Here's what you need to remember: The new T-90M tank will bolster Russia's arsenal of battle tanks and be an attractive product for export.
Russia’s military and defense industry have big plans for the country’s workhorse T-90 main battle tank (MBT).
A defense industry insider told Russian state news outlet TASS that the T-90M “Proryv” MBT is getting an additional set of optoelectronic upgrades. “During the Army-2021 international forum, the static display of the Main Agency of Automobiles and Tanks of the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation showcased, for the first time, the T-90M Proryv main battle tank with an additional set of an optoelectronic system. It was one of the first prototypes, which will be tested in military exercises soon,” the source said.
The first batch of T-90M tanks was delivered to the Guards Tank Army of the Western Military District in April 2020. Those earlier models apparently did not feature this new optoelectronic system. TASS’ source noted that Russia’s Defense Ministry will evaluate this version of the tank and make a final procurement decision following the end of state trials. The nature of the upgrades being proposed to the T-90 remains vague. Prior versions of the T-90 have featured the Shtora-1 electro-optical active protection system, but it is not immediately clear exactly how that system is improved on these newer models.
The T-90M is the latest revision of Russia’s T-90, a third-generation MBT that entered service in 1993. The “M” revision features a modernized turret design with the “Kalina” fire control system, further armor improvements, the latest version of the popular Soviet/Russian 2A46M 125mm smoothbore cannon, and the latest version of Russia’s Relikt explosive reactive armor (ERA) over the Kontakt ERA system of prior models. The TASS report suggests that the full extent of the T-90M upgrade package has not yet been finalized, with certain additions still under review. It is estimated that there are twenty T-90Ms currently serving in Russia’s Ground Forces, which means that they are currently more of a placeholder than a viable combat force. But the original T-90 is backward-compatible with the T-90M revision, and Russia’s military is planning to upgrade much of its existing fleet of T-90 and T-90A tanks to the “M” standard by the mid-2020s. Russia’s T-90M modernization effort looms against the backdrop of a larger tank procurement project: the next-generation T-14 Armata MBT, expected to enter serial production around 2022.
Russia’s chief state arms export agency, Rosoboronexport, announced in late August that a light T-90 version is in the works, adding that the tank is oriented toward export markets. “Rosoboronexport expects production of a lighter version of this tank [the T-90], adapted to requirements of certain foreign customers. This will significantly improve its export attractiveness,” the agency noted. A lighter T-90 variant could help the tank to better compete against China’s new VT5 light tank in international export markets, presenting a potentially attractive option to importers looking for a more mobile alternative to the widely successful T-90S export variant and its later variants.
There are approximately 350 T-90/T-90A tanks actively serving in Russia’s Armed Forces, with several hundred more units in storage.
Mark Episkopos is a national security reporter for the National Interest.