Armor: Nicaragua Upgrades With T-72s

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August 11, 2016: In mid-2016 Nicaragua received 20 T-72B1 tanks from Russia with another 30 to be delivered by the end of 2016. Nicaragua paid $1.6 million each for these reconditioned tanks. The order was placed in early 2016 and Russia was able to deliver so quickly because it has over 5,000 T-72 tanks available. Some 2,000 are in active service and 3,000 in reserve. Those in reserve (storage) are often reconditioned and upgraded for Russian use and export customers.

The upgrade for Russian troops is more expensive and capable. This could be seen in early 2015 when the first T-72B3 tanks entered service in the Russian Army. While the T-72B1 is a 1980s model (with modern fire-control and additional armor) the T-72B3 is a recent upgrade with more modern and expensive equipment. This includes an improved fire control system and 21st century communications equipment. The T-72B3 costs nearly twice as much as the B1 and is part of the Russian effort to modernize its armed forces. Most T-72s in service are pre-1991 models that are very inferior to the most modern American, European and Chinese tanks.

The T-72 is a Soviet second-generation tank that entered production in 1971. About 20,000 T-72 tanks were built, making it one of the most widely produced post–World War II tanks, second only to the T-54/55 family. The T-72 was widely exported and saw service in 40 countries and in numerous conflicts. Improved variants are still being built for export customers. The T-72 was the most common tank used by the Warsaw Pact from the 1970s to the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was also exported to other countries, such as Finland, India, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and the former Yugoslavia, as well as being copied elsewhere, both with and without licenses.

Licensed versions of the T-72 were made in Poland and Czechoslovakia, for other East European countries. These tanks had better and more consistent quality of manufacture but had inferior (to Russian made models) armor, lacking the resin-embedded ceramics layer inside the turret front and glacis armor. The Polish-made T-72G tanks also had thinner armor compared to Soviet Army standard (410 mm for turret). Before 1990, Soviet-made T-72 export versions were similarly downgraded for non-Warsaw Pact customers (mostly the Arab countries). Many parts and tools are not interchangeable between the Russian, Polish and Czechoslovakian versions, which caused logistical problems.

The T-72 shares many design features with earlier Soviet tanks. Some of these are viewed as deficiencies in a straight comparison to NATO tanks, but most are a product of the way these tanks were envisioned to be employed, based on the Soviets' practical experiences in World War II. The T-72 is extremely lightweight, at forty-one tons, and very small compared to their Western counterparts. Some of the roads and bridges in former Warsaw Pact countries were designed so that T-72s can easily use them while NATO tanks could not pass at all, or only at very low speed. Yet this lighter weight is a feature for many less affluent users, like Nicaragua.

The basic T-72 is relatively underpowered, with a 780 hp (580 kW) supercharged version of the basic 500 hp (370 kW) V-12 diesel engine block originally designed for the World War II-era T-34. The 0.58 m (23 inch) wide tracks run on large-diameter road wheels, which allows for easy identification of the T-72 and descendants (the T-64/80 family has relatively small road wheels).

The T-72 has a comprehensive nuclear, biological, and chemical (NBC) protection system. The inside of both hull and turret is lined with a synthetic fabric made of boron compound, meant to reduce the penetrating radiation from neutron bomb explosions. The crew is supplied clean air via an extensive air filter system. A slight over-pressure prevents entry of contamination via bearings and joints. Use of an autoloader for the main gun allows for more efficient forced smoke removal compared to traditional manually loaded ("pig-loader") tank guns, so NBC isolation of the fighting compartment can, in theory, be maintained indefinitely. Exported T-72s do not have the anti-radiation lining and most users don’t use or maintain the NBC protection system.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, U.S. and German analysts had a chance to examine Soviet-made T-72 tanks equipped with ERA (explosive reactive armor) blocks attacked to the turret and front. It was found that this ERA rendered most modern American and German tank projectiles ineffective. This led to the development of more modern Western tank ammunition, such as the M829A2 and M829A3. Russian tank designers responded with newer types of reactive and composite armor. ERA is still a popular and relatively inexpensive upgrade for exported T-72s.

 


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