What America can learn from Russia's cheap but deadly T-90 tank

Discussion in 'Americas' started by Lions Of Punjab, Feb 9, 2015.

  1. Lions Of Punjab

    Lions Of Punjab Regular Member

    Apr 21, 2013
    Likes Received:
    Ahmedabad, India, India
    The Russian T-90, a hybrid evolution of the T-72 and T-80, weighs in at almost 48 tons, and would lead Russia into battle if a major land conflict erupted today — not a crazy idea anymore. Here's what the Pentagon should learn something from the thrifty, simple and dangerously effective tank?

    The T-90, nicknamed "Vladimir" in its later iterations, came about from post Cold War Russia's initiative to keep only one main battle tank in production, the simpler and more reliable T-72 or the more complex T-80. The resulting T-90 is an effective warrior that balances capabilities and complexity against cost.


    The Russian T-80 main battle tank takes the American A1 Abrams route when it comes to a power-plant, packing a gas turbine engine capable of putting out 1000 hp (versus the Arbams 1500hp). The use of a turbine over a tradtional diesel engine left the tank with decent power but with dismal range. Additionally, this configuration was prohibitively maintenance intensive. In effect, the T-80's logistical demands on the battlefield were a severe hindrance to the effectiveness of the type. In fact, Russia's "turbine tank" was so unpopular that the Russian Armor Ministry apparently swore that they would never support going the turbine route ever again. In later variants, the T-80's thirsty and finicky turbine was replaced with a more traditional diesel engine.

    Where the T-80 shined when compared to the simpler T-72 was in its targeting system and self-protection systems. Still, the T-80 design was vulnerable when it came to high explosive anti-tank (HEAT) rockets that were fired at it from the side. This, along with sub-par training, chaotic logistical support and less than optimal tactics, led to the loss of an unacceptable percentage of T-80s during the First Chechen War of the 1990's. Still, the tank soldiered on in Russian inventory until just last year. As part of Vladimir Putin's initiative to rearm and modernize Russia's military, Russia now relies on upgraded and battle-tested T-72s and the newer T-90 exclusively.

    The T-90 is one logically mean machine. She cuts a low profile and is a marriage of classic soviet simplistic reliability and high tech features. In fact a good, way to explain the T-90 is that it is somewhat of a hybrid concept, combining the reliable and proven chassis of the T-72 with the more advanced turret of the T-80, including its more modern fire control capabilities and support sub-systems. The T-90 is lighter and more nimble than her American counterpart, with the A1 Abrams weighting in at 68 tons compared to the T-90's 48 tons. You read that right, the T-90 is a whopping 40,000lbs lighter than the M1A1 Abrams! The T-90's lower mass results in a smaller, less expensive package, that can do some fairly spectacular maneuvers, whether it be on the open range or in tight urban environments.

    The T-90 is propelled by a supercharged, liquid cooled, four-cycle, 12-cylinder diesel engine with horsepower ratings ranging from around 850 to 1250 depending on the variant. By choosing not to design a gas turbine engine into the T-90, the Russians allowed for a simplified, smaller, cheaper and more reliable design, which makes total sense after their less than satisfactory experiences with the T-80. This power-plant choice also allowed for the tank to have close to double the range of the T-80 under ideal conditions, or close to 400 miles on a single tank of fuel.

    The T-90 packs a gyro stabilized 125MM smooth bore cannon, but unlike her American counter part, she is not relegated to "just" firing armored piercing discarded sabot (APDS), high explosive anti-tank and high explosive fragmentation rounds. The T-90's 125mm can also fire the 9M119 "Refleks" anti-tank guided missile. This laser guided missile can strike ground based and low flying aerial targets at close to double range of the T-90's main gun. Yes, you read that right, the T-90 can shoot guided missiles out of its main gun and can even take down helicopters with those missiles under certain conditions. The T-90's predecessors also had similar capabilities as well, although the system is said to be better refined in the T-90, especially the latest versions. Unlike the hand-loaded Abrams, the T-90 uses an auto loading system for its main gun. Russian tankers have been heard saying that the Abrams is a bolt action while the Russian T-90 is a semiautomatic.

    In addition to the T-90's big cannon, like the Abrams she packs a .50 cal and a 7.62 cal machine gun, but these are both externally mounted, whereas the M1 packs one of its 7.62 caliber machine guns in an internal coaxial mount right next to her main gun. The T-90's .50 cal can be remotely operated from within the tank, a feature that has only recently been added to the Abrams' capability via the Common Remotely Operated Weapons Station (CROWS) upgrade.

    The T-90, in its original form, acquired its target using a day/night sighting system which originally lacked range and fidelity in comparison to its western counterparts. Inferior nighttime targeting capabilities have handicapped Russian main battle tanks for decades. With this in mind, Russia finally looked outside of its borders for a sighting system that could match the versatility and range of their tanks' main guns.

    This came to fruition with the inclusion of the French-built Thales "CATHERINE" target sight installed on later T-90 models. This site, when paired with the T-90's upgraded fire control system and laser rangefinder/designator, gives gunners and commanders the ability to detect targets beyond the range of their weapons, allowing them to have increased situational awareness and the ability for enhanced "fire and maneuver" capability which is crucial for winning on the modern battlefield.


    Although the Russia's main battle tank of choice is much lighter than its American counterpart, it does have good armor and a fairly robust self defensive suite. Different configurations of the T-90 exist, but generally the tank relies on a triad of defense measures to stay alive in combat.

    First, there is the T-90's basic armor, made up of varying composite and metal materials sandwiched together. The current mix of materials Russia is using in its armor is said to be very effective and relatively light, albeit not as effective of the incredibly robust armor the Abrams. Seeing as the T-90 weighs almost a third less, this is hardly a surprise. Russia has learned that "layering" a tank's survivalability measures is more cost effective, and in some cases more operationally effective, than relying almost entirely on one single concept of exotic, expensive and heavy armor plating alone.

    The T-90's second tier of defenses relies on explosive reactive armor (ERA). ERA consists of two armor plates with an explosive charge core sandwiched in-between. This type of armor works against a multitude of attack weaponry, including missiles and rockets that carry high explosive anti-tank warheads, as well as the dreaded sabot round. Sabot rounds are basically cannon shells that separate after leaving the tank's smooth bore barrel, what remains is a thin fin stabilized rod made of dense material like depleted uranium, flying through the air at high speed and into its target. Once the sabot round penetrates a tank's turret, the kinetic force of the dense sabot dart dumping its energy into a small point creates a stream of lava-like molten metal that pours into the tank's cabin. This instantaneously increases the tank's cabin pressure via heating the inside of the sealed turret, thus killing, or should I say cooking, everything inside.

    The idea behind ERA armor is that it explodes outward destroying an incoming munition, or at least greatly depleting its killing potential, just as it is hitting the tank. The whole string of events happens in a fraction of a second. It may sound extremely violent, setting off a bomb on the outside of your own vehicle, but it works, and the charge is designed to fire outward, away from the hull or turret of the tank.

    The T-90's ERA "bricks" give the tank a distinctive, and intimidating look. Additionally, these units have also been added to the roof of the T-90. This is a good thing seeing as modern anti-tank missiles often work in an "indirect attack" mode, where they pop up high just before reaching their target, then dive back down, or detonate while cruising overhead, striking the tank where its armor is usually the thinnest, on its top side.

    Finally, the T-90 packs a robust countermeasure system that is oriented at defeating western style attacks shortly before or as they happen. Known as "Shatora" or "Curtain" in English, this system has a series of laser warning receivers positioned around the tank. Laser range finders and/or laser target designators are key targeting components of modern tanks and attack aircraft. These lasers supply a tank's fire control system the info it need to produce a firing solution during combat. In the air, and even on the ground in some cases, laser designators provide a point in space for a missile or bomb to fly towards and hit.

    Once the T-90's threat warning system detects that it is being "painted," or was "squirted" by a laser, a series of countermeasures aimed to defeat an enemy's targeting process get activated either automatically or manually. First, infra-red and optical dazzlers, located on the front of the tank's turret, are slewed in the direction that the laser energy originated from, in an attempt to blind the enemy tank's targeting sensors. These dazzlers appear red during combat operations and make the tank seem like it has sinister red "eyes" on either side of its main gun. Smoke grenades with a very specific chemical makeup can also be fired off from the turret in an attempt to conceal the T-90's exact location and thus break or keep an enemy from maintaining a weapons lock.

    The T-90 also sports a magnetic mine detection system that uses an electromagnetic pulse to disable mines before the tank runs them over. Additionally, at least some of Russia's T-90s are fielded with the "Nakidka" signature reduction application. This surface treatment is said to greatly reduce the tank's radar and infra-red signature via the use of radar absorbent material (RAM) and infra-red reducing paint and insulation. Seeing as tank detection is more and more reliant on radar, both of a standoff (E-8 J-STARS) and a tactical (AH-64D/E Longbow Radar) variety, applying RAM to the outer surface of Russian main battle tanks could make some sense. Nakidka's infra-red reduction properties are of high value as well seeing as the majority of tactical targeting is done via IR sensors these days. Multi-spectral imagine sensors are slowly eliminating this reliance on strictly IR target systems, as these sensors offer greater resistance to IR suppression and masking.


    When you look at the T-90's unique mix of capabilities and adherence to a clear and conservative design philosophy, the weapon system really does makes great sense. By taking the best attributes of two "legacy" systems, roughly the turret of the T-80 and hull and drivetrain concept of the T-72, and combining that mix with more modern technology, the T-90 represents a truly well rounded solution to the main battle tank equation. It packs reliability, relative simplicity, a comparatively light footprint, a capable main gun and guided missile system, relevant speed, and layered defenses, all at a price that is roughly less than half that of an M1 Abrams.

    America's M1A2 Abrams Main Battle Tank

    Does the T-90 standup to the latest M1A2 Abrams model? No, but dogfighting one-on-one with America's super-tank was not what it was designed to do. In many ways the T-90 is a textbook 80% solution at less than 50% of the price, a concept that has become incredibly relevant in a time when shrinking defense budgets are begrudgingly dictating force structures around the globe.

    Instead of trying to "beat the US" by poorly copying our extremely high cost "100% solution," Russia decided to take what it already had and make it better so that its return on investment actually made sense. For instance, the deletion of a turbine engine lowered the T-90's cost and complexity, and in doing so it kept its design weight down and thus drastically increasing its range and logistical independence, a key operational factor for Russia, a country with the most land-area in the world.

    When you look at the T-90, and what came before it, the T-80, it is intriguing how Russia was able to control the propensity to "grow" their tank's design, not adding weight, unneeded complexity and cost over time, as so many weapon systems tend to do. Instead, they looked at what mattered most and took a balanced approach to offensive capabilities and survivability in relation to cost. This is precisely what so many in America's defense lexicon are pleading for these days, including your author. It is sad that we have continued to produce Abrams tanks when the military already had too many, and a cheaper, lighter, and more rationalized tank concept could better benefit our forces and augment the "Gucci" Abrams already in widespread service. It seems that America's weapons buyers have an incredibly short attention span and a spastic, if not bipolar vision of what our force structure should look like. It is either a fast, wheeled and comparatively lightly armored APC with a tank's cannon, the Army's Stryker Mobile Gun System, or an ultra-heavy and turbine powered A-1 Abrams.

    What America Can Learn From Russia's Cheap But Deadly T90 Tank
  3. W.G.Ewald

    W.G.Ewald Defence Professionals/ DFI member of 2 Defence Professionals

    Sep 28, 2011
    Likes Received:
    North Carolina, USA
    This is the conclusion of the article in question.

    The question then is whether any future war will be a long one.

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