Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Russia's Armata T-14 Main Battle Tank: A Preliminary Assessment


The Russian platform represents a radically new approach to armoured vehicle design. But can it restore Russia’s traditional supremacy in this domain? MIHIR SHAH reports.

Tank enthusiasts around the world are all too familiar with the tale of the Wehrmacht’s surprise encounters with hitherto unknown Soviet tanks at the beginning of Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. German generals, until then utterly confident of the supremacy of their armoured vehicles, were shocked not only at the superiority of Soviet tanks, but also by the sheer number of these vehicles that the Red Army had fielded in complete secrecy.

The T-34 tank, in particular, was so successful that the Germans even attempted to build themselves a copy in the form of the Panther medium tank. But for all the technical prowess of German engineers, it fell short of the mark. By the time the war ended, the T-34 had come to be widely regarded as the best tank in the world. Its combination of armour, firepower, mobility, and ease of production put it in a different league from contemporaries like the German Panzer IV and the American M4 Sherman.

For the next four decades, Soviet armoured vehicles in general, and tanks in particular, enjoyed a significant degree of technical superiority over those fielded by adversary nations. It was not until the final stages of the Cold War that a new generation of Western heavy tank designs started to chip away at that advantage before finally gaining an upper hand.

Russian engineers have since toyed with several ideas to arrest that decline, from deep upgrades of existing designs (like the T-90MS) to completely new concepts like the T-95 and Black Eagle. However, the funding shortfalls that have plagued the Russian military-industrial complex since the break-up of the Soviet Union have not seen any of these concepts progress beyond the prototype stage. All the while, a series of continual upgrades to NATO tanks have seen these vehicles extend their already sizeable advantage over their Russian counterparts. For Russia to regain her historical lead over the competition (to meet her own military requirements as well as to target the lucrative export market), the country’s ground forces need to be equipped with an all-new tank. A tank that could not only attain parity with its competitors, but also introduce enough of an overmatch in the base design to stay ahead of those competitors as it goes through successive upgrades over the years.

The Uralvagonzavod Corporation’s T-14 main battle tank (MBT), based on the Armata universal combat platform and unveiled on the Victory Day parade on May 9, may just be that design. The tank features cutting edge technologies: an unmanned turret, active defences, an isolated crew capsule in the hull, and remotely fired weaponry. In order to determine whether these features confer it with the edge needed to restore Russian dominance in this field, it would be useful to examine those features within the context of the shortcomings that affect the platforms currently in service.


ARMOUR

Russian tanks like the T-64, T-72, and T-80 were equipped with some of the strongest armour protection of their times. That armour gave them the ability to withstand direct frontal hits from contemporary 105-millimetre NATO tank guns. With the introduction of explosive reactive armour (ERA)—basically a slab of explosive that propels a steel plate towards a penetrating warhead, thereby damaging it and preventing complete penetration of a vehicle’s fighting compartment—the armour could even defeat 120 mm depleted uranium rounds like the American M829 and anti-tank missiles with shaped-charge warheads. Soviet engineers also experimented with an advanced form of all-round protection known as an active protection system (APS). The concept involves using a short-wave radar to detect an incoming anti-tank missile (tank rounds travel too fast to be detected in time for the system to react), and then detonating a fragmentation charge mounted on the body of the tank to destroy it at a safe distance.

But there is an inherent disadvantage to using these technologies: it makes close co-operation with infantry units impossible; human bodies do not react well to explosives going off around them. Given the brutal street-to-street fighting that has come to characterise modern-day wars, one could argue that the trade-off is just not worth it—an infantry formation operating in close conjunction with tanks is a far superior form of protection than ERA or APS. Besides, the APS stands the risk of having its sensors disabled by artillery shrapnel or machine-gun fire, leaving the tank dependent on its base armour to provide protection.

These considerations, as well as the increased power of modern weaponry, suggest that the existing armour package on Russian tanks has just about reached the limits of the protection it can provide. An entirely new package is needed going forward. Does such a package equip the T-14? It is difficult to tell from the few pictures and random bits of information available in the media. But one could draw on past studies and reports to make an informed guess. The Russians have been known to be traditionally strong in the armour department. They pioneered the use of modern composite and laminate armour with the T-64 and maintained a significant level of superiority over NATO until the M1A1, Challenger 2, and Leopard 2 tanks appeared on the scene. This has been proven through various studies conducted by armour experts in the 1990s (see Warford, 1990; Theeuwen, 1990; Ogorkiewicz, 1997; and Warford, 1999). So it would be fair to assume that the base armour on the T-14 is highly sophisticated, in all likelihood more so than present-day Western armour.

With the additional protection offered by a new generation of ERA and the Afganit APS—at least in scenarios involving classical tank warfare in the plains—the T-14 is bound to be even more effective against modern anti-tank weapons, and is likely to maintain that superiority for a while with enough scope for upgrades.

CREW PROTECTION

A tank’s vulnerability to enemy fire is not determined by the quality of armour alone. Other factors, such as the internal arrangement of ammunition and fuel, fire suppression systems, escape hatches, and so on are equally important. This is where existing Russian MBTs suffer their most glaring weakness—a flawed internal arrangement that sacrifices crew safety in the interest of compactness. This is not by accident; rather it is a deliberate design feature intended to keep the tank’s size and silhouette as small as possible.

How that came to be is a topic that merits its own write-up; the important point to note is that the designers chose to attain this goal by replacing one crewmember (the gun-loader/radio operator) with an elaborate autoloader mechanism. The system hoists rounds from a rotating magazine (called a carousel) under the turret and rams them into the breech. This carousel is lightly armoured from the top and sides to protect the propellant in case of a hit.

The problem with this design is that the carousel carries only half the total number of rounds onboard the tank. The remaining rounds are either clamped to the walls of the turret and hull, or placed under the crewmembers’ seats. These rounds are dangerously exposed to sparks and burning spall. To make matters worse, the propellant is not encased in metal, but in thin, paper-like cellulose covers. Often one tiny spark, one red-hot splinter of metal is all it takes to ignite the propellant, which is why T-72s are seen burning furiously after just one hit. Once this ammunition brews up, the sparks and flame enter the carousel within seconds and detonate the rounds inside. The resulting explosion blows the turret clean off the hull.

But Russian designers appear to have moved on from this obsolete, unsafe set-up. With the T-14, they have at last adopted a layout that emphasises crew protection over size. According to a report in the Rossiyskaya Gazeta, the tank’s crewmembers are no longer distributed between the turret and the hull, but have all been placed in an armoured ‘capsule’ in the hull. The ammunition is stored in its own separate compartment, away from the crew. This compartment is armoured as well, and located to minimise the probability of a hit. It may also be equipped with blow-off panels to vent the explosion away from the crew and powertrain, thus preventing an ammunition deflagration from immobilising the vehicle. The turret—historically housing the gunner and commander’s stations—is now unmanned and remotely operated from within the hull.

There are two advantages to this arrangement. Firstly, a tank hull, by virtue of its location, is always less exposed to enemy fire than the turret, especially when fighting from defilade. This reduces the probability of a hit to the crew compartment. The upshot is that the crew is well-placed to survive the destruction of the turret or the ammunition—known as a ‘mission kill’—and make it back to base in one piece.

Secondly, in older tanks, the designers had to armour the hull (to protect the driver) as well as the turret (to protect the commander and gunner). So the quantity of armour that could be applied had to be carefully rationed between the turret and the hull. Any designed increase in armour at one location in one often came at the expense of the other. The T-14, with the entire crew placed in one dedicated compartment, eliminates this dilemma rather nicely. The bulk of the armour is now concentrated in around the crew, in the hull. On the whole, this results in protection levels far greater than those possible on rival tanks.

Nonetheless, this arrangement does necessitate a compromise in terms of situational awareness. In a conventional tank design, the commander could stand at his cupola above the turret and obtain a complete picture of his surroundings. But with the turret blocking half his view in the T-14, this is no longer possible. Some may claim that in the age of high-resolution cameras and infrared-sensors, the commander no longer needs to stick his head out of the turret; but experienced tankers tend to recoil in horror at such a suggestion, asserting that there is no real substitute for first-hand observation. Veteran tanker and Business Standard columnist Ajai Shukla observes, “Given that a commander MUST remain "opened up" for as long as possible, i.e. in eye contact with the battlefield until there is serious artillery shelling . . . this design simply does not hack it for me.”

It is plain to see why. An optical device, no matter how sophisticated, is always more cumbersome to handle than a pair of eyeballs. It needs to be pointed in a particular direction, focused, and swiveled to obtain a larger picture than displayed on a tiny screen or in a viewfinder; often while being jolted about as the tank travels over rough ground. These steps take far more time and energy than simply turning one’s head. Besides, the advanced sensors, electronics, and mechanicals only add to the list of complex devices that can fail or suffer damage from enemy fire, blinding the crew at the most inopportune moment. The placement of the commander’s hatch in close proximity to the turret presents another difficulty. The two are electronically interlocked—the turret cannot traverse unless the commander is safely inside the tank and his hatch is closed; else he stands the risk of being cut in 
half. This leaves the tank unable to fight with the hatch open.

Nevertheless, the designers of the tank seem to have reasoned that the enhanced crew safety was well worth the trade-off in situational awareness and reaction time. Only time will tell whether this reasoning holds true.

FIREPOWER

Firepower is another area where the current generation of Russian tanks is lacking. This, too, is a direct outcome of the decision to use an automatic gun-loading mechanism in place of a manual loader. The constraints imposed by the lack of space and the configuration of the autoloader make it impossible for the tanks to use heavy, one-piece ammunition rounds. Instead, a different type of round consisting of two separate pieces, the propellant charge and projectile, is employed.

Now a bit of digression is in order here. For an armour-piercing round, the penetrating power is a direct product the length of the ‘kinetic energy penetrator’—the part that exits the gun and strikes an enemy tank. The main advantage of a single-piece round is that the penetrator can be made nearly as long as the cartridge. But in the case of a two-piece round, the length is limited by that of the projectile casing. For example, the penetrators fired by the American M1A1 and M1A2 tanks are said to be almost 800 mm long. In contrast, their Russian counterparts are only 570 mm in length.

That difference shows up in the penetrating power. The 3MB42 round that Russian tanks currently field is quickly becoming obsolete against newer composite armour technologies. It was reported in 2007 that it failed to penetrate the Arjun tank's Kanchan armour in tests carried out by the Indian Army. How it will fare against more advanced designs in service today—like the British Dorchester armour—is not hard to imagine.

The limitations of the ammunition do not extend to the existing 125-millimetre main gun, however. It was the powerful tank gun in the world when it made its debut on the T-64 tank, and the basic design remains competitive. Therefore, it is not surprising that the T-14’s designers decided equip it with a heavily modernised version of the same gun, with a higher muzzle velocity and reportedly greater accuracy. But it remains to be seen whether they have developed new ammunition to take full advantage of the gun’s firing power, or persisted with the existing two-piece ammunition.

The gun-launched missile, too, remains a big question mark. The beam-riding Refleks missile equipping the T-80 and T-90 tanks, which overcomes some of the shortcomings of the existing kinetic energy penetrator, itself suffers from certain limitations—chief among them being the guidance mechanism. The use of laser guidance requires tank’s fire control system has to illuminate the target throughout its flight. This prevents the gunner from acquiring other targets while the missile is in flight, and exposes the tank to counter fire as it comes into the enemy’s line of sight. The Sokol-1 missile, reportedly under development at present, is said to suffer from similar drawbacks. A true fire-and-forget missile with a built-in seeker would go a long way towards correcting that deficiency, and allow the tank to destroy targets at extreme range. Whether such a missile has been developed, or is even under consideration at present, is not known.

There are no such doubts about the viability of the secondary armament: a heavy machine gun operated remotely from within the crew compartment. The weapon fixes a critical vulnerability that MBTs face on the modern battlefield, a vulnerability the Russians discovered at great cost in Chechnya. During the First Chechen War, Russian tank columns routinely came under fire from rebels sited on building rooftops and armed with handheld anti-tank rockets. The tanks’ inability to shoot back at the attackers resulted in heavy losses on the Russian side. The T-14 has finally equipped tank crewmen with a weapon that can fire back at such targets across all elevation angles through independently stabilised sights, all while ensconced safely within the armoured capsule. With present-day military campaigns devolving into grinding urban combat against hardened insurgents, that capability is becoming increasingly crucial to achieving a successful outcome.

CLOSING REMARKS

The Russian armed forces and military-industrial complex have twice demonstrated the ability to develop exceptionally advanced armoured vehicles and then keep them secret until they were operationalised on a large-scale. The T-34 and the T-64 MBTs both took their opponents by complete surprise when they were initially revealed. The unveiling of what appear to be production versions of the T-14 tank at the Victory Day parade could be an attempt at a third iteration of this practice. It appears to have all the elements of a revolutionary design, a design that could set the standard for future MBT designs worldwide. But these features, however impressive, should be seen in the context of the Russian state’s overall economic health and the past performance of the weapons industry.

Weapons development in Russia has been starved of funds ever since the collapse of the USSR, with companies relying more on export orders than domestic procurement to fund their continued existence. The country’s recent exposure to Western sanctions and the economic contraction that followed is bound to worsen an already precarious situation. This raises several questions: Is the Russian armaments industry capable of effecting a turnaround and seeing the program through to completion? Are the production facilities capable of meeting the demands of large-scale deployment? Do they have the resources to sort out teething troubles with new technologies quickly and roll out fixes across the entire fleet?

It is tough to be optimistic while answering these questions. If the Indian experience is anything to go by, Russian corporations, hungry for exports, are often known to make tall claims, but they aren't always backed up by field performance. The engineering is pretty good, but the final product is nowhere near as slick as their marketing teams make it out to be. In the final analysis, the T-14 success will be determined not so much by its design specifications, but more by the industry’s ability to reverse its decline and deliver a working product on time and within a limited budget.

And that is a very tall order.

17 comments :

Anonymous said...

Your assertion that the T-34 was the best tank during WW2 is completely erroneous. That accolade, ironically enuff, belongs to the Panzer Mark V aka the Panther. The Panther was fielded (1942) precisely to defeat the T34 (an older design) which proved to be far superior to existing German tanks (upto Panzer Mark IV). In terms of Mobility, Firepower, Armour Protection and general sophistication, the Panther is regarded as the best all-round tank of WW2 (a simple Wiki search will suffice to verify this).

Where the T34 scored over the German tanks was in its simple yet effective design which made it a decent all round tank but more importantly one that was highly conducive to mass production. Its extremely rugged nature gave it the ability to remain highly mobile even on the muddy unpaved roads of Belarus, Ukraine and Russia. The simplistic design also enabled the Red Army to carry out repairs and maintenance (such as changing out the engine) rapidly, ensuring that damaged tanks were back in action quicktime.

The exact opposite is true in case of the Panthers. Turnaround times for damaged Panthers were far longer simply because of their level of sophistication and German engineers (used to paved roads accross Europe) did not account for the heavier Panthers and Tigers getting bogged down in the mud!! This led to the ridiculous situation in which Germans ended up using captured Soviet tanks instead of their own in order to advance.

1 v 1 the Panther would defeat a T34 everytime. Of course the Soviets prevailed ultimately because they had way more tanks and planes, but thats another discussion altogether!!

- Rahul

Anonymous said...

Who cares about the Armata? Hopefully this tank will be of no consequence to India.

Anonymous said...

Too little, too late. India would be better off collaborating with the Israelis in designing and developing next-gen platforms.

Dhimas Afihandarin said...

Regarding to length of penetrator. I think Armata would be able to use much longer penetrator than what being designed for earlier T-72 or T-90.

Since the turret is unmanned there are now vertical space to store longer munition, similar as US M1 TTB. It may however still use two piece arrangement BUT longer penetrator is now possible plus with increased capability of the new 2A82 gun.

Russians already developed new Grifel penetrator, which is longer than current Svinetz. (Though i see bit confusion whether its developed for 2A82 or 152mm 2A83 gun)

Anonymous said...

"but experienced tankers tend to recoil in horror at such a suggestion, asserting that there is no real substitute for first-hand observation. Veteran tanker and Business Standard columnist Ajai Shukla observes, “Given that a commander MUST remain "opened up" for as long as possible, i.e. in eye contact with the battlefield until there is serious artillery shelling . . . this design simply does not hack it for me.”

Mr Ajai Shukla is Obsolete...He has no experience of urban warfare..and for that matter actual tank warfare either...He makes similar remarks on Fighter Planes and Naval Ship EVEN WHEN HE HAS NO CLUE OF THOSE MACHINES... This is a wonderful tank..Wish we get this tech thriugh the offset or tech transfer route..IF the ruski tech is actually as good as the article implies..and thats a Big IF

Anonymous said...

The T-14 potentially marks a major doctrinal shift in Russian thinking from firepower and mobility to protection and lends itself to some great analysis.

Unfortunately, the author's superficial knowledge of both armor and its employment shows up rather glaringly.

1. All tanks are evaluated on the holy trinity of firepower, mobility, and protection. What makes it more interesting from an analytical perspective is that there are usually tradeoffs between these three. Inventing one's own framework of armour, crew protection, and firepower is lazy and sloppy analysis.

You can't just ignore the mobility parameter - and that's more than the engine. Please research some more before rushing to write a "preliminary" assessment.

2. The author also reveals his ignorance about infantry operating with armor in FIBUA type scenarios when he completely ignores what the Israelis have done with the Merkava 4 which was designed specifically to carry troops inside it. Of course this imposes tradeoffs of the type that the analysis spends no time discussing and instead goes off on a ramble about APS which is completely inaccurate.

3. The well known deficiency of the autoloader and the oft quoted examples of T-72s cooking up which can be found on any internet forum is nothing new.

Can the author enlighten us as to whether the Russians have also found out solutions in the T-14 to the major tactical constraint imposed by the autoloader? Which is a slower rate of fire than a manual loader. Needs more research, eh?

4. Finally presenting the remotely operated heavy machine gun as some kind of major breakthrough is absolute guff. First, the Russians already validated this in the T-90, Second, the Americans have fielded similar systems like CROWS I and II for a while now (which can be used with a variety of crew served weapons and platforms). Third, even if one assumes the Russians came up with the best system possible in the T-14, in today's FIBUA environment where "remotely operated" and standalone IEDs are your #1 threat rather than dismounts with RPGs, such systems have limited use.

The author needs a radical rethink in peddling the party line unthinkingly.

There are a host of other errors big and small but I hope the point has been made. More analytical articles are welcome, and military enthusiasts are welcome to try their hand at it, but they need to understand military history, warfare and tactical employment further before commenting just on a list of features off a product brochure and the internet.

Target!

Dalip Bhati said...

Arjun will be the best east or west time will prove

Abhiman said...

Jo bhi hai, let's hope India does NOT purchase this, and instead inducts the Arjun Mark 2 instead. The army must work with DRDO to make the Arjun Mark 2 a success.

Anonymous said...

a bad copy of the Arjun Tank

Anonymous said...

Good article. Hello from Russia.

Dalip Bhati said...

Just see how Russians have leap frogged from T34 to Armata (USA from Sherman to Abrams, British from Churchill to Challenger and the like we in India have used from some of the tanks of those countries and they were not up to the mark) and we can't accept ARJUN TANK no tank in the WORLD is ideal or without drawbacks THEY ARE ALL COMPROMISE SOLUTIONS we must continue with regained vigour for our KAVERI Engine and ARJUN tank KARAT KARAT ABHYAS KE JAD MATI HOT SUJAN -- BY PRACTICING AGAIN AGAIN EVEN DUMB PERSON CAN BECOME INTELLIGENT WHAT ARE A FEW HUNDRED CRORES HERE AND THERE FOR THE SAKE OF THE NATION we will be blackmailed again in due course of time by they charging exorbitant prices and we will cut a sorry figure time and again -- a solution would be to get scientists/technicians on contract

RAT said...

Good Post Shiv, However this tank making its way in Indian Army is not a possibility maybe some of its components will make their way on the T-90s. The next Indian Tank will be smaller, easy to maintian and less expensive and ofcourse in small numbers 500-700 max. Remember we already have 1000+ T-90, 400 odd Arjun and 700+ T-72s so what will T-14 replace? That's a big question.

guvi said...

Soviets lost their tech edge to Western tech after the T-64. Their tank guns have much lesser firepower, their armor is lighter and therefore weaker, and their engines are troublesome in desert conditions. On the other hand, western tanks made much progress in auto-loaders, night fighting, composite armor, crew protection, and network centricity which the Russian tanks lack sorely till date.

If India decides to evaluate T-14 it would be basically Geo-politics and budget constraints rather than pure merit. On merit I am sure T-14 would not be better off than the M1A1 Abrams... Equal maybe.

Parthasarathi said...

Sir,
Though it is not appropriate to raise this question here but nevertheless contemporary.
Why the accident rate of our military aircrafts are so high ?? What is the reason ? In last two months two Dornier aircrafts were lost ? Both without giving any SOS. ( Mayday ) signal !! It's really strange !! Is there any malware ( like Stuxnet ) in their mission commuter ?? or something else. Otherwise slow speed twin propeller planes are quite reliable ! They can make home even if one engine is out of order !
Fighter aircraft's seats are getting ejected without any reason ! Twin propeller planes are getting lost without giving a SOS. ! Its really strange.
regards.

Anonymous said...

Good target practice for A-10's. Russians, including that midget Putin, are pussies.

Anonymous said...

Just more Russian junk - sitting ducks for attach helos. As for being technologically advanced the less said the better. apparently one of these had a transmission failure in the middle of the Victory Day Parade and had to be hauled out ! What more do you expect from the Ruskies.

arjuna rabindranath said...

To echo what some others have said. Your assertion that the Russians have had superior tanks is dubious.

A tanks ability to see first, shoot first and hit first is critical to all three of firepower, mobility and protection. The Russians have never been ahead in this respect. They have always had worse optics, fire control systems, ergonomics, auto-loaders and other contributing factors leading to their destruction in combat.

Dominant tanks like the Leopard and Abrams have taken collaboration and more importantly plenty of investment to develop. The current situation in Russia means the Armata will not receive this.

Apart from that, I strongly believe that India should develop its own tanks. That's the only way the weapon will be fully integrated with the end user. Including logistics, maintenance, and all the 'soft' stuff which will make all the difference to combat performance.