In modern warfare, it can be difficult to tell if a vehicle is damaged or destroyed, as it is not noticeable. But this is certainly not the case with the Russian T-72 tanks in the war in Ukraine. In many images shared online, the vehicles are completely shattered, with the turret thrown some distance from the tank’s body. These catastrophic losses are the side effect of a calculated design decision.
Most Western tanks, including the most modern M1 Abrams, have a crew of four: commander, driver, gunner and loader. Of the four tank crew roles, loader is the simplest and easiest to automate, and that’s what the Russians did with the T-72 series and later tanks.
The autoloader reduces the number of people needed by 25%, while significantly reducing the space needed inside the turret since the ammunition is not handled. It makes the turret smaller and contributes to the much lower profile of the T-72 – at almost 30 centimeters shorter than the Abrams, it can take cover and remain invisible more easily (unless it be equipped with one of those armor cages welded to the roof that the Russians used in Ukraine).
Also, autoloaders are supposed to be faster and more efficient than humans, and cheaper.
One of the disadvantages of the autoloader is that it reduces the crew available for field maintenance and repairs. Another drawback is that, while the French Leclerc tank has an autoloader whose ammunition is stored in a turret far from the crew, the Russians have opted, with the T-72, for ammunition storage in the form of carousel in the body of the tank, immediately under the turret.
There is therefore no barrier between the crew and the stored ammunition. The Abrams’ ammunition storage is separate from the crew compartment and is fitted with special panels so that if the ammunition explodes – as seen here – the panels come off first, so the explosion will propagates outward rather than through the enclosed crew compartment.
With the Russian design, there are no blast panels, as the ammunition is in the same space as the crew. Any hit penetrating the turret or hull can trigger the ammunition, with a result sometimes described as a spring-loaded devil: the force of the ammunition blast tears the tank from the inside, often detaching the turret with such force that it is thrown away. Such events are instantly fatal for the crew.
The location of the T-72 ammunition depot is well known, and it may even be deliberately targeted, as in this video where a Ukrainian BTR-4 gunner achieves the feat of destroying a Russian T-72 by aiming at close range carrying the thin side armor of the ammunition depot. It’s no wonder, then, that some call the T-72 a “death trap” and speak of “Olympic turret throwing champions.”
Although Ukraine uses the same tanks, much of its combat power currently seems to come in the form of light infantry teams armed with anti-tank equipment. Their tanks, heavily outnumbered, were barely seen in action.
Judging by the statistics carefully compiled by intelligence analysts from the Oryx blog, who identified and cataloged every image showing a vehicle destroyed in the conflict, munitions explosions are not the main cause of Russian tank losses. . Of the 360 documented casualties so far, 166 have been destroyed and 6 damaged – but 188 tanks have been abandoned or captured by the Ukrainians. This dropout percentage is significantly higher than that of other armored vehicle types and suggests that Russian tank crews are reluctant to stick with their vehicles when given the choice.
But T-72 crews who have seen the results may rightly be worried about going into battle in a vehicle that is likely to violently disintegrate when hit.
Article translated from Forbes US – Author: David Hambling
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