by Captain Stefan Bühler, graduate engineer (University of Applied Sciences), Explosive Ordnance Disposal Officer at the NBC-KAMIR Competence Center for the Swiss Armed Forces and Commander of Tank Squadron 12/1. This article was originally published on the OG Panzer blog site – my gratitude to the author for allowing its republication on offiziere.ch. For a German version of the article see here.
Twice, offiziere.ch has taken a critical look at the new Russian combat tank, the T-14 Armata. In the first critique in the summer of 2015, Joseph Trevithick came to the conclusion that the basic design of the T-14 was rather antiquated, based on the limited public resources available at the time. He was not alone in this opinion at the time: Dave Majumdar, for example, noted in an article in National Interest that the Leopard 2 could successfully engage the T-14 if the right ammunition was used. With the publication of additional technical details, Sébastien Roblin critically analyzed the T-14 once again and came to a mixed conclusion. However, some findings were based on incomplete data resources – to this day, not all the technical details have been published. For this reason, and the fact that both authors are not engineers, we take into serious consideration the criticism offered to us that the reports on the T-14 on offiziere.ch may be politically biased and may no longer be based on fully accurate facts. We are, therefore, extremely grateful to Captain Stefan Bühler for making his article available to us for a second publication, and for giving us a somewhat different perspective.
On February 9, 2018, the Russian Ministry of Defense announced that two tank battalions and a mechanized battalion of the 1st Guards Armored Regiment in Moscow will be equipped with the new T-14 battle tanks and T-15 infantry fighting vehicles. The corresponding contract for the production of 100 vehicles was awarded to the industry in December 2017.
Since the first public display of the T-14 Armata at the Victory Parade in May 2015, the vehicle and its capabilities have been hotly debated in the western military press. Many of the articles published were extremely critical; this was, in part, due to the authors’ lack of technical expertise but, in most cases, quite obviously for political reasons. Every breakdown and alleged defect in the system, no matter how small, were used to criticize the technical concept as a whole. The following article aims to evaluate the T-14 from a technical point of view, based on the published data and pictures as well as the author’s personal impressions, and without political bias, if possible.
The T-14 has the same power output as the Leopard 2 or the M1 Abrams, however, with a combat weight of 48 tons, it is 20% lighter, resulting in a specific output of 31.3 hp/T (22.9 kW/T). In comparison its western counterparts with 24 hp/T (17.6 kW/T), this new vehicle is extremely agile. Its maximum range should be around 500 km (310 miles) with a comparable consumption and an estimated fuel tank size of 1,000 liters (265 gallons), similar to the western models.
In contrast to previous models T-64/T-72/T-80/T-90, the T-14 chassis consists of seven pairs of track rollers, whereof the two front rollers and the rear suspension can be actively controlled hydraulically (hydropneumatic chassis). This allows for manual or automatic adjustment of the chassis to the terrain, and thus enables significantly higher speeds on medium-heavy terrain compared to a chassis with conventional torsion bar suspension. However, experience shows that chassis with hydropneumatic suspension systems are much more technically demanding and less reliable than torsion bar suspension systems, which is why technical difficulties are still to be expected in this area. Notwithstanding, the T-14 prototype vehicles are already equipped with such a chassis (the author can be certain of this based on observations of the 2016 Victory Parade in Moscow), and it can be assumed that the Russian engineers have already gained some experience with this technology in the past three years.
The T-14’s tracks are narrower in the current version compared to the Leopard 2 or the M1 Abrams, however, due to the significantly lower combat weight, wide tracks are also not absolutely necessary: the specific ground pressure will be about the same compared to the western counterparts.
For understandable reasons, the Russians did not give exact values related to vehicle protection. However, a few estimates can be made on the basis of weight and geometry.
The following components contribute to the protection of the crew and the main groups of the T-14:
- welded basic structure of armor steel;
- local reinforcement of the basic structure with composite armoring;
- cage armoring in the engine compartment area;
- Malachit reactive armor modules in the front area;
- Afganit active protection system.
For mechanical reasons, the basic structure should have a thickness of at least 25 mm of armored steel with a hardness of 400 to 500 Brinell. Thus, the basic structure of the vehicle consists of a continuous minimum protection against armor piercing with 12.7 x 99 mm caliber ammunition (.50 Browning heavy machine gun), in some areas – depending on geometric arrangement – the basic structure is also expected to resist fire from the 14.5 x 114 mm API (Russian heavy machine gun) and older 20 mm caliber weapon systems.
For operational reasons, it is not be possible under normal circumstances for lighter vehicles such as infantry fighting vehicles to neutralize a main battle tank from the front (±60°). Most western infantry fighting vehicles have 30 x 173 mm machine guns as their main armament and shoot armour-piercing fin-stabilized discarding sabots (APFSDS-T) with a maximum penetration capacity of 120 mm steel armor equivalents. A few exceptions, such as the Dutch CV9035 and the Swedish CV9040 respectively, have larger 35 or 40 mm caliber machine guns but the maximum penetration capacity of this ammunition should not exceed 160 mm of armored steel. The crew and ammunition compartments on the T-14 are likely to be protected frontally and laterally with a suitable dimension of composite armor.
For weight reasons, it can be assumed that the basic structure in the engine compartment has not been reinforced. However, the T-14 prototypes have a so-called cage armor around the engine compartment – this shuts off the electric ignition circuit on some antitank munitions, such as the widely used PG-7, upon impact, thus preventing them from being triggered. Since this type of protection system has no performance-reducing effect on most western anti-tank munitions (e.g. Panzerfaust or M72 LAW) – apart from the increased explosive distance – it can be assumed that the production version does not use the cage armor or that it will only be used adaptively in certain countries of operation.
In urban terrain, light anti-tank weapons (e.g. PG-7, Panzerfaust, M72 LAW), which are fired at short range at the side of the vehicle, are a major problem for a battle tank. By attaching reactive protection elements in the appropriate dimensions, the effect of shaped charges can be reduced by more than 80%. The Malachit reactive protection elements used in the T-14 are a logical further development of the previous Kontakt-5 and Relikt models, and should be correspondingly powerful. Like the Kontakt-5 technology, Malachit will also be able to significantly reduce the penetration rate of projectiles.
In terms of penetration performance, the biggest threats to a battle tank are the large-caliber projectiles from other battle tanks and modern anti-tank guided weapons.
The most modern western arrow projectiles (German 120 x 570 mm DM63 made of tungsten carbide, American 120 x 570 mm M829 made of depleted uranium) have a maximum penetration capacity of 750 mm armored steel equivalent; for anti-tank guided weapons, the maximum penetration rate is even between 1,200 mm (BGM-71 TOW, HOT 3, FGM-148 Javelin, Spike, 9K135 Kornet) and 1,400 mm (AGM-114 Hellfire).
Even with highly-developed passive and reactive protection technologies, this threat can be countered only to a limited extent – especially not with the estimated 48 ton combat weight of the T-14. Accordingly, the Afganit active protection system must be designed in such a way that – in combination with other technologies – it offers effective protection against both artillery projectiles and powerful antitank guided weapons (with tandem shaped charges).It is currently very difficult to make a reliable statement about the performance of Afganit due to the scarce amount of data available. It is assumed that it contains both a hard-kill and a soft-kill system. This seems plausible, especially since the Russians have the appropriate operational experience in both areas with the Arena system (hard-kill) and the Shtora-1 system (soft-kill).
The Afganit system is comprised of the following components:
- ten forward facing launchers arranged on the turret (hard-kill system);
- two swiveling launchers, each with 12 tubes on the left and right in the front area of the turret (soft-kill system);
- two fixed, upturned launchers with 12 tubes each in the rear area of the turret (soft-kill system);
- two laser warning modules on the left and right side of the turret’s front;
- two radar panels on the left and right side of the turret.
Threats are detected by laser warning modules (laser distance measurement or laser target illumination by the enemy) or by a radar with electronic beam deflection (measurement of the trajectory of incoming projectiles). According to various sources, the radar is based on the AESA radar technology of the new Suchoi T-50 fighter – this would make sense inasmuch as the unit price reduced by the larger procurement volume would ultimately benefit both projects.
In the area of soft-kill system performance, it must be assumed – also against the background of the Russian capabilities in electronic warfare that have been greatly expanded over the past ten years – that Afganit is significantly more powerful than the Shtora-1 developed in the 1980’s: a possible disturbance or deception of modern guided-weapon sensors by corresponding electro-optical or magnetic effectors is quite realistic from a technical point of view.
Furthermore, the four small launchers (two swiveling, two fixed, upturned) probably serve as smokescreens with multi-spectral smoke. Should this be the case, modern third or fourth generation anti-tank guided weapons with top-attack capability (including the FGM-148 Javelin) and sensor function of artillery (SMArt, BLU-108) could also be defended against, in contrast to Shtora-1.
The ten launchers on the turret are definitely part of the hard-kill system and, like their predecessors Drozd and Arena, are likely to fire a type of explosive and/or fragmentation grenade that damages or destroys explosive and shaped charge projectiles or anti-tank missiles and guided weapons before they hit the main armor. Due to the geometric arrangement of the launchers, a coverage of ±60° in the front area can be assumed.
Although it is technically unlikely that these countermeasures will damage or destroy a projectile made of tungsten carbide or depleted uranium. However, if the grenade is fired at the level of the control unit, this would lead to a pendulum of the penetrator and thus to a considerable reduction in power (30 – 50%). The necessary ignition of the grenade requires a data link between the fire control computer of the active protection system and the grenade itself. The fact that this is basically possible has already been proven in Western research projects.
However, all these protection systems – apart from the further developed technology – are not really new. What actually makes the T-14 unique from a technical point of view is the unmanned turret. This offers two distinctive advantages over a manned turret:
- The crew compartment volume – and thus the volume requiring a high level of protection – is reduced by approximately 60%, which in turn leads to corresponding weight savings with the same level of protection for the crew.
- The turret volume is also reduced: the turret surface is about 35% smaller, the front surface is about 15% smaller than the Leopard 2A6 or M1A2 Abrams. The first shot probability (without taking aiming errors into account) with the Leopard 2A6 and the most advance projectile DM63 available on the turret of a T-14 (partially covered position) at a distance of 3,000 m (9,842 feet) is approximately 25%. Or in other words, statistically speaking, four shots would be needed to land a hit.
Based on all these considerations, it must be assumed that the T-14 Armata offers the crew a higher overall level of protection than its western counterparts, despite its significantly lower combat weight.
The current T-14 prototypes are all equipped with a new 125 mm (2A82) smoothbore gun. It can be assumed that this new version has undergone an increase in performance compared to the 2A46M-2 of the T-90. Since Russian designers, like their western counterparts, are also bound to the laws of physics, the expected penetration performance can be predicted quite accurately: at an operating distance of 3,000 m (9,842 ft), it should be in the range of 800 mm armored steel and thus about 10% above the values of the 120 mm RH L55 of the Leopard 2A6 with the DM53/63 projectile. In the case of shaped charge projectiles, the penetration rate increases practically in proportion to the caliber, which is why the penetration values here are probably only about 5% higher compared to the 120 mm caliber shaped charge projectiles. The maximum operating distance for the projectiles should be around 5,000 m (16,404 ft), with an effective operating distance around 3,000 m (9,842 ft).
The new weapon will probably be able to fire all 125 mm projectiles already introduced and, like its predecessors, will have a guided missile complex which allows the firing of anti-tank guided weapons with operating distances of more than 5,000 m.Since the first presentation of the T-14, it has been repeatedly emphasized that the vehicle could also later be equipped with a 152 mm smoothbore gun. From a technical point of view this should be feasible, but the problem is different: a 152 mm projectile requires approximately 50% more space than a 125 mm projectile, which would reduce the ammunition capacity from 45 rounds (125 mm) to approximately 30 rounds (152 mm), which in turn has a negative effect on the autonomy of the system.
For secondary armament, the Russian designers have initially held to the proven system of a 12.7 mm anti-aircraft machine gun and a 7.62 mm coaxial machine gun. The announced optional 30 mm coaxial machine gun would probably be technically feasible without any problems, especially since the Russian tank builders already have decades of experience in this field (the BMP-3 introduced in 1987 also has a 30 mm coaxial machine gun in addition to the 100 mm main weapon).
The automatic loader should also pose no technical problems – Russian designers can look back on 50 years of development and application experience in this field (the first automatic loader EZ-10 was introduced in 1967 with the T-64A). The discussion in the West about the advantages and disadvantages of automatic loaders and three or four crew members is probably less technical than emotional: with the introduction of the T-64, the Russians have opted for this solution and have consequently adapted their training and deployment procedures accordingly, which is why a comparison with western main battle tanks (apart from the French AMX-56 Leclerc) makes only limited sense from the author’s point of view.
The crew are placed side by side in the front and are comprised of the driver (left), the gunner (middle), and the commander (right). A bulkhead separates the crew compartment from the weapons and ammunition compartment, another bulkhead separates the weapons and ammunition compartment from the engine compartment. The control of the weapon system and propulsion is exclusively electronic, so that the vehicle can be controlled remotely without any problems, even without a crew.
- electro-optical rifle scope with infrared camera and laser range finder;
- electro-optical commander periscope with infrared camera and laser range finder;
- stand-alone weapon station (12.7 mm) with infrared camera and laser range finder;
- autonomous analogue TV rifle scope (emergency shooting);
- six TV cameras on the turret for 360-degree observation;
- millimeter wave radar (Afganit active protection system);
- various sensors (e.g. wind, temperature, tilt);
- fire control computer;
- stabilizing electronics;
- LCD monitors for the crew;
- control panels and control handles for the crew.
Driver and commander each have three additional periscopes, while the gunner has only one periscope. The commander’s periscopes are most likely equipped with tip-visor buttons, which were introduced with the T-90MS and serve to swing the turret in the direction corresponding to the tip-visor button pressed.
The information and management system consists of a satellite navigation system (GLONASS) and a tactical command system. The interface with the fire control system via the vehicle computer essentially makes it possible to determine the coordinates of a spotted target and make them visible in real time to all vehicles and command posts integrated in the control system.
The discussion among experts now revolves mainly around the question of whether the commander lacks the necessary overview when sitting in the tank or whether TV cameras and electro-optical aiming devices can actually provide the same information as the optical aiming devices and observation equipment on the current generation of battle tanks. A look into the sky provides the (technical) answer: the pilot of an F-35 can look through the aircraft with his head-up display – a computer generates a virtual 3D world from the video signals from the cameras mounted all around, which is then faded into his optics depending on the pilot’s direction of vision. With such technology, as offered by the Israeli company ELBIT Systems under the name “Iron Vision” for use on armored vehicles, the commander of a T-14 could see even more than the commander of a battle tank with a manned turret. A completely different question in this case is the price: a pilot’s helmet for the F-35 costs about $400,000; there is no reliable information about the price of “Iron Vision” yet.
Finally, the question of vulnerability remains: compared to older optical systems, video cameras and electro-optical scopes are neither more nor less vulnerable to enemy fire or splintering. Optics are, and will remain, the Achilles’ heel of a battle tank, including the T-14.
Certainly, all data released by the Russians on the new tank must be critically examined. Notwithstanding: Russian engineers, with the appropriate political support from the Kremlin, have consistently implemented the concept of the unmanned turret battle tank; while in the West, desperate attempts were made to extend the life of battle tanks whose development dates back to the 1970’s with limited system upgrades.
The current version of the T-14 may still have a number of constructive deficits and teething problems, but one thing is certain: when the West presents the first prototype of a new generation of battle tanks in three to five years (a highly optimistic estimate), the Russians will already have several years of practical experience in this area – a backlog that cannot be compensated for so quickly even with the alleged technological superiority of Western industry. A look at the history of tank development shows that the Russians revolutionized tank construction several times – not because they were the first to have the idea, but because they were the first to have the courage to take a step forward.
• • •