Russia's Deadly Armata Tank vs. America's TOW Missile: Who Wins?

Main battle tank T-14 object 148 on heavy unified tracked platform Armata. Wikimedia Commons/Vitaly V. Kuzmin

High-tech face-off.

Still, a tandem charge isn’t fool-proof—so consider now the TOW-2B and TOW-2B Aero (the latter has a longer range of 4.5 kilometers). These ditch the wired system for wireless-guidance using a stealth frequency—still potentially vulnerable to jamming, but at least the operator isn’t literally tethered to the missile. The TOW-2B can pull off a fancy move, rearing up into the sky as it nears the target so it can blast two explosively formed penetrators (EFPs) downwards into the target. This is highly effective because top armor on tanks is notoriously thin. A wireless version of the TOW-2A is also available.

Where do you find TOW missiles? In the U.S. military they’re used in antitank platoons, often mounted on modified light vehicles (Humvees, Strykers, M113s, LAVs), as well as on M2 and M3 Bradley fighting vehicles and Marine AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters. Around thirty other countries field the system as well.

So what of the new T-14 Armata, legendary for surviving the Victory Day Parade Rehearsal of 2015 with only one tank immobilized! If only the notorious F-35 could boast a similar record.

Embarrassing debuts aside, the T-14 looks like it has far superior defensive features compared to its predecessors. Like a Victorian lady, the Armata comes with layers of defensive petticoats designed to ward off unwelcome attention.

First of all, there is the Afganit Active Protection System, which boasts both hard and soft kill capabilities, set in motion by four or five advanced millimeter-wavelength AESA radar panels covering every aspect of the tank, providing warning of approaching projectiles.

‘Soft kill’ defenses seek to coyly misdirect missiles. Four multispectral smoke grenade dischargers can launch counter-measures that not only visually shroud the tank, but also mask the vehicle’s infrared signature and block targeting lasers and radars. The optically-guided TOW doesn’t care about the latter, but if the operator can’t see the tank then there’s a better chance of missing, especially if the tank moves. The countermeasures also work in theory against top-attack missiles, particularly if they aren’t manually guided like the TOW.

Next up, we have the ‘hard kill’ element that swats down impertinent missiles that don’t take no for an answer. The Afganit’s radar system automatically turns the turret turns towards incoming projectiles so that the active-kill system can engage. Five discharge tubes on each side of the turret can shoot rockets aimed at the incoming projectile. The Afganit system is untested in action, but other hard-kill systems such as Trophy have proven effective against missiles in combat.

As for top-attack missiles like TOW-2B, well…the Afganit doesn’t look like it’s designed to shoot upwards.

If the soft and hard kill systems don’t do the trick, then the Armata explodes…that is, it explodes its Relikt explosive reactive armor. The Armata’s radar times the detonation of an reactive-armor brick just before the enemy missile or shell hits, supposedly well enough in advance to neutralize tandem charge warheads. Is that how things would actually work? Only one way find out! Rebels in Syria captured footage of a Syrian T-90 tank appearing to survive the impact of a TOW missile thanks to its older Kontakt-5 explosive reactive armor.

What if our stalwart TOW missile manages to evade all of these defenses? Will it manage to pierce its way into the Armata’s armored heart?

In terms of conventional armor, the Armata is still believed to be a slightly less well protected than an M1A2 Abrams or Leopard 2 judging by its weight of around fifty to sixty tons. (For comparison, an M1 weighs seventy tons). A maximum thickness of 1200mm to 1400mm RHA equivalent versus HEAT warheads has been claimed in Russian sources for the ceramic armor plates. That seems effective against the TOW-2A’s 900 millimeters of RHA penetration, but there’s no telling how even the armor protection is across the turret and hull—(there’s some speculation the turret will be notably more vulnerable) and whether those figures are accurate. In any case, the TOW-2B will still likely find the top armor vulnerable.

Finally, we must consider Armata’s unmanned turret. While an unmanned turret poses some difficulties—including the risk of blinding the crew if the sensors are knocked out—it does mean that there’s a good chance that the crew can survive a hit to the turret. Even if the turret is put out of action and the tank needs to withdraw for repairs, keeping flesh-and-blood crew alive is the name of the game for modern, professional militaries. A tank can maximize the chance it will take any hits on the turret by deploying in a hull-down position—that is, with only the turret peeking above the crest of a hill.

So, how good are the TOW-2A’s chances? Against a wire-guided system, the T-14’s soft kill system will work if the Armata’s radars are effective and the crew is quick enough to move the tank to a new position while the missile is in flight. The active-kill system, however, might have a good chances of taking out the missile if it’s as good as it’s cracked up to be. Relikt ERA will likely further complicate the missile’s chances of penetrating. Even without that, whether the TOW-2A’s shaped charge can penetrate the frontal armor is looking dicey. The bottom line is multiple missiles might be required for one to get through.

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