FORT BENNING, Ga. -- The rumble of Abrams tanks and the orange flash of their cannons as they blast targets downrange will be center-stage at Fort Benning May 4 - 8 when top Abrams crews from the Army, Marine Corps and three partner countries take part in the prestigious Sullivan Cup Tank Crew Competition.
The arduous, combat-oriented Sullivan Cup is held every other year and brings to Fort Benning standout M1 Abrams tank crews from the Army, Marine Corps, and other nations, which this year are Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Australia.
Competing crews undergo five grinding days of events that test how well they can apply their skills to the crew tasks and physical and mental stresses they'd face in combat.
"We're gonna find the most lethal tank crew -- that's the focus of the whole competition," said Col. J. Frederick Dente, commander of the 316th Cavalry Brigade, which oversees the Sullivan Cup.
"And why is that important?" he said. "Because these crews are what give us the edge on the battlefield. It is very mentally demanding and physically demanding."
Sullivan Cup is open to the public and Dente said there'll be lots for spectators to see.
"If you want to see the best tankers in the world, putting their tank through its paces, competing for the honor of being identified as the best tank crew in the United States Army, the Kuwaiti, Saudi or Australian army or the U.S. Marine Corps," said Dente, "then this is the place to come and see it.
"They'll see the crews moving across country, they'll see them communicating, they'll see them engaging targets in live and virtual environments," he said. "They'll see them employing the best main battle tank in the world, under every possible condition that we can create here at Fort Benning."
Abrams tank crews consist of four members: tank commander, gunner, loader, and driver.
"It requires a four-Soldier crew, every one of those Soldiers has to know exactly what their job is and exactly how they mesh together," Dente said.
"They have to absolutely understand the tank," he said, "what its capabilities and limitations are -- technical and tactical mastery of the platform."
The Sullivan Cup is hosted by the U.S. Army Armor School, part of Fort Benning's Maneuver Center of Excellence. The MCoE trains the Army's Armor and Infantry, which compose the nation's maneuver force.
Fourteen crews are slated to compete, said Maj. Brant Auge, brigade operations officer with MCoE's 316th Cavalry Brigade.
Of the U.S. teams, eight are from armored elements of the: 1st Infantry Division, 1st Cavalry Division, 1st Armored Division, 3rd Infantry Division, 4th Infantry Division, 11th Armored Cavalry Division. Two will be coming from armored elements of the Army National Guard. One will be from an armored unit of the U.S. Marine Corps. The foreign partners are sending one team each.
On the day before the crew competition starts, the tank commanders will take a written test on their knowledge of armored warfare.
Exact times for certain events are still being set and can be viewed online, along with much other information on Sullivan Cup, at: https://www.usarmysullivancup.com.
Day 1 of competition is May 4, a Monday, and starts at Destroyer Field with each competitor taking the new Army Combat Fitness Test, or ACFT, to test their readiness to face the intense physical strains of combat.
Also during the day, crews will rotate through two tests at Harmony Church Motor Pool.
One is a test of their gunnery skills called the GST. It's the same standardized test all U.S. Army tank crews take to test their ability to employ the tank's weapons.
The other is a combat resupply test in which crews load an Abrams tank with rounds of 120 mm ammunition, then do what they would if they had to get their tank right back into combat.
Later, action shifts to Red Cloud Range for a special presentation.
Called "Operation Thunderbolt," it also features music performed live by the Fort Benning's Maneuver Center of Excellence Band.
"We've carefully designed the program of the Sullivan Cup so that there's something every day, something that you can come and see every day that's going to give you some insight into the typical day in the life of an Armor soldier," said Dente.
"It is gonna just knock your socks off," he said. "It's gonna give you a bit of the history -- we're gonna have some World War II combat vehicles out there to show sort of the evolution of the tank and the Armor force over the years." Sherman tanks will be part of the presentation, he said.
"And then you'll get a detailed look at a tank crew and what each Soldier is doing on the tank," said Dente.
"You'll look at the munitions," he said. "You'll get to see the size and weight of the main gun round as an example. And then you'll see a tank go through its paces, engaging targets in every possible way. So from a dug-in fighting position, on the move, you're gonna see 'em use a canister round, which is like a giant shotgun shell for a 120 mm tank cannon.
"You're gonna see everything in that hour -- just under an hour," said Dente. "And you're gonna truly understand what the tank and its crew are capable of.
"And then every day after that, of course, the gunnery," he said.
Day 1 ends at the Benning Club with a sequencing ceremony at which competing crews get to select the order in which they'll go through the remaining Sullivan Cup events.
Over the course of the second and third days, May 4 and 5, crews will work through three separate events, all of which thrust the crews into simulated combat situations and test their ability to react to a series of mock battlefield threats, just as they might encounter in actual combat.
The first two of those events are Tank Situational Training Exercise, or STX.
One is done in an electronic simulator with large video screens on which enemy forces appear and must be engaged.
In the second, tank crews will fire blank ammunition in a fight with a mock enemy force, and use lasers to record hits.
In the third event, the crews undergo a Live Fire Exercise, or LFX, in which they shoot live rounds at multiple targets in various combat-like situations.
Day 4, May 7, brings a physically and mentally punishing event in which crews dismount their tanks, work their way through a series of obstacles and then go straight into a "stress shoot" during which they fire small arms and machine guns at various targets.
That's followed by a test of their skill at dismounted land navigation -- knowing how to properly use map and compass to find their way, on foot, through a dense stretch of woods at Red Diamond Range.
Day 5, May 8, is the Sullivan Cup's last day and features, at Brave Rifles Field, what's called "Final Drive."
That's another physically taxing event in which tank crews must first run a distance that they will not know beforehand. Not telling them ahead of time helps mimic one of the common conditions of combat: needing to withstand physical and other stresses without knowing when the adverse conditions will ease.
From the run they head straight into further tasks and will not know in advance what those will be. The tasks will be timed, adding to the pressure.
"So they have to do the run as a crew, and then they'll have a series of tasks they go right into," said Auge. "So very similar to the stress shoot. It's a lot different when you're heavily fatigued and you're trying to do it for time," he said.
"So every day there's something that's gonna give you some insight into the mental, physical and technical toughness of these Soldiers," Dente said.
The aim of the Sullivan Cup is not to be merely an exciting competition. Its paramount purpose is to afford Army leaders a chance to assess the capabilities of a cross-section of some of its best tank crews.
That gives them a valuable look at whether current training methods are working well, and whether certain improvements should be considered, whether to training, tactics, techniques, or equipment, Auge said.
So, it's open only to those whose regular job is to serve in a tank crew that's part of a tank formation. Units are forbidden from sending "all-star" pick-up teams.
Typically, said Auge, the crews with the highest gunnery and fitness test scores are considered for Sullivan Cup.
"So these competitions," said Dente, "are absolutely essential for the Army in that it's one of the very few ways that we get feedback on the effectiveness of our programs, and they truly do contribute to an increase in lethality and readiness of every Armor formation across the Army.
"We're not just figuring out who's the toughest?" he said. "That's not the purpose of the competition. It's, who's the best? And then we can start to figure out like, why are they the best."
Written observations and other findings made during the Sullivan Cup will be sent out the larger "operational force," Dente said.
At the same time, Sullivan Cup helps competing crews further hone their skills, and that matches the Armor School's goal of helping ensure the tank force is the most skillful -- and lethal in battle -- it can be.
Members of the public can get event details and current standings among competing crews by going to the second floor of Fort Benning's Patton Hall, which is building 5145. Shuttle buses will leave from there taking visitors to various Sullivan Cup competitive events.
Also, real-time updates on competing teams' standings, as well as videos and other Sullivan Cup content, will be posted online at:
"The best crews, on the best tank in the world, running it through its paces," said Dente. "There's nowhere else in the world that's even gonna come close to the level of competition that we will create here."