Overhead metal enclosures, colloquially referred to as ‘cope cages,’ have swiftly become a signature feature of Russian vehicles deployed in Ukraine. These protective structures are now a major highlight at the Army-2023 defense show, currently underway near Moscow.
The introduction of cope cages to Russian armor was first noted in the lead-up to the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in late 2021. These makeshift solutions, designed to counter various threats to armored vehicles, have continued to evolve as the conflict unfolds.
The Army-2023 show reflects the increasing prevalence of armored vehicles. It also underscores Russia’s eagerness to market these innovations to foreign buyers, who have undoubtedly been tracking the progression of the war in Ukraine closely.
Labeled an “international military-technical forum,” the Army-2023 show commenced on August 14 at the Patriot Congress and Exhibition Center in Kubinka, a suburb west of Moscow, and will continue until the week’s end. As reported by the state-owned Russian news agency, TASS, approximately 1,500 Russian defense firms are showcasing their wares at the exhibition. This year, self-protection solutions for armored vehicles are a significant focus.
Among the showcased vehicles are T-72, T-80, and T-90 series tanks fitted with sturdy cope cages. These structures consist of a screen mounted on tubular poles affixed to the tank’s turret. The cage’s upper section is a blend of a metal mesh [which seemingly retains visibility from the tank’s hatches when opened] and a distinct corrugated metal ‘roof.’
The purpose behind these parallel ridges and grooves remains uncertain, but they could potentially be designed to deflect drone-dropped mortars or FPV ‘kamikaze’ drones. This concept aligns with the v-shaped hulls used by mine-resistant vehicles for deflection.
Alternative designs of the tank cope cage are evident, with some boasting additional support tubes and extensive use of corrugated metal. To fend off side attacks on the turret, the cage ‘walls’ can be shielded with a hanging mesh. The same mesh is strategically positioned between the turret and the hull to deter drones from infiltrating this susceptible area.
To counter loitering munitions, UAV, TB2
As previously mentioned, basic overhead metal screens began appearing on Russian armored vehicles towards the end of 2021, just before the full-blown invasion of Ukraine. This development was prompted by the necessity to counter loitering munitions and drones, including the Turkish-made TB2, which demonstrated remarkable effectiveness in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War. There was also a potentially misguided aspiration that these screens could thwart top attacks by anti-tank guided missiles.
As the Ukraine conflict escalated, cope cages started being employed on TOS-1 thermobaric rocket launchers and T-62s from the Soviet era, which were reintroduced to frontline service to compensate for the heavy losses sustained by Russian armor. Just as frontline armor was fitted with cope cages, troops in Russian rear areas also increasingly turned to improvised, ‘Mad Max’-style armor to resist attacks from Ukrainian forces.
In a more recent development, tanks have started to sport a hybridized form of self-protection, combining cope cages with layers of explosive reactive armor [ERA] bricks. The cope cage offers a physical barrier, while the ERA provides additional protection by detonating and creating a counter-blast that can ward off attacks from armor-penetrating weapons before they can breach the tank’s turret or hull. For more insight into this development, which may have questionable effectiveness, click here.
T-14 Armata has ‘cope cages’ too
The latest tanks equipped with cope cages also feature factory-produced camouflage that mimics foliage, forming part of a camouflage ‘wrap.’ This same covering, reportedly called Nakidza, and fabricated by the NII Steel company, is also visible on a T-14 Armata new-generation tank at the show. While it’s still unconfirmed, it appears that the manufacturer claims these wraps can shield the vehicle from infrared sensors by concealing its heat signature.
At the Army-2023 exhibition, the spotlight shone on BMP-2 and BMP-3 series infantry fighting vehicles, each sporting a factory-produced wrap akin to slat-type armor. This armor was eminently visible on the front of the BMP-2 and potentially on the front and rear of the BMP-3’s hull.
Another variant of the BMP, an unarmed ambulance conversion, boasts a unique cope cage. This cage extends the length of the hull, supported by multiple bars underneath a mesh covering. This wire mesh, while maintaining visibility from the vehicle, provides significant protection against threats such as drone-dropped bomblets or FPV drones that could infiltrate the open-topped part of the hull.
A BTR-82 8×8 armored personnel carrier exhibited at the Army-2023 show showcases a comprehensive arrangement of slat-type armor. The thoughtful design maximizes protection against projectiles from all angles, while also facilitating troop disembarkation through a section of the slats that swing open like doors.
While the protective measures presented at Army-2023 may not clearly surpass the effectiveness of earlier versions seen in the Ukraine campaign, it is evident that lessons from the battlefield have been incorporated into presumably more capable countermeasures.
These designs have evolved from ad-hoc additions applied before deployment or at the unit level to factory-manufactured cope cages for domestic and export markets. These examples, potentially prototypes, are presumably ready for mass production upon large-scale orders.
Simple export opportunity
Russia’s arms expo is primarily about export, and the country needs these partnerships and the associated revenue now more than ever. Amid challenges sourcing high-tech components and directing available resources to war efforts, cope cages, a product of Russia’s rich experience, present a simple export opportunity.
As militaries worldwide grapple with threats like loitering munitions, commercially available bomblet-dropping drones, and first-person video kamikaze drones, Russian cope cage designs could be a viable solution. These designs, whether purchased for new vehicles or retrofitted to existing ones, could appeal to nations still patronizing Russia’s weapons industry. Their relatively low price makes them economically accessible, and even if their effectiveness varies, they provide a sense of security.
The evolution and widespread adoption of these relatively straightforward protective measures, as seen in the Ukrainian war, have been intriguing. Not only are efforts underway to enhance their effectiveness, but these measures could potentially become a standard feature in global armored warfare.