Russia’s most advanced tank right now is the T-90M, the ‘M’ meaning it’s an upgraded, modernized version of the original T-90, which itself is an upgraded version of the T-72 family. So, not counting the T-14, which only a few have been built and hasn’t been used in Ukraine in direct assaults, the T-90M is their latest and most capable.
Reportedly, it has some world-class protection, optics, computer systems, and more. However, despite all its upgrades and capabilities, we’ve seen it perform poorly in Ukraine. As of June, Russia has lost 23 T-90Ms, of which 14 were fully destroyed, and Ukraine captured two.
Now, that might not sound like a lot, especially considering the over 1000 T-72s that Russia has lost. However, Russia only had about 70 T-90Ms at the start of the war. That would mean they’ve already lost a third of them, and that’s about the same loss ratio of T-72s when you factor in how many they’ve pulled from storage.
So why is it not doing any better than any other tank? One big issue is a significant design flaw that most Russian tanks have: the ammo Carousel design.
One of the main reasons we keep seeing turrets of T-72s and other tanks fly off when they’re hit is due to the ammunition being stored inside, along with the crew.
Sometimes it’s immediate; other times, you’ll see the tank burn or smoke for a while before the ammo detonates, which is often referred to as “cooking off.”
The T90M somewhat solves that issue by storing most of its spare ammunition in racks and bins outside the tank. However, its Carousel is still inside and very susceptible to cooking off when penetrated.
The T90M also has some additional protection against this over its predecessors in the form of a thin layer of aluminum around the Carousel and an additional layer of Emirate Kevlar. But it’s still just under the crew, and if it cooks off, it’ll be catastrophic every time. So that alone is a real design issue, especially when there have been newer designs that have used older Soviet tanks like the T-84 120, which has mostly solved that problem by moving the ammo Carousel out and away from the crew compartment, with blowout panels directing energy away from the tank, greatly increasing survivability.
However, the T-90s and T-72s all pretty much come from the same base design, so many of the faults the T-72s and the T90s also have.
One major one is its incredibly low reverse speed, just four kilometers per hour (2.5 miles per hour). Compare that to the US M1 Abrams, which is capable of 40 kilometers per hour (about 25 miles per hour) in reverse. Such a slow reverse speed can make a massive difference in a battle if the tank needs to withdraw quickly or move back to a safer position in a fight. Having the turret facing backward greatly reduces its ability to return fire effectively and means the weaker rear hull is now facing the enemy.
Russia has added some ERA bricks to some of their tanks in the rear hull, but that added protection is minimal at best and unlikely to stop any significant attack.
Other tanks outside the T-72 and T-90 family, like the T80, don’t have this issue and actually have higher reverse speeds. Some countries offer upgrades to T-72s that greatly increase the reverse speed, but Russia itself still has not, despite the T90M being their latest and most capable tank.
Another limitation of the T-72, T-80, and T-90 design, including the T-90M, is the way that its two-piece ammunition is required to be in two different pieces for it to be loaded into an autoloader. This limits the length and, therefore, the capability of the ammo it fires, especially APFSDS rods.
Tank armor and APFSDS rounds have greatly advanced over the years and will likely continue doing so in the future. However, Russia will still be stuck with the limitations of that autoloader unless they eventually completely redesign the system at high costs. This puts them at a greater disadvantage regarding firepower than other tanks.
There are more reasons why Russia’s T-90Ms are failing outside of the design itself, and that’s a combination of logistics, training, and how they’re being used in Ukraine.
Russian tankers typically receive one to two months of basic training or boot camp, followed by four to six months in their specialized skills, such as armored training for tanks. Volunteer soldiers get more experience as their contracts are longer than the mandatory one year of service for conscripts.
When it comes to the T-90m, it seems like Russian tankers mostly train at their brigades and then naturally, volunteer soldiers are going to get more experience as their contracts are longer than the mandatory one year of service. The problem extends all the way up the chain of command.
Tactics also play a crucial role, and regardless of what tank you’re using, if you’re using your tanks poorly and exposing them recklessly, it doesn’t matter how well-armored they are. If you send tanks without infantry support or rear defense coverage of any kind, you’re going to take losses. This is true for both Russia and Ukraine. We have seen some of the best tanks, like Leopard 2 main battle tank, destroyed dues to this reason.
Additionally, changes in warfare, like the widespread use of drones and other asymmetrical tactics, have put tanks in situations they weren’t originally designed to handle.
So why hasn’t Russia fixed these issues?
It’s likely due to several reasons. The carousel design inside and beneath the crew is simpler, more reliable, less expensive to produce, and more compact, allowing for smaller and lighter tanks.
Similarly, a more capable engine and transmission for higher reverse speed means larger and more complex tanks. Russia has often focused on building tanks in massive numbers over individual capability and survivability.
Furthermore, training, command problems, and logistics have been long-standing issues for Russia’s military, and they likely won’t be solved anytime soon.
During a war, criticizing or discussing problems can be seen as unpatriotic or an act of treason, which happens in Russia and other nations. Finally, there are reasons outside of Russia’s control, such as changes in warfare tactics that have made tanks more vulnerable.
In conclusion, the T90M’s performance is affected by design flaws, training, tactics, and changes in warfare. While Russia has the ability to adapt and learn, these issues are deeply rooted and will continue to pose challenges for their tanks.