Russia is Celebrating

One of their missiles was used by ISIS to destroy an Abrams tank involved in the ongoing siege of Mosul. The video, originally posted by ISIS, was further broadcast by RT and is now on youtube.

Since the US-built Abrams is generally considered to be the world’s all-around best tank*, Russia is pleased to see one get blown up by a Russian missile.  This is not unwarranted as one of the features the Abrams is most famous for is it’s deeply classified armour, a complex combination of ceramics, elastics, and depleted uranium that is reportedly several TENS of times more resistant than steel for its weight and thickness. Defeating that armour is free advertising for Russia’s arms export business, but it’s not entirely clear to me that the bragging is warranted.  Below the break, I offer background and analysis of the video.

  1. The missile used is reportedly a Russian Kornet, a post-Soviet man-portable anti-vehicle system first introduced in 1998.  The version being currently manufactured is the third update to the design.
  2. ISIS has a notable but not overly-large supply of captured Kornets.  Russia has given large numbers of Kornets to Assad’s Syria over the years, so the obvious source of ISIS’ supply came from captured depots in Eastern Syria.  However, Iraq has also been known to use them.
  3. The missile in the video appears to be moving very slowly, but the Kornet’s range is supposedly around 5500 yards.  Low apparent speed probably because of camera being near to launch point and using a telephoto lens to capture a distant target.
  4. The missile also wobbles.  A lot.  United States, Israel, and other technologically advanced nations now have active anti-missile systems that are supposed to shoot down incoming rockets and missiles.  This sort of eccentric motion could be an attempted counter-counter-measure.  Or, since the Kornet is laser-guided, it’s a the effect of the missile’s course correction as it homes in on the laser dot.  Or: both, if the designers left the steering algorithm a little ‘looser’ than optimal in order so the missile might dodge defensive fire.
  5. The Kornet, like most modern anti-tank weapons, has a two stage warhead, the practical response to most tanks having two stage armour.  The main warhead is a shaped charge, which produces a highly focused explosion that can pierce the highly classified composites of modern armour.  Tank designers responded by adding reactive armour, the best of which is comprised of little blocks of shaped charges, all pointed outwards.  Wrapping oneself in explosives may seem idiotic, but when reactive armour is hit, the outward-point shaped charges disrupt the finely-tuned dynamics of the incoming shaped charge.  To defeat this, the Kornet has an initial, non-shaped charge that pre-emptively destroys reactive armour and clears the way for the shaped charge.

All of this together suggests that we (still) live in a deeply offense-technology-dominant world, and that even the best defenses of a superpower’s military-industrial complex can’t stop a cheap missile launched by a bunch of third world semi-terrorists.  So why do I think the Russian bragging is exaggerated?

  1. Either the ISIS missile-gunner was quite good or very lucky (depending on how much lower than Wikipedia’s vague “<5m” the accuracy of the Kornet actually is).  The missile struck in the rear, on top of the engine and apparently right at the joint between the turret and body.  In short, a perfect hit.
  2. There are no signs of any active anti-missile system responding or firing.
  3. It’s hard to tell because of the video quality, but the targeted tank seems to lack the little boxes that indicate reactive armour – the planes of the sides appear smooth.
  4. The Russian article brags about ‘US built’ tank.  They don’t say US operated or owned.

The first point stands on its own, but the next three suggest this wasn’t a top of the line Abrams by any stretch.  See, the Iraqi Army also operates Abrams tanks, and (though I’d not be surprised to discover otherwise) the United States is supposedly only offering air support and advice in the Mosul offensive.

The Iraqi Abrams are M1-A1s, which the US started to phase out in 1992 with the production of the M1-A2.  Today, the US Army is months away from the putting the M1-A2 SEPv3 into use, marking the third major overhaul.  (To illustrate the difference, the M1-A2 is 7 tons heavier (72 tons instead of 63) despite being only a little bit slower.)  In total, the sheer number of incremental improvements means that the modern Abrams might as well be a different vehicle from the 1980s era design Iraq is using.

In short, I suspect that what Russia is bragging about is that one of their fanciest anti-tank weapons merely managed to take out a 25-year old tank design with obsolete armour and no active defenses**.  This isn’t nothing, as even an obsolete M1 is probably better armored than the vehicles most countries have access to, but it doesn’t necessarily speak to the effectiveness of the missile against an actual first-world military.

* Most of the world’s current tank models have some area of comparative advantage, but the Abrams’ combination of heavy armour, respectable speed, technological features, and actual (albeit one-sided) battle experience seems to put it at or near the top of most peoples’ lists.

** The Wikipedia article on the Kornet mentions that Israeli Merkava tanks have faced Kornets for years, often because of Syrian re-sale of the missiles.  Typically (and irritatingly) not providing statistics, Israel claims their Trophy anti-missile system has been effective.  They also that many successful hits have nevertheless resulted in no casualties or injuries.  Though the Merkava is a modern tank, like most other tanks of the world, it is lighter than the Abrams, so if the modern Merkava can withstand the Kornet, one would expect the Abrams to do so as well.

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