Tanks are immensely important to a land power like Russia. Tanks were what allowed the Red Army to counterattack in World War II, forcing back Germany and her allies all the way back to Berlin. Tanks guarded against the forces of reactionary imperialism during the Cold War, and in the post–Cold War era have formed the backbone of Russia's conventional defenses.
Earlier this month Russian news announced the first deliveries of the T-14 Armata tank, straight from manufacturer Uralvagonzavo’s factory. Armata is exactly what Russia needs: a fresh, new design with room to grow over the next several decades. According to RT, more than one hundred T-14s have been ordered. That’s enough to fill out a tank regiment or brigade, plus spares. Another 2,200 are to follow, enough for seven tank divisions.
The West will be dealing with this tank for decades to come. One year after introduction, what do we know about it?
The basic statistics: Armata is thirty-five feet long, weighs fifty tons and has a maximum road speed of fifty miles an hour. It has a crew of three, with the turret completely unmanned. The tank has a 125-millimeter main gun, 12.7-millimeter heavy machine gun and 7.62-millimeter hull coaxial machine gun.
Like any tank, Armata is a combination of protection, firepower and mobility. The armor is a composite incorporating a new steel alloy known as 44C-SV-W, developed by the JSC Institute of Steel—also known as the NII Stali Institute for Protection—in Moscow. The new steel, made via electroslag melting, is apparently lighter than traditional steel, shaving “hundreds of kilograms” off the vehicle weight.
Weighing just fifty tons, the implication is that Armata deliberately has less armor than tanks such as the Abrams and Challenger II, both of which weigh around seventy tons. This is likely due to Russia’s confidence in its active and passive tank protection systems. Moscow’s new tank is equipped with the Afganit active protection system, which uses a combination of sensors and kinetic energy projectiles to knock down incoming rocket propelled grenades, antitank missiles, and subcaliber projectiles. The tank also features an anti-detection aerosol disperser, a new explosive reactive armor nicknamed “Malachite,” slat armor covering the engine spaces and even an electronic countermine system to prevent antitank mines from detonating.
Another protective measure the crew will appreciate: like the Abrams, main gun ammunition is stored separately away from the crew. This means Armata crews will likely avoid the fate of many Syrian T-72 crews that have met their end after a HEAT warhead detonated their onboard ammunition supply.
T-14 armament is currently the 2A82 125-millimeter smoothbore gun, an improvement on the T-90’s 2A46M gun and according to the Russian Armed Forces 17 percent more powerful than the NATO-standard Rheinmetall 120-millimeter gun. A new armor-piercing, fin-stabilized discarding sabot (APFSDS) kinetic-energy antitank round called Vacuum-1 is being developed. Vacuum-1 is rumored to be able to penetrate one thousand millimeters of rolled homogenous steel armor at two kilometers. For long distance targets at ranges of up to eight kilometers, the Armata will have the 3UBK21 Sprinter anti-tank missile. The autoloader is reportedly capable of firing ten rounds per minute.
According to Russian state media, the Armata will eventually be upgraded to a 152-millimeter gun. This is a similar tack to that the U.S. Army took with the M1 Abrams, which was originally armed with the 105-millimeter L7 gun and later produced with the 120-millimeter Rheinmetall M256.
Originally, U.S. Army observers stated that Armata would be powered by the Chelyabinsk A-85-3A X-diesel engine capable of producing up to 1,500 horsepower. Currently output however is downrated at 1,350 horsepower, and Uralvagonzavod’s director, Oleg Sienko, seems to hedge on the original 1,500 horsepower specification, telling RT, “Upgrading the engine is planned for the future, but we believe that the more you force the engine, the fewer are its resources.” As it stands, Armata has a horsepower-to-weight ratio of 27 to 1—decent by modern standards—but a weight of sixty-five tons will drop that down to a lackluster 20 to 1.
Uralvagonzavod also claims that Armatas will eventually sport their own flying drones for scouting and target acquisition, although it remains to be seen which of the three-man crew would receive the added workload. If that isn’t enough, it also claims the T-14 will eventually go completely unmanned.
As described by the Russian press Armata is a genuine supertank, equipped with the absolute latest devices. Whether any of this information is genuine, rumor or propaganda, one thing is for sure—it all points to a direction in tank development Moscow wants to pursue. It may take Armata just a few years to get there, or a few decades, but given the continuing importance of tanks on the modern battlefield, few can doubt it will actually someday happen.
Kyle Mizokami is a defense and national security writer based in San Francisco who has appeared in the Diplomat, Foreign Policy, War is Boring and the Daily Beast. In 2009 he cofounded the defense and security blog Japan Security Watch. You can follow him on Twitter: @KyleMizokami.
Image: T-14 Armata tank in a military parade on Red Square. Wikimedia Commons/Kremlin.ru