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A U.S. Marine M1A1 Abrams tank from 2nd Tank Battalion attacks a target during assault training at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, Twentynine Palms, Calif., in January. The Iraqi army will acquire 140 advanced American-made battle tanks with help from the U.S. military over the next 18 months.
A U.S. Marine M1A1 Abrams tank from 2nd Tank Battalion attacks a target during assault training at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, Twentynine Palms, Calif., in January. The Iraqi army will acquire 140 advanced American-made battle tanks with help from the U.S. military over the next 18 months. (Kelsey J. Green/Courtesy of U.S. Marine Corps)

In a turnaround from previous policy, the Iraqi army will acquire 140 advanced American-made battle tanks with help from the U.S. military over the next 18 months.

The deal, announced this week by U.S. military officials in Iraq, was called a "major step in the force modernization of [the Iraqi army’s] armored units."

The M1A1SA Abrams tanks are expected to be acquired by the Iraqis in groups of 35 over the next 18 months. Officials with the Multi-National Security Transition Command in Iraq did not answer questions about whether the Iraqis paid for the tanks under the Foreign Military Sales program or they were donated by the U.S. military.

Iraqi and American officials will be working on "delivery, fielding and training," Charles Campbell, a program coordinator with MNSTCI, was quoted as saying in an Army news release. "The first [Iraqi] regiment will begin full-scale training in December of 2010. From there, we would instruct and train on how to support and sustain these tanks."

Officials said the Abrams program includes training for Iraqi tank crews, spare parts logistics, and "a security agreement for sensitive weapons and communications systems featured in the M1A1SA Abrams."

The move to equip the Iraqis with the tanks is the latest effort by the American military to reshape the Iraqi force. Humvees are now widely used among Iraqi forces, as are other vehicles in use by the American military. And most symbolically, the Iraqi military has adopted the American M-16 rifle as the replacement to the ubiquitous AK-47.

According to defense officials, the Iraqi army has plans to buy around 125,000 M-16s from manufacturer Colt.

That move sparked debate about how much the new Iraqi army should be modeled after the American force. Some officials said the Iraqis should be trained to better use their own equipment, while others have argued that the American-made weapons represent an advancement that will help the nascent force mature.

When the M-16 deal was announced last year, American officials were reported to have denied Iraqi requests for advanced arms such as the Abrams tank and Apache helicopters, partly out of fear that they could fall into the hands of insurgents.

The cost of an Abrams tank is estimated at around $4 million, according to the Army.

The militaries of other nations in the region — including Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait — also have Abrams tanks in their arsenals.

The Iraqi army under Saddam Hussein had relied on a mostly aging fleet of Russian T-72 tanks.

The Abrams’ technology, "related to the gunnery and air filtration systems, helps the new tank perform much better than the previous Iraqi fleet," an official with General Dynamics — which manufactures the Abrams tank — was quoted as saying in the release.

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