There may be worse ways to lose a tank, but the destruction of another T-90M ‘Breakthrough’ gives Russian leadership a lot to worry about. Because it was the victim of tactical incompetence which put the tank in an impossible position, as well as an embarrassing failure of its much-hyped defensive systems.
The T-90M is Russia’s most advanced tank and has only appeared in tiny numbers. (The T-14 Armata is still at the testing stage and does not seem to be operational). An image of the smoking tank after the event is not enough to confirm a kill, but the drone video of the event shows the T-90M burning for a prolonged period, with smoke emerging from the vehicle interior.
A longer drone video of the full engagement is harder to decipher, as the drone is at long range and the tank occupies just a few pixels on the screen, but reveals some interesting details. One is that the tank is moving forwards ahead of another tank when hit, and continues for a few seconds after it is struck. It almost disappears into the smoke that follows the strike, then (at 0:20) there is a fiery explosion inside the tank and it stops.
By this time the vehicle beside it has gone into reverse and continues backing away from the engagement area. The explosion inside the T-90M would not leave any survivors; the turret hatches in the later video are open, so the commander and gunner may have baled out and escaped when the tank was hit.
Since last March, analysts have been pointing out Russia’s basic failures in combined arms maneuvering. In modern warfare, advancing tanks are supposed to be supported by infantry to suppress enemy infantry with anti-tank weapons, and by artillery suppressing longer-range threats. Working together makes all of the elements more effective and negates their individual weaknesses. Sending tanks forward without support – which appears to be what is happening here — makes them extremely vulnerable. Infantry with shoulder-launched weapons can carry out ambushes at short range and hit the tank from sides or rear.
This is the lesson Russia failed to learn in the early stage of the war. Now it is playing exactly the same game with more expensive pieces. Basic T-72s cost about $0.5m, the new T-90Ms reportedly costs around $4.5 million.
A closer look at the video shows a second vehicle further away hit at the same time as the first. This also smokes badly, suggesting another kill. It is possible Russia lost two of its prized T-90Ms at the same time.
We do not know for sure what weapon destroyed the tank(s). Two different stories are circulating, and both may be false.
Ukrainian news says a Ukrainian soldier scored the kill with an AT4 anti-tank weapon. If true, this would be very impressive. The Swedish-made Saab AT4, sent by the U.S. and Sweden, is a lightweight shoulder-launched anti-armor weapon. AT4 is a pun on the weapon’s 84mm caliber; it is an unguided weapon, weighing just 15 pounds, compared to 48 for the Javelin, with a range of 300 meters compared to the Javelins 2,000+. It is normally called an ‘anti-armor’ rather than ‘anti-tank’ weapon because the small warhead is not (usually) powerful enough to breach the frontal armor of modern main battle tanks.
The Ukrainians claim the shot hit under the T-90M’s gun mantlet, the metal shield around the gun itself. The mantlet was identified as a weak spot in earlier Russian tanks. The gun stabilization system needs the barrel to be as light as possible, so the armor tends to be thinner here.
The shot should never have made it that far. The T-90M is supposed to be defended by Russia’s latest Active Protection System, which detects incoming rounds with radar and knocks them down with interceptors. This is similar to Israel’s highly successful Trophy system – no Trophy-equipped tank has ever been damaged by an RPG
There is a hint that the Russians know about the risk of shots to this particular area, with some images showing an anti-RPG ‘skirt’ around the base the T-90 turret. This type of protection only works against RPG rockets with vulnerable fuses, not weapons like the AT4.
If the AT4 claim is correct, the shooter must have had extremely steady nerves to wait until the tank was within range , knowing that he only had one shot. If he missed, the tank crew would return fire and kill him at once, as firing would make his position obvious. He then hit an extremely small, moving target — the gun mantlet – resulting in the destruction of the tank.
In an alternative narrative, one analyst on Twitter says the T-90M was in fact destroyed by a top-attack smart artillery round, a type we first saw in July. However, the distinctive downward-darting flame and smoke trail left by this type of munition does not seem to be visible on the drone video, so this explanation is also doubtful.
Russia’s Uralvagonzavod recently announced that it had made a fresh delivery of T-90Ms and that their factory was working around the clock to supply more. Given that this is the tenth T-90M to be lost, it is not clear whether the hyped T-90M is any less vulnerable than earlier models, especially when used without any tactical sense.
Incidentally, there is a worse way to lose a tank which Russia also demonstrated recently. According to Russian news source Baza last week, Russian technicians in Belgorod accidentally set the T-72 tank they were repairing on fire. The ammunition caught and exploded, destroying the tank; two other T-72s were also damaged in the incident. As with the loss of the T-90M, the incident suggests deep-seated problems in the Russian military.