The battlefield was riddled with TOW missiles.
Key point: A determined and well-armed adversary made the difference.
The interconnected conflicts raging across the Middle East today have amounted to a dreadful human catastrophe with spiraling global consequence. One of their lesser effects has been to deflate the reputations of Western main battle tanks mistakenly thought to be night-invulnerable in the popular imagination.
Iraqi M1 Abrams tanks not only failed to prevent he capture of Mosul in 2014, but they were captured and turned against their owners. In Yemen, numerous Saudi M1s were knocked out by Houthi rebels. Turkey, which had lost a number of M60 Pattons and upgrade M60T Sabra tanks to Kurdish and ISIS fighters eventually deployed its fearsome German-built Leopard 2A4 tanks. ISIS destroyed eight to ten in a matter of days.
While these tanks could have benefited from specific defensive upgrades in some cases, the real lesson to be drawn was less about technical deficiencies and more about crew training, competent morale, and sound tactical employment matter more even than “invulnerable” armor. After all, even the most heavily armored main battle tanks are significantly less well protected from hits to the side, rear or top armor—and rebels with years of combat experience have learned how to ambush imprudently deployed main battle tanks, particularly using long-range anti-tank missiles from miles away.
One exception to the general tarnishing of reputations has been Russia’s T-90A tank, 550 of which serve as Russia’s top main battle tank until the T-14 Armatas fully enters service. The T-90 was conceived in the 1990s as a modernized mash-up the hull of the earlier mass-production optimized T-72, and the turret from the higher-quality (but operationally unsuccessful) T-80. Retaining a low profile and a three-man crew, (the tank’s 2A46M auto-loading cannon takes the place of a human loader), the fifty-ton T-90A is significantly lighter than the seventy-ton-ish M1A2 and Leopard 2.
When Moscow intervened in Syria in 2015 on behalf the beleaguered regime of Bashar al-Assad, it also transferred around thirty T-90As to the Syrian Arab Army, as well as upgraded T-62Ms and T-72s. The Syrian military could desperately use this armored infusion, as it had lost over two thousand armored vehicles in the preceding years—especially after Syrian rebels began receiving American TOW-2A missiles in 2014. The T-90s were spread out between the 4th Armored Division, the Desert Hawks Brigade (composed of retired SAA veterans led by pro-Assad warlords) and Tiger Force, an elite battalion-sized SAA unit specialized in offensive operations.
In February 2016, Syrian rebels filmed a video of a TOW missile streaking towards a T-90 tank in northeast Aleppo. In a blinding flash, the missile detonates. However, as the smoke cleared it became evident that the tank’s Kontakt-5 explosive-reactive armor had discharged the TOW missile’s shaped-charge warhead prior to impact, minimizing the damage. (This fact was perhaps not appreciated by the tank’s gunner, who in the full version of the video clambered out of an already open hatch and fled on foot.) Nonetheless, the video went viral.
While the T-90A is still outgunned by Western main battle tanks, it does sport number of defensive systems particularly effective verses anti-tank missiles that (all but a few) Abrams and Leopard 2 tanks lack—and anti-tank missiles have destroyed far more armored vehicles in recent decades than tank main guns have.
If you look head on at a T-90A you may notice the creepy “eyes” on the turret—a reliable method of distinguishing it from similar-looking modernized T-72s. These are actually infrared dazzlers designed to jam laser-targeting systems on missiles, and glow a terrifying red color when active. The dazzlers are just a component of the T-90’s Shtora-1 active protection system, which can also discharge smoke grenades that release an infrared-obscuring aerosol cloud. Shtora is integrated with a 360-degree laser-warning receiver which automatically triggers the countermeasures if the tank is painted by an enemy laser—and can even point the tank’s gun towards the origin of the attack. The T-90A’s second line of defense comes in the form of plates of Kontakt-5 explosive reactive armor, which was designed to detonate prior to a missile impact in order to disrupt the molten jet of its shaped-charge warhead and feed additional metal in its path.
So did the T-90’s reactive armor and Shtora active protection system prove a sure-fire countermeasure verses long-range anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs)?
In a word, no—but you would only know that if you followed the many less well publicized videos depicting the destruction or capture of T-90s by rebel and government forces.
Jakub Janovský has dedicated himself to documenting and preserving recorded armor losses in the Syrian Civil War for several years, and recently released a vast archive of over 143 gigabytes of combat footage from the conflict ranging from atrocities perpetrated by various groups to hundreds of ATGM attacks.
According to Janovský, of the thirty transferred to the Syrian Arab Army, he is aware of five or six T-90As being knocked out in in 2016 and 2017, mostly by wire-guided TOW-2A missiles. (Some of the knocked out tanks, to clarify, may be recoverable with heavy repairs.) Another four may have been hit, but their status after the attack as not possible to determine. Of course, there may be additional losses that were not documented, and there are cases where the type of tank involved could not be visually confirmed.
Furthermore, HTS rebels captured two T-90s and used them in action, while a third was captured by ISIS November 2017. On June 2016, Sham Front rebels knocked out a T-90 with a TOW-2. Drone footage taken afterwards shows smoke rising from the turret hatch, and reveals the T-90’s tell-tale Shtora dazzlers. Another video recorded on June 14, 2016, at Aleppo shows a T-90 pulling a sharp turn and racing for cover behind a building—possibly aware of an incoming TOW missile. However, the T-90 is struck in its side or rear armor. The tank explodes, scattering debris high into the air, but stills continues to roll behind cover.
Another T-90A was either hit by a Russian-built Konkurs (similar to the TOW) or the more powerful laser-guided AT-14 Kornet missile near Khanassar, Syria, wounding the gunner. The crew eventually abandoned the vehicle as a fire spread from the machine gun mount into the vehicle, where it began to cook off the 125-millimeter shells on the carousel-style autoloader. The placement of ammunition in middle of the tank alongside the crew, rather than a separate stowage compartment as in the M1, has long been a vulnerability of Russian tank designs.
Rebels, meanwhile, maintained two T-90s in an abandoned brick factory in Idlib province. In April 2017, of the rebel T-90As, reinforced with sandbags on its armor, apparently went on a rampage assisting rebel forces in recapturing the town of Maarden, according to Russian media. Later, one of the T-90As was recaptured by the government, and the other was knocked out—reportedly, by a T-72 tank using a kinetic sabot round in the side armor.
In October, ISIS captured a 4th Armored Division T-90A near al-Mayadeen in eastern Syria when it ventured alone into a sand storm. Then on November 16, 2017, ISIS ambushed a Tiger Force armored column and apparently blasted a T-90A’s turret clean off its hull and left to rot upside down in the desert. The crew was reportedly killed. However, pro-Assad media claims this was the T-90 captured earlier by ISIS, found to be inoperable, and then destroyed for propaganda purposes.
This not to say the T-90’s defensive systems never worked. In one remarkable incident recorded on July 28, 2016, a T-90 tank near the Mallah farms of Aleppo was struck by a TOW missile, but emerged apparently unscathed from the dust cloud thanks to its reactive armor. As the vehicle frantically scuttled away, the TOW crew smacked it with a second missile—which it apparently survived despite sustaining damage.
Janovský says he is not aware of T-90s being lost to shorter-range weapons, “since the regime rarely used T-90s in close combat, especially after two were captured.” The T-90 has in fact been “relatively successful” in Janovský’s opinion, despite losses due to “overconfidence and poor coordination with infantry, which has been a long term problem of the SAA.”
According to Janovský, the T-90’s most useful feature has actually proven to be its superior optics and fire control computer compared to earlier Russian tanks. “T-90s performed well when they had an opportunity to shoot at rebels from long distance or at night, when modern optics and fire-control computer proved to be a major advantage.” Indeed, the T-90A model began receiving French-built Catherine FC thermal imagers in the mid-2000s.
Of course a small number of T-90s was not going to have a great impact on a sprawling civil war that had been raging for years. However, Janovský still see lessons to be drawn from the situation. “The regime was also lucky that rebels never got any modern ATGM that has top attack mode—which would reliable kill T-90.” Examples such of top-attack weapons include the Javelin missile, and the TOW-2B.
“In my opinion, the major issue with T-90 (and most other modern tanks) is a complete lack of hard-kill Active Protection System [one that shoots missiles down], ideally with 360 degrees coverage, but 270 degrees should be minimum. This not only means that it is vulnerable to being disabled by cheap rocket propelled grenades in urban combat but also from Anti-Tank Guided Missiles fired from unexpected angle. When you consider the range of current ATGMs [typically two to five miles], it will be fairly regular occurrence that you get a side shot opportunity against attacking enemy tank from positions across from the of attacked location.”
Indeed, Russia is reportedly planning to upgrade its T-90As—which are currently less advanced than the T-90MS’s in service with the Indian Army—to a T-90M variant with new hard-kill active protection systems, upgraded reactive armor, and a more powerful 2A82 main gun. Ultimately, the losses in Syria show that any tank—whether T-90, M-1 or Leopard 2—is vulnerable on a battlefield in which long-range ATGMs have proliferated. Active protection systems and missile warning systems are vital to mitigate that danger—but so are careful tactical employment, competently trained crews, and improved cooperation with infantry to minimize exposure to long-range attacks, ward off ambushers, and provide extra eyes on possible threats.
Sébastien Roblin holds a Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring. This first appeared earlier in 2018.