Furthermore, HTS rebels captured two T-90s and used them in action, while a third was captured by ISIS November 2017. On June 2016, Sham Front rebels knocked out a T-90 with a TOW-2. Drone footage taken afterwards shows smoke rising from the turret hatch, and reveals the T-90’s tell-tale Shtora dazzlers. Another video recorded on June 14, 2016, at Aleppo shows a T-90 pulling a sharp turn and racing for cover behind a building—possibly aware of an incoming TOW missile. However, the T-90 is struck in its side or rear armor. The tank explodes, scattering debris high into the air, but stills continues to roll behind cover.
Another T-90A was either hit by a Russian-built Konkurs (similar to the TOW) or the more powerful laser-guided AT-14 Kornet missile near Khanassar, Syria, wounding the gunner. The crew eventually abandoned the vehicle as a fire spread from the machine gun mount into the vehicle, where it began to cook off the 125-millimeter shells on the carousel-style autoloader. The placement of ammunition in middle of the tank alongside the crew, rather than a separate stowage compartment as in the M1, has long been a vulnerability of Russian tank designs.
Rebels, meanwhile, maintained two T-90s in an abandoned brick factory in Idlib province. In April 2017, of the rebel T-90As, reinforced with sandbags on its armor, apparently went on a rampage assisting rebel forces in recapturing the town of Maarden, according to Russian media. Later, one of the T-90As was recaptured by the government, and the other was knocked out—reportedly, by a T-72 tank using a kinetic sabot round in the side armor.
In October, ISIS captured a 4th Armored Division T-90A near al-Mayadeen in eastern Syria when it ventured alone into a sand storm. Then on November 16, 2017, ISIS ambushed a Tiger Force armored column and apparently blasted a T-90A’s turret clean off its hull and left to rot upside down in the desert. The crew was reportedly killed. However, pro-Assad media claims this was the T-90 captured earlier by ISIS, found to be inoperable, and then destroyed for propaganda purposes.
This not to say the T-90’s defensive systems never worked. In one remarkable incident recorded on July 28, 2016, a T-90 tank near the Mallah farms of Aleppo was struck by a TOW missile, but emerged apparently unscathed from the dust cloud thanks to its reactive armor. As the vehicle frantically scuttled away, the TOW crew smacked it with a second missile—which it apparently survived despite sustaining damage.
Janovský says he is not aware of T-90s being lost to shorter-range weapons, “since the regime rarely used T-90s in close combat, especially after two were captured.” The T-90 has in fact been “relatively successful” in Janovský’s opinion, despite losses due to “overconfidence and poor coordination with infantry, which has been a long term problem of the SAA.”
According to Janovský, the T-90’s most useful feature has actually proven to be its superior optics and fire control computer compared to earlier Russian tanks. “T-90s performed well when they had an opportunity to shoot at rebels from long distance or at night, when modern optics and fire-control computer proved to be a major advantage.” Indeed, the T-90A model began receiving French-built Catherine FC thermal imagers in the mid-2000s.
Of course a small number of T-90s was not going to have a great impact on a sprawling civil war that had been raging for years. However, Janovský still see lessons to be drawn from the situation. “The regime was also lucky that rebels never got any modern ATGM that has top attack mode—which would reliable kill T-90.” Examples such of top-attack weapons include the Javelin missile, and the TOW-2B.
“In my opinion, the major issue with T-90 (and most other modern tanks) is a complete lack of hard-kill Active Protection System [one that shoots missiles down], ideally with 360 degrees coverage, but 270 degrees should be minimum. This not only means that it is vulnerable to being disabled by cheap rocket propelled grenades in urban combat but also from Anti-Tank Guided Missiles fired from unexpected angle. When you consider the range of current ATGMs [typically two to five miles], it will be fairly regular occurrence that you get a side shot opportunity against attacking enemy tank from positions across from the of attacked location.”
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.
Sébastien Roblin holds a Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.
This first appeared last month.
Image: Creative Commons.