Rumors that Russia had sent their new T-14 Armata tank to Ukraine proved partially true. T-14s were seen in portions of Ukraine long occupied by the Russians but not anywhere there was combat or contact with Ukrainian troops. Apparently because of the heavy tank losses Russia suffered in the first few months of the war, they were unsure if the untested T-14 would do any better.
The T-14 was the result of efforts by Russian tank manufacturer Uralvagonzavod to create another breakthrough tank design and, after several false starts, they believed they finally had a winner in their new T-24 tank. The first prototypes of this vehicle began testing in 2013 and rapidly evolved into the T-14 tank, called Armata. This vehicle uses the engine and tracks of earlier tank models, but the heavily armored crew capsule was new. There was also an automated 125mm gun, along with 32 shells or missiles in a turret. There was a coaxial, with the 125mm gun, 7.62mm machine-gun as well as two RWS remote weapon stations on top of the turret for a 30mm autocannon and a 12.7mm machine-gun. In addition to the weapons the three man crew operated several sensor systems including thermal imaging scopes, video cameras and AESA radar. There was also an automatic defense system for protection against missiles and weapons like RPG shaped charge rockets used by the infantry. All this was in a 55-ton vehicle that would require the services of additional maintenance personnel nearby outside the combat zone who would help fix problems and assist the crew in maintaining all this complex equipment. Prototypes of the T-14 were available for field testing in 2014 and first displayed to the public in 2015. It was soon discovered that there were reliability problems with the engine as well as several electronic systems.
Uralvagonzavod, like many defense manufacturers of high-tech vehicles, aircraft, ships, missiles, and electronics, had a difficult time staying in business and retaining its skilled workforce after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. That meant orders for armored vehicles disappeared. That slowly improved until 2014 when the Russian economy and defense budget took major hits from lower oil prices plus Western sanctions resulting from the Ukraine invasion. The situation got desperate for Uralvagonzavod as it was surviving on loans and whatever commercial work it could get. The company gambled on developing and marketing the revolutionary T-14 tank and T-15 IFV or Infantry Fighting vehicles. Russian leaders were impressed but there was no money to place large orders and there were no export customers either. The government encouraged work on the T-14 because it was a prestige item that proved Russia was still a major defense developer and manufacturer. That was not true, but the government was willing to scrape up the cash to make it appear so. Rostec stepped in to buy UVZ and keep it going so work on the T-14 and T-15 IFV version could continue.
That approach was used by Russia because of much reduced post-Cold War procurement budgets. For example, in early 2021 Russia announced that the army would receive over 400 upgraded tanks and IFVs in the coming year, but none would be the new T-14 tank or T-15 IFV. The T-15 was soon dropped. Upgraded tanks like the T-80BVM filled the gap for the missing T-14s. The Armata was a radical new design for tanks but cost twice as much as an upgraded T-80 or T-72. Since then, the Russian replacement program for elderly Cold War era gear has had to settle for more rebuilds than brand new systems. Russia did announce plans to start building more T-14s in 2022. As of 2023, Armata production was still stalled, but permanently this time because numerous unresolved problems with the T-14 were discovered. The T-14 did not work and never came close to working as an effective combat vehicle.
The Ukraine War and production problems have led to a much smaller Russian tank force. By 2021 Russian forces consisted of about 3,000 tanks, with most of the T-72B3. This model was preferred by Russian tank crews because it was more reliable and effective in combat than more recent T-80s and T-90s. For the invasion of Ukraine Russia sent in 2,987 tanks, but only a thousand were the T-72B3. The rest were unimproved T-80s and T-90s as well as some older T-55s and T-62s.
Nearly 60 percent of these tanks were destroyed or captured by the Ukrainian forces during the first few months of fighting. After 23 months of fighting Russia had lost 87 percent of the original tank force and were down to 368 tanks, far fewer than Ukraine had. One reason for that was because 40 percent of Russian tank losses were abandoned and then captured intact by the Ukrainians. A new paint job and a Ukrainian crew and suddenly Ukraine had more tanks than Russia.
There was another important difference. The Russian tactics were reckless and costly. These used tanks for mass frontal assaults. These were destroyed, or damaged and abandoned, by entrenched or partially hidden Ukrainian tanks, many effective portable anti-tank weapons for the infantry, and armed UAVs that were very effective at destroying or disabling Russian tanks with attacks on the less well armored top of the tanks. The Ukrainians also used more conservative tactics that emphasized keeping Ukrainian losses low. Russia has a population more than three times larger and has openly declared that it will keep fighting until Ukraine runs out of troops and equipment. Then the Russians will be able to declare what is left of Ukraine as Russian, if only because there are so few Ukrainians left. This is a traditional Russian strategy employed against stubborn foes.
The T-14 revelations were a minor footnote to the sad state of Russian tank production and usefulness in combat. In late 2023 Russia ordered mass production of its T-80VM tank to replace the many T-72B3M and T-90M tanks lost in Ukraine. While the T-80 was designed to be a successor to the T-72 the similar T-90, that did not happen because the T-80 was more expensive to build and operate. The latest version, the T-80VM, purportedly solves most of those problems, especially if it is mass produced. That is why Uralvagonzavod/UVZ, the largest Russian tank manufacturing plant, has been ordered to retool and start mass production of the T-80VM. This will not be easy because it is expensive and the Uralvagonzavod plant has its own problems.
Russia had previously supplied production contracts as well as more loans, to keep Uralvagonzavod from going out of business. Uralvagonzavod, the firm that developed the T-14, has been bankrupt since 2016 and survived because of state-owned Rostec, a holding company that takes over failing, but essential defense firms, to keep them operating. Uralvagonzavod has produced tanks and other armored combat vehicles since World War II and continued after the war. After 1991, most of those military orders stopped but Russia has learned the hard way that, once a lot of these skilled workers are out of work, they use their skills to find new careers or even emigrate and are virtually impossible to get back later. UVZ obtained enough orders for new armored vehicles or upgrading existing ones to sort-of maintain a workforce that, once lost, is extremely difficult and time-consuming to rebuild. The current solution is to have UVZ produce up to 250 T-80VMs a year while also continuing to repair all models of damaged tanks. This is something a different facility of Omsktransmash specializes in but has been overwhelmed by the number of destroyed or damaged tanks resulting from the fighting in Ukraine.