The Chieftain's Hatch: The Devil's Due

Several weeks ago, I engaged in conversation with some folks who arguably have one of the coolest hobbies going. They fly Mi-24Ds around the US. Amusingly, their callsign has nothing indicating what they fly, so although I report to Air Traffic Control as “Cessna One Two Alpha” (or whatever), they’re just “Helicopter 1234X, so ATC gets a bit confused when they see a general aviation helicopter tootling around at near 200kts. They live for the ATC request “Say type.” They’re former US attack helo pilots, so obviously changing over to Hinds was a bit of a culture shock.

I asked them how they got trained on it. They said they found a Bulgarian mechanic who was able to show them what to do to keep the thing flying, some English language manuals, which they read, and then proceeded to train themselves.

Not bad. I know next to nothing about flying attack helos, but I wonder how successful it would have been had a Bulgarian decided to go buy a Cobra for private use.

So, of course, I asked them what they thought of the helo. They loved it, said it was a very-well designed aircraft. I opined that the Russians never get the credit they deserve for their equipment, coming from the tank side of the house, and for helicopters, they were in full agreement: “The designers were very, very good, and they knew exactly who they were building for and what they were trying to achieve.”

Coolest thing I ever get to fly is a C-172. That's just depressing.

I think this is a pretty fundamental point. The common perception of Soviet-designed vehicles is that if a T-72 saw an Abrams come over the hill, it would immediately self-destruct by throwing its turret twenty feet into the air and then scattering itself over the local area. They’re labelled crude, cheap, and cramped. These are true labels. They are. My response: “So what?” M4 Medium didn’t have the best reputation at the time either, but it was still a war-winner.

It’s all about perspective. I often see all sorts of comments about how “I don’t fit into a T-62 as well as I fit into an M48” or “You can’t live in a T-72 like you can in an M60.” Although the comments are correct, why should Russian designers have cared much about how big American tank crewmen are or what living conditions were like for a NATO tanker sitting in the Fulda Gap for days waiting for the attack? Soviet tanks would be terribly unsuited for NATO service, this doesn’t mean they were unsuited for the Soviet doctrine of tank use. Ultimately, the Soviet designs for anything from tanks to aircraft were not ultimately intended to be comfortable or long-lasting, more survivable, or even better on an individual basis than their NATO counterparts. They were intended to be a tool in an overall military which would win a war against NATO. In other words, they were designed to play the game by their rules, not ours, and we must be cautious about using our own criteria to evaluate something against. This is giving the devil his due: What did the Soviet/Russian tank designers do -right- from their perspective?

Find an old soldier who was stationed in the Fulda Gap in the 70s or 80s. Ask them what they expected their life expectancy to be in the event of Warsaw Pact attack. Invariably, the answer will be something along the lines of “short.” After all, as the Russians say, “quantity has a quality of its own.” Those cheap and individually inferior T-72s and BMPs would still roll over the defences with the aid of regiments of artillery amongst other assets. Sure, NATO forces would give far better than they got, but if the doctrine of the attacker already assumes this, will it matter in the long run?

"Nobody make any sudden moves"

Marshal Zhukov had a standing order that whenever a German minefield was encountered, that the forces should attack as if it were not there. It seems cruel and heartless, and probably would violate some occupational health and safety regulations in the West, but arguably was a very sensible military doctrine. After all, where the minefields weren’t would be where all the defences were, and if they tried to clear the minefield using the technology of the time (probably under German artillery fire), by the time they got to the far side, the Germans would have had time to reposition. Momentum of the attack would be maintained, and casualties overall could well be lighter, even if it was of limited consolation to the poor bugger who stepped on the mine.

When showing people tanks at the local museum, I love to stop at the T-34/76 and go over just how crude the vehicle really is. Until you’re up close and see the fine details, you just don’t get a proper feel for it, and “Greatest Tanks” on the Miltary Channel tends to gloss over such issues. The casting is incredibly rough and the joins in the armour have gaps big enough to put pens through.

Left rear hull of a T-34/76. Most of the gaps are filled with weld, but not all.

Even the tracks don’t bother with minor details like locking bolts or end connectors, the pins simply being banged back into place by a piece of metal welded to the hull as they go by if they happen to work themselves out too far. What of it? The tank only averaged a service life of some ridiculously short timespan like six days in combat anyway, why bother with such niceties? They just focused on what was important to the overall war effort. And given the Soviets turned the Germans, it seems to have worked out. It was a great tank. It was just a terrible tank, though.

 Believe it or not, the 'precussion method of track retention' was not confined to T-34. This is a T-62. 

A British tank builder of the time would have been aghast at the T-34’s build quality. They were basically craftsmen, those riveted plates on the Cruisers fitting together absolutely perfectly. But you would be hard-pressed to say that the T-34’s contemporary British designed tanks like Crusader or Covenanter were anywhere near as conducive to winning wars as the T-34 was. Why?

Put simply, the Soviets were (and I’ll argue this was the case through the Cold War), masters of the concept of design-to-suit. They took the crudity limitations, added in what technology they could which made sense and made the best design possible out of it. I would argue there’s a technical elegance behind their designs. For one example, when I hopped into a T-34/85, I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to traverse the turret in power mode. It very obviously had one, as there was a motor atop the gears, but where was the control? The wheel with the handle on it obviously cranked the turret around in manual mode (and it did), but there is a complete lack of anything else. No foot pedals like the German tanks, no control handle like the American tanks.  I gave up, and went to look for a manual.

Turns out that the manual traverse control was also the power traverse control. Just flip the handle 90 degrees, it disengages from the gears and engages (a fairly rugged) electric control system. Genius. Why take up space and add extra cables/linkages/whatever by adding a second control system when the one would do it all? T-34’s other design merit features are well known, such as the fact that the all-rear drivetrain was incredibly annoying to drive, but also resulted in a far more efficient use of space. The Germans in their MkIIIs and MkIVs probably didn’t much care that the driver of the T-34 had to practically use a 2lb sledgehammer to get the thing to change gears, when they had a fast, well-armoured, and well-gunned opponent to shoot at.

The crudity had other advantages too. Lada cars are, for example, soundly mocked, and generally speaking, deservedly so. But they do seem to be able to have survived Russian winters. Could the contemporaries from the West say the same thing? In the far front of the T-34’s nose are tanks of compressed air. In the event that the tank won’t start electrically due to extreme cold, the driver just sharply opened the valve and the engine was turned pneumatically. Pretty cool idea but hardly hi-tech.

As the years progressed, this rugged design philosophy seems to have continued. I always compare the T-55 with the Top Gear Toyota Hilux. You just can’t seem to kill it by abuse, they still keep showing up in third-world civil wars in something like an operating condition. Not a factor for Western militaries who have pretty well trained mechanics and crews to keep their high-end vehicles running.

This acknowledgement of the constrained set of parameters could work in benefit as well. Much is made of the comment that Soviet tankers have to be short in order to fit into their vehicles. (Though as it happens, I fit my 6’5 self very nicely in the driver’s hole of a T-55 or the gunner’s seat of a T-72. TC’s position of T-55 requires a midget though). It’s often viewed as a limitation: “Ah, Soviet tanks were so cramped, they needed to get short tankers to crew them.” Could that not be the reverse of the real situation, though? Maybe they had short tankers in mind when they built it to begin with. I’ve never been inside a Type-88/K1, but I’ll lay bets they designed the thing to be smaller inside than the M1 it superficially resembles. Face it, Koreans tend to be shorter than Americans, why shouldn’t the tank be designed for people less than the official 6’2” tanker height limit the US Army has? To have the same ‘relative’ standard of comfort, a Korean tank can have a lower turret roof than its American counterpart, and it does.

If the Soviets were in a position where they could choose lots of people who didn’t exceed 5’8” tall, why not make tanks which are only sufficiently large to fit a 5’8”  tanker? If an American 6’2” tanker who lifts weights doesn’t fit comfortably in the thing, so much the better: Less chance of him using a captured tank against the Motherland!

I don’t think there are many people who would claim that the Russians demonstrated an inability to apply lessons learned on their own, or ideas just plain stolen from someone else. Their designers are not daft, yet the tanks they have been building for the last seven decades have all been more or less designed to meet similar priorities. If the defect is ‘obvious’ to us, it is likely that one day some lieutenant in the GSFG sitting in his T-62 would have made a similar observation and if it were truly that much a defect, it would have been fixed in later tanks. We may not appreciate what the Russians had in mind, especially when we can point to all the whizzbangs in our tanks like tea makers or thermal imagers and say ‘The Russians don’t have one of these.’ But the differences in whizzbangs are a topic for another day: Part II.

Of course, I don’t expect the incoming fire to wait until Part II. Doubtless people will begin hollering on the discussion forum (click below) about how even Russians loved American tanks in WWII and how Soviet-designed tank performance in the Middle-East was abysmal. These are all true factors. I’m not attempting to state that Soviet designs were necessarily better than their contemporaries, just that they should be judged by the standards that they had set out to achieve.

In the meantime, I need an excuse to go to an airshow in Texas. I don’t think I’ve seen a Hind flying in twenty years.