Russia Thought Its Tanks Were Unstoppable (And Then Syria Happened)

Sebastien Roblin

Key point: A determined and well-armed adversary made the difference.

The interconnected conflicts raging across the Middle East today have amounted to a dreadful human catastrophe with spiraling global consequence. One of their lesser effects has been to deflate the reputations of Western main battle tanks mistakenly thought to be night-invulnerable in the popular imagination.

Iraqi M1 Abrams tanks not only failed to prevent he capture of Mosul in 2014, but they were captured and turned against their owners. In Yemen, numerous Saudi M1s were knocked out by Houthi rebels. Turkey, which had lost a number of M60 Pattons and upgrade M60T Sabra tanks to Kurdish and ISIS fighters eventually deployed its fearsome German-built Leopard 2A4 tanks. ISIS destroyed eight to ten in a matter of days.

While these tanks could have benefited from specific defensive upgrades in some cases, the real lesson to be drawn was less about technical deficiencies and more about crew training, competent morale, and sound tactical employment matter more even than “invulnerable” armor. After all, even the most heavily armored main battle tanks are significantly less well protected from hits to the side, rear or top armor—and rebels with years of combat experience have learned how to ambush imprudently deployed main battle tanks, particularly using long-range anti-tank missiles from miles away.

One exception to the general tarnishing of reputations has been Russia’s T-90A tank, 550 of which serve as Russia’s top main battle tank until the T-14 Armatas fully enters service. The T-90 was conceived in the 1990s as a modernized mash-up the hull of the earlier mass-production optimized T-72, and the turret from the higher-quality (but operationally unsuccessful) T-80. Retaining a low profile and a three-man crew, (the tank’s 2A46M auto-loading cannon takes the place of a human loader), the fifty-ton T-90A is significantly lighter than the seventy-ton-ish M1A2 and Leopard 2.

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