Let’s have some fun with rumors, speculation, and armchair analysis, shall we?
We don’t know very much about Russia’s new tank, the T-14. In my review, I made the tacit (and completely groundless) assumption that the turret shell concealed some heavy protection for the gun. Something tank-like, i.e. that the frontal armor of the gun could be expected to withstand APFSDS rounds as well as big, high end ATGMs. Like the front of the turret of a Leopard 2A6/-A7/-E or an M1A2.
Let’s try to poke at this assumption a little, shall we?
First off, let’s forget about side protection. No tank in existence can take a modern sabot round to the turret flank and not care. Focus on the front. Clearly, the outer “shell” has negligible protective value. It does hold a lot of systems, most of which are fragile. Of course, there’s nothing else behind the turret face, so hits there will probably tear straight through the fragile sensors and APS effectors. The gun mantlet is not readily apparent, and the outer shell seems to be in the way. Compare the M1A2 and the Leopard 2A6, both of which have big, thick mantlet armor atop and around the main gun. This is curiously absent from the T-14.
Remember, composite armors trade weight for thickness especially when compared to an equivalent mass of steel. So if we want to stop sabot rounds from a tank, we’re going to need a bunch of bulk. And since we’d like to be able to elevate and depress our gun, we’re going to expect to see quite a bit of exposed, movable bulk.
We can also find some images showing a T-14 turret mounted on the relatively light (28-30 tonne) Kurganets APC hull. So there’s at least one lightweight version of the turret out there. Of course, the shell could hide more armor on the T-14 version, maybe. We can’t rule out two versions. Now, it’s hard to figure out how one could hide bulky composites under the shell, given its shape and attachment methods, but we really can’t be sure about anything. The Kurganets hull is a little unusual if only because this idea has gotten very little traction elsewhere. The Swedes have a CV90 version with a low-pressure 120 mm gun prototyped, but have not ordered it and have not achieved any sales. The US Army has a version of the Stryker with a 105 mm gun and autoloader, but this version hasn’t been too popular. The US Army has moved to add more conventional autocannon firepower to some Stryker APCs to get more firepower in the Stryker Brigade Combat Team. So no one else really likes this concept.
We should also note that T-14 has a lot of active protection system effectors. There are ten tubes for the Afghanit hard-kill APS, five on each side of the turret. Additionally, there are two boxes of twelve soft-kill (likely some kind of obscurant) effectors facing outward, one box on each side of the turret, and another twenty-four soft kill effectors in a vertically configured box to protect the roof. That is an awful lot of active protection.
For comparison, the Merkava IV has a Trophy (hard-kill) APS launcher on each side of the turret. Each launcher holds three effectors. No additional soft-kill system is mounted on Merkava. Of course, Merkava IV is also heavily armored, and Trophy is seen as a supplement for flank protection against high-end ATGMs (e.g. Kornet).
So what might this mean? Well, we know that the T-14 has a bigger hull than T-72. Scaling comparisons will tell us this. Also, we know that we have to fit all three crewmen up front, so that front compartment must be significantly bigger to accomodate the three crewmen plus all of the displays and computers. Also, loads of hull armor, since the front appears to be quite thick (it’s sloped, and likely some kind of composite or composite + ERA, all of which takes space). We don’t actually save all that much room in the turret basket, since we still have to have some sort of (probably vertical) carousel for enough rounds to make all this worthwhile. And while the engine is a weird X-configuration model, it’s quite a bit more powerful than the one on T-72, and it still needs a radiator, transmission, and of course fuel. So we’d expect the hull to be noticeably bigger, and this agrees with what we can see from playing with scaling.
We also know that while the T-14 is heavier than the T-72, it’s still a light MBT. While it’s hard to draw comparisons to Western analogues, we do note the large hull and thick glacis armor would eat up a lot of mass.
Historically, the Russians have been quite strict about the weight of their tanks, simply because their infrastructure can’t take the weight of big Western tanks.1 For this reason, they pioneered the autoloader in the 1960s, and made heavier use of ERA than anyone else. Both are lighter than their respective alternatives. It’s quite possible that something had to give to keep the weight within tolerances, and the designers chose to accept a less well protected gun. Active protection systems are pretty good at defeating ATGMs, and they’ve made sure to have something for both direct-attack and top-attack weapons. In the current small wars, they’re not likely worried about sabots.
Further, the roof seems like it would blow-out in the event the ammunition storage compartment is compromised, and there are a pair of blow-out panels on the T-14’s belly. So ammunition cook-off will not likely kill the crew. Further, the Russians have put an escape hatch on the floor of the crew compartment. Good for them.
Could Afghanit be effective against sabot rounds? Specifically, the kind of APFSDS rounds fired by a modern tank gun (120 or 125 mm). Again, we can’t know for sure. It might be possible. But I’m disinclined to believe the present statements about it. Afghanit looks to shoot some kind of fragmentation or mini-EFP warhead to damage incoming projectiles. It’s simple and cheap, and works great against RPGs and ATGMs. But these are relatively fragile. An APFSDS round is a solid rod of some dense alloy (based on depleted uranium or tungsten), and it’s moving a lot faster than a missile.
It’s certainly not impossible to intercept an APFSDS round, but it’s a lot more difficult than intercepting a rocket. And the extent to which you disrupt it is important. You intercepted it. Great. What’s the effect? Is it destroyed? Damaged? Destabilized? If the round is still incoming, how much armor is needed to stop it? And what was the incoming speed and penetrator design? Test details are, naturally, hard to find. So color me skeptical that Afghanit can reduce the effectiveness of modern APFSDS rounds2 sufficiently for a lightly armored turret3 to be able to stop them.
Okay. So what do we think? Given the large amount of active protection systems, the reported wait, the size of the hull, and the nature of the turret shell, I think it’s quite possible the Russians are taking the T-14 in a new direction with a less protected main gun. They’ve pushed the envelope before. Some things have caught on, some things haven’t. This isn’t a notion I’m overly fond of, but that’s ok. The proof is in the combat, and the Russians will likely get into some before too long4. The keen observer might then be able to learn something as to whether or not these ideas work.
- I pick on Leopard 2 and Abrams enough, so let’s talk Challenger 2. Wouldn’t want the British to feel left out. With their “Streetfighter” Urban Warfare supplemental armor kit, the Challenger 2 tips the scales at 75 tonnes. ↩
- To be clear, I mean M829A3 or M829A4 depleted uranium APFSDS rounds fired from the M256 gun on an Abrams or the DM63 round from the Rheinmetall 120 mm/L55 gun on the Leopard 2A6 and subsequent models. Modern rounds, modern guns, no reduced-power charges. We never know what ad copy means, but that’s what you think of when I say “tank rounds shot at Russian tanks,” da? ↩
- Supposing the T-14 turret is lightly armored, that. But I suppose we should still define things, so something meeting STANAG 4569 level 5 or 6. In plain english, something ‘resistant to 30 mm APFSDS rounds”. ↩
- Unlike some other countries, the Russians are likely to get into a fight and test their new stuff. ↩