Armor: Retro Russian Thermal Sights


March 2, 2023: In late 2022 Russia ordered 800 T-62 tanks that were recently taken out of storage for use in Ukraine be somewhat upgraded before use. These upgraded T-62M2022 tanks are now showing up in combat and some have been captured and examined. The upgrades were not as extensive as expected and, in terms of their fire control systems, are a step backward because now unavailable (due to sanctions) foreign components were responsible for the efficient thermal (heat sensing) capability in their fire control systems. Despite this, the refurbished T-62s are welcome at the front, where Russian forces have had few tanks supporting attacks because most newer tanks have been destroyed, captured or are useless due to corruption. There have been few tank-versus-tank engagements in the war so far and, if there are, the less capable fire control system installed in these T-62s will put them at a disadvantage. The tank that spots the enemy and fires first generally wins. The German Leopard 2s and American M1s the Ukrainians are now receiving have far superior fire control systems and armored protection than any Russian tank, particularly the T-62.

Modern Russian T-90, T-80 and T-72 tanks suffered such high losses during the first months of the Ukraine War that Russia was eventually forced to replace them with T-62s. Some T-62s had been modernized in the 1980s by adding more powerful engines, upgraded fire control systems, and ERA (Explosive Reactive Armor) tiles. Thousands of stored T-62s were upgraded like this and then returned to storage. The success of these T-62s in Ukraine led Russia to take 800 more out of storage and add further upgrades, using items that do not require any imported components. This included a more effective fire control system with improved thermal imaging. The problem was that the improved fire control system relied on imported components and using just locally made components resulted in a fire control system about half as effective as planned.

The upgraded T-62s also received more ERA, including more on the top of the turret to provide some protection against Western top-attack missiles. The T-62 does not have an auto-loader for its 115mm gun, which makes the tank less vulnerable to total destruction from any turret penetration, especially by top-attack missiles. The T-62 was the last Russian tank built without an autoloader so it has a four-man crew. This provides more personnel to maintain the tank, which three-man crews were not always able to do adequately.

The T-62 is now in great demand because it was discovered that most of the T-72 and T-90 tanks in storage and available as replacements were not fit for duty. These tanks were stored in lightly guarded facilities that usually had no staff to regularly check the readiness of these tanks, as is the practice in the West and Ukraine. Many if not most of those reserve tanks had been rendered unusable because of theft of key components. Some of the missing items were high-tech components like fire control systems that contained some now unavailable Western electronics because of economic sanctions imposed since they were built. That explains why so many of the replacement tanks are half-century old T-62s. The T-62 has a 115mm rather than a 125mm main gun. Since most tanks support infantry rather than fight other tanks, these elderly T-62s are an adequate replacement tank.

The 115mm gun was the first modern, smoothbore, tank gun used by Russian tanks and fires the same types of ammunition (high explosive, armor-piercing, and more exotic types) as more modern 125mm tank gun ammo. The smaller caliber means 115mm armor-piercing rounds are not quite as effective as the 125mm against the better frontal armor of Ukrainian tanks, but hits on the side or rear armor are still deadly. The 115mm ammo can destroy any lighter armored vehicles. The T-62 carries 40 115mm shells, which have a max range of 4,000 meters, but are most effective at 1,000 meters. Upgraded T-62s weigh 38 tons, compared to 44 tons for the T-72. T-62 max road speed is 50 kilometers an hour while cross-country speed is 40 kilometers an hour. Max range with internal fuel on roads is 650 kilometers and 450 kilometers cross-country.

By the end of 2022 over 200 T-62s have been lost in Ukraine. There are a lot more anti-tank weapons at work in Ukraine than in previous campaigns like Afghanistan in the 1980s, Chechnya in the 1990s, Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine from 2014 to 2022. Since the 1970s, T-62s were used by reserve units and paramilitary KGB and FSB units. Over 20,000 T-62s were built between 1961 and 1975. About 20 percent of those are still available for service. Exported T-62s are still used by Syria, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Cuba, Yemen and Angola. Russia remains the largest user of T-62s.

Russia is losing over a hundred tanks a month in Ukraine and is able to produce only about ten a month. Improvised efforts like the refurbished T-62s are better than no tanks at all. There are more T-62s in storage and these can be refurbished and returned to service. Forced to use tanks built over half a century ago pretty much sums up the desperate situation the Russians face in Ukraine.




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