Russia’s new T-14 Armata main battle tank has received a lot of attention from analysts attempting to judge whether Russia finally has a tank equal to the top-of-the-line vehicles fielded by NATO.
But the T-15 Armata, a troop-carrying variant using the same hull as the T-14, has been largely overlooked, even though the T-15 is also a radical departure from its predecessors—and arguably one better-adapted to survive the battlefield realities of the Middle East and Eastern Europe than its closest U.S. counterparts.
The Heavy Infantry Fighting Vehicle:
The T-15 straddles two categories of vehicles: the infantry fighting vehicle (IFV), a staple of modern mechanized armies, and the heavy armored personnel carrier (APC), a much rarer type that has only recently gained prominence.
The infantry fighting vehicle was conceived in the Cold War 1960s in expectation of a clash between tank-equipped armies of the Warsaw Pact and NATO. Its underlying premises included:
A: Tanks would be the dominant weapon system in a European battlefield, so the ability to operate with—and against—tanks was critical.
B: Tanks divisions would advance rapidly and penetrate deep behind enemy lines. Therefore, infantry needed fighting vehicles to keep up with the tanks and deal with obstacles that called for infantry support.
C: To sustain the pace of advance, these infantry fighting vehicles needed the armor and weaponry to brush off lightly-armed ambush forces and harassing fire from machine guns and light artillery. They also required protection against nuclear, biological and chemical (NBC) weapons that were expected to see use in such a conflict. However, protection against the numerous anti-tank weapons that would have seen use on a Cold War battlefield was seen as impractical and uneconomical.
The Soviet Union came out with the BMP-1 in the 1960s, a fast-moving, lightly-armored vehicle weighing only fourteen tons that carried eight infantrymen and mounted a turret with an anti-tank missile launcher and recoilless gun. The succeeding BMP-2 traded out the recoilless gun (proven ineffective) for a thirty-millimeter auto cannon for dealing with infantry and other light vehicles. NATO soon had its own equivalents; the U.S. M2 Bradley, for example, has a similar armament but weighs over twice as much because of its heavier armor.
These vehicles proved popular because of the heavy firepower they brought to the table—even though they were also vulnerable to portable rocket-propelled grenades and longer-ranged anti-tank guided missiles, as well as the auto-cannons of other infantry fighting vehicles.
As the Cold War drew to a close, instead of fighting fast-paced battles of maneuver, many modern armies instead became involved in grueling urban combat in places like Beirut, Sarajevo, Grozny, Fallujah, the Gaza Strip, and now Aleppo. Armored vehicles are easily ambushed in urban environments and need to be closely supported by infantry to avoid unacceptable losses.
Furthermore, modern anti-tank weapons can easily penetrate most IFVs. While that might have seemed acceptable in a Cold War superpower battle to the death, modern defense ministries can no longer shrug off losing an entire squad of soldiers in a lightly armored personnel carrier to an insurgent RPG.
It was precisely such an incident that led the Israeli Army to begin converting tanks into “heavy APCs”, troop carriers intended to survive heavy weapons fire. Prior to that, there had been few attempts to create armored personnel carriers (APCs) from tank hulls, the most notable exception being the various Kangaroo APCs used by the British and Canadian armies in World War II.
The early Israeli conversions used the hulls of older T-55 and Centurion tanks, resulting in the Achzarit and Nagmashot vehicle families respectively. However, the most important type is the Namer APC , based on the modern, very heavily armored Merkava IV main battle tank. Namer APCs saw combat in 2014 and survived hits not only from rocket-propelled grenades, but deadly Kornet anti-tank missiles. However, the Namer does not carry heavy armament of its own.
Enter the T-15:
The T-15 is an armored troop carrier based on the T-14 tank chassis, with all the beefed up armor-protection that implies. At 48 tons, it weighs slightly more than the T-90 tank currently in frontline service in the Russian army. Nonetheless, it can attain speeds of forty-three miles per hour, a bit faster than the thirty-ton Bradley fighting vehicle.
In the place of the T-14’s tank turret, the T-15 mounts a smaller remote-controlled Epoch turret identical to the ones mounted on the Boomerang wheeled-APC and the Kurganets infantry fighting vehicles, a neat trick in terms of parts commonality. These latter two vehicles, incidentally, will replace the bulk of the Moscow’s BTR and BMP vehicles, while the T-15 will likely operate in more select formations.
The Epoch turret is equipped with a 2A42 30 millimeter automatic cannon, as well as a PKT machinegun. Four AT-14 Kornet-EM fire-and-forget anti-tank missiles are mounted on side racks. The Kornet is one of the deadliest anti-tank missiles in active use, and has knocked out M1 Abrams and Merkava tanks in combat. There is also talk of mounting a different turret equipped with AT-9 anti-tank missiles and a 57 millimeter autocannon, which would improve the T-15’s ability to take out opposing infantry fighting vehicles. (The 2A42 has difficulty penetrating the frontal armor of a Bradley).
Unlike the T-14, the T-15’s engine is located in the front of the hull to accommodate a passenger compartment in the rear. This has the added benefit of allowing the engine to shield the passengers from hits to the front. The passenger capacity of the T-15 remains unclear, some sources estimating it can carry seven troops and other nine. The nine-man figure would certainly be preferable: small squads, such as the six-men squads carried by U.S. Bradley fighting vehicles, can have difficulty securing a building or establishing a robust defensive perimeter by themselves.
The T-15 retains the same multi-layered defensive systems as the T-14, though in a different configuration. You can read a more detailed analysis of how those systems would defend against an American TOW missile here, but here’s a recap: