Armor: The Unaffordable Future


December 19, 2019: The Russian army is receiving twelve T-14 tanks and four BREM tank recovery vehicles for the T-14 by the end 2019. These are the first production models. There were doubts that these vehicles would appear,given the dire financial condition of the manufacturer and reports of unresolved technical problems with this revolutionary tank design. The most serious problems are with the electronics, which are more extensive than in any previous Russian tank. The crew size has been increased to three and there is now a toilet in the crew capsule. Because the crew is confined to the armored capsule they have limited visibility even if someone sticks their heads out of one of the two crew entry hatches. Visibility is normally dependent on the cameras installed outside the tank and the reliability of the power supply and electronics that keep those cameras operational. Despite all this, the manufacturer is supposed to deliver about 40 T-14s by 2021. This slow production schedule allows time for developers to solve many of the remaining technical and design problems.

The government is supplying production contracts like this, as well as more loans, to keep the manufacturer from going out of business. Kurganmashzavod, the firm that developed the new T-14 tank and T-15 IFV (Infantry Fighting Vehicle) has been effectively bankrupt since 2016. Kurganmashzavod stays in business because it is part of a much larger firm, CTP (Concern Tractor Plants) which, as the name implies, is the largest manufacturer of agricultural equipment in Russia. Kurganmashzavod started out as a state-owned industrial crane manufacturer in 1950 and later began producing military (for hauling artillery and such) and commercial tractors. During the 1960s Kurganmashzavod became the primary manufacturer of the BMP IFV. Kurganmashzavod developed several successful BMP variants into the 1980s. The government continues to purchase BMP and amphibious BMD vehicles mainly to keep key production workers employed. Russia has learned the hard way that once a lot of these skilled workers are out of work, they use their skills to find new careers or even emigrate, and are virtually impossible to get back later. So the orders for unneeded or unready vehicles are an effort to maintain the workforce that, once lost, is extremely difficult and time-consuming to rebuild.

Kurganmashzavod, like many defense manufacturers of high-tech equipment (vehicles, aircraft, ships, missiles and electronics), had a difficult time staying in business and retaining its skilled workforce since the 1990s. When the Cold War ended in 1991. so did orders for BMPs. Kurganmashzavod got by with contracts to refurbish BMPs and manufacture new components (like turrets) as well as some commercial vehicles. In 2014 the Russian economy, and the defense budget took a major hit from lower oil prices and Western sanctions resulting from the Ukraine invasion. The situation got desperate for Kurganmashzavod as it was surviving on loans because the BMP refurbishment income was largely gone and so were military orders in general. The company gambled on developing and marketing the revolutionary T-14 and T-15 vehicles. Russian leaders were impressed but there was no money to place large orders and there were no export customers either. The government encouraged work on the T-14 because it was a prestige item that proved Russia was still a major defense developer and manufacturer. That was not true but the government was willing to scrape up the cash to make it appear so.

Since 2015 Kurganmashzavod has been getting by on more loans which took their debt to dangerous levels. Because the Russian leadership saw the T-14 as essential for national pride, Kurganmashzavod kept getting loans but that just increased their debt and weakened parent company CTP. As the national financial crises continues the government is less able to afford piling up debt to keep Kurganmashzavod going. The defense budget continues to shrink each year and export customers are still not interested. For Russia, a new tank is not seen as a vital item while new ICBMs and nuclear subs are, along with new combat aircraft. Thus the T-14 is last in line for “survival money.” Kurganmashzavod seemed likely to disappear and the T-14 and T-15 put in storage just in case of a future economic miracle. That has not happened yet but every year the company remains in business that day of reckoning gets closer.

Meanwhile, the Russian army gets by with upgrades of Cold War era tanks and some new wheeled vehicles. Russian troops are particularly fond of Russian versions of the American armored Hummer and Stryker. Tanks are another matter. Russia considers itself a pioneer in tank design but has not had a new and widely copied design since World War II. Russia has been trying to develop a radical new tank design since the 1960s. This effort already resulted in the T-64, T-72 and T-80. The only design that showed promise was the T-72, but it was not radically new, just a refinement of designs that appeared early in World War II and quickly replaced all competing designs and became the basis for all modern tanks (T-72, M1, Leopard and so on). When it was clear (by the 1980s) that the T-72 was the best they had, several new T-72 variants appeared, not all of them Russian. But it was obvious, especially after several wars, that the T-72 was inferior to Western designs. Ironically when the Russian army found they could not afford the T-90 they found that another, less ambitious T-72 variant was a lot cheaper, more reliable and more effective than the T-90.

Russia then sought to create another breakthrough design and after several false starts, they thought they finally had a winner in their new “universal combat platform” called the Armata system. The first prototypes of this vehicle began testing in 2013 and the Armata platform rapidly became the T-14 tank and, a year later, the T-15 IFV. All Armata vehicles use the same engine and tracks as well as the heavily armored crew capsule. For the T-14 you add an unmanned turret with an automated 125mm gun, plus and 32 shells and missiles in the turret. There is also an RWS (remote weapons station) for a 30mm autocannon and another for a 12.7mm machine-gun. In addition to the weapons, the crew of three would operate several sensor systems (thermal, vidcams and AESA radar) and an automatic defense system for protection against missiles and weapons like RPGs (shaped charge rockets used by the infantry). All this would be in a 55 ton vehicle that would require the services of additional maintenance personnel nearby (behind the fighting) who would help fix problems and assist the crew in maintaining all this complex equipment. Prototypes of the T-14 were available for field testing in 2015 as well as for showing off in public.

The 55 ton T-14 tank made its first public appearance during the 2015 World War II victory parade which is held in Moscow on May 9th every year. This provided tank experts and historians a detailed view of the new tank and the reviews were, and remain, mixed. The experts agreed that the T-14 was a bold design, but one that had been proposed before. The Russians got credit for actually acting on all those ideas. Chinese experts openly doubted that the Russians could get all the new tech in Armata to work and implied that some of it was still unreliable. These doubts highlighted a common problem the Russians have had with their new military tech. This is a problem that goes back over 80 years and was especially common with new tank designs.

Western experts agreed with the Chinese on the “new tech” problems, which everyone suffers from. Alas, the Russians have a habit of screwing this up worse than most. For example, in the 1960s the Russians introduced an auto-loader for the tank main gun (which reduced the tank crew from four to three) but it took over a decade to make the auto-loader design reliable and safe, especially for the crew. There were similar problems with other new tech the Russians developed for tanks. The T-14 has not been in combat yet so the reports of “doing well in field testing” don’t mean much. The inability of the army to afford the T-14, or even the other “new” Russian tank, the T-90, means that the T-14 seems headed for historical obscurity as one of those “innovative” designs that never entered service. It is still a hit in military parades.

The IFV version of the Armata, the T-15, seems to have a better chance of survival. In 2014 testing of the new T-15, or “Kurganets 25” IFV prototypes began. This was based on the Armata chassis and was meant to eventually replace all the existing BMP and BMD IFVs. Kurganets 25 is very similar to the American M-2 Bradley IFV as it has a turret equipped with a 25mm autocannon and two ATGM (Anti-Tank Guided Missiles) mounted on either side. The turret also has computerized fire control, thermal sensors and a 7.62mm machine-gun. The 25 ton Kurganets 25 has a front-mounted engine, a crew of three and carries up to eight infantry.

As impressive as the Kurganets 25 was, the Russians may have missed the fact that after 2007 the U.S. Army stopped using the M-2 in combat. By then it was clear to the U.S. that the enemy was intent on using mines and roadside bombs in a big way and the M-1 tank, Stryker, and MRAP vehicles were much better able to handle these blast weapons than the M-2. But the IFV has not disappeared as it still proves useful in some combat situations.

The Kurganets 25 was one of several armored vehicles that were meant to use the same basic chassis and systems as the T-14. The manufacturer planned Armata based support vehicles and self-propelled artillery. Those two have since been put aside and the only current T-15 variants are ones with different turrets or modifications to make them more effective as amphibious vehicles, for use by the marines.

As impressive as the T-15 is there is already serious (and more reliable and affordable) completion for that from another company that developed and put into production the 25 ton 8x8 wheeled VPK-7829 Bumerang. Despite that as of 2018 the Kurganets 25 is apparently still in development. New versions of the Kurganets 25 were shown in early 2019. So far there are no more orders and none are being sent to Syria for some “combat experience.” That is not just a matter of money shortages. Currently, the Kurganets 25 has a good reputation and exposure to enemy fire might tarnish that. In the end, however, the government accountants will determine the fate of Armata.




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