On 10th September 2016, the 70th anniversary of Tankers’ Day – the day upon which the Russian military commemorates its tank forces – the Russian Defence Ministry released a video showing various Russian tanks and armoured fighting vehicles on exercise.
Most of the tanks shown in the video are variants of the T-72, which is the mainstay of the Russian tank force. However at 0.48 the futuristic new T-14 Armata tank puts in an appearance and is shown in action in more detail than it has ever been shown before.
The Russian army took delivery of 20 T-14 Armata tanks this year. These tanks are not in front line service. They are being used in trials to test out the tank and to sort out any problems.
Supposedly the trials have gone well and there are reports that the Russian military has now ordered a first batch of 100 T-14 Armata tanks for next year. The T-14 Armata is however unlikely to appear in large numbers before 2019 at the earliest.
The major technical advance the Russians have achieved with the T-14 Armata is that it carries its gun in a fully automated unmanned turret.
The Russians have been considering developing tanks with automated unmanned turrets since the 1970s. What prevented realisation of the concept before was the lack of robust and reliable visual aids to make up for the loss of observation for the tank crew provided by placing the tank commander and gunner in the turret. The rapid developments in electronics since the 1970s have however finally made the concept possible, enabling the Russians to develop a tank around the concept.
The chief advantage of automating the turret is that it has been possible to move equipment from inside the tank body into the turret, freeing up internal spaces within the tank body, making it easier to organise and rationalise.
The result is that two completely separate internal spaces have been created inside the tank’s body, one in the forward section and one in the rear section, which can be rearranged to suit different vehicles using the same basic tank body.
This has made it possible to create a whole family of vehicles on the basis of the same tank body. Thus in the T-14 tank version the space in the forward section is used to house an armoured capsule carrying the tank’s 3 man crew, whilst the space in the rear section is used to house the tank’s engine. In other vehicles the order is reversed, with the engine moved forward from the rear section to the forward section, freeing the rear section for other uses.
Apart from the T-14 Armata tank the Russians are known to be using the same basic tank body to create an infantry fighting vehicle (designated the T-15), an armoured personnel carrier, various engineering vehicles, and various self-propelled artillery vehicles.
The picture below, whilst not coming from an official Russian source, may give some idea of the appearance of some these vehicles.
Alongside the T-14 Armata tank and the T-15 infantry fighting vehicle, the picture shows speculative images of a rocket launcher vehicle, a 152 mm self propelled artillery vehicle which is known to exist under the designation ‘Koalitsiya’, and a possible tank destroyer vehicle using an outsized 152 mm tank gun, which is known to have been developed (the standard gun carried by the T-14 Armata tank has a calibre of 125 mm).
Here is a photograph of the T-14 Armata tank with the armoured crew compartment in the forward section of the vehicle and the engine in the rear section.
Here by comparison is a photograph of the T-15 infantry fighting vehicle, which is armed with a 30 mm cannon and Kornet anti tank missiles in the turret, and which has the engine moved forward to the forward section, freeing the vehicle centre body and rear section to carry an infantry squad, which can exit the vehicle through doors in the vehicle’s rear.
The fact the Russians are able to use a single tank body to develop a whole family of vehicles should simplify manufacturing, ease the logistics chain by providing different vehicles with interchangeable parts, and reduce cost.
In addition automating the turret in the tank version comes with other benefits. The ability to bring the entire tank crew together in one place inside a heavily armoured capsule in the forward section has made it possible to improve greatly the level of protection afforded to the tank crew as compared with other tanks. It also makes it easier for the crew to communicate with each other and to work together as a team.
The T-14 Armata tank also comes with a host of other modern features, not all of which have been disclosed and many of which have never been seen in tanks before. For example it is the first tank designed from the outset to carry its own radar as part of its standard equipment.
This is a modern Active Electronically Scanned (“AESA”) radar of the sort now used by advanced fighter aircraft. Many of the features of the T-14 Armata tank in fact seem to derive ultimately from the military aircraft industry, with the T-14 Armata tank representing a convergence of modern tank and military aircraft technologies.
As with modern military aircraft remotely controlled or drone versions of the T-14 Armata are now being considered, and the already highly automated nature of the design makes that in theory possible. However the very heavy maintenance requirements of tracked land vehicles means that any drone version of the T-14 Armata will have only limited endurance by comparison with aircraft drones.
The Russians have always been at the forefront of tank and armoured vehicle design. Right at the start of the video there is an overhead shot which briefly shows T-34s, the iconic Russian tank of the Second World War, which with its sloping armour, diesel engine, wide tracks and powerful gun, represented in its day as much of a technical breakthrough as the T-14 Armata does today.
The Russians followed up the T-34 by introducing in the 1960s smooth bore guns, automatic loaders, composite armour (in the T64) and the first truly effective infantry fighting vehicle (the BMP1), created to enable the infantry to keep up with the tanks and go with them into battle.
In the 1970s the Russians introduced reactive armour and gas turbine engines, the latter in the T80 apparently before the Americans, though it proved an innovation that was not entirely successful.
A long period of stagnation in tank development followed, caused by the crisis which overwhelmed the country in the late 1980s and in the 1990s.
With the T14 Armata tank the Russians are however once more back at the forefront of modern tank design.