Although Russia gives a lot of publicity to its more modern tank designs, like the T-14, T-90 and T-80BV (an expensive T-80 upgrade), most of the “new” tanks the Russian army has received since 2000 have been refurbished and much upgraded T-72B3s. Currently the Russian Army has about 3,000 tanks in service and most (65 percent) are T-72B3s, which you hear little about. The new breakthrough design, the T-14, has fewer than a hundred in service and cuts in production (which began in 2015) were recently announced with only 10-20 a year being built. The T-14 is mostly about publicity. The T-90 has been produced in large quantities, but not for Russia. The T-90 was a 1980s project that was to incorporate T-80 features into many upgrades of the T-72. Originally it was designated the T-72BU but when Russia finally began production in 1993 it was renamed the T-90. That succeeded in in making the tank an export success with most (84 percent) of those produced were for export. In fact India and Algeria each have more T-90s in service than Russia. Worse Russia has quietly put over a third of its newly 550 built T-90s into reserve. While the T-90 were loudly proclaimed to be the next big thing built the Russian army preferred the refurbished T-72s in the form of the T-72B3. These proved to be more reliable, something that got little publicity. While all the upgrades (new engine, gun, fire control and protection) made it nearly as expensive as the T-90 it was preferred by the troops and the older officers quietly agreed that it was a better tank than the new T-90/T-72BUs.
This apparently has something to do with the design of the T-72BU (trying to merge T-80 elements into the T-72 design) and the decline in manufacturing quality in Russian the defense industry after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. Since the T-72B3 was introduced in 2013 it has been produced in far greater numbers than any other tank and that continues. Especially telling was how T-90s began to be taken out of service (and put in reserve) as soon as enough T-72B3s became available. At the same time the most popular Russian tank for export customers is the T-72B (a B3 with fewer of the upgrades) and these cost nearly two million each, but can be delivered in a few months after the contract is signed. The T-72B3 has been so popular with Russian troops that the government is giving it more publicity in the state-controlled mass media.
Russia still has over 3,000 late model T-72s in reserve (storage) because these are so frequently reconditioned and upgraded for Russian use and export customers. It appears that all of these will eventually be returned to service once refurbished and upgraded. Production of the T-72 continues, but mainly under different names and often outside Russia.
The T-72B3 turned out to be nearly as expensive as the T-90 but early tests showed it was worth the cost. This could be seen in early 2015 when the first T-72B3 tanks entered service in the Russian Army. While the T-72B 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 B 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 25,000 T-72 tanks were built (so far), 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 and built 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 was 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). One reason the T-72B3 is so popular is because it has a very reliable and capable 1,130 hp engine that old-timers always wished the original T-72 had.
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.
The T-72B3 addressed most of the complaints about earlier upgrades, often because the Russians had the opportunity to buy (at least until the 2014 sanctions were imposed) Western armor and fire control equipment. Many export customers preferred to equip their T-72s with this gear as did India with their T-90s. Russian manufacturers managed to match a lot of the foreign equipment, or at least earlier models of it. Thus the T-72B3 has thermal sights that enable the gunner to spot other tanks at night that are up to eight kilometers away and positively identify them at about a third of that distance. The T-72B3 incorporates a lot of world-class protection features. Not just in defense against enemy armor-piercing rounds but also landmines and roadside bombs. The T-72B3 has a modern fighting compartment with flat screen displays, some of them simply showing what is in the vicinity of the tank. In addition to modern communications the T-72B3 has electronic sensors and some electronic jamming capability. But most of importantly the T-72B3 is reliable and, as the saying goes, “it just works.” That feature hasn’t been common with Russian tanks since World War II when the T-34 was a breakthrough design that was technically inferior to Western (especially German) models but it just worked.