Russia will have already lost about 580 tanks. There is a design reason that makes them more vulnerable – and Ukrainians know it. It’s called the “clown jump” effect.
Russia’s tanks in Ukraine have a ‘clown jump’ design flaw. And the West has known it since the Gulf War
Russian tanks with “tops” blown off are just the latest sign that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is not going according to plan.
Hundreds of Russian tanks are believed to have been destroyed since Moscow launched its offensive. This Monday, British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace estimated that Russia will have lost up to 580.
Moscow’s problems go beyond the large number of tanks it lost. Experts say battlefield footage shows Russian tanks are suffering from a defect that Western militaries have known for decades as the “clown-jump effect”. [tradução possível de “jack-in-the-box”, brinquedo em que um boneco palhaço salta de surpresa de uma caixa fechada quando se lhe abre a tampa]. Moscow, they say, should have seen this problem coming.
The problem is related to the way the tank’s ammunition is stored. Unlike modern western tanks, the Russians carry multiple shells inside their artillery turrets. This makes them highly vulnerable, even an indirect hit can start a chain reaction that explodes the entire ammunition stock of up to 40 projectiles.
The resulting shock wave could be enough to blow up the tank’s turret as tall as a two-story building.
“What we’re witnessing in Russian tanks is a design flaw,” says Sam Bendett, adviser to the CNA’s Russian Studies Program and adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
“Any successful attack… quickly ignites the ammo, causing a massive explosion, and the turret literally explodes.”
This flaw means that the tank’s crew – usually two men in the turret and a third leading – are an easy target, explains Nicholas Drummond, a defense industry analyst specializing in land warfare and a former British Army officer: “If you don’t leave in the first second, you’re fried.”
The “jack-in-the-box” effect
Drummond says the munitions explosions are causing problems for almost every armored vehicle Russia is using in Ukraine. And he gives the example of the BMD-4 infantry fighting vehicle, normally manned by up to three crew members and capable of carrying another five soldiers. Drummond says the BMD-4 is a “moving coffin” that is “simply obliterated” when hit by a missile.
The design flaw in the tanks must be particularly irritating to Moscow, as the problems have been widely publicized.
These problems came to the attention of the Western military during the Gulf wars against Iraq in 1991 and 2003, when large numbers of the Iraqi army’s Russian-made T-72 tanks suffered the same fate – turrets exploding from the tops of the tanks in anti-tank missile attacks.
Drummond believes that Russia has not learned the lessons from Iraq and, as a result, many of its tanks in Ukraine had similar design flaws in their self-loading missile systems.
When the T-90 series – the successor to the T-72 – entered service in 1992, its armor was upgraded, but the missile loading system remained similar to its predecessor, leaving it just as vulnerable, Drummond explains. The T-80, another Russian tank in action in the Ukraine invasion, has a similar missile loading system.
There are some benefits to this system. Bendett of the Center for a New American Security says Russia chose this system to save space and give the tanks a lower profile, making them harder to hit in battle.
The Western military, however, was motivated to take action by knowing the fate of the T-72 in Iraq. “[Os militares ocidentais] they all learned from the Gulf War, when they saw tanks ‘die’, that you have to compartmentalize the ammunition”, says Drummond, who points to the US Army’s Stryker infantry fighting vehicles, developed after the first war in Iraq.
“They have a turret on top of the tank, and this turret doesn’t go into the crew compartment. It’s just on top and all the ammunition is inside that turret”, he explains. “So if the turret is hit and blows up, the crew will still be safe below. It’s a very clever design.”
Other Western tanks, such as the M1 Abrams, used by the US and some Allied armies, are larger and do not have a merry-go-round. On the Abrams, a fourth crew member retrieves projectiles from a sealed compartment and transfers them to the weapon for firing.
The compartment has a door that the crew member opens and closes between each tank firing, which means that if the tank is hit, only one shell will be exposed in the turret. “A precise hit can damage the tank, but not necessarily kill the crew,” details Bendett. According to Drummond, projectiles used by Western military forces sometimes burn under the high heat generated by a missile, but do not explode.
hard to replace
There is no easy way to know how many Russian tanks were destroyed in Ukraine. Open source intelligence monitoring website Oryx said on April 28 that at least 300 Russian tanks had been destroyed, with 279 more damaged, abandoned or captured. However, the site only counts cases where there is visual evidence, so Russian losses could be much higher.
These losses are not just about equipment. When Wallace, the British Defense Secretary, gave the House of Commons an estimate of 580 tanks lost, he also claimed that more than 15,000 Russian servicemen were killed during the invasion.
It is difficult to know how many tank crews would be, but there is no doubt that crews are not easy to replace.
Training a tank crew can take at least several months, even 12 months can be considered fast, says Aleksi Roinila, a former tank crewman in the Finnish Defense Forces. For Russia to replace hundreds of crew at this point in the war would be a difficult task – especially when the tanks they use have so many flaws.