The Buzz

The One Simple Reason We Shouldn't Fear Russia's New Super Armata Tank Just Yet

“The barbarian Russian tanks are at the gates!”

Could you not hear the panic in the West over the appearance of Russia’s new T-14 Armata tank? Judging by the headlines over a recent British intelligence assessment—“20 years ahead of anything in the West”—you would think an army of Armatas was about to blitz Berlin and Paris.

Indeed, the T-14 appears to be the tank of the twenty-first century. The West’s top-of-the-line armor—the Abrams, the Challenger, the Leopard 2—are Cold War designs that fundamentally aren’t that different than the Tigers and Shermans of 1945. But Armata is a different kind of armored fighting vehicle, with an unmanned turret controlled by a crew safely cocooned in an armored capsule inside the tank’s hull. It has a 125-millimeter cannon that can shoot guided antitank missiles and a radar-controlled active protection system that shoots rockets at incoming antitank shells. For that extra futuristic touch, the Armata even comes with its own scout drone.

Holy Putin’s Panzers! Is the West’s tank force now as obsolete as chariots and horse cavalry? Is America suffering from an “armor gap” so wide that the First Guard Tank Army could drive through it all the way to the English Channel?

Yet before the West panics and spends billions to develop new weapons to stop Armata—or build Armatas of their own—let’s remember that there is a long history of Russian tanks being less than they appear. While Russian vehicles often seem awesome on paper, they also tend to have flaws that compromise their battlefield effectiveness.

Let’s start with the most famous tank to come out of Russia: the T-34. When the Germans first encountered it in 1941, they were shocked to discover that the “subhuman” Slavs had developed a tank that was bigger, better armed and better armored than anything the Nazis possessed.

We remember the stories of terrified German infantrymen and tank crews watching in horror as their shells bounced off the T-34’s thick hide. What’s less well remembered is that by 1943, the T-34 had itself become prey for German tanks and antitank guns. Some 44,900 T-34s, or 82 percent of those manufactured, were destroyed in World War II, according to some estimates. At Kursk, the Soviets lost five times as many tanks as their opponent.

Some of this can be blamed on inexperienced Soviet crews hamstrung by poor tactics and rigid command and control. But the T-34 also suffered from flaws that compromised an otherwise superb design. Visibility was poor, which made it harder for the crew to spot the enemy and get off the all-important first shot. Until 1944, the T-34 had a two-man turret in which the tank commander had to fire the gun as well as command the tank, unlike German, American and British vehicles with larger turrets that accommodated a separate commander and gunner. Most Red Army tanks in World War II lacked a radio, even though having a radio, as compared to flags or hand signals on a smoky battlefield, was a major reason for why the early German blitzkriegs of 1939–41 were so successful.

A 1942 U.S. Army evaluation of T-34s lent by the Soviets praised the vehicle for its diesel engine and the slope of its armor. But the Americans also found numerous problems, including a weak transmission, weak turret traverse motor and poor air cleaner. KV tank crews were reported to need hammers in order to shift the transmission.

As with later Russian tanks, the ergonomics of the T-34 were poor. Why waste space and resources on making crews comfortable when they and their vehicles were expended like so many rounds of ammunition, to be replaced by fresh ones? But a comfortable crew is also one that is less fatigued and better able to perform tasks inside the cramped confines of a tank. The American M-4 Sherman has been maligned as a mediocre tank, but Red Army tankers who got their hands on Lend-Lease Shermans loved the reliability and comfort of their emchas (M-4s).

Another tank that should have pulverized the Nazis was the late-war JS-2 “Joseph Stalin.” The JS-2 was a hulking, scary-looking bruiser with thick armor, a gigantic 122-millimeter cannon and that distinctive soup-bowl turret that characterized Cold War Soviet designs. Unfortunately, the shells for that big gun came in two pieces that had to be assembled, which gave it a rate of fire of two to three rounds per minute, far less than German or Anglo-American vehicles. The JS-2 also carried just twenty-eight rounds for its main gun, while the German King Tiger carried eighty-six.