Foreword by the Saker: Kakaouskia has been a regular contributor to this blog and when I realized that he had first had experience with Western and Russian armor (as a career officer) I asked him to write a short “compare and contrast” between the designs these very different schools of armor design and use. I hope that you will find this exercise interesting and, if yes, I could try to post more such comparisons for combat aircraft and submarines (these two being, in my opinion, systems where the differences in philosophy of design are the most dramatic). Let me know if that is of interest to you.
A bit THANK YOU to Kakaousia for his time and work!
Heavy Metal – A comparison of Russian and Western armour
Greetings to the Saker community and readers.
At the request of the Saker, I am presenting you with a brief comparison of Russian and Western armour. This article will focus on the two major schools of tank and armoured vehicle design: Russian and Western (German and the US being the prime examples). I will not go into great technical details as the metallurgy comparison alone is a subject suitable for a thesis. Nor will I compare the T-14 Armata family as so little are known of these vehicles at the moment.
What is a main battle tank (MBT) and what is an infantry fighting vehicle (IFV)?
To put it simply, an MBT and an IFV are moderate to rather complicated weapon systems. The reason I am using the term weapon system is because you need a set of components and people working together for them to be effective; usually in combined operations (as compared with an assault rifle or a pistol).
The main purpose of an MBT is to provide heavy firepower and support to infantry at medium ranges (~5Km) with direct fire. The purpose of an IFV is to transfer infantry safely into harm’s way and stay there to help in the fight. In fact MBTs should NOT enter cities unless absolutely necessary and ALWAYS with infantry support – remember what happened to Russian armoured columns in Grozny.
The video below from Syria indicate the folly of driving around in cities on your own:
After the end of WWII and the formation of NATO and the Warsaw pact two distinct philosophies of armoured battle were developed. These philosophies played a pivotal role on how MBTs and IFVs were designed until the early 2000s and after the second Gulf war.
NATO’s doctrine was to hold the line against numerically superior forces thus emphasis was placed on armour and ergonomics. The NATO doctrine stipulated that MBTs and IFVs would operate under heavy air-force and artillery cover with the probable use of tactical nukes to thin the Soviet numbers. Reserves were supposed to be utilised to fill possible gaps or take advantage of possible openings for a counter attack.
On the other hand, Soviet philosophy was to “lower battlefield elevation by at least 3m using artillery and then unleash hundreds of pieces of armour in the plains of Eastern Europe and not stop for whatever reason” as it was eloquently put by Russian officers I talked with. The idea was to quickly overrun the NATO defences thus negating the ability of air support due to proximity and for that purpose the reserves were to be used to enhance the units that broke through and not the units that stalled (Russian military doctrine accepts the fact that there is no war without casualties).
The two schools of armour design
The effects of these two philosophies are visible in the designs of that era: the M-48, M-60, M-1 tanks are huge, likewise is the M2/M3 IFV. (IFVs are supposed to match the MBTs as they are operating together and should be able to keep up with each other). Germans with the Leopard 1, Leopard 2 MBTs and Marder IFV are a bit in the middle giving a little more emphasis in mobility; still they are way too heavy.
General characteristics of all the aforementioned is heavy weight (due to the need for better armour), 105mm (early models) to 120mm (later models) main gun (25mm – 30mm for IFVs) with 12.7mm and 7.62mm machine guns as secondary armament. In fact the M-48 and especially the M-60 are so tall that it is difficult to hide them behind hills (thus the M1 being more streamlined). Standard crew is 4 for MBTs (Driver, Commander, Gunner and Loader) and 3 for IFVs. (Driver, Commander, Gunner). The turret design in western tanks has evolved from an oval bubble (M-48, M-60) to turrets utilising sharp corners (M1, Leopard 2).
Russian tanks on the other hand are smaller in all dimensions due to the mobility requirement plus the fact that they have adopted autoloaders. This also reduces the crew number to 3 people (Driver, Commander and Gunner). Since the T-64, the armament of Russian tanks has been largely the same: 125mm primary gun, 12.7mm NSVT and 7.62mm PKT machine guns; each generation improving upon the previous one. Turrets have evolved from a circular design (T-62) to circle with steep edges (T-90) to sharp corners (T-14).
M1A2 compared to T80U. Russian tanks could always utilise the environment better due to size.
Saudi tanks against Houthi in Yemen. Look how easy it is to pick an M-60 from the background while “hiding” and again the folly of operating without infantry. The other tank in the video is a French-made AMX30B2 used by the Saudis.
T90 vs Leopard 2 vs Abrams Notice the difference in turret design philosophy.
Frontal comparison of modern MBTs. Leopard 2A5 onwards has a completely redesigned turret.
Specifications of modern MBTs
Contrary to its Western counterparts, the BMP series of IFVs features higher calibre guns as primary armament (reaching 100mm on BMP3) with 7,62mm and the 30mm being secondary armament. This heavier firepower is needed as the IFVs are supposed to fight next to the infantry; in fact the BMP3 is unique in this aspect because its armament complex can fire to an elevation of +60 degrees. The reason for this is to engage the odd infantry man with an RPG suddenly appearing from a balcony above you. The down side of having big guns is that there is the need for extra supply chain of munitions.
So, which one is better?
There is a saying at armour school: The best tank is the one with the best crew. This was proven time and again in battle; I urge the readers to have a quick look at Michael Wittmann and the battle of Villers-Bocage on the 13/06/1944. This day is known to tankists as “The day of the Tiger”. Russia organises every year a tank biathlon which is a good indication of the level of training in some areas like driving skills, loading procedures etc but not field repair techniques by the crew. Plus it can demonstrate different tactics in common tank “problems” (for example shooting while stationary which increases accuracy but makes you a target vs shooting on the move).
Generally, in terms of vulnerability the rear of the vehicle is the most vulnerable, followed by the top (hence the existence of A-10 and SU-25), sides and finally the front. Another saying from armour school: Don’t show your ass to the enemy. You are going to get shafted.
Western MBTs have slightly better protection and until the introduction of Thales’s Catherine FC thermal imager in the T-90 (T-80 can be upgraded with it) they enjoyed far better night fighting capabilities. For reasons unknown until Russia cooperated with France in creating the Catherine series, it was suicide to fight at night in a Russian tank.
In terms of munitions, both sides are more or less equal with top of the line shells able to achieve hard kills at 5Km. Russian 125mm shells come in two pieces (propellant and shell) whereas NATO 120mm shells are a single piece so that the loader can load faster. Russian tanks enjoy a small advantage here as the autoloader can sustain a constant rate of fire as opposed to a human loader which will become tired at some point. Russian designers also came up with a novel design for their 7.62mm and 12.7mm bullet cartridges. Since these calibres are used by both NATO and Russia, the Russian machine guns can use NATO munitions while thanks to the special design of the bullets NATO machine guns cannot use Russian ammo, thus giving a small logistics advantage to Russian armour.
Russian guns can also fire guided missiles although the usefulness in the battlefield is still debated as the launching vehicle has to maintain target lock (thus be immobile) until the missile hits the target. Therefore while in theory a BMP3 can kill a Leopard 2 in practice this is difficult. Consider that the most advanced ATGM the BMP3 can fire is the 9M117M1which has a maximum range of 5.5Km. However target acquisition usually takes place around 5Km and to fire a laser-guided missile (SACLOS) you need to be standing still and have a clear line of sight. Which means the enemy can see you. Now ATGMs are fast, but even the fastest needs around 10 seconds to travel to the maximum distance. On the other hand, an armour piercing round (APFSDS) fired from L44 (gun used in M1 and Leopard 2) and L55 (modernised gun for Leopard 2) travels at anything between 1500m/s to 2000m/s (depending on temperature, wind, gun and a lot of other conditions). Therefore the tank gunner, if it spots the BMP3 early enough can acquire target (1.5 seconds) and fire a shot which will need only another 3 seconds to hit the target. And even though kinetic energy shells loose energy over distance, the BMP3s armour isn’t powerful enough to stop a modern APFSDS round. And SACLOS missiles have the downside of missing the target if the laser lock is gone even for a second (same applies to wire-guided missiles like MILAN and TOW; damage or cut the wire and they are gone).
On the other hand, the 25mm and 30mm cannons sported by Bradley and Marder have no hope of destroying a T-80 or a T-90 let alone a T-14 Armata on a frontal assault, which is why they sport ATGM launchers and these ATGMs are subject to the same limitations as the BMP3. Usually the cannons in these IFVs are used to target the optical complex of the gunner as an attempt to blind the enemy tank (no optics => can’t fire) while making their escape. In theory, a barrage of 30mm can kill a tank if and only if is fired at the most vulnerable areas (say rear) at very close distances (less than 1Km). This is something which no sane IFV commander will do.
As the BMP3 can withstand 30mm ammo only in the front quarter, Russia has beefed up T-15 and Kurganets-25 while replacing the 100mm cannon with Kornet-EM launchers which have a reported range of 8Km thus giving them a fighting chance against tanks.
Still, an ATGM is a potent weapon at the hands of infantry as they present far less a target than a vehicle and can hide much easier. Combined with proper training – mainly when to fire, at what and where on the target to aim – ATGM teams can be devastating as experienced by Merkava IVs in Lebanon. It is also rumoured that the US lost quite a few M1s in Iraq to militias carrying classic RPG launchers but equipped with Chinese-made advanced AT rockets. The militias supposedly got close to the M1s taking advantage of the terrain and fired from close distances (<150m) at the rear of the Abrams to disable it.
Inside the turret now, NATO tanks are generally more ergonomic and with more electronics than Russian tanks. In fact, one can describe the turret of the T-80 as Spartan in comparison. Once the firing control system is started the gunner in a T-80 can operate the turret, load shells and fire any gun using a total of 2 levers and 5 buttons.
Since the Russians were aware that NATO would not hesitate to use tactical nukes in Eastern Europe, their tanks are designed to operate in an environment of high radiation and EM interference. Characteristically the navigation system in a T-80 has ZERO electronic components. Another internal difference is the firing mechanism. Western tanks typically use an electrical system for firing the main gun (not sure for M1Ax and Leopard 2s) whereas Russian tanks utilise an electrical and a mechanical firing mechanism which provides a failsafe. From experience it takes a second for a trained gunner to switch from electrical to mechanical firing.
Russians also have the ability to drop the BMP family IFVs by air. While a Bradley weights 27.6 tons and a Marder 1A5 37.4 tons, a BMP3 is only 18.7 tons. This allows for the highly risky (yet effective if done properly) tactic of dropping BMP3s with parachutes while the infantry is in the vehicle. Also all Russian IFVs are designed with the ability to swim across lakes and rivers with little or no preparation (BMP3 employs hydro jets for this).
A distinct advantage of Russian MBTs is the use of active protection systems since the T-80. The first of these systems was Shtora and was deployed on the T-80. It includes a combination of detectors, jammers and special smoke grenades with intent to confuse and distract incoming anti-tank missiles (like MILAN and TOW) or force the gunners / missile operators to lose sight of the tank long enough for it to escape. This system does require sufficient training though to be effective. More modern systems enjoy a higher degree of automation and can employ hard-kill options even for incoming anti-tank shells. While western countries have developed such systems, their use is almost non-existent in NATO tanks.
Propulsion wise most Russian and NATO tanks employ diesel engine and have similar range performance. The only exceptions are the T-80 and M1 which use multi-fuel gas turbines (little jet engines). In my view this is a mistake as these engines are more complicated in their maintenance as the mechanics are forced to think in operating hours vs operating mileage. Moreover, jet engines are thirstier when idle and in a battlefield Jet-A1 fuel is much harder to come by as opposed to diesel. Yes, the engines can consume anything but experience with the T-80 has shown that if the fuel is not clean enough problems arise. Thus the T-90 and Armata are using diesel engines. Finally, as an MBT will be in service for 20 or 30 years it stands to reason that upgrades to the armour or other things that add weight will take place. Therefore the engine needs to be able to grow along with the tank to maintain the kinematic characteristics (although more weight => bigger output from the engine => possibly new gearbox to handle the output and if you reach that point it is time to design a new tank).
Video: a Syrian T-72s trapped in a city street. Interesting is the number of hits this T-72 can withstand.
Video: A nice and rare documentary of Russian equipment in battle with embedded English subtitles. Starting at 3:55 there is an interview with a Russian tank commander during the fighting in Grozny, 1996.