A question that gets a lot of attention from tank fans: Why are Russian tanks lighter and smaller than Western tanks?

Since its first appearance on the battlefield in 1916, tanks have become indispensable weapons for armies of countries to gain the upper hand in any war. During World War II, when the military doctrine of tanks was still very diverse, each country had its own design style. Those tank design philosophies still influence today, typically Russian and Western tanks. A question that gets a lot of attention from tank fans: Why are Russian tanks lighter and smaller than Western tanks?

After the war, everything was in short supply. A smaller tank means saving on materials, less logistical support, and theoretically a lower configuration increases survivability on the battlefield. All were key to Soviet tank designs, and are still influential in Russia today. Russian tanks are generally cheaper, faster and have lower silhouettes than allied tank designs, especially those designed in the Soviet era, T-62, T-64, T-72, T-80 and T-90. The T-14 Armata is a departure from the past and meant to ‘catch’ up to modern western style MBT design.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union built smaller tanks to keep the cost down. The USSR also couldn’t support a massive logistics train, so the smaller, lighter tanks could be transported by truck or rail easily. They could also cross all the small bridges over the rivers of Eastern Europe. These things all fit the offensive nature of the Soviet plan. Western tanks could be larger as they would be on the defensive and could fall back into their supply lines.

When the autoloader came out, this allowed them to reduce the crew compartment massively as you no longer had to design enough room for a loader to move ammunition around in. So they bascially made the tanks as cramped as possible, leading to a tiny turret by modern standards. When the autoloader was introduced, this allowed the crew to be reduced to only 3 people: driver, gunner and commander. So basically the turret was scaled down resulting in a configuration as modern standards.

Because of their lighter weight, the armor of Soviet tanks was also weaker than that of the West. The Soviet tanks didn’t use the spaced arrays like the West, but rather distinct layers of RHA and materials like textolite. This hull armor had to be sloped to be useful as it was thinner than Western designs, but with the new M829 APFSDS, it just wasn’t enough. This is why Russian tanks use Explosive Reactive Armor. Kontakt-5 is used to enhance protection at the cost of little weight and no internal space.

The Soviet philosophy was to offer smaller and lower profile tanks due to the terrain in Russia and Eastern Europe. The low profile is well suited to low terrain and provides a distinct advantage in things that Western tanks don’t provide. A low profile improves survival rates, at least on paper, on the other hand – it led to cramped quarters inside the tank. Huge issue for all soviet tanks is placement of ammunition – it is not separated from crew by fireproof wall. So in real combat detonation of ammunition with total loss of crew happened too often, as cramped spaces does not facilitate quick evacuation in case of fire either.

Russian tanks essentially inherit the main characteristics of Soviet tanks, although it appears that this is changing, as evidenced by the new Armata design. The T-90M, T-80BVM, and T-72B3 are all respectively larger tanks than their previous standards, yet still, fulfill a smaller profile and ultimately size as opposed to the West. The Armata, however, is a completely new design compared to its predecessors.

The next-generation platform will use active protection systems to stop rockets before they hit the tank, posing a challenge to any adversaries. Though impressive on paper, the Armata has been beset by overrunning costs and delays in delivery. The Kremlin hoped to have hundreds in service by now but only a handful have been delivered. In general, the priority of the Western tank is the survivability of the crew, while the Russian priority is the cost of mass production and the weight to make it suitable for railways and small bridges.


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