T-72: How some Russian tanks in Ukraine are doomed for a “jack-in-the-box” failure

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The sight of Russian tank turrets, blown up and in ruins along Ukrainian roads, points to a tank design problem known as the “jack-in-the-box” glitch.

The flaw is related to the way many Russian tanks store and load ammunition. In these tanks, including the T-72, the Soviet-designed vehicle that was widely used in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the projectiles are all placed in a ring inside the turret. When an enemy shot hits the right spot, the ammo ring can quickly “cool down” and set off a chain reaction, blowing up the tank’s hull turret in a lethal blow.


Sitting on a powder keg:

The fatal flaw of the T-72 tank

Other tanks on the modern battlefield often store their ammo

of the crew, behind armored walls.

The ammunition for the Russian T-72 main battle tank is in a carousel-style autoloader directly below the main turret and crew members.

If a penetrating blow to the tank’s relatively thin side armor detonates one of these rounds, the explosion can set off a chain reaction, killing the crew and destroying the tank.

M1 Abrams (United States)

Sources: “M1 Abrams vs. T-72 Ural” by

Stephen Zaloga (Osprey Edition, 2009); “Leopard 2 Main Battle Tank 1979–1998” by

Uwe Schnellbacher and Michael Jerchel (Osprey Publishing, 1998); Federation of American Scientists

WILLIAM NEFF/THE WASHINGTON POST

Sitting on a powder keg:

The fatal flaw of the T-72 tank

Other tanks on the modern battlefield often store their ammunition away from the crew, behind armored walls. The ammunition for the Russian T-72 main battle tank is in a carousel-style autoloader directly below the main turret and crew members.

If a penetrating blow to the tank’s relatively thin side armor detonates one of these rounds, the explosion can set off a chain reaction, killing the crew and destroying the tank.

M1 Abrams (United States)

Sources: “M1 Abrams vs. T-72 Ural” by Stephen Zaloga (Osprey Publishing, 2009); “Leopard 2 Main Battle Tank 1979–1998” by Uwe Schnellbacher and Michael Jerchel (Osprey Publishing, 1998); Federation of American Scientists

WILLIAM NEFF/THE WASHINGTON POST

Sitting on a Powder Keg: The Fatal Flaw of the T-72 Tank

Other tanks on the modern battlefield often store their ammunition away from the crew, behind armored walls. The ammunition for the Russian T-72 main battle tank is in a carousel-style autoloader directly below the main turret and crew members.

If a penetrating blow to the tank’s relatively thin side armor detonates one of these rounds, the explosion can trigger

a chain reaction, killing the crew and destroying the tank.

M1 Abrams (United States)

Sources: “M1 Abrams vs. T-72 Ural” by Stephen Zaloga (Osprey Publishing, 2009); “Leopard 2 Main Battle Tank 1979–1998”

by Uwe Schnellbacher and Michael Jerchel (Osprey Publishing, 1998); Federation of American Scientists

WILLIAM NEFF/THE WASHINGTON POST

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“For a Russian crew, if the ammunition storage compartment is hit, everyone is dead,” said Robert E. Hamilton, a professor at the US Army War College, adding that the force of the blast can “instantly vaporize” the air. crew. “All those rounds – about 40 depending on whether they’re carrying a full load or not – will run out and everyone will die.”

British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace estimated this week that Russia has lost at least 530 tanks – destroyed or captured – since it invaded Ukraine in February.

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“What we’re witnessing now is Ukrainians taking advantage of the tank failure,” said Samuel Bendett, a consultant at the Center for Naval Analysis, a federally funded nonprofit research institute. Ukraine’s western allies supplied anti-tank weapons in large volumes.

Ukraine has also been using Russian-made T-72 variants, which face the same problem. But Russia’s invasion relied on large-scale tank deployment, and Ukraine managed to fight back better than expected.

The flaw speaks to a wider difference in approaches between the Western and Russian militaries, analysts say.

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“American tanks have long prioritized crew survival in a way that Russian tanks simply don’t,” Hamilton said. “It’s really just a difference in ammunition storage compartment design and a difference in prioritization.”

Ammunition in most Western tanks can be kept under the turret floor, protected by the heavy hull — or in the back of the turret, Hamilton said. While an ammunition storage compartment placed in the turret is potentially vulnerable to a hit, the built-in features can prevent the same level of decapitation devastation seen in the case of the T-72.

Even early versions of the American M1 Abrams tanks in the 1980s were fitted with heavy-duty protective doors that separated the crew from the stored ammunition. These tanks have a crew of four, including a loader that opens the ballistic door manually. They were designed to be stronger than the upper armor, so that if the ammunition is disposed of, the blast would be funneled upward through blast panels rather than into the crew compartment, Hamilton said.

On the battlefield, Ukraine uses Soviet-era weapons against Russia

On the other hand, Russian tanks have mechanical autoloaders, allowing them to be manned by a crew of three.

Russian tank design prioritizes rate of fire, firepower, low profile, speed and maneuverability versus overall survivability, Hamilton said. Russian tanks tend to be lighter and simpler, and have thinner and less advanced armor than Western tanks. The design vulnerability was likely “just cheaper and lighter,” Hamilton said.

More recent Russian models have been released since the T-72, which was produced in the 1970s by the Soviet Union. One, the T-14 Armata, has been described as a sophisticated game-changer on the battlefield since it debuted in a 2015 military parade. But the Armatas has yet to see much use outside of parades. More recent variants of the T-72 have come with greater tank protections, Bendett said, but the prevailing principle has been the same: a crew of three with a lower profile and projectiles in a circle inside the turret.

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For the US military, Hamilton said, “if the tank is destroyed and the crew survives, you can make another tank faster than you can train another crew.”

For Russia, “the people are as expendable as the machine,” he said. “The Russians have known this for 31 years – you have to say they simply chose not to deal with it.”

Claire Parker contributed to this report.

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