With the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the spectre of a massive armored Red Army juggernaut smashing its way through the Fulda Gap is long past, but Russia has continued to develop new tanks and armored vehicles. Meanwhile, the United States has continued to rely on upgraded versions of the Cold War–era M1 Abrams and Bradley fighting vehicle.
Russia’s Armata family of armored combat vehicles is a departure from the previous Soviet practice of developing relatively simple, inexpensive but specialized platforms. In fact, the Armata comes in many versions as was envisioned for the U.S. Army’s now-defunct Future Combat System program. There is a tank, infantry-fighting vehicle, a self-propelled artillery piece and a host of other variants. The most prominent of these is the T-14 main battle tank Armata variant.
The T-14 is a complete departure from previous Soviet and Russian tanks, all of which take their design cues from the lessons the Red Army learned fighting the Wehrmacht during the Second World War. Soviet tanks were relatively simple, extremely rugged and produced in mass quantities. Soviet tanks placed less emphasis on matching Western tanks one for one and more on overwhelming the adversary using sheer numbers—crew survivability was a secondary concern. Every Russian tank, including the T-90, followed this basic design philosophy.
The T-14, from all appearances, seems to have abandoned the traditional Russian way of designing armored vehicles. Instead of a relatively simple design, the T-14 is fitted with a number of very advanced features that have never been implemented in an operational tank anywhere else in the world. Moreover, for the first time, the Russian military seems to have placed a premium on crew survivability. That could be a result of Russia’s push to professionalize its military and possibly due to the country’s declining demographics.
What immediately sets the Armata apart from any other operational tank is that it has an unmanned turret. The advantage is that the crew compartment is physically separated from the ammunition. Further, the tank is equipped with passive laminated armor combined with reactive armor and an active protection system. The Afghanit active protection system allegedly includes millimeter-wave radars to detect, track and intercept incoming rounds. Taken in aggregate, the Armata offers much-better crew survivability than any previous Russian or Soviet tank—assuming all of these features work.
While the unmanned turret offers much better crew survivability, it also has some drawbacks. The crew has to entirely rely on their sensors for situational awareness and targeting. That’s not a huge drawback normally, but it could be a problem if the tank is hit and its sensors or electronics are knocked out. That might mean even a glancing blow to the turret results in a mission kill where the tank is drivable, but unable to shoot back.
Versus the M1A2 SEP v2 or the follow-on M1A3, it’s an open question as to which is the better tank. The Abrams is a proven, reliable design that is still being upgraded. The forthcoming M1A3 will be somewhat lighter and more mobile. The U.S. Army also plans to replace the 120mm M256 smoothbore gun with a lighter version.
New guided projectiles might also enable the Abrams to hit targets as far away as 12,000m. But Russian tanks are also equipped to fire anti-tank guided missiles via their main gun—it’s really a question of who sees the other first. Much of how the Armata will perform on the battlefield will depend on how much progress Russia has made in developing the tank’s sensors and data-networks. The tank that sees the enemy first almost always wins the fight.
The Armata is a new design, and it will inevitably have teething problems as it matures. Further, there is the question of whether the T-14 can be produced in numbers—that’s very much a factor, given the state of Russia’s economy. Ultimately, it could prove to be a formidable weapon.
Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @DaveMajumdar.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Vitaly V. Kuzmin