Russia’s New Tanks Are Pretty ‘Stale’

by Joseph Trevithick, a freelance journalist and researcher. He is also a regular contributing writer at War is Boring and a Fellow at GlobalSecurity.org.

On May 9, Russia debuted a brand new tank and other previously unseen armored vehicles at the annual parade celebrating the country’s victory over Germany during World War II. While the appearance of the T-14 Armata and its companions made the event a particularly rare spectacle, the designs themselves are pretty “stale,” according to one expert.

An Armata T-14 Main Battle Tank at the May 9, 2015 Victory Parade. (Photo: Vitaly V. Kuzmin)

An Armata T-14 Main Battle Tank at the May 9, 2015 Victory Parade. (Photo: Vitaly V. Kuzmin)

Moscow used the 70th anniversary of the defeat of the Nazi Wehrmacht to show off the first two members of its new Armata family – the T-14 main battle tank and T-15 heavy infantry fight vehicle. Observers also caught a glimpse of the the smaller Kurganets-25 tracked fighting vehicle and Bumerang wheeled personnel carrier for the first time. These new additions represent some of the most dramatic developments in Russian armored vehicle design in decades.

But the Kremlin’s push to modernize its armored units “is an attempt to catch up,” Steven Zaloga, a senior analyst at the Teal Group and expert on armored vehicles, told War Is Boring days after the party in Red Square. “A lot of this stuff is really stale.”

The new armored bests are significant improvements over older, Soviet-era designs. For instance, if adopted, the T-14 – the undisputed star of the show – would be the first truly new Russian tank design in more than four decades. Moscow’s armored divisions are currently full of T-64 and T-72 derivatives.

T-14 Specifications via the U.S. Army's Foreign Military Studies Office (click on the image to enlarge).

T-14 Specifications via the U.S. Army’s Foreign Military Studies Office (click on the image to enlarge).

The Armata main battle tank is heavier, longer and taller than its predecessors. The vehicle sports an advanced active protection devices that blow up incoming projectiles and thick armor. The completely remote controlled turret contains a powerful 125-millimeter gun linked to an autoloader, which can shoot fast-flying armor-piecing darts, high-explosive shells and anti-tank missiles.

On top of that, “this tank has a real potential for modernization, because it’s new and cutting-edge – in our understanding it can be upgraded an infinite number of times”, said Oleg Sienko, the chief of the tank’s manufacturer Uralvagonzavod, according to a report by the RT news network. The T-14’s “brand new 125 mm smoothbore cannon […] is the most powerful gun of its kind to date in terms of muzzle energy,” RT also declared in another piece.

But despite these and other boasts, the Russia’s new fleet is much less impressive when compared to many Western designs, even some that are decades old at this point. The T-14 is lighter and not necessarily any better armed or armored than the American M1A2 Abrams, the British Challenger 2 or the German Leopard 2, according to an infographic originally specifications sheet made up by the Russian TASS news service. The specifications were later translated into English by the U.S. Army’s Foreign Military Studies Office (FMSO). Of course, both Moscow and Washington are generally tight-lipped about the exact details.

In terms of armor protection specifically, the T-14 is probably no more impressive than the tanks Washington and Berlin have had in service for two decades now, based on educated estimates. And while Western engineers have generally focused on passive armor, the Pentagon and others continue to experiment with their own active protection systems. The Armata’s Afghanit system is also just the latest development in a series countermeasures the Russian Army has been using since the fighting in Afghanistan – an experience the new device’s moniker clearly references. Soviet commanders – like their counterparts around the world – have found active protection systems and explosive reactive armor can be very dangerous to ground troops near vehicles equipped with these protective measures too.

As for armament, the range estimates for the T-14 seem generous. However, Leopard 2s can already hit targets at similar distances with the help of Israeli LAHAT missiles. Armata crews would probably have to fall back on gun-launched guided weapons when trying knock out enemies beyond some 5,000 to 6,000 meters too. Not that much of this matters, since the Russian sensors can’t necessarily find the mark much farther away. The “target detection range” is only vaguely “greater than 5,000 meters,” the TASS-provided specs said.

Russian press reports also continue to tease the possibility of the T-14 getting a larger caliber main gun sometime in the future. “Now the Russians plan on replacing the world’s largest bore main tank gun with a larger one,” Dr. Lester Grau, an analyst at FMSO, wrote in the latest edition of OE Watch. “The 125-millimeter main tank gun will be replaced by a 152-millimeter gun,” Grau added, citing articles from Moscow MK and Rossiyskaya Gazeta. But in spite of similar statements and predictions over the past 30 years, Russian tanks have continued to use the same size cannons. With improvements in ammunition, Moscow’s weaponeers appear to have decided – again, like western engineers – that a larger bore weapon would offer few practical advantages.

The T-14 also has thermal and infrared optics and computerized fire control systems – which have been standard features on Western tanks for some time. Second only to the unmanned main turret, a full, 360-degree camera setup is probably the Armata tank’s most unique feature. The video feeds are there to make up for the fact that the 3-man crew has extremely limited visibility otherwise. Clustered together in one portion of the hull, the personnel would lose a lot of situational awareness if the system failed.

An Armata T-15 Heavy Infantry Fighting Vehicle at a rehearsal before the 2015 Victory Parade. (Photo: Vitaly V. Kuzmin).

An Armata T-15 Heavy Infantry Fighting Vehicle at a rehearsal before the 2015 Victory Parade. (Photo: Vitaly V. Kuzmin).

The T-15 – the only other Armata family member at the parade – is also similar to a number of existing vehicles. For two decades or more, Israel has recycled a number of old tanks into heavy infantry fighting vehicles. Tel Aviv’s engineers based the most recent type, called Namer or Leopard in Hebrew, on the indigenous Merkava tank.

While the T-15 has more weaponry than Namer, both designs rely on remote turrets and carry a full squad of troops under heavy armor. And like the Israeli vehicle, the Armata-based design would be ideally suited to urban combat. With nearly endless places for infantry to hide with deadly anti-tank weapons, the close-quarters nature of cities and towns is particularly dangerous for most armored vehicles.

The Russian Army had previously considered a large support vehicle, bristling with cannon and missiles for these situations, called the BMPT. However, the Kremlin appears to have lost interest in that concept. The T-15 could easily take its place. “[The T-15] pretty much satisfies the requirement that BMPT does”, Zaloga explained.

A Kurganets-25 Infantry Fighting Vehicle at a rehearsal prior to the 2015 Victory Parade in Moscow. (Photo: Vitaly V. Kuzmin).

A Kurganets-25 Infantry Fighting Vehicle at a rehearsal prior to the 2015 Victory Parade in Moscow. (Photo: Vitaly V. Kuzmin).

Lastly, the Kurganets-25 and Bumerang are also larger and more capable than the BMP and BTR families Moscow expects them to replace. But neither represent a new class of vehicle. Kurganets is in the same weight class as the American Bradley, the British Warrior, and the Swedish CV90, among others. More than two decades old, the CV90 is the youngest of these three designs. Now responsible for all three types, defense contractor BAE continues to develop improvements for these vehicles.

8×8 wheeled personnel carriers are even more common, Zaloga noted. The list of these types of vehicles currently on the market has grown significantly since the fall of the Soviet Union and is becoming nearly endless. There are countless examples from the French VBCI to the German Boxer to the Finnish Patria AMV. As many Western nations cut their defense budgets after the Cold War, lightweight wheeled armored vehicles seemed a reasonable – and cheaper – substitute for heavier tracked vehicles. With a large main gun or anti-tank missiles, the nimble vehicles even replaced tanks in some cases.

Perhaps most notably, Swiss defense contractor MOWAG has successfully licensed its Piranha family around the world to many major militaries. The U.S. Army and Marine Corps currently both have large fleets of 2nd and 3rd generation Piranha vehicles. As with the American Piranha III-based Stryker family, Russia expects to buy Bumerang variants for command and control, to schlep mortars are the battlefield, to carry casualties and more.

The new Bumerang Armored Personnel Carrier. (Photo: Vitaly V. Kuzmin).

The new Bumerang Armored Personnel Carrier. (Photo: Vitaly V. Kuzmin).

In the end, “the Russians are not leaping ahead”, Zaloga said. “This is an attempt to catch up.” With sanctions over its seizure of Ukraine’s Crimea region and support for separatists fighting Kiev, coupled with the fluctuating price of oil, Moscow might not even be able to buy as many of these new vehicles as they would like. In the past, the Kremlin’s budget woes killed tank developments like the T-95 and the Black Eagle. On top of that, the Armata family remains a work in progress. A self-propelled howitzer, a mobile rocket launchers and other variants that appear to have been either delayed or scrapped entirely. The prototypes Russian authorities deemed to put on display during the victory parade might not be final designs.

At Moscow’s next annual celebration, western analysts, tank spotters and armored vehicle geeks might get to see a refined set of designs – or none of the newer vehicles at all.

This entry was posted in Armed Forces, English, Intelligence, International, Joseph Trevithick, Russia, Technology.

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