Russia's T-14 Armata Tank vs Leopard Tank

Russia's T-14 Armata Tank vs Leopard Tank

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Back in 2020 Putin made some big promises. By ‘big promises’ we mean one specific armor-piercing, rapidly-moving, supposedly impenetrable promise. You know what we’re talking about and it starts with a ‘t’ and ends with a laser-guided missile explosion.

The T-14 Armata. Putin vowed to manufacture this alleged “Abrams killer,” –by far the strongest and most technically advanced Russian tank ever designed–in mass quantities. You can’t say the guy doesn’t dream big.

But sometimes dreams turn into nightmares and that’s exactly what happened to the Russian dictator who is now facing an incomprehensible shortage of tanks on the battlefield in Ukraine. And we’re not just talking about the T-14, which, let’s be real, is more or less ghosting this war completely. The guy is running low on every kind of clanky, antiquated Soviet-era hardware and tanks you can think of. The Russian army is currently trying to fight off the latest and greatest Western tanks and IFVs, including American-made M-1 Abrams, German-made Leopard IIs, and British-made Challengers, and they are failing at trying to get any real headway in these battles.

Would things be different if Russia had more T-14 Armatas at its disposal? In an epic battle between the T-14 Armata and, say, the German Leopard II - who would win? Let’s lay down the stats and find out. But first, a quick review of the T-14 Armata’s complicated backstory, filled with red-flags that Putin clearly ignored to his own demise. In 2015, the Russian armed forces [revealed] the T-14 Armata, a highly secretive next-generation main battle tank based on the Armata Universal Combat Platform.

The universal Armata design was originally intended to serve as a starting point for the next-generation of Russian heavy Infantry Fighting Vehicles (IFVs) and Armored Personnel Carriers (AFVs). This was a common starting point among the world’s strongest militaries in the 1970s and 1980s, but the Russians came to the game late, starting development on the Armata platform in 2009. The thought was that if you could build a modular next-generation tracked vehicle platform, you’d be able to slap all manner of mission-specific systems onto it according to the needs and dictates of the intended mission. Yes, you could have a powerful main battle tank, but you’d also have the basis of a fleet of combat engineering vehicles, air-defense units, armored personnel carriers, tank support vehicles, and self-propelled artillery if you wanted–ones that all run on the exact same engine, fuel, and spare parts. Ultimately, if you could pull it off, it would vastly simplify maintenance procedures and decrease production costs.

But here’s the problem. Mission modularity is touted as the one-stop solution to all your “tactical, technological, engineering, and budgetary challenges,” but in reality universal platforms can force designers to limit a system’s maximum performance by imposing artificial fiscal and technological constraints in the name of efficiency and integration. It’s okay when the extent of modularity is limited to, say, the seats on an aircraft which can be easily removed to make it a cargo versus a passenger transport. But when you scale it up, swapping turrets on a tank chassis to make it an indirect artillery platform in the spur of the moment, there’s little chance a universal system will outperform a counterpart which has been expressly designed for the prescribed combat role. Like the rest of the West, Russia has veered away from making the Armata Universal Combat Platform the darling of its motorized ground forces–mostly because it can’t anymore. When it was first announced, the T-14 sent the western world into a frenzy.

Could the existing Western Main Battle Tanks hold their weight against the latest Russian offering? On paper, at least, it was close. They had similar armament, top speeds, and armor. With its isolated crew compartment and automated turret, the T-14 may have been able to better protect its operators.

It had marginally better range, muzzle energy, fuel efficiency, and maintenance potential than even the American M-1 Abrams. But the robust forty-year-old Abrams and Leopard designs with their modern suite of upgrade packages would almost certainly hold their own in a firefight. Which…did not bode well for Russia, since by the time they announced the T-14 there were already ten thousand operable Abrams and more than 3,600 Leopard 2s produced and in use around the world.

As it turned out, there wasn’t much to worry about. The first batch of 12 Armata tanks were delivered in 2015. Despite plans to ultimately acquire 2,300 T-14 tanks by 2025, there are still virtually no Armata’s in use throughout the Russian armed forces.

As the Armata program was beset by production issues, financial problems, and trial delays, its initial acquisition was scaled back to just 100 experimental vehicles—a number that Russia has fallen well-short of reaching. So what’s the German Leopard 2’s backstory? For one, it’s had a far more optimal service history since its inception in 1979. It was something of a surprise when the German military started designing the Leopard 2 just a few years after it had come out with the Leopard I, which had only been in service for about a decade–a very short shelf life for a Main Battle Tank. From the start, the Leopard 1 had been a staple of European defense, with more than 4,700 tanks and 1,741 utility and anti-aircraft variants produced. You can still find upgraded Leopard 1s out there in the wild if you travel to Greece, Turkey, Brazil, or Chile, but by and large most Leopard-adopting militaries have adopted its more modern counterpart, the third-generation Leopard 2, from Poland and Singapore. Updating the Leopard 1 was a decision made in direct response to improvements in Soviet armor during the later stages of the Cold War.

West Germany knew it occupied a strategically vital position on NATO’s frontlines with the Soviet Union. If the Soviets decided to attack, West Germany needed a competitive main battle tank to resist the threat. Fortunately, they succeeded in developing a tank that far outmatched its Soviet opponents. Ironically, the Leopard 2 began its life as a joint-development program with the United States to develop a next generation MBT.

The MBT-70 program that eventually spawned the Leopard couldn’t quite meet the requirements of either nation, so the US went off to work on the M1 Abrams while Germany returned to its Leopard 1 and began asking how they could take it to the next level. Under the management of Porsche engineers, the Germans concluded that the new platform could incorporate improved engine transmission upgrades, a coaxial autocannon, heavier rounds, extendable surveillance cameras, and an independent commander’s periscope to improve the crew’s situational awareness. While they were there, they decided to beef up the tank’s main gun from 105 to the 120mm smoothbore the Leopard retains to this day. The West Germans wanted to see how they were doing so far, so in 1976 they sent a prototype to the US for inspection by American engineers. The Leopard was as agile, if not more, than the American prototype Abrams XM1 in development. They found the Leopard 2 and the XM1 were “comparable in firepower and mobility,” and that even though the Abrams could resist explosive kinetic energy penetration rounds slightly better, Leopard 2 crews were almost twice as well protected.

The Leopard’s engine was more reliable. It guzzled less gas. And it didn’t have as large of a heat signature, even if it was noisier. The Leopard 2 hit the production line shortly after its American audition, having improved on its armor deficiencies.

Like any MBT, it has undergone a series of regular systems upgrades that have improved its armor, survivability, firepower, and optics as technology has improved. There were a couple of baseline improvements over previous generations of MBTs that really set the Leopard 2 apart–it had blowout panels on the separator between the turret bustle with its ready ammunition racks and the crew compartment; it had new thermal night-sight systems, digital ballistic computers, improved fire extinguishing systems, improved frontal arc armor arrays and side skirts that could add new ceramic and composite armor modular plating as required. The latest version of the Leopard is the 2A7, first released in 2014. A consistent string of upgrades have either been implemented or are scheduled to continue improving the platform ever since, which will be discussed in more detail later. Rheinmetall, the manufacturer of the Leopard and Abrams 120mm smoothbore guns, announced in 2015 that it would begin developing a new 130mm variant that would offer a “50% increase in performance in penetration.”

While Germany has announced the end of the Leopard’s service life will likely come around 2030 and Germany and France are already jointly designing its replacement, the Main Ground Combat System, there are more improvements to the Leopard 2A7 in the offing, including upgrades to the current L/55 cannon 120mm ammunition as well as a “new digital turret core system,” “situational awareness system and an active protective system.” The T-14 tank is capable in its own right. Coming in at a spry 55 tons, it is 12 tons lighter than the 67-ton Leopard 2.

Powered by a turbocharged 1,500 horsepower twelve-speed automatic diesel engine, the T-14 is actually significantly faster on the road than the Leopard, capable of traveling 56 miles an hour to the Leopard’s 43. Costing $4-5 million per unit, the Russian offering is also much cheaper to produce–almost half the cost of the Leopard. It is slightly more maneuverable, has adjustable suspension, and claims to have an operational range of 310 miles–thirty more than the Leopard’s 280. If anything, the T-14 may well prove to be a trend-setter: It was, after all, the world’s first production tank with an unmanned turret—a design feature the latest-generation prototype American AbramsX will replicate. It possesses a larger 125mm smoothbore cannon, an autoloader, reactive armor, and the Afghanit Active Protective System (APS) that helps it mitigate the impact of ATGMs that have absolutely eviscerated thousands of T-90s, T-80s, and T-72s that used to form the backbone of the Russian army. The Armata’s three-man crew store their rounds in a sealed turret compartment separate from the cockpit.

Likewise, the power plant, autoloader, and cockpits are sealed against nuclear, biological, and fire threats, something the Leopard’s crew can also boast. Something unique about the T-14 is that it has a merged engine-transmission unit that can be swapped in thirty minutes in the field and, in future variants, may be equipped with a massive 152mm gun which can fire guided missiles capable of shattering armor twice as thick as the Leopard’s. But speaking of unique features, the Leopard has a few tricks up its own turret.

Modern combined operations are undertaken across a variety of terrains and geographic features, waterways and rivers among them. The interior of the Leopard 2 can be sealed, waterproofed, and equipped with a snorkel enabling the vehicle to traverse bodies of water taller than the tank itself. If it needs to, the crew can have up to twelve hours of life support in this sealed configuration, giving its occupants ample protection against the worst chemical and nuclear threats it might encounter on the battlefield.

If the temperature rises above 180 degrees, automatic fire fighting systems will engage to put the fire out. In terms of armor protection, defense estimates figure that the Leopard 2 had the equivalent protection of 1840-2920mm of armor against kinetic energy projectiles, and 2,780 to 4,370mm or armor protection against chemical explosive rounds. The Leopard 2A6 went even farther, improving the crew survivability with protection equivalents of 5,890mm to 7,800mm of armor versus kinetic penetrators, and 9,000 to 11,500mm of armor versus chemical explosive rounds. Leopard crews can feel safe driving over a variety of IEDs and mines, with robust belly armor.

Spall liners inside the hull prevent the deadly fracturing of internal armor plates when an explosive projectile hits the external armor but doesn’t penetrate it–something that can actually incapacitate or kill a crew without leaving much of a visible trace on the exterior of the vehicle. The Leopard 2 can fire several different types of rounds. The German DM33 discarding sabot anti-tank round would be one of the most common in a head-to head matchup, capable of penetrating 960mm of steel armor at a range of 2,000 meters. The Leopard 2A7’s new L55 cannon barrel is longer than its predecessor, giving ammunition improved penetrating power. The German tank can fire LAHAT anti-tank guided missiles up to 3.6 miles away through the

main gun, something the Armata allegedly claims it can do up to a distance of five miles which could be the deciding factor in a one-on-one tank duel. In terms of capacity, the Leopard houses 42 rounds inside the crewed turret, 15 additional rounds on the left side of the turret bustle, and 27 stored rounds in a specially protected hull magazine. The Armata, for its part, can hold 45 rounds. Both tanks have an array of 12.7 and 7.62mm machine guns in addition to their main guns for suppressive fire against infantry and smaller mechanized targets.

Next-generation sensors and optics are the norm in both models, but this is where the proven Leopard shines. It has a stabilized optical periscope for day and night operations, one that integrates fiber optic gyros, laser rangefinders, image fusion functioning, daylight cameras, and a thermal imaging device. The Leopard’s gunner station incorporates a stabilized main sight and an auxiliary targeting telescope, while the driver can maneuver the tank into position using the tank’s built-in night vision and thermal drive systems.

If the Armata actually existed, we would find a capable foe. It possesses multispectral sights with laser rangefinders, thermals, and wide-angle cameras offering its crew 360 degree situational awareness. Its automated fire control system uses an advanced battlefield management system to analyze targeting data using the tanks built-in muzzle reference system and range sensors. This would certainly give the crew a leg up, as long as all the systems could be kept in good working order. The T-14’s turret uses electrical armament stabilization and can fire programmable ammunition, like the gun-launched anti-tank guided missiles previously noted, expressly designed to destroy tanks and even helicopters.

It’s also worth noting that the T-14 is networked for guidance with other T-14s–they can be aided by a drone cable attachment that can be used indefinitely to distinguish targets using day or night vision, infrared and add distance and target guidance data. This means if one tank’s drone sees a target, the others will too. The Armata–as you can tell–is a tank purpose built for the digital age. Good luck killing its crew, too.

Its forward based three-man crew are tightly cocooned in a futuristic steel capsule developed by Russian scientists to be 15% lighter than normal steel yet withstand insanely heavier blast and heat ratings. Russian engineers wrapped this reinforced steel crew compartment in layers of classified composite ceramic plating. Russian engineers took things a step further. The forward portion of the tank boasts a revolutionary Malachit dual-explosive reactive armor system that can offset the impact of an RPG or anti-tank round in the front, sides, and top of the tank; in the rear, bar armor adds a few additional inches of potentially-lifesaving buffer space between the point of impact and the rear armor itself.

Like most modern MBTs, the T-14 utilizes an APS system with five rocket launchers on either side of the tank that comes in two versions–hard and soft kill versions. Hard kill systems intercept and disable incoming munitions with projectiles of their own, while soft kill systems interfere with the electronic guidance or stabilization mechanisms on incoming rounds using things like laser dazzlers. The Russian-designed Afhganit system is the first in the world to incorporate both in a single system, using millimeter wave radar to target a variety of enemy rounds–including kinetic energy penetrators and tandem-charge weapons like the U.S. manufactured Javelin. It’s not been proven to work 100% of the time, but it's pretty good–analysts believe–at deflecting and destroying artillery shells and unguided rockets that are common on the modern battlefield and interfering with ATGM guidance systems. Some Russians even say it can protect T-14 crews against the depleted uranium kinetic penetrators in common use among American tank crews…but we’ll believe that when we see it. Along those lines, there are almost more unknowns than knowns surrounding the T-14 project—like whether it has actually participated in war-games or live-fire events, whether the fifty-five ton tank could actually achieve the same level of survivability as the sturdier Leopard, or whether its autoloader system is as reliable as claimed.

What we do know is that there is a reason American tank crews rely on good old quality German engineering and precision by adapting the exact same turret and barrel configuration as the Leopard 2. The Leopard 2’s systems can keep its gun leveled no matter what terrain it is traversing, even as it is on hilly terrain or crossing a busy road. After firing, the barrel snaps back to its initial position in the blink of an eye.

Hold my beer, T-14–literally. There’s a famous promotional video showing a Leopard 2 holding a stein of German beer on the tip of its turret while it casually launches itself over an obstacle course–and as you might expect, not a drop spills out. As far as we know, the T-14 has more vertical and horizontal recoil, something you don’t see on the Leopard, and is slightly less stable than the German model which could delay the target acquisition for its next firing. Ultimately, the Leopard has slightly heavier armor, but the Armata is faster, can travel farther, is much cheaper to produce–though apparently not cheap enough for the Russian MOD. It also has an autoloader with a heavier primary gun effective up to five kilometers.

Using its 3UBK21 Sprinter ATGMs, that range increases up to 12 kilometers. Both tanks have not, as yet, faced advanced tanks of their same generation in combat. Yes, the T-14 takes a lot of flak.

We laugh because the tank broke down in its first public outing at the 2015 Moscow Victory Day Parade. I’m sure Putin would bite your arm off for a mechanically challenged T-14 to parade around these days. He could only drum up a single T-34 for this year’s iteration, even though the decision to do so was likely motivated by legitimate security concerns. Still, in a hypothetical one-on-one battle that blatantly ignores today’s geopolitical realities, the fact of the matter is that the Russian tank incorporates—and surpasses—many of the design features that make the Leopard 2 as great as it is.

The armored crew capsule and automated turret offer greater protection and lethality. Its next generation APS system, high-fidelity sensors, and computer targeting would lend it marked, but not decisive advantage. But the fact that the existing Leopard is a time-tested main battle tank with 40+ years with a formidable base platform that will be continually improved upon and upgraded through 2030—is a huge mark in its favor. Only the German government and certain foreign buyers know what kind of next-generation equipment has found its way into the Leopard 2A7+--so it's impossible to know how it would fare in a fight. Already capable of matching up against the T-14 Armata, the fact remains that the price of upgrading existing and already-manufactured Leopards with next-generation technology is far-cheaper than producing a new T-14—something Russia can’t even dream of as the economic and military consequences of its ill-planned invasion of Ukraine mount.

In the end, the accuracy of rangefinders, sensors, and targeting computers would most likely determine the outcome of this tank duel. As one commentator [noted], “Small differences in lethality will likely matter less if one tank is able to see the other while the other cannot detect at similar ranges. The tank that can find, target and hit the other from the longer range is likely to prevail in any kind of war engagement.” It would be rare to actually find ourselves in a scenario where both tanks are hunting the other. With the ubiquity of drones and aerial surveillance, tank battles a la Kursk have become relics of a bygone era. Even if the T-14 boasts greater reach with its laser-guided rounds and rate of fire with its automatic loading mechanism, it wouldn’t matter as much as we might like to think.

Isolated and unsupported as most Russian tanks have been in Ukraine, the T-14 would be an easy and favorable target to Ukrainian infantry who would just as soon engage it with a far cheaper Javelin or AT4 than a Leopard of their own. The true difference maker, however, in a fight between the Leopard II and the T-14 Armata would likely not be in the tank’s technology, armament, or munitions—but in the quality of its crews. And you can take that to the bank. This is where the Leopard—or any modern Western tank for that matter—would truly shine. Operated by competent, well-trained crews with effective NCOs (something the Russians no longer have), tanks are only as good as the humans inside them.

With a strong emphasis on combined and joint operations, traditional Leopard tanks crews would almost certainly benefit from NATO air superiority, better intelligence and integration with remote assets, and battlefield management internal systems—not to mention far greater interoperability with other NATO standard vehicles. Ukraine may lack much air superiority, but it will still be receiving training on how to properly employ them from some of the best instructors in the world. Technology and resilient systems matter on the modern battlefield and will continue to matter in the future. But where these factors fail, discipline, cohesion, and training will take care of the rest.

Until the Armata actually enters the production line—something that for Russia may never even happen as recent reports indicate that in light of recent military setbacks it has halted its 20 trillion rouble program altogether —one-on-one showdowns between it and the Leopard 2 will likely remain confined to our imagination. But if you had to pick one, who would you go with? Let us know in the comments.

2023-06-03 10:53

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