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The future of tanks

Drone vs. drone warfare may -- or may not -- be in our future. In the meantime, the ground game remains vital, and the M1 Abrams tank is a huge part of that... specifically, 60 to 70 metric tons of that.

Here's everything to know about this iconic tank, which keeps getting high-tech upgrades.

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Decades of service

Today's version is far more sophisticated than the second-gen M1A1 that first saw combat in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, and it's only getting more advanced.

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Defense is getting better

As anti-tank explosive devices grow smarter, so do tanks. In February 2018 the Pentagon announced a new upgrade: the Trophy protection system, an Israeli radar technology.

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A serious participation Trophy

Weighing in at more than 1,800 pounds, the Trophy system detects and intercepts enemy missiles with birdshot-like pellets, minimizing the risk to nearby friendlies.

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Everyone gets a Trophy

The US Army will place a brigade of Trophy-equipped Abrams tanks in Europe by 2020.

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Anti-IED tech

There's also new protection against IEDs. In October 2017, the Army received its first batch of M1A2 System Enhancement Package Version 3 (SEPv3) tanks, made in Ohio and Alabama. This souped-up machine got upgraded armor and new protections against remote-controlled roadside bombs. And that's not all.

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The CROWS nest

The M1's Common Remotely Operated Weapons Station Low-Profile (CROWS-LP) can engage targets with "greatly enhanced platform survivability," according to the Army, since it's 10 inches shorter than the previous CROWS II.

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Nowhere for enemies to hide

The weapons system can detonate shells right over an enemy's hiding spot and blast through bunkers' reinforced walls.

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Four shells in one

Advanced Multipurpose (AMP) 120mm rounds replace four different types of ammunition, including high-explosive tank rounds and obstacle reduction rounds. 

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Every second counts

With AMP rounds, troops no longer have to choose which type of ammo to use mid-battle, saving them valuable seconds, the Army says.

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Better for urban combat

Tanks were originally designed for battlefields, and city blocks weren't exactly designed for tanks. The Abrams' new tools are geared for urban environments.

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A tuneup under the hood

Other upgrades include improved battery systems, a Joint Tactical Radio System and modular tech for maintenance and upgrades.

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Even addresses WMDs

The Abrams tank's CBRN (Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear) defense filter protects the four-person crew in extreme scenarios.

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"Increased lethality"

The SEPv3 was the first major upgrade since the SEPv2 in 2005, and has "increased lethality," Army product manager Lt. Col. Justin Shell said.

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A tank, not a Tesla

The Abrams isn't exactly green, unfortunately. At a top speed of 42 mph the tank can cover a lot of ground, albeit reportedly at 60 gallons per hour which will horrify those of us who drive a Prius.

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The NEXT next generation is already being developed

In late 2017, just as the SEPv3 was rolling off the line, General Dynamics received a $311 million contract to produce the M1A2 SEPv4 in Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Florida.

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The SEPv4

The fourth-edition prototypes will include an improved primary sight, which a gunner uses to find and destroy targets. GD will deliver seven prototypes to the Army. The cost? About $44.4 million per tank.

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Shedding a couple (thousand) pounds

There's even an M1A3 in the works, which could weigh much less -- perhaps just a ton -- for easier deployability and maneuverability. (Also: so troops don't have to white-knuckle it while crossing bridges.)

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Is the Abrams tank still No. 1?

A big reason for all these upgrades: Four other countries with tanks that keep getting deadlier. 

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The four competitors

Lt. Gen. John M. Murray told the Senate Armed Services Committee that those tanks include Israel's Merkava Mark IV (pictured), which is notable for its lack of a loader's top turret hatch, better protecting it from anti-tank guided missiles.

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Here comes another challenger

The British Army's Challenger 2 is another rival. Its tested upgrades include the Rapid Obscurant System (ROSY) smokescreen generator from Germany.

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Russia has two on the list

The other two tanks belong to Russia. The T-90A has played a role in Syria's bloody civil war.

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Russia's next generation tank

The T-14 Armata, unveiled at the 2015 Moscow Victory Day Parade, is especially high-tech, with an unmanned turret and a more accurate 125mm smoothbore cannon. Operational deployment is reportedly expected by 2020 and mass production by 2025.

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The Abrams is no slouch, though

Even though it has competition, you still don't want to be on the wrong side of the Abrams' 120mm smoothbore cannon and its trio of machine guns (one .50-caliber and two 7.62mm), totaling nearly 12,500 rounds.

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The US isn't the only country with Abrams tanks

US allies such as Australia, Kuwait, Morocco and Iraq have their own Abrams units. They aren't sold to US rivals, but...

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Abrams tanks fell into unauthorized hands

...during the fight against ISIS, Iranian-backed militias operated "as many as nine" from Iraq, according to Military Times. The Pentagon demanded their return, and got them.

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On its way out?

In April 2018, the Army's chief of staff told Congress that a next-gen combat vehicle would likely replace the Abrams tank in the next 10 to 15 years, though no exact date is set yet.

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One tough legacy

The Abrams still has a couple new versions on the way, as mentioned earlier, so it's not being sunsetted just yet. But when that day comes, soldiers and military history buffs can look back on it as one of the Army's longest-lived and most widely used innovations.

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