Murphy's Law: Why T-90s Died In Syria


June 24, 2018: Iraq ordered 73 Russian T-90 tanks mid-2017. The first 36 arrived in February with the rest following within two months. The new T-90 tanks were promptly used to replace their American M1 tanks, which proved vulnerable to ATGMs (anti-tank guided missiles). That was something of an exaggeration, as Syrians had already discovered two years earlier. That was when Russia gave Syria 30 T-90s, which were immediately put to work fighting various rebel factions. What the Russians failed to note was that some of these rebels had the American TOW wire-guided missile. While the T-90 has defenses against most ATGMS, the ones that are laser guided, these defenses were less effective against the TOW. That because the T-90 ATGM defenses consist of two systems. One is a “dazzler” that is connected to laser sensors on the tank. If the sensors detect a laser beam hitting the tank the “dazzler” turns on sending out a laser that disrupts the targeting laser and causes the ATGM, if it is headed for the front of the tank, to miss the target The second ATGM defense offers some protection against TOW because it consists of plates of ERA (Explosive Reactive Armor) which explodes when hit by the HEAT warhead used by ATGMs. HEAT forms a superhot plasma when it strikes something and the plasma can melt through most armor. The ERA explosion disrupts the formation of the plasma and prevents much of the penetration of the tanks’ metal armor. During the first incidents of ERA use against TOW, crews were seen abandoning the tank, even though the vehicle was shaken but not penetrated. Syrian crews came to fear even laser guided missiles and would sometimes turn and try to get behind a building when the laser sensors alerted them that an ATGM was incoming. This was often a fatal mistake because it meant the dazzler was no longer aimed at the laser beam, which was now aimed at the side of the tank, which did not have ERA. The ATGM hit and the tank was destroyed. Worse, more recent models of the TOW have a “top attack” warhead to defeat the ERA by detonating as it goes over the tank and penetrating the thinner armor on top, which also lacks ERA. Even though the rebels didn’t have any top attack TOW missiles, Syrian troops, or at least their Russian and Syrian advisors, adapted and proceeded more cautiously when it was suspected that they were facing ATGMs, especially TOWs. Despite these precautions, six of the Syrian T-90s have been lost to ATGMs since they first arrived in late 2016. Three T-90s captured by rebels. Two of these were destroyed while being used by the rebels while the third one was recaptured. This highlights another problem the Syrian and Iraqi army shares; poorly trained and led troops. At this point, the Syrians avoid using their T-90s in close proximity to the enemy and the T-90s are less frequently seen in combat.

The T-90 is one of many upgraded T-72s available on the market. Until 2003 the Iraqi Army operated hundreds of older T-72s, which proved no competition for the American M1. The T-90 has been produced in large quantities since the 1990s but not for Russia. It is mostly an export item. The T-90 was a late 1980s project that was to incorporate T-80 features into many upgrades of the T-72. Originally it was designated the T-72BU but when Russia finally began production in 1993 it was renamed the T-90 in order to help with export sales. That succeeded in making the tank an export success with most (nearly 90 percent) of those produced going to export customers. In fact, India and Algeria each have more T-90s in service than Russia. Worse Russia has quietly put over a third of its 550 newly built T-90s into reserve. While the T-90 was loudly proclaimed to be the next-big-thing the Russian army preferred the refurbished T-72s in the form of the T-72B3. These proved to be cheaper and more reliable than T-90s, something that got little publicity. While all the upgrades (new engine, gun, fire control and protection) made it nearly as expensive as the T-90 it was preferred by the troops and the older officers quietly agreed that it was a better tank than the new T-90/T-72BUs. This apparently has something to do with the design of the T-72BU (trying to merge T-80 elements into the T-72 design) and the decline in manufacturing quality in Russian the defense industry after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. Since the T-72B3 was introduced in 2013 it has been produced in far greater numbers than any other tank and that continues. Especially telling was how T-90s began to be taken out of service (and put in reserve) as soon as enough T-72B3s became available. At the same time, the most popular Russian tank for export customers is the T-72B (a B3 with fewer of the upgrades) and these cost nearly two million dollars each but can be delivered in a few months after the contract is signed. The T-72B3 has been so popular with Russian troops that the government is giving it more publicity in the state-controlled mass media. The Iraqis don’t really care about the superiority of the T-72B3 because the T-90s are easier to obtain, do the job (usually fighting irregulars) and have large profits built in that allow for generous bribes to Iraqi officials who approve the purchase orders.

Meanwhile, Turkey has lost eight German-made Leopard 2A4 tanks in combat since their troops entered Syria in August 2016. Also lost was an older U.S. made M60T tank and four other less well protected armored vehicles. The Leopard 2A4 is very similar to the American M1 and these were the first combat losses for the Leopard 2. Turkey bought 354 used Leopard 2 tanks during the great post-Cold War sell-off of European tank fleets. The 55 ton Leopard 2A4 is a contemporary of the American M1 but without the upgraded armor.

Most of the eight Leopards lost in Syria were because of ATGMs that later models of the Leopard 2, M1 and Israeli Merkava are largely immune to. These ATGM hits did not always destroy the Leopard 2s but they did disable it and cause the surviving crew to abandon the vehicle. Some of these Leopard 2s were late heavily damaged by Turkish air strikes to prevent Islamic terrorists from making any use of them.

During the 2003 Iraq invasion no American M1 tanks were destroyed outright by enemy weapons although four M1s were disabled, but not destroyed, by Russian made Kornet ATGMs the Iraqis had. Several M1s were badly damaged, and some of these (the ones that could not move) were destroyed by U.S. troops to prevent advanced equipment falling into the hands of the enemy. The frontal armor of the M-1 continued to be invulnerable to any enemy weapons. But side and rear armor were vulnerable, as it was in the Leopard 2A4. In a friendly fire incident. An M-2 Bradleys 25mm cannon, firing depleted uranium armor-piercing shells, penetrated the rear armor of an M1 and damaged the engine. RPGs proved useless against the M-1, except in a few cases where they hit a vulnerable component (like a hydraulic line.) By 2005 the Americans had acquired a lot more combat experience with the M1. By then about 1,100 American M-1 tanks had served in Iraq and about 70 percent had been in combat where seven percent have been badly damaged, at least badly enough to get them shipped back to the factory for rebuilding.

The Kornet E is a Russian laser guided ATGM with a range of 5,000 meters and was sold in the 1990s to a number of Middle Eastern nations. The launcher has a thermal sight for use at night or in fog. The missile's warhead can penetrate enough modern tank armor to render the side armor of the Israeli Merkava or U.S. M1 tanks vulnerable. The missile weighs 8.2 kg (18 pounds) and the launcher 19 kg (42 pounds). The system was introduced in 1994 and has been sold to Syria (who apparently passed them on to Hezbollah and Hamas). ISIL and other rebel groups captured some Kornets in Syria.

American M1s suffered their first heavy losses in Iraq during 2014. Nearly a third of the 140 M1s the Iraq Army had received between 2010 and 2012 were destroyed or heavily damaged. Before 2014 no M1s had been destroyed by enemy action, but that was in large part because they were used by well-trained crews and commanders. Moreover, nearly all the American M1s that had been in combat had better armor. This impressed Iraq. Back in 2008, Iraq ordered 140 M1A1SA tanks, along with over a hundred support vehicles (for maintenance and transportation, like 35 tank transporters). The request includes training and technical support, for a total contract cost of over $2 billion. The tanks began arriving in 2010 and all were delivered by 2012. Iraq received newly built tanks, largely equipped to the "SA" (Situational Awareness") standard the U.S. Army developed in 2006. The M1A1-SA includes the latest thermal (FLIR, or heat sensing) sights, a special engine air filter system developed to deal with the abundant sand and dust in Iraq, the telephone on the rear fender, which allows accompanying infantry to communicate with the crew, and numerous small improvements.

There are several items that American M1s have the Iraqi SA tanks did not get. The Iraqi M1A1s had no depleted uranium armor, no ERA, and no additional protection against anti-tank missiles. Most of the M1 damage was done to M1s captured intact by ISIL and then attacked by American aircraft. But over a third of the M1s were destroyed or damaged by ISIL fighters. The Iraqi troops using the M1s did not, as they were taught by the Americans, use their M1s in conjunction with infantry. This allowed ISIL fighters to get close enough to M1s during combat to place explosives and disable or destroy some of these M1s.

Since early 2015 Saudi Arabia has had M1A2S tanks in Yemen and is believed to have several hundred there (or on the Yemen border) now. There have been some media reports of Saudi M1A2S losses, including several videos of the Shia rebels there doing some serious damage to these tanks. Iranian media has mentioned at least five M1A2S tanks lost and the Shia rebels captured at least two, which were apparently hunted down and destroyed by Saudi warplanes.

As the Americans discovered in Iraq the M2A2S is still a potent weapon in irregular warfare, especially with well-trained and resolute crews. The U.S. shared their experience with the Saudis and now that the Saudis have had similar success with the M1A2S in Yemen, although with higher losses. What always makes the difference is the competence of the crews and the commanders sending into combat.

Since these Leopard and M1 incidents with ATGMs occurred the United States has decided to follow the Israeli example and equip their M1s (and lighter armored vehicles) with APS (Active Protection System), initially the Israeli Trophy, as well as American, made APS systems. Most APS consists of a radar to detect incoming missiles and small rockets to rush out and disable the incoming threat. A complete system weighs about a ton. There are lighter APS systems for smaller vehicles. Unlike the earlier APS systems, developed by Russia, the Israeli versions are much more reliable and have proved themselves in combat against Russian ATGSs and RPGs.


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