In modern warfare, it can be difficult to tell if a craft is damaged or destroyed, as it is not observable. But this is certainly not the case with the Russian T-72 tanks in the war in Ukraine. In several photos shared online, the vehicles are completely wrecked, with the turret thrown some distance from the tank body. These catastrophic losses are the side effect of a calculated design decision.
Most Western tanks, including the newer M1 Abrams, have a crew of four: commander, driver, gunner and loader. Of the four tank crew roles, the loader is the simplest and easiest to automate, and this is what the Russians did with the T-72 series and later tanks.
The autoloader reduces the number of people required by 25%, while significantly reducing the space required inside the turret due to the lack of ammunition handling. It makes the turret smaller and contributes to the T-72’s very low profile – at about 30cm shorter than the Abrams, it can hide and remain invisible more easily (unless it’s equipped with one of the armor cages welded to the roof that the Russians used in Ukraine).
Also, autoloaders are supposed to be faster, more efficient than humans, and cheaper.
One disadvantage of an automatic loader is that it reduces the crew available for field maintenance and repairs. Another drawback was that while the French Leclerc tank had an autoloader whose ammunition was stored in a turret far from the crew, the Russians chose, with the T-72, to store the ammunition in a carousel in the tank’s fuselage, directly under the turret.
So there is no barrier between the crew and the stored ammunition. The Abrams ammunition magazine is separate from the crew compartment and fitted with special panels so that if the ammunition detonates – as shown here – the panels fire first, and thus the explosion will spread outward rather than into the enclosed crew compartment.
With the Russian design, there are no blasting panels, because the ammunition is in the same space as the crew. Any hit penetrating the turret or hull can set off the ammunition, with the result that it is sometimes described as a spring-loaded demon: the force of the ammunition’s explosion tears the inside of the tank, often separating the turret with such force that it is thrown away. Such events are instantly fatal to the crew.
The location of the T-72’s ammunition depot is well known, and it may 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 while holding a light weapon. Ammunition depot side shield. No wonder, then, that some call the T-72 a “death trap” and talk about “Olympic tower throwing champions.”
Although Ukraine uses the same tanks, much of its combat power currently appears to be in the form of light infantry divisions armed with anti-tank equipment. Their tanks, heavily outnumbered, were barely seen in action.
Judging by statistics carefully compiled by intelligence analysts from the Oryx blog, who have identified and cataloged every photo showing a vehicle destroyed in the conflict, ordnance explosions are not the main cause of Russian tank casualties. Of the 360 casualties documented so far, 166 were destroyed and 6 damaged – but 188 tanks were abandoned or captured by the Ukrainians. The dropout rate is much higher than for other types of armored vehicles and indicates that Russian tank crews are reluctant to stick with their vehicles when given a choice.
But the T-72 crews who saw the results might rightly be worried about doing battle in a vehicle that would likely violently disintegrate on impact.
Translated article from the American magazine Forbes – Author: David Hambling
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