With the deployment of Russia’s deadly TOS-1A “Solntsepek” to the frontlines where intense combat is raging, Moscow has reportedly installed “cope cages” atop these flamethrower systems to minimize the impact of a potential enemy attack.
On April 8, images showing these protective structures installed on the TOS-1A started appearing online. Rob Lee, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, tweeted a photograph of the system saying, “Even Russian TOS-1A Thermobaric MLRS are receiving roof screens.”
If reports in the Russian media are anything to go by, the enemies cannot escape the impact of the rockets fired by this system even in trenches, making it one of the most feared Russian weapon systems on the battlefield.
Since the beginning of the Russian offensive, these systems have been used to shell Ukrainian positions with devastating impact. The Russian armed forces attacked the Ukrainian positions with 220mm thermobaric shells. Vacuum bombs, known as thermobaric weapons, are two-stage munitions producing massive explosions.
A US-based defense expert, David Hambling, recently stated that the fastest method to neutralize this weapon system is to immediately locate them and destroy the launchers before they can fire. Hambling emphasized how vital these MLRS were to the Russian military, besides expressing concerns about the massive damage they can cause to Ukraine’s infrastructure.
According to the Oryxspioenkop OSINT organization, Ukraine has destroyed one, damaged another, and seized four of this series of MLRS.
It is understandable why Ukraine would wish to target them, given the deadly effects of these weapons, which launch rockets with thermobaric, or fuel-air explosive, warheads that absorb ambient oxygen to produce a high-temperature explosion.
Early in the conflict last year, a video published by the Security Service of Ukraine showed when a Ukrainian drone rammed into a TOS-1A just as the MLRS prepared to fire. With an uptick in the use of drones by Ukraine in recent months, the threat of drone attacks on one of these flamethrowers may never be off the table.
On its part, Russia likely knows that the Ukrainians would try to blow up this system to avert devastating attacks on their own positions. This explains why the Russian troops have used “cope cage” on the MLRS, despite the less-than-satisfactory combat record of these protective structures on Russian tanks.
Cope Cages Atop TOS-1A
Russia has thousands of tanks, MLRS, and armored vehicles that are all susceptible to attack from Ukrainian soldiers brandishing Javelins and other anti-armor weapons. Russia attempted to stay ahead of the issue before the escalation of its war in Ukraine by welding homemade slats to the top of some of its tanks.
However, weeks after the war started, it became evident that the unusual additions to Russian tanks dubbed “cope cages” did not seem to reduce Ukrainian munitions’ penetration power.
Cope cages, also called slat armor, bar armor, cage armor, and stand-off armor, are a unique defense employed in heavy military vehicles to lessen the damage brought on by high-explosive anti-tank (HEAT) weaponry.
The first cope cages were spotted on Russian T-80 tanks marching into Crimea in November 2021. At the time, a viral TikTok video showed a Soviet-era T-80 tank trudging through the mud with its turret covered with what looked like a peculiar metal slat roof.
However, soon after, the Ukrainian forces started testing Javelins on static targets that were also caged in response. The outcomes did not bode well for the Russian forces in the following months, which saw Ukrainian ATGMs obliterating several Russian tanks, despite the cages installed on them.
A retired Maj. Gen. Patrick Donahoe, the former head of the Army’s Maneuver Center of Excellence at Fort Benning, Georgia, told EurAsian Times, “The use of slat armor or stand-off armor- has been around since at least World War 2. It has proven effective against High Explosive Anti-Tank (HEAT) warheads by either tearing the warhead apart or forcing early detonation and early forming of the molten jet that is used to penetrate the armored vehicle. These warheads are known as “shaped charges.” We’ve seen recent employment of these slat armor systems with the RPG Cages that were emplaced on Strykers in Iraq and Afghanistan. The use of dual tandem warheads in modern anti-tank missiles is a way to penetrate these stand-off armor systems and even “reactive” armor that explodes on contact to dissipate the molten jet. The Javelin is such a system.”
After the war started, the Russians also equipped its archaic and frail T-62 tanks with what was then known as “cope cages” before they sent them into battle.
However, the utility of these cope cages have also been questioned by Russia’s troops and military experts who contend that it has caused more harm than good for the tank crews.
Earlier, Russian tank captain Aleksei Ukhachev told the Moskovsky Komsomolets magazine, “We welded grates on top of our tanks, but we wound up removing them. In the first place, the grates cause problems: the machine gun won’t rotate, antennae get caught up in the grate, the radio burns out, and you have no communications.”
The grates, which the tankers called “BBQ grills,” failed to deflect the missiles on the battlefield. Ukhachev continued, saying it was even worse if a crew had to escape a tank with a coping cage on the roof since the metal grate would confine them within the turret.
EurAsian Times reached out to military experts, who came to a similar conclusion about the structure’s efficacy.
Military expert Lt Col J.S. Sodhi (retd) explained, “Cope Cages are welded grates on the top of the tanks to thwart the attack of drones and other missiles. They are bulky and wrap the tank’s turret like a cage. The turret is the most critical part of the tank as it has very thin armor and houses the tank crew, the secondary armament, and radio communication systems.”
He continued, “Experiencing heavy losses of its Armored Fighting Vehicles (AFV) in the prolonged Russia-Ukraine War, Russia has started using “improvised slat armor” also called “cope cages” on its tanks to minimize its losses. Cope cages haven’t been proved effective either in this war or the Armenia-Azerbaijan War of 2020, from where the Russians copied this idea.”
Even though these cope cages are worthless against big air-dropped weapons and anti-tank guided missiles, they might provide some defense against small explosives dropped by commercial drones. No protection is offered by the cages from side attacks from other weapons.
However, if Ukraine decides to ram these systems with heavy drones or rockets, experts believe there are very few chances it will survive.