Armor: Russia Reaches Back For An Affordable Future

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December 24, 2016: Unable to buy enough new tanks to replace Cold War era tanks, Russia has decided to upgrade some of the 3,000 T-80U tanks they have in reserve. The generals would prefer to buy more expensive T-90s or T-14s. These new tanks will only be available in small numbers. Russia currently has about 500 T-80Us in service and in 2002 planned to upgrade more than 2,000 of them. Now, faced with reduced defense budget and an untested new design (the T-14) it was decided to upgrade more old T-80Us because as upgraded these appear to be about as capable as the T-90 and a lot cheaper.

The T-80U is a 46 ton vehicle with a 125mm smoothbore gun (and 45 rounds of ammo) that fires discarding sabot, HE, HEAT and 9M119 laser guided missiles (max range 5,000 meters). Max rate of fire for the main gun is 8 rounds a minute using an autoloader. The tank is the same size as the T-72 and T-90. Armor protection, with the addition of ERA (Explosive Reactive Armor) is about the same as the T-90. The T-80U already has some advanced features, like a reduced heat design, to help hide it from heat seeking sensors. There is also an auxiliary power unit for running the combat systems when the tank is stopped, and modular design that makes maintenance easier. The engine is a 1250 horsepower gas turbine and internal fuel will carry the vehicle 335 kilometers at 40 kilometers an hour cross country. Top road speed is 70 kilometers an hour. The autoloader means only a three man crew is needed. The gunner has a thermal night sight. Like older Russian tanks, the interior is cramped, and anyone over 1.78 meters (70 inches) tall is going be uncomfortable.

Currently, the most modern tank Russia has in service is the T-90, which became available for purchase in the early 1990s. This tank is a highly evolved T-72 that was originally created as a fallback 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.

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. In contrast, an American 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 skilled crew. Most nations using T-72s don't like to invest in crew training. But that's what makes the most difference in combat. Russia and India now train their T-90 crews more intensively because that makes more of a difference than any additional gadgets.

Most of the 20,000 tanks (72 percent of them in storage) in the Russian army are T-72s and T-80s. Both are mainly target practice for Western tanks (M-1, Leopard, Challenger, Leclerc). The T-90 is a bit better. Russia planned to replace most of those T-72s and T-80s with T-90s and a new design, the T-95, by 2025. After that, the new T-95 super-tank would start replacing the T-90. Or something like that. The Russians hoped to have the T-95 in action by 2020. Now, the plan is to have at least a few thousand T-90s in the next decade. That won't come easy, as T-90s cost over $3 million each.

Meanwhile, after the T-95 was cancelled in 2010 the military create another breakthrough design and after several false starts they believe they finally have a winner in their new “universal combat platform” called the Armata system. The first prototypes of this vehicle began testing in 2013 and the Armata platform is currently being used for the T-14 tank prototypes. This vehicle uses the engine and tracks as well as the heavily armored crew capsule of the Armata system. Added to this is an automated 125mm gun (and 32 shells and missiles) in a turret. There is also a RWS (remote weapons station) for a 30mm autocannon and another for a 12.7mm machine-gun. In addition to the weapons the crew of three would operate several sensor systems (thermal, vidcams and AESA radar) and an automatic defense system for protection against missiles and weapons like RPGs (shaped charge rockets used by the infantry). All this would be in a 55 ton vehicle that would require the services of additional maintenance personnel nearby (behind the fighting) who would help fix problems and assist the crew in maintaining all this complex equipment.

As exciting as T-14 looks on paper and the few parades a T-14 prototype appeared in, prudence prevailed. The T-14 is a new design which has not been in action and current estimates put the cost per tank at $4 million. Upgrading a T-80U to something similar (in performance) to the T-90 costs less than a million dollars per tank. In the end it’s what you can afford, and rely on, that gets built. While the T-80 entered service in the late 1970s it turned out to be an effective vehicle to upgrade. No one is building anything like the T-14 so for the money an upgraded T-80 is competitive.

 


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