Russia's Mighty T-14 Armata Tank: Should America Be Worried?

Russia's new Armata Tank—actually part of a family of armored vehicles that share a common chassis—has attracted tremendous attention. Can it match all the hype? 

Russia has a new tank… maybe.  Several National Interest articles have followed the development of the Armata family of armored vehicles, a system that breaks with long-term Russian tradition in construction, design, and (probably) means of employment.

How much should the United States worry about the Armata, and where should that concern lie?  The impressive nature of the tank notwithstanding, the U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps are unlikely to encounter it directly on the battlefield.  The bigger questions involve how the Armata might change the global market for armored vehicles, and how the tank might become part of the arsenals of Russian proxies.

What it can do

The Armata represents a family of armored vehicles that share a common chassis.  As with the Israeli Merkava, this maximizes the flexibility of the platform, hopefully saving production and maintenance costs. The influence of the Merkava, which began its production life as a main battle tank but has spawned a series of spinoffs, is key to understanding what Russia is looking for in its new vehicle.

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The main battle tank configuration of the Armata has several strong points. It has a modern armor system, an unmanned turret, and a crew compartment protected from the most common types of enemy fire.  The emphasis on crew protection comes, as many have noted, as part of a new Russian focus on the protection of professional soldiers.

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The flexibility of the Armata frame gives it a chance on the export market.  Different customers have different needs, and the Armata has the potential to solve a lot of problems. This is particularly the case given that the Armata family is, like the Merkava it’s based on, designed to operate across the combat spectrum.  Armies needing low-intensity combat options could use the Armata in some of its configurations, while armies needing a serious, conventional main battle tank could still find much to like.

State of the Russian Tank Industry

Russia used to produce a lot of tanks, and it used to export a lot of tanks. However, it’s fair to say that the ability of contemporary Russian industry to mass produce a new tank is in some question.  Into the early 1990s, Russia mass produced a pair of main battle tanks; the T-80 and the T-90.  Fiscal pressures forced Russia to downsize to only one model in the late 1990s.

The breakdown of an Armata during the rehearsal for the 70th Victory Day parade probably says more about the political needs of the Putin administration than about either the soundness of the platform or the quality of the workmanship.  However, although the T-90 has a decent reputation for reliability, there are solid grounds for concern about the Armata.

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Russia’s military-industrial workforce continues to age, and the defense industry has struggled to bring new human capital into the fold. The dependence of the Russian economy on energy exports exacerbates the problem, making other industries unattractive to talented workers and engineers.  While Russia still enjoys a great deal of success in the arms export market, this success has almost entirely come with upgraded legacy designs.

Moreover, the things that make the Armata interesting also make it dangerous, from a Russian point of view.  Unlike the T-80 and the T-90, both of which borrowed significantly from the T-72, the Armata includes major design features that Russian industry has never produced before.

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Russia has plenty of time to work out these problems, but if problems develop with the Armata, then it could begin to look like the PAK FA.  A year ago, the PAK FA looked like the most dangerous fighter in the world, tougher than the F-22 and cheaper to boot.  Now, Russia is struggling to afford more than a token buy, and the Indian Air Force has grown exceedingly frustrated with production delays and shoddy construction.

Future of the Tank?