“The barbarian Russian tanks are at the gates!”
Could you not hear the panic in the West over the appearance of Russia’s new T-14 Armata tank? Judging by the headlines over a recent British intelligence assessment—“20 years ahead of anything in the West”—you would think an army of Armatas was about to blitz Berlin and Paris.
Indeed, the T-14 appears to be the tank of the twenty-first century. The West’s top-of-the-line armor—the Abrams, the Challenger, the Leopard 2—are Cold War designs that fundamentally aren’t that different than the Tigers and Shermans of 1945. But Armata is a different kind of armored fighting vehicle, with an unmanned turret controlled by a crew safely cocooned in an armored capsule inside the tank’s hull. It has a 125-millimeter cannon that can shoot guided antitank missiles and a radar-controlled active protection system that shoots rockets at incoming antitank shells. For that extra futuristic touch, the Armata even comes with its own scout drone.
Holy Putin’s Panzers! Is the West’s tank force now as obsolete as chariots and horse cavalry? Is America suffering from an “armor gap” so wide that the First Guard Tank Army could drive through it all the way to the English Channel?
Yet before the West panics and spends billions to develop new weapons to stop Armata—or build Armatas of their own—let’s remember that there is a long history of Russian tanks being less than they appear. While Russian vehicles often seem awesome on paper, they also tend to have flaws that compromise their battlefield effectiveness.
Let’s start with the most famous tank to come out of Russia: the T-34. When the Germans first encountered it in 1941, they were shocked to discover that the “subhuman” Slavs had developed a tank that was bigger, better armed and better armored than anything the Nazis possessed.
We remember the stories of terrified German infantrymen and tank crews watching in horror as their shells bounced off the T-34’s thick hide. What’s less well remembered is that by 1943, the T-34 had itself become prey for German tanks and antitank guns. Some 44,900 T-34s, or 82 percent of those manufactured, were destroyed in World War II, according to some estimates. At Kursk, the Soviets lost five times as many tanks as their opponent.
Some of this can be blamed on inexperienced Soviet crews hamstrung by poor tactics and rigid command and control. But the T-34 also suffered from flaws that compromised an otherwise superb design. Visibility was poor, which made it harder for the crew to spot the enemy and get off the all-important first shot. Until 1944, the T-34 had a two-man turret in which the tank commander had to fire the gun as well as command the tank, unlike German, American and British vehicles with larger turrets that accommodated a separate commander and gunner. Most Red Army tanks in World War II lacked a radio, even though having a radio, as compared to flags or hand signals on a smoky battlefield, was a major reason for why the early German blitzkriegs of 1939–41 were so successful.
A 1942 U.S. Army evaluation of T-34s lent by the Soviets praised the vehicle for its diesel engine and the slope of its armor. But the Americans also found numerous problems, including a weak transmission, weak turret traverse motor and poor air cleaner. KV tank crews were reported to need hammers in order to shift the transmission.
As with later Russian tanks, the ergonomics of the T-34 were poor. Why waste space and resources on making crews comfortable when they and their vehicles were expended like so many rounds of ammunition, to be replaced by fresh ones? But a comfortable crew is also one that is less fatigued and better able to perform tasks inside the cramped confines of a tank. The American M-4 Sherman has been maligned as a mediocre tank, but Red Army tankers who got their hands on Lend-Lease Shermans loved the reliability and comfort of their emchas (M-4s).
Another tank that should have pulverized the Nazis was the late-war JS-2 “Joseph Stalin.” The JS-2 was a hulking, scary-looking bruiser with thick armor, a gigantic 122-millimeter cannon and that distinctive soup-bowl turret that characterized Cold War Soviet designs. Unfortunately, the shells for that big gun came in two pieces that had to be assembled, which gave it a rate of fire of two to three rounds per minute, far less than German or Anglo-American vehicles. The JS-2 also carried just twenty-eight rounds for its main gun, while the German King Tiger carried eighty-six.
The most prolific tank in history was the ubiquitous postwar T-54 and T-55, with as many as one hundred thousand manufactured. Look at any Third World conflict from the 1950s on, and chances are there will a T-55 fighting on one side or both. The T-54/T-55 was the prototypical Soviet tank, simple and compact (hence Soviet tank crews had to be shorter than five feet seven inches). “By the standards of the 1950s, the T-54 was an excellent tank, combining lethal firepower, excellent armor protection, and good reliability in a tank that was lighter and smaller than comparable Western designs such as the British Centurion or the American M48 Patton,” writes tank historian Steven Zaloga.
But as was often the case with Russian tanks, smaller vehicles meant cramped ergonomics that inhibited crew efficiency. A low silhouette, while creating a smaller target, also had an unfortunate side effect. A classic tactic in tank warfare is to go “hull down,” where the vehicle’s hull is protected by a hill or embankment, with just the turret and gun peeking over the crest. However, the shorter height of the T-55 made it more difficult to protect the hull while allowing the gun to fire, while taller Western tanks could fully utilize hull-down tactics.
The T-55’s successor, the T-62, was initially feared by Western observers, who dreaded its 125-millimeter cannon with its smoothbore barrel, yielding higher muzzle velocities than conventional rifled barrels. However, tests of T-62s captured by Israel in 1973 found the gun’s accuracy to be poor and its rate of fire slow. In addition, the gun could not traverse to track moving targets while being reloaded.
Both the T-55 and T-62 lacked special protection for ammunition and fuel inside the vehicle, which made them more likely to explode from hits. As for simplicity, author Andrew Cockburn, in his book The Threat: Inside the Soviet Military Machine, recalls a question from an American sergeant who tested Soviet tanks: “If Soviet tanks are so well designed, how is it that to take out the engine you have to take the turret off first, and that takes half a day?”
Ironically, the external fuel tanks mounted on the rear deck of Soviet tanks didn’t turn out to be as vulnerable as thought, because diesel was less flammable than gasoline when hit.
The poster child for disappointing Soviet armor was the early 1960s T-64. Essentially an upgraded T-62, the T-64 had an autoloader for its gun that eliminated the need for a human to feed shells into it. However, besides eating shells, the autoloader also had a reputation for eating the limbs of unwary crewmen in a cramped vehicle. Soviet defector Viktor Suvorov, whose regiment received the T-64, recalled that “the engine itself was not only bad, it was disgusting. Several teams of workers and engineers, and a gang of designers, were sent along simply to maintain our one tank regiment. But they could not hope to solve problems arising from the engine’s design, try as they might.” As for the cannon, Suvorov recalled it as “an all-powerful gun, that always missed its target.”
Then came the T-72, another design that sparked Western fears when it was deployed in the 1970s. Again, ergonomics turned out to be an issue. More worrying was that ammunition was carried in the crew compartment rather than a separate, protected space. Combat damage caused so many T-72s in Iraq to blow their turrets off that U.S. troops called them “jack-in-the-boxes.”
Russia lost dozens of T-80s—an improved T-64—in Chechnya in 1994. The reason was that the propellant for its shells was poorly protected, which resulted in numerous kills from simple RPG anti-tank rockets.
However, anyone who uses these problems as an excuse for Russia bashing or Western triumphalism should think again. Western tanks have their problems, too. The M-48 had flammable hydraulic fluid that burned after a hit. The Centurion and the Merkava were slow. When the M-1 Abrams was fielded in the 1980s, it was lambasted for being a gas guzzler that got 0.6 miles per gallon.
In that sense, Russia has a better grasp of the fundamentals. The three essential qualities of a tank are firepower, protection and speed, and those are the areas where Russian vehicles are usually quite solid. As one American general said, these tanks aren’t fancy, but they have a gun and they can fight.
But a tank’s actual effectiveness is based on many factors. The issue here is that it’s the little things—cramped turrets, no radios—that compromise otherwise excellent designs. Even if the West produces inferior vehicles—the Sherman and Patton were mediocre vehicles—their effectiveness is enhanced by better sensors, communications and ergonomics. Add in the superior training of Western tank crews, and it becomes obvious why so many Russian tanks burned from Stalingrad to Sinai.