Last month, a video surfaced online of one of Russia’s more advanced tanks facing off against a small team of Syrian rebels armed with a U.S.-made anti-tank missile in the suburbs of Aleppo.
Such short videos have become common in the nearly five-year-old conflict, where the absence of media on the ground has given birth to a view of the war stitched together by YouTube videos. The Feb. 26 footage of the Syrians aiming at the Russian tank stands out, however, because it is likely one of the first instances of a Russian T-90 tank encountering a U.S. anti-tank missile in combat.
Now a photo has emerged of what happened after the Syrian rebels fired. The BGM-71 TOW missile appears to hit the right side of the tank’s turret, and as the smoke clears a crew member — likely a Syrian soldier — bails out.
— Qalaat Al Mudiq (@QalaatAlMudiq) March 20, 2016
According to a post on the site War is Boring, the above image was circulated on Russian military forums before getting picked up by the Research Institute of Steel, a company that makes specialized armor for Russian tanks. The picture shows the tank from the right side, and the missile impacted the left side of the turret. The only thing that appears broken from this angle is the Shtora counter-measure system beneath the tank’s main gun.
The Shtora is a system that is designed to electronically disrupt missiles like the TOW. The two boxes affixed to the turret glow red when active, but in the February video it appears that the system is either turned off or not working. In the case of this strike, however, the tank’s crew was saved by the tank’s armored plating — known as Kontakt-5 reactive armor. The oddly shaped square panels are meant to defeat incoming projectiles by actually counter-detonating and disrupting the missile’s main charge from penetrating into the tank.
The T-90 is one of Russia’s most advanced tanks, although the version in the video is an older variant from the early 1990s, according to War is Boring. The T-90 started to appear in Syria shortly after Russian forces arrived in northern Syria in September alongside a sizable detachment of aircraft. In November, the tanks debuted on the front lines around Aleppo after a small number of the vehicles were handed over to a Syrian armor unit. The Syrian Army also operates a wide array of older Russian tanks, including the T-72, T-62 and T-55.
The BGM-71 TOW, on the other hand, is much more ubiquitous. The system has been around since the 1970s and has seen widespread deployments in the Syrian conflict after the CIA began supplying it to certain rebel groups in spring 2014. The TOW has likely been directly responsible for hundreds of destroyed Syrian tanks, vehicles and at least a few grounded helicopters. The missile fired at the T-90 was likely an older variant, known as the TOW 2A. The 2A flies directly at its target, while the newer 2B travels about 16 feet above the target before detonating and sending two projectiles downward in a blast pattern meant to hit the tank where it is weakest — the top of the turret.