Armor: Russian Dream Tech Disappoints


September 21, 2017: In mid-2017 Russia announced that it would only be building 100 of its new T-14 tanks by 2020. This comes after late 2016 reports from Russian defense official and tank manufacturing company executives that instead of mass producing the T-14 Russia would instead upgrade hundreds, and perhaps as many as 2,000, recently built T-80BV tanks that have been in storage. The T-80BV upgrade appears to have quietly faded away along with large chunks of the defense budget. The lower oil prices are now seen as permanent and the Russia remains crippled by sanctions and the inability to deal with the pervasive corruption and growing government efforts to impose more restrictions on foreign investment and Internet access. Foreign investment and Internet access are important factors in the T-14 decision because this new tank design is mostly about getting lots of new technology to work. That is proving when more of your most talented people are leaving the country and those who stay find the environment less conducive to doing their best work.

The mid-2017 T-14 announcement featured descriptions of more T-14 capabilities as well as more pictures of the T-14 interior. Lots of neat new tech. The pictures showed modern touch screen controls, as have appeared in the latest upgrades to the American M1. Russia also described a new Afghanit APS (Active Protection System) that had powerful new sensors, electronic jamming and revolutionary interceptor munitions for when jamming didn’t work.

Russia pioneered the development of these APS designs but has never been able to get the technology to work as effectively as competitors. The first one, the Drozd, entered active service in 1983, mainly for defense against American ATGMs (Anti-Tank Guided Missile). These the Russians feared a great deal, as American troops had a lot of them, and the Russians knew these missiles (like TOW) worked because they continued to be used in the Middle East by Israel. Russia went on to improve their anti-missile systems but was never able to export many of them. This was largely because these systems were expensive (over $100,000 per vehicle), no one trusted Russian hi-tech that much and new APS designs, like Trophy, were available. Developed by Israel, Trophy was installed in a growing number of combat vehicles, successfully used in combat and continually upgraded.

Trophy entered service in 2010 and it very visibly worked against the most modern Russian ATGMs used by Hamas. By mid-2012 Israel had completed equipping all the Merkava (“Chariot”) tanks in an armor brigade with the Trophy APS. These tanks came to be known as the Merkava 4 Windbreaker model. The first battalion of Trophy equipped Merkava tanks had before long, defeated incoming missiles and rockets in combat for the first time. This included ATGMs like the Russian Kornet E. This is a laser guided missile with a range of 5,000 meters. The launcher has a thermal sight for use at night or in fog. The missile's warhead can penetrate enough modern tank armor to render the side armor of the Israeli Merkava tank vulnerable. The Kornet was introduced in 1994, and sold to Syria who apparently passed them on to Hezbollah and Hamas.

Trophy also reliably intercepted RPG warhead (an unguided rocket propelled grenade fired from a metal tube balanced on the shoulder). As designed to do, Trophy operated automatically and the crew didn't realize the incoming RPG warhead or missile had been stopped until after it was over. That is how APS is supposed to work. This first combat use of APS was a big deal because APS has been around for nearly three decades but demand and sales have been slow. The main purpose of APS was to stop ATGMs but on less heavily armored vehicles, stopping RPG type warheads is important as well. The Israeli Trophy APS used better, more reliable, and more expensive technology than the original Russian Drozd (or its successors, like Arena) APS. For about $300,000 per system, Trophy will protect a vehicle from ATGMs as well as RPGs (which are much more common in combat zones). Israel was the first Western nation to have a lot of their tanks shot up by modern ATGMs and has continued to upgrade Trophy and that includes lighter (and cheaper) versions for unarmored vehicles. Israel, like the United States, also has the modern crew controls for its tanks as well as modern armor designs. Russia did not say when it was going to make the new Afghanit APS available to existing tanks, like the T-90 or T-72. This indicated that Russia was not willing, or perhaps able, to put Afghanit to the test in combat yet.

The recent T-14 announcement did mention new features, like battlefield Internet capabilities that would allow the T-14 crew to immediately communicate with older T-90s and T-72s equipped with the new communications systems. Western tanks are already doing this so Russia is playing catchup and so far that only extends of press releases.

Russia really wants to revolutionize armor vehicle design, like it did in World War II. But since then all the revolutionary, and combat tested, new designs have come from the West. It’s not for want of trying. In the 1990s there was the revolutionary T-95, but this was cancelled in 2010 as Russian tank designers concentrated on even more revolutionary breakthrough design ideas. After several false starts they thought they finally had a winner in their new “universal combat platform” called the Armata system. The first prototypes of this vehicle began testing in 2013 and the Armata platform was first shown off with the T-14 tank prototypes, which used the engine and tracks as well as the heavily armored crew capsule of the Armata system. Added to this is an automated 125mm gun (and 32 shells and missiles) in a turret. There is also a RWS (remote weapons station) for a 30mm autocannon and another for a 12.7mm machine-gun. In addition to the weapons the crew of three would operate several sensor systems (thermal, vidcams and AESA radar) and an automatic defense system for protection against missiles and weapons like RPGs. All this would be in a 55 ton vehicle that would require the services of additional maintenance personnel nearby (behind the fighting) who would help fix problems and assist the crew in maintaining all this complex equipment.

As exciting as T-14 looks on paper and the few parades a T-14 prototype appeared in, by late 2016 prudence prevailed. The T-14 was a new design which has not been in action and 2016 estimates put the cost per tank at $4 million. That led to proposals for upgrading T-80U tanks to something similar (in performance) to the T-90 but costing less than a million dollars per tank. In the end it’s what you can afford, and rely on, that gets built. While the T-80 entered service in the late 1970s it turned out to be an effective vehicle to upgrade. No one is building anything like the T-14 so for the money an upgraded T-80 was competitive.

Russia has to buy enough new tanks, or upgrade existing ones in order to replace aging Cold War era tanks. That replacement program, via upgraded 3,000 T-80U tanks or a smaller number of new T-90s or even more expensive T-14s has been drastically cut back because the money is not available for more than a few new T-90s (and upgrades of existing ones) plus token numbers of T-14s. These new tanks are obviously only available in small numbers. Russia currently has about 550 T-80Us in service and the upgrade program is unlikely to be used on a large scale.

Currently, the most modern tank Russia has in service is the T-90, which became available for purchase in the early 1990s. This tank is a highly evolved T-72 that was originally created as a fallback design. The innovative T-80 was supposed to be the successor to the T-72. But like the equally ambitious T-62 and T-64 before it, the T-80 didn't quite work out as planned. So the T-72, with a much improved turret and all manner of gadgets, was trotted out as the T-90. Weighing 47 tons the T-90 is still the same dimensions as the T-72. Same package, better contents. And with well-trained crews it could be deadly.

The stock T-72 is a 41 ton vehicle that is 7.4 meters (23 feet) long, 3.6 meters (11 feet) wide, and 2.45 meters (7.5 feet) high. In contrast, an American M-1 is 62 tons, 10 meters (32 feet) long, 3.7 meters (12 feet) wide, and 2.6 meters (eight feet) high. The extra weight is mostly armor and from the front the M-1 is still very difficult to kill. To survive a T-72 not only needs to accessorize but requires a skilled crew. Most nations using T-72s don't like to invest in crew training. But that's what makes the most difference in combat. Russia and India now train their T-90 crews more intensively because that makes more of a difference than any additional gadgets.

Most of the 20,000 tanks (72 percent of them in storage) in the Russian army are T-72s and T-80s. Both are mainly target practice for Western tanks (M-1, Leopard, Challenger, Leclerc). The T-90 is a bit better. Russia planned to replace most of those T-72s and T-80s with T-90s and a new design, the T-95, by 2025. After that, the new T-95 super-tank would start replacing the T-90. Or something like that. The Russians hoped to have the T-95 in action by 2020. Then the T-14 showed up and replaced the less ambitious (and cheaper) T-95. Now, the plan is to have at least a few thousand T-90s in the next decade. That won't come easy, as T-90s cost over $3 million each. But something has to be done because China is continuing to upgrade its tank designs and build them as well. The West has long done the same and have proved capable to putting a lot of very capable tanks and well trained crews into action.

What Russia doesn’t want to admit that the size of its tank force is no longer a major issue with the ground forces. But old ideas and fond memories of past victories are hard to let go of.