Don’t let your kids grow up to drive tanks

At least not if they’re Russian. All those photos from Ukraine of tanks with their turrets blown off? There’s an explanation. See if you can recognize the design flaw.

“For a Russian crew, if the ammo storage compartment is hit, everyone is dead,” said Robert E. Hamilton, a professor at the U.S. Army War College, adding that the force of the explosion can “instantaneously vaporize” the crew. “All those rounds — around 40 depending on if they’re carrying a full load or not — are all going to cook off, and everyone is going to be dead.”

Yikes. My son briefly drove tanks — American ones — before joining the signal corps, and it’s a good thing his mother didn’t know that job involved driving a large steel-encased bomb. I feel a lot of pity right now for Russian mothers.


  1. robro says

    My son told me about this recently. As I understand it, the advantage of the T-72 is that it’s an auto-loading system which means faster firing and a smaller crew by 1.

  2. says

    As the article points out, though, it’s faster to replace a damaged tank than it is to train a replacement tank crew.

  3. says

    I would think that Putin, who served in Afghanistan in the 80s, would know something about asymmetric warfare. This is why a 78K missile blows the crap out of a million dollar tank. Russia has a hell of an army, but it’s an army meant to fight another army. It is less capable of waging war against a country. When an entire country is mobilized, conventional warfare doesn’t stand a chance. I.E. Vietnam, and Afghanistan.

  4. KG says

    If your tank is hit by something able to penetrate the armour, you might be better off being instantly vapourised.

  5. KG says

    As a young boy, my son was very keen on playing with toy soldiers, and longed to own a toy gun (eventually we relented and let him have one). I, somewhat concerned, once asked him if he wanted to be a soldier when he grew up. “No”, he replied “it would be dangerous!”.

  6. says

    #4: That’s a good point. I’m not seeing any stories about survivors of a tank penetrated by an anti-tank round — I suspect the survival rates are low, and you have to wonder about what kinds of injuries the survivors would have. Deafness? Blindness? Brain injuries?
    At any rate I’m relieved that my son drives computers and communications gear now.

  7. Reginald Selkirk says

    I would think that Putin, who served in Afghanistan in the 80s…

    Citation needed. Wikipedia has no mention of any standard military service. Putin joined the KGB in 1975 and spent a portion of the 1980s in East Germany. There is no mention of service in Afghanistan.

  8. says

    The Ukrainians use T72s and T80s like the Russians, and the backbone of their tank force is the T64, which uses an automatic loader as well. The Ukrainian T84 also has an autoloader. The poor tactics that have been used by the Russians in Ukraine increase the chances of their tanks being successfully attacked. Then there’s the fact that the Javelin and NLAW missiles used by the Ukrainians attack the top of tanks, where the armour is weakest. We haven’t seen a situation where the most recent generation of Western tanks have faced similar weapons, so we can’t be be sure how well they’ll survive them.

  9. says

    There’s a lot of dark humor on Twitter about this, with photos of destroyed tanks greeted with estimations of how they fared in the turret-tossing competition. Some are wide shots of blown-off turrets with no tank in view.

  10. microraptor says

    timegueguen @8: It’s likely that a Leopard or Abrams would be knocked out by being hit by such an attack, but depending on the impact point there’s a decent chance of one or more of the crew surviving. The flaw with the Russian-built tanks is that the autoloader necessitates that they keep their ammo storage open and unprotected, so any hit has the potential to detonate their ammunition. In that event, the tank is completely destroyed with 100% fatalities for anyone inside the tank. That’s one of the reasons the US never adopted autoloaders for their tanks.

    The other being that autoloaders have a nasty habit of trying to load everything they get a hold of into the tank’s cannon, regardless of whether that’s a cannon shell or a crewmember’s arm.

  11. says

    PZ@6 The injuries for tank crews that are successfully attacked by antitank rounds include shrapnel and severe burns, depending on what kind of antitank round used. Antitank rounds either penetrate the armour by brute force, or by generating a jet of superheated metal and gas that burns a hole in the armour, and whatever else gets in the way. So either you have a bunch of metal flying around the interior, including parts of the tank itself, or gases that light things on fire.

  12. birgerjohansson says

    The French Leclerc tank also has an autoloader, but the ammunition is in the bustle at the rear of the turret. If the ammunition compartment explodes it is separated from the crew by an armored wall. Also, the roof of the bustle is designed to fly off along with the explosive gases so the pressure does not build up. These details increase the cost a bit, but the French consider that acceptable.

    The lives of Soviet/Russian tank crews (and other personnel) have never been valued very high. This is reflected by the tank designs ever since the 1930s.

  13. M'thew says

    The disregard for human lives really runs deep, if it is even ingrained in the design of the weapons. There was this anecdote about a Russian general (WWII era) who would let the infantry walk over an area with landmines instead of letting the mines be detected with metal detectors and then cleared. Nothing much changed, it seems.

  14. blf says

    @4, @6, It’s been States(? Nato?) doctrine for a long time that the people are more expensive than the equipment; that tank crew you saved by spending bazillion dollars on sophisticated support and armour is much slower, and harder, to replace than the lost tank.

    An interesting thing which has come up repeatedly in the [One Madman’s War (and also the Pandemic)] Infinite Thread is the Russian Army — and apparently, also the Ukrainian Army until independence — is there is no NCO culture. NCOs and career staff know how to do things — they’ve been in the services for many years, often decades — and are empowered to make decisions and act on them. The generals may decide the strategy and ensure support & logistics, but leave it up to the NCOs, sargents, etc., the tactical and battlefield details.

    Not in Russia. There are no NCOs. There’s a top-heavy brass, some salaried “professionals”, and conscripts; only the brass has any authority. Everyone else is just expected to obey. There is apparently no initiative, or tolerance of initiative, nor anyone with experience (or motivation) to put the orders into action. One upshot is this is perhaps why Russian generals keep having to go to / near the front (and promptly get shot-at by the Ukrainians), a completely dysfunctional inexperienced chain-of-command, meaning they (the generals) practically need to shout at the poor (often literally) conscripts to get anything done. And a (side-effect?) of that is logistics, co-ordination, etc., quite possibly including training, gets neglected — the generals are either shouting at the conscripts or pocketing the monies allocated to logistics, etc., meaning — as we seem to be seeing — the Russians are really really bad at even the basics. There are no NCOs to even do even the most basic logistics.

  15. blf says

    Wikipedia has […] no mention of [Putin’s] service in Afghanistan.

    Nor does any other source I’ve checked. That claim (or some variant of it) — Putin worked in Afghanistan in the 1980s — has been made several times at this blog, but never with any referenced or independently-verifiable evidence. As far as I can recall, the “evidence” has all been of the form of “my uncle’s wife was Putin’s bodyguard’s girlfriend in Afghanistan” type.

  16. birgerjohansson says

    Abrams has the ammunition in a separate compartment at the rear of the turret in the bustle.
    A fire or explosion in the crew compartment will not spread to the ammunition unless the powered hatch between the spaces is open.
    Like other western tanks, I assume the roof is designed to fly off the ammunition compartment.

    And there will also be a chemical fire suppression device* that is automatically triggered by an infrared sensor a fraction of a second after an explosion. So no smoking, please.
    *At least I assume the Abrams has been upgraded with this even if the first tanks did not have it.
    I do not know the expected number of deaths if the armour is penetrated, it depends on the kind of munitions and where it hits, but an Abrams or a Leopard 2 at least gives the crew a chance.
    Also, in the west the tank crews are well-paid career soldiers that get a lot of training, increasing their value. In Russia, training is something they save on, just like repairs and other logistics. So the west has a greater incentive to keep crewmen alive.

  17. birgerjohansson says

    As I have mentioned elsewhere, the Russian military has an insane culture of really brutal hazing, that often leads to the death of recruits.
    This “culture” of fear extends all the way up, it is more important to avoid screwing up than making a fast decision.
    In this culture, it is not surprising that most NCOs quite after a couple of years, leaving the army without the experienced NCOs it so badly needs.

    As you might expect, this culture was inherited from the Soviet Union along with the affinity for authoritarianism and national chauvinism. Boris Yeltsin never made any real attempt to change the country in depth.

  18. Pierce R. Butler says

    As a history buff, I don’t follow military details much, but I did enjoy William H. McNeill’s The Pursuit of Power: Technology, Armed Force, and Society Since A.D. 1000.

    There he makes the point (among many others) that much of the European post-Renaissance conquest of the world derived less from cannons and gunpowder than from the (re-)invention of the sergeant (yet another revived concept from old Rome).

  19. Reginald Selkirk says

    One upshot is this is perhaps why Russian generals keep having to go to / near the front (and promptly get shot-at by the Ukrainians)

    The latest:
    Russian general, 200 soldiers said killed in Ukrainian military strike

    The attack may have been targeting the Russian military chief Gen. Valery Gerasimov, who had left the location just prior to the attack…
    Russia has not yet confirmed the death of Maj. Gen. Andrei Simonov, who was identified by reports as the general killed in the attack.

    If confirmed, I believe that would be the 10th general rank officer killed.

  20. skeptuckian says

    Tanks have speed and power and are probably best used to rush behind the enemy to encircle them and cut off supply routes. As pointed out, in a war against guerilla/partisan forces their effectiveness is decreased dramatically.

  21. Reginald Selkirk says

    I enjoyed this story:
    Russians plunder $5M farm vehicles from Ukraine — to find they’ve been remotely disabled

    Some of the machinery was taken to a nearby village, but some of it embarked on a long overland journey to Chechnya more than 700 miles away. The sophistication of the machinery, which are equipped with GPS, meant that its travel could be tracked. It was last tracked to the village of Zakhan Yurt in Chechnya.
    The equipment ferried to Chechnya, which included combine harvesters — can also be controlled remotely. “When the invaders drove the stolen harvesters to Chechnya, they realized that they could not even turn them on, because the harvesters were locked remotely,” the contact said.

  22. blf says

    @20, There are also reports Valery Gerasimov, the Russian Army Chief of Staff, was injured in the attack (not, however, life-threateningly) and has returned to Russia — roughly one day after he was dispatched to Ukraine by Putin (presumably either to get killed or “fix” Russia’s numerous problems). Those reports, nor the claims of killing Andrei Simonov, have been confirmed.

  23. robro says

    Another thing I’ve learn from my son is that the rows of metal boxes you see on the side of tanks are called “Explosive Reactive Armor” (ERA). As the name implies, they are meant to prevent a missile from penetrating the tank armor by detonating a small charge. However, there is evidence that the ERAs on Russian tanks are packed with cardboard, not explosives. That might provide some protection to the crew by pre-igniting the missile’s charge but probably not much.

    blf @ #14

    One upshot is this is perhaps why Russian generals keep having to go to / near the front (and promptly get shot-at by the Ukrainians)…

    Another reason often cited is the poor communication systems available to Russian commanders. Officers are using open phone channels to communicate with field units, even using Ukraine cell phone systems. Apparently they have to be near the front for this to work at all, and it makes their position vulnerable to being pinpointed. Siri’s “Find My Friend” becomes “Find My Enemy’s General.” Boom!

  24. raven says

    Russians plunder $5M farm vehicles from Ukraine — to find they’ve been remotely disabled

    Not just farm machinery, which is made by John Deere, an American company.

    April 30, 2022 6:30 AM PDT Last Updated 2 days ago
    Ukraine says Russia stole ‘several hundred thousand tonnes’ of grain

    The Russians have also been stealing all the wheat they can from that area, which is the wheat growing plains of Ukraine.

    Which raises the question of what are the Ukrainians going to eat?
    They will either starve to death or end up in Russian or Ukrainian refugee camps.
    The Russians have already deported close to a million Ukrainians, 200,000 of them children. If the past repeats itself, most of these people will never be heard from again.

    This is all obvious genocide directed against the Ukrainians.

  25. says

    robro@24 there were reports early on that Ukrainian troops discovered Baofeng VHF handheld transceivers amongst captured Russian equipment. These aren’t military radios, but commercial units you can buy for 50 bucks on eBay or AliExpress. Anyone with a VHF receiver, or a similar handheld radio, can hear their transmissions. If true it makes me suspect that units weren’t issued proper military radios out of fear they’d just end up sold on the black market.

  26. JustaTech says

    timgueguen @26: Baofengs? Seriously? Those are only barely radios (and I say that since I own a pair and have a HAM license). In the US HAM community they’re so distained that there’s a running joke that if you leave your car unlocked someone will dump Baofangs in it like zucchinis in later summer.

    Literally they’re sold on Amazon as walkie-talkies (which I why I have a pair, only to discover that they are technically radios and I did need a HAM license to use them). They’re only barely consumer grade, and less secure than two cans and a piece of string.

    Good grief.

  27. whheydt says

    About anti-tank weapons. There are two general classes of anti-tank weapons (not counting mines). One is a shaped charge that, as already noted, sends a jet of molten metal to burn through the armor. The other is a solid penetrator, usually as dense a metal as you can make into one. The two main choices I know about are Tungsten and deleted Uranium (that is, depleted in fissionable isotopes). The real problem (from the perspective of tank crew survival) is that Uranium is pyrotic. Punch a chunk of Uranium through armor and what you get is not just chunks of Uranium and spalled off armor bits bouncing around inside (at high speed!), but burning Uranium (at about 3000 degrees) bouncing around inside at high speed.

  28. Walter Solomon says

    A few days ago I read about a new Russian anti-tank mine that fires a projectile from above. Presumably this would hit the ammunition in the American-type tanks. Perhaps they’re anticipating American tanks in Ukraine.

  29. blf says

    @29, Or just copying the States? The M93 Hornet mine does that, loitering on the ground until a tank is detected, then shooting a carrier up into the air, which locks onto the tank and fires projectile(s?) downwards. Developed in the 1990s and in-service since something like 2000.

  30. says

    The T-72 isn’t the only Russian vehicle with questionable design. I can’t find it to cite it, but remember the TV series “Top Ten” which discussed tanks, bombers, firearms, etc.? There was an episode about armoured personnel carriers which said the Russian BMP-3 has a massive fatal flaw: it’s rear doors are fuel tanks. If “forward only, no retreat!” is your motto, okay. Otherwise, they’re deathtraps after one shot up the backside.

    birgerjohansson (#12) –

    The lives of Soviet/Russian tank crews (and other personnel) have never been valued very high. This is reflected by the tank designs ever since the 1930s.

    Governments sending armies out to die in great numbers is a winning strategy if you’re fighting a war of attrition with 1:1 losses (e.g. USSR versus nazi Germany) or the opposition is gunshy about its forces dying (e.g. US versus the Taliban, Hezbolla, ISIS, Vietnam, etc.).

    But in Ukraine, Russian forces are being decimated (by the old definition of losing 10% at a time) without causing massive Ukrainian casualties. One hopes this ends with Putin giving up before he loses everything (all of the army and weapons, his own head, etc.).

    But he still has the sword of Damocles to use. The question is will he?

  31. acroyear says

    @32: “1:1 losses (e.g. USSR versus nazi Germany)”

    The Russian losses were far worse than that. Citadel & Kursk alone, the bulk of the summer of ’43, saw the Russians lose 4 times as many men, tanks, and airplanes, than the German army did.

    As with today, the leadership doesn’t seem to care.

  32. whheydt says

    Re: timgueguen @ #26…
    Or it could be like the Communist ear joke from one of the Warsaw pact countries… Some smuck is hauled in charged with using western manufactured matches. He says, “It is true, comrade, that I used decadent western matches, but only to light our People’s Matches.”

  33. epawtows says

    Response to the ‘ERA packed with cardboard’ (#64): this may not be accurate.
    The ERA packs are big and bulky, but they are not supposed to be full, they are supposed to contain mostly air. The explosive is in the form of thin sheets; these need to be held at a proper angle to work. It is generally held at this angle by “spacers”, which are generally plastic (sometimes cardboard) things that look a bit like egg crates (i.e. thin sheets with protrusions).
    When deployed in non-combat situations (parades, training, that sort of thing) the sheets are removed and just the spacers left in, so the tanks look right but aren’t dangerous (a problem with ERA is that when it goes off, they can wound or kill anyone standing near that side of the tank, and they can go off accidentally if something runs into the tank or it bumps something).
    There have been pictures of destroyed Russian tanks with the ERA packages slashed open, and piles of the spacers on the ground. It is difficult to tell from those photos if the sheets of explosives are present or not. But, to someone who does not know that the things are supposed to be mostly air, it looks like they were crammed with random junk.

  34. wzrd1 says

    A few things, to tie things correct and incorrect together in an accurate picture.
    Early on in the war in Iraq, aka Gulf War 2 to some, the latest model Russian RPG started showing up and to the dismay of the US Army, managed to kill M1 Abrams tanks. Last count I recall hit up to 20 or so, few crews were lost. One account, with photographs that I personally reviewed showed a nice pencil sized hole burned between the center road wheels of the M1 Abrams tank, which entered the crew compartment, gave the loader minor burns as it passed behind his seat, crossed the turret and killed the tank “brain box” (aka, computer that runs the tank), killing the tank. The crew safely egressed the vehicle, covered by the rest of their tank squadron. They were issued another tank and completed their tour uneventfully.
    Western tanks put the ammunition in a compartment behind the turret, which has blow-out panels designed to channel an ammunition explosion away from the crew compartment.
    Armor, when damaged, tends to shatter on the inside, if it’s penetrated or just really badly dented. The harder the armor is, the worse it’ll shatter and when fragments are thrown inside, it’s referred to as spall. Tanks include a spall liner, which is a relatively tough substance that’s elastic, but strong enough to hopefully keep the larger and more dangerous fragments from entering the crew compartment or ammunition compartment. Neither crew members or ammunition tend to operate well if penetrated by a great honking chunk of energetically propelled metal.

    @blf, if memory serves, the explosively formed penetrator mine was French in origin, right around the time the panzerfaust was being designed. Both utilize the Munroe effect to form a (typically) carrot shaped projectile from an inverted cone of metal lining the shaped charge. For an improvised landmine, I’ve heard of manhole covers being propelled for that usage successfully. That’s a big part of the reason that the Secret Service has all manhole covers welded in place before the POTUS comes to visit an area.
    Laughably, the US didn’t use much Munroe effect weapons at the onset of WWII, but the French had ordinance and the Germans did use it in several weapons and we eventually followed suit.
    Munroe effect weapons have one major weakness – standoff distance. The jet defocuses rapidly, hence why many to most antitank rockets have a probe to detonate the warhead so that the jet forms just at the right distance to penetrate the armor. Panzers got side panels over their upper wheels, Strykers got slat armor (basically, a beefed up brush grille) to ensure the rocket detonates safely away from the hull.

    Years ago, I was hanging out with an armored unit attached to my unit. I got the grand tour of their tank and figured out how to start the engine and drive it. I never could figure out how to properly configure their gun to fire in any measure of accuracy. Loading was easy enough.
    But then, I wasn’t a tread head.
    TC fires the gun, his/her position is on the right.

    Russian forces have long, if not always had NCO’s, but those are selected early on in training, sent to an NCO school and basically have the same level of experience as their cohorts who remain Privates upon unit assignment. Uncertain as to what they do, as officers tend to perform most of the duties Western NCO’s perform, trebling or more the workload of said officers.
    Maybe they teach them how to read a map or something, so they’d be as useless as a US Second Lieutenant with a map – something the butt of many US enlisted jokes, given the inexperience and propensity to get badly lost observed in the wild. A large problem being miscalculating the geomagnetic angle vs the map’s true north or true south and the GM angle listed in the map legend to allow for correction. Miscalculate the correction, travel in the wrong direction by double the GM angle listed on the map. So, if your GM angle is 15 degrees, you get it 180 turned around in your mind, you’ll be off course by 30 degrees.
    Really, really bad things can happen to you in a war if you’re wildly out of position, ranging from happily trotting into a minefield to friendly fire, which is decidedly unfriendly.
    Magnetic deviation occurs annually and maps are updated with current geomagnetic corrections to compensate. That’s been accelerating over the last handful of years and eventually our magnetic north pole will be well out of Nova Scotia and well into Siberia, when is pretty much anyone’s guess, as geologists can’t figure out the tangled mess that is our magnetic field, supercomputers only scratch the surface and well, when viewed above and below the surface, the best way I could explain the magnetic field lines from geodynamo outward is, “imagine you have a ball of string, now imagine that ball of string vomited itself all over itself”.

    Oh, one thing the US does is have NCO’s train their subordinates in many subjects. I’ve trained my men in everything from infantry tactics and movement, land navigation, proper use of the radio, basic and advanced military field medicine, detection, treatment and control of infectious and vector borne disease, weapons tasks (I even trained a light infantry unit in proper and safe operation of the M2 .50 caliber Browning Machine Gun and at the time, I was their medic), administrative paperwork, patient paperwork and documentation, suicide awareness and prevention, sexual harassment prevention and I could go on all afternoon.
    Our unit also got to field test the latest and greatest and latest and ill advised hardware and software. To the point where, we tested drones at platoon and squad level, C3ISR packages, new weapons (some of which never were fielded by the US Armed Forces, thanks be to Ares for small favors!) and assorted other trinkets.
    I was also infamous for sending Privates and up to my Command and Staff meeting and trust me, they were trained in what to report, say and answered questions about status and abilities as well as I could, as I trained them to replace me.
    As a hint, I routinely would accurately give a grid coordinate in 10 digits (graves registration wants any field graves to be recorded to that level of precision) with only my map and compass. When I was done training them, every one of my men could as well and we verified results with our military issue GPS. That’s from a 1:10000 map to one meter accuracy. If we had to whistle up a bird, we’d be begging them to get the damned wheel off of our foot.
    Would that our artillery could deliver that level of precision in their fire! Oh well, lowest bidder and all.

  35. says


    Modern anti-tank weapons like the Javelin have two shaped charges.
    One to defeat the ERA and the main one to breach the tank.

    Additionally, both the Javelin and NLAW are mainly supposed to be used in top attack mode, targeting the thinner top armor of the tank.

    And it can even be done even cheaper. There are several videos of ukranian hexacopter drones dropping modified RKG-3 shaped charge grenades on the top of tanks and IFVs.
    Here you can see resulting explosion coming out of the barrel of the tank’s gun, indicating a drop through an open hatch or a succesful penetration of the top armor.

    There are more videos of drones dropping explosives on concentrations of Russian soldiers, even in broad daylight.

    Let me tell you, I would not want to be a Russian soldier in Ukraine right now.

  36. whheydt says

    Re wzrd1 @ #36…
    When my son-in-law was a Sergeant in the Air Force, he borrowed me to give a seminar to his subordinates on earthquake safety and related topics. He was posted at Travis AFB. One guy was really into it and understood exactly what I was talking about. He was from Guam.

  37. Walter Solomon says

    blf @31

    I guess it is a ripoff of the American mine. Those damn Russkies.

  38. birgerjohansson says

    wzrd1 @ 36
    I heard much the same in the days when the Soviets were in Afghanistan.
    BTW the hazing means some NCOs were seen as “junior” to the privates they were supposed to lead, and got the introductory beating all the newcomers get.
    Nothing has changed in forty years.

  39. birgerjohansson says

    The idea that your subordinates should be trained to do your job seems to go back to the Reichswehr (pre-1933) or at least the Wrhrmacht. The Reichswehr was small, and could afford to invest in quality, so most of its staff could be promoted to handle the rapid expansion.

  40. says

    @birgerjohansson #41

    It goes actually further back than that, the idea of “Auftragstaktik” (Mission-type Tactics) goes as far back as Frederick the Great and it became the standard during the mid-19th century in Prussia. The idea being that you set a goal and then leave it to your subordinates to come up with the necessary plans to fulfill that goal, in contrast to “Befehlstaktik” (Order-type Tactícs) where you set the goal and also tell your subordinates how they’re meant to achieve it. When Germany was divided, the Bundeswehr retained mission-type tactics while the NVA in the east switched to the Soviet model and consequently also introduced the EK-System, a form of hazing like the Dedovchina just because the Order-Type Tactics system gives NCOs so little authority.