The truth about Russia’s turtle tanks

The turtle tanks have emerged as test beds for new tactics and technology for Russia
The turtle tanks have emerged as test beds for new tactics and technology for Russia - CHP

In April, a strange new vehicle rolled onto the battlefield in eastern Ukraine. It was a Russian tank but not the kind we’re used to. Encased in an iron shell, it bristled with electronics.

The new vehicle, dubbed “the turtle tank”, initially had just a metal shell to protect them from drones. They were then developed to have protection against electronic warfare.

This week, Ukraine captured one of these tanks. It should prove useful in knowing exactly what’s in them and where their weak spots lie. Yet they’re evolving so quickly that by the time Ukraine has pulled it apart and had a dig around, the next iteration might be rolling out the factory.

Whatever that looks like, one thing we’ve learnt is that these tanks are a very particular solution to a very particular problem.

After 26 months of war, each side is struggling to come up with new offensive weapons to gain the upper hand.

The turtle tanks have therefore emerged as testbeds for new tactics and tech. Among their various strengths, they provide a defence against loitering munitions and first-person-view drones. They also have the capacity for electronic breaching – or jamming – operations as part of a ground assault.

In their current form, the tanks are big and bulky but each of these capabilities is being trialled and might feature subsequently in a more miniaturised form on future armoured vehicles, on uncrewed ground vehicles or in a combination of both.

This will lead to a kind of cat-and-mouse situation, with Ukraine trying to catch up and figure out ways it can immobilise and destroy these vehicles.

A striking feature of this war has been the use of drones and their ability to heavily influence battles. Every day, each side uses hundreds of unmanned aerial vehicles to track enemy forces, guide artillery and strike targets.

Ukraine is thought to be leading the drone race, in both numbers and innovation, driven partly by its need to compensate for Russia’s huge artillery superiority.

But there is some evidence that the turtle tanks can sustain dozens of strikes from first-person-view drones, which makes them a deadly addition to Russia’s ground combat forces.

The tanks will continue to be useful in offensive operations but are likely to be an evolutionary dead end. The vehicles are large, slow-moving and unwieldy, with limited crew visibility, unless there are numerous external cameras we aren’t aware of.

As Ukraine gets the Western weapons it has so desperately been requesting, the tanks will be more vulnerable to attack.

If that’s the case, Russia would need to get creative and lessen their reliance on the turtles. This may have several outcomes.

First, the Russians might use uncrewed ground vehicles, which are being rapidly developed by both sides for electronic breaching operations.

Second, the physical breaching of minefields and other obstacles might be conducted by new types of unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs). This could include kamikaze UGVs and UGVs that lay out explosive line charges. There are already prototypes of such vehicles being developed.

Third, crewed armoured vehicles might appear with better drone defences, camouflage, and electronic counter-measures.

By dispersing the tasks these turtle tanks currently undertake to smaller, uncrewed vehicles, Russia can spread the risk of its operations to ensure success with other units.

The turtle tank is a weird-looking beast, very specific to this conflict. Ukraine is already finding ways of countering it and consigning it to history. It is unlikely to appear in other warzones.

But it shows how resourceful the Russians can be, having learnt to adapt to Ukraine’s various innovations throughout the war and break through with some of its own.

The tank’s moniker might conjure the image of a slow-moving and placid animal, but don’t let that fool you, Russia remains a dangerous and unpredictable adversary.

Mick Ryan is a retired major general in the Australian Army, a fellow at the Lowy Institute and an adjunct fellow at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

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