(CNN) — Russia’s tanks with their tops blown off are just the latest sign that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is not going according to plan.
Hundreds of Russian tanks are believed to have been destroyed since Moscow launched its offensive, with British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace estimating on Monday that he had lost as many as 580.
But Moscow’s problems go beyond the sheer number of tanks it has lost. Experts say battlefield footage shows Russian tanks suffer from a flaw Western militaries have known about for decades and refer to as the “jack-in-the-box” effect. Moscow, they say, should have seen the trouble coming.
The flaw relates to how tank ammunition is stored. Unlike modern western tanks, the Russian ones carry multiple shells inside their turrets. This makes them very vulnerable, as even an indirect hit can start a chain reaction that blows up their entire ammo pool of up to 40 rounds.
The resulting shockwave can be enough to blow up the tank’s turret as high as a two-story building, as can be seen in a video that was recently posted on social media.
“What we see with the Russian tanks is a design flaw,” said Sam Bendett, an adviser to the Russian Studies Program at the Center for a New American Security.
“Any successful hit…quickly ignites the ammunition causing a huge explosion, and the turret literally flies.”
The flaw means the tank’s crew, usually two men in the turret and a third at the wheel, are easy targets, said Nicholas Drummond, a defense industry analyst specializing in land warfare and a former British Army officer.
“If you don’t come out in the first second, you’re toast.”
The jack-in-the-box effect
Drummond said that explosive munitions are causing problems in almost all the armored vehicles that Russia uses in Ukraine. He gave the example of the BMD-4 infantry fighting vehicle, typically manned by up to three people and capable of carrying five other soldiers. He said the BMD-4 was a “mobile coffin” that was “simply destroyed” when it was hit by a rocket.
But the flaw in its tank design should be particularly galling for Moscow, as the problems have been widely documented.
They came to the attention of the Western military during the Gulf wars against Iraq in 1991 and 2003, when large numbers of the Iraqi Army’s Russian-made T-72 tanks suffered the same fate: turrets were blown off their bodies in missile strikes. antitank.
Drummond said that Russia had not learned the lessons from Iraq and that, as a result, many of its tanks in Ukraine had similar design flaws with their self-loading missile systems.
When the T-90 series, successor to the T-72, entered service in 1992, its armor was upgraded, but its missile loading system remained similar to its predecessor, leaving it just as vulnerable, Drummond said. The T-80, another Russian tank that saw action in the Ukraine invasion, has a similar missile loading system.
There are some benefits to such a system. Bendett of the Center for a New American Security noted that Russia had chosen this system to save space and give tanks a lower profile, making them harder to hit in battle.
However, Western armies were prompted to act by the fate of the T-72 in Iraq.
“(The Western military) learned from the Gulf War and from seeing tanks destroyed during that time that you have to compartmentalize your munitions,” Drummond said.
He pointed to the US Army’s Stryker infantry fighting vehicles that were developed after the first war in Iraq.
“That has a turret that sits on top, and that turret doesn’t go into the crew compartment. It just sits on top and all the ammunition is inside that turret,” he said. “So if the turret gets hit and blown up, the crew is still safe underneath. That’s a very clever design.”
Other Western tanks, like the M1 Abrams used by the US and some allied armies, are larger and don’t have a carousel. On the Abrams, a fourth crew member in the tank retrieves shells from a sealed compartment and transfers them to the gun for firing.
The compartment has a door that the crew member opens and closes between each shot from the tank, which means that if the tank is hit, it is likely that only one shell in the turret will be exposed.
“A successful hit can damage the tank, but not necessarily kill the crew,” Bendett said.
And Drummond said shells used by the Western military sometimes burn under the high heat generated by an incoming missile, but don’t explode.
hard to replace
There is no easy way to know how many Russian tanks have been destroyed in the Ukraine. The open source intelligence monitoring website Oryx said on April 28 that at least 300 Russian tanks had been destroyed, with another 279 damaged, abandoned or captured.
However, the site only counts instances of visual evidence, so Russian losses could be much higher.
And these losses are not just equipment. When Wallace, the British defense secretary, gave his estimate of 580 tanks lost to the House of Commons, he also said that more than 15,000 Russian servicemen have been killed during the invasion.
It’s hard to know how many of them are tank crews, but what’s not in doubt is that the crews are not easy to replace.
Training a tank crew could take up to 12 months, said Aleski Roinila, a former tank crew member in the Finnish Defense Forces, “and that’s considered fast.”
And for Russia to replace hundreds of crewmen at this point in the war would be a tall order, especially when the tanks they are expected to use are so flawed.