Flying tank turrets: what the emblem of Putin's failed invasion is all about
This tower became a symbol of the failed blitzkrieg.
© Ukrainian Forces
4 min reading time
Putin's unsuccessful invasion of Ukraine has a landmark: tank turrets – in all variations, always blown off the hull of the tank. They lie on the roof, burrow into the pavement and in some cases fly out of the fireball of the exploding tank straight at the combat drone's camera. How does this happen?
Basically, this is not unique to Russian tanks or the Ukraine war. The frequency alone needs to be explained. The turret of a tank is not welded to the hull, it rests on it in a ring. Similar to warships. If they sink and turn in the process, the heavy towers can detach from the hull.
If there is a massive explosion inside the tank, the turret and the turret crew will be blown off like a lid. That happened to Michael Wittmann, one of the most dangerous tank commanders of World War II, in the battle for the Falaise Pocket in Normandy. On August 8, 1944, his Tiger I was fired on from three sides. The Tiger's sides weren't nearly as heavily armored, a hit went through, the ammunition rack exploded, the turret was blown off and landed on the ground just behind the tank.
Ammo depot of the T-72
Such explosions usually only occur when the ammunition explodes from a hit and not when the tank burns out. And this often happens with those T-tanks used by Russia. This is due to their construction and the weapons used to fight them. The T-tanks of Russia all go back to the tank construction of the USSR, except for the new T-14 Armata. Here the protection of the crew did not have a special priority. Strictly speaking, it is relatively new not only in Russia, but worldwide that attention is paid to giving the crew a chance to disembark and survive even in the event of a heavy hit, right from the design stage. In any case, this was not the case with the tank most frequently used by Russia, the T-72.
Cold War T-tanks are all smaller than their western counterparts. It's up to the role. The T-64, T-72 and T-84 were designed primarily as advancing mobile assault tanks, while much attention was paid to retreating defenses such as the Leopard. A side effect was also that the USSR had designed the tanks for smaller soldiers. Above all, the crew was smaller – one man was missing in a T-tank. And the space for the crew largely determines the size of the interior. The Leopard, like almost all western tanks of the time, has a loader whose main task is to feed ammunition to the main gun. This is automatically supported, but done manually. The Soviets, on the other hand, installed loading machines quite early on. The ammunition is stored in a magazine, the gunner selects an ammunition type. Then the projectile is automatically fed from the magazine into the chamber of the cannon.
One man less on board
The problem today is the location of the magazine, it is under the turret and under the crew compartment. In a way, it sits on the ammunition cassettes in the loading carousel. The merry-go-round is a ring about the size of the spire. It contains the ammunition cassettes with – depending on the design – 39 or 44 rounds. Empty cassettes can be exchanged for full ones from inside the tank.
From a technical point of view, the whole thing is demanding, because the carousel rotates independently in relation to the hull, but the tower and the positions of the tower crew suspended from it can also rotate independently. At the moment of ammunition feeding, these movements must be synchronized between the loader, the main gun and the feeding magazine. To make matters worse, there are different types of projectiles in the magazine. The whole thing only became manageable because people switched from the traditional hydraulic to an electric drive. The machine was a clear improvement over the manual solution, especially since the loading machines work reliably. There are hardly any reports of electrical or mechanical failures.
But if the ammunition explodes, the force hits the crew's room. In Soviet times, the risk was considered acceptable and even lower than with other forms of ammunition storage. The T magazine was well protected from cannon hits due to its location at the bottom of the tank. But the calculation behind this compromise has changed today.
The relatively weakly armored bottom of a tank was already endangered by mines and booby traps in the past, and these weapons are even more present in today's conflicts than in the scenarios of the Cold War. There are also new anti-tank weapons such as the Javelin. They don't fly straight at a tank and then hit the front, but fly over it and hit it on the weakly protected top side. Combat drone attacks also hit the roof of a tank. Such a hit almost always causes the magazine to explode, giving rise to Putin's flying tank turrets.
In addition to a direct hit in the magazine and an immediate explosion, it can also happen that a tank is hit elsewhere and the magazine is sooner or later detonated by fire.
Advantage to anti-tank
They are a symbol of the state of the armored weapon today. Currently, the steel behemoths are having a hard time against anti-tank missiles and drones. That may change again, but with the current state of armor, a tank offers far less protection than it did in the 2000s. This also applies to all western tanks. When faced with a well-armed opponent, they would perform little better than the Russian T-tanks. The blasted towers of the T-tanks are only the conspicuous sign of a current general tank weakness. The turrets of the Leopard tanks used by Turkey in Syria also blew off after hits in the front magazine.
It should also be noted that the crew of a main battle tank does not survive hits in the ammo depot, even without an autoloader and spectacular flight of the turret.