Hundreds of Russian tanks are believed to have been destroyed since Moscow launched its offensive, with British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace estimating on Monday that he had lost up to 580.
But Moscow’s problems go beyond the sheer number of tanks lost. Experts say battlefield footage shows Russian tanks are suffering from a flaw Western militaries have known for decades and call the “jack-in-the-box effect.” Moscow, they say, should have seen the problem coming.
The problem is how tank ammunition is stored. Unlike modern Western tanks, Russian tanks carry multiple shells in their turrets. This makes them very vulnerable as even an indirect hit can set off a chain reaction that detonates their entire ammo store of up to 40 shells.
The resulting shock wave may be enough to blow the tank’s turret as high as a two-story building, as seen in a recent video on social media.
“What we’re seeing with Russian tanks is a design flaw,” said Sam Bendett, adviser to the Russia Studies program at NAC and deputy senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
“Any successful hit…quickly ignites the ammunition causing a massive explosion, and the turret is literally blown away.”
The flaw means the tank’s crew – usually two men in the turret and a third at the wheel – are sitting ducks, said Nicholas Drummond, a defense industry analyst specializing in ground warfare and a former Army officer. British Army.
“If you don’t come out in the first second, you’re toast.”
The jack-in-the-box effect
Drummond said explosive ordnance causes problems for almost every armored vehicle Russia uses in Ukraine. He gave the example of the BMD-4 infantry fighting vehicle, usually manned by up to three crew members and capable of carrying another five soldiers. He said the BMD-4 was a “moving coffin” that was “just obliterated” when hit by a rocket.
But the design flaw in its tanks should be particularly irritating to Moscow, as the problems have been so widely telegraphed.
They came to the attention of Western militaries during the Gulf Wars against Iraq in 1991 and 2003, when a large number of Russian-made T-72 tanks in the Iraqi army suffered the same fate – turrets torn off to their bodies in anti-tank missile strikes.
Drummond said Russia failed to learn lessons from Iraq and as a result many of its tanks in Ukraine had similar design flaws with their self-loading missile systems.
When the The T-90 series – the successor to the T-72 – entered service in 1992, its armor was improved, but its ammunition loading system remained similar to that of its predecessor, leaving it just as vulnerable, said Drummond. The T-80, another Russian tank participating in the invasion of Ukraine, has a similar ammunition loading system.
There are a few advantages to such a system. Bendett of the Center for a New American Security said Russia chose the system to save space and give tanks a lower profile, making them harder to hit in combat.
Western militaries, however, had been spurred into action by the fate of the T-72 in Iraq.
“(The Western military) all learned from the Gulf War and seeing tanks killed during that time, that you have to compartmentalize ammunition,” Drummond said.
He pointed to the US Army’s Stryker infantry fighting vehicles developed after the first Iraq War.
“It has a turret that sits on top, and that turret doesn’t go into the crew compartment. It sits purely on top, and all of the ammo is inside that turret,” he said. he declares. “So if the turret is hit and blown up, the crew is still safe below. It’s a very smart design.”
Other Western tanks, such as the M1 Abrams used by the United States and some Allied armies, are larger and lack a carousel. In the Abrams, a fourth crew member in the tank retrieves shells from a sealed compartment and transfers them to the gun for firing.
The compartment has a door that the crew member opens and closes between each shot from the tank, meaning that if the tank is hit, only one shell is likely to be exposed in the turret.
“A precise hit can damage the tank, but not necessarily kill the crew,” Bendett said.
And Drummond said that the shells used by Western military sometimes burn under the high heat generated by an incoming missile, but they do not explode.
Difficult to replace
However, the site only counts cases where it has visual evidence, so Russian losses could be much higher.
And these losses are not just about equipment. When Wallace, the British Defense Secretary, gave his estimate of 580 tanks lost in the House of Commons, he also said that more than 15,000 Russian servicemen had been killed during his invasion.
It’s hard to know how many of them are tank crews, but what’s clear is that crews aren’t easy to replace.
Training a tank crew can take several months at a minimum and even 12 months can be considered fast, said Aleksi Roinila, a former Finnish Defense Force tank crew member.
And for Russia, replacing hundreds of crews at this stage of the war would be a tall order, especially when the tanks they are supposed to be using are so flawed.