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T-90: Russia’s Main Battletank (And its Failure in Ukraine)

Written by Kevin Jennings


Ever since the First World War, tanks have been a mainstay of armed conflicts. Originally there were four categories of tanks. There were the heavy tanks that had a high level of armored protection. Super-heavy tanks upped the ante by keeping the heavy armor and dramatically increasing the machine’s firepower. The light tanks, would use thinner armor and smaller guns, trading in safety and firepower for speed and maneuverability for more tactical use. Finally, there were medium tanks which took compromises on all fronts to make a more well rounded vehicle that lacked any of the specialization of other tanks.

            All of that changed in 1945 when England introduced the Centurion, the world’s first main battle tank, or MBT. Through the development of more powerful engines and composite armor, the MBT was able to combine the firepower and defensive capabilities of heavy and super-heavy tanks with the mobility of a light tank, all in the frame of a medium tank. Also referred to as simply battle tanks or universal tanks, by the 1960s the MBT had replaced nearly all other tanks in operation.

Origins of the T-90

            Russia’s T-90 MBT is a third generation battle tank, though the generational nomenclature for tanks is informal and not clearly defined. The T-90 was originally developed during Russia’s Soviet era as an all in one replacement for the T-64, T-72, and T-80 series of MBTs. The T-90 was based off of the T-72 design because of its lower cost and simplicity, but this was not going to be some bargain basement tank.

            Development began in 1986 with the first four prototypes being delivered for trials in January of1989. In June of 1990, an improved version of the T-90 tank was delivered, and production began in 1992.

            In 2001, the Indian military signed a contract to acquire a number of T-90 tanks that were designated the T-90S. India already had the rights to manufacture the T-72, and as the T-90 was built off the design for the T-72 it was thought the factories would be easily converted. The first 42 tanks delivered to India still used the V-84 engine and cast turrets from the older generation of tanks, but the subsequent 82 tanks featured new welded turrets and an upgraded V-92S2 engine, giving the tank an extra 160 horsepower.

             The Russian Ministry of Defense liked the exported model of the T-90 and quickly adopted a very similar design labeled the T-90A. The A model used the same, more power engines as the exported models, added a T01-K05 Buran-M gunner’s sight with a maximum observable distance of 1,800 meters, and included the most recent Kontakt-5 explosive reactive armor, in addition to the normal composite armor of the tank. This would remain the primary design from 2004 until 2016, when the more modernized T-90M would be produced.


World’s Deadliest Tanks

            The Russian T-90 is commonly ranked as one of the world’s deadliest tanks, alongside the America M1A2 Abrams. So what makes this tank such a destructive force? The main armament of the T-90 is a 2A46M 125 millimeter smoothbore tank gun. It is a highly modified version of the Sprut anti-tank gun, and it is capable of firing several different types of ammunition. The T-90’s 125 mm cannon can fire armor-piercing fin-stabilized discarding sabot, high explosive anti-tank charges, high explosive fragmentation ammunition, and 9M119M Refleks anti-tank guided missiles. It also features an automatic loader capable of carrying 22 rounds and able to reload in 5-8 seconds, eliminating the need for an extra crew member tasked with reloading the tank gun. The fire-control system of the main gun, an automated targeting system, is extremely accurate, able to consistently hit heavily armored vehicles from a range of up to 5 km away.

            In addition to the main gun, there is a remotely controlled Kord anti-aircraft heavy machine gun that can be operated from within the tank. The machine gun has an effective range of 2 km and can fire 600-650 rounds per minute. The diesel fueled, 1,000 horsepower engine is able to achieve top speeds of 60 km/h on roads and 45 hm/h on rough terrain.

            For protection, the T-90 has three layers, not counting the giant steel frame. The first is the composite armor, which alternates layers of aluminum and plastics. The second is the Kontakt-5 explosive reactive armor (ERA). The ERA works to minimize the power of kinetic energy based weapons, such as the armor-piercing rounds mentioned earlier.

            The final layer of protection is the Shtora-1 countermeasures suite. This system includes two infrared jammers on the front of the turret, four laser warning receivers, two 3D6 smoke grenade discharging systems, and a computerized control system. The Shtora-1 warns the tank’s crew when the tank has been “painted” on by a weapon-guidance laser and allows the crew to turn the turret to face the threat, as the front of the turret is more heavily armored. The infrared jammer, the device responsible for the T-90’s famous glowing “red eyes”, jams the semiautomatic command to line of sight guidance systems used by many anti-tank guided missiles. Smoke grenades are automatically launched after Shtora-1 detects that it has been “painted” to mask the tank from laser rangefinders and designators as well as the optics of other weapons systems. The defensive capabilities of the T-90 have been so reliable that during combat in Dagestan in 1999, a T-90 was witnessed taking seven direct hits from rocket propelled grenades and remained operational.

            War may be Hell, but inside the T-90 doesn’t have to be. In addition to all of the tank’s offensive and defensive capabilities, yes it also has air conditioning.


The War in Ukraine

            As the invasion of Ukraine began, pictures and video of lines of tanks could be seen all over the news and social media. Right from the start, things did not go as Russia had planned. While the Russians had expected to simply roll over Kyiv, they were met with a much fiercer than expected resistance from Ukraine. The lack of proper preparation was immediately evident as Russian tanks, expecting a quick victory, ran out of fuel and were abandoned.

            According to the Rand Corporation and the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Russia possessed approximately 2,700 MBTs in total at the start of the invasion of Ukraine. It is expected that Ukraine’s estimates of Russian losses would be high and Russia’s estimates of their own losses would be low, but according to Ukrainian military sources, Russia has lost more than 680 tanks so far.

            Oryx, a military and intelligence blog that has been tracking military losses exclusively using verifiable images and video from the war zone, currently counts 519 tanks having been lost with 263 destroyed, 10 damaged, 39 abandoned, and 207 captured. Of those 519 tanks, at least 19 are the Russia’s pride and joy, the T-90. So far, six T-90s have been verified as destroyed, two abandoned, and nine captured. There are also 64 confirmed destroyed tanks whose models cannot be determined due to the photos being aerial bombing shots, particularly far aware, or overly obscured by smoke, so it’s possible that 20 or more T-90s have been lost to the Ukrainian forces.

            With the T-90 heralded not just by Russia but by military experts and enthusiasts from all over the world as one of the most powerful and indestructible tanks ever created, how could this have happened? Well, there are a couple reasons.


Tactical Errors

            Tanks are not vehicles of urban warfare. With the main tank gun’s effective range of 4-5 km, MBTs are at their most effective when spread out and crossing through large, open areas. Tanks are also designed to drive over rough terrain, but not over all terrain. The melting snow of late winter left the ground too soft and wet for massive, heavy tanks to travel across. As such, rather than a sparse, cross country trek like would be expected of the tanks, they formed long convoys traveling down the highway. Not only did this limit the effectiveness of the tanks, it left them sitting ducks for counterattacks.

            In addition, tanks are normally not rolling around the battlefield all on their lonesome; they are supported by infantry and air cover to help protect the tank. While an MBT is hardly a subtle machine, when used optimally they can still fire before being detected. Funneled onto the highway and all packed close together, they did not have this chance as the file of tanks was easily detected. Anti-tank gunners would be much more difficult to detect as they could be hiding in buildings, behind rubble, or really anywhere. This is where the infantry would go in to clear out any would-be ambushers, but there was no such infantry accompanying the tanks in Ukraine.

            Even without the proper tactical advance taken, surely the T-90’s intense defensive capabilities would allow them to weather the attacks of RPGs or other handheld anti-tank devices being operated by Ukrainian resistance, right? Between multiple layers of armor and the high tech Shtora system, the Russian MBTs should have had no problem driving into the heart of Kyiv.

The Javelin

            The Modern War Institute at West Point’s official webpage comes with a disclaimer: “The articles and other content which appear on the Modern War Institute website are unofficial expressions of opinion. The views expressed are those of the authors, and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.”

            Even with that disclaimer, when an article was published on the site in March of 2020 with the title “On Killing Tanks” that claimed there was a critical weakness to the Shtora system, Putin or his military advisors may have wanted to take notice. That weakness is the American made FGM-148 Javelin portable anti-tank missile system. America supplied Ukraine with 2,000 Javelins at the start of the conflict, and have sent at least 2,000 more since then.

            The top of a tank is the least armored part, and that is where the Javelin aims. Once targeted, the Javelin will fly high into the air and nose dive directly onto the tanks. The ERA surrounding the tank is supposed to protect against these sort of kinetic attacks, but the Javelin counters the T-90’s armor by having two warheads in each missile. The first charge is designed to blow away the ERA with the second charge piercing the chassis of the tank.

            That’s how the Javelin is intended to work, but Shtora is supposed to prevent that from happening. That’s where “On Killing Tanks” comes in. Shtora can detect when it has been “painted” with infrared lasers, optical targeting systems from anti-tank missiles. Because of the Javelin’s unique flight path, flying into the air and then nose diving into the target rather than being fired at the tank head on, the solution is to just not target the tank itself. Instead, gunners using Javelins equipped with the Improved Target Acquisition System (ITAS) can target a patch of ground three vehicle lengths away to avoid detection from Shtora, then once airborne the ITAS makes sure the Javelin plunges down into the intended target.


            Not only have the Javelins been extremely effective at destroying Russia’s MBTs, even the T-90, but they are simple to use. There are many reports of Ukrainian civilians fighting alongside Ukraine’s military, and even these untrained volunteers can operate a Javelin.

            Russia is expected to have its test batch of 100 next generation tanks, the T-14 Armata, at some point this year, but there is no guarantee that they will fare any better against the Javelin anti-tank missiles.

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