For Tank Crew Safety

Armed conflicts in Ukraine and Syria where Russian weapons and military equipment are intensely used, along with the ongoing process of retrofitting of the Russian Armed Forces have resulted in a growing interest in the performance of Russian combat vehicles, including tanks.

As experts have been arguing about the survivability of the Soviet main battle tanks ranging from the T-64 to T-90 models for a very long time, we are not going to start a next round of the discussion related to the matter. It is more interesting to discuss the evolution of approaches applied to solve this problem and real solutions by implementing design modifications in the existing and new models of tanks developed in Russia.


By Ilya Kramnik, military columnist

Long Reach

The critical disadvantage of the Russian main battle tanks developed in the 1960-1970s is the low crew survivability in case the tank armor is penetrated – a tight configuration of the tank does not allow to separate the crew from ammunition and fuel at a sufficient distance in order to prevent fatal consequences when the tank’s armored space is hit. Anyway, we will have to take this disadvantage into account for a long time because modified T-72 tanks are planned to remain into service at least until the 2030s while the T-90 tanks that copy the layout arrangement of the base model will remain operational until the 2050s.

Improving the level of protection of the tank (it is possible by improving the active armor, using additional armor, shielding vulnerable parts, etc.) may solve only part of the problem because the capabilities of anti-tank munitions are also constantly improved. Nonetheless, obsolescent tank models are able to survive in today’s combat operations against the enemy using advanced anti-tank weapons.

The solution for these tanks is the change in the method of application and the modernization of optoelectronic equipment. Both solutions are intended to move the tank to deeper levels of the battle disposition in order to reduce the possibility of detection and the probability of hit. On the other hand, a tank equipped with a long-range gun and a modified sighting system or, moreover, with an installed tactical ACS is able to hit long-range targets more effectively, avoiding return fire at dangerous distances and angles.

In part, this resembles the transformation applied to the battle disposition of German tank forces when heavy Tiger tanks appeared on the scene. In 1942-1943, at the initial stage of application of the Tiger tanks, the Germans widely used the Panzerkeil-type formation or the tank spearhead headed by the Tiger tanks, which covered lighter tanks. This battle tactics proved successful for a certain period of time until the Soviet troops on the Eastern Front and the Allies in Northern Africa and later in Italy changed the tactics of anti-tank defence. This resulted in increased losses of new German tanks, in spite of their impressive armor protection. The new tactics of application of the Tiger tanks caused the transformation the tank spearhead formation into the Panzerglocke (bell-like) formation, meaning that the tank spearhead was turned inside. With this formation, the Tiger tanks were positioned inside the formation during defensive or offensive operations while lighter tanks, motorized infantry with APCs and reconnaissance armored vehicles formed the wings of the formation. Their mission was to locate the enemy in order to give the command enough time and sufficient information to make an appropriate decision to apply heavy tanks. The new tactics allowed to reduce losses of the Tiger tanks, making German heavy tank battalions very dangerous armed units that required the army-level forces or even front-level forces to be countered effectively.

This tank battle tactics was not able to save Germany from defeat due to the overwhelming economic superiority of the anti-German coalition. However, like many other developments made by the Germans in that period, this tactics can be applied today, if properly adopted.

 Profound Transformation

However, the task to dramatically improve the T-90 tank’s combat survivability was set and solved by developing the T-90AM modification (its export version is designated the T-90SM). A new fighting compartment allowed to solve part of the main problem, i.e. direct contact between the crew and ammunition. This tank is fitted with the automatic loader similar to the loader installed in the preceding versions, featuring the carousel-type loader for 22 rounds of different types, including guided missiles but unlike the T-72 and early T-90 versions, this mechanism is protected with an armored cover. Additional ammunition, including 18 rounds, i.e. their shells and charges, is divided into two parts. 10 rounds are located in an armored basket in the rear part of the newly designed turret while the remaining 8 rounds are distributed within the fighting compartment in the least vulnerable place. In addition, this modification allowed to dramatically improve the crew’s operational comfort – the removal of ten 125 mm rounds and their ammunition from the armored interior space resulted in a bigger free space inside the tank.

According to available information, the fighting compartment in the modified T-90 tank was accepted by Russian military specialists with enthusiasm, but the requirements for modification of the tank’s running gear hindered the tank acquisition program. This program is likely to be launched in 2027; either as supplies of new T-90AM tanks or as production of appropriate modified systems for tanks produced earlier. This transformation along with the improved sighting and navigation equipment dramatically increases the range of capabilities for a unit equipped with such combat vehicles.

Smart Unmanned Turret

The crucial step to improve the situation could be done only by developing an absolutely new tank and this tank was demonstrated urbi et orbi during the Victory Day Parade on 9 May 2015 to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the victory in WWII. For many decades, the T-14 tank based on the advanced Armata truck-type platform has become the tank with an absolutely new arrangement, featuring its core element – the unmanned fighting compartment, which finally allows to separate the tank crew from ammunition. The crew accommodates the front part of the tank protected with a stringer front armor while the control compartment’s side armor is also reinforced. Inside the tank, the crew is separated from ammunition by means of an armored bulkhead, which allows to dramatically increase the crew’s chances to survive even if the enemy has managed to explode the tank ammunition.

In the new tank’s fighting compartment rounds are also located in an automated loader, the protection level of which has been enhanced by removing the crew from the middle part of the tank. The new arrangement of the Armata tank makes it more protected vehicle than any Soviet tank or a tank made in Western countries, including such benchmarks as the improved Leopard 2 tank (Germany) and the latest versions of the Merkava tank (Israel).

Removing the crew from the Armata’s fighting compartment has forced the designers to solve another problem: without direct access to the gun, the gunner and the tank commander actually have to control the gun remotely. This problem has required a new design solution for the tank control system and the crew awareness and alerting system. In fact, the Armata has become the first stock-produced robotized tank (the tank has passed its prototype production phase and now is at short-production phase) with an increased level of the crew awareness and protection due to the implementation of an additional link of smart hardware between the operator and the machine actuators. How will this design solution change the conditions on the battlefield on the whole? The Armata has not yet seen action.


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