Russia's Colossal Tank Losses in Ukraine Are Due to This Fatal Design Flaw

Images showing the abandoned, destroyed and damaged Russian tanks in the streets of devastated towns and countryside roads in Ukraine have proliferated since the beginning of the Russian invasion on February 24.

Over two months later, reports from western intelligence and independent observers estimate that Russia has lost hundreds of tanks in Ukraine—numbers that, even rounded down, suggest that Russia would struggle to quickly replenish its original inventory.

While some of the responsibility certainly lies with the many anti-tank weapons provided to Ukraine by the U.S. and Britain, including Javelins and Switchblade drones, it has now emerged that the reason for the Russian tanks' failure might be a technical issue in the vehicles.

CNN reported Thursday that Western militaries have known for years about a design flaw grimly called the "jack-in-the-box effect" in the Russian tanks, which makes the vehicles highly susceptible to catch fire and explode.

Russian tank
Russia is estimated to have lost hundreds of tanks since the country invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022. Above, smoke rises from a Russian tank destroyed by the Ukrainian forces on the side of a road in the Lugansk region on February 26, 2022. ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP via Getty Images

Russian tanks store their ammunition in the turret, where most of the crew—usually two men—stand. If the tank is hit by shelling during action, storing the ammunition in the turret makes it very likely to explode, blasting the turret and those inside it into the air, killing all inside.

Nicholas Drummond, a defense industry analyst specializing in land warfare and a former British Army officer, told CNN that if a crew member doesn't get out within the first second the tank is hit, they're "toast."

What's particularly surprising is that Moscow was seemingly very well aware of the design flaw in its tanks, which, according to CNN, came to the attention of western militaries during the Gulf Wars of 1991 and 2003, when the same "jack-in-the-box effect" was observed among Iraqi troops using Russian-built tanks.

Drummond said that Western countries learned from that horrible experience to compartmentalize ammunition in their tanks. Russia, it's clear now, did not.

In its latest report on Russian losses, Ukraine's armed forces claim Russia has lost 970 tanks. The Ukrainian numbers are assumed to be much higher than the real numbers.

Oryx, a website that has been documenting equipment losses in Ukraine, estimates that Russia has lost 570 tanks—destroyed, damaged or abandoned—on the basis of photos and videos emerging from the country.

British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace suggested a similar number on Monday, saying that the United Kingdom estimated Russia had lost some 580 tanks since the beginning of the war in Ukraine. Russia has not shared similar data on tank losses.

Russian tanks
Russian tanks reportedly have a compromising design flaw. Above, a man rides his bicycle next to a destroyed Russian tank in Chernihiv, Ukraine, on April 21, 2022. AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti

Hundreds of tanks represent a significant loss for the Russian military, which had started the war in Ukraine with an estimated 2,700 tanks, according to the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) and Santa Monica-based political think tank RAND.

Talking to The Times on Wednesday, Mark Cancian, senior adviser at Washington think-tank Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that Russia may have already lost the equivalent of two years of tank production.

Newsweek has reached out to the Russian Ministry of Defense for comment.