In recent years Russia’s new tank, the T-14 Armata, has attracted an intense amount of interest from the outside world. A “clean-sheet” design, it is the first entirely new tank announced in years and the first entirely new Soviet or Russian tank in decades. Despite the imminent introduction of Armata, the budgetary issues mean the bulk of Russia’s tank forces will consist of older, familiar-looking tanks first introduced in the 1980s and even earlier.
Russia currently has 2,700 frontline tanks. These are distributed between approximately thirty-six separate motor rifle (mechanized infantry) and tank brigades, and four motor rifle and tank divisions. In a relatively new development, the Russian Ground Forces have introduced so-called battalion tactical groups , a reinforced all-arms unit capable of independent action consisting of four tank and motor rifle companies, artillery, reconnaissance, engineer and support units. Each Russian maneuver brigade or regiment has approximately two battalion tactical groups.
The building block of modern Russian armor continues to be the T-72 family of vehicles, which includes the original T-72, its cousin the T-80 and older-brother T-90 main battle tanks. The oldest of the tanks, the T-72, are three decades old, while the T-80s are slightly newer, dating toward the end of the Cold War. The newest are the T-90s, which are basically a thorough modernization of the T-72.
First introduced in 1973, the T-72 main battle tank electrified NATO. Low slung, with a new powerful new gun and beefy armor, it was a considerable step up from the mediocre T-62. The new 2A46M 125-millimeter main gun could fire up to eight rounds a minute, serviced by a new autoloader that took the place of a human loader, allowing the tank turret to remain relatively small despite the larger gun and ammunition. A 780 horsepower diesel engine gave it a top speed of thirty-seven miles an hour on the road.
The T-72 was well armored for its time. Composite laminate armor gave the original T-72 335 to 380 millimeters of frontal hull and turret protection against dartlike NATO 120-millimeter armor-piercing, fin-stabilized discarding sabot (APFSDS) antitank ammunition and 450 to 410 millimeters of protection against high-explosive antitank ammunition (HEAT) of the same caliber. A later version, the T-72B1, increased protection versus armored piercing ammunition by 50 percent and, thanks to the use of Kontakt-1 explosive reactive armor , nearly doubled the tank’s ability to fend of HEAT weapons. An improved version, Kontakt-5, was fielded in the mid-80s and adequately protected a tank against TOW heavy antitank missiles.
The T-72 was the mainstay of the Soviet Army through the end of the Cold War and was widely exported abroad to twelve countries, including Syria and Iraq. Syrian T-72s performed poorly against Israeli tanks during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, and Iraqi tanks did even worse during the 1991 Gulf War. Much of the problem was the poor training and leadership in both the Syrian and Iraqi armies, but the T-72 did come up short in key areas against modern Western and Israeli tanks, particularly in the areas of main-gun ammunition, fire control, night vision and armor protection. Critically, Iraqi T-72s did not have explosive reactive armor like Kontakt-1 and Kontakt-5.
In addition to the T-72, the Russian Ground Forces inherited the T-80. Outwardly very similar to the T-72, the T-80 was equipped with the same 2A46M main gun. It did, however, have significant differences: the main gun could fire the 9M112 “Kobra” HEAT missile, which had a range of 2.5 miles and could penetrate up to seven hundred millimeters of armor. The T-80 was also slightly larger and used a 1,250-horsepower turbine engine that ensured agility at the expense of reliability .
Russia’s economic woes in the 1990s and early 2000s meant years of starvation budgets for its armed forces. Although there was no money for a new tank, the best of the T-72s and T-80s were retained in service and saw a steady number of upgrades.
Despite the demoralizing effect of the 1991 Gulf War, Soviet engineers came up with many modifications, some of which were novel in their approach to improving aging tanks. The Shtora-1 missile-jamming system incorporated an electro-optical jammer for infrared-guided antitank missiles and automatic smoke-grenade launchers to obscure a tank from laser-guided missiles. The Arena active-protection system combined a Doppler radar with kinetic energy interceptors to destroy antitank rockets and missiles at close ranges. The 2A46M main gun received new HEAT and kinetic-energy ammunition with greater armor penetration, and surviving T-80 tanks received the 9M119 Refleks antitank missile, a considerable improvement on the Kobra missile.
The current generation T-72B3 rolls all of these improvements into a fully modernized tank. The -B3 is equipped with the latest generation Kontakt-5 reactive armor, improving its survivability against HEAT rounds. The main gun can fire the 9M119 Refleks missile, and the number of rounds the tank can carry has been improved from thirty-nine to forty-five. The result is that the -B3 incorporates significant upgrades in armor and protection (a program to install a new engine and power pack was canceled to save money .) In the future, the T-72B3 will again be further upgraded with the same autotracker and fire-control system incorporated in the Armata tank, new Relikt reactive armor and the long-delayed new diesel engine , which will provide 50 percent more horsepower than older engines.
The Russian Ground Forces’ 550 remaining active-duty T-80s are being brought up to the new T-80BV standard. The -BV tank for the most part is identical to the T-72B3 in terms of armament and armor upgrades, with the exception being a more reliable, but less powerful gas turbine engine. According to Jane’s, the -BV would be more suited to cold-weather conditions in the Far East, Siberia and the Arctic. Perhaps not coincidentally, these locations are mostly far from NATO tank forces.
The one “new” Russian tank introduced since the fall of the Berlin Wall was the T-90. Introduced in 1993, the T-90 was basically an upgraded T-72 design produced as a new vehicle. The T-90 was in many ways identical to a modern T-72B3, and indeed paved the way for the broader T-72B3 upgrade project. The latest version, T-90MS, incorporates all T-72B3 features plus a thousand-horsepower diesel engine, video cameras for increased crew situational awareness and GLONASS global positioning equipment. One critical feature of the T-90 is its heavier armor, which ranges up to 690 millimeters against APFSDS rounds and 1,040 millimeters against HEAT rounds. Through additional layers of steel and composites to the turret and hull and the latest generation in reactive armor, the T-90 has twice the armor protection of the original T-72.
The high cost of the Armata tank, combined with Western sanctions over the 2014 invasion of Ukraine, will likely limit Russia’s ability to field large numbers of the tank. The Russian Armed Forces are facing obsolescence on many fronts, from fighters to tanks and a new generation of armored vehicles. Despite improvements in the force large amounts of equipment will remain in service as a matter of necessity. With careful maintenance and upgrades, these older tanks will serve the Russian Ground Forces for decades to come.
Kyle Mizokami is a defense and national-security writer based in San Francisco who has appeared in the Diplomat, Foreign Policy, War is Boring and the Daily Beast. In 2009 he cofounded the defense and security blog Japan Security Watch. You can follow him on Twitter: @KyleMizokami.
Image: Modernized T-72B3 tank. Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons/Vitaly V. Kuzmin