Putin’s super tank or just Kremlin propaganda?

Western military officials got nervous when the T-14 “Armata” first drove over Moscow’s Red Square in 2015. Seven parades and a war of aggression later, not much is left of the myth of “the best battle tank in the world”.

New design, modern armor and armament, while being lighter and more mobile than its Western counterparts: With the T-14 “Armata”, Russia seemed to be catching up with the NATO armies in terms of armor technology. In the British Ministry of Defense there was even talk of a “revolution in tank development” when the first pictures of the T-14 became public in 2015. But now the myth of the Russian high-tech device has faded.

Three examples of the T-14 were again displayed in Moscow at the parade on May 9th. However, the model is said to have only recently been on the battlefields in Ukraine. The Russian army relies on the T-72 and T-80 tank models instead of their most modern equipment. British intelligence believes that the T-14 tanks were in such poor condition that the armed forces in Ukraine would have been reluctant to accept them. Even before Putin’s war of aggression, experts were pointing out problems with the T-14 that could explain its long absence from the war zone.

The T-14 differs significantly from its predecessors, but instead of 2,300 units, no more than 20 of the modern main battle tanks have been delivered.
The T-14 differs significantly from its predecessors, but instead of 2,300 units, no more than 20 of the modern main battle tanks have been delivered. (Source: Shamil Zhumatov/Reuters images)

For the crew, T-14 “Armata” is significantly safer

In terms of its technical data, the T-14 is actually one of the most effective main battle tanks in the world. It is the first Russian tank whose turret is unmanned, comparable to the US tank M1 Abrams. This design is significantly safer for the crew: in the previous models of the T-14, the crew sits in the turret directly above the ammunition; if a projectile hits there, the ammunition often explodes and the turret blows up – an all too familiar sight in the Ukraine war. The crew usually has no chance with such a hit.

Instead of a flat and compact shape to protect the crew, the developers of the T-14 opted for stronger armor. According to Russian information, composite armor made of ceramic and a new type of steel alloy should also protect the T-14 against anti-tank weapons – without making the tank too heavy. With a combat weight of around 55 tons, the T-14 is significantly lighter than a German Leopard 2 with 72 tons or a US Abrams with 73 tons – and that with almost the same size. Less weight means more speed and range.

Only 20 instead of 2,300 copies of the T-14 delivered

Experts were also impressed by the explosive reactive armor “Malachite”, which is said to be installed as standard on the T-14. “Malachite” involves the application of explosives between layers of metal and composite on a tile. These tiles can then be attached to particularly vulnerable areas of the tank. When an enemy projectile hits such a “malachite” tile, the explosives inside it detonate, partially offsetting the effect of the attack.

But as impressive as the technical data of the “Armata” are, it has not yet made it into series production. The Russian army originally wanted to purchase 2,300 units by 2020, but so far a maximum of 20 units are said to have been put into service. In 2018, the Kremlin said that series production of the T-14 was not necessary – the T-72, T-80 and T-90 models could finally compete with NATO tanks, according to the Deputy Prime Minister for Defense and Space Industry , Yuri Borisov.

Russia loses modern T-90 tank in Ukraine

In addition to the high production costs of around seven million euros per piece, western sanctions are also likely to stand in the way of mass production of the T-14. After Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, the West imposed sanctions in the technology sector, making it difficult for Russia to get hold of many components of the T-14: “The costs for the project have exploded, Russia had great problems getting the T-14 into series production produce – also because many special materials and sub-components from the West are used for the battle tank that are no longer available,” military expert Gustav Gressel told the “Spiegel” in May.

Another modern tank that saw service in Ukraine was a T-90M MBT. This is based on the same chassis and design as the T-72 and T-80 models, but should be significantly less vulnerable thanks to modern electronics and armor. But that too has been proven to be a myth: in the spring, just days after it was first sighted on the battlefield, Ukrainian troops destroyed the T-90 near Kharkiv.

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