The Russian Armata main battle tank is the first to make use of a long-discussed concept (which was also used by the German "Puma" IFV); crew in hull, remotely controlled turret for the main gun - designed as such from scratch.*
One of the many "crew in hull MBT" ideas since the 1980's.
The long-known benefits of this include first and foremost a much-reduced surface area that has to be protected to the highest standard (because the crew capsule is really small). This allows for more protection at less weight of the same. The volume and mass gained can be used for more equipment, fuel, munition etc.
The primary disadvantage is that the tank commander cannot use the great vantage point on top of the turret to stick his head out for first hands experience of the environment.
It's not for certain how exactly Armata MBTs will store their main gun munition (and this may even change during development), but both turret bustle in the rear and hull position outside of the crew capsule are possible. So far the photos indicate that the turret bustle is too small:
This would lead to an armour distribution like this:
- Maximum protection for crew capsule and munitions capsule behind the crew.
- Intermediate protection for engine compartment in the rear (less reliable slat armour is visible)
- Least protection for the turret, with most of its mission-critical components exposed on the outside anyway and at best lightly armoured.
A loss of firepower seems most acceptable, a loss of mobility somewhat acceptable and a catastrophic secondary explosion of munitions (the T-72 is notorious for this) or a loss of the crew least acceptable.
It's reasonable to believe that the Russians will exceed the protection levels known from today's tanks in regard to both the crew and munitions capsules. Meanwhile, it's also reasonable to expect the turret to be quite vulnerable, though the turret interior with the autoloader may at least be protected against the widespread 30 mm autocannons. The sensors and active protections suite may be vulnerable to armour-piercing bullets from normal rifles at ~100 m, though.
A tank built to survive the light (infantry) anti-tank defences and to defeat Western tanks at least if they are in the frontal 60° area does provoke a new iteration in the arms technology spiral, of course.
The consequences are fairly simple for Western MBTs; Rheinmetall's new 130 mm tank gun development is a fairly obvious answer.
It's much more difficult to cope with such a future adversary with portable equipment, though. The weight restriction also restricts the options.
I'm not going to delve into guidance and warheads right away; instead, this new concept of a MBT should provoke a rethinking of infantry anti-tank defence.
Traditionally the infantry (and other dismounted troops or troops with vehicles of less than 15 tons) attempted to kill the crew, or to blow off the tracks (with mines) to immobilise the tank. There's little reason to expect mine-resistant tracks on the Armata MBT (though these were developed long ago already). The crew and main gun munitions will be the most protected, so it's a questionable approach to go after them with the most weight-restricted means. This may be left to upgunned or new Western MBTs.
There are multiple kinds of how a tank may be "killed":
- "mobility kill" = it cannot move or steer any more
- "firepower kill" = it cannot shoot or aim (its main gun) any more
- "mission kill" = it cannot accomplish its mission (a consequence of "mobility kill" or "firepower kill")
Infantry could be satisfied with any kind of mission kill. It doesn't need to destroy tanks for good on its own; the infantry isn't the main killer on the battlefield; that's the artillery. The infantry's task in face of opposing forces tanks does not need to be more ambitious than to deny their passage without sacrificing too much of its own strength.
This leads to two different approaches for light anti-tank defences:
- Going for a mobility kill to stop the tank for further destruction by heavier arms
- Going for a firepower kill to force the tank crew to break contact (withdraw)
A mobility kill is feasible with high explosive effects on tracks and running gear. Choking the engine might be possible if oxygen can be displaced, but the effect would be short-lived because the air filter(s) would protect the engine against lasting damage.
Said "explosive effects" could be mines (including mobile mines, think of R/C toy cars) with 8+ kg TNT equivalent and warheads projected like shaped charges so far, but with maximised explosive force (no hollow cone). HESH/HEP penetration doesn't work well without spin, though - so it's no option for truly light AT defences (even if the other problems of this kind of warhead didn't exist). There was a single anti-tank guided missile with a HESH warhead and no spin; Malkara. Its warheads weighed no less than 26 kg in itself, meant to defeat 1950's and 1960's tanks.
Portable projectors for high explosive warheads are not going to penetrate the hull (likely not even the engine compartment except through its air ducts), but might be able to achieve mobility kills and even firepower kills. I have no access to relevant vulnerability test reports, though.
The other approach is about firepower kills, and focuses on the turret. The easiest way to defeat (not destroy) such a tank in battle would likely be to defeat its sensors. A coating on sensors that blocks thermal and radio frequency radiation but could not be removed by a simple wiper or high speed air or water stream would suffice for a while. A penetration of the exposed sensors (for which most likely few spares would be in storage) with mere bullets, shrapnel or fragments might ruin the entire high tech concept of the tank. The tank commander and gunner both depend on the turret's sensors, and sensors need to be on the surface by definition - vulnerable to effects that even a few millimetres of steel could have kept away.
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The light (infantry) anti-tank defences of the future might thus look very different from what we've become used to since 1943 (recoilless guns, bazookas, Panzerfaust) and the late 50's (ATGMs).
This is still only slightly above brainstorming quality for want of access to information beyond publications, but feasible light anti-tank defences might include
- early, non-line of sight warning (acoustic; so troops would not be surprised within the tanks' sensor range of approx. 5 km on open ground)
- concealment against the tank's line of sight sensors (hiding before the tank could possibly detect you with its own sensors)
- (mobile) mines for destruction of track integrity
- flying multi-purpose high explosive warheads used against turret and running gear (bazooka, Panzerfaust, missile, drone)
- munitions (from hand grenades in urban warfare to kamikaze drones) to coat and thus blind sensors
- (already existing) AP bullets, especially for calibres more powerful than 7.62x51 mm
- EMP grenades
- blinding lasers
- radio jamming (to break the inter-tank cooperation and prevent calls for support)
- backed up by classic (Panzerfaust, ATGM) munitions, primarily meant to defeat less well-protected AFVs
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Armed bureaucracies have a tendency to be sluggish - as do almost all organisations. I myself had a lag of a year before I came up with this article. No doubt the full-time professionals in the field had their thoughts sorted much quicker (likely even well before 2015) - but it's doubtful whether they - invested in the old ways - were able to embrace a paradigm change in light AT defences (that may be necessary). It's rather for certain that the accumulated lags till we field responses in quantity will amount to 5-15 years. Even the mere rewriting of infantry manuals would likely take several years.
It took us about 5-10 years to react to new Soviet armour developments during the Cold War, we'll likely be slower in the decades to come because technology has become more intricate and the feeling of urgency is weaker with no serious expectation of WW3.
What will likely save us from a severe weak spot in our deterrence and defence are the sluggishness of the Russian bureaucracies and the still quite sad state of the Russian arms industries. It will likely take till 2025 or later for Armata MBTs to become operational in relevant quantities and then the troops will need years to learn how to make full use of its capabilities and how to deal with its teething troubles. This may be extended by a year or two if the Russian army doesn't spend much on their training at that time.
Such high tech tanks would still be highly vulnerable - though in a different way than the classic T-72s. They wouldn't blow up as often, but likely sit a lot at repair workshops, waiting for necessary and expensive spare parts that may never arrive.
P.S.: I'm preparing a second article on this, from the tactics perspective.
*: There were test vehicles with remotely controlled turrets on old conventional tank hulls such as U.S. M1 TTB, Jordanian Falcon turret on Challenger hull etc...