Indeed, Russia is reportedly planning to upgrade its T-90As—which are currently less advanced than the T-90MS’s in service with the Indian Army—to a T-90M variant with new hard-kill active protection systems, upgraded reactive armor, and a more powerful 2A82 main gun. Ultimately, the losses in Syria show that any tank—whether T-90, M-1 or Leopard 2—is vulnerable on a battlefield in which long-range ATGMs have proliferated. Active protection systems and missile warning systems are vital to mitigate that danger—but so are careful tactical employment, competently trained crews, and improved cooperation with infantry to minimize exposure to long-range attacks, ward off ambushers, and provide extra eyes on possible threats.
The interconnected conflicts raging across the Middle East today have amounted to a dreadful human catastrophe with spiraling global consequence. One of their lesser effects has been to deflate the reputations of Western main battle tanks mistakenly thought to be night-invulnerable in the popular imagination.
Iraqi M1 Abrams tanks not only failed to prevent he capture of Mosul in 2014, but they were captured and turned against their owners. In Yemen, numerous Saudi M1s were knocked out by Houthi rebels. Turkey, which had lost a number of M60 Pattons and upgrade M60T Sabra tanks to Kurdish and ISIS fighters eventually deployed its fearsome German-built Leopard 2A4 tanks. ISIS destroyed eight to ten in a matter of days.
While these tanks could have benefited from specific defensive upgrades in some cases, the real lesson to be drawn was less about technical deficiencies and more about crew training, competent morale, and sound tactical employment matter more even than “invulnerable” armor. After all, even the most heavily armored main battle tanks are significantly less well protected from hits to the side, rear or top armor—and rebels with years of combat experience have learned how to ambush imprudently deployed main battle tanks, particularly using long-range anti-tank missiles from miles away.
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One exception to the general tarnishing of reputations has been Russia’s T-90A tank, 550 of which serve as Russia’s top main battle tank until the T-14 Armatas fully enters service. The T-90 was conceived in the 1990s as a modernized mash-up the hull of the earlier mass-production optimized T-72, and the turret from the higher-quality (but operationally unsuccessful) T-80. Retaining a low profile and a three-man crew, (the tank’s 2A46M auto-loading cannon takes the place of a human loader), the fifty-ton T-90A is significantly lighter than the seventy-ton-ish M1A2 and Leopard 2.
When Moscow intervened in Syria in 2015 on behalf the beleaguered regime of Bashar al-Assad, it also transferred around thirty T-90As to the Syrian Arab Army, as well as upgraded T-62Ms and T-72s. The Syrian military could desperately use this armored infusion, as it had lost over two thousand armored vehicles in the preceding years—especially after Syrian rebels began receiving American TOW-2A missiles in 2014. The T-90s were spread out between the 4th Armored Division, the Desert Hawks Brigade (composed of retired SAA veterans led by pro-Assad warlords) and Tiger Force, an elite battalion-sized SAA unit specialized in offensive operations.
In February 2016, Syrian rebels filmed a video of a TOW missile streaking towards a T-90 tank in northeast Aleppo. In a blinding flash, the missile detonates. However, as the smoke cleared it became evident that the tank’s Kontakt-5 explosive-reactive armor had discharged the TOW missile’s shaped-charge warhead prior to impact, minimizing the damage. (This fact was perhaps not appreciated by the tank’s gunner, who in the full version of the video clambered out of an already open hatch and fled on foot.) Nonetheless, the video went viral.
While the T-90A is still outgunned by Western main battle tanks, it does sport number of defensive systems particularly effective verses anti-tank missiles that (all but a few) Abrams and Leopard 2 tanks lack—and anti-tank missiles have destroyed far more armored vehicles in recent decades than tank main guns have.
If you look head on at a T-90A you may notice the creepy “eyes” on the turret—a reliable method of distinguishing it from similar-looking modernized T-72s. These are actually infrared dazzlers designed to jam laser-targeting systems on missiles, and glow a terrifying red color when active. The dazzlers are just a component of the T-90’s Shtora-1 active protection system, which can also discharge smoke grenades that release an infrared-obscuring aerosol cloud. Shtora is integrated with a 360-degree laser-warning receiver which automatically triggers the countermeasures if the tank is painted by an enemy laser—and can even point the tank’s gun towards the origin of the attack. The T-90A’s second line of defense comes in the form of plates of Kontakt-5 explosive reactive armor, which was designed to detonate prior to a missile impact in order to disrupt the molten jet of its shaped-charge warhead and feed additional metal in its path.