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Eastern Europe and Central Asia , Ground

Russian Tank Divisions Following North Korea’s Lead; Turning Armoured Vehicles into Dual Purpose Air Defence Platforms

July 11th - 2018

The Russian Army currently fields by far the largest tank force in the world, and with over 20,000 units the country’s tank divisions outnumber those of the three runners up - China, the United States and North Korea - combined. With Russia’s armed forces having placed a greater emphasis on surface to air missile systems since the collapse of the Soviet Union, as a more cost effective means to protect against the mass offensive air power of the Western Bloc which the economically struggling country could no longer afford to match with a fighter fleet of its own, the Russian Army appears to have followed the example of neighbouring North Korea, either intentionally or by coincidence, to develop its battle tanks into dual purpose platforms capable of deploying surface to air missiles and contributing to a country's air defence network. Moreso that Russia, North Korea faces a considerable threat from the vast aerial warfare capabilities of the United States and its allies which has forced the country to invest heavily in developing one of the world’s most capable air defence networks. Alongside heavily fortified radar and surface to air missile emplacements, among the best hardened globally, and mobile short ranged air defence vehicles such as the Strela which deploy alongside its ground forces across the country, the military has also equipped its battle tanks with advanced surface to air missiles capable of protecting its ground forces from hostile air attacks.

While North Korea was hardly a pioneer of multipurpose combat vehicles, it was the first country to manufacture and widely induct them into service for an air defence role. The country’s Pokpung Ho and Chonma Ho battle tanks have widely been seen deploying surface to air missiles alongside their main armament, allowing them to contribute to the defence of Korean airspace and actively engage enemy helicopters and fixed wing aircraft when not engaged against enemy ground targets. The inspiration for this may well have come from the 1991 Gulf War, where the Iraqi army’s poorly trained tank crews were hunted down and destroyed in the desert by Western helicopters and attack jets and were left almost completely defenceless. While this was in part due to the poor training of Iraqi personnel, from the army to the air defence forces, as well as the seemingly absurd strategy of deploying tanks in an open desert whilst withdrawing one’s Air Force, there was nevertheless a lesson to be learned for more professional and better trained armies such as North Korea and Russia.

A number of Russia’s recently inducted armoured platforms, much like the latest variants of the Pokpung Ho and Chonma Ho, have been designed as multirole vehicles capable of engaging both aerial and ground based vehicles. The Patnsir combat vehicle which entered service in 2012, while designed primarily as an air defence platform, is also capable of engaging enemy infantry and armour highly effectively. The Russian military is reportedly considering equipping the vehicle with hypersonic missiles in the near future, which would make it a lethal threat to enemy armour and aircraft alike. The new T-14 Armata fourth generation battle tank was also designed with multirole capabilities which allow it to effectively perform an air defence role. Rather than mounting surface to air missiles separately as Korean tanks have, the Armata’s 2A82-1M 125 mm main gun is capable of itself firing guided surface to air missiles with a range of up to 5km capable of targeting low flying aircraft, helicopters and drones. It was designed primarily as a defence against attack helicopters.

Russia’s new generation of tanks support vehicles, the successor to the BMPT-72 ‘Terminator 2,’ are designed primarily to provide considerable firepower in support of armoured vehicles against enemy infantry and vehicles on the ground. New variants however have been designed with considerable surface to air capabilities, which pose a lethal threat to enemy helicopters, drones, attack jets and even low flying fighter jets. Sergei Abramov, director of the state owned Rostec armaments firm, stated regarding the system’s capabilities: "The new vehicle will be able to operate against all types of targets: air, ground, enemy troops and material targets.” The new vehicles are likely to include ground to air projectiles with an adjustable trajectory, according to a defence industry spokesman. This has left a number of analysts wondering where the armoured vehicle, based on the chassis of the T-72 battle tank, will mount such a formidable air defence radar necessary to make full use of these weapons - a query also raised regarding the surface to air missile capabilities of North Korean battle tanks. Whether there is some secret shared by the two states regarding this remains a possibility. It could be that these armoured vehicles are designed to integrate as part of an air defence network using some form of data link to coordinate with large ground based air defence radars - but a definite answer for now remains elusive.

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