Scutti said. Assisting in the firing of these weapons is a laser range-finder system that homes in on targets and takes into account factors, such as the wind, to determine how and when to fire.

Unlike other tanks, the M-1A1 can perform the battlefield equivalent of a drive-by -- its "stabilized firing system" allows it to shoot on the run. By contrast, Iraq's best tank, the Soviet T-72, has to slow down or stop when firing its cannon.

"The M-1A1 can go 41 miles per hour on a hard road and hit a target one, 1 3/4 miles away," said Maj. Ron Mazzia, a former tank officer and, currently, spokesman at the Army Armor Center in Fort Knox, Ky., where soldiers are sent for tank training.

As for its defensive capabilities, the tank is of course heavily armored. Additionally, if Iraq should use chemical weapons, the tank is equipped with a system that "blows air to create pressure inside the tank so the chemicals can't get in," Mr. Scutti said. And, to hide from the enemy, the M-1A1 has smoke grenade launchers and a smoke generator to throw up a true smoke screen.

What will happen in this real-life war, of course, remains to be seen. That fact has many observers on the edge of their seats, but not those who work with the M-1A1, who publicly proclaim confidence in it.


In Major Mazzia's mind, "It's a Cadillac."