Russia’s Tank Fleet Modernization

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This analysis originally appeared at SouthFront in January 2016

One of the key sectors of Russian military modernization is its tank fleet, which still includes many unmodernized T-72B and T-80U tanks. In order to close the tank quality gap with NATO, Russia opted to upgrade the T-72B to the T-72B3 standard, a modernization that yielded a modern tank comparable to the T-90 at a fraction of the cost of buying a new T-90. The T-72B3 tank, which entered service in 2011 at the rate of about 200 a year and which became widely known thanks to the annual Tank Biathlon competitions, was intended to be a stop-gap measure until the T-14 of the Armata family became operational. According to the statements by the Uralvagonzavod, Russian procurement plans entailed the purchase of 2,000 T-14 MBTs.

These plans appear to have been modified due to several factors which appeared in the last two years. The first was the crisis in Ukraine and the heightened state of conflict with NATO. The crisis raised the need for a truly modern MBT comparable to NATO’s tanks to become operational as quickly as possible. While the T-72B3 can be fairly described as a modern tank, it is still inferior in some respects to the latest NATO Leopard 2A6 and M1A2 Abrams tanks. Secondly, the basic T-90 design was also rapidly becoming dated which reduced its international competitiveness, as evidenced by the success of Ukraine’s Oplot tank in the 2011 competition in Thailand, where it won over the T-90. While the T-90 has enjoyed considerable export success, including major contracts with India and Algeria, it is now facing the prospect of being eclipsed by more recent designs from China and even Ukraine. Third, even though Ukraine proved unable to fulfill the Thailand contract in a timely manner, producing only 5 tanks a year in 2014 and 2015, the Russian leadership has to consider the worst-case scenario of Ukraine ramping up Oplot production for domestic use with NATO’s assistance. Fourth, Russia’s economic crisis caused mainly by the rapid drop of oil prices means that the ambitious military modernization plans face the need of being as cost-effective as possible. Fifth, the T-14 is a radical design featuring many revolutionary technologies. It is a technologically risky project featuring many as yet unproven technologies with the possibility of developmental delays. Since its design is very different from earlier Russian tank designs, its introduction would also require considerable changes to the training doctrine as tank crews trained to use Russia’s current tanks would be ill-prepared to use the T-14. As a result, it would be unlikely that Russia could field a sizable and fully operational T-14 force before 2020 at the earliest.

The change to Russian procurement plans induced by these factors became apparent in the summer of 2015, when the Russian MOD announced its T-90 fleet would be modernized to the T-90AM variant. This version of the T-90 known by its export designation of T-90SM was developed in recent years apparently in response to the T-90’s aging and the emergence of viable Chinese and Ukrainian competitors and was not intended for adoption by the Russian military. However, the need for a quicker and less expensive alternative that would fill the gap until the T-14 became available compelled the Russian MOD to take a second look at the T-90AM which has the advantage of using already existing T-90 hulls, is a mature project with few developmental risks, and whose familiar layout means Russian tank crews can readily transition to the new design. At least one T-90AM with the 2A82 125mm tank gun developed for the T-14 is undergoing tests at Nizhniy Tagil, and upgraded vehicles could be delivered to Russian units as early as 2016 if the Russian MOD desires it.

Therefore by 2025 Russia’s tank fleet is likely to consist of about 1,000 T-72B3 tanks, 400 or so T-90AM, and about 500 T-14s, with their number steadily increasing. This force would have both qualitative and numerical superiority over any conceivable combination of Russia’s opponents at that time.

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  • Pavel Pavlovich

    They never fail to mention how the T-72B3 is comparable to the T-90 but from the raw technical data I can surmise that it is only directly comparable to the worst versions of the T-90. Which are certainly still good tanks.

    • Joseph Scott

      I could be wrong, but I think it is as follows: armour-wise, it’s just a T-72B with Kontakt-5, but it should have the T-90’s engine, tracks, multi-spectral sight, FCS and wind sensor, main gun, stabilization system and auto-loader, so it can fire all the same ammo, including 9M119M missiles. The main difference should be very slightly inferior armour.

    • Hunter1324

      The T-72B3 is basically the equivalent of the T-90 obr.1993 (the original production model with a T-72B cast turret) without Shtora and retrofitted with the same FCS as the T-90A and the same engine as the T-90SM/AM. No idea if it still uses the old T-72B autoloader or if they changed it to the T-90AM.

      • Pavel Pavlovich

        Exactly, it’s almost as good as the earliest T-90.
        I’m sure it’s worth the money so maybe in larger numbers they would overwhelm their counterparts. Ofc that will not happen, this is just a thought experiment.

        • Joseph Scott

          What I’ve read stated that it had the more accurate 2A46M5 gun of the T-90, and the newer builds had the new autoloader as necessary to fire newer, longer sabot rounds. In terms of offensive capabilities, it should be more on par with a T-90A, or even close to the newest T-90AM. It’s really just it’s protection that is inferior. So, better than the earliest T-90 I think. Just not as good as current T-90s.

          • Pavel Pavlovich

            Really, that good? Hm, maybe I’m wrong. But what struck me most was the firing range of 2km…

          • Joseph Scott

            Well, there seems to be some confusion caused by the differences between the the T-72B3 and the T-72B3M/B4. (It confused me.) I posted links to the two most in-depth articles I could find below.

            The T-72B3 does seem to mostly have basic T-90 stuff, except it has the SOSNA-U FCS. It is not the latest SOSNA-U, with the FC-Catherine thermal sight. But it should be able to target out to at least 5km in daytime, and at least 2.6km at night. I think SOSNA-U lets it have full use of ATGMs at night also. It did get a new gun, but the 2A45M5 of the T-90. It’s got Kontakt-5, and may be fitted with Arena-E APS

            The T-72B3M or B4, which is the version from 2014, is the one getting the new engine, the 2A46M5 gun, the newest SOSNA-U FCS with FC-Catherine thermal sight, with a daytime engagement range of 6km (night unknown, but greater than 2.6km), and pretty much all the sighting and fire control systems of the latest T-90AMs. It may also be getting Relikt in place of Kontakt-5.

            https://thaimilitaryandasianregion.wordpress.com/2016/03/28/new-upgraded-t-72b3m-mbt-also-called-t-72b4-will-enter-in-service-with-russian-army-in-detail/
            https://www.quora.com/How-will-you-recognize-the-T-72B3-and-the-T-90

  • Pavel Pavlovich

    Russia’s economic crisis was not mainly caused by the falling oil prices.
    The main reason is it’s US$-dependend economy and the sanctions.

    • John Whitehot

      actually, it’s the opposite. Sanctions were more of a trick to make believe that the US could weaken Russia economy through that. Moreover, they are made to fuck up the EU even more than Russia, as the countersanctions killed millions of jobs throughout Europe. The falling oil prices however, has been another move conducted probably in accord with Saudi Arabia.

      • Joseph Scott

        Indeed, they’ve killed 60,000 jobs in Germany alone, which is the main target in Europe, being the centre of the economy. The attack on Deutsche Bank and VW is all part of the same.

      • Pavel Pavlovich

        No it’s the opposite of the opposite. Forget the propaganda, as long as the interest rate is too high (10% at the current) and as long as the dollar dominates Russian economy the sanctions will ALWAYS do damage because the Ruble is too expensive. This is the greatest problem and it will always stiffle economic growth, and this is why Russian economy is in deep shit. I don’t give a shit about Russian or pro-Russian propaganda, you can’t deny these facts. As long as the Russian central bank is under control of the international financial oligarchy there is little hope.

        • John Whitehot

          lololol. I think you showed your true nature. “Forget the propaganda” is exactly what I do, since I don’t parrot CNN and FOX like you do. Russian economy is not in deep shit, and the ruble is not “dominated” by the dolla – very much less than any other currency as it depends mostly on oil and energy exports. That’s why it devalued, because oil prices decreased to an almost hystorical minimum. They are now steadily increasing, while the economic indicators are showing no real crisis is underway. Sanctions on the banking system may have produced some negative effects but in the end, when the next “toxic bubble” goes off in the west, Russia will not be scathed by it, right because of these “sanctions”, while western countries, and especially, more than anybody else, Ukraine, will sink so deep into shit that nobody can even imagine it.

    • ZoA

      Sanctions not only did not damage Russian economy, they are actually beneficial to it. For example baning western banks form operating in Russia reduces capital drain those foreign banks create when thy take their profits out of Russia, and EU and US freezing asset of Russian citizens discourages those citizens form taking their money and investing them to EU and US, instead forces them to deposit or invest that money in Russia.

      In fact if EU lifts sanctions Russia would be smart to ban EU banks form returning to Russian market, and ban Russian citizens from investing their money in EU or US.

      Furthermore Russian counter-sanction import bans stimulate Russian domestic production and facilitate import substitution.

      So as far Russian economy is concerned it would be good if sanctions and counter sanctions go on forever. This is why Russians are not giving any serious effort to have them lifted.

      More serious but not crucial problem is price of oil. To maintain trade balance and budget, largely based on taxing oil trade, Russia had to devalue ruble to abut half. This is inconvenient for enterprises that base their operations on imports, but is good for Russian domestic production. Overall even this devaluation might be beneficial in the long run as it stimulates domestic production instead of imports.

      Actual real problem for Russian economy are neither sanctions (actually beneficial) or oil price (mixed bag) but unsound high interest rates monetary policy of Russian central bank and stupid regressive taxation policy of Russian ministry of finance. In another words problems are caused by Russian’s government’s strict adherence to neo-liberal economic dogma of tight money supply and regressive taxes.

      • Pavel Pavlovich

        You are just repeating Russian propaganda. This is bullshit.

        Russia’s economy is based to 75% on the dollar.

        The dollar comes from the outside.
        The sanctions might have been benefitial in some sense but as a total they were DEVASTATING.

        • Marek Pejović

          well, i’m not russian, but im pretty sure that russian economy is not BASED on dollar but on oil exports, agriculture and industry. economy based on usury and dollar, that would be USA. as for russia, if push comes to shove, i think it’s also possible to – considering russia’s gold reserves – tie the ruble to the gold standard and save it from inflation.

        • Jesus

          Russia and China are in the process of dedollarizing, the intent is to remove the dollar and replace it with local currencies. Russia and China are in the process of collapsing the reserve currency status of the dollar. Russia can become self sufficient and rely on fewer and fewer imports, while expanding exports.
          What would Europe do if Russia demanded payment for their gas and oil in rubles?
          Do you know ….if the dollar ceases to be a reserve currency, in other words, if the dollar is not needed in financial transactions, how many trillions of loose dollars will end up in the US?

        • Gary Sellars

          Ukropi troll eejit…

      • Marek Pejović

        good text!

  • Marek Pejović

    i wouldn’t be too worried about T-72B3 not being completely up to date with Leopard. this is because none of russia’s real foes fields them. who fields them? militants? turkey? Georgia? China even? and secondly, because tanks are just one of the systems engaged in warfare. and within a good-quality military system even a fairly good tank can preform against better tanks of not-so-good system.
    secondly, i wouldn’t worry too much about Ukraine. their tank might be more advanced per se, but i dare say that the state of ukranian army is nowhere near russian. and it’s the system that wins, not any weapon per se (except maybe nuclear bomb, but in this case noone wins).