Putin’s Old Tanks Are Exposing Russia as a “Paper Tiger”

Tank warfare has been a cornerstone of land combat for over a century, and the ongoing conflict in Ukraine has thrust this formidable military hardware into the spotlight. Remarkably, both sides in the conflict are employing aging Soviet-era tanks, exposing the legacy of these “crappy Russian armored vehicles” and their vulnerabilities.

The Age-Old Tanks on the Battlefield

The war in Ukraine, which began in February 2022 when Russia invaded, has seen a remarkable convergence of tank models. Both Russian forces and Ukrainian troops are utilizing tanks that were designed and, in many cases, built during the Cold War era.

The shared use of outdated tanks reflects the lingering influence of the Soviet military, even decades after its disintegration. Barry Posen, a professor and expert on military strategy and international affairs at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), said Russian tanks, “have been notorious for their flaws since 1967.” 

The T-72: A Familiar Presence

One of the most prevalent tanks on the Ukrainian battlefield is the T-72, originally introduced in 1973. With its 125 mm smoothbore gun, coaxial 7.62 mm machine gun, and 12.7mm heavy machine gun, it has been the workhorse of the Russian armored corps for decades.

While modernized variants like the T-72B3 and T-72B3M have improved electronics and explosive reactive armor, they still bear the legacy of their older counterparts.

The T-80: A Heavier Alternative

Russia has also deployed the T-80 in substantial numbers. Slightly larger and heavier than the T-72, the T-80 boasts a 125 mm smoothbore gun, gas turbine engine, and extensive explosive reactive armor. Variants like the T-80U, T-80BV, and T-80BVM feature distinct arrangements of ERA blocks.

However, the challenge lies in Russia’s limited ability to produce new T-80s due to the obsolete nature of its construction process.

The T-90: A Modern Addition

The T-90, introduced in 1992, represents a more modern addition to Russia’s tank arsenal. Heavier and equipped with a 125 mm smoothbore gun, it offers enhanced survivability with innovations like cage armor and a metal net covering the gap between the hull and turret. The upgraded T-90M, developed based on Syrian experiences, further refines these features.

The Fourth Generation of Tanks

However, when discussing the development and capabilities of modern Russian tanks, Posen said, “We’re in the third or fourth generation of crappy Russian armored vehicles, and this is kind of a weird thing because people have been blowing these armored vehicles to pieces all over the world. Russian designers have had lots of time to work on this problem.”

Ukraine, too, deploys T-72 and T-80 tanks, often replenishing its fleet with captured Russian tanks. Additionally, they’ve acquired Western-made tanks, like the German Leopard 2, British Challenger 2, and U.S. M1A1 Abrams. 

Russian Tank Vulnerabilities

The conflict in Ukraine has exposed long-standing vulnerabilities in Russian tank design. One glaring weakness is the tendency of ammunition stored in unprotected turret carousels to detonate when struck, resulting in catastrophic kills.

This flaw has persisted since 1967, suggesting a lack of substantial improvement over generations. Russian tactics initially leaned into these vulnerabilities, though adaptations have been made, such as welding cages to tanks to deter anti-tank missiles and drones.

Western Tanks Emphasize Crew Survival

In contrast to Russian tanks, Western tank designs prioritize crew survival. Ammunition is stored separately, typically in the rear, with mechanisms to direct explosions away from the crew compartment.

This design philosophy has led to fewer casualties among Western tank crews. Ukraine’s military is increasingly relying on Western-supplied tanks, recognizing their superiority in crew safety. However, sustaining these armored vehicles requires a consistent supply of spare parts, which poses a serious challenge. 

Western Support for Ukraine Needed

In order to maintain Ukraine’s tank superiority, Western nations must ensure the availability of industrial support to maintain the Ukrainian military’s capabilities.

When commenting on the Russian tank situation, one social media user said, “I want Ukraine to win for all of the reasons, but one that recurs often is that, after growing up through the cold-war era under the ever-present ‘Red Threat’, a small, disarmed country of tenacious heroes led by a comedian exposed Russia as the paper tiger they always were.”

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