The Buzz

Ukraine's Tough T-84 Oplot-M Tank Won't Fight Russia (And Is Being Sold to Thailand?)

Tank warfare is periodically declared obsolete in the face of the latest portable anti-tank weapons and the difficulty of transporting heavy vehicles to the battlefront. Just don’t tell that to Ukraine.

The intervention of Russian tanks in August 2014 into Kiev’s conflict with separatists in Eastern Ukraine reversed what was looking like an eventual government victory into a disastrous route. In January 2015, an assault by over 30 Russian tanks defeated defending Ukrainian armor and brought an end to the months-long siege of Donetsk International Airport.

Kiev primarily fielded locally manufactured T-64 tanks in the conflict. These were considered “super tanks” during the Cold Warfifty-five years ago. Confronted by IEDs, modern anti-tank missiles and Russian tanks of equal or superior quality (including upgraded T-72s), they suffered heavy losses. The Ukrainian Ground Forces lost over 200 T-64s—possibly many more—in the conflict, which remains unresolved to this day.

Ukraine, however, has already developed a very modern tank, the T-84 Oplot (Bulwark)-M. Only ten Oplot tanks are in service with the Ukrainian Army, but Malyashev factory in Kharkiv announced in 2015 that it was ramping up production. By 2017, the factory will have produced forty new Oplots…and will be sending them to Thailand.

What’s special about the Oplot?

The T-84 Oplot is basically a Ukrainian-made derivative of the speedy T-80 tank—once considered the pinnacle of Soviet-era tank design. The T-80 never got over the bad rap it received in the first Chechen War when hundreds were knocked out by Chechen rockets. This was largely a result of terrible tactics—the tanks, manned by untrained conscripts, were sent into the middle of the city of Grozny without much infantry support. However, the T-80s’ gas-guzzling engines and tendency of their ammunition to catch fire when the tank was hit was seized upon for official blame, and led to Russia withdrawing this type from use in favor of cheaper, upgraded T-72 tanks, and later, T-90s.

Ukraine, seeking to develop its arms industry independently from Russia after splitting from the Soviet Union, designed a souped-up T-80 with a more powerful engine and a new turret called the T-84. Several T-84 variants were conceived, culminating in the T-84 Oplot-M, which features a Western-style turret mounting the latest Ukrainian sensors and defensive systems.

The Oplot-M is agile, has excellent sensors, and is well protected by active and passive defensive systems. Most notably, it offers these niceties at a price of $5 million dollars at a time when contemporary main battle tanks like the LeClerc and upgraded M1s are clocking in at $8 million.

How Does the Oplot Compare to Russia’s T-90 Main Battle Tanks?

The Oplot may find a counterpart in the Russian T-90, itself an evolution of the T-72 tank. The T-90 is Russia’ s current top-line tank while it awaits its innovative new T-14 Armatas to enter service. It has also been exported widely, notably to India. Unlike the T-72, which makes up the majority of the Russian tank fleet today, the T-90 doesn’t appear to have been deployed in support of the separatists in Eastern Ukraine. (For the purposes of this comparison, the T-90A in frontline Russian service will be compared, rather than the superior T-90AM, which appears to have been passed over for large scale production in favor of the T-14 Armata.)

Both tanks have three-man crews, but the 5-ton Oplot-M is larger at 2.8 meters in height, while the 46-ton T-90 keeps a lower profile at 2.2 meters.

The Oplot-M and T-90 use similar 125 millimeter guns relying on automatic loaders. The 2A46 gun on the T-90 proved incapable of penetrating the frontal armor of U.S. Abrams tanks during the 1991 Gulf War, but later types of Russian tungsten and depleted uranium ammunition have reportedly improved penetration by as much as 50 percent to the equivalent of around 650 millimeters of Rolled Harden Armor. That’s just barely enough to penetrate the frontal armor of modern Western tanks at shorter combat ranges. However, Ukrainian access to modern ammunition is not a given.

Both vehicles can also launch anti-tank missiles through the gun tube for use against low-flying helicopters or targets at very long ranges where the main gun won’t serve, and pack 12.7 millimeter and 7.62-millimeter machine guns as secondary weapons.

Later models of the T-90 use French-licensed Catherine thermal sights, while the Oplot relies on a domestically produced PNT-2 system, supplemented by a massive PNKS-6 panoramic site over the turret. Tank battles are usually won by the side that spots and hits first, so sights and sensors are an important factor in armored warfare-but comparing their relative effectiveness can be difficult.

In terms of protection, the T-90’s composite armor is rated equivalent to around 600 millimeter RHA verses tank sabot rounds, and over 800 for the shaped charges used in missiles. Figures for the Oplot, on the other hand are difficult to find, though given its weight, the protection level is likely at least comparable. In any case, in practice both vehicles rely on explosive-reactive armor and both passive and active countermeasure systems to significantly enhance survivability.