The Russian T-90, a hybrid evolution of the T-72 and T-80, weighs in at almost 48 tons, and would lead Russia into battle if a major land conflict erupted today โ€” not a crazy idea anymore. Here's what the Pentagon should learn something from the thrifty, simple and dangerously effective tank?

The T-90, nicknamed "Vladimir" in its later iterations, came about from post Cold War Russia's initiative to keep only one main battle tank in production, the simpler and more reliable T-72 or the more complex T-80. The resulting T-90 is an effective warrior that balances capabilities and complexity against cost.


The Russian T-80 main battle tank takes the American A1 Abrams route when it comes to a power-plant, packing a gas turbine engine capable of putting out 1000 hp (versus the Arbams 1500hp). The use of a turbine over a tradtional diesel engine left the tank with decent power but with dismal range. Additionally, this configuration was prohibitively maintenance intensive. In effect, the T-80's logistical demands on the battlefield were a severe hindrance to the effectiveness of the type. In fact, Russia's "turbine tank" was so unpopular that the Russian Armor Ministry apparently swore that they would never support going the turbine route ever again. In later variants, the T-80's thirsty and finicky turbine was replaced with a more traditional diesel engine.

Where the T-80 shined when compared to the simpler T-72 was in its targeting system and self-protection systems. Still, the T-80 design was vulnerable when it came to high explosive anti-tank (HEAT) rockets that were fired at it from the side. This, along with sub-par training, chaotic logistical support and less than optimal tactics, led to the loss of an unacceptable percentage of T-80s during the First Chechen War of the 1990's. Still, the tank soldiered on in Russian inventory until just last year. As part of Vladimir Putin's initiative to rearm and modernize Russia's military, Russia now relies on upgraded and battle-tested T-72s and the newer T-90 exclusively.

The T-90 is one logically mean machine. She cuts a low profile and is a marriage of classic soviet simplistic reliability and high tech features. In fact a good, way to explain the T-90 is that it is somewhat of a hybrid concept, combining the reliable and proven chassis of the T-72 with the more advanced turret of the T-80, including its more modern fire control capabilities and support sub-systems. The T-90 is lighter and more nimble than her American counterpart, with the A1 Abrams weighting in at 68 tons compared to the T-90's 48 tons. You read that right, the T-90 is a whopping 40,000lbs lighter than the M1A1 Abrams! The T-90's lower mass results in a smaller, less expensive package, that can do some fairly spectacular maneuvers, whether it be on the open range or in tight urban environments.


The T-90 is propelled by a supercharged, liquid cooled, four-cycle, 12-cylinder diesel engine with horsepower ratings ranging from around 850 to 1250 depending on the variant. By choosing not to design a gas turbine engine into the T-90, the Russians allowed for a simplified, smaller, cheaper and more reliable design, which makes total sense after their less than satisfactory experiences with the T-80. This power-plant choice also allowed for the tank to have close to double the range of the T-80 under ideal conditions, or close to 400 miles on a single tank of fuel.



The T-90 packs a gyro stabilized 125MM smooth bore cannon, but unlike her American counter part, she is not relegated to "just" firing armored piercing discarded sabot (APDS), high explosive anti-tank and high explosive fragmentation rounds. The T-90's 125mm can also fire the 9M119 "Refleks" anti-tank guided missile. This laser guided missile can strike ground based and low flying aerial targets at close to double range of the T-90's main gun. Yes, you read that right, the T-90 can shoot guided missiles out of its main gun and can even take down helicopters with those missiles under certain conditions. The T-90's predecessors also had similar capabilities as well, although the system is said to be better refined in the T-90, especially the latest versions. Unlike the hand-loaded Abrams, the T-90 uses an auto loading system for its main gun. Russian tankers have been heard saying that the Abrams is a bolt action while the Russian T-90 is a semiautomatic.

In addition to the T-90's big cannon, like the Abrams she packs a .50 cal and a 7.62 cal machine gun, but these are both externally mounted, whereas the M1 packs one of its 7.62 caliber machine guns in an internal coaxial mount right next to her main gun. The T-90's .50 cal can be remotely operated from within the tank, a feature that has only recently been added to the Abrams' capability via the Common Remotely Operated Weapons Station (CROWS) upgrade.


The T-90, in its original form, acquired its target using a day/night sighting system which originally lacked range and fidelity in comparison to its western counterparts. Inferior nighttime targeting capabilities have handicapped Russian main battle tanks for decades. With this in mind, Russia finally looked outside of its borders for a sighting system that could match the versatility and range of their tanks' main guns.

This came to fruition with the inclusion of the French-built Thales "CATHERINE" target sight installed on later T-90 models. This site, when paired with the T-90's upgraded fire control system and laser rangefinder/designator, gives gunners and commanders the ability to detect targets beyond the range of their weapons, allowing them to have increased situational awareness and the ability for enhanced "fire and maneuver" capability which is crucial for winning on the modern battlefield.


Although the Russia's main battle tank of choice is much lighter than its American counterpart, it does have good armor and a fairly robust self defensive suite. Different configurations of the T-90 exist, but generally the tank relies on a triad of defense measures to stay alive in combat.


First, there is the T-90's basic armor, made up of varying composite and metal materials sandwiched together. The current mix of materials Russia is using in its armor is said to be very effective and relatively light, albeit not as effective of the incredibly robust armor the Abrams. Seeing as the T-90 weighs almost a third less, this is hardly a surprise. Russia has learned that "layering" a tank's survivalability measures is more cost effective, and in some cases more operationally effective, than relying almost entirely on one single concept of exotic, expensive and heavy armor plating alone.


The T-90's second tier of defenses relies on explosive reactive armor (ERA). ERA consists of two armor plates with an explosive charge core sandwiched in-between. This type of armor works against a multitude of attack weaponry, including missiles and rockets that carry high explosive anti-tank warheads, as well as the dreaded sabot round. Sabot rounds are basically cannon shells that separate after leaving the tank's smoothbore barrel, what remains is a thin fin stabilized rod made of dense material like depleted uranium, flying through the air at high speed and into its target. Once the sabot round penetrates a tank's turret, the kinetic force of the dense sabot dart dumping its energy into a small point creates a stream of lava-like molten metal that pours into the tank's cabin. This instantaneously increases the tank's cabin pressure via heating the inside of the sealed turret, thus killing, or should I say cooking, everything inside.

The idea behind ERA armor is that it explodes outward destroying an incoming munition, or at least greatly depleting its killing potential, just as it is hitting the tank. The whole string of events happens in a fraction of a second. It may sound extremely violent, setting off a bomb on the outside of your own vehicle, but it works, and the charge is designed to fire outward, away from the hull or turret of the tank.

The T-90's ERA "bricks" give the tank a distinctive, and intimidating look. Additionally, these units have also been added to the roof of the T-90. This is a good thing seeing as modern anti-tank missiles often work in an "indirect attack" mode, where they pop up high just before reaching their target, then dive back down, or detonate while cruising overhead, striking the tank where its armor is usually the thinnest, on its top side.

Finally, the T-90 packs a robust countermeasure system that is oriented at defeating western style attacks shortly before or as they happen. Known as "Shatora" or "Curtain" in English, this system has a series of laser warning receivers positioned around the tank. Laser range finders and/or laser target designators are key targeting components of modern tanks and attack aircraft. These lasers supply a tank's fire control system the info it need to produce a firing solution during combat. In the air, and even on the ground in some cases, laser designators provide a point in space for a missile or bomb to fly towards and hit.


Once the T-90's threat warning system detects that it is being "painted," or was "squirted" by a laser, a series of countermeasures aimed to defeat an enemy's targeting process get activated either automatically or manually. First, infra-red and optical dazzlers, located on the front of the tank's turret, are slewed in the direction that the laser energy originated from, in an attempt to blind the enemy tank's targeting sensors. These dazzlers appear red during combat operations and make the tank seem like it has sinister red "eyes" on either side of its main gun. Smoke grenades with a very specific chemical makeup can also be fired off from the turret in an attempt to conceal the T-90's exact location and thus break or keep an enemy from maintaining a weapons lock.

The T-90 also sports a magnetic mine detection system that uses an electromagnetic pulse to disable mines before the tank runs them over. Additionally, at least some of Russia's T-90s are fielded with the "Nakidka" signature reduction application. This surface treatment is said to greatly reduce the tank's radar and infra-red signature via the use of radar absorbent material (RAM) and infra-red reducing paint and insulation. Seeing as tank detection is more and more reliant on radar, both of a standoff (E-8 J-STARS) and a tactical (AH-64D/E Longbow Radar) variety, applying RAM to the outer surface of Russian main battle tanks could make some sense. Nakidka's infra-red reduction properties are of high value as well seeing as the majority of tactical targeting is done via IR sensors these days. Multi-spectral imagine sensors are slowly eliminating this reliance on strictly IR target systems, as these sensors offer greater resistance to IR suppression and masking.



When you look at the T-90's unique mix of capabilities and adherence to a clear and conservative design philosophy, the weapon system really does makes great sense. By taking the best attributes of two "legacy" systems, roughly the turret of the T-80 and hull and drivetrain concept of the T-72, and combining that mix with more modern technology, the T-90 represents a truly well rounded solution to the main battle tank equation. It packs reliability, relative simplicity, a comparatively light footprint, a capable main gun and guided missile system, relevant speed, and layered defenses, all at a price that is roughly less than half that of an M1 Abrams.


Does the T-90 standup to the latest M1A2 Abrams model? No, but dogfighting one-on-one with America's super-tank was not what it was designed to do. In many ways the T-90 is a textbook 80% solution at less than 50% of the price, a concept that has become incredibly relevant in a time when shrinking defense budgets are begrudgingly dictating force structures around the globe.

Instead of trying to "beat the US" by poorly copying our extremely high cost "100% solution," Russia decided to take what it already had and make it better so that its return on investment actually made sense. For instance, the deletion of a turbine engine lowered the T-90's cost and complexity, and in doing so it kept its design weight down and thus drastically increasing its range and logistical independence, a key operational factor for Russia, a country with the most land-area in the world.

When you look at the T-90, and what came before it, the T-80, it is intriguing how Russia was able to control the propensity to "grow" their tank's design, not adding weight, unneeded complexity and cost over time, as so many weapon systems tend to do. Instead, they looked at what mattered most and took a balanced approach to offensive capabilities and survivability in relation to cost. This is precisely what so many in America's defense lexicon are pleading for these days, including your author. It is sad that we have continued to produce Abrams tanks when the military already had too many, and a cheaper, lighter, and more rationalized tank concept could better benefit our forces and augment the "Gucci" Abrams already in widespread service.


It seems that America's weapons buyers have an incredibly short attention span and a spastic, if not bipolar vision of what our force structure should look like. It is either a fast, wheeled and comparatively lightly armored APC with a tank's cannon, the Army's Stryker Mobile Gun System, or an ultra-heavy and turbine powered A-1 Abrams.

Where has the common-sense middle ground gone? Not to say that the Stryker is a bad weapon system, but it represents a "collect the whole set" proposition, as Stryker's speed dictates it will have to operate with only other Strykers in order for its value to potentially pay off. Hence it needs its own big gun, although being in a lightly armored Stryker when that big gun is needed in order to shoot at other big guns is less than an ideal situation!


Maybe the Stryker's speed would be worth sacrificing for a more survivable set of platforms, one where commonality is not the main goal. In the end, the big gun version of the Stryker approaches the price of a T-90, so one has to ask themselves, was investing billions into a "concept" like the Stryker really worth it considering the dollars, and thus the other procurement opportunities, we blew on it?

We have seen precisely this same issue with the US Navy, fielding the Littoral Combat Ship, a fast, very lightly armored and fairly toothless surface combatant with an identity crisis. The LCS came at the cost of procuring a proper multi-role frigate, a ship that at the very least would have been capable of defending itself. Sadly, it seems that the DoD now only thinks in two modes when it comes to procurement, even though doing so has been highly detrimental to the total force as a whole:


  • One-size fits all, innovative low-cost concept turned compromised high-cost reality, with questionable offensive and/or survivability capability, usually with "commonality," "affordability" and "multi-role" at the heart of the weapon system's business model. Examples: LCS, Stryker, F-35A & C
  • 100% capability at all costs, regardless of the fact that 80% of the missions the weapon system will execute will have little use for that extra 20% of capability and that extra 20% of capability made the weapon system at least twice as expensive than the "80%" alternative. Examples: MV-22, F-35B, M1, DDG-1000


The great thing about being the wealthiest nation in the world is that, unlike Russia, we don't need an all "rational" fleet of military vehicles. In other words, we don't need to procure "only" a T-90. We can afford to also field some extremely high-end concepts as well, but we cannot afford to only field high-end and very-high weapons systems alone.

With this in mind, why can't we return to a true high-low capability mix, as we fielded successfully for so many years? And why in the last two decades does the supposed low end of the spectrum have to always be a "risky but innovative new concept" instead of an evolution of a "proven workhorse?" We can have a true high-low capability mix and afford it with ease under the current budgetary circumstances, but we cannot afford to take huge developmental risks with the "low-end" side of that spectrum.

This means no LCS, no Stryker, and no F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. None of these systems turned out to be affordable and usually their "commonality" business case ends up being a total myth if not actually deeply detrimental to our force's overall capabilities.


Just take the F-35 for instance, an aircraft who's two major variants, the A and C models, which represent over 85% of America's predicted F-35 force, have paid a huge performance and capability penalty inflicted by the F-35B's Short Takeoff and Vertical Landing requirement. How on earth was such a tradeoff considered a worthwhile concept to invest a massive portion of the services' procurement budget into?

What is worse, is that the F-35 was supposed to be the "low end" of America's high-low fighter capability equation. Seeing how these jets will cost nearly as much as the F-22s that were mocked for their high-cost by both the Bush and Obama Administrations, this whole "complimentary force" idea has proven to be totally false. Now, instead of a high-low capability mix, we have a high and super high capability mix.


The impact of such a horrendously expensive force structure has resulted in a rapidly shrinking fleet of tactical fighters in the DoD's inventory. In fact our aerial force posture is just a shadow of what it was in 2003, and that force was a shadow of what it was during the Gulf War. Sure, every decade the equipment becomes more effective, which could provide some fleet shrinking savings, but one aircraft can only be in one place at one time, and usually that is on the ground.

The Pentagon's goal of fielding almost 2,500 of the stealthy fighters spread across all three services will be shattered once the operational costs of flying an all high-end 5th generation force (best independent estimates are double the per flight hour cost of the F-16s and F/A-18s the F-35 aims to replace) move from a paper prediction to a startling piggybank busting reality.

Even if we could afford to buy 2500 of these machines, would it be smart to do so seeing as we probably won't be able to afford to fly them? Hell, we can't even afford to fly the force we have now! This is not to mention that the manned "first day of war" stealth fighter concept is rapidly becoming dated seeing a unmanned technology is rapidly advancing. More on that in a coming post.


Instead of continuing to buy into these wasteful "commonality" concepts, we can go buy a proper frigate that has offensive punch and is capable of air defense. We can buy new armored personell carriers and a traditional medium tank to go along with them. We can go buy rational numbers of upgraded F-22s that feature the F-35's avionics and construction techniques amongst other enhancements.

Or even better, a stretched and tailless F/B-22, as well as heaping load of stealthy UCAV drones and even a new bomber, all of which can be used to kick down the enemy's door during the opening stages of a conflict. But this means you cannot have 2500 F-35s, thus you will have to upgrade our existing F-16s and keep our beloved A-10s flying for the majority of lower end "bread and butter missions."


We can have a much more capable and flexible force if we get away from buying huge quantities of extremely expensive "one-size-fits-all" platforms, and really there is no need to in the first place. We simply cannot have it both ways, where the high end of the mix still exists, and the low end is really just another form of high-end once the final bill arrives. This absurd situation is the primary reason why our incredible shrinking military's hardware and procurement situation is in such shambles.

It is the classic bait-and-switch really. Terms like "affordability," "commonality," "jointness" and "multi-role" make the ill-informed and/or the hyper career driven in Washington take a gamble on what really are flawed weapons concepts to begin with. What we end up with years later, long after most of the folks who bought into these nonsensical programs in the first place are out of office or have received their last star, are a grossly over budget and behind schedule weapon systems that feature rapidly decreasing capabilities and performance goals.


Then, similar geniuses who allowed the gambling on such flawed "innovative new concepts" to continue on indefinably, end up realizing that said gambles were really much, much larger and more volatile than they were ever intended to be. What is even worse is that due to the complexity of these "affordable" new concepts, the majority of them are technologically and conceptually outdated by the time they actually enter service. The whole situation is out of control and it needs to stop. For those who say "it has always been this way," I say you are just another part of the problem not the solution.

Why can't we procure platforms that are proven to work for 80% of the tasks they will be presented with, like the T-90, then invest in smaller fleets of weapon systems that can handle the other 20% better than any one-size-fits all solution ever could? In the end we would save a ton of money, become a more resilient and adaptable force, and we would no longer have to hear the term "too big to fail" associated with fiscally obese and already antiquated weapons programs.



Could it be that we actually have a lot to learn from Russia's "balanced approach" to fielding the T-90 Main Battle Tank? I think so, but don't take my opinion for it, take WWII's! This conflict taught us a very valuable lesson about tank warfare and force structure in general: in a serious peer state conflict, with prolonged hostilities, the numerical advantage can triumph over technological superiority.

Just google "Panzer vs Sherman tank" to learn more about this valuable history lesson. It is amazing that Russia seems to have remembered such a hard fought lesson from what they call "The Great Patriotic War," and have factored it into their procurement strategy, but America seems to have all but forgotten it. The capable, affordable and reliable T-90 main battle tank remains direct proof of this fact.

Photo credit: Tank with engine- nucl0id, tank with red star background and LCS- AP, Sabot Round- US Army file, Tank in muddy water- Vitaly Kuzemin, F-35 and F-22- Lockheed/USAF, Stryker- Jason Kaye, Abrams & Abrams offloading- US Army. Styker in field- USAF. F-16 & F-22- Lockheed.