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Old Reliable Survives, And Survives
by James Dunnigan
July 31, 2010

Russian firms have been hired to upgrade 200 Libyan T-72s. The Libyans are also buying about 40 Russian T-90 tanks, but believed it was more cost-effective to refurbish some of their T-72s, rather than buy more new tanks. The T-72s to be upgraded were purchased recently. There were nearly 2,000 Russian tanks (315 T-72s, 170 T-62s and the rest T-55s) bought by Libya in the last 40 years. But these are mostly junk now, as Libya never had sufficient qualified manpower to maintain them.

The Russian T-72 tank is the most widely used tank ever. Over 50,000 have been built. More than any model in World War II. Ironically, the T-72 was a stopgap design, intended to provide a replacement for the more advanced T-64, which was not successful.

Production began in 1972, and the T-72 entered service in 1976. Compared to the earlier T-62 and T-64, the T-72 was successful. It was reliable and combat ready, or so it was thought. But in 1982, Syrian T-72s went up against Israeli Merkavas. The Syrians lost badly. In 1991, Iraqi T-72s were helpless against American M-1 tanks, and M-2 Infantry Fighting Vehicles. But the T-72 remained popular. Partly because it was so cheap. Cold War surplus vehicles, in good shape, could be had for as little as $100,000. The vehicle was still popular because of its reliability. Most nations never expected to use their T-72s in combat, but it was more useful for them to be in running condition in peacetime, when they could control unruly civilians, or at least look good in parades.

Another reason for the popularity of the T-72 is the large number of upgrades available. While the basic T-72 was pretty unimpressive, a few upgrades can turn it into a much more formidable (and expensive) tank. For example, modern, computerized, fire control systems, with laser range finders and night-vision sights, and quality ammunition, transforms a T-72 into a very lethal system. While such a tank would still get blasted by an M-1, if the T-72 spotted the M-1 first, and got a flank shot, it could win. The T-72 is also a very mobile vehicle, about on a par with the famously nimble M-1. But protection is always going to be a problem. The stock T-72 is a 41 ton vehicle that is 7.4 meters/23 feet long, 3.6 meters/11 feet wide and 2.45 meters/7.5 feet high. An M-1 is 62 tons, 10 meters/32 feet long, 3.7 meters/12 feet wide and 2.6 meters/eight feet high. The extra weight is mostly armor, and from the front, the M-1 is still very difficult to kill. To survive, a T-72 not only needs to accessorize, but requires a well trained crew. Most nations using T-72s, don't like to invest in crew training. But that's what makes the most difference in combat.

The T-72 is surviving into the 21st century because Russia's new T-90 was, again, a fall-back design. The T-80 was supposed to be the successor to the T-72. But like the T-62 and T-64 before it, the T-80 didn't quite work out as planned. So the T-72, with a much improved turret and all manner of gadgets, was trotted out as the T-90. Weighing 47 tons, the T-90 is still the same dimensions as the T-72. Same package, better contents. And with well trained crews, it could be deadly.


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