Russia claims a new missile gives its tanks a decisive advantage over Western tanks, the M1 Abrams in particular. The new missile can allegedly penetrate twice the armor of on the Abrams tank. Given the grandiosity of Russia's claim, it's one worth investigating. The answer: Maybe. Sort of.
For decades, Russian tanks have had the ability to fire missiles from their main gun tubes. Russian tanks fire shaped charge and armor piercing shells to kill enemy tanks, but at very long ranges enemy vehicles become more difficult to hit with unguided rounds. While the accuracy of shells gradually drops off with distance, the accuracy of guided anti-tank missiles remains steady out to the missile’s maximum range. A group of Russian tanks might engage NATO tanks at short ranges with armor piercing rounds and at longer ranges with missiles. It’s a uniquely Russian capability that no NATO tank possesses.
Now, Russian state media claims that a new anti-tank missile has the ability to penetrate armor “twice as thick” as that of the American M1 Abrams. The missile is based on the 9M119 Reflecks, which has a range of 3.1 miles and can penetrate 900 millimeters of hardened steel plate. , the new missile can “break through an armor plate nearly one meter (1,000 millimeters) thick.” The new missile at best squeezes out about ten percent more penetration. The new missile uses a , burning through armor with a high speed jet of explosively formed metal.
The U.S. M1A2 Abrams tank is one of the best protected tanks in the world. The Abrams’ thick armor is built with layers of steel, ceramic armor, depleted uranium, and lead. Although real numbers are classified, tank authority Stephen Zaloga the M1’s frontal hull offers 700 millimeters of protection, while the frontal arc offers the equivalent of 1,300 millimeters of armor protection against shaped charges.
In other words, assuming the new missile can penetrate ten percent more armor than the Reflecks, it can penetrate about 990 millimeters of armor plate. The new missile could theoretically penetrate the frontal hull of an Abrams, but not the turret. In practical terms, the new missile is no more dangerous than older missiles. It’s possible that the Armata tank cannot use older missiles like Reflecks and the Russians are being forced to develop one that does and Russia is making the most of the media opportunity.
The U.S. Army isn’t standing still against the threat of Russian anti-tank missiles. The Army is installing the Israeli-made Trophy active protection system (APS) on Abrams tanks deployed to Europe. Trophy rings a tank with radar antennas to detect incoming missiles and rockets. Once the incoming weapon is in range, Trophy fires a shotgun-like pattern of metal at the weapon to destroy it. The system is very effective and is fully automated, protecting the tank and crew at all times.
In other words, the Abrams tank is already pretty well protected against the Armata’s new missile. The missiles need to breach the Abrams’ active protection systems, exhausting its supply of metal interceptors, then score a direct hit against the hull. The Abrams’ turret will shrug the new missile off. The hundred year arms race between tank and anti-tank continues.