As a break from some of my more recent posts, I thought I would put together a bit of a look book on some Russian kit which is out right now. I’ll be honest, in terms of military kit, I am like a big kid. In an age where reliability, maintainability, lifespan, cost and obsolescence set the trend for military vehicles, Russian kit seems to be bucking the trend. Ignore the practicalities for a moment, the modern Russian stuff looks like a child’s drawing – guns and missiles sticking out of every nook and cranny!
To be honest, it does look cool, but I must say that the mundane and practical issues which guide countries such as the UK and the USA will probably catch up with it in the end. It will break, be hard to fix, impossible to replace, be too complex…all the boring things which rationalise the thoughts of those of us who drool over it and wish we had it ourselves!
One of the endearing things about Russian technology has always been its simplicity and robustness. Not technologically the best, Russian kit always did what it said on the tin. It could take a knock, be produced by the tens or even hundreds of thousands and was interchangeable. Give Russian engineers a problem and they take a hammer to it and somehow make it work. But are they coming away from that? Something tells me that, for once, the Russians are trying to be a bit too clever with their kit and, whilst there are some amazing examples for the opposite being true (as we shall see) there are some interesting new developments.
Let me give you a few examples:
On paper, the T-14 Armata seems to have it all – and that includes racing stripes! Produced in 2015 this tank really breaks new ground. One of the endearing things is that adherence to core Russian principles; this tank forms the MBT (Main Battle Tank) variation of the ‘Armata Universal Combat Platform’ – a chassis, engine and all-round package which can be converted and copied into endless variations all using the same parts. A clever trick! Next we have the whole experience. Why spend money training crew to drive, aim and fire the tank when there is an obvious solution? Use a Playstation! Yes the Armata, with it’s crew of just 3 men is controlled by a Playstation controller and a screen! I mean, feasibly you could crew it with every teenager in the country – THIS is what I love about Russian kit!
It is armed with a 125mm smoothbore main gun which fires a discarding-sabot round for armour penetration, a high-explosive fragmentation round for anti-personnel roles and even comes with guided missiles for air defence! There are rumours of a 152mm upgrade, which is bigger than anything fielded by allied armies but this comes with disadvantages, notably in weight and also amounts of ammunition carried. For protection, the T-14 has a 12.7mm machine gun and some really natty new kit in the form of an active defence system of ‘hard kill’ and ‘soft kill’ systems. Effectively an array of jammers and scramblers to confuse guided missiles and then radar controlled ‘explosively formed penetrator’ rounds in the turret – effectively a giant shotgun which intercepts incoming rounds. It is also supposed to be radar proof and to have an almost invisible heat-signature. Finally the crew are protected by a hard inner shell. There is nobody in the turret and, it is predicted, the crew should survive even a direct hit.
It sounds great, doesn’t it? Except that on its first outing when it was unveiled to the world, it caught fire and has never been seen again. Those three different types of munition mean simply less. Tanks carry armour-piercing and HE rounds, but now the Armata – a pretty small tank, has to pack in missiles too! The 12-speed automatic gearbox, active hydraulic suspension and powerful engine are great, but very complex and have been anticipated to significantly reduce the operational lifespan of the vehicle which is, as we have seen in just one outing, a huge reliability problem. Yes it looks cool, but in trying to produce the perfect package, has Russia churned out the tank equivalent of a FIAT or an Alfa Romeo? – Looks good, but it will break endlessly, be wholly impractical, cost the earth and you will regret having it. It says much that Russia, with a defence budget of $70 Billion and a titanic production ability has only produced somewhere over twenty of these.
Now let us admire a few more:
The BMPT “Terminator”
Unveiled in 2009, produced from 2011 onwards, the “Terminator” is a close-support tank whose design came about in reaction to the mauling that Russia’s heavy tanks took in Afghanistan and then in Chechnya at the hands of the irregular rebel forces in built-up areas. This beast carries two 30mm autocannons, one firing anti-personnel rounds and the other armour-piercing rounds with 850 rounds in the box. To either side there are a brace of 130mm Ataka anti-tank missiles and at the front corners of each side, a 30mm grenade launcher with 300 rounds apiece. It looks good, but yet of a crew of five, two men simply sit there in the corners working a grenade launcher now and again! The autocannons may have 850 rounds but have a combined rate of fire of 600 rounds per minute – that’s just 85 seconds of firing! Still, let’s not be too harsh here; it’s a good use of an old chassis and perhaps Russia has learned some lessons.
The BMPT “Terminator 2”
The second generation of the terminator is – of course “Terminator 2” – more really it is the Terminator in a dress. Mrs Terminator, perhaps? Essentially this is a retrofit package, based on the same T-72 hull but with nicer curves and predominantly designed for the export market. The first thing the designers did was take away those ridiculous grenade launchers which reduces the crew to three men and sheds the weight of the men and 600 rounds. It is 11mm lower and 20mm thinner than its predecessor, which in all reduces the weight by four tonnes which is no bad thing. The reduced armour is augmented by additional bolt-on slat armour to protect against shaped-charge HEAT rounds and extra armour is provided to the missile launchers whilst a new screening system protects against laser-guidance systems. With an improved Fire Control System it can also detect and engage armoured targets at longer range. Proof, perhaps, that Russia has learned from this one?
The 2S19 Koalitsiva
The picture which launched a thousand humorously doctored pictures on line, with six guns and even with twenty or more! Of course, photoshop aside, this was the original. a massive turret housing ‘over and under’ dual-autoloaded 152mm guns. A clever thought (and yes it looks cool) Russia abandoned this in 2010 due to the obvious complications and added weight and other issues. It says a lot that they even considered this – I mean it wouldn’t make the drawing-board in the Western world would it? But they learned…
The 2S35 Koalitsiva
Is it a house or a self-propelled gun? This vast beast of a vehicle came out of the double-barrelled project above. Originally this was set to be formed on the Armata Universal platform but, perhaps with the issues inherent in that system, the current version sits on the six-wheeled T-90 chassis – an older but more reliable system at present. The gun is a 152mm system with an effective range of 70km for precision guided rounds and 40km for ‘dumb’ rounds with a rate of fire claimed at from 16-20 rounds per minute – improved with the addition of a new pneumatic auto-loader and 60-70 rounds stored. The reloading process takes just 15 minutes. The crew is expected to be just 2-3 people due to a very high level of automation. It sounds great but, we must allow, the newer kit isn’t always very reliable, the chassis-change to the Armata isn’t complete. With production and delivery still earmarked for 2016, will it be ready in time?
The Pantsir S-1
It looks like that ‘child’s drawing’ I spoke about, doesn’t it? Essentially this is another show of that Russian cleverness – the chassis is one thing, but make a turret you can stick on anything. This turret has the ability to be truck and tractor mounted too, and is being converted so that it can be mounted on to ships, with the carrier Kuznetsov scheduled to receive it along with a number of other smaller ships. An anti-aircraft platform (with the ability to engage ground targets too) the Pantsir packs two dual 30mm autocannon (yes that’s four) and twelve surface-to-air missiles. However the gun system has a rate of fire of 5,000 rpm and yet carries only 700 rounds, split between HE and armour piercing and tracer variants of each. That’s a smidge under eight and a half seconds of firing. And that’s if you fired everything! But Russia has come up with the answer…sort of. This constitutes eight other vehicles to support the Pantsir in the field with spare ammunition, spare parts and repair. Suddenly this doesn’t look so ‘stand alone’ does it? I mean all that is a lot of cost and a big target! Still this has already had confirmed kills and has been exported to ten countries since it was released in 2008. It remains to be seen whether the Armata platform can be reliably made to accommodate this.
Conclusion: In some ways, Russia seems to still be applying many of those time-tested principles which have guided it. A universal platform, turrets which can be placed on almost anything from a tank to a truck to a ship, and all controlled with a Playstation controller which could turn any teenager into a battlefield-dominating warrior. But in other ways, this stuff is well…just a little too complex. It either doesn’t work, is made to work in a half-arsed cut-and-shut / chop-and-change way, is still being improved or else is almost ridiculously unsupportable. You’d have thought that Russia would have learned from the overly-complex German tanks they ran rings around in the Second World War. Certainly these weapons platforms have ‘cool factor’ when compared to what we in the West have but, and it’s a big but, our stuff – however boring to look at – is reliable, sustainable and dependable. Russia’s strength was always in a simple but clever idea (take the T-34) which could be replicated and mass-produced cheaply, not in this complex and technical series of ideas which are slow to produce, hard to maintain and often impossible to support. So ‘too cool for school?’ I asked – well yes. It’s great to look at, but operationally, I reckon ‘boring’ will win through every day.