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When I went through training I spent six weeks learning how to recognize enemy equipment. It was a valuable skill, and one that I got to use quite a bit during my career. It still comes in useful sometimes, too, like this week when the Ukrainian government exhibited a captured tank and claimed it was evidence Russian troops were fighting in Ukraine. Now I don’t doubt for a moment that Russian troops are fighting in Ukraine, but that hulk didn’t prove it. Sure, it looked pretty Russian – mushroom turret, reactive armor boxes and the familiar long 125mm gun – but one glance at the road wheels told me it was a Ukrainian tank. Oops. I can enjoy good propaganda as much as anyone else, but this wasn’t good propaganda.

Iraqi T-55 tank
Iraqi T-55 tank

So my recognition training was valuable, and I enjoyed it too, but one thing did sort of annoy me. I couldn’t understand why I was being taught recognition features that could be removed by five minutes’ work with a spanner. For example we were taught that the T-55 has straight handrails on the turret, while the T-62 has curved ones. That’s great, except that every time you see a T-55 on the news the turret is covered with rolled-up cam nets or the handrails – designed for use by tank riders, a tactic nobody’s tried since the fall of Berlin in 1945 – have been replaced with stowage boxes or reactive armor packs. Then there were the searchlights. You can recognise a T-72 because it has a large IR searchlight to the right of the main gun, while the T-64 has one to the left. Unfortunately, switching on an IR searchlight on the battlefield has been a spectacular way of committing suicide since about 1985, so very few tanks have them these days – they’ve been replaced by passive night vision or thermal sights. When I started giving recognition lessons myself, I focused on things that don’t change – number and size of road wheels, location of exhausts and major characteristics of hull and turret shape.

That’s an easy solution to teaching equipment recognition, but it leads to a more serious point. Tanks – especially the Russian ones that potential enemies have by the thousands – get constantly upgraded. The name doesn’t tell us much about capabilities. Let’s go back to the T-72. A lot of people who fought in the Iraq wars write off this design as a useless piece of junk, and that’s understandable. Saddam’s T-72s were a joke. Simplified export models with relatively thin armour (some of them were even cast from mild steel), they had primitive night vision systems and inadequate fire control. Even at close range they could barely hit allied tanks and stood little chance of inflicting serious damage if they did. Unsurprisingly they were destroyed by the hundreds, often picked off at 3,000 meters or more by M1s or Challenger 2s they hadn’t even seen. And that’s led many officers to write off Russia’s fleet of several thousand T-72s as an irrelevance that could be destroyed just as easily.

Russian T-72 tanks
Russian T-72 tanks

But a Russian T-72B(M) isn’t an Iraqi T-72M. The armor is much thicker, and reinforced by composite panels. On top of that is Kontakt-5 explosive reactive armor. ERA has been familiar since the mid-80s as a defense against HEAT rounds, RPGs and missiles, so everyone made assumptions about its capabilities, but then in 1989 the Berlin Wall came down and a year later NATO found itself in possession of large amounts of ex-East German kit. Soon enough, both the US Army and the Bundeswehr had the idea of hauling a few T-72B(M)s off to the ranges and shooting at them, and that’s when NATO got a very unwelcome surprise. The 120mm sabot shells fired by NATO tank guns couldn’t penetrate. Unlike earlier ERA, Kontakt-5 isn’t just effective against HEAT warheads; a sabot round that hits it will be neatly chopped in half before it even reaches the armor beneath. The T-72B(M) was essentially invulnerable to NATO weapons.

New 120mm shells have been developed that can penetrate Kontakt-5, but now Russia has developed new ERA – Relikt – that’s claimed to be twice as effective. We haven’t had a chance to shoot at it yet, but this is potentially a worry. What’s worse is that ERA is basically a series of small packs that can be bolted onto just about any tank. Then there are other upgrades to worry about, too. All T-72s – and the T-64, 80 and 90 – use the 2A46 125mm gun. There are at least six versions of this gun, though, and the latest ones are vastly more effective. New autoloaders allow longer, more effective sabot shells to be fired, equalling the performance of NATO guns. The old IR vision systems have been replaced with thermal sights. A new drop-in engine pack boosts power from 780 to 1,250bhp. Nakhidka camouflage blankets reduce radar and thermal signature. Active defense systems can intercept or spoof guided weapons. And all of this is available, like a giant military custom shop, to anyone who operates Russian tanks.

If there’s an armored threat based on former Soviet designs, it’s no longer enough to say “The enemy has T-72s.” It doesn’t tell commanders anything useful. In fact, it doesn’t matter much if the enemy tanks are T-72s at all, instead of T-64s or T-80s. In tactical terms they’re all basically the same tank – small, light, with good speed and mobility, and reasonably well armed and protected. What matters are the systems they’re fitted with. An ancient T-55 with a French thermal sight, AT-10 gun-launched missiles, Israeli gun stabilisation and Kontakt-5 is a much more dangerous opponent than a base-model T-80. Recce specialists need to be able to recognize these systems if they’re installed; analysts and staff officers need to understand their capabilities. Potential adversaries are armed with much more diverse, often hybrid, equipment. Our threat evaluation needs to keep up.

Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.

Fergus Mason

Fergus Mason grew up in the west of Scotland. After attending university he spent 14 years in the British Army and served in Bosnia, Northern Ireland, Kosovo and Iraq. Afterwards, he went to Afghanistan as a contractor, where he worked in Kabul, Mazar-e-Sharif and Camp Leatherneck. He now writes on a variety of topics including current affairs and military matters.
Fergus Mason

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4 thoughts on “Pimp My Tank

  1. There is indeed a lot of confusion about how to ID Russian tanks owing to their similar shapes – squat, with a dome turret. Not only that, older models get rebuilt to bring them to the same standards as more modern versions, confusing their sub variant type further.

    Isn’t the T-72BM just an alternative name for the T-72B3 which has only been fielded with Kontakt-5 ERA only in the past five years? I thought that East Germany also got export, dumbed down T-72M and T-72M1 models rather than original Russian editions like T-72A, T-72AV or T-72B.

  2. There’s a difference between the T-72B(M) and the more recent T-72BM, which is now the B2/B3. The B(M) was issued to MR regiments of GSFG but quite a few were left behind when the Soviet Army withdrew from Germany and absorbed by the NVA. Later, obviously, the Bundeswehr got hold of them, which is when NATO started shooting at them.

  3. Thanks for clearing that up.

    There is clearly a need for an up to date history and recognition book for the T-72 series – the only English language book by Osprey publishing is sorely out of date, covering 1974 – 93. It’s stunning that this second most popular (in export numbers) has so little written on it. Googling does not produce adequate results.

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