Armor: Iraq Returning To The T-72


April 11, 2018: At the end of 2017 the U.S. withdrew American maintenance and repair technicians working for the Iraqi Army to maintain their force of nearly a hundred M1 tanks. The Americans also stopped supply spare parts of the Iraqi M1s and refused to restore this tech support until Iraq retrieved two M1s still unaccounted for and believed to be held by pro-Iranian PMF militias. The U.S. is also holding up delivery of additional M1s the Iraqis ordered. The Iraqi government had recently retrieved seven M1s from pro-Iranian militias and one was taken back with the help of U.S. backed Kurds who were attacked by militiamen in October 2017 when the Iraqi government took control of Kirkuk province, settling a dispute that went back over a decade. The Kurds withdrew from Kirkuk province but not before immobilizing an M1 tank used by one of the advancing militias.

By December Iraq had retrieved all but two M1s and showed no enthusiasm for finding and retrieving the last two tanks because it would involve a confrontation with Iran and one the more militant pro-Iran Shia militias. At that point, the Americans invoked the sales contract Iraq had agreed to for the M1 tanks which allowed the U.S. to suspend support for the M1s if the Iraqis could not account for them at all times. The Iraqis are still looking for a way out of this mess. In March Iraq made the militias (the PMF, Peoples Mobilization Forces) part of the Iraqi military which apparently enables the government to put more pressure on the pro-Iran PMF units, which are believed to hold the two M1 tanks, to surrender them or else. The “or else” includes all the Iraqi M1s becoming inoperable eventually and additional American sanctions imposed that could include the growing Iraqi force of F-16 jet fighters and other American made weapons. That gambit has not worked as the militias insist that they still retain a degree of autonomy despite now being part of the military.

This mess had its origins in the mid-2014 ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) offensive that captured about a third of Iraqi territory, including the city of Mosul. The Iraqi forces that were in the way largely collapsed and fled, abandoning hundreds of armored vehicles, Corruption in the Iraqi Army led, before 2014, to Iraqi M1 crews being poorly trained and led. Thus during the 2014 rout Iraqi troops lost (or abandoned) at least 40 M-s to enemy action or panic. At least one Iraqi M1 was destroyed by a Russian ATGM (anti-tank guided missile). The United States directed air strikes to destroy any M-1s spotted in the possession of ISIL. By 2015 it became obvious that some of the missing M1s had been recovered by PMF units that Iran helped organize in late 2014. The PMF played a key role in halting the ISIL offensive and then pushing back ISIL until all the lost territory was regained by the end of 2017. The U.S. documented at least nine M1s that had apparently been retrieved by pro-Iran PMF units from ISIL and, instead of turning them over to the Iraqi Army, continued to operate them. Some maintenance support was obtained, illegally, for these M1s from the Iraqi Army but repairs for major problems had to be performed at an Iraqi Army facility where American technicians carried out more complex work or shipped tanks back to the United States for a major overhaul. The Americans there noted evidence that some of these tanks had been in the possession of PMF units when they became inoperable.

Currently, ten of these U.S. technicians remain in Iraq, mainly to keep an eye on (but not repair) several dozen Iraqi M1s awaiting repairs. These M1s are also watched by American security personnel. Meanwhile, Iraq had ordered 73 Russian T-90 tanks and 36 arrived in February. The rest are to arrive before the end of April. The T-90 is one of many upgraded T-72s available. Until 2003 the Iraqi Army operated hundreds of T-72s. The T-90 has been produced in large quantities but not for Russia. It is mostly an export item. 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 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 was loudly proclaimed to be the next big thing 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.

Iraqi knew of the T-90 when in 2008 they ordered and received (by 2010) 140 M1A1 tanks. Then in 2015, Iraq ordered 170 more. Delivery of those is being held up until Iraq can account for all the M1s it already has. The U.S. threatens to cut more military support, including deliveries of F-16s and other aircraft if the M1s are not recovered.

Iran says it can supply Iraq with what it needs. Iraq does not believe or want that. Iraq has seen the American equipment in action since the 1990s and has been increasingly using that stuff over the last decade. Iraqi commanders want the American weapons and equipment and the U.S. government is not cutting Iraq any slack over the missing M1s. This could get interesting. Meanwhile, Iraq is not the only Arab nation to become fond of its M1 tanks. Iraq was not the first Arab country to operate the M1 tank. Egypt, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia already operate over 1,600 of them, and Egypt has built hundreds of them (mainly using components imported from the U.S., but with some locally made parts). Iraq received the M-1A1 version. All the other Arab users have at least some of the latest model (M1A2 SEP). The Iraqis promise they will do better with their new batch of M-1s but first, they have to account for the ones they already have and so far that has not happened. But there is hope. Until about a week before the American technicians were ordered home and all support for the M1s was halted the Iraqis thought the Americans were bluffing.




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