by Sébastien Roblin. He holds a Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States.
Few tanks have received as much attention in peacetime as the T-14 Armata. Russian state media has published hundreds of articles in its praise. Western media has reciprocated with pieces depicting the Armata as heralding the end of NATO’s military superiority. And of course there have also been many pieces, such as this article on offiziere.ch by my colleague Joseph Trevithick, doubting that the Armata is nearly as good as Russia Today promises, and more pointedly, that Moscow can afford to produce more than a handful of them in the near term.
There is undoubtedly much hype and propaganda surrounding the Armata, and early claims about the T-14’s armament and engine have been demonstrably scaled back with time. On the other hand, even stripped of hyperbole, the T-14 exhibits intriguing innovations and evolutions in tank design.
This article reviews the claims that have been made about the T-14 and its various systems, considers what these claims imply and, where evidence is available, whether the claims stand up to scrutiny. The reader should keep in mind that in regards to certain issues, such as the configuration of the T-14 armor, it is only possible to speculate. In other cases, the officially available data may be open to question. The author invites the reader to interpret the same set of data to their own satisfaction, and to offer their own insight on any data that has been overlooked or not given the consideration it is due.Production
Perhaps the first relevant question one should ask is whether the T-14 will actually be produced in numbers sufficient to enhance the effectiveness of the Russian Army. Russia currently has an order for more than 100 T-14 tanks, sufficient to equip several battalions. Thus the T-14 appears to be far more tangible than other much boasted about defense projects such as the PAK-FA stealth fighter or S-500 SAM system that seem unlikely to materialize in operational units in fully capable form before the end of the decade, despite claims in the media to the contrary.
Nonetheless, the Russian military was not pleased by the price tag of the T-14. Russia Insider claims the T-14 prototypes cost $6.5 million each, and that price will fall to $3.7 each once mass production begins. More recent publications claim costs ranging between $4 and 5 million.
Another consideration is that the Armata chassis is also being used for the T-15 heavy IFV (for which no production orders are extant so far), the T-16 armored recovery vehicle, and also a tank destroyer variant using the 152-millimeter gun from the Koalitsya self-propelled artillery system. Some claim the figure of more than 100 Armatas actually includes these other vehicles, and a second “true” production run of 70 Armatas is due in 2019.Moscow has “confirmed” it will produce 2,300 T-14s by 2020 (now 2025). However, a British intelligence report estimates that only 120 T-14s will be produced annually. Thus, some argue that even if the T-14 is every bit the wunder tank it is claimed to be, Russia cannot afford many of them any time soon.
In January, the Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu has announced its interest in upgrading its fleet of 400 T-90A tanks to the T-90M. This is thought to use technologies adapted from the T-14, including the Afghanit active protection system, Malachite reactive armor, and, for certain, the 2A82 main gun. This would be a substantial upgrade for the T-90A, though as usual, the extent of implementation will matter.
For nearly three decades, several generations of Russian tanks relied on the 2A46 125 millimeter gun — a weapon which famously failed to penetrate the M1 Abrams tank during the 1991 Gulf War. Since other top-of-the-line Western main battle tanks boasted similar levels of protection, this was a rather serious shortcoming. However, the Iraqi tanks lacked the more advanced ammunition developed for the 2A46 gun, which theoretically could have pierced the Abram’s frontal armor at shorter combat ranges.
The T-14 finally has a new gun — not a 152 millimeter 2A83 gun as was long rumored, but a longer-barrel 2A82-1M 125 millimeter gun (56 calibers in length verses 51 calibers on the 2A46M1). Russia claims the 2A82 generates 17% more muzzle energy than the 120 millimeter L/55 gun on later Leopard 2 tanks.
The T-14’s unmanned turret has the space for a larger carousel autoloader which can fire ten rounds per minute of single-piece ammunition and can use longer penetrator rods. Russia claims the 2A82 can pierce the equivalent of one meter of Rolled Homogenous Armor (RHA) at 2 kilometers using its new Vacuum-1 APFSDS round, which has a 0.9 meter long penetrator. If this claim is accurate, this would pose a real threat to top Western main battle tanks even at medium combat ranges. However, the round would also need to be produced and deployed in sufficient quantities, which has not always been the case for advanced Russian munitions. Russian media also claims the T-14 can fire a new “remotely detonated” Telnik high explosive shell, which presumably may be similar to the programmable air-burst shells coming into service on tanks like the Leclerc and M1A2 SEP V3 tank.
Russian defense official still maintain they will upgrade the T-14 with a 2A83 152 millimeter main gun in the future, but most observers believe this is unlikely to happen anytime soon. Assertions that a tank-mounted 152 millimeter gun was just around the corner date back to the 1990s.
Unlike most Western tanks — bar the Merkava — the T-14 can fire anti-tank missiles from its main gun. This is an ability that Russian tanks have boasted since the T-64A. In theory, tank-launched missiles may be superior to shells at extremely long engagement ranges, or possibly for attacking helicopters. However, tank-launched missiles have seen little use in combat. The Armata uses a new SACLOS missile called the 3UBK21 Sprinter, with a range of 8 kilometers and an anti-helicopter mode — though the 7.5 kilometer range claimed for the Aramata’s laser targeter might shorten that range a bit.
Sights and Sensors
Of course, major factors of offensive capability are detection and fire control — in other words, which tank will detect its adversary first and actually land a hit. The T-14 reportedly has sights with 4x and 12x optical zoom. Its sensors are also said to be capable of detecting tank-sized targets to a range of 7.5 kilometers during the day, or 3.5 at night. The commander’s sight is mounted on top of the turret and can rotate 360 degrees; the gunner has a sight slaved to the turret, and also has its own periscope. Both sights have thermographic and electromagnetic channels, as well as laser rangefinders. The driver has his own forward-looking infrared sensor. There are also many video cameras giving a 360 degree view around the tank, as the crew otherwise would have little ability to see outside.
Western tanks have generally been seen as having superior sights, sensors and ballistic computers compared to Russian designs. For example, an M1A2 sight is capable of 50X magnification. Russian thermal imagers are also believed to have lower resolution. The T-90A tanks uses French Thales Catherine sights, and there is evidence that the T-14’s sensors may rely on imported or smuggled Chinese or Western components for thermal imagers.
Through early 2015, it was widely reported that the T-14 would boast a 30 millimeter auto cannon as a secondary armament for engaging infantry, helicopters and incoming missiles. This would have been another radical design feature, as very few modern tanks boast a secondary weapon heavier than a heavy machine gun. However, the T-14 unveiled at the May Day parade had no such weapon. Apparently, the main secondary armament is to be a remotely-operated 12.7 millimeter Kord machinegun mounted above the commander’s sight. Remote weapons have become standard equipment for tanks in urban combat zones, and their inclusion on the T-14 makes a lot of sense. It has also been claimed that this machine gun could automatically controlled by the T-14’s radar to serve as a back-up hard-kill active protection system. Russian officials maintain the 30 millimeter cannon may show up in future versions of the T-14. There is also a co-axial PKTM machinegun in the turret, but no hull-mounted machinegun.
The T-14 is renowned for its unmanned turret. The crew of three — a commander, gunner, and driver — instead reside in an armored pod in the front hull. The Armata’s main gun ammunition is stowed separately from the crew in the turret. This means that penetrating hits to the turret are very unlikely to kill crew, which could be especially advantageous when a T-14 is in hull-down position, with just the turret exposed over the crest of a hill. On the other hand, at 3.3 meters tall, the T-14 has a profile nearly a full meter taller than an M1A2 Abrams. One disadvantage of this layout is that the crew will be especially dependent on the Armata’s many external cameras to gain a better view of the battlefield. It should also be noted that there is very little machinery standing in between the crew and any shells or missiles that penetrate the front hull.
Afghanit Active Protection System
Undoubtedly the most ambitious development in the Armata is its Afghanit Active Protection System, which includes both soft-kill measures (seeking to confuse or misguide approaching missiles) and a hard-kill system (attempting to physically destroy them).
The soft-kill component consists of four smoke grenade dischargers on the turret top, each with twelve grenades. These serve not only to visually obscure the tank, but release multi-spectral aerosol clouds that may mask the vehicle’s infrared signature and block targeting lasers and radars. Two of the launchers have a vertical orientation, allowing them to counter top-attack missiles. In theory, the soft-kill measures might help ward against deadly infrared guided Javelin or laser-guided Kornet missiles. However, some sources argue that modern IR sensors are sufficiently powerful not to be confused by such a cloud.
The Afghanit’s hard-kill component consists of five tubes carrying interceptor charges nestled under each side of the turret. The T-14’s has a millimeter-wave length AESA radar system, believed to be adapted from the one used on the PAK-FA stealth fighter, that detects incoming projectiles and automatically turns the turret towards them so that the hard kill tubes can shoot the threat down. This has the added benefit of presenting the thicker front turret armor towards the projectile. The radar may also be able to provide targeting data on the firing platform.
Given the combat-proven effectiveness of the Israeli Trophy hard-kill active protection system, as well as Russia’s long history developing and fielding active protection systems, the Afghanit system may be effective in swatting down rocket propelled grenades and most low-flying anti-tank guided missiles. However, the hard-kill interceptors’ horizontal orientation means they are incapable of stopping top-attack missiles.
The publication Izvetsia also claims the Afghanit will work against kinetic anti-tank shells ie. the armor-piercing main gun rounds of an opposing tank, at speed of up to 1,700 meters a second — a claim most Western analysts are skeptical of. Consider, first of all, that a tank shell is smaller and travels many times faster than an anti-tank missile, making it harder to detect, giving the active protection system less time to react, and presenting a much harder target to intercept. However, in the event the Afghanit manages to hit an incoming shell, physics still presents a problem: the vast kinetic energy of a tank shell cannot be negated by the Afghanit’s smaller, low-velocity projectiles. That is to say, even if hit by an Afghanit interceptor round, a tank shell would possess sufficient force to continue towards its target. However, an intercepted shell may be deflected off course, and its penetration could be degraded by a few hundred millimeters, giving the tank’s armor a better chance of resisting. Thus, it seems that if the Afghanit is capable of contributing at all to defense against its kinetic shells, it may do so at the margins.
Malachit Reactive Armor
The Armata also boasts the new Malachit explosive reactive armor (ERA), thought to be an evolution of the earlier Relikt ERA. Reactive armor involves an array of explosive bricks set on the hull of a tank that blast outward to disrupt and deflect incoming shaped charge warheads. Traditional ERA is useful against missiles, rockets and HEAT shells, which project a jet of molten metal into the target when impacted. However, traditional ERA is largely ineffective against kinetic shells. Relikt and now Malachit use a radar system to detect incoming shells and detonate the reactive armor before the moment of impact. Relikt also differs from earlier forms of ERA by using small explosives between reactive armor plates that feed the metal plates laterally into the path of a projectile, causing the penetration rods of sabot shells to warp and possibly shatter. Thus, Russia claims that Relikt and its successor Malachit are both effective at degrading kinetic tank shells. Relikt is also a dual-layer ERA intended to counteract tandem charge warheads. Details of how Malachit differs from Relikt are scant. The U.S. Army developed the new M829A4 120 millimeter sabot shell as means to counteract Relikt ERA, so perhaps the new reactive armor may be designed to counter the latest American shell.
The Armata has a composite armor made of ceramic and a a new steel alloy made through electroslag melting which Russian designers maintain enables better performance for the same weight. The T-14 also has slat armor on the rear hull sides to protect the vulnerable engine compartment and air intakes against rocket propelled grenades. Russian media claims the T-14 has a maximum protection equivalent to 1.1 to 1.3 meters of Rolled Homogenous Armor verses HEAT munitions. This would suffice to block many older anti-tank missiles such as the TOW, which can penetrate a maximum of 900 millimeters. Against armor piercing rounds, the T-14’s armor supposedly is equivalent to 1 meter RHA.
Some observers, however, feel that the T-14’s weight and size don’t add up to such formidable levels of protection. The Armata weighs just 50 tons compared to the 72 ton M1A2, which in later iterations is estimated as having 0.95 meters of protection against kinetic rounds. Proponents of the T-14 maintain this is simply because the Armata has a smaller volume to protect. But while the Armata’s smaller turret could account for some of the difference, it is taller and actually has a longer hull than the M1A2 at 8.5 meters compared to 7.9 meters. The use of extremely expensive metals also seems unlikely given the T-14’s projected cost. For this reason, many Western observers believe the Armata remains overall less well armored than an M1.
One common theory is that the T-14’s turret is lightly armored — perhaps just enough to protect against the automatic cannons common on infantry fighting vehicles — while heavy armor protection is reserved for the manned front hull. This might reconcile the high claimed maximum armor value for a vehicle that weighs significantly less than its Western counterparts, and may rely on its reactive armor and active protection system to protect against missile and rocket threats from the sides and rear.
Other Defensive Systems
The T-14 has four turret-mounted Laser Warning Receivers. These would alert the crew if they are being painted by the laser targeted of an enemy tank or missile system, giving the T-14 crew a chance to orient the turret towards the adversary and back the vehicle out of danger. It is also said to have a magnetic-countermeasure system on the rear hull intended to disrupt electronics on remotely-detonated IEDs or possibly even incoming missiles. The Moscow Times also claims the T-14 will be coated with radar absorbent paint and that its heat-emitting components have been recessed within the vehicle to lower its infrared signature, making the T-14 a “stealth tank”. However, analysts are skeptical that the T-14’s engine can be significantly hidden from modern IR sensors, or that anti-radar paint can have a significant effect on detection when not combined with other measures to reduce radar cross section
Initial widely publicized claims of a 1,500 horsepower turbocharged diesel engine for the Armata have been downgraded to a 1,350 horsepower engine. Other sources state the engine is governed to 1,200 horsepower. Armata designers insist they will eventually field a model with a fully-powered 1,500 horsepower engine.
Due to the T-14’s comparatively low weight, it can still attain a maximum road speed of 50 mph (80 km/h) or more — 5 mph (8 km/h) faster than even a Leopard 2 or Leclerc, and 35% faster than a Challenger 2 or a T-90. The T-14 reportedly has an automatic gear box suspension, allowing it to move in reverse as quickly as forward. Reports that the T-14 has hydrostatic transmission, by contrast, are likely inaccurate due to the expense of such a system.
The Armata is claimed to have an operational range of 310 miles (500 km), putting it in between the T-72 and T-90. Of course, Russia will have to hope that the T-14 demonstrates greater reliability than the vehicle that stopped up on the 2015 Victory Day parade rehearsal. The official explanation: an inadequately trained driver didn’t realize he had the parking brake on. Towards that end, the Armata will also come with its own automated diagnostic system, another feature that has come into fashion on Western battle tanks.
Pravda claims that the Armata will come with its own dedicated Pterodactyl lightweight drones tethered by a power cable to the vehicles, which will fly dozens of meters high to aid in spotting adversaries.
Russian media also touts the future deployment of entirely remote-controlled Armatas. This seems plausible in the sense that the crew already relies on externally mounted cameras to look upon the world, the Armata’s main and secondary weapon are remotely controlled, and the main gun uses as an autoloader. Thus, the crew of remotely-operated Armata could use the same controls to operate an Armata from a place of safety, allowing the Russian military to field battle tanks without putting their crews at risk. However, though robot tanks may lie in the future, Moscow has yet to present a prototype. There are also practical considerations. Maintaining datalinks in battlefield conditions secured from hacking, jamming and other natural or artificial sources of interference would be of vital importance for a remote tank, and represent a new electronic Achilles Heel for adversaries to exploit.
Obviously, there’s considerable uncertainty given the information available on the T-14. This is what the currently available evidence suggests to the author:
- The 2A82 cannon may be effective against current Western tanks at medium combat ranges — if the new ammunition is as effective as claimed, and is actually produced in quantity.
- The T-14’s sensors and fire control systems are likely inferior to modernized Western counterparts, given the information available.
- The T-14’s multi-layered Active Protection Systems and Explosive Reactive armor will likely give it good protection against direct-fire anti-tank missiles and rocket propelled grenades. However, top-attack munitions will only face the soft-kill countermeasures of the Afghanit system.
- The usefulness of the Afghanit system against kinetic armor piercing rounds is in doubt. The effectiveness of the Malachit ERA against armor-piercing sabots is an unknown quantity, though Relikt ERA appears to have inspired the United States to develop a new armor piercing round.
- The Armata’s significantly lower weight implies less conventional armor than on the M1 Abrams or Leopard 2. It is possible that the armor may be concentrated on the crew compartment.
- The Armata will have greater crew survivability than earlier Russian tanks.
- The T-14 is faster than modern Western tanks.
- For the time being, Russia is unable to afford large-volume production of the T-14. Thus, the Russian army will field mostly T-72s into the 2020s.