For over a decade Russia has been demonstrating its revolutionary new T-14 Armata tank and declaring that mass production was imminent. The recent collapse of Russian defense production, because of economic sanctions imposed after the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, resulted in revelations about several major cases of corruption in Russian defense production. One of the most embarrassing incidents involved the many deceptions and failures related to the T-14 tank and why it began, and remained, a fraud for so long.
Development of the T-14 began after the failure of an earlier but similar tank failed. This one also used an unmanned turret and other innovations the T-14 inherited. The decision to develop and manufacture the T-14 attracted the attention of senior military and political leaders. The first mistake was the decision to keep the T-14 compact by using the then-new A-85-3 engine. This design was a copy of the German Porsche Tour 212 engine. The A-85-3 was smaller, more powerful and heavier than other tank engines and the T-14 was built around it. That proved to be a major mistake because the A-85-3 was the usual flawed Russian copy of a foreign tank engine (this has happened several times) and there were many reliability problems that were never solved, despite continuing efforts to do so. This meant the A-85-3 engine was more difficult and time-consuming to maintain. Replacing the A-85-3 was not an option because all potential replacements were larger. Pressure from the government to get the T-14 into production led to the construction of a manufacturing plant but the manufacturing equipment was never installed because the money ran out. The T-14 was not ready for mass production and all those built were done so by hand, an approach used to build prototypes that can be developed into vehicles ready for mass production. The T-14 never got that far.
Meanwhile the Russian government pretended that the T-14 was ready for mass production. The T-14 looked impressive and was considered as evidence that Russian tank design continued to be the most advanced in the world. That was an illusion that eventually did not last. While impressive looking, many of the impressive performance features never worked. Not just the engine, but also the new electronic systems. After 2014, sanctions made it impossible to freely import all the electronic components needed for theT-14. Since this tank was never tested in combat, these shortcomings were never revealed. Russia could have sent a few T-14s to Syria to gain some combat experience but never did so. After the 2021 invasion of Ukraine there was talk in the media of putting the T-14 to work. That never happened because all the failures of the T-14 would have been revealed.
In late 2021 Russia released videos of the two prototypes of their new IFV (infantry fighting vehicle) design, the T-15. This was the first evidence that this Armata variant existed. The T-15s looked like a T-14 tank without the turret and the T-15s were described as 48-ton vehicles powered by a 1,500 HP diesel. Max road speed is 70 kilometers an hour (43 miles per hour) and range of 550 kilometers on internal fuel. T-15s were described as having the same armor protection as the T-14 tank. The T-15 never went into production because it was too expensive and the underlying Armata technology did not work.
Cost is preventing the Russian army from getting more than a token number of Armata vehicles. In 2019 the army received twelve T-14 tanks and four BREM tank recovery vehicles for the T-14. These were described as the first production models. There were doubts that these vehicles would appear, given the dire financial condition of the manufacturer and reports of unresolved technical problems with this revolutionary tank design. The most serious problems were thought to be with the electronics, which are more extensive than in any previous Russian tank. It was later discovered that the engine powering Armata was unreliable and unfixable. Meanwhile there were more problems with Armata that were supposed to be fixed by increasing crew size three and installing a toilet in the crew capsule. Because the crew is confined to the armored capsule they have limited visibility even if someone sticks their heads out of one of the two crew entry hatches. Visibility is normally dependent on the cameras installed outside the tank and the reliability of the power supply and electronics that keep those cameras operational. Much of the time the external cameras were not working. Despite all this, the manufacturer was supposed to deliver about 40 T-14s by 2021. This slow production schedule allowed time for developers to solve many of the remaining technical and design problems. That apparently enabled prototype T-15 IFVs, which videos showed performing as well as the T-14. T-14s and T-15s were still being built as prototypes.
Russia supplied production contracts for all this, as well as more loans, to keep the manufacturer from going out of business. Uralvagonzavod (UVZ), the firm that developed the Armata T-14 tank and T-15 IFV, has been bankrupt since 2016 and survived because of state-owned Rostec, a holding company that takes over failing, but essential defense firms, to keep them operating. Uralvagonzavod has produced tanks and other armored combat vehicles since World War II and continued after the war. After 1991, most of those military orders stopped but Russia has learned the hard way that once a lot of these skilled workers are out of work, they use their skills to find new careers or even emigrate, and are virtually impossible to get back later. UVZ obtained enough orders for new armored vehicles or upgrading existing ones in an effort to maintain the workforce that, once lost, is extremely difficult and time-consuming to rebuild.
Uralvagonzavod, like many defense manufacturers of high-tech equipment (vehicles, aircraft, ships, missiles and electronics), had a difficult time staying in business and retaining its skilled workforce after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. That meant orders for armored vehicles disappeared. In 2014 the Russian economy and defense budget took major hits from lower oil prices plus Western sanctions resulting from the Ukraine invasion. The situation got desperate for Uralvagonzavod as it was surviving on loans and whatever commercial work it could get. The company gambled on developing and marketing the revolutionary Armata T-14 and T-15 vehicles. Russian leaders were impressed but there was no money to place large orders and there were no export customers either. The government encouraged work on the T-14 because it was a prestige item that proved Russia was still a major defense developer and manufacturer. That was not true but the government was willing to scrape up the cash to make it appear so. Rostec stepped in to buy UVZ and keep it going and work on the T-14 and T-15 IFV version could continue.
That attitude is being exploited by Russia because of much reduced post-Cold War procurement budgets. For example, in early 2021 Russia announced that the army would receive over 400 upgraded tanks and IFVs in the coming year but none will be the new T-14 Armata tank and T-15 Armata IFV. Upgraded tanks like the T-80BVM filled the gap for the missing T-14s. The Armata was a radical new design for tanks and IFVs but too expensive given the defense budgets available. This was due to a 2013 plunge in oil prices that did not recover while the 2014 Ukraine invasion resulted in many economic and trade sanctions. Since then, the Russian replacement program for elderly Cold War era gear has had to settle for more rebuilds than brand new stuff. Russia did announce plans to start building more T-14s in 2022. As of 2023, Armata production is still stalled, but permanently this time because all the problems with the T-14 have been revealed. The T-14 does not work and never came close to working as an effective combat vehicle.
Most of the “new” tanks the Russian army has received since 2000 have been refurbished and much upgraded T-72B3s. In late 2021 the Russian Army had about 3,000 tanks in service and most (65 percent) were T-72B3s, which you hear little about. Russian troops prefer the T-72B3M over the T-80 and T-90 and few have any personal experience with the T-14. There were more serious problems with the Russian tank forces. When Russian invaded Ukraine in 2022 they had 2,600 tanks and most (1,600) were older models while a thousand were improved and updated tanks which took the Russian tank industry about ten years to produce. More than half the tanks sent into Ukraine were destroyed or captured by the Ukrainians during the first few months of the war. This was a major loss to the Russian army. The T-14 revelations were a minor footnote to the sad state of Russian tank production and usefulness in combat.