T-72: The Beast from the East

T-72 M1_2004_01

The Uralvagonzavod T-72 doesn’t have a great reputation. Mostly this is based on its performance in the two Iraq wars, in 1991 and 2003, when hundreds of T-72s were easily destroyed by Coalition tanks in a series of one-sided battles. The defeats were so crushing that the newest model, the T-72BU, was quickly renamed the T-90. It was thought that the T-72 brand was so badly damaged that export sales would suffer.

Were the tanks brushed aside by the Coalition’s Challengers and M1s really T-72s, though? That’s a good question. Technically they were Asad Babil – “Lion of Babylon” tanks, manufactured in Iraq. Really they were built up from kits shipped in from Russia. Those kits were for the T-72M export version. The T-72s used by the Soviet – now Russian – armies are very, very different.

Bad press - a destroyed Iraqi T-72 export model.
Bad press – a destroyed Iraqi T-72 export model.

The export versions were armoured with low-grade steel, which wasn’t all that thick. Starting with the T-72A, Soviet models were upgraded with much thicker armour which included ceramic plates. The T-72B quickly followed, which had even thicker armour and was soon fitted with Kontakt-1 Explosive Reactive Armour (ERA) as extra protection against anti-tank missiles. Within a few years the more advanced Kontakt-5 replaced it. By using heavy flying plates each side of an explosive charge this new ERA generated enough energy to shatter the sabot rounds fired by NATO tanks. When the USSR fell apart both Germany and the USA obtained T-72B tanks and tested their own tank guns on them. To their surprise and alarm the T-72B was almost invulnerable to 120mm sabot fire. New 120mm rounds have been developed which have a better chance of penetrating Kontakt-5, but meanwhile Russian T-72s are being fitted with Relikt ERA, which its makers say is twice as effective. If that’s true these old tanks are invulnerable again.

T-72B tank at high speed in the Indian desert.
T-72B tank at high speed in the Indian desert.

The T-72 can shoot back, too. It has a 125mm smoothbore gun fed by an automatic loader. Early versions had poor quality control, but newer models are much more accurate. Even early ones, when they hit, could be devastating. In 1982 Syrian T-72s destroyed a considerable number of Israeli M60s and even some of the then-new, very heavily armoured Merkava tanks. The latest models have an improved gun made with machinery imported from Germany, and can fire longer sabot shells; their penetrating power is now at least as great as NATO tank guns. T-72Bs can also fire a range of gun-launched missiles, letting them attack tanks and helicopters out to 5 kilometres.

Because of its automatic loader the T-72 only needs a crew of three, instead of the four found in western tanks. That makes it a lot smaller – around two thirds of the size. Because of this it’s a lot lighter, too. The T-72A weighed only 41.5 tonnes, and even the latest T-72BM is less than 47. Compare that with an M1A2 Abrams at up to 67 tonnes with add-on armour, and it’s obvious the T-72 can cross a lot more bridges without breaking them. It can also ford up to 19 feet of water with its built-in snorkel. Power is provided by a V12 Diesel engine, with 680bhp in the early versions and 1,000bhp in the latest ones. That’s a lot less than western tank engines, but it’s a much lighter tank. Official top speed is 60km/h (37mph) but a British military liaison team once clocked an East German T-72M doing 105km/h (63mph) on an Autobahn.

The basic T-72 design is old, but really there’s not much wrong with it. Over 25,000 have been built, and more than 15,000 of those are still in service or reserve. Almost all of them can be upgraded with ERA, new guns and fire control systems, more powerful engines and a range of other improvements. Among the things I’ll be talking about in future posts are some of those improvements, who’s using them and what they mean for military planners.

East German T-72M1 tank
East German T-72M1 tank