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Death from above – Russian ad hoc top attack defenses

T-72B3 tanks with crude top armor cages

The recent Russian tank upgrade programs and the ever slower moving T-14 Armata saga, have all had significant portion of the efforts put into improving the survivability of the tank and its crew. Both static and explosive reactive armor (ERA) have been upgraded and small amount of the latest T-90M and T-72B3 tanks have active protection systems that may be able to defeat most of the anti-tank missiles and slower moving HEAT shells.

Environmentally friendly T-90M

While these programs have put some emphasis on the armor on the top of the turret, the main focus has been in the sides and the front of the hull and turret. Additional ERA elements have been mounted on the skirts of the vehicles and slat-cage type standoff armor has been attached into the rear sides of the turrets and hulls.

These modifications however have very little effect on direct top attacks by modern anti-tank missiles such as the American Javelin, that is also in the Ukrainian inventory. Another, more recent, threat to the turret tops has been the proliferation of armed UAVs capable of delivering rather light weight, but extremely accurate, munitions directly to tanks, even when they are placed behind traditional obstacles.

The combination of Turkish Bayraktar TB-2 drones and MAM-L and other precision munitions proved somewhat devastating in the recent Azeri offensive against Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh. Russia had a front row seat in this conflict and it has had a full access to the Armenian losses and battle damage suffered by the Armenian vehicles.

Ukrainian Air Force TB-2 with MAM-L under the wings

In the recent weeks several of the Russian Southern Military District units have been spotted with a variety of standoff armor solutions on top of their T-72 series tanks. Some of the armor kits seem rather refined with what looks like an set of small sandbags mounted on a light weight frame.

T-72B3 obr 2016 with additional armor on turret top and soft ERA bag elements on the skirts

Other armor kits look like they were constructed by the company level maintenance crews from the materials they found or managed to source from a local steel vendor. Unpainted RHS frames roughly welded into the turret sides and slat armor made of flat steel bars placed between the frames. While crude, the system looks reasonably effective.

Crude, in unit made top armor.

The fact that the Russian armored forces are welding additional armor into their tanks on unit level, rather than supplying the units with factory manufactured and easily removable kits via the normal procurement channels reveals that the additional top attack protection is an urgent requirement.

A lot of additional slat-armor kits have been used in Syria and Libya, but they have always been aimed more against RPG and ATGM attacks from the sides than from above.

Syrian slightly up armored T-55

Ukraine is currently procuring the TB-2 from Turkey and that sort of a deal and a Russian plan to use their armor against Ukraine might explain the urgency. And while Russia is updating its front line units with these additional defenses, it’s unlikely that they will need them for very long as they are capable of rapidly grinding through any adversary’s smart munitions stocks with the sheer weight of their armored forces. 

Attrition still matters.

-Petri Mäkelä


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