Russian Tanks in Ukraine Finally Seen With Top End Anti-Armour Rounds: How Will They Impact the Battlefield as Leopard 2 Deliveries Near?

Following months of speculation and unconfirmed reports from Russian military sources, deployment of high end anti armour rounds by Russian Army tanks in Ukraine has been confirmed by newly released images. The 3BM60 armour-piercing fin-stabilised discarding sabot (APFSDS) round began to enter service in the 2010s, at a time when the Army was receiving several thousand tanks from new modernised classes that could benefit from its capabilities. Most notably among these were the T-72B3/B3M and T-80BVM, which are modernised variants of Soviet-built vehicles, as well as the newer T-90M which is currently being produced on a large scale to reequip Russian armoured units. Able to penetrate 800-830mm of homogeneous armour at 2km ranges, the 3BM60 was pictured in Ukraine both alone and next to the older and much shorter 1980s 3BM42 ‘Mango’ rounds which have widely been seen with Russian armoured units since the war began in February. The 3BM42, which despite its age is still around 20 years ahead in sophistication of other rounds that NATO and its allies previously faced in combat, is available in very large numbers in Russian inventories due to the considerable quantities inherited from the Soviet era. 

An apparent delay in introducing the 3BM60 can partially be explained by the fact that Ukraine’s 1970s tanks are already tremendously outmatched by frontline Russian vehicles such as the T-73B3, with the 3BM42 already very much sufficient to penetrate them frontally even at long ranges. Leaking of images confirming the 3BM60’s presence could indicate that the Russian Army is prepared for the imminent introduction of Western-built tanks into the theatre, with some such as the British Challenger 2 and German-supplied Leopard 2A6 expected to be invulnerable frontally to the older Soviet 3BM42 rounds. Against the older German built Leopard 2A4 tanks being supplied by Poland, however, the 3BM42 could also be sufficient since armour protection is comparable to that from Ukraine’s scantly upgraded Soviet era vehicles. 

As tensions with NATO have risen sharply, and Russia has significantly increased production of its top operational tank the T-90M, it has widely been speculated that production of the 3BM60 would also increase in parallel. A new T-72 variant with an armour protection package modelled on that of the T-90M has also begun to enter service, and like other modernised T-72s it will also be compatible with the new rounds. Although high end, the 3BM60 is notably not the most capable APFSDS round to have been developed in Russia, with the newer Vakuum-1 having a 1,000mm long penetrator rather than a 760mm penetrator and leading the world in its specifications. An issue with the Vakuum-1, however, is that it is only compatible with the 2A82-1M gun and accompanying autoloader developed for the next generation T-14 tank – a vehicle which although built in battalion level numbers has yet to be delivered to the Russian Army. Concerns in Moscow regarding a possible NATO entry into the Ukrainian War more directly has raised speculation that the T-14 and Vakuum-1, too, may see production numbers increased and final testing accelerated to better allow the Army to handle the significant numerical disadvantages it would face in a war with the Western alliance.