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T-72: How some Russian tanks in Ukraine are convicted of a “jack-in-the-box” error judge

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The sight of Russian tank towers, blown off and lying in ruins along Ukrainian roads, points to a problem with the tank construction known as the “jack-in-the-box” fault.

The error is related to the way many Russian tanks hold and load ammunition. In these tanks, including the T-72, the Soviet-designed vehicle that has been prevalent during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, grenades are all placed in a ring in the tower. When an enemy shot hits the right spot, the ring of ammunition can quickly “boil off” and ignite a chain reaction that blows the tower off the tank’s hull in a deadly blow.


Sitting on a powder keg:

Fatal error of the T-72 tank

Other tanks on the modern battlefield generally store their ammunition away

from the crew, behind armored walls.

The ammunition of the Russian T-72 main tank sits in a carousel-style automatic loader directly under the main tower and members of the crew.

If a penetrating blow to the tank’s relatively thin side armor detonates one of these shots, the explosion can set off a chain reaction that kills the crew and destroys the tank.

M1 Abrams (USA)

Sources: “M1 Abrams vs. T-72 Ural” by

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

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

WILLIAM NEFF / THE WASHINGTON POST

Sitting on a powder keg:

Fatal error of the T-72 tank

Other tanks on the modern battlefield generally store their ammunition away from the crew, behind armored walls. The ammunition of the Russian T-72 main tank sits in a carousel-style automatic loader directly under the main tower and members of the crew.

If a penetrating blow to the tank’s relatively thin side armor detonates one of these shots, the explosion can set off a chain reaction that kills the crew and destroys the tank.

M1 Abrams (USA)

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 T-72 tank’s fatal flaw

Other tanks on the modern battlefield generally store their ammunition away from the crew, behind armored walls. The ammunition of the Russian T-72 main tank sits in a carousel-style automatic loader directly under the main tower and members of the crew.

If a penetrating blow to the tank’s relatively thin side armor detonates one of these shots, the explosion may start

a chain reaction that kills the crew and destroys the tank.

M1 Abrams (USA)

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

In Ukraine, wrecked Russian tanks are the newest attraction at the roadside

“For a Russian crew, if the ammunition depot is hit, everyone is dead,” said Robert E. Hamilton, a professor at the U.S. Army War College, adding that the force of the explosion could “instantly evaporate” the crew. “All those rounds – about 40 depending on whether they have a full load or not – are all going to boil off and everyone will be dead.”

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 are witnessing now is that Ukrainians are taking advantage of the fallacy,” said Samuel Bendett, a consultant at the Center for Naval Analysis, a federally funded nonprofit research institute. Ukraine’s western allies have supplied high-volume anti-tank weapons.

Ukraine has also used Russian-made T-72 variants, which face the same problem. But Russia’s invasion has relied on large-scale deployment of tanks, and Ukraine has been able to strike back better than expected.

The error speaks of a broader difference in approaches between Western military and Russia, analysts say.

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“American tanks have long prioritized crew survival in a way that Russian tanks just do not have,” Hamilton said. “It’s really just a difference in the design of the ammunition storage space and a difference in priority.”

Ammunition in most Western tanks can be stored under the tower floor, protected by the heavy hull – or behind the tower, Hamilton said. While a tower-mounted ammunition room is potentially vulnerable to a hit, built-in features can prevent the same level of decapitated destruction as in the case of the T-72.

Even the early versions of the American M1 Abrams tanks of the 1980s were equipped with hard blasting doors that separated the crew inside from the stored ammunition. These tanks have a crew of four, including a loader, which opens the ballistic door manually. These were designed to be stronger than the top armor, so if ammunition was boiled off, the explosion would be channeled upward through exhaust panels instead of into the crew room, Hamilton said.

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

On the other hand, Russian tanks rely on mechanical automatic loaders, making it possible to man them by a team of three.

The design of Russian tanks prioritizes firing speed, firepower, a low profile, speed and maneuverability in relation to overall survivability, Hamilton said. Russian tanks tend to be lighter and simpler and have thinner, less advanced armor than Western tanks. The design vulnerability was probably “just cheaper and easier,” Hamilton said.

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

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For the U.S. 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 useless as the machine,” he said. “The Russians have known about this for 31 years – you have to say they just chose not to deal with it.”

Claire Parker contributed to this report.

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