The United States military didn’t expect to be fighting a war in the Kuwaiti desert in 1991. For decades, America had been building weapons and training soldiers for a Cold War showdown with the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact comrades. To win that war, America and its NATO allies were preparing to defeat a nuclear superpower with a combination of radar-guided missile defense systems, air dominance and next-generation tanks.

But when Saddam Hussein, the president and de facto dictator of Iraq, marched his vaunted Revolutionary Guard into Kuwait in August of 1990, an entirely different war was at hand. Instead of fighting in the old-growth forests and rolling hills of Europe, the battlefield would be wide-open expanses of sand.

Yet it was the tank, an armored behemoth designed for a Cold War enemy, that took center stage in the Persian Gulf War and helped to liberate Kuwait after 100 hours of fierce fighting.

The M1A1 Abrams Tank, aka 'Whispering Death'

The American-led Coalition Forces deployed several different tank models in the Gulf War, but the dominant version—in terms of both sheer numbers on the ground and confirmed kills—was the M1A1 Abrams battle tank.

“The M1A1 Abrams it’s the best large weapons program the U.S. Army has created as far as armored vehicles,” says Rob Cogan, curator of the U.S. Army Armor & Cavalry Collection at Fort Benning, Georgia. “For decades, we tried to design a tank that was much more technologically advanced than the Soviets, but we were hitting a lot of dead ends. With the Abrams, we took a step back and said, we don’t need a futuristic science-fiction tank, we just need the best conventional tank in the world.”

Measuring 32 feet long and weighing 68 tons, the Abrams tank deployed in the Gulf War was designed to take a direct hit from the biggest and baddest Iraqi tank and shrug it off. Its 120-mm main gun was gyro stabilized to aim true while charging over bumpy terrain at 45 mph. And instead of firing conventional artillery rounds, the Abrams’ cannon hurled an armor-piercing dart that traveled a mile a second and decimated enemy tanks with one shot.

For its size and firepower, the M1A1 Abrams was also surprisingly fast and quiet. The speed came from a 1500-horsepower jet turbine engine that burned jet fuel instead of diesel, muffling the engine’s roar.

“I was an armor officer for 10 years,” says Cogan. “By the time you hear an Abrams tank, you’re already dead.” During NATO exercises in Europe prior to the Gulf War, admiring allies dubbed the Abrams “whispering death.”

Other Gulf War Battle Tanks

The U.S. Army deployed some 1,900 M1A1 Abrams tanks in the Gulf War, but they weren’t the only armored assets on the battlefield.

The very first American tanks to reach the staging grounds in Saudi Arabia were M551 Sheridans built for the Vietnam War. The aluminum-clad M551 Sheridans were first to arrive because they were light enough to be transported by planes and air-dropped into battle. During actual fighting, the M551 Sheridans only played a supporting role since their aluminum armor was vulnerable to enemy tank fire.

The U.S. Marine Corps manned their own battle tanks in Kuwait, mostly M60A1 Patton models. The M60A1 was older than the Abrams, but its 105-mm main gun still packed a wallop. True to the mission of the Marines, they also piloted the AAV7 Amphibious Assault Vehicle, a fully tracked, ship-to-shore transporter that could speed 25 Marines from the waters of the Persian Gulf to the desert battlefield.

America’s allies also brought their own beasts. The preferred tank of the 1st UK Armoured Division was the Challenger 1, a 62-ton battle tank powered by a 1200-horsepower Rolls Royce Condor diesel engine and fitted with a 120-mm main gun. During the Gulf War, Challenger 1s destroyed more than 400 Iraqi tanks and didn’t suffer a single loss.

Derek Hudson/Getty Images
Soldiers of the 7th Armoured Division of the British Army in the desert in Saudi Arabia in a Challenger 1 MBT during the Gulf War, November 26, 1990.

The French and Qatari armored forces fought with French-made AMX-30 tanks, which were armed with a killer main gun, but weighed almost half as much as the M1A1 Abrams or M60A1 Patton.

“The AMX-30 was designed for speed and defensive mobility,” says Cogan. “It has very light armor, but a fantastic 105-mm French gun.”

On the Iraqi side, the main battle tank was the Soviet-made T-72 piloted by Saddam’s elite Republican Guard. Nicknamed the “Babylon Lions,” Saddam’s fleet of T-72s boasted a 125-mm main gun and an 840-horsepower diesel engine. Thousands of T-72s were deployed by Iraq in the Gulf War, and the Coalition forces initially feared that the T-72s were on par with the Abrams and could potentially inflict serious casualties.

“That ended up not being the case,” says Cogan.

The Fiercest Tank Battle

We tend to think of World War II as the great tank war, but one of the largest tank battles of the 20th century took place in 1991 during the Persian Gulf War.

On January 17, 1991, a massive U.S.-led air offensive hit Iraq’s air defenses, then, after months of preparations, the ground war began with a brilliant feint by the American Commanding General Norman Schwarzkopf. The U.S. had amassed a fleet of warships in the Persian Gulf, tricking Saddam into believing that the initial invasion would target Kuwait City. But on February 24, 1991, the Coalition forces swept in from the western deserts with more than 3,000 tanks and armored personnel carriers.

The first major tank battle of the Gulf War came on February 26, 1991, when Captain H.R. McMaster of the Second Armored Cavalry Regiment received intelligence from U.S. spy planes that an entire brigade of Iraqi tanks was parked over a nearby rise. With only 14 tanks in his reconnaissance troop, McMaster decided to capitalize on the element of surprise and take the objective, codenamed 73 Easting.

“Seeing the Iraqis weren’t deployed, McMaster closed in for the kill and attacked at point blank range,” says Cogan. As designed, the M1A1 Abrams tanks wiped out the T-72s with armor-piercing rounds before the Iraqis knew what hit them. “At 73 Easting, you have 14 American tanks attacking 50-plus Iraqi tanks with almost no losses on the U.S. side, just minor casualties.”

The media made a big deal about the lopsided outcome of 73 Easting, but that was just a preamble to what came next. That same night, a rainstorm swept in, turning the sands to sludgy mud. The air was also thick with greasy smoke from Kuwaiti oil fields set aflame by the retreating Iraqi army, when out of that blinding darkness erupted flashes of light and the roar of tank guns.

Officially, the tank battle is called the Battle of Norfolk, but to Gulf War veterans it will always be known as “Fright Night.”

“Norfolk was a crazy battle because it took place at night,” says Cogan. “If you weren't looking through night vision goggles, all you saw was tracer fire going back and forth, tanks exploding, tanks on fire. You couldn't tell who was who with the naked eye.”

Thanks to new thermal imaging technology on the M1A1 Abrams, the Coalition forces won another lopsided victory at Norfolk, losing a handful of tanks while destroying close to 600 Iraqi tanks. During the fight, a British Challenger 1 from the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards scored the longest confirmed tank kill in military history from more than 3 miles (5,000 meters) away.

Sadly, most of the Coalition casualties at Norfolk—six dead and 32 wounded—were blamed on friendly fire during the chaotic night battle.

On February 28, 1991, Coalition forces liberated Kuwait after just under 100 hours of fighting, a credit not only to superior tank technology, but also the superior training of the American and allied tank personnel. An estimated 3,300 Iraqi tanks were destroyed during the Gulf War compared with just 31 Coalition tank losses.

“Having the best tank on the battlefield is great, but having a well-trained armor force that can fight any enemy, anyplace, anywhere—that was a much bigger advantage,” says Cogan.

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