Russia's T-80 Tank Nightmare Is Now Just Getting Started in Ukraine

May 20, 2024 Topic: Security Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: T-80TankT-80 TankRussiaUkraineMilitaryNATODefenseT-72

Russia's T-80 Tank Nightmare Is Now Just Getting Started in Ukraine

Russia's 2022 invasion of Ukraine has seen significant tank combat, reminiscent of WWII, with Russia losing over 2,800 tanks, including the T-80.

 

Summary: Russia's 2022 invasion of Ukraine has seen significant tank combat, reminiscent of WWII, with Russia losing over 2,800 tanks, including the T-80.

T-80

 

-The T-80, introduced in the 1970s, is known for its gas turbine engine and autoloader, but has drawbacks like high fuel consumption and vulnerability in combat.

-Despite these issues, Russia continues to use T-80s, potentially as mobile artillery or in better-trained units, especially as Ukraine faces ammunition shortages.

How Russia's T-80 Tanks Are Holding Up in Ukraine

Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine began the largest land conflict in Europe since the Second World War. And just as they did in that 20th century war, tanks have played a leading role in the fields of Eastern Ukraine. 

When you use tanks you will lose them, and Russia’s armored units in particular have suffered serious attrition. Open-source defense blog Oryx estimates that Russia has lost more than 2,800 tanks to date. In one struggle alone, the Battle of Vuhledar, Ukrainian commanders believe they knocked out more than 130 Russian tanks and armored personnel carriers. 

As the war drags on, the Russian army has turned to stocks of older tanks to supplement its forces. One such vehicle is the T-80.

The History of T-80 Main Battle Tank for Russia 

In the 1960s, the Soviet Union produced the T-64, a new heavy tank. Soviet designers were already working on using gas turbine engines to power a tank. That vision joined with a design based on the T-64 to create the T-80. 

The T-80 had a crew of three, one fewer than usual. Instead of having a loader in the crew, an autoloader fed rounds into the 125mm smoothbore cannon. While subtracting one crew position from the tank decreased its weight, it had the drawback of being much more dangerous. Several unlucky gunners lost their arms to the autoloader in the close confines of the interior. Furthermore, the autoloader displaced ammunition storage to the outside of the turret, which greatly reduced survivability in the event of a hit. Many videos from Ukraine show tanks with their turrets “popped” as the ammunition cooked off inside the tank.

T-80 Tank

Perhaps the biggest drawback of the T-80 was its newfangled gas turbine engine. The engine did provide outstanding speed and maneuverability, and the Soviets boasted that the T-80 was their “English Channel tank,” a vehicle that would get from Germany to the Channel in five days in the event of a war with NATO. In reality, however, they consumed far too much fuel, even at idle, to be an effective spearhead vehicle. The finicky engine was far from reliable and often succumbed to dust or dirt in the fuel. 

In spite of these problems, and even a cancellation of the program by the minister of defense in 1974, in 1976 a new minister approved production, and T-80s began rolling off the line at the Omsktransmash plant a few years later. Since then, they have been exported and upgraded, and many T-80 variants are still in service today with nations around the world. 

Specs & Capabilities for T-80 Tank 

Throughout the years, the Soviet Union and later Russia have upgraded the T-80 in a bid to keep it relevant. As soon as the early 1980s, just a few years after it entered production, the tank received a new engine. The first major upgrade occurred in 1985, when manufacturers began installing Kontakt-1 explosive reactive armor designed to detonate anti-tank missiles before they reach the tank itself. Upgrades since then have mainly prioritized the T-80’s optics, fire control, and weapons systems.

Operational History and Why it Matters 

Despite being designed for a major conflict with the West, the T-80 first saw combat in Chechnya in 1994. During that war, the tank seriously underperformed, suffering many losses of both vehicles and crews. Much of the combat took place in an urban environment where the T-80’s poor ability to train its gun up high hampered its abilities. Often, T-80s were crewed by inexperienced service members and unsupported by infantry, which is usually a death sentence for a tank.

Critics decried the tank as inadequate, while supporters pointed to its poor employment as the reason for losses. Many of these issues seem to be present still in how and where the T-80 finds itself in Ukraine.

How Can They Be Used in Ukraine?

In light of the struggles facing Russian tanks in Ukraine, and the potential inadequacies of the T-80, how might the Russian army use them in Ukraine? The simplest solution would be to keep them as “mobile artillery” capable of supporting infantry from a distance without being exposed to counterfire. 

Better training of crews or upgrades to its defensive systems may improve its performance in attacks, but this takes time and resources, both of which are in short supply in Russia at the moment. 

T-80 Tank

Even if Russia does nothing, the T-80 may start performing better simply due to the fact that Ukraine is running out of munitions. Failure by the West to provide Ukraine with critical resources such as artillery shells means that even obsolete equipment like the T-80 will be able to do as it was designed and roll at high speeds across the fields of Europe. 

About the Author: Maya Carlin 

Maya Carlin, National Security Writer with The National Interest, is an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel. You can follow her on Twitter: @MayaCarlin. Email the author: [email protected].

All images are Creative Commons.