While impervious to direct frontal hits, dozens of these tanks were destroyed in catastrophic explosions, their turrets blowing off after sustaining multiple strikes from the Chechen rebels’ RPG-7V and RPG-18 rocket launchers.
It turned out–the T-80’s Korzhina autoloader had a fatal design flaw. The autoloader stored ready propellant in a vertical position, with only the tank’s road wheels partially protecting it. RPGs striking the T-80 in the sides above the road wheels were likely to set off the propellant, resulting in the tank’s explosive decapitation.
In this respect, the T-72A and Bs–which received the same kind of punishment–had a marginally higher probability of surviving flanking strikes because their autoloaders stored propellant in a horizontal position below the rims of their road wheels.
A second major fault of the T-80, like previous Russian tanks, was minimal gun elevation and depression. The tank’s gun could not fire back at rebels shooting from upper story rooms or basements.
To be fair, T-80 casualties were more likely the fault of ill-prepared crews, inadequate training and disastrous tactics. Such was the haste of Russia’s rush to war that T-80BVs entered Grozny without the explosive filler in their reactive armor panels, making the armor useless. It was even alleged that some soldiers sold off the explosive inserts to supplement their salaries.
The Soviet army had long forgotten the hard lessons of urban warfare from World War II. During the Cold War, only Spetsnaz commandos and the Berlin garrison had trained for serious city fighting. Expecting little resistance, Russian forces drove into Grozny with infantry buttoned up inside their BMP and BTR transports. Their commanders got lost because they didn’t have proper maps.
Since Russian soldiers were reluctant to exit their transports and clear buildings room by room, their Chechen adversaries–who knew the weaknesses of Russian vehicles from Soviet-era conscription–were free to turn the tanks and other armored vehicles into crematoriums.
It was easy for the Russian high command to blame the T-80’s design for the Chechen disaster–as opposed to clumsy operational planning and tactical inadequacies. But ultimately, it was a lack of money which caused the cheaper T-72 to displace the T-80 as the preferred choice for Russia’s export sales and its post-Chechen wars.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia lost the T-80UD production plant in Kharkov to the newly independent Ukraine. The T-80U factory at Omsk declined into bankruptcy, while the Leningrad LKZ plant no longer made the earlier T-80BV.
For Russia to have three tank types–the T-72 (A and B), T-80 (BV, U and UD) and T-90 (a rebrand of the T-72BU)–made no financial or logistical sense. Each tank had the same 125-millimeter 2A46M gun and similarly performing gun-launched missiles. But they all had different engines, fire control systems and chassis.
In simpler terms, these tanks offered commonality in capabilities but diversity in spare parts, rather than common spare parts and diversity of capabilities. Since the T-80U was far more expensive than the T-72B, it was only logical for a cash-strapped Russia to favor the T-72.
But Moscow continued to experiment with its T-80s, adding active protection systems–which use millimeter-wave radar to track incoming missiles before launching explosive countermeasures. The resulting T-80UM-1 Bars was revealed in 1997 but did not enter production, probably again because of budget cuts.
Russia did not use the T-80 during the Second Chechen War of 1999-2000, or the brief 2008 conflict with Georgia–as far as we know. T-80s have so far not joined the war in Ukraine.
The author is a follower of various science fiction and modern warfare topics like small arms, armor, air power and Middle Eastern conflict.
This piece first appeared in War Is Boring here.
Image: Creative Commons.