The T-90 main battle tanks (MBT) are the most advanced Russian tanks currently in full combat against Ukraine. T-90s are often compared to advanced Western tanks like the M1 Abrams, Challenger-2, and Leopard-2 MBTs.
So far, the Russian military has suffered 61 documented losses of T-90 tanks, according to figures compiled by the military-tracking blog Oryx from visual confirmations.
Of these, 18 are of the advanced T-90M variant, available in very limited numbers. Already last May, it was said that the Russian army had only 100 T-90M tanks.
That being said, in December 2022, the state-owned company Uralvagonzavod (UVZ) delivered the last batch of an unknown number of T-90 tanks to the Russian Defense Ministry. These tanks were assigned to the Russian Central Military District, whose units are participating in the fighting in Ukraine.
Prior to that, Uralvagonzavod had reportedly delivered a batch of newly built T-90Ms and some older tanks that were upgraded to this level in May 2022.
T-90M main battle tank
The T-90 is a third-generation main battle tank with a welded composite armor hull and built-in Kontakt-5 explosive reactive armor blocks.
Nonetheless, the T-90M’s upgraded edition has better armor protection thanks to Relikt Explosive Reactive Armor (ERA) incorporated instead of the older Kontakt-5, which is made to shield-shaped charges and considerably lessens the impact of armor-piercing sabot shells. Discarding with a stabilizing fin (APFSDS).
In addition, the tank features net armor on the underside of its turret and slat armor on its rear to improve defenses against rocket-propelled grenades by disrupting warhead fusion.
To protect itself from opponent semi-automatic guided anti-tank weaponry, the tank is equipped with a countermeasures system that deploys smoke grenade launchers in the event of laser illumination.
In addition, the T-90’s smaller size and low profile allow it to navigate tight spaces such as forests and mountains, allowing it to hunker down. The T-90 is said to have a top speed of about 59 kilometers on the highway and 45 kilometers per hour off it.
Armament-wise, most of the T-90s are A-variants that are armed with a fully stabilized 125mm 2A46M smoothbore gun, capable of firing armor-piercing fin-stabilized (APFSDS), high-explosive (HE) rounds. And high explosive and fragmentation projectiles (HE-FRAG) up to a range of about 2-3 kilometers.
The T-90M, however, is equipped with a 2A46M-4 125mm smoothbore main gun instead, which has a range of 4-5 kilometers and is rumored to be 15-20% more accurate than the 2A46M cannon.
Nakidka radar-absorbing material (RAM) was discovered on the T-90M that Ukrainian forces captured in September of last year. This RAM is meant to protect the tank from guided weapons that use thermal imaging to lock on to a target, and it also reduces the vehicle’s infrared, thermal, and radar signatures.
In addition, according to some reports, the T-90s are also equipped with a “TShu-1-7-Shtora-1” optronic system to disrupt laser designation and rangefinders of oncoming anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) and an electro-optical jammer to jam semi-active enemy line-of-sight guidance (SACLOS) used by ATGMs.
The Shtora-1 also features an externally mounted turret laser warning device, which can detect laser illumination and alert aircrew and defensive systems to optimize the deployment of a thermal smoke screen or activation of security systems Active protection (APS). It can even reportedly automatically turn the turret and barrel toward the threat.
However, the T-90s have not been a game changer for Russia in its current conflict in Ukraine as they should have been, judging by the technical details shared by Moscow.
Why haven’t the T-90s been a game-changer?
To get a proper estimate of the effectiveness of the T-90, EurAsian Times consulted Lieutenant Colonel Nektarios Papantoniou of the Hellenic Army, who is also Greece’s national coordinator for the European Main Battle Tank Test and Simulation Center (MBT-SIMTEC).
Papantoniou began by explaining that the common belief among main battle tank users is that the performance of any means of comparable technology depends greatly on the quality of the training of its crews.
He pointed out that most of the action in Ukraine takes place in urban areas and not out in the open. Urban areas do not influence the tank’s long-range combat and cross-country maneuvering capabilities.
Consequently, Papantoniou continued, “Combined arms and mechanized tactics, in general, are much more important than the individual characteristics of any weapons system. The performance of the T-90/M may not be what you would expect, but I highly doubt that it is the sole result of the tank’s capabilities.”
Despite the fact that the T-90s have a Shtora-1 system, videos have surfaced on social media showing the destruction of Russian tanks by anti-tank missiles fired from high positions “top-down” at vehicles in Ukraine, suggesting that Russian tanks do not have a 360-degree active protection system (APS).
When asked about it, Papantoniou said the Shtora-1 system was designed more than 30 years ago to effectively protect against SACLOS (semi-automatic within sight) ATGM missiles and weapons employing LASER rangefinders and designators.
“As such, it appears to be effective against older types of ATGMs that operated in a ‘straight line’ (meaning the user/launcher, missile, and target were parts of the same straight line), but much less so against newer threats, such as top-attack missiles and submunitions, and systems using coded tracking beacons,” he noted.
Furthermore, Papantoniou explained that Shtora sensors have specific capabilities as the height and width of the detection areas are of specific dimensions, “as such, new generation ATGMs fired from elevated positions, according to your questions, have a significantly higher chance of having a lethal effect on a target, since they will most likely maneuver well outside the area monitored by the Shtora sensors.”
He also pointed out that the terrain and operating conditions can also seriously affect the capabilities of land warfare systems, so it is up to the crews to use their equipment based on the terrain in which they operate so as to minimize deficiencies. of any system and make the most of its capabilities.
“It goes without saying that poor-quality training can rarely be countered by hardware, no matter how advanced the embedded technology is,” Papantoniou said.
Destroyed Russian T-90A tank. pic.twitter.com/KpxVSk0sWW
— Rob Lee (@RALee85) April 7, 2022
When asked about the T-90 losses, Papantoniou stated that the T-90 is a derivative of the older T-72 and has many of the design flaws of the T-72 while incorporating the ideas of how this would be used. Updated and improved design against NATO adversaries during a potential Cold War-era conflict.
However, Ukraine presents a very different type of threat environment, with most of the action taking place in urban or semi-urban areas of the country. Mechanized units also face new generation threats, such as loitering munitions like the Switchblade and Lancet, which most current ground systems are ineffective against.
He then reiterated his view on crew training: “Events on the ground do not give a very good picture of the quality of Russian tank crews, either in training or tactics.”
“Summarizing, I would say that such losses are perfectly normal within the “perfect storm” created by four different factors: the design and capabilities of the equipment used, the quality of the tank crews, the numerous new generation threats and the tactics applied, Papantoniou finally said.