On the occasion of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the usefulness of tanks in modern conventional warfare is being debated again.
The destruction of a Russian T-72B3 tank in the Donbass
This afternoon some images have been released that could contribute even more to fueling that debate. The Ukrainian Army's K-2 Battle Group has released a video showing an attack by a US-made FGM-148 Javelin missile on a Russian tank (identified as a T-72B3 by Ukraine Weapons Tracker). The attack took place near Maryinka, in Donetsk Oblast, in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbass, where fighting continues between the Russian invaders (who have not yet fully occupied the region) and their pro-Russian separatist allies, and the Ukrainian defenders:
The two launch modes of the FGM-148 Javelin missile
As we have already seen here, the Javelin has two launch modes: firstly there is the top attack mode, mainly directed against tanks and with which the Javelin rises above its target and then hits the tank's turret, which is one of its most vulnerable parts. That is why, ">at the beginning of the invasion, the Russians equipped their tanks with anti-missile grills, believing that this would serve to mitigate the effects of the Javelin's warhead, formed by a HEAT precursor charge (which is intended to detonate the reactive armor plates) and two shaped charges in tandem, which pierce the interior armor of the vehicle. The reality is that it did not help, that is why Russian tanks have not shown that protection for weeks.
The Javelin's second launch mode is direct attack, and is intended against bunkers, armored vehicles, and even helicopters. In this case, the missile rises a little after being launched, and then follows the most direct trajectory towards its target. What we see in that video is a Javelin launched with this mode, at least apparently. Although it is the least suitable for attacking tanks, the result for the T-72 is disastrous. I have reviewed the video and the missile must have hit one of the best protected parts of the tank: the front of the turret (the T-72's gun was aimed at about 25º from the missile's entry trajectory).
The great vulnerability of Russian tanks: their automatic loader
The T-72B3 has reactive armor plates in the turret, but in this case they have not served to prevent disaster. The warhead of the missile managed to penetrate inside the vehicle. At 0:38 the large explosion caused by the impact of the missile is observed, which causes a large fire inside the vehicle, specifically in its center. Once there, he comes across the great vulnerability of the Russian tanks: their automatic loader. All Russian tanks since the T-64 carry it (the T-80 inherited the magazine from the T-64, and the T-90 inherited the magazine from the T-72, as we see in the following video).
In Western tanks, the ammunition is in one piece (with the propellant in a metal case already attached to the shell and ready to be fired) and is also housed in armored compartments located at the rear of the turret and at the base of the chassis. This mitigates the effects of a hit for the crew. However, in Russian tanks the projection charges are separated from the projectiles, and both are housed in the base of the turret, with rather little protection, which means that any fire inside the vehicle has fatal consequences for crew. That's why Russian tank turrets have a habit of flying off when hit.
In the video we have seen before, there is a second explosion that starts at 1:15: it is caused by the fire inside the tank when it reaches the projection charges located at the base of the turret. This has not flown, as it happens on other occasions, but seeing the images, the chances that the crew has survived are nil. In fact, fire is seen coming out of both the commander's and gunner's hatches (in the turret) as well as the driver's hatch. A terrible scene, indeed. Let's remember that this is not a video game: this is a real war.
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