The case of the flying tank turret

I watched this clip (from Chinese media!) that’s circulating on Twitter hours ago and thought nothing beyond, “Whoa, cooooool.”


Turrets flying off of Russian tanks have become commonplace in Ukraine but I never knew that they could gain that much altitude. And maybe they don’t, typically. Maybe the one in the clip is the Michael Jordan of flying turrets.

There’s no mystery about why the turrets are going airborne, though. An unfortunate flaw in Russian tank design means that the tank’s shells are positioned in a circular automatic loader located directly beneath the two crewmen who operate the turret. In American tanks the shells are located away from the crew, behind an armored wall. The logic seems simple: If enemy fire hits the tank and the shells start cooking off, the crew needs a chance to get out safely.

But not simple enough for Russian designers, evidently.

If you hit a Russian tank in the right spot and the shells start cooking off — kaboom. The crewmen have no chance. The force of the shells exploding upward can blow the turret clean off the body of the vehicle, which is why this has become known as the “jack in the box” flaw in Russian armor. We’re evidently seeing a spectacular example of it in the Chinese clip.

But that’s not what’s interesting about it. What’s interesting is where this attack appears to have occurred. It’s been geolocated to Novoazovsk, which is in deep southeastern Ukraine. Like, really deep. Like, “way behind enemy lines in the Donbas controlled by Russian separatists since 2014” deep.

How’d the Ukrainians manage that?

I recommend taking two minutes to read through this insightful thread, which considers a number of possibilities. The Ukrainians could have jerry-rigged a drone to drop an armor-piercing grenade, for instance. Or there could be a familiar strain of insurgency brewing in Russian-occupied territory:


Was it a roadside bomb, Iraq-style?

It could have been a mine, although one wonders how easily insurgents can get hold of mines in occupied Ukraine and set them under the Russians’ noses. Or it could have been an attack by one of those newfangled drones that the U.S. just sent to Zelensky. The drones are kamikaze devices with a payload in their nose; the newest version, the Phoenix Ghost, reportedly can fly or loiter for six hours, which makes it a possible culprit for an attack deep in enemy territory.

Whatever the cause, it seems like an amazing coincidence that this spectacular explosion was caught on Chinese cameras. One wonders how commonly Russian tanks are blowing up in supposedly “safe” territory nowadays and being kept quiet by Russian authorities. Did the Chinese capture a fluke occurrence or are the Ukrainians now routinely hitting them deep in areas they control to spook them? That’s the only explanation I can think of for using a battlefield weapon far away from the front lines against a nonessential target. This guy agrees:


Another possibility, I suppose, is that Ukraine had intelligence about an important target in Novoazovsk, sent in a drone to try to take it out, but found that the target was already gone when it got there. In that case, with the drone’s fuel running out, they may have switched to a nearby tank as a target of opportunity. Why waste the payload by not targeting anything?

Speaking of China, the UK believes their partnership with Russia is more of a partnership in name only, at least for now:

There was speculation that China could supply rations for hard-pressed Russian troops or backfill Russian arms needs, but that hasn’t come to pass. China’s top drone-maker, DJI, suspended operations in Russia and Ukraine in late April, depriving ill-supplied Russian units of additional capability to send off-the-shelf intelligence into Ukraine’s skies. China has also balked at providing Russia with spare parts for its sanctioned civilian airliner fleet, underscoring Moscow’s isolation under an array of economic and financial sanctions. One Western official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence assessments, said that there was no indication that Beijing was supplying anything of scale…

Russian gear—from jets to helicopters to advanced battle tanks—have been massacred in the fighting so far. That could have implications for China, which has based its fighter jets and some surface-to-air missiles on Russian designs. And Ukraine’s defeat of top-level Russian military equipment, such as Sukhoi fighter jets and modern T-90 tanks, with handheld Western-made weapons, such as Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, Javelin anti-tank missiles, and British-made NLAWs, is leading Russia’s military customers to think twice about buying more equipment.


The Ukrainians are so encouraged by their progress lately that the country’s foreign minister says their goals for the war have begun to change. Initially they would have considered it a victory to push Russia back to the status quo before the invasion on February 24, which means an ongoing “frozen conflict” between Ukraine and Russia’s proxies in the east. Now they’re feeling more ambitious: “Now if we are strong enough on the military front and we win the battle for Donbas, which will be crucial for the following dynamics of the war, of course the victory for us in this war will be the liberation of the rest of our territories.”

“The rest of our territories”? Crimea?

I don’t think so. He went on to say that Ukraine might be able to push Russia out of Kherson in the south and maybe even to reopen the Black Sea for passage. He didn’t mention Crimea. I doubt Ukraine would push that far, knowing that Putin *losing* territory in this war would be an unbearable humiliation inviting some dramatic reaction. And even if the Ukrainians were game to take Crimea, its western sponsors probably aren’t.

I’ll leave you with this thought, which made me laugh but only because it’s almost certainly correct. Russia being Russia, inevitably they’ll resort to conspiracy theories to explain this debacle. And there’s an obvious one sitting out there, just waiting for them.


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