Key Point: The T-80U might be a relic, but it's served the South Korean army reliably.
One of the great ironies of the military balance in the Koreas is the fact that South Korea operates more advanced Russian tanks than North Korea. This situation came about in the 1990s after Russia inherited a $1.5 billion debt to South Korea. A deal was made: Russia would give many items of then top-of-the-line military equipment, in exchange for South Korea canceling 50 percent of Russia’s debt. Interestingly, this included the T-80U Main Battle Tank. Nowadays, South Korea fields three “modern” main battle tanks, the T-80U and the indigenous K1 and K2. But how do Korean tankers think the T-80U stacks up against the Korean tanks, which were designed with a more Western philosophy?
In a pure technical comparison, the T-80U lags behind the K1A1 and K1A2. The T-80U has been kept in a relatively stock configuration, while the K1A1 and K2 have been receiving upgrades from the Korean defense industry. While the T-80U has a Day/Night panoramic commander’s sight in the PNK-4S, the K1A1 and K2 both have thermal commander sights. The Korean defense industry puts out the modern M279 APFSDS round for the 120-millimeter cannons of the K1A1 and the K2, but the T-80U is still using imported Russian ammunition. The K2 also has many features that the T-80U doesn’t have, being one of the newest MBTs in the world.
The reliability of the T-80U also doesn’t gain it favors in South Korean service. Reports state that the T-80U’s reliability isn’t the best, although it is better than the BMP-3. Although some T-80U parts, such as the tracks, are produced in South Korea, the majority of parts must be ordered from abroad. The cost of ordering replacement parts from Russia has been steadily increasing over the years (with the cost of some parts doubling or tripling from 1996 to 2006), so many in the South Korean government are considering getting rid of the T-80U to cut maintenance costs.
Not all is bad, though. Koreans do report some advantages over the K1A1 and K2 domestic tanks. The T-80U’s engine has better acceleration performance and is lighter than the domestic tanks due to its turbine nature. Unfortunately, this also makes it consume more fuel. The reduced weight compared to domestic also allows it to be more nimble in the mountains of Korea.
Soldiers who crewed the T-80U generally didn’t have nice things to say about it. The more cramped internal design compared to the K1A1 and K2 could seem claustrophobic, and in gunnery, the T-80U was found to underperform the domestic tanks, both in accuracy and in reload speed.
However, one must take into account the time period in which these criticisms were made. Most soldiers who made these comments compared the T-80U to the K1A1, which only started seeing service in 2001. Compared to the original K1 tank which was Korea’s most advanced tank at the time, the T-80U possessed far more advantages, packing a 125-millimeter gun to the K1’s 105-millimeter, as well as better advanced armor technology. The T-80U was the most advanced tank on the Korean Peninsula when they first arrived. The lack of modernization due to the foreign nature of the parts for the tank and lack of will to “domesticize” a foreign design impeded the T-80U from being fully embraced by the South Korean military. As a result, nowadays Korean tankers don’t find the T-80U to be favorable, as it’s still a relic. But it is one that served admirably, and even contributed to the K2 Black Panther project when it was in its infancy.
Charlie Gao studied political and computer science at Grinnell College and is a frequent commentator on defense and national-security issues. This piece was originally featured in April 2018 and is being republished due to reader's interest.