German, British and American main battle tanks either already have arrived in Ukraine or will soon be on their way. But these tanks have some well-known weaknesses and the Russians are likely ready for them. Worse still, none of them have active defense systems, a critically important way of protecting tanks and tank crews from modern antitank weapons.
The German-made tanks are known as Leopards. Two different series of Leopard tanks are being sent to Ukraine, older Leopard-1 A-5s and Leopard 2 A-4 and A-6 tanks. The Leopard 2 series is regarded as one of the best-designed main battle tanks, comparing favorably to the US M1 Abrams, the Russian T-90 and the Israeli Merkava.
The US is refurbishing Abrams M-1 tanks for Ukraine. They should be arriving in the next two months, perhaps even sooner. The British have sent the first Challenger 2 tanks to Ukraine. This behemoth weighs 69 tons, too heavy for many bridges in Ukraine and not suited to function on heavily mudded secondary roads.
None of the tanks being supplied are equipped with reactive armor. Instead, they rely on the built-in tank armor known as NERA (non-energetic reactive armor). The earliest form of NERA was known as Chobham armor because it was developed at the British Tank Research Center in Chobham, Surrey.
This type of armor combines steel plates with a non-steel material between two armor steel plates, sometimes with multiple levels and materials. The composite armor is designed to thwart shaped charge ammunition (like that found in HEAT tank ammunition) and against ammunition that uses a penetrator rod to essentially burn through armor.
These penetrator rods can be made out of hardened steel, tungsten (wolfram) or depleted uranium. Known as Armor Piercing Fin Stabilized Discarding Sabot (APFSDS) rounds, British and US ammunition (M829A4) use depleted uranium for penetrator rods. The penetrators, sometimes called Darts, are 99% depleted uranium combined with other metals, together known as Stabilloy.
By contrast, German APFSDS ammunition uses tungsten penetrators because depleted uranium ammunition is banned in the EU. All the main guns for these European and American tanks are sized at 120mm with smooth bore barrels, originally designed by Rheinmetall in Germany. Russian tanks typically have a 125mm smoothbore main gun, entirely of Russian design.
Russia has both depleted uranium and tungsten dart ammunition in its inventory for its main battle tanks. These rounds have been produced for decades in different versions, such as differences in the length of APFSDS penetrators. Seemingly the Russians are not using depleted uranium ammunition in the Ukraine war.
In 1977 the Russians managed to steal the plans for Chobham armor and adapted it for Russian tanks. However, no Russian tank depends on this type of NERA armor for protection. Instead, the Russians put appliques of reactive (explosive, energetic) armor on the outside body of the tanks, typically on the front, on the turret and sides of the tank.
Russian reactive armor has evolved from a type known as Kontakt 1 to Kontakt 5. The Russians are now introducing a brand new type of reactive armor called Reklit which is designed to deal almost exclusively with APFSDS threats.
The basic idea of reactive, explosive armor is to explode when an incoming round strikes the tank. The explosion either redirects the actual incoming round, or damages it, making it ineffective.
The better forms of explosive reactive armor can either break or bend a penetrator, protecting the tank. Reactive armor has to be designed so that when it explodes it does not cause injury or death to nearby infantry or to other vehicles. (A similar consideration applies to hard-kill active defense systems – see below.)
The British, Germans and, especially the US long thought that their main battle tanks, designed in the 1970s and 1980s were good against most threats and did not require reactive (explosive) armor.
However, Iraq and Syria changed all that, as many Abrams tanks and Leopard tanks (especially those belonging to the Turkish army) were destroyed by Russian anti-tank weapons fired by ISIS irregulars.
If US and German armor could be knocked out with older ammunition using explosively formed penetrators (in the US best known as shaped charge weapons) and not DART ammunition, it was easy to see that Western tanks were at risk. The Russians immediately recognized the vulnerability of Leopard tanks to Russian antitank weapons.
Starting in 2017 the US army designed what it called Angled Tiles, a type of reactive armor designed to deflect an incoming threat, either upwards or downwards (depending on how the tiles are configured on installation). By 2019 the US Army started installing Angled Tiles on US Abrams tanks deployed in Europe, admitting that America’s top tank, despite its super secret armor, was deficient in protection.
This is especially significant since the newest US Abrams main battle tanks have a unique layered armor system that is said to include depleted uranium. The US decided not to provide this tank version with depleted uranium-enhanced armor to Ukraine fearing the Russians might copy it, but it is the most advanced version getting Layered Tiles. Ukraine is not getting layered tiles either.
Meanwhile, in Ukraine, the recently arriving Leopard tanks are being modified by the addition of external reactive armor. Lacking their own sources for reactive armor, the Ukrainians are pulling modules off of damaged or destroyed Russian tanks. So far at least, the modified Leopard 2 tanks are being fitted with Kontakt 1 reactive armor, at least a few generations behind the latest protective reactive armor systems.
The haste with which Ukraine is plastering its “new” Western tanks with reactive armor tells us something else: these new tanks are not much better than what they had before. And it tells us, furthermore, that even better ones held back by the Pentagon don’t cut it.
An Active Defense System is a system that destroys incoming mortars, rockets and shells before they hit a tank. The system works by detecting the incoming threat and neutralizing it by firing an explosively formed projectile.
An Active Defense System is at its best against antitank weapons and mortars. It is less capable against tank-fired ammunition because these rounds travel at supersonic (nearly Mach 3) speeds.
Thus proper tank defenses need to have top-quality armor, reactive armor and Active Defense Systems. Tanks with all three capabilities can potentially survive against even a well-equipped and heavily armed adversary.
There are a number of Active Defense Systems around, and some newer ones under development apparently will use lasers instead of explosively formed projectiles.
The Russians claim to have one or more active defense systems (one of them is called Arena), but not a single Russian tank in the Ukraine war is equipped with Active Defense. None of the tanks being delivered by Germany, the UK and the US are fitted with Active Defense.
The best of the currently-deployed systems is the Israeli Trophy (Rafael) and a newer type made in Israel called Iron First (Israel Military Industries). Trophy has been proven in combat and is fitted to Merkava tanks.
Some 100 or so units have been sold to the Pentagon for the Abrams main battle tank, but that’s a drop in the bucket. Some Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicles are being equipped with Iron Fist, but not those supplied to Ukraine.
Just as US forces have paltry air defenses because they refused to buy Israel’s Iron Dome air defense system, the same is true for US tanks, where only a small number of systems were purchased for trials. The Pentagon has long been rightly accused of suffering from the Not Invented Here (NIH) syndrome.
Other Abrams tanks have been fitted with a so-called Soft-Kill Active Defense System that is supposed to jam the electronics of a threat. Since kinetic weapons fired by tanks or artillery guns don’t use much in the way of electronics, soft kills offer no help.
Soft kill may be effective against troop-operated antitank weapons. It is unlikely any soft kill system will be on the Abrams tanks delivered to Ukraine.
Unfortunately, we won’t see how properly equipped Western tanks might perform in the Ukraine war. And it is increasingly likely that plenty of the main battle tanks from Europe and the United States will go up in smoke, along with their crews.
This article first appeared on Stephen Bryen’s Substack page and is republished with kind permission of the author. Read the original here.