The Russian-hosted International Army Games is underway, and the main event — the Tank Biathlon — just might be the most Russian thing ever.
Held since 2015 as part of Russia’s annual August military celebrations, the games appear to be a sort of Olympics for war, pitting teams from Russia-friendly militaries — usually using Russian-made gear — in events like the Chemical, Biological, and Radiation (CBR) Defense and Troop Intelligence.
But the piece de resistance is the Tank Biathlon, a concoction of obstacle racing, target shooting, and what appears to be a demolition derby for giant battle tanks and heavy armor.
The Tank Biathlon features crews from countries with large armies, like China, Iran, and Russia, alongside those from smaller nations whose militaries have long relied on Russian aid and equipment, including Azerbaijan, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Laos, Vietnam, and Venezuela.
The result is a chaotic mess, with teams from all over crashing, running each other off the course and nearly shooting each other because of turret malfunctions. Coffee or Die Magazine watched videos of the biathlon with John Brazier, a former crew member on M1s, the US’s primary battle tank, in the 8th Cavalry Regiment of the Army’s 1st Cavalry Division.
“Oh, we would dominate this event,” Brazier said (Brazier now works for Black Rifle Coffee Company, which owns Coffee or Die). Although Brazier said he had never competed in anything quite like what he saw in the Tank Biathlon videos, he was still confident US crews would be prepared. “We used to drag race and drift all the time in Iraq. We would get it up to 36 mph and drift it across a field. [Driving] 36 mph doesn’t sound like much, but in a 55 ton tank, it’s crazy fast.”
The Russian contest featured head-to-head racing between crews, and Brazier seemed both amused and horrified as Iranian and Armenian tank crews rammed and forced their competitors off the track.
In another event, tankers attempt to negotiate a “tank trap,” a subterranean obstacle with ramps on both sides leading in and out. “It looks like they don’t have a TC (tank commander) to guide them through,” Brazier said, watching a Sudanese tank crash into the side of the tank trap.
The failures didn’t end with the driving and obstacle courses. Several crews had obvious issues doing the one thing a tank is supposed to do: shoot. One tank commander appeared to be baffled by how to load ammunition into a machine gun mounted on the turret, while the team from Zimbabwe appeared to miss every target it fired at it with its main gun.
“Looks like they don’t know what [type of round] they are shooting,” Brazier guessed. “Like they just got in the tank and sent it.”
Brazier couldn’t decide whether he was more distraught or impressed watching the Iranian team launch its tank over the final obstacle. “You’d bust your tracks doing that!” he said.
Perhaps the only thing more Russian than the event itself is the fact that Russia has won the competition every year.
While the US doesn’t participate in the International Army Games, the Army holds a biennial competition at Fort Benning, Georgia, for tank crews called the Sullivan Cup. The event tests the best tank crews from the Army, Marine Corps, and international partners with driving, shooting, and maintenance competitions. An M2A3 Bradley crew, led by Staff Sgt. Julian Gaitor, from 67th Armor Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division, took home the Sullivan Cup for 2022.