The Army-2023 defense show, currently taking place near Moscow, is highlighting the increasing use of overhead metal enclosures, commonly known as ‘cope cages’, on Russian vehicles deployed in Ukraine. These protective structures were first observed on Russian armor prior to the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in late 2021 and have continued to evolve as the conflict progresses.

The Army-2023 show, an international military-technical forum, began on August 14 at the Patriot Congress and Exhibition Center in Kubinka, a suburb west of Moscow. According to TASS, a state-owned Russian news agency, approximately 1,500 Russian defense companies are exhibiting their products at the event, with a significant focus on self-protection solutions for armored vehicles.

T-72, T-80, and T-90 series tanks fitted with robust cope cages are among the vehicles on display. These structures consist of a screen mounted on tubular poles attached to the tank’s turret, with the upper section of the cage comprising a metal mesh and a distinct corrugated metal ‘roof’. The purpose of these parallel ridges and grooves is unclear, but they may be intended to deflect drone-dropped mortars or FPV ‘kamikaze’ drones.

Alternative designs of the tank cope cage are also evident, with some featuring additional support tubes and extensive use of corrugated metal. To defend against side attacks on the turret, the cage ‘walls’ can be shielded with a hanging mesh. This same mesh is strategically placed between the turret and the hull to prevent drones from penetrating this vulnerable area.

In response to the threat posed by loitering munitions, UAVs, and the Turkish-made TB2 drone, Russian armored vehicles began to be fitted with basic overhead metal screens towards the end of 2021, just prior to the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. There was also a belief that these screens could protect against top attacks by anti-tank guided missiles.

As the conflict in Ukraine intensified, cope cages were increasingly used on TOS-1 thermobaric rocket launchers and T-62 tanks from the Soviet era, which were brought back into frontline service to compensate for heavy losses sustained by Russian armor. Troops in Russian rear areas also began to use improvised ‘Mad Max’-style armor to defend against attacks from Ukrainian forces.

More recently, tanks have begun to incorporate a hybrid form of self-protection that combines cope cages with layers of explosive reactive armor (ERA) bricks. The cope cage provides a physical barrier, while the ERA offers additional protection by detonating and creating a counter-blast that can deflect attacks from armor-penetrating weapons before they can penetrate the tank’s turret or hull.

The latest tanks equipped with cope cages also feature factory-produced camouflage that mimics foliage and forms part of a camouflage ‘wrap’. This same covering, reportedly called Nakidza and produced by the NII Steel company, is also visible on a T-14 Armata new-generation tank at the Army-2023 exhibition. According to unconfirmed reports, the manufacturer claims that these wraps can conceal the vehicle’s heat signature from infrared sensors.

At the Army-2023 exhibition, BMP-2 and BMP-3 series infantry fighting vehicles were also in the spotlight, each sporting a factory-produced wrap similar to slat-type armor. This armor was prominently visible on the front of the BMP-2 and possibly on the front and rear of the BMP-3’s hull.

Another variant of the BMP, an unarmed ambulance conversion, features a unique cope cage that extends along the length of the hull and is supported by multiple bars beneath a mesh covering. This wire mesh maintains visibility from within the vehicle while providing significant protection against threats such as drone-dropped bomblets or FPV drones that could penetrate the open-topped section of the hull.

At the Army-2023 defense show, a BTR-82 8×8 armored personnel carrier is on display, featuring a comprehensive arrangement of slat-type armor. The design provides maximum protection against projectiles from all angles while also allowing for easy troop disembarkation through a section of the slats that swing open like doors.

While the protective measures showcased at Army-2023 may not clearly surpass the effectiveness of earlier versions seen in the Ukraine campaign, it is clear that lessons learned on the battlefield have been incorporated into 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 both domestic and export markets. These examples, potentially prototypes, are presumably ready for mass production upon receipt of large-scale orders.

Russia’s arms expo is primarily focused on exports, and the country needs these partnerships and the associated revenue now more than ever. Amid challenges in sourcing high-tech components and directing available resources towards war efforts, cope cages, a product of Russia’s rich experience, present a simple export opportunity.

As militaries worldwide face threats from loitering munitions, commercially available bomblet-dropping drones, and first-person video kamikaze drones, Russian cope cage designs could provide a viable solution. These designs, whether purchased for new vehicles or retrofitted to existing ones, could appeal to nations that continue to patronize 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. Efforts are underway to enhance their effectiveness, and these measures could potentially become a standard feature in global armored warfare.