01 Mar 2022
Modern Armor in Ukraine
Fell into a wikipedia rabbit hole tonight, on the topic of tanks and other armored vehicles. It’s a pretty interesting topic area, if—like me—you are interested in such things.
There is a back-and-forth between tank armor and defensive systems on one hand, and tank weapons and offensive capabilities on the other. This is similar to the back-and-forth between cryptographers and cryptologists that is often recognized in cryptography.
In the first generation, tanks were mostly protective of battlefield fire—that was their whole purpose, after all. At least the common threats of small arms fire and artillery shrapnel (a direct hit from a HE shell would undoubtedly destroy one, and doesn’t seem to have been a design criterion).
Anti-tank weapons rapidly scaled up to meet the new armored vehicles. The early man-portable anti-materiel rifles were phased out in favor of rifled guns like the German 88mm, towed behind vehicles. Tanks got heavier and more heavily-armored during WWII, and so did tank destroyers and anti-tank guns. The first shoulder-fired rocket launchers and shaped-charge warheads were developed.
After the war, tank armor continued to get thicker and mixed metal/ceramics were developed (Chobham armor). So anti-tank systems were forced to advance again, but split into two approaches: kinetic vs. shaped charge.
Kinetic systems are basically a continued evolution of the traditional artillery AP projectile. Make the projectile harder, more dense, and make it go faster. Eventually, was developed to logical conclusion: armor piercing discarding sabot (APDS) with ultra-dense penetrator made from tungsten or depleted uranium, traveling 1,500-2,000 km/s. Can’t get much denser than that, and hard to go faster than that, so that might be practical limits of the system. Latest US one is M829A4, which incorporates fluid metal features to defeat composite armor.
Shaped charge / HEAT systems use shaped charges (one or more) to blast hole through armor with plasma/shockwave. Modern systems use two charges to defeat reactive armor. Seems like there’s room to grow here. Used as both artillery projectiles and missile warheads.
- By the end of the WWII, German armor had evolved to the Jagdtiger
- 128mm main gun
- 72 ‘tonnes’
- 9.8in front armor (250mm)
- And the US had started to develop a prototype “super heavy” tank, before someone realized it was so heavy it’s nearly impossible to transport
- More of an ‘assault gun’ (cf. German rail-based siege artillery)
- 100 tons (wonder what the ground pressure was like)
- 105mm main gun
- 12in/305mm front armor (that’s battleship territory)
In Ukraine, right now, the balance of MBTs looks like:
Russian Army - T-64 MBT (2000+ total) - T-72 MBT (9,950 total) - T-14 MBT (~20 total, some in Syria?) - AKA the “Armata” - Has “Afghanit” hard-kill active protection system
Ukrainian Army - T-64 MBT (720 total) - 125mm smoothbore cannon, can also fire AT-8 missile - reactive armor plating - T-72 MBT (3,600 total) - 125mm smoothbore cannon, or missile (AT-11 Sniper) - easier to maintain? - fires sabot, HEAT, frag - composite armor
Ukrainian dismounted forces have access to the Javelin and NLAWS ATGMs. In an urban environment, they could probably do very serious damage. Javelin uses top-attack approach and IR terminal guidance. (NLAWS is direct attack?) Comparable Russian system is probably the RPG-32, but the Russians don’t seem to be big on dismounted attack.
“Afghanit” Hard-Kill APS
This is the latest-generation Russian defensive system for armored vehicles, including MBTs. They claim it can do all sorts of stuff; guess we’ll find out shortly how much is just good PR. Only the experimental T-14s have it currently, according to most reports, but it appears to be modular and could be retrofitted onto T-64 and -72s… if they have enough of them. It’s unclear how many systems there are, how many reloads, production capacity and dependence on imported parts, etc. (As usual, it raises the question “why the hell did they invade if they didn’t have this stuff ready to go yet?” I don’t have an answer to that one.)
From Below The Turret Ring:
> The current Russian Afghanit APS is installed on the T-14 Armata MBT, the T-15 IFV, the Kurganets-25 IFV and the Bumerang wheeled IFV/APC. It appears to be a development of Drozd, at least in terms of basic conception and layout.
The Russians claim that Afghanit is able to defend against saboted DU AP rounds, up to a terminal velocity around 1.7 km/s or 5,500 fps. I’m somewhat skeptical of this, to put it lightly.
Notes about Afghanit:
- Uses millimeter-wave radar in an actively scanned array (AESA) and tubular submunition dispensers on each side of hull, which carry both soft-kill and hard-kill munitions - “Afghanit utilizes two active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar arrays put on both turret cheeks” - “These provide a detection arc that covers slightly more than the 90 degrees to the left and right of the gun” - Soft kill: “multistage multispectral smoke cartridge with a flare/thermal decoy” - “The smoke/flare cartridges probably aim to divert missiles that rely on a thermal or electro-optical lock like the Javelin or Spike-MR.” - Hard kill: “Afghanit uses a small homing projectile to destroy incoming projectiles. According to Russian sources, the hard kill component can intercept projectiles going up to 1.7 kilometers per second.” - Not a lot of information in open literature on exactly what the hard kill munition is - The Russians have some experience with small missiles, e.g. the 9M337 “Sosna-R” used on their new SHORAD systems - Other hard kill APS seem to use a grenade-type (not rocket propelled) projectile, with precisely-timed detonation to deflect incoming weapon - System was reportedly designed by the Kolomna KBM
Kinetic Interceptors: “Hard Kill” APS
“A mini-mortar system using fragmentation rounds is responsible for intercepting incoming threats in mid-flight. The first tests of this modification were carried out in 2016 with computer algorithms being the key for this new capability.” (Deagel)
The older Russian “Drozd” system was designed to defeat man-portable ATGMs, principally in Afghanistan:
> “Drozd uses two doppler radars (operating at 24.5 GHz) to detect incoming projectiles moving a velocity between 70 and 700 metres per second beginning at a distance of about 250 metres from the vehicle. For intercepting incoming ATGMs, Drozd uses unguided 3UOF14 rockets with a 107 mm diameter and a HE fragmentation warhead. Two interceptors can be shot from a fixed launcher covering a 20° segment of the vehicle’s frontal arc; the T-55AD is fitted with four dual-barreled launchers to provide protection along an 80° frontal arc. Such a configuration was also presented on the T-80U-M2 prototype in Omsk in 1997. All calculations are done by an analog computer instead of a more advanced digital system. Drozd’s 9 kilograms heavy 107 mm rockets have a velocity of about 190 metres and detonate in 7 metres distance from the vehicle (this is hard-coded within the rocket). The pre-fragmented warhead will propell about 1,000 fragments to a velocity of about 1,600 metres per second.” (BTTR again)
Modern sensor systems have improved dramatically from the 1980s radar-only systems, if you believe Russian claims:
> “Active Phased Antenna Array radar and Ultraviolet (UV) sensors allow to identify incoming rocket propelled grenades and missiles from any direction. The detectors trace the UV photons in the trail of the ionized air left by the rocket-propelled projectile evaluating its speed and trajectory. This critical information is employed by Afganit to successfully intercept the incoming threat. Originally, this APS system was based upon four small radars installed on the sides of the vehicle. The UV detectors are far more efficient and can withstand intense clutter and jamming environments.” (Deagel again)
APS Defeat Techniques
Tactics for attacking vehicles with active protection systems, especially hard kill, vary with the system.
Most systems use active radar to detect incoming projectiles. These radar emitters can be targeted and destroyed with projectiles that the APS won’t react to and destroy, e.g. small arms fire, shrapnel, or blast from outside the protection radius.
The “AHEAD projectile” reportedly produces “a directed beam of striking elements [which are] guaranteed to disable phased antenna arrays”. AHEAD is manufactured by Oerkilon and is designed for anti-aircraft and C-RAM use primarily. It does not seek / home on radar emitters, but bursts into a number of kinetic submunitions at a predetermined distance from the gun. This could be set to be just outside the APS defensive envelope.
Modern EW systems also offer possibilities for defeating APS:
- Jam / blind the detection system in the critical moments before a weapon enters the defensive envelope, throwing off the intercept calculations - Spoof the signature of an incoming weapon to cause premature discharge of the active / hard-kill APS - Only need to spoof something that looks like a return signal to the radar receiver (low power compared to traditional ‘overload’ jamming) - Could be used alone (hard-kill system becomes the weapon, e.g. against nearby infantry) - Could be paired with an ATGM fired immediately following
Training / Technique
- Attack older systems in blind spots
- High angle from buildings
- Back of turret tends to be vulnerable
- Attack with multiple weapons at once
- Some systems cannot engage simultaneous targets
- Many systems are time consuming to reload once depleted
- Some are effectively single-use
- Attack first with older, cheaper, low-kill-probability weapons (RPG-7) to deplete APS, then use a modern high-kill-probability ATGM to destroy the vehicle
- Dummy or training rounds could potentially even be used in combat as decoys
Something to keep an eye on as the situation develops over the next few months.