Reactive armor, various combinations of composite armor materials, advanced gunners’ thermal sights, smoke grenades, and the ability to jam incoming anti-tank missiles are all reported attributes built into the Russian T-90M tank.
Should these technical details of the Russian tank be true, and should they be able to achieve the required operational functionality, then the T-90 could well be a concerning and formidable threat.
Nonetheless, stats on paper mean nothing if weapons of war can’t perform.
And at least so far in the Ukraine war, the T-90 is no game-changer.
What Makes the T-90 Deadly
Some of the innovations woven into the vehicle sound somewhat similar to upgrades the U.S. Army has made to its Abrams tank. For example, available specs on the T-90 say the tank’s 125mm Smoothbore main gun can fire High-Explosive Anti-Tank (HEAT) rounds as well HE-FRAG or fragmentation projectiles to improve anti-personnel lethality. To a certain extent, this parallels the kinds of ammunition fired by the Abrams, which includes Multi-Purpose Anti-Tank round (MPAT) as well as HEAT rounds and so-called “Canister” rounds which release a series of fragmented small projectiles to destroy groups of enemy fighters.
The T-90 entered service in 1993, and the extent to which it has been successfully maintained and upgraded may be somewhat of a question mark. Multiple reports reveal the tank has rather advanced countermeasures such as a “TShu-1-7-Shtora-1” optronic system to disrupt laser targeting on incoming ATGMs and an electro-optical jammer. Perhaps of greatest significance, the T-90M is engineered with advanced thermal sights, as high-fidelity, long-range targeting sensors can of course offer an impactful margin of difference. The U.S. Army’s v3 Abrams variant, for instance, is engineered with a FLIR, forward-looking infrared sensor reportedly able to transmit high-resolution targeting images at stand-off distances.
The real questions, therefore, most likely pertain to the nature and extent of the upgrades Russian weapons developers have built into the T-90. Has it been upgraded in any way that could rival the v3 and emerging v4 variants of the U.S. Army’s Abrams?
To be competitive with these advanced U.S. variants, it seems the T-90 would need an integrated active-protection-system and fire control technology connecting soft-kill sensors such as the Shora-1 with hard-kill kinds of interceptors such as Russia’s Arena system, as explained by a Federation of American Scientists paper on the T-90 as far back as 2000.
What Some Scholars Say
“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 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 Military Analysis Network essay states.
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 FAS paper also says the T-90 can fire a laser-guided missile called the Refleks, able to target both armored objects and even low-flying helicopters as a “counter-air” weapon. The missile (Refleks), which can penetrate 700-mm of RHAe out to 4,000 meters, gives the T-90 the ability to engage other vehicles and helicopters before they can engage the T-90. The computerized fire control system and laser range-finder, 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.
The T-90 Has Flaws
However, the destruction of Russian tanks by anti-tank missiles fired from elevated positions “top down” onto vehicles in Ukraine suggests that Russian tanks do not have a 360-degree active protection system. An interesting video published by Newsweek shows exactly that, as the footage captures a Russian T-90 exploding in a fire in Ukraine after being hit from above.
The FAS essay also says the T-90 has received advanced thermal sights, however the real unknown likely relates to the extent to which the T-90 has been maintained and upgraded, as advances in computing, electronics, targeting systems, active protection, and on-board command and control technologies have made today’s Abrams tank a completely different platform than it was 10 years ago.
The extent to which Russia has successfully pursued comparable upgrades able to rival the current Abrams very much remains an open question.
T-90 In Ukraine
Therefore, while the T-90 may have presented a serious threat in the 1990s, it may not have been maintained and upgraded enough to present a large threat now.
Observations in Ukraine validate this theory, as numerous reports are capturing and citing instances where Ukrainian forces are destroying T-90 tanks.
Kris Osborn is the Military Affairs Editor of 19FortyFive 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.