Why the T-14 Armata presents a threat, regardless of operational capacity
To dismiss the T-14 main battle tank (MBT) as a capable piece of hardware by claiming high cost prohibits widespread deployment is risky. My previous article ‘Has the T-14 Changed the Game?’ did not seek to provide an in-depth comparison of how the T-14 outmatched contemporary NATO tanks detail for detail, nor did it seek to advertise the T-14 as the modern-day Tiger1. This article will not be an evaluation of NATO or Russian doctrine, but an explanation of how the T-14 represents a technical progression in armoured warfare which NATO is currently lagging behind in. Much of the criticism of the article came from the conclusion that a lack of credible information and statistics on the cost and numbers of T-14s in Russian service reduced the aim of the article to fearmongering and misinformation. The cost and manufacturing factors are both valid but did not fall within the scope of the article. Rather, the aim was to provide an example of how NATO is losing ground to those willing to innovate, regardless of whether such innovations, like the T-14, are widely adopted. This viewpoint is not limited to just to the T-14, moreover it can be applied to armoured fighting vehicles (AFV) as a whole. As Alaric Searle notes in his 2017 work, Armoured Warfare, continue Russian emphasis on the development of armoured forces is well founded:
Despite the rise of helicopters and ATGMs, the future of the tank and its mechanised support vehicles does not appear to be in any great danger as the most important weapons system in ground warfare. The employment of heavy armoured forces in the fighting in Eastern Ukraine since 2014 is but one example of the continued use of mechanised units in Europe2.
Searle continues, arguing that ‘wherever armies are not in a position to rely on vast and expandable infantry forces, armour will remain as the key component in their force structures.3 This can be further supported by the use of AFVs in Syria and Iraq, providing an example of how innovations such as homemade modifications and vehicles are of immense value to armies with limited manpower.4
Cost has been one of the main arguments against large scale deployment of the T-14. The core problem with this argument is that it undervalues what the T-14 represents outside of an operational capacity. The T-14 should not be dismissed purely because the programme may never develop into a fully-fledged mainstay of the Russian military. The Russian Deputy Prime Minister, Yury Borisov stated in July that a unit cost of $4m was high enough to force the Russian military to reconsider mass production of the tank, instead stating that focusing on the T-72B3 programme would secure a long-term competitor to equivalent NATO tanks.5 Similar to examples of ambitious military programmes cancelled due to economic factors, lessons can be learned from the T-14 programme.6 Chiefly, the T-14 programme highlights a resurgence in Russian armoured innovation which had stagnated since the economic downturn of the Cold War.
In comparison to the Russian resurgence, Western innovation has stalled. A 1998 article published in Armor by Tom J. Meyer highlights just how indecisive Western nations are when it comes to armour innovation post-Gulf War. Meyer’s article focuses on the development of Active Protection Systems and how the Russian development of the ‘Arena’ APS presented a trend which as the article explores, was identified by Western nations, but unlike the ‘Arena’ or the Israeli ‘Trophy’ system, none of these passed the developmental stage.7
The T-14 may never be deployed in large numbers, but quantity should not be the marker for success. Quality and innovation of AFVs determines their success. The German Tiger was never deployed in sufficient numbers to match the Sherman, but it provided a tactical advantage which the Allies could not match until the later years of the war. It must be understood that quality remains key to the doctrine of many armies, NATO members and Russia included. Searle is correct in his assertion that manpower is the limiting factor in modern warfare, it is AFVs which must develop and innovate to ensure the safety of crew and passengers.8 Therefore, as technology develops, this warrants innovations like the T-14 to expand upon new technologies and counter threats, by utilising systems like APS to negate threats posed by the Javelin amongst others; using unmanned turrets to protect crew and reduce attrition; ensuring that both weapons and FCS are capable of ensuring crews can fight effectively against all manner of threats both from AFVs and infantry.
Post-Soviet experiences in Chechnya for example demonstrated this stagnation. In comparison to the experiences of Western tanks in the Gulf War, Russian tanks deployed to Chechnya suffered greatly. In a 2001 article published in Armor, Adam Geibel identifies that key factors of Russian tank losses during the Second Chechen War (August 1999 – April 2000) ranging from mechanical unreliability, a lack of sufficient protection systems in the form of Explosive Reactive Armour (ERA) and fire suppression systems greatly contributed to the losses experience by Russian forces.9 Two explanations can be attributed to the cause of these factors; the first being ageing equipment, greatly affected by the second, financial cuts stemming from the collapse of the Soviet Union and the economic crisis within Russia at the time.
Compare to this to Western experiences, mainly of those within the British and American armoured forces. During the 1991 Gulf War and 2003 invasion of Iraq, the tanks deployed by British and American forces were incredibly modern and greatly outmatched their Iraqi armoured counterparts. As with Russian tank losses in Chechnya, the greatest threat came from IEDs and portable anti-tank weapons including modern RPGs and ATGMs. Unlike the ageing Russian tanks, American M1 Abrams and British Challenger tanks were well protected with further improvements through additional armour kits aimed at neutralising these threats.
Given the lessons learned by the Russian military in Chechnya and the continued evolution of the T-72 and T-90, this does pose the question as to why the T-14 exists from a technical aspect when there is still sufficient scope for the T-72 and T-90 to develop. It would therefore be more astute to recognise the T-14 as an evolved technology demonstrator, providing several new innovations which can be incorporated onto existing platforms, alongside the T-14. Like the Israeli Merkava, the hull of the T-14 has been adapted into an infantry fighting vehicle (IFV) and a self-propelled artillery system (SPG).10 Furthermore, several key innovations the T-14 provides could easily be reproduced for existing T-72 and T-90s in Russian service, providing the same benefit but at a reduced unit and development cost. The unmanned turret for example is nothing revolutionary, the American Stryker Mobile Gun System (MGS) mounts a 105mm gun in an unmanned turret; Jordanian Challenger 1 tanks have been trialled with unmanned turrets, remote controlled weapon stations (RCWS) have become commonplace to negate the threat to an exposed crewman. Further survivability improvements like APS are simple to implement, having been proven with Israeli AFVs in Gaza. The T-14 arguably brings little improvements in lethality, but it keeps with the standard 125mm calibre main gun commonly used in Russian tanks. It remains capable of firing kinetic tank munitions and guided missiles in line with the T-72. Mobility also remains within the norm, keeping with a reliable diesel engine while opening the possibility of electric or hybrid powerplants and transmission.
Compare this to recent Western developments. The British military recently unveiled the ‘Black Night’ demonstrator based upon the existing Challenger 2, aimed at increasing situational awareness and survivability. Notable features include the Israeli ‘Iron Fist’ APS, an independent commander sight and an overhauled fire control system.11 ‘Black Night’ aims to fulfil the requirements of the Challenger Life Extension Programme, which would see the Challenger 2 in British service until 2035. This does demonstrate an understanding by the British military that a revitalised Russian armour programme presents a threat, but does not provide any assurances that the ‘Black Night’ upgrade will be final. Moreover, there are no indications that past 2035, the Challenger 2 will either be replaced, or further upgraded.
Like the ‘Black Night’ upgrade, the T-14 is not ground-breaking. However, it does highlight the necessity to modernise and reform current Russian armoured assets. Instead of pursuing wholesale upgrades to the T-72 which will become outdated in the future, the T-14 provides a potential means of further advancements alongside similar AFV development. This does mean that teething problems must be identified and resolved to achieve an acceptable level of overall reliability. The T-14 ‘broke down’ during the unveiling at the 2015 Victory Parade in Moscow. According to announcements following the breakdown, this was planned by Russia as a demonstration of armoured recovery, but questions were raised over whether the T-14 was mechanically reliable.12
This is not an issue unique to the T-14 as the same can be said of many AFVs throughout history. The British Chieftain tank is just one of many examples, but is unique in being the only tank to be powered by a ‘multi-fuel’ engine which suffered from a terrible reliability record. This somewhat detracted away from the modern armour arrangement and armament which was uncommon in early Cold War tanks. The engine remained a flaw which was never fully addressed despite Chieftain remaining in British service until the introduction of the diesel-powered Challenger in 1983.13 Therefore, it would be hasty to judge the T-14 on a single mechanical failure, however intentional, arguably the main judge of how the T-14 would perform is through combat.
Without any notable combat experience, the T-14 cannot be fully validated as an effective combat machine, but the same can be said for many post-Cold War programmes. For example, the American F-22 fighter has never been involved in air-to-air combat as per the role it was designed for, therefore to attribute titles claiming it is the most modern and effective air superiority fighter without having seen any aerial combat is reliant upon data sheets and exercise results. For defence commentators to either overinflate or dismiss the T-14 without having been proven in combat against its contemporaries detracts from the clear example of innovation that the T-14 presents. Comparatively Western militaries are producing technology demonstrators such as the Challenger 2 ‘Black Night’ containing features, such as an APS, which are fitted as standard on Russian or Israeli tanks without providing any concrete projections on whether the project will progress to a production scale.14
The debate over APS demonstrates a clear divide in opinion. An APS will not protect against a kinetic tank round whereas ERA will mitigate large amounts of that energy, despite the claims that the latest APS can do so.15 The function of an APS is to intercept low velocity anti-tank missiles and rockets. The Russians have chosen to integrate an APS into the T-14 because the technology has been proven by the Israeli military for the high value to cost ratio. Compare this to more recent American and British solutions in Iraq and Afghanistan to rocket propelled grenades (RPGs) and ATGMs. Slat (or cage) armour is welded to lightly armoured vehicles to protect them against such attacks. Slat armour may be a crude but effective way of defeating these threats, but the manpower and resources required to install, and repair slat armour is far higher than a vehicle fitted with an APS when taking into account operational availability. Israeli experiences in Lebanon and Gaza drove the need for a multi-use and effective defence against RPGs and ATGMs, resulting in the Trophy and Iron Fist hard kill systems. Prior experiences in Afghanistan and Chechnya also motivated the Russian military to develop an APS, culminating in the Arena system.
With the developments in APS, a trend can be identified with the co-development of anti-tank weapons. One of these is the American FGM-148 Javelin ATGM. The Javelin can operate on a ‘top-attack’ mode designed to attack the weakest point of the tank and therefore bypassing frontal or side armour which has been supplemented with ERA. Debatably, if American or NATO designers were so confident in their current stock of anti-tank weapons, such as the TOW guided missile and AT4 light anti-tank weapon (LAW), the development of the Javelin would be unnecessary. So highly rated is the Javelin it its capabilities, the Ukrainian military recently purchased thirty-seven Javelin launchers to remedy a large deficit in capable anti-tank weapons following fighting with Russian backed separatists.16 A 2017 article by Brigadier Ben Barry for the International Institute of Strategic Studies highlights how Norway has recognised the value of APS in defeating current anti-tank weapons, necessitating the need for the Norwegian military to purchase Javelin in order to remain combat capable against APS equipped AFVs.17Given the level of protection provided by the current T-72B3M and the projected protection of the T-14, arguably for the T-14 to make use of an integrated APS system and electronics suite, which theoretically could also be mounted to any AFV in the Russian inventory, is based on proven results and a recognition in the development of anti-tank weapons to counter these threats.
Barry notes the continued importance of kinetic weapons mounted on AFVs. Current NATO 120mm guns and ammunition are arguably capable of defeating Russian adversaries despite being untested against the T72B3 or T-14. An APS capable of intercepting high-velocity tank rounds is some time away, but that does not mean NATO can remain reliant on the current iterations of the 120mm and 105mm gun, nor can it move away from further development of AFV guns.18 Comparisons can be drawn with inter-war and Second World War armoured development. The 75mm gun mounted to the American M3 Grant and M4 Sherman were incapable of defeating German Tiger tanks at range, requiring near suicidal close-range attacks en-masse. This forced the development of guns like the British 17-pounder and the American 76mm M1 to combat these threats. Further comparisons can be drawn with the 1991 Gulf War, from a technical aspect, the American M1A1 and British Challenger 1 greatly outclassed the Iraqi armour, with depleted uranium (DU) tank rounds and TOW ATGMs utilised to devastating effect. From the Second World War the Tiger became a symbol of armoured power, near invincible to Allied tanks. During the Gulf War, Coalition forces deemed the Iraqi T-72M to be the greatest armoured threat against Coalition tanks, but this was quickly disproven following a series of decisive victories. Both examples highlight the danger of over-confidence and misinformation.
The scale of armoured deployments in the Middle East provides a further example relevant to another key argument. The training and morale of the crews can be of greater worth than the technical superiority of the AFVs, while a lack of training, together with poor tactics and equipment can completely impede the effectiveness of armoured forces in the field. The prime example of this is highlighted by Israeli victories in the Golan Heights during the 1973 Yom Kippur war, with Israeli Centurions defeating more modern Soviet-supplied T-55 and T-62 tanks of the Syrian army.19 Despite the technical superiority of Syrian tanks, Patrick Wright estimates that 177 Israeli tanks had held off a force of 1,400 Syrian AFVs.20 Searle notes that Syrian adoption of Soviet armoured doctrine led to poor initiative from Syrian crews, leading to uncoordinated and underdeveloped attacks which proved easy for the dug-in Israelis to repel.21 When applying this factor to the T-14, there is little analysis and only speculation. The T-14 may present a more complex machine than the T-72 and T-90 tanks currently in service with Russia, but there is simply no evidence to either support, or oppose the influence that poor crew training would have a negative effect on the operation of the T-14.
In conclusion, the T-14 presents a threat to NATO forces which may go unchallenged without further investment in armoured forces. The Challenger 2 ‘Black Night’ represents some understanding, but this only provides a stop-gap measure to creating parity with modernised Russian armoured forces. Although the T-14 may never be deployed in the quantities initially forecast, there remains no commitment to the ‘Black Night’ programme and comparable NATO programmes either. The question of how NATO armoured forces will develop following the end of the service life of programmes like ‘Black Night’ still remains unanswered. This may not present a pressing requirement at the moment, but the resurgence in Russian armoured innovation should not be dismissed by NATO militaries simply because the finance and quantity factors neutralise any potential threat. There is a very real danger that without commitment to modern, futureproof platforms to combat comparable armoured forces, in similar manner to how Javelin has developed, NATO militaries will become outclassed in any potential future engagement.
Will Flannigan is a former military history student focusing on Cold War and current military matters, ranging from Britain’s nuclear deterrent to armoured warfare and air power.
- Will Flannigan, ‘Has the T-14 Changed the Game?’, The Wavell Room (December 2018), http://wavellroom.com/2018/12/11/has-the-t14-armata-changed-the-game/, retrieved December 2018.
- Alaric Searle, Armoured Warfare (Bloomsbury, London 2017), pp. 212-213.
- Ibid., p. 213.
- See ‘Armour in the Islamic State: The DIY Works of Wilayat al-Khayr’, Oryx Blog (March 2017), http://spioenkop.blogspot.com/2017/03/armour-in-islamic-state-diy-works-of.html, retrieved January 2019.
- Brad Howard, ‘Russia’s Futuristic T-14 Tank was Designed to Defeat Western Armies, but They’re Too Expensive for Russia’, Business Insider (July 2018), https://www.businessinsider.com/russias-t-14-tank-made-to-beat-the-west-is-too-expensive-for-russia-2018-7?r=US&IR=T, retrieved December 2018.
- The American-German MBT-70 programme; the US B-1 ‘Lancer’ programme and the Anglo-American ‘Skybolt’ missile programme are all examples where cost had led to the cancellation of the programme but has influenced other projects posthumously.
- Tom J. Meyer, ‘Active Protection Systems: Impregnable Armor or Simply Enhanced Survivability?’, Armor (May-June 1998), pp. 7-11.
- Searle, Armoured Warfare, pp. 212-213.
- Adam Geibel, ‘Some Russian Tankers’ Experiences in the Second Chechen War’, Armor (July-August 2001), pp. 25-28.
- Israel has a history of adapting obsolete tanks hulls into IFVs, including the T-55 based Achzarit and the Centurion based Nakpadon and Nagmachon. The Namer is based on the current Merkava Mk.IV tank.
- ‘Black Night Unveiled’, BAE Systems (October 2018), https://www.baesystems.com/en/black-night-unveiled, retrieved January 2019.
- Franz-Stefan Gady, ‘Did the “World’s Deadliest Tank” just break down?’, The Diplomat (May 2015), https://thediplomat.com/2015/05/did-the-worlds-deadliest-tank-just-break-down/, retrieved January 2019.
- See Dick Taylor, Chieftain Main Battle Tank Owner’s Workshop Manual (Yeovil 2016), pp. 39-48.
- BAE Systems Newsroom, ‘We Have Unveiled “Black Night” – Our First Fully-Upgraded Challenger 2 Main Battle Tank’, BAE Systems (October 2018), https://www.baesystems.com/en/black-night-unveiled, retrieved January 2019.
- Dave Majumdar, ‘The Game Changing Feature in Russia’s T-14 Armata That Might Make NATO Tanks Obsolete’, National Interest (September 2016), https://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/the-game-changing-feature-russias-t-14-armata-might-make-17859, retrieved December 2018.
- Kyle Rempfer, ‘For First Time, Ukraine Showcases its American made Javelin Missiles’, Defense News (May 2018), https://www.defensenews.com/flashpoints/2018/05/23/for-first-time-ukraine-showcases-its-american-made-javelin-missiles/, retrieved December 2018.
- Brigadier Ben Barry, ‘Declining Utility of Anti-Armour Weapons: Norway’s Inconvenient Truth’, International Institute of Strategic Studies (May 2017), https://www.iiss.org/blogs/military-balance/2017/05/norway, retrieved December 2018.
- Searle, Armoured Warfare, pp. 166-167.
- Patrick Wright, Tank (London 2000), p. 361.
- Searle, Armoured Warfare, p. 166.