Procurement: Russia Has a Plan


September 24, 2023: Russia has ordered mass production of its T-80VM tank to replace the many T-72B3M and T-90M tanks lost in Ukraine. While the T-80 was designed to be a successor to the T-72 line (including the T-90), that did not happen because the T-80 was more expensive to build and operate. The latest version, the T-80VM, purportedly solves most of those problems, especially if it is mass produced. That is why Uralvagonzavod (or (UVZ), the largest Russian tank manufacturing plant, has been ordered to retool and start mass production of the T-80VM. This will not be easy because it is expensive and the Uralvagonzavod plant has its own problems.

Russia has previously supplied production contracts as well as more loans, to keep the Uralvagonzavod from going out of business. Uralvagonzavod, the firm that developed the Armata T-14 tank and T-15 IFV, has been bankrupt since 2016 and survived because of state-owned Rostec, a holding company that takes over failing, but essential defense firms, to keep them operating. Uralvagonzavod has produced tanks and other armored combat vehicles since World War II and continued after the war. After 1991, most of those military orders stopped but Russia has learned the hard way that, once a lot of these skilled workers are out of work, they use their skills to find new careers or even emigrate, and are virtually impossible to get back later. UVZ obtained enough orders for new armored vehicles or upgrading existing ones in an effort to maintain the workforce that, once lost, is extremely difficult and time-consuming to rebuild.

Uralvagonzavod, like many defense manufacturers of high-tech equipment (vehicles, aircraft, ships, missiles and electronics), had a difficult time staying in business and retaining its skilled workforce after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. That meant orders for armored vehicles disappeared. In 2014 the Russian economy and defense budget took major hits from lower oil prices plus Western sanctions resulting from the Ukraine invasion. The situation got desperate for Uralvagonzavod as it was surviving on loans and whatever commercial work it could get. The company gambled on developing and marketing the revolutionary Armata T-14 and T-15 vehicles. Russian leaders were impressed but there was no money to place large orders and there were no export customers either. The government encouraged work on the T-14 because it was a prestige item that proved Russia was still a major defense developer and manufacturer. That was not true but the government was willing to scrape up the cash to make it appear so. Rostec stepped in to buy UVZ and keep it going so work on the T-14 and T-15 IFV version could continue.

That attitude is being exploited by Russia because of much reduced post-Cold War procurement budgets. For example, in early 2021 Russia announced that the army would receive over 400 upgraded tanks and IFVs in the coming year but none would be the new T-14 Armata tank and T-15 Armata IFV. Upgraded tanks like the T-80BVM filled the gap for the missing T-14s. The Armata was a radical new design for tanks and IFVs but too expensive given the defense budgets available. This was due to a 2013 plunge in oil prices that did not recover while the 2014 Ukraine invasion resulted in many economic and trade sanctions. Since then, the Russian replacement program for elderly Cold War era gear has had to settle for more rebuilds than brand new stuff. Russia did announce plans to start building more T-14s in 2022. As of 2023, Armata production is still stalled, but permanently this time because all the problems with the T-14 have been revealed. The T-14 does not work and never came close to working as an effective combat vehicle.

Most of the “new” tanks the Russian army has received since 2000 have been refurbished and much upgraded T-72B3s. In late 2021 the Russian Army had about 3,000 tanks in service and most (65 percent) were T-72B3s, which you hear little about. Russian troops prefer the T-72B3M over the T-80 and T-90 and few have any personal experience with the T-14. There were more serious problems with the Russian tank forces. When Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022 they had 2,600 tanks, mostly (1,600) older models while a thousand were improved and updated T-72B3s which took the Russian tank industry about ten years to produce. More than half the tanks sent into Ukraine were destroyed or captured by the Ukrainians during the first few months of the war. This was a major loss to the Russian army. The T-14 revelations were a minor footnote to the sad state of Russian tank production and usefulness in combat.

The latest Russian solution is to have UVZ produce up to 250 T-80VMs a year while also continuing to repair all models of damaged tanks. This is something a different facility of Omsktransmash specializes in but has been overwhelmed by the amount of work created by the Ukraine War.




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