Main Image Credit Rolling in: a column of Russian tanks and other armoured vehicles advancing in Ukraine in March 2022. Image: Mil.ru / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0
The war in Ukraine does not reveal anything fundamentally new about the tank. It confirms old lessons and reflects the challenges of armoured warfare.
Some of the very first images to emerge from the war in Ukraine, apart from the devastation caused by Russia’s long-range missile strikes, were of burning Russian armoured vehicles. As the conflict has progressed, these images have come to include some of the more advanced tanks in Russia’s arsenal: the T-80BVM and T-72B3M. Images of these tanks left as nothing more than burnt hulls, their turrets separated from the rest of the vehicle and thrown violently into a nearby ditch, may appear shocking. They give the impression that Ukraine has found the antidote to tank warfare. However, if we consider the design of Russian main battle tanks – and this also applies to the Ukrainian, Polish, Chinese, Indian and many other tank fleets – these images are both less shocking, and less useful in analysing Russian armour.
Most of Russia’s tanks are well protected to the front. The frontal armour of the slope at the front of the hull, known as the glacis, typically combines high hardness steels with composites or materials like fibre glass that are known to be challenging for weapons like the RPG-7. The angle of the armour – 68 degrees – increases its line-of-sight thickness to 547 mm for some of the earliest T-72 designs – it may be more for others. The turret armour on Russian tanks is also relatively capable to the front of the tank. The ‘cheeks’ of the cast turret are hollow, allowing additional advanced armours to be inserted that significantly extend protection against some types of threat.
Explosive reactive armour (ERA) is added to the outside of the vehicles and is most easily visible in the triangular armour that sits on the front of the tank turrets, although it protects the glacis too. ERA is essentially a metal box inside which there are two metal plates sandwiching an explosive insert arranged at an angle. When a projectile penetrates the ERA cassette and hits the explosive in between the metal plates, the explosive detonates, driving the two metal plates apart. This has several effects on the attacking projectile. Firstly, it increases the amount of material that it must penetrate. The angling of the plates is key to this, as they move away from the explosive – one towards the vehicle and one in the direction of the projectile – at an angle which means that the projectile is likely forced to penetrate more material. Secondly, the plates exert lateral pressure on the projectile, which can create instabilities or break the projectile up into pieces, which the passive armour of the tank will be better able to absorb.
All of this means that Russian tanks are quite well protected from the front. For the massed head-on engagements that they were designed for, and especially in defensive positions where the tanks can be dug into the ground, they are capable and effective vehicles, providing that they are properly operated. Even when operated poorly, Soviet T-72s gained a good reputation during the Iran–Iraq War, and the design was an export success.
In addition, the latest designs of Russian tanks such as the T-72B3M are armed with the 2A46M-5 125 mm smoothbore tank gun. This design builds upon the capabilities of the 2A46 that armed the original T-72, enabling it to fire improved armour-piercing fin-stabilised discarding sabot rounds. These new ammunition natures – the primary round for tank-on-tank warfare – are capable of penetrating 500 mm of rolled homogeneous armour (RHA) at a range of 2 km (Jane’s Land Warfare Platforms: Armoured Fighting Vehicles 2020–2021). Improved stabilisation and mission systems also mean that the tanks are likely more accurate than their Soviet predecessors.
While stabilisation of the main armament has been improved and its recoil mechanisms balanced to reduce impact upon the vehicle during firing, most Russian tanks appear to lack the quality of stabilisation that most Western tanks carry. This is best characterised by a video of a German Leopard 2 that travels around a training range with a glass of beer balanced on the muzzle of its gun. This stabilisation enables most Western tanks to fire on the move, off-road, across country and at high speeds with a high degree of accuracy. This increases the survivability of the tank as it does not have to stop to fire, and provides tactical options for the crew. Russian tank designs can fire on the move to a limited extent, but there is less evidence to suggest that they are as capable as Western designs.
For the massed head-on engagements that they were designed for, and especially in defensive positions, Russian tanks are capable and effective vehicles – providing that they are properly operated
A second element of this problem is the mission system fit of Russian tanks. The sights and fire control computers are generally less modern than their peers. Some progress has been made with the import (prior to 2014) of thermal imagers from Thales and subsequent efforts to manufacture these systems domestically, which gave most modernised Russian tanks the ability to fight at night, in low light conditions or when smoke is present. However, there is less information available about the fire control computer, which is responsible for elevating the gun and responding to inputs from the crew to ensure an accurate shot.
Russian designs are also very cramped, and few Western tank operators would want to operate a main battle tank with a crew of three – which is standard for all Soviet designs from the T-64 onwards. Simple tasks for tank crews such as replacing and repairing tracks, refuelling, and situational awareness are likely more difficult with three personnel rather than four. However, the cramped space and limitations of a crew of three can be overcome by operating procedures. And, because of the length of time that these tanks have been in service, it is likely that Russian force design and tactics take account of their technical limitations, rather than trying to replicate the capabilities of Western tanks in combat.
Soviet-era tank design, starting with the T-64 and continuing with the T-72, T-80 and T-90 families – albeit with some minor differences – introduced an automatic ammunition handling system which sits beneath the turret of the tank. It holds 22 rounds of ammunition separated into two pieces, the charge and the projectile. The system is referred to as a carousel loader and brings the ammunition up from the hull of the tank to the breech of the tank gun, loading the projectile and then the charge before returning to the hull to collect the next round according to the gunner’s request, thus allowing the gunner to fire.
The use of the carousel enabled Soviet designers to reduce the height of their tanks, as well as the crew complement from the four personnel pursued in most other designs to three. The reasons for this are objectively sound. The smaller volume of the tank reduces the area that must be armoured, in turn reducing the weight. The lower height presents a smaller target for enemy tanks, and the automatic loader enables the tank to fire when moving across country at almost any speed, although accuracy will suffer. A few other design decisions were made at the same time. Most of the armour of Soviet-era tanks is located at the front of the vehicle, protecting the turret and the glacis of the hull. Most tanks lack protection to the sides of the hull and the turret – Soviet designs more so than their Western counterparts.
This is a problem for Soviet designs because the ammunition carousel sits in the hull, which is very well protected to the front by the glacis, but less well protected to the sides. If the side or roof of the tank can be penetrated, the projectile stands a chance of hitting the tank’s ammunition, causing it to ‘cook off’. This is where the charges and explosive projectiles catch fire – a fire which quickly spreads because of a lack of firewalls between the munitions. If enough of the ammunition catches fire and detonates, it will often result in an explosion that throws the turret a considerable distance and the death of the entire crew.
Russia and Ukraine have attempted to address these problems through the addition of ERA. ERA is particularly suited to degrading weapons such as RPG-7s and others that use high-explosive anti-tank warheads to defeat their targets. However, it does have limits, and these are particularly apparent when applied to the sides of armoured vehicles. It is difficult to add ERA to the side of a tank in a manner that allows the plates to be angled. And this takes the form of flat ERA cassettes on Russian vehicles, which can degrade projectiles – especially when they are fired from an angle – but less so than would be the case if they were angled. Behind all ERA must be passive armour such as RHA, which always exerts effects on a projectile; however, it is not possible to add sufficient passive armour to the sides of a tank to stop a Panzerfaust-3 anti-tank weapon with a penetration of around 800 mm of RHA protected by ERA. It is likely impossible to provide passive protection against this type of threat for the side of any tank. That said, some evidence from Grozny indicates that T-72s are capable of withstanding multiple RPG and missile strikes, without the catastrophic explosion occurring. Some reports from Ukraine reconfirm this lesson.
Images of destroyed tanks rarely provide an idea of the impact that vehicles had upon the fighting before they were destroyed
So, the catastrophic losses of Russian and Ukrainian tanks are the result of several issues: the location of the tank’s ammunition, which makes it hard to protect from the sides; its lack of separation from the crew; and the ease with which most tanks can be penetrated from the side. Most importantly, all these issues were previously known. Russian tank operators experienced them in Chechnya and Georgia. Western forces were able to observe the same effects when fighting Iraqi forces in 1991 and 2003. In fact, almost every conflict that has involved Soviet-era tanks from the T-64 onwards has shown the vulnerability of these designs to attacks from above and from the sides. However, it is important to note that the images of the final state of the tanks might belie the nature of the combat that preceded their demise – it is often fierce, and incredibly violent.
What Does It All Mean?
The first point to note is that every single tank design is a series of compromises. It is the responsibility of the design team to balance mobility, firepower, and protection to meet the customer’s needs. Because of this, Russian and Soviet tanks are not inherently flawed, the autoloader was a conscious decision made to improve mobility and provide enough protection for its original role. They have certain weaknesses in modern warfare, but all designs will have some weakness, be that weight, cost, firepower, or limited protection. In sum, the perfect tank doesn’t exist.
The second point is that this article does not cover Russia’s other armoured fighting vehicles, such as the BMP-3 and BTR-82 infantry fighting vehicles (IFV). These vehicles typically have favoured protection to the front, and rarely carry the advanced composite armours of Western IFVs, which would enable them to withstand heavy machine gun and cannon fire to the sides. They often lack mine blast protection too, which places them at a disadvantage when an opponent is comfortable using land mines and improvised explosive devices. However, the same caveats apply as with tanks: they are designed to be used in a certain way that emphasises their strengths in firepower and mobility.
The third and final point is the need to consider of Russian tactics and doctrine, which typically emphasise combined arms operations with a view to creating opportunities for artillery and close air support to deliver overwhelming force onto an opponent. Mission command – the delegation of authority and creativity to the lowest levels – rarely features in Russian training. This means that armoured formations operating independently from their supporting arms are probably doing something that they are not trained to do. It is difficult to overstate the importance of this factor, and failure to take it into account has previously led analysts to incorrectly write off Russian-made armour. For example, the poor performance of Iraq’s Russian-made T-72 tanks during Operation Desert Storm led many analysts to question their utility against Western main battle tanks. However, subsequent simulations of the Battle of 73 Easting run using the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory’s JANUS system showed that when the Iraqi crews were modelled as using effective combined arms tactics including reconnaissance and infantry support, they inflicted 50 vehicle losses – over 70% of the 2nd Armoured Cavalry Regiment’s strength at the battle – despite losing overall. This was despite the model incorporating the M1 Abrams’ advantages in areas such as range and thermal sights, as well as the effects of US air supremacy. Overall, Russian armour is relatively capable; it must contend with past design decisions that can expose the crew to risk, but images of destroyed tanks rarely provide an idea of the impact that vehicles had upon the fighting before they were destroyed. It is therefore important to put Russian armour into context and understand that it is likely more capable at a technical level than the war in Ukraine suggests.
This Commentary is the third in the Russia Military Report series.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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Special Report Series
Russia Military Report
The Russia Military Report is a series of Commentaries examining the Russian military and its capabilities. The series will include inputs from RUSI analysts as well as guest authors to provide an appraisal of Russia’s military through the lens of its organisation and institutional attitudes, its technical capabilities and its military thought.
Dr Sidharth Kaushal
Research Fellow, Sea Power