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The Fatal Flaws of Russian Tanks

Mamerto Adan is a feature writer who is back in college once again. Science is one of his favorite topics.

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When main battle tanks first appeared in the First World War, troop protection was one of its main selling points. It rolled into the battle field, clad in armor, to stop the machine gun fire from disseminating the soldiers marching in the rear. Eventually as time went by, tanks will evolve with a balance of mobility, protection and firepower. The armors of modern tanks could stop most projectiles, but its protection is not absolute. Tanks have a tendency to become steel coffins, especially in the event of armor failure. Certain projectiles were developed to counter such protections, and overtime it became a constant evolution between armor and anti-armor.

With that said, military analysts were scratching their heads after seeing how Russia messed up in Ukraine.

Russian tanks were no joke, so are the capabilities of their armored cavalry. Just look what happened to Nazi Germany during the great tank battle of Kursk. But the performance of the Russian tank divisions in Ukraine is a complete opposite of their impressive annihilation of the more advanced panzer units. It all comes down to arrogant and poor planning, fierce Ukrainian defenses, and the tank itself.


The Great Kyiv Convoy

Satellite image of the massive convoy.

Satellite image of the massive convoy.

2022 opened up with a nasty surprise. Russia just sent its forces to conquer Ukraine. Kremlin reasoned that they are flushing the Nazis out of Ukraine, and it’s a “special operation” to liberate the said country. But the opening phase of the invasion never went through as planned, and Russia sent its mighty cavalry.

It was on Monday, February 28, 2022, when a massive armored convoy was spotted through satellite imagery. From Belarus, it crossed the Ukrainian border and headed towards Kyiv, and the forty-mile convoy held an epic 15,000 troops. It consisted of supply trucks, artillery and weapons.

And also, main battle tanks.

Rolling out from Russia were battle tested tanks, though most are modernized units from the Soviet era. One of which is the T-72, which saw extensive use not just in Ukraine, but in past conflicts. This heavily armed tank has steel and composite armor, complete with ERA and utilizes autoloader in its turret. Other tanks being fielded are the more advanced T-90.

To defend the convoy from aerial threats, mobile anti-aircraft defenses were brought in. But despite of its size and power, the convoy largely failed in its mission. The vehicles were reduced to wrecks, while casualties mounted. The Russians would eventually leave Kyiv alone to focus its forces elsewhere, with the Kyiv convoy becoming the symbol of Kremlin’s vain attempts.

Reduced to Junk

Russian armored column getting ambushed by Ukrainian forces.

Russian armored column getting ambushed by Ukrainian forces.

So, what happened here.

The first sign of failure came, when the great Russian Kyiv convoy turned into the great traffic jam. Approximately 30 kilometers from Kyiv, it stalled for 8 days. Somehow, shortage of food and fuel plagued the convoy, while the vehicles got stuck in the mud. The vehicles themselves were poorly maintained, and overall, the convoy was not managed properly. Combined this with fierce Ukrainian resistance and the result was disaster.

Adding to the problems were the tanks themselves.

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The Wrecked Tanks

The remnant of a Russian tank.

The remnant of a Russian tank.

Again, the Russians deployed their modernized Soviet era tanks in a hope to force Kyiv into submission. But the result was nothing but burning wreckages of their supposedly formidable vehicles. Mainstream news and social media often show these charred remains of the tanks, and with the turrets blown-off. There were also videos of these tanks exploding, and their turrets flying high in the air. The portable anti-tank weapons, and the tenacity of Ukrainian troops did their jobs well of destroying these armored menaces. So much so that weapons like the Javelin became a revered symbol of Ukrainian resistance. But as experts pointed out. The way the tanks blew indicates a problem that the Russians failed to fix.

Going back in the Gulf War, the Iraqis under Saddam Hussein fielded their own divisions of Soviet tanks against the coalition forces. And the Abrams made short works of them. Noticeably, the turrets tend to fly-off when the tank exploded. And fast forward to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the same thing happened. A “jack in the box” effect occurred, with the turrets springing up upon explosion.

Tank Autoloader

Tank autoloader.

Tank autoloader.

Russian tank models, like the T-72 have a smaller and lower profile than their western counterparts. Because inside their turrets are less crews, with the autoloaders doing the work of the gunners.

As its name suggests, the use of autoloaders eliminate the needs for manual loading of ammunitions in the main gun by a crewmember. Everything is done through mechanical means, hence there is no need for an extra hand to feed the gun. And with less crew, means more space, and less weight. Less crew also means smaller tank profile, hence presenting less target to hit.

Autoloaders of the Russian T-series looks good in paper, but it has one fatal flaw. And that’s the ammunition storage. The live ammos are stored in a carousel type configuration, right in the turret and near the crew.

Hazards

The placement of explosive rounds, just below the crew in the turret.

The placement of explosive rounds, just below the crew in the turret.

In the west, autoloaders were never adopted, and tank designs stick to the traditional manual loading. But in western tanks like the Abram, the live ammunitions are kept in a separate and sealed storage. It did make the tanks bigger and required extra crew, but at least a direct hit won’t ignite the shells. Simply, tanks are less vulnerable with their ammunitions in separate storage. Crew survivability also increases, as crews still have time to bail out if they have to.

That is not the case in Russian tanks.

With the shells in the turret, and below the crew, even indirect hit is enough to cause an explosion. Chain reaction could occur, causing the explosive shells to ignite, blowing the turret and the unfortunate crews inside. Worst, there is not much the crews could do, as there is not enough time for them to bail out.

Certain Death

The problem became apparent during the Gulf Wars, but Russia never did any significant improvements. Sure, modern T-series tanks have improved armors, but such protection is nothing if the shell inside would ignite, even with indirect hits. Even worst, such problem is also present in other Russian armored vehicles, such as the BMD-4 infantry fighting vehicle.

And the result speaks for itself, with Ukraine becoming the junk area of tanks. It made us question if tanks are still relevant in the age of advanced man-portable defenses and drones. But nevertheless, poor planning and unsolved tank flaws are the main issues here.

References

1."Ukraine: Why has Russia's 64km convoy near Kyiv stopped moving?". BBC News. 3 March 2022. Archived from the original on 4 March 2022. Retrieved 7 March 2022.

2. Reuters (2 March 2022). "Russian military convoy north of Kyiv stretches for 40 miles -Maxar". Reuters. Archived from the original on 1 March 2022. Retrieved 7 March 2022.

3. Lendon, Brad (29 April, 2022). "Russia's tanks in Ukraine have a 'jack-in-the-box' design flaw. And the West has known about it since the Gulf war" CNN.


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