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Mobile Coffins: Russia’s Most Modern T-90M Tank Gets Obliterated in Ukraine

Defense Expert Rob Lee and The Kyiv Independent Defense reporter Illia Ponomarenko have recently revealed that the Ukrainians have handed the Russians the first combat loss of a Russian T-90M tank in Kharkiv after just being deployed.

The destruction of the T-90Ms, specifically the T-90M Breakthrough 3 (Proryv-3), is another source of embarrassment for the Russians and will likely be another blow to Russian morale. According to Russian defense experts, this variant was the most modern Russian tank in service, which means that the most capable Russian tanks were now being destroyed by Ukrainians with their western-supplied Javelins, NLAWs, Panzerfaust 3s, and their very own Stugna-Ps, leaving their most prized tanks vulnerable to Ukrainian hit-and-run tactics. Perhaps more recently, Russian tanks have also been destroyed by these unique Ukrainian Stug-buggies (ATVs with Stugna-Ps mounted on top).

What’s worse is that Russia has a reputation for claiming that its weapons and equipment are “top-notch.” It would seem so as they previously claimed that T-90 tanks and their respective variants could withstand anti-tank missiles. Its main selling point was that it had increased survivability as it was equipped with Shtora-1 active protection systems and new Kontakt-5 armor.

T-9os saw service in Syria with Assad’s forces and were not found to be invulnerable in any sense of the word.  While they faired well against RPG rounds and the ancient TOW missile system, at least 5 were destroyed by Javelins in the hands of Syrian militants.

Shtora-1 active protective system or the Shtora-1 Defensive Aids System (DAS) is an infrared jammer equipped with a laser warning device that can deploy 81mm thermal instant smoke grenades which go out to 50 to 80 meters from the tank within 1.5 to 3 seconds; this blocks visual, thermal, and laser wavebands. It can also hijack a missile’s command link by jamming it with modulated signals that can alter the missile’s original course away from the tank. The T-90 cannon was also equipped with auto-load features that can send high-explosive anti-tank rounds downrange. Its armor protects it from extreme damage and minimizes the impact of armor-piercing fin-stabilized discarding sabot rounds.

So what gives? Well, it should have been more survivable in Ukraine, but Russian tank designers still haven’t figured out that ammunition stored inside the turret is a bad idea in the face of the American-made Javelin ATGMs, which target the top of the tank specifically for this reason. Since the Javelin is an IR missile that is sighted optically by the operator it isn’t giving off anything the T-90s protection system would pick up.

The other problem may be a matter of crew training.  Russia very much believes the hype they make up about their armed forces and send their tank crews out telling them that it can defeat any weapon used against it.  As a result, Russian tank crews would be inclined to do things and take chances that they wouldn’t if they had an accurate picture of the tanks’ true vulnerabilities.  Here in the US, M1A Abrams tank crews know the strengths and weaknesses of their tanks in detail how to fight to their strengths, and minimize their weaknesses in combat.

An Abrams crew is likely to survive getting their tank knocked out and be able to say how it happened,  while Russian tankers tend to get incinerated inside their steel coffins and can’t report back on new weapons or tactics being employed by an enemy.

We do not doubt that the US has had a hand in teaching Ukrainian Armed Forces how to deal with these T-90Ms as US troops have trained and are actively training Ukrainians on how to fight the Russians in the best possible ways in Donbas.

T-90M main battle tank, 2020 (Mil.ru, CC BY 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons). Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:T-90M.jpg
T-90M main battle tank, 2020 (Mil.ruCC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons).

Furthermore, the Modern War Institute at West Point had even claimed that the Shtora had no effects on Javelins or recoilless rifles:

They describe the Shtora as:

“The 1980s-era Shtora (Штора) system consists of a laser detection system, a laser decoy system, and aerosol smoke-grenade launchers. The system can detect a laser-based targeting system. Shtora deploys countermeasures, dispersing a cloud of forward-looking infrared–blocking smoke. Shtora also activates laser decoys to disrupt laser targeting by providing false signatures. Finally, it gives the tank commander the ability to automatically slew the turret to face the direction of the threat targeting system. This system reduces TOW effectiveness and increases the risk to antitank platforms utilizing them, and necessitates the use of Gen 1, Gen 2, and Gen 3a missiles.”

And claimed later that:

“When targeting a vehicle with Shtora, gunners using the ITAS (improved target acquisition system) should never directly laser the tank with the range finder, instead targeting a patch of ground three vehicle lengths away. This will allow the gunner to avoid being detected by Shtora.”

Earlier in March, SOFREP reported a list of elite Russian tank units operating in Ukraine. One of those units was the 2nd Guards Motorized Rifle Division, otherwise known historically as the Tamanskaya (Taman) Motorized Rifle Division. We reported that they were equipped with the T-90Ms and were seen operating in Sribne, Chernihiv, and Verkhnia Syrovatka. They were also operating some T-90As, according to several reports. However, the T-90Ms were not seen until later on. Estimates of the T-90M units in service were only around 100 (maybe even lower).

These upgraded tanks were first seen on April 25, when the Rosgvardia took videos of destroyed Ukrainian vehicles in Kharkiv. Not even two weeks later, a number of these tanks were destroyed by Ukrainians with their ATGMs.

This is not the first time Russia has lost its more advanced tanks. The Russian Prototype tank called the T-80UM2 was destroyed by Ukrainians on March 17 with its turret blown clean off. The tank was said to be part of the elite 4th Guards Tank Division, which was completely obliterated by the Ukrainians a few days later during the battle of Trostyanets in Sumy, some 15 miles from the Russian border while they were retreating.

Perhaps worst of all for the Russians (and a great bonus for the Ukrainians), these T-90Ms are manufactured by Uralvagonzavod, the primary manufacturer and maintenance service provider for Russian tanks. SOFREP previously reported that Uralvagonzavod had run out of parts and foreign components, so they had to stop production as it fell victim to the West’s economic sanctions.

With the Russians mounting losses of equipment and soldiers, it’s completely relevant to ask how long they can keep up the war with their equipment being destroyed left and right and their generals dropping like flies for the past three months.

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