Why Russian Tanks Explode When Hit

Why Russian Tanks Explode When Hit

Russian tanks used in modern conflicts have had very bad tendency of suffering catastrophic explosions. When penetrated into the magazine (“ammoracked” for gamers), Russian designs (particularly T-72 and its derivatives) tend to be violently relieved of their turret, which can fly off even some dozens of meters away.

The reason for this tendency towards turret throwing championship is their design decision – but not the one that is typically blamed for it.

Usual answer for why Russian tanks tend to explode is their use of the autoloader. Decision for using the autoloader is a logical one for the Soviet tank doctrine. It makes the tank much smaller, especially the turret – T-72 is almost a foot shorter than the M1 Abrams, allowing it to take cover more easily. Smaller profile also helps make the tank more mobile, as the same amount of armor can be had at the lower weight, thus allowing the tanks to more readily cross the bridges and navigate difficult terrain. But could usage of autoloader lead to catastrophic consequences?

Soviet-style tanks use the carousel autoloader located at the floor of the tank, inside the fighting compartment. There is literally no protection for the autoloader ammunition storage beyond the armor of the tank.

Russian tank’s autoloader

It is thus suggested that the tendency of Soviet-style tanks to suffer catastrophic detonations is caused by their usage of the autoloader. And the explanation makes sense. Carousel autoloader has no barrier between the crew and the stored ammunition. And if the ammunition does get ignited, location of the autoloader means that the entire tank will be affected, with detonation being contained within the tank’s armor and likely killing everybody. For comparison, Western tanks such as M1 Abrams (and, to an extent, other designs) store most of their ammunition in the turret bustle. There the ammunition is separated from the crew compartment, with blowout panels built in to direct the force of the explosion outwards.

Yet this explanation is also flawed. Many tanks had been destroyed by penetrating shots by tank guns, yet direct hits to the autoloader cannot be the cause of the ammunition cookoff in majority of the cases. As can be seen from the image, autoloader’s ammunition is positioned very low in the tank. This means that the autoloader was unlikely to be hit directly. Even indirect damage was not much of an issue. Unlike the popular belief, carousel is actually well protected from shrapnel in case armor is penetrated, and so is not the primary cause of Russian tank losses.

The real cause lies in the way the ammunition is stored within the tank. While autoloader itself is relatively safe – even if far less so than bustle storage – it is not the only place the ammunition is stored in Russian tanks. Autoloader itself holds 22 rounds in the carousel, but additional 20 rounds are stored inside the crew compartment. Studies after the 1991 Gulf War had shown that most of the catastrophic explosions of Iraqi T-72’s were caused by ammunition outside the carousel getting hit. This then could (and would) cause the ammunition within the carousel to detonate, but fact remains that carousel itself is not the cause. And the small internal volume of the Russian tanks means that if armor is penetrated, something vital will be hit.

That autoloader is not the actual cause of vulnerability of Russian tanks can also be seen from the fact that similar catastrophic damage was also suffered by other tanks that have hull amunition storage, irrespective of whether they have the autoloader or not.

Turkish Leopard 2 tank destroyed by hit to hull ammunition storage

Leopard 2 was designed to fight Soviet tanks in the plains of Germany and the Fulda Gap, and thus focus was on frontal protection. Side, rear and top armor is comparatively thin, especially when compared to e.g. Challenger 2. This was fixed to an extent in A5 and later models, but the earlier models such as Turkish A4 seen destroyed are still extremely vulnerable. Leclerc also has similarly unsafe hull ammunition storage. In fact, location of the autoloader in Russian tanks makes ammunition there comparatively safer than the hull storage of Leopard 2 and Leclerc.

By contrast, M1 Abrams has both heavy armor and almost entire ammunition load stored in the turret bustle, separated from the crew compartment and equipped with blowout panels. Only six 120 mm rounds are stored in the armored hull containers. British Challenger 2 has more rounds in the hull, stored in the armored containers. Merkava and T-90 have far more rounds in the hull. All of these tanks tend to suffer catastrophic detonations which destroy the entire vehicle when penetrated in the hull (images 1-4 below), while destroyed M1’s typically show far less catastrophic damage (image 5 below).

As a result, M1 crews generally survive penetrations without serious injury. Russian tanks, having their ammunition in the same compartment as the crew, suffer from a Jack-in-the-box effect: force of the explosion builds up inside the hull before it literally rips off the turret and catapults it away. Such explosions are typically fatal for the crew. T-72 is in especially bad position, because it has relatively thin armor (even compared to Leopard 2) and ammunition is stored basically everywhere.

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