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Why do the tops of Russian tanks pop off?

Why do the tops of Russian tanks pop off?

I have been a proponent of the Russian tanks, given how their performance during the 1970s and 1980s was good in the middle east and how it slowly went downhill after that. The designs never kept up with the inherent development in newer munitions and more importantly tactics. Here is my old article on their decline in performance.

Moreover, let us address the question in the title, why do Russian tanks throw their turrets? Let us also list all possible supplementary questions and answer them throughout the article.

  1. Why does this happen?
  2. Are there ways to stop it?
  3. Have countermeasures been deployed?

The Russo-Ukrainian conflict has brought the issue of survivability of Russian tanks back to the forefront because both sides are using the stockpiles of similar or the exact same base tank design. We have seen countless pictures of turrets blown clean off or burntout tanks from OSINT sources like Oryx on twitter.


The Soviet tank design philosophy was based on massive tank formations rolling down European plains. Hence their idea then was to ensure the tanks have the best surviability in the frontal arc as BMPs and BTRs and the dismounted infantry would cover the sides. Top cover will be provided by SHORADS, MANPADS, Helos and Fighters. This is how combined arms works, with combined being the important part. Here mobility was priority 1 in the design, eliminate the loader with an auto-loader and you have a stubbier and lighter tank. A lighter tank is a more mobile tank.

Combined Arms Operation

A tank has two things it needs to protect at call costs, the turret (crew enclosed) and the ammo. Damage either one and you have a kill with maximum losses (crew being priority 1 here). Given that they had selected to go with an auto-loader, the best place to put it according to them was below the crew compartment. The pros according to them, are as follows.

  1. Low center of gravity
  2. Low probability of hits penetrating reaching the carousel.
  3. Space below the turret is utlised which is difficult to use because of cramped nature.
T-72/90 are thus more survivable as their charges and arounds are flat versus vertical propellant in T-64/80

Given their battle plans, hits to the side were not expected, which is in line with pretty much how all tanks were designed. Prior to the lessons learnt from urban combat. The west diverged here and went for the best possible design! I emphasis because, the bustle-based ammo storage is truly THE BEST. The pros for the bustle ammo is as follows.

  1. Crew can be separated with an armored wall, that works in two ways. Protects crew from cook-offs and in case of a frontal penetration, acts as a second line of defense.
  2. You can add weaker sections (read blow out panels) that fail outward before the dividing armored walls and thus the cook off leaves the crew alone.

And we have Merkavas, that have individual containers in a separate compartment filled with fire suppresants and the turret driven electrically to remove as many combustible materials as possible.

What the Soviets didnt account was for everyone else to successfully adapt their tactics to exploit this weakness. An infantryman can sneak beside a column and hit a tank on its sides. One hit and boom gone! This situation only aggravates with how infantry is used in combined arms, no infantry means more booms. Also, add built up areas and less infantry also means more booms.

Destroyed T-72B

Why does this happen?

To summarise,

  1. The Soviet designers were convinced that side hits were going to be far fewer. And that their combined arms nature of ops would save the sides from hits.
  2. Simultaneously, operators of such tanks have shown how lack of good, combined arms operations leaves the tanks vulnerable.
  3. The real-world counter armor tactics adapted. To use this weakness against Soviet origin tanks.
Are there ways to stop it?

As always, military answers have an easy way and a hard way.

Easy Way:
  1. Up armor sides
  2. Invest in APS
Hard Way:

It is ironic here that the third point is actually the hardest because it means changing how your entire army trains and bring in a philosophical change in operations.

  1. Up armor sides
  2. Invest in APS
  3. Update the combined arms philosophy and how infantry and armor interact.
Have counter measures been deployed?

Uparmor sides is a relatively easy thing if you think off but several variants have tried and failed based on pictures from combat. Any T-64/72/80/90 variant that had either of the following has been seen destroyed from side hits.

  1. K-1 ERA blocks along the sides on side skirts: Because it leaves too much space between the blocks so a first hit damages the protection and a second hit gets through.
  2. Small arms protection plates

The counter measure that works the best and has been seen in combat are the Relkit ERA plates on the sides of T-72B3M Obj 2016, T-90AM and T-80BVM. These plates are mounted well, and they can take up damage while protecting the tank. The solution to all the problems here can also be an APS. An Active Protection System like Trophy or Russia’s Afghanit or Arena could be a game changer if deployed in masses. Furthermore, this became been noted and now the T-14 Armata comes standard with heavy side armor. The western idea of TUSK or Tank Urban Survival Kit adds spaced side armor to enhance protection.

Uparmored sides of a T-72BVM, note rear quadrant ERA on turret.

In conclusion, these all solutions are just place holders. Without a drilled infantry, as a result, will only lead to a small uptick in survivability. Lastly, the best solution is an army that works and breathes like a combined arms operations machine. An army that protects the armor’s flanks and top side so that drones, drone guided artillery or enemy infantry doesn’t sneak through and take pot-shots.

Why do the tops of Russian tanks pop off?

Originally published on the fantastic military site with gracious permission!

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