Surviving a kamikaze: the resilient Russian T-90M Proryv tank

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Since the inception of the intense Russian-Ukrainian conflict in early 2022, both parties have made substantial adjustments to their tank fleets in direct response to the escalating threats to their armored forces. 

Photo by Maksim Blinov / Sputnik

Arguably, one of the most iconic measures undertaken involved the installation of heightened roofs on their vehicles, often equipped with explosive reactive armor. This modification was primarily designed to enhance protection against overhead attacks or drone strikes, a threat that has grown significantly in recent times. 

Adding more armor to tanks has been a common move overall. Ukraine, with its robust capability to produce explosive reactive armor inherited from the days of the Soviet Union, has utilized this strength to bolster the protective capabilities of its Soviet-era vehicles. This has also been extended to newly acquired Western tanks such as the M1A1 Abrams.

Surviving T-90M tank

Recent footage presents a compelling perspective on the durability improvements to Russian vehicles. One notable example is the Russian T-90M tank, which remarkably survived a Ukrainian drone attack, offering valuable insights into these advancements. 

This new footage unveils the aftermath of a lone Ukrainian ‘kamikaze’ drone attack on the T-90M. The visuals highlight discernable damage to the tank’s protective features and metal canopy. Notably, the Kontakt-1 explosive reactive armor blocks on the protective roof display signs of detonation. 

Photo credit: MWM

However, the vehicle’s core framework remains virtually untouched. Despite showing signs of the attack, the tank appears ready for battle. Furthermore, with only minor maintenance required to replace the damaged protective systems, the possibility of restoring it to frontline service is quite promising.

This is not an indicator

Despite the T-90M tank’s remarkable resilience during its encounter with a Ukrainian kamikaze drone, the overall pattern shows tanks, including the renowned T-90M, are not invincible. Additional armoring such as grilles on top of the dome may provide some protection, primarily against misdirected drones.  

Let’s consider the T-90M, for instance. Its Achilles heel lies at the junction between the chassis and the turret – a point of vulnerability when facing kamikaze drones. Insights from the Ukrainian war demonstrate that all deployed tank models are significantly exposed to anti-tank missile systems, whether of Russian/Soviet or Western origin.  

Photo by Samil Ritdikov

Regardless, it appears the potential loss of tanks doesn’t particularly perturb the Russians. So, put yourself in their shoes and ask – how many tanks can Russia realistically afford to lose? The answer: as many as their budget allows. For almost two years, the Kremlin has been ramping up its tank manufacturing drive. This initiative is now yielding results, with the substitution of Russia-made optical systems for the embargoed French versions. Previously, the sole manufacturer of tanks, including the models T-72B3M and T-90M, was the Uralvagonzavod factory in the Sverdlovsk region. Now, Omsktransmash of Siberia is also committing to the regular manufacturing of the T-80BVM.  

Speculations about the exact number of fresh and upgraded tanks these factories can produce continue. This past April, CNN conjectured that Uralvagonzavod was producing about 20 tanks per month. However, just a few weeks earlier, Defense Express proposed a combined delivery of 90 tanks monthly from Uralvagonzavod, Omsktransmash, and other modernization workshops.

Photo credit: aw.my.games

Initial rejection

Initially, many Western analysts brushed off the implementation of elevated roofs over military tanks, labeling it a ‘cage of coping.’ However, its defense against a drone strike demonstrated in Ukraine signifies that this approach is here to stay. 

On a related note, the Israeli Army echoed this adjustment in their own armored units at the end of 2022. This change was initiated after they sustained tank damage due to drone assaults from Palestinian militias.

The first T-90M

In 2019, the Russian Army initially acquired ten T-90M tanks, planning for more numbers in future production. However, the escalating conflict in Ukraine led to an increase in both production and purchases by the Defense Ministry. By April 2020, the T-90M started making its presence felt in the Russian Army, outshining all other T-90 variants by successfully completing state trials just two months before.  

This top-grade tank possesses an array of outstanding features. Equipped with  sturdy base armor, it significantly increases its defensive capacity with the avant-garde Relikt explosive reactive armor. It further boosts its vitality with advanced fire control systems supplemented with third-generation thermal sights and an exclusive provision of a thermal viewer along with a digital display dedicated to the commander. 

Benefitting from the newly integrated autoloader and main gun, T-90M tanks can now effortlessly adapt to longer APFSDS rounds, considerably enhancing their ability to penetrate enemy armor. Moreover, the tank’s survivability has been escalated with a new protective structure for the autoloader carousel, which segregates the ammunition from the crew, thereby radically reducing the risk of internal explosions. This has been underscored by incidents in Ukraine where T-90Ms have been able to withstand penetrating hits without causing internal explosions. Owing to this, the vehicle has garnered high praise for its effective engagements on the Ukrainian battlefront. 

Interestingly, late 2022 saw other tanks in action with refreshed armor configurations resembling that of the T-90M, specifically the far more prevalent T-72B tank. These alterations have kindled rumors of a potential re-designation of these refurbished tanks as T-72B4.

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