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Monday, March 23, 2020

Over 15 months in the late 1960s, I was the main battle tank project officer for the U.S. Army Combat Developments Command Armor Agency at Fort Knox, Kentucky. I was a major, and one of the voices for users of Army tanks, specifically for the new tank under joint development with West Germany known as the Main Battle Tank 70, or Kampfpanzer 70. The number 70 came from Army planners who hoped to have it in production during the 1970s.

That didn’t happen, but a prototype MBT-70 would become the predecessor of the present-day Abrams Main Battle Tank.

It was a challenging time to visualize and articulate what was needed for the primary ground combat vehicle in the Army’s future. I had come to the command from Vietnam where war was still raging, and where the newly produced lightweight Sheridan tank with a dual 152 mm cannon and missile was deployed. Yet the greatest threat to U.S. security was still the massive number of Soviet and Warsaw Pact armor and infantry divisions facing NATO forces in Europe.

When Army planners in the Pentagon conceived the idea of a new tank to replace the M60 “Patton” Main Battle Tank, they were worried about the superiority of a new Russian tank, the T-62, which had a 115 mm smoothbore gun that was more powerful than anything in the West. Moreover, intelligence reports indicated that Russia was working on an even better model, the T-64, with a bigger gun, an automatic loader and a stabilization system that would allow the gunner to aim on the move.

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A prototype of the Main Battle Tank 70, or Kampfpanzer 70, a U.S. and German collaboration.
(Credit: General Motors)

Innovative Thinking

By 1968, the MBT-70 program had been underway for nearly five years. Early in the program, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara had made a decision that was to have a major effect on how long it would take to produce a new tank. Using the innovative thinking of systems analysis, McNamara and his staff believed NATO needed more interoperability of equipment and that new equipment should be jointly developed—in this case, by West Germany and the United States.

Tankers from both countries who would use the tank of the future dreamed of a vehicle that could move cross-country rapidly and reliably, with a gun that could knock out an enemy tank at long distance, with a durable engine that could be easily maintained, and with a heater. The Germans wanted a tank that would perform well in Europe. That meant a speedy vehicle, a gun optimized for short-distance engagements, armor as thick as possible without mobility being degraded, and protection against nuclear radiation. American planners favored a heavier tank that could be deployed anywhere, with thicker armor, a long-range missile and less emphasis on nuclear protection.

As I worked to get up to speed in my new assignment, I learned that under the first U.S. project manager, Maj. Gen. Welborn Dolvin, it was agreed that the main gun would use the U.S.-designed Shillelagh gun-missile system capable of firing both a 152 mm projectile and a guided missile. The 152 mm ammunition had a combustible cartridge case, which eliminated the need of conventional projectiles to get rid of expended metal cartridge cases.

The missile was equipped with a shaped charge and was guided to the target by the gunner using an infrared-capable sight. The larger turret would also contain an automatic loader and a radiation protection system for the three-man crew. Work was almost complete on a method of stabilizing the gun sight so the gunner could fire accurately while moving over rough terrain.

Dolvin had also chosen General Motors over contenders Chrysler and a combined team of Ford and Food Machinery Corp. to be the contractor for development work. This was a slap in the face to Chrysler, which had been the major tank producer for the Army since 1941 and had delivered the newest M60 in 1963. But Dolvin thought GM was more likely to come up with new ideas, and if there were problems with new technology in the joint program, GM could bring in experts to solve them from its divisions in the world’s largest industry.

One of my first tasks was to visit Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, to view a test of the 105 mm kinetic energy projectile that was under consideration for the main gun. Kinetic energy tank ammunition is simply a modern version of a cannonball that penetrates its target through high velocity and a projectile of hardened density. However, the 105 mm projectile we saw was being developed by the U.S. Ballistic Laboratory and had a core rod of titanium or tungsten that concentrated its energy on a small area to cut through the thickest armor.

A Matter of Gun Size

By that time, it was clear that the Shillelagh gun-missile was a failure because of its unreliability and because its caseless ammunition often left residue that caught fire. The Germans were intent on pursuing a 120 mm gun as main armament, while the Americans wanted an enhanced 105 mm cannon. The Aberdeen test of the 105 mm gun was impressive. Two large plates of homogenized steel several inches thick were hung in a row. The high-velocity gun blew a hole a couple of inches in diameter through both plates and kept going.

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The Main Battle Tank 70 never made it to operational status.
(Credit: General Motors)

Not long after the Aberdeen test, I traveled to Milwaukee to confer with engineers at the Allison Division of GM, where a prototype of the MBT-70 with a gun stabilization system was available for inspection. I had an opportunity to ride in the gunner’s seat traveling 30 mph over rough terrain while aiming the gun at a distant target. Having tried that a few years before unsuccessfully in an M60 tank, I was amazed to find the sight dead on the target despite the movements of the tank.

The GM prototype also featured a hydropneumatic suspension system that provided a smoother cross-country ride. However, a more controversial feature of the suspension system was the ability to raise or lower the tank body. This was the result of a compromise solution between the Germans’ desire for a tank with higher ground clearance so it wouldn’t get stuck in the mud, as was their experience in Russia, and the Americans’ wish for a lower silhouette to provide greater protection than Sherman tank crews experienced in World War II.

Even after agreeing to reject a gun-missile in favor of a kinetic energy round, each country continued to work on its favored main armament: the 105 mm gun for the Americans and a 120 mm gun for the Germans. Although there had been agreement on a diesel engine, the Germans wanted a more powerful, but heavier, engine, while the Americans’ goal was a powerful but lighter engine.

Financial Problems

Cost is always a major consideration in weapon and vehicle development, and when McNamara and German Defense Minister Kai-Uwe von Hassel initially faced this issue, they set $80 million as a goal, allowing for an overrun figure of $100 million. As work progressed, it became apparent that these were not valid estimates. Unfortunately, politicians in both countries continued to regard the initial figures as settled.

In late 1968, I traveled to Bonn, West Germany, with a lieutenant colonel from the Combat Developments Command headquarters and a colonel from the Pentagon to confer with the Germans before making a joint presentation to the Netherlands Defense Ministry in The Hague. We spent about five days preparing our remarks extolling the wonderful features of the tank of the future, which the Dutch were interested in buying. I had briefed foreign dignitaries before, at Fort Knox, but this was my first experience speaking to a defense minister or an army chief of staff.

I thought my part of the presentation had gone well until it came time to field questions. One of the members of the minister’s staff asked me what the cost of the new tank was projected to be. At that time, the MBT unit production cost was about a half a million dollars, depending on what was included, such as the amount spent on research and development and other investment costs. When I said that $500,000 was the approximate cost, there was some muttering among the Dutch representatives, and I sensed a sudden loss of interest from them in procuring our tank. Several months later, I learned the Dutch decided to provide their armored force with the latest model Centurion tank purchased from Great Britain.

Having Doubts

Also in 1968, Brig. Gen. Bernard Luczak had taken over as the American MBT-70 project manager, and he was having doubts about the feasibility of the joint effort. Most of the serious problems, such as the Germans’ struggle to design a workable automatic loader, were the result of efforts to compromise or accommodate different ideas between the two countries. The rising cost of production estimates was another reason that not only Luczak, but also Congress, were becoming concerned about the prospect for success of the joint venture.

After I left Fort Knox in 1969, David Packer, who had a background in the high-tech electronics industry, became a deputy to then-Defense Secretary Melvin Laird. Packer’s primary task was to bring more cost effectiveness to weapons procurement. After visiting the MBT-70 project in both countries, Packer became convinced the joint tank project was a fiscal failure. Several months of negotiation followed. In January 1970, the Americans and the Germans agreed to end their joint tank development program.

Luczak continued as program manager for the main battle tank for another three years but faced difficulties between the armor community and Congress in what was wanted and what costs were acceptable. The MBT-70 was redesigned and emerged as the XM-803, which resembled the MBT-70 but had a less powerful engine and a simpler suspension system. Nevertheless, Congress balked on funding XM-803 production, and new tank development stalled until 1972, when a task force was formed at Fort Knox under the command of Maj. Gen. William Desobry, who had been a World War II tank unit commander in Bastogne, Belgium.

That task force adopted many of the ideas from the MBT-70 project, and with the backing of Army Chief of Staff Gen. Creighton Abrams Jr., forged a new thunderbolt that became known as the M1 Abrams tank.