By popular demand, I am reviewing Russia’s latest Tank Of Doom, the T-14 Armata. While I usually wargame with the Russians as the opposition, as per Cold War tradition, we have more in common than you might think. We both love realpolitik, nuclear weapons, and tanks. Lots of love for tanks. We both adore tanks, expect and demand that they be the heavy hitters in combat, and scoff at the idiots who think their time is through. So let us look at the latest design from a fellow tank lover.
In many ways, the T-14 Armata is a recognition that something has to give. The Russians saw in the first Gulf War what happens when their T-72s got overmatched and had their armor penetrated: the reserve ammo cooked off, immolating the crew and sending the turret flying into the air like a jack-in-the-box. No problem, they said. This was a mere “monkey model”1 T-72. They had big, scary T-72BU,2 with the high-end Kontakt 5 ERA, that was effective at reducing the penetrating ability of APFSDS rounds and could also stop HEAT rounds without a dramatic increase in weight. Keeping the tanks relatively light was very important to the Russians, because the bridge infrastructure in Russia and the former Soviet Union was not very good, and just can’t take the weight of a fully kitted out Leopard 2A7. Plus it’s a lot easier to move bridging equipment when it has less weight to support.
But then came Chechnya, where veterans knew to shoot multiple rockets at the ERA modules, since they don’t do multihit capability. And then the West developed rounds that could get through Kontakt 5 without issue. Better modules and more base armor was needed. The cycle was to begin again, but those bridges weren’t going to get stronger on their own. Faced with strict weight requirements, the Russians decided to take the crew out of the turret. Putting them all in the hull meant less frontal armored area, which meant less armor weight. This was something confronting Western designers too–designs for the next tank made in the late 80s in the US and West Germany had a similar layout. But the Russians hit the wall first. Plus, the Russians have always been willing to try new things in their tanks.
In many ways the Armata is a profoundly Western-style tank, though it still is very light at under 50 tonnes. It has a properly strong front hull armor of what appears to be composites and steel, and it’s rated for protection right up there with its Western rivals. It is, however, not considerably better than them as far as frontal armor estimates go. There’s an all new 125mm gun, the long-barrel 2A82-1M, which has a 32 round autoloader, an all-new APFSDS round with a longer penetrator, and an all-new gun launched ATGM round. There’s a 1,500 hp diesel, though it’s in a goofy and questionable X-configuration. And there’s modern looking thermal sights for the commander and the gunner. Of the seven sets road wheels, the first two pairs and the last pair have adjustable suspension. And, straight from the factory, it has a missile approach warning radar, and hard and soft kill active protection systems3. The sides of the hull appear to have ERA skirts, though they might just be composite modules. The roof is well armored, but I’m uncertain if this contains ERA or not.
That said, the tank is brand new, so many questions remain. How good are the Russian thermal viewers: are they second-generation or third-generation? How good is the fire control computer? Can it do automatic target tracking? IFF? Can the radar be used for finding ground targets? How reliable is the new engine/transmission4 setup? How much armor is on the turret? The outer shell is clearly not tough, but there must be armor behind it or else it would be super easy to achieve a mission-kill. But you don’t need much of an armor profile internally to protect the gun, so maybe the outer shell is just for the radar and APS. And how well will the unmanned turret design work in war (or at least in exercises)? They’re gambling heavily that technology can overcome the loss of situational awareness, though to be fair, so are the Germans with the Puma IFV. Of course, there are some classified things I’d love to know too, like just how good is the main gun compared to a Rheinmetall 120mm L55, and just how good is that armor.
There is one other thing that bothers me presently, and that is how many will the Russians actually buy? They have an awful lot of new weapons programs, and while labor costs are certainly cheaper in Russia, this is a lot of new technology. It won’t be substantially cheaper than a Western tank program of similar vintage with good management, e.g. K2 Black Panther.5
But let’s get to business, and the three million ruble6 question. Would we buy one? On the one hand, politics and NATO might intervene. On the other hand, Russia will sell to anyone, and deferring to politics would be the ultimate cop out. So, let’s set that aside. Would we buy?!
In terms of raw capability, it is similar to Leopard 2A7. A worthy competitor, but not massively better than either, at least on paper and without knowing classified information all around. In terms of cost, it is similar to Leopard 2A7, high but manageable. But ammo is stored entirely separate from the crew, so it is more survivable than either. And hard kill APS are built right in. Electrics should be good, and if not, there’s a long history of adding French and/or Israeli electronics to Russian stuff. The only question might be production, but maybe we could make like India and become a partner in production with a big order to see that it actually gets done.
So would we buy one? Сделка?!
Oh yeah. We’d be all over it.
1.) i.e. a watered-down export version. The crap you sell to dodgy “friends” like Saddam Hussein, not the good stuff you keep for yourself.
2.) Better known as the T-90.
3.) So, automatically triggered visual/infrared screening smoke to hide the tank, and some kind of mini grenade to destroy missiles.
4.) It’s a twelve-speed transmission, which seems needlessly complicated to me. Also, the previous Russian diesels are all descended from the same V-12 engine family.
5.) While a simple currency conversion of the quoted price doesn’t bear this out, the ruble has lost a lot of value against the dollar recently. If we convert to an intermediate, fixed value commodity in both places (e.g. gold or big macs) as an intermediate step, we get a price that is near as makes no difference to that of the K2 Black Panther.
6.) The top prize on Сделка?!, the Russian Deal or No Deal game show.