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.
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.
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 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.
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.