Russia has invaded Ukraine with three types of tank: the T-72, the T-80 and the T-90. As with the AK-47 rifle, the numbers indicate the approximate year in which the tanks became operational: the T-72 appeared in 1973, the T-80 in 1976 and the T-90 in 1992. The tanks are quite similar although they come from different design agencies.

The T-90 evolved from the T-72, the T-80 is a further development of the T-64 but also took over features of the T-72. The T-72 was the most powerful tank that Saddam Hussein could deploy in 1991, the T-80 is known from the first Chechen war (1994-1996). In the streets of Grozny, he proved vulnerable.

Ukraine knows like no other country the characteristics of the Russian tanks, including their strengths and weaknesses. Ukraine has hundreds of T-72 and T-80 tanks, some of which are of its own making. There was manufacturing in Kharkov and Mariupol. No one in the Ukrainian military leadership can believe that Molotov cocktails do much against Russian tanks, which are protected from chemical weapon attacks.

Determination tables

Anyone who wants to be able to distinguish the tank types will find adequate on the internet determination tables† Distinctive features are the mutual distances between the six wheels on the track, the exhausts of the engines, the position of the smoke extractor on the gun barrel.

The difficulty is that the original designs have been regularly adapted and the tanks today are usually covered with large quantities of steel boxes that are ‘reactive armorprovide additional protection. They obscure the real profile of the tank.

Tanks are mainly threatened by aircraft, but the infantry also has effective anti-tank weapons. Many can be fired from the shoulder and can be decisive in street fights. There are two systems in use. Weapons that are so-called ‘kinetic energy projectiles‘ use shooting missiles equipped with long, slender, arrow-shaped bullets (‘KE penetrators’) of such high mass and speed that, despite their modest size, they manage to pierce the tank armor. The armor collapses under the great force that is concentrated on a very small area.

Extremely high speed

Grenades carrying a ‘hollow chargeshaped charge) make use of the Munroe effect. The shaped charge is a cylindrical explosive the size of a beer bottle that is cup-shaped at the front, usually coneshaped is hollowed out and covered with a layer of metal (often copper) a few millimeters thick. At the back is a detonator pipe that is electrically ignited. The explosive detonating from back to front strikes the copper liner from its substrate and deforms it into an extremely narrow beam of copper at extremely high speed (up to 10 km/s). If this ‘jet’ is generated at the correct distance from the armor, it also manages to pierce the armor material. Not because of its heat, but because of the enormous pressure that the copper beam exerts on the armor. Hollow loads were first used in World War II: in 1942 the bazooka appeared, in 1943 the Panzerfaust. In the many decades since, they have been perfected.

In the co-evolution Between tank and anti-tank weapon, the tank armor has been continuously adapted and improved, especially that of the turret and the well-designed front of the tank (the bow armor or the glacis† The stopping power of the steel was increased by building it up in layers (laminate armour) and/or combining it with ceramic materials, aluminum, Kevlar or glass (composite armour).

During their invasion of Lebanon in 1982, Israeli tanks suddenly turned out to be equipped with explosive reactive armor (ERA), the reactive armor described above as a set of steel boxes but usually referred to by terms such as cassettes, bricks or tiles. The boxes are a sandwich construction of steel plates, between which a well-chosen explosive has been placed. If the sandwich is hit by the beam of a shaped charge, the explosive detonates. In the first microseconds of this counter-explosion, the steel plates move relative to each other sufficiently to deform the shaped charge jet and, moreover, to move back and forth. This protects the rear armor, which must of course withstand the impact of the counter-explosion.

Read about the battle in Ukraine: These weapons play a major role in the war

Yet again an answer has been found: the tandem charge† Weapons that fired hollow charges can now also fire charges in which two hollow charges placed one behind the other have been combined. The front one then explodes the ERA armor, the rear one penetrates the formed opening. The renowned Javelin fires tandem charges and the Panzerfaust-3 which the Netherlands supplied to Ukraine can shoot both single and tandem shaped charges. Without tandem payloads, the Panzerfaust-3 probably wouldn’t do much against the Russian tanks.

But more or less synchronously with the tandem development, Russia again designed an extra heavy, new generation ERA (‘Contact-5‘ and ‘Relikt’) which could reasonably stop the tandem charges and also intercept the KE penetrators. Standard ERA is less effective. All in all, it is unclear how vulnerable the Russian tanks are.

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