How do Western tanks compare to Russian ones?

(CNN Spanish) — It seems that Ukraine will finally receive what it has been asking for so much. The United States, Germany and the United Kingdom have promised to send tanks to help defend against the Russian invasion, and other European countries such as Poland, Norway and Spain could also join.

Soon the main tanks of the West, the German Leopard 2, the American M1 Abrams and the British Challenger 2 could be operating on the battlefields of Ukraine, facing off against Russia’s T-72, T-80 and T-90.

Although the M1 Abrams and the Challenger 2 have already successfully engaged in combat with Russian-made tanks in the Iraq War, in 2003, they were older models (T-55, T-62 and early versions of T-72). and operated by insufficiently trained crews. In the case of the Leopard 2, there are no known clashes with other tanks in its operational history.

This means that these three front-line Western tanks will for the first time (manned by Ukrainians) face off against Russia’s most modern armor, operated by Russian crews.

US M1A2 Abrams tanks of the 1st Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division (Raider Brigade) stand in Grafenwoehr, Bavaria, Germany, on July 13. (Daniel Karmann/picture-alliance/dpa/AP)

But what are the main differences between Western and Russian tanks?

Although they are combat tanks developed by three different countries, the Leopard 2, M1 Abrams and Challenger 2 share a lot in terms of design, armor and weapons, largely due to the standardizations within NATO.

The Leopard 2 and M1 Abrams even emerged from the joint development program between Germany and the United States MBT-70 that ultimately did not prosper, but which laid the foundations for both projects.

Russian tanks respond to a completely different conception and can be grouped, meanwhile, into two large families: the T-64 and its modern version T-80, and the T-72 and its current heir T-90.

Both the Western and Russian tanks are developments dating back to the Cold War, with major modernizations in the 1990s and 2000s.

A Russian T-90M tank, one of the most modern versions, parades through Red Square during the Victory Day military parade in central Moscow on May 9, 2022. (Credit: ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP via Getty Images )


Americans, Germans, British and Russians have based their tank designs on learnings from World War II, but chose to emphasize different issues.

The three Western tanks due to arrive in Ukraine are operated by four crew members, three of whom are housed in the turret, the upper section of the tank armed with the main gun. The fourth, the driver, is in the hull.

The turret in western tanks is usually, thus, large, to house the crew members and also a large part of the cannon ammunition, placed in special chambers designed to explode out of the tank in the event of being hit, improving the chances of survival of the crew.

In general, Western tanks are heavier and taller than their Russian counterparts. The weight of the M1 Abrams and the Challenger 2 reaches 62 tons in their basic versions, and that of the Leopard 2 at 72.

A German Leopard 2 tank during a demonstration in Munster, near Hannover, Germany, on September 28, 2011. (Michael Sohn/AP)

The Russians, on the other hand, have tried to make their tanks as small as possible, to reduce their silhouette on the battlefield and improve their survivability.

Thus, they only have three crew members, two of them in the small turret that does not store any ammunition (except in some models of the T-90). To achieve this feature, they use automatic loaders for the main gun, rather than a dedicated loading crewman, and store the ammunition in the hull.

The result is that these tanks are lighter, a quality that also allows them to navigate terrain with poor road infrastructure and cross less capable bridges. The T-72 have a weight of 46 tons, while the T-90 reach 48 tons.

The tradeoff to this design decision is the propensity of Russian tanks to suffer catastrophic explosions when hit in the hull, where the ammunition is stored. These explosions often blow the turret into the air, as seen in the Ukrainian war.

A picture taken on September 12, 2015 shows Russian T-80 tanks during training. (Credit: OLGA MALTSEVA/AFP via Getty Images)

Western tanks are not immune to these explosions, but are designed to carry the explosion outward in an attempt to save the crew.


The Leopard 2 and the M1 Abrams use the same 120-millimeter smoothbore gun (the barrel has no rifling to direct the projectile’s direction of rotation) developed by the German company Rheinmetall and produced in the United States under license.

The Challenger 2 is armed with a British-designed rifled barrel of the same calibre, with similar features.

These tanks are also armed with at least two 7.62-caliber machine guns, usually one coaxial to the barrel (meaning it shoots in the same direction) and another on the turret roof.

The Russian tanks are all armed with versions of the same 125-millimeter smoothbore gun, which fire a slightly larger round.

A British Challenger 2 tank on September 25, 2001 north of Thumbrait, Oman. (Credit: Pete Bristo/British Army/Getty Images)

The larger size of the ammunition requires that it be loaded in two parts, the projectile and the explosive charge separately, another reason why the Russians use automatic loaders.

In addition, they usually carry a coaxial 7.62-millimeter machine gun and a heavy 12.7-millimeter machine gun on the turret roof.

In general, the capabilities of Western and Russian guns are similar, and in both cases they are in a position to destroy each other, so the outcome of a confrontation usually depends on the level of training of the crew, the quality of sensors, the shooting and optics —which are generally more advanced in the West—, and the particular situation on the battlefield.

engines and speed

The M1 Abrams uses an advanced and complex gas turbine engine, currently the only one in its class, with a maximum output of 1,500 horsepower. These engines are lighter than conventional engines and offer greater relative power, at the cost of enormous fuel consumption.

The Leopard 2 and Challenger 2 use, instead, conventional diesel engines, at greater weight and lower consumption. That of the Leopard 2 with a power of 1,500 horsepower, and that of the Challenger with 1,200 horsepower.

The M1 Abrams and the Leopard 2 can reach speeds of over 70 km/h with ranges of 400 and 450 km, respectively, while the Challenger 2 can reach speeds of 60 km/h with a range of 550 km.

Russian T-72-B3 tanks during military exercises at the Raevsky firing range in southern Russia on September 23, 2020. (Credit: DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP via Getty Images)

In their first versions, the Russian T-80s also used gas turbines, but nowadays they are usually produced with diesel engines of about 1,000 horsepower, just like the T-72 and T-90.

The T-72 thus reaches a maximum speed of 65 kilometers per hour with a range of 550 kilometers, while the T-90 reaches 60 kilometers per hour with the same range.

Shielding and protection

The three western tanks are equipped with advanced composite armor (steel is often added with layers of ceramics and other non-metallic components that more efficiently degrade the impacting projectile), initially developed in the UK and known as Chobham/Dorchester.

The exact composition of the Chobham/Dorchester armor is a secret.

In addition, this armor is often sloped at angles to further enhance its protection, and is especially concentrated on the front of the hull and turret.

Russian tanks use mostly steel armor, although some models, such as some T-80 and T-90 models, have their own version of composite armor. They also ride it at steep angles.

In general, they are usually reinforced with reactive armor, small ceramic plates attached to the hull and turret, which explode when hit by a projectile.

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