Monday, September 19, 2005

Soviet Tanks...

Here's a reply I made to a question about Soviet tanks:

I've just been painting some more T72's and started wondering about auto-loading tank guns; the Russians seem very keen on them but no-one else seems to have picked up on the idea. Is there something fundamentally wrong with the way they work? I've heard T72 crew were liable to nasty accidents using this system - trapped fingers or worse? Just out of interest can anyone shed any more light on the subject or suggest a site I could visit to find out more? Cheers.

The autoloaders on Soviet tanks were necessary to reduce the crew size to 3 and keep the turret as small as possible. Soviet tank design is an intriguing example of what happens when non-military considerations drive a military design.

The Soviet Union had a "command economy", which means that a tiny oligarchy controlled all economic output. They simply did this by fiat -- "make 1,000 toasters" and the orders were hopefully carried out. They didn't have a functioning monetary system in the sense that Westerners understand the term. Soviet money was merely a form of voucher issued to the workers by the government. The small scale "real" market transactions were carried out with
real money -- US dollars.

So there was no Soviet military "budget" pe se. The Soviet oligarchs simply decided what was needed and ordered it built. The problem, of course, is that military spending is an economic "hole". Production output spent building a tank is sunk into that tank and cannot be recovered, leveraged or used to make more output. As part of his effort to keep Soviet military production from destroying the civilian economy, Khruschev ordered that Soviet tanks be limited to a certain mass. A tank's cost tends to correlate to its mass, so this was a crude but effective way of imposing a "price cap" on Soviet tanks in an economy that had no mechanisms for price caps.

Soviet designers, then, were faced with a rigid limit on the size of their tanks that had nothing to do with military effectiveness. To produce the most effective tanks within that limit, they focused on making the tanks and particularly the turret as small as possible, thereby maximizing armor protection. A tank's mass tended to increase with its volume, so this was a sensible solution. It also allowed them to maximize armor protection (a smaller frontal area meant more armor thickness for the same weight).

The two ways they did this were to limit the size of Soviet tankers (5'6") and replace the 4th crewman with a much more compact autoloader. The Soviet designers were doubtlessly aware of the problems and limitations of autoloaders, but because it was the best solution available, they went with it.

The result were tanks that were very inexpensive compared to Western MBTs, yet had superior capabilities,
on paper. For instance, the T-72 mounted a 125mm gun when Western MBTs mounted a 105mm gun. Unfortunately, the hysterical cries from Western defense analysts (and contractors) drowned out the facts that most of these superior capabilities were illusory.

For instance, the Western 105mm was at least as good as and probably better than the Soviet 125mm gun. And far more accurate at long range, due to superior Western fire control systems. And the cheap barrel meant that Soviets tanks would wear their barrels out after 100 rounds (vs. thousands of rounds on the Western guns). Since autoloaders were mechanical, many folks naturally assumed that they were faster than human loaders -- but they weren't. Due to small size and by skimping on flank protection and areas unlikely to be hit, Soviet tanks had impressive armor protection in the front. No one noticed that the lousy ammo and fuel storage meant that Soviet tanks were likely to brew up spectaculary when hit. And so on.

The net result is that Soviet tanks were utterly outclassed by Western tanks in the real fights. Of course, the Soviet tanks were crewed by some of the worst soldiers in history, Arabs. And they were "monkey models" -- stripped of some of their fancier gear. But it is telling I think to note that when the Israelis finally built their own tank, they produced a tank that was squarely in the Western design model.
They apparently were not so impressed with Soviet tank design philosophy.

And in the 25 years since the Merkava, no Western nation has built a Soviet style tank. Only the French have deployed an autoloader on their MBTs, and the LeClerc seems much like its Soviet tank cousins - impressive on paper, far less so in actual use.