Here's What You Need to Remember: The T-64 was intended to fit the armor protection and firepower of a heavy tank onto a medium platform. This would, in theory, allow the tank to remain relatively nimble, despite the increase in firepower.
The T-64 sported many firsts for the Soviet Union — the first tank with composite armor, first tank with an autoloader, first tank with a smoothbore gun. It was innovative, but expensive, and mechanically complex.
Despite the technological leaps that were made with the T-64 platform, it was doomed by it’s price and never exported outside of the Soviet Union, stationed initially in East Germany, poised to defend against a potential attack by NATO.
Not Your Mom’s Ceramics Class
The T-64 was intended to fit the armor protection and firepower of a heavy tank onto a medium platform. This would, in theory, allow the tank to remain relatively nimble, despite the increase in firepower.
In order to achieve an adequate level of protection, a type of composite armor was fitted onto the T-64. This armor was essentially a layer of glass-reinforced plastic that was sandwiched in between two layers of ceramic, that were in turn sandwiched in between two layers of steel. More lightweight than a single, equally thick layer of steel, and significantly lighter. Armor — check.
Firepower > Space
In order to fit the additional firepower into a medium tank-sized package, an autoloader was designed into the turret, reducing the crew by one, from four to a total of just three. One less body, plus a new, more compact engine design, kept the T-64 profile relatively small.
While innovative and extremely compact, the new engine design was plagued by reliability issues. It had achieved its purpose — a compact design — at a steep reliability cost, and an increased production cost.
Before mass production, T-64 prototypes experimented with a 115-millimeter gun, a 10-millimeter upgrade from it’s predecessor, the T54/55 series. Ultimately though, Soviet engineers went in a different direction and settled on a 125-millimeter smoothbore gun. This allowed the tank to fire anti-tank guided missiles.
While the 125-millimeter gun was a marked increase in firepower, the longer and larger diameter rounds took up more internal storage space than the 100- or 115-millimeter rounds had. Combined with the emphasis on maintaining the lower profile of a medium tank, there was less internal storage capacity available for main-gun ammunition, reducing the number of rounds available to the gunner and tank.
Ukrainian T-64BM Bulat
Despite the aforementioned drawbacks, the T-64 platform is still used as a front-line tank, albeit with significant upgrades. In Ukraine, the heavily modified T-64BM Bulat has been outfitted with a number of upgrades, including explosive reactive armor (ERA) and an upgraded fire control system, and giving them a new lease on life.
According to the website of the company responsible for upgrading Ukraine’s T-64s to the Bulat standard, their work protects against “antitank hand grenades, and projectiles fired from hand-held and heavy grenade launchers and recoilless guns, against anti-tank guided missiles such as TOW-2, Milan, and Shturm-S, against shaped-charge projectiles fired from 125-mm smoothbore tank guns (ZBK-14(14M), ZBK-18), and against armor-piercing fin-stabilized discarding sabot projectiles fired from 125 mm smoothbore tank guns (ZBM-22, ZBM-26, ZBM-42.”
If true, then Ukraine’s T-64s may have some bike left in their bark.
Caleb Larson is a Defense Writer with The National Interest. He holds a Master of Public Policy and covers U.S. and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture. This article first appeared earlier this year and is being republished due to reader interest.