The Army began to phase out the Sheridan in 1978, although at the time there was no real replacement. Nevertheless the 82nd Airborne were able to keep them on until 1996. The Sheridan was the only air-deployable tank in the inventory, and as an elite force they had considerably more "pull" than general infantry and armor units who were forced to get rid of them. Their units were later upgraded to the M551A1 model, including a thermal sighting system for the commander and gunner.
The Sheridan's only air drop in combat occurred during Operation Just Cause in Panama in 1989, when fourteen M551's were deployed; four were transported by C-5 Galaxies and ten were dropped by air, but two Sheridans were destroyed upon landing. The Sheridans' performance received mixed reviews. They were lauded by their operators and some commanders as providing firepower in needed situations to destroy hard targets. However, the Sheridans' employment of only HEAT rounds limited their effectiveness against reinforced concrete construction.
51 Sheridans were deployed in the Gulf War as some of the first tanks sent. They would not be very effective against the Russian-built T-72s. Their role was limited by age and light armor to reconnaissance, possibly 6 or less Shillelagh missiles were fired at Iraqi bunkers, these fewer than a half-dozen missiles, were the only time that the Shillelagh had been fired in a combat environment, from the inventory of the aforementioned 88,000 missiles produced.
Several attempts to upgun or replace the Sheridan have been made, but none were successful. Several experimental versions of the Sheridan mounting a new turret carrying a 105 mm gun were made, but the resulting recoil was too great. Several possible replacements for the M551 were tested as a part of the XM8 Armored Gun System and Expeditionary tank efforts of the early and late 1980s respectively, but none of these entered service. The Stryker Mobile Gun System has replaced the light tank role of the United States.
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