In Ukraine, destroyed T-72s are shedding some light on a calculated design flaw Russia made on its main battle tanks. Turrets from burned out Russian T-72s in Ukraine are often seen yards away from the body of the tank. They look like they’ve popped off much like a soda bottle cap after someone drops a Mentos in. The reason appears to be a design flaw in the location chosen for ammunition storage. T-72 ammo is stored inside the crew compartment, just below the turret. Unlike the Abrams tank, where ammunition is stored in a separate compartment with blow out panels, the T-72’s ammunition is stored with the crew. This design choice often proves fatal when the tank is hit by enemy fire. David Hambling of Forbes, writes (abridged):
Sometimes in modern warfare it is not possible to tell whether a vehicle has been damaged or destroyed, as the only sign may be a small hole with burn marks. But this is certainly not the case with Russian T-72 tanks in the war in Ukraine: in many of the images shared online the vehicles are completely shattered, with the turret thrown some distance from the body of the tank. This is not because of some super-powerful anti-tank weapon. The catastrophic losses are the side-effect of a calculated design decision.
Most Western tanks, including the most modern M1 Abrams, have a crew of four: commander, driver, gunner and loader. The autoloader manually takes rounds from a stowage compartment and loads them into the Abrams’ 120mm main gun. Of the four crew roles in the tank, loader is the simplest and the easiest to automate, and that’s what the Russians did with the T-72 series and later tanks.
The autoloader reduces the number of personnel needed by 25%, as well as significantly reducing the space needed inside the turret as rounds are not being manhandled. It makes the turret smaller, and contributes to the much lower profile of the T-72 – at almost a foot shorter than the Abrams, it can take cover and remain unseen more easily (unless it has one of those ridiculous cope cage armor add-ons welded to the roof that the Russians have employed in Ukraine).
In addition autoloaders are supposed to be faster and more efficient than humans, as well as cheaper.
One disadvantage of having an autoloader is that it reduces the crew available for field maintenance and repairs. Another is that while the French Leclerc tank has an autoloader ammunition stored in a bustle away from the crew, the Russians opted with the the T-72 to have their ammunition storage in the form of a carousel in the body of the tank immediately under the turret.
Wait what 🇷🇺 pic.twitter.com/E8T9Y42nor
— Oryx (@oryxspioenkop) March 25, 2022
This means there is no barrier between the crew and the stored ammunition. The Abrams ammunition storage is separate to the crew compartment, and is fitted with special blow-out panels so that if the ammunition explodes – as seen here – the panels blow away first so the blast goes outwards rather than through the closed crew compartment. The crew generally survive without serious injury when this happens.
The torn off turret of the Russian T-72B3 tank clearly resembles ☠️ Only death awaits Russian tankers in Ukraine. #WARINUKRAINE #UkraineRussianWar #T72 pic.twitter.com/oY2EmLS5Oj
— Ukraine NOW (@ukraine_ll) April 17, 2022
With the Russian design there are no blow-out panels, because the ammunition is in the same space as the crew. Any penetrating hit in the turret or hull can set off the ammunition, with a result sometimes describes as Jack-in-the-box effect: the force of the blast from the ammo tears the tank apart from inside, often detaching the turret with such force that it is thrown clear. Such events are instantly fatal to the crew.