Reimagining Russian Warfare: The Transformation in the Ukraine Conflict

In the crucible of the Ukraine conflict, Russian forces have embarked on a radical transformation of their armored warfare strategies. This evolution, epitomized by the emergence of advanced infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs) and the so-called “turtle tanks,” reveals a broader strategic shift and underscores Russia’s commitment to maintaining its military edge in an increasingly drone-dominated battlefield.

The Rise of Next-Generation IFVs

The war in Ukraine has entered a potentially perilous phase as Russia deploys a new generation of IFVs to the front lines. The BMP-3 and BMD-4M are not mere troop carriers; they represent the pinnacle of modern military engineering, bristling with firepower, agility, and robust armor designed to shield soldiers on the battlefield. Their introduction signals a profound shift in Russia’s military strategy, raising concerns of further escalation in an already devastating conflict.

In tandem with this deployment, there has been a notable 20% increase in BMP-3 production by Kurganmashzavod, a powerhouse in Russia’s defense industry. This translates to Russian forces receiving 50% more of these vehicles in 2024 compared to the previous year, highlighting the resilience of Russia’s domestic military production despite severe international sanctions. The question arises: what capabilities do these new IFVs bring to the fight, and what are the potential consequences of their deployment on the battlefield?

Transformations in Armored Vehicles

The BMP-3 and BMD-4M are the backbone of Russia’s mechanized infantry. To grasp their significance, one must understand the Soviet military doctrine that shaped their development. Post-World War II, the Soviet Red Army emphasized heavily armored formations capable of breaching enemy lines. This philosophy extended to their infantry fighting vehicles. The BMP-1, for example, was armed but vulnerable, sitting tall and unable to swim, making it an easy target.

The BMP-3, introduced in the 1980s, addressed these shortcomings with a design capable of conquering both water and mountainous terrain. It boasts a formidable 100mm main gun capable of firing high-explosive shells and anti-tank missiles, making it versatile enough to handle enemy troops, fortified positions, and tanks. Additionally, a 30mm autocannon and a coaxial 7.62mm machine gun provide a barrage of firepower against lighter targets and helicopters. The BMP-3’s adaptability extends to its mobility with water jets for amphibious operations and a sophisticated suspension system for navigating rough terrain.

The BMD-4M, in contrast, traces its lineage to the Cold War’s emphasis on airborne assaults. Designed to be lightweight and maneuverable, it can be parachuted into combat zones and dominate the battlefield once deployed. The BMD-4M retains the BMP-3’s powerful armament but is enhanced with improved fire control systems for greater precision. It also features anti-tank guided missiles, offering substantial armor-piercing capabilities. Its lightweight design includes an NBC (nuclear, biological, chemical) protection system, safeguarding the crew from various threats.

Battlefield Realities and Technological Advancements

Despite their advanced design, the brutal realities of the Ukrainian conflict have tested these vehicles under harsh conditions. They have proven vulnerable to sophisticated anti-tank weapons and drone tactics employed by Ukrainian forces. In response, Russia’s Kurganmashzavod is rapidly deploying upgraded versions of these IFVs to the front lines. Recent modifications include bar armor on the sides and cage structures over the turrets to deflect RPGs and drone-mounted explosives, enhancing their survivability.

These upgrades are complemented by the Nakidka thermal camouflage system, which reduces the vehicle’s thermal signature, making it harder for enemy forces to detect. Additionally, the RP-377VM1L jamming system disrupts the communication between drones and their operators, potentially neutralizing drone threats. While these enhancements represent significant advancements, their real-world effectiveness remains to be fully tested.

The Emergence of Turtle Tanks

In a fascinating adaptation to modern warfare, Russian forces have also introduced “turtle tanks”—a peculiar yet effective response to the increasing threat posed by Ukrainian FPV drones. Initially, these tanks were local improvisations characterized by makeshift counter-FPV drone shelters fabricated from available materials. Early iterations featured simple metal sheets hastily affixed to the tanks, creating an armored shell designed to protect against drone attacks. Despite their rudimentary appearance, these modifications have proven remarkably effective in the field.

Tactical Deployment and Effectiveness

Footage from late April captured a Russian armored assault near Krashna Harfa, showcasing a column of infantry fighting vehicles equipped with these counter-FPV shelters. The lead tank, protected by a cope cage, spearheaded the assault, effectively clearing mines with its plow before retreating to safety. This tactic underscores the tanks’ dual role: mine clearance and providing cover for advancing units.

By early May, the design of turtle tanks had further evolved. Images from UAVs revealed T-62 tanks with hybrid shelters, combining chain link, grating, and reactive armor. These modifications illustrate a blurring of the lines between traditional cope cages and the new turtle shells. The incorporation of electronic warfare (EW) modules and mine plows underscores a comprehensive approach to battlefield threats.

Field Observations and Challenges

Despite these innovations, the turtle tanks are not invulnerable. Videos from May showed several instances of these tanks being damaged or destroyed by mines and FPV drone attacks. One particularly striking example involved a turtle tank immobilized by a mine, subsequently attacked by multiple FPV drones. This highlights a significant vulnerability: while the shells offer protection, they are not foolproof against concentrated attacks.

Proliferation and Future Implications

The proliferation of turtle tanks across various Russian units, including the 40th Naval Infantry Brigade, indicates a decentralized yet widespread adoption of this concept. This suggests that the Russian military recognizes the value of these modifications and is willing to experiment with different designs to enhance their effectiveness.

However, the reliance on makeshift solutions also points to a potential weakness: the lack of a unified, centrally coordinated approach to countering drone threats. As the conflict continues, it is likely that both Russian and Ukrainian forces will continue to adapt their tactics, leading to an ongoing cycle of measure and countermeasure.

Strategic Implications and Future Trajectory

The introduction of these upgraded IFVs represents a double-edged sword. The additional armor and jamming systems provide critical defense against drone strikes and RPG attacks. However, their impact on the war’s trajectory is uncertain. Ukrainian forces are likely to adapt their tactics, and these upgrades will not transform these IFVs into invincible war machines. Nonetheless, the improvements may offer enhanced protection for Russian troops, potentially reducing casualties and enabling more aggressive maneuvers.

The Dawn of a New Armored Warfare Era

In the evolving theater of modern warfare, the significance of drones has grown exponentially, transforming battle strategies and posing unprecedented challenges to traditional armored vehicles. Recognizing this paradigm shift, Russia has embarked on an ambitious project to revolutionize its military hardware, particularly its iconic T-90 series tanks, to counter the ever-increasing threat of drone warfare.

The Rebirth of the T-90 Series

The T-90 series, a cornerstone of Russian military might, has undergone significant transformations to maintain its dominance on the battlefield. The latest iteration, the T-90M “Proryv-3,” showcases remarkable advancements in armor, firepower, and electronic warfare capabilities. This state-of-the-art tank is designed to adapt to the rapidly changing dynamics of modern conflict, where drones play a pivotal role in reconnaissance, surveillance, and offensive operations.

President Vladimir Putin himself has lauded the T-90M as the world’s premier battle tank, a sentiment echoed by Russian state media following its deployment in Ukraine in late December 2022. This deployment marked a critical moment in Russia’s military strategy, as the T-90M began to engage in active combat against sophisticated adversaries equipped with advanced anti-tank systems and precision-guided munitions.

Innovations in Armor and Defense

A recent photo circulating on Russian social media has captured the attention of military analysts worldwide. It depicts a T-90M tank fitted with a new anti-drone armor system, a significant departure from the previously seen “cope cages” on the tank’s turret. This upgrade features symmetrical armor plates on either side of the turret, a design aimed at enhancing the tank’s resilience against drone strikes.

These modifications are not merely cosmetic; they represent a meticulously engineered response to the growing prevalence of FPV (First-Person View) drones. The new armor plates, positioned approximately 20 inches above the main armor, provide a robust shield against aerial attacks targeting the tank’s turret. Additionally, the installation of a jammer on the turret’s rear, protected by another armor plate, further strengthens the tank’s defenses against drone-delivered ordnance.

The Strategic Implications

The enhanced armor of the T-90M is a testament to Russia’s commitment to staying ahead in the drone warfare game. These upgrades are tailored to mitigate the specific threats posed by drones, which have become a persistent challenge on the modern battlefield. However, the threat landscape is multifaceted. While these enhancements improve the tank’s survivability against drones, they do not fully eliminate the risks posed by advanced anti-tank weapons such as the FGM-148 Javelin or the Bonus and SMArt 155 submunitions.

The strategic importance of these upgrades cannot be overstated. By bolstering the T-90M’s armor and integrating advanced electronic countermeasures, Russia aims to enhance the tank’s operational effectiveness and longevity in combat. The new design also ensures comprehensive protection for critical components such as the engine and transmission, further safeguarding the tank’s mobility and functionality.

Testing the Limits

Despite these advancements, the real-world efficacy of these upgrades remains to be thoroughly tested in active combat scenarios. The success of the T-90M’s new armor system will depend on its ability to withstand the multifaceted threats it faces, from drone strikes to advanced anti-tank missiles. Military analysts speculate that these modifications represent the initial phase of a broader strategy to modernize Russia’s armored fleet, with the potential for similar enhancements to be applied to other tanks, such as the T-72B3, in the near future.

The transformation of Russian armored tactics in the Ukraine war, exemplified by the development and deployment of turtle tanks and advanced IFVs, reflects a broader trend towards improvisation and rapid adaptation on the modern battlefield. These innovations, while effective to a degree, also expose new vulnerabilities and challenges. As both sides continue to evolve their strategies, the lessons learned from these adaptations will likely influence armored warfare tactics for years to come.

The BMP-3 and BMD-4M’s upgrades are a clear indication that Russia is acutely aware of the changing dynamics of warfare and is taking proactive steps to ensure its armored vehicles remain formidable adversaries in the face of new and emerging threats. As the conflict in Ukraine continues to evolve, the effectiveness and impact of these formidable machines will undoubtedly play a crucial role in shaping its outcome.

[Representational image, by Vitaly V. Kuzmin, via Wikimedia Commons]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

Indonesia Can Learn from Germany regarding Corruption Prevention and Control

Corruption is like a cancer that is eating away in Indonesia. This haram practice hinders the nation's progress, hinders development, and exacerbates social inequality....

NATO’s Uncertain Future: Navigating the Challenges in a Changing Global Landscape

As The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) observes its 75th anniversary in Washington, The General Secretary of NATO writes that the outcome of the...

Struggling for OECD membership, Indonesia Needs to Re-understand the Contestation in Global Tax Politics

In the summer of 2023, Indonesia initiated the intention to join the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Following a year, in the...