Analysis: When Tank Busting Goes Wrong


Still from video recorded by Ukrainian military in late March 2022. NLAW missile fired from window … [+] of building in Mariupol surges towards rear turret of a T-72B model 1989 tank.

Ukrainian military.

It was the perfect shot, a real a slam dunk when it comes to the esoteric art of converting 45-ton killing machines sheathed in exotic composite armor into flaming wreckage.

Late in March 2022, a T-72B main battle tank, by some accounts operated by pro-Russian separatist fighters of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, rolled incautiously down the devastated streets of Mariupol, a key Ukrainian port on the Sea of Azov that has been completely surrounded by Russian forces for weeks.

Unbeknownst to the tank’s three-person a crew, a Ukrainian gunner glared down upon them from an overlooking apartment, a camera recording his perspective.

The angle afforded the Ukrainian soldier an ideal shot at the T-72’s top and rear —by far the most vulnerable part of any modern tank, where the armor is drastically thinner. And he had at his disposal an NLAW missile delivered by the United Kingdom, a relatively sophisticated medium-ranged weapon with a predictive guidance system.

Upon accurately acquiring the tank in his sights, he pulls the trigger on the single-shot disposable weapon. A still frame of the combat recording (see above) shows what is certainly a green NLAW missile rocketing towards its victim.

TOPSHOT – A Ukrainian soldier holds a Next Generation Light Anti-tank Weapon (NLAW) that was used to … [+] destroy a Russian armoured personal carrier (APC) in Irpin, north of Kyiv, on March 12, 2022. – Russian forces stepped up the pressure on Kyiv on March 12, 2022. The northwest suburbs of the capital, including Irpin and Bucha, have already endured days of heavy bombardment while Russian armoured vehicles are advancing on the northeastern edge. (Photo by Sergei SUPINSKY / AFP) (Photo by SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP via Getty Images)

AFP via Getty Images

But things don’t work out as expected, as you can see in the video below.

The T-72B is hit square on the rear turret by the powerful 150-millimeter projectile, causing flames to lick up the heavy machine gun mount, leaving it worse for wear along with other systems located nearby. Probably the crew inside are stunned. The gunner whoops with joy.

But the tank does not “brew up” in flames as it rolls onwards beyond sight of the camera.

What went wrong with this seemingly perfect kill shot?

One possibility is that the second-generation Kontakt-5 explosive reactive armor (ERA) on the turret of this model 1989g T-72B may have blasted a metal plate outwards, deflecting or warping the missile’s shaped-charge warhead, preventing it from exploding into the turret at the ideal angle and distance. A few of these ERA bricks are visible atop the turret.

However, the NLAW has a tandem charge—a second small explosive at the missile’s tip intended to trip reactive armor bricks prematurely so the main charge can blast through. In other words, an NLAW is designed to defeat this kind of defense.

Some observers point out that some flames and smoke can be seen coming from under the turret, perhaps indicating internal damage. Indeed, a non-penetrating hit can still cause unpleasant things to happen inside a tank, though the smoke may also come from external material and gear combusted by the missile’s impact.

However, the results of a truly effective hit to the turrets of Russian tanks often aren’t very subtle. That’s because the tanks’ 125-millimeter shells are stored in a “carousel” autoloader in the turret beside the crew.

Thus, major damage to the turret top often detonates those shells, which may blast the turret clean off, or cause hot flames to jet from inside the tank.

There is some media supporting the notion that this particular tank was at least minorly damaged. Russia Today subsequently ran a segment ostensibly interviewing the crew of the tank, who claimed they were now operating another vehicle. If true—never something to take for granted with this state-sponsored outlet—that implies the tank was at a minimum sufficiently damaged to be rotated out of the field.

Conversely, some claim this may have been a propaganda stunt staged by Russia using a captured NLAW.

But the most likely explanations for the failure to land a knock-out punch comes down to the weapon’s High Explosive Anti-tank (HEAT) warhead, and in particular its fuse.

HEAT shells don’t depend at all on kinetic energy (mass and velocity) for their main punch—that means they can theoretically penetrate as much armor from 30 meters away as 3,000. Basically on impact, the charge’s core blasts into the tank using chemical energy, not kinetic force.

But that also means if the fuse of the shaped charge warhead doesn’t go off, the penetrating capability of a low-velocity missile is marginal. And here’s where the fine print comes in: the NLAW may have a maximum range of 600 or even 800 meters, but it also has a minimum range of 20 meters. Below that range its fuse isn’t meant to go off.

So most likely, the lucky tank was actually too close for the NLAW to work as intended.

This isn’t an indictment of the NLAW, which has proven highly popular with Ukrainian forces. Minimum engagement ranges are a consideration for most portable anti-tank weapons.

Though I wrote a piece prior to the war arguing that Russian forces would ordinarily attempt to keep their armor outside the NLAW’s engagement range (at least when outside cities) in the subsequent fighting, Russian forces have shown little such caution, nor great ability to screen against anti-tank ambushes.

And of course, in the close confines of a large city like Mariupol, the NLAW is in its element—just not from that close.

MARIUPOL, UKRAINE – MARCH 26: A wrecked tank is seen as civilians are being evacuated along … [+] humanitarian corridors from the Ukrainian city of Mariupol under the control of Russian military and pro-Russian separatists, on March 26, 2022. (Photo by Stringer/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

It’s just sometimes the perfect shot doesn’t line up with the right type of weapon to execute that attack.

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