Russia’s T-90M tank is loaded with reported attributes. Reactive armor, various combinations of composite armor materials, advanced gunner’s thermal sights, smoke grenades, and the ability to jam incoming anti-tank missiles are among them.
If these technical details are accurate and the systems are functional, the T-90 could be a formidable threat. But attributes on paper mean nothing if weapons of war can’t perform. And at least so far in the Ukraine War, the T-90’s performance is not so remarkable.
Russia’s T-90M tank was heralded as a formidable platform.
Yet the tanks continue to be decimated by committed Ukrainian fighters using anti-armor weapons and advanced tactics. Numerous reports and photographs show that the advanced Russian tanks are, in fact, quite vulnerable to overhead attack. Whatever Active Protection System the tanks have appears to not be hemispheric, and because the top of a T-90 is less protected by armor, Ukrainians have been using buildings and elevated terrain to target and destroy these Russian tanks.
While armored vehicles such as the T-90 continue to show themselves vulnerable to Ukrainian anti-armor attacks, it is natural now to wonder how Russia’s T-90M will perform against the M1 Abrams tank variants that are soon set to join Ukraine’s ranks.
Available specs show that the tanks might be comparable in certain respects, as both the T-90M and the Abrams now operate with advanced thermal sights and are capable of firing High Explosive Anti-Tank and HE-FRAG fragmentation projectiles. The fragmentation technology woven into the T-90M’s ammunition is hard to discern. The tank may or may not have a canister round like the Abrams to disperse a large amount of small projectiles, improving anti-personnel lethality.
The T-90 Upgrades
The margin of difference between the Abrams and the T-90s in Ukraine depends on the technology woven into export variants of the Abrams, and the successful upgrading of the Russian tanks. T-90s emerged in 1993.
Have they been maintained and upgraded enough to compete in a tank-on-tank war against the Abrams? Which tank has better range and image fidelity when it comes to infrared targeting, thermal sights, and sensing? The U.S. Army’s M1A2 v3 variants, for example, are engineered with a new generation of Forward Looking Infrared sensors. If these are integrated into the export variants Ukraine receives, the Abrams might have a distinct advantage.
In order to outcompete upgraded variants of the Abrams, the T-90 would need advanced fire control technology and an integrated active protection system connecting soft-kill sensors such as the Shora-1 with hard-kill interceptors such as Russia’s Arena system, according to a 2000 paper published by the Federation of American Scientists.
It would be useful to know whether the T-90s have received such upgrades in the years since this paper was published.
“The T-90 is equipped with the TShU-1-7 Shtora-1 optronic countermeasures system which is designed to disrupt the laser target designation and rangefinders of incoming ATGM,” the FAS Military Analysis Network essay states. “The T-90 is also equipped with a laser warning package that warns the tank crew when it is being lased. Shtora-1 is an electro-optical jammer that jams the enemy’s semiautomatic command to line of sight anti tank guided missiles, laser rangefinders and target designators. Shtora-1 is actually a soft kill, or countermeasures system. It is most effective when used in tandem with a hard kill system such as the Arena.”
The FAS paper also says the T-90’s smoothbore cannon can fire time-fuzed projectiles, something which could mirror current applications of proximity fuzes or air-burst rounds. The T-90 can fire a laser-guided missile called the Refleks that is able to target armored objects and even low-flying helicopters.
The missile, which can penetrate 700mm of armor out to 4,000 meters, gives the T-90 the ability to engage other vehicles and helicopters before they can engage the tank. The computerized fire control system and laser rangefinder, coupled with the new Agave gunner’s thermal sight, permit the T-90 to engage targets while on the move and at night, the FAS paper says.
Kris Osborn is the Military Editor of 19 FortyFive and President of Warrior Maven – Center for Military Modernization. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.