The T-72 is one of the most widely used MBTs ever produced but has been slammed due to its dismal performance during the Iraqi campaign against the M1. This happened not because either one was overly superior, but because the M1 had upgrades resulting from the lessons learned during tests conducted on a variety of variants of T-72 and T-80 after the end of Cold War, whereas the other tank which was essentially an export model of an export model (pun not intended) was nowhere close to the domestic variants used by the Soviets in their armies. To clear this false opinion, lets compare the tanks while having a look at the significant events that took place before the tank battle which tipped it heavily in favor of the American tank.
Development of T-72 (1967)
Basic layout of a T-72
(Pic taken from M1 vs T-72 by Steven Zaloga)
T-64 was the primary tank for the armies of some of the republics of the USSR whereas T-54/55 was widely exported to other republics and allies of USSR. The Uralvagonzavod (UVZ) tank design bureau was looking to develop an alternative to the problematic T-64 family. The T-64A was an improvement over the original T-64 but still retained some of the problems. This new tank was labelled Object 172, the Kharkov bureau (which had designed the T-64) was developing Object 219 which would enter service as the T-80. Object 172 sported a lot of T-64’s parts including the suspension which made it a costly affair. Thus the UVZ bureau used a new suspension based on that of Object 167 in the upgraded Object 172M which would enter production as the T-72. Internal politics in the Soviet Union meant that T-72 would be earmarked for export and the T-80 would be the primary MBT for the Soviet republics.
Object 172 featuring T-64’s suspension and road wheels which was later replaced by a new design.
Object 172M with the new suspension and road wheels
(Credits-On the pic)
T-72 was on the lines of the T54/55 and an apt successor to the T-34, it was easy to maintain and operate, sported a deadly 125mm gun with a variety of ammunition for different types of targets. The ammo was stored below the crew in the turret, as the designers thought that this area had the least probability of being hit, but ended up adding a deadly flaw in the tank. Although it sported a bigger gun, its maximum effective range was 1800m thanks to less angle of elevation and overall smaller height of the vehicle. The height of the vehicle was kept smaller as the Soviets wanted a small side silhouette, thus making it a tough target to hit. T-72 carried a total of 39 rounds in an autoloader thus removing the need for a 4th crew member and reducing the weight of the tank. Originally a 780hp engine was used, but newer variants can have a variety of engines with a variety of performance parameters. This 40 tonne tank was light but not lightly armored, during most of the Cold War the details on its armor were sketchy and its capabilities were only confirmed after some tanks were subjected to extensive trials in the late 1980s and early 1990s. We will talk about this later in the article.
An Iraqi T-72M firing its main gun during live fire exercises in 2008
Russians allowed Poland and Czech Republic to produce tanks with armor and FCS (Fire Control System) a generation behind what they had. Many countries including those of the middle east received downgraded versions of these tanks so called “monkey models”. The Iraqi ones used ammo which had been retired by the Russians themselves, they had malfunctioning sights, and no night vision or thermal vision. In desert warfare with bad visibility, these tanks had no chance of fighting against a credible enemy.
Development of M1 Abrams (1972)
Basic layout of a M1 Abrams
(Pic taken from M1 vs T-72 by Steven Zaloga)
M1 was developed as a result of the XM1 competition held between Chrysler and General Motors to produce a next generation tank to replace M60 and M48 tanks which were descendants of the mid 1940s era M26 Pershings. Americans couldnt match the production potential of the Soviet tank industry as over 100,000 T-54/55, over 22,000 T-62s and 12,000 T-64s had been produced till the late 1970s. Off this massive number around 60,000 T-54/55, close to 13,000 T-62 along with thousands of T-64 were standing against only 12,000 M60s and few thousand M48s with tanks of other allied nations. The Americans thus decided to counter numbers with technology and develop a next generation MBT to counter the Soviet threat. Interestingly this was a move away from the policy of developing a reliable, user friendly, maintainable tank developed during the 2nd World War which defeated the superior tech presented by the Germans with numbers.
Here is what GM submitted for the XM1 competition
And the design submitted by Chrysler
The design submitted by Chrysler was selected by the US army as the turbine engine was better than the comparable diesel, albeit was a bit more maintenance intensive. Americans from the onset designed this tank with the capability of using either of 105mm or 120mm guns. Thus when the intelligence came in that Soviets were churning out new 125mm gun equipped MBTs, the Americans quickly adopted a variant of German 120mm gun and upgunned the Abrams. Thanks to its superb stabilization system, FCS and sights, Abrams is an excellent gun platform and one of the best MBTs in service today.
M1 Abrams with a 105mm gun
And the present day beast with its 120mm gun
Syrian Conflict (1982)
Before we move onto the tests, lets have a look at this conflict as well, where T-72s found extensive usage. At the start 105mm tank guns failed to penetrate T-72’s frontal armor, only when Merkavas armed with new M111 sabot rounds were used alongside TOW missiles equipped with warheads developed by IMI (Israeli Military Industries), these Russian tanks were superseded.
A number of Merkavas were used against Syrian T-72 during the 1982 Lebanon war.
The Tests (late 1980s)
After the end of Cold War and collapse of the Soviet Union, lot of the cutting edge tech was exported to western countries. Countries like Canada, USA, UK and Germany tested advanced Soviet hardware and were shocked to see the results. Soviet armor, especially T-72 and T-80 was better than originally thought.
Note-The weapons used during the tests were from the same era and the best used by the respective countries.
- Canadian tests involving ammunition manufacturers trying to sell new variety of ammunition were shocked to see that they rarely penetrated the frontal armor of the T-72M1 and only 50% of the rounds managed to penetrate the front hull armor of the tank.
- German tests involving what is considered as the best tank in the world firing the best ammo against the T-72M1 had negative results as well. DM-33 Sabots could only penetrate the turret armor to certain degree below 1500m and HEAT rounds were ineffective on the turret and could only penetrate hull armor and not the frontal armor. All 105mm rounds were useless against the frontal armor of the T-72. Again interestingly, these were German T-72s and the Soviets always armed East German armies with the 2nd best they had.
- American tests went a step even further, they tested ERA equipped T-72A and T-72B against a variety of weapons and the results were even more shocking. Soviet ERA is designed to resist Sabot as well as HEAT rounds. As per the US army, these tanks resisted Sabot rounds fired by M1 Abrams, AP rounds fired by 30mm GAU-8s on A-10 and M230 on AH-64 Apache. Even the TOW missile was used.
- Reportedly a T-80U was also tested by the Americans after the British were done with their tests with similar results.
- Russian tests involving the T-80U in the same time frame also confirmed these results.
The results meant that the myth of Soviet inferiority in armor had been shattered. Development of new ATGMs like Javelin was started, along with slight change in tactics. Tandem warheads were introduced onto many existing missiles, and top attack feature was added in newly developed ones to exploit the weakest part of a tank’s armor.
The eve of battle (2003)
Iraq’s army was operating monkey model tanks, poor training, almost zero support from the airforce, bad tactics, obsolete ammo, bad sights, what else could go wrong for an army? These tanks were nearly immobile in the pits they were in and could only move out in one direction. This Soviet tactic was effective against an enemy whose attack plans were known, but in this case, Iraqis had little to no info. They were up against the best army supported by the best airforce with one of the best trained troops ready to execute a thoroughly deliberated battle plan. The attacking force was highly networked through a number of AEWACs and JSTARS supported by a big fleet of tankers orbiting just outside the combat zone. Was there any chance for the T-72M1s to put up a fight? the answer is simply NO!
Here is a pic of a destroyed T-72, giving you an idea about the tactic.
American M1 Abrams usually spotted the Iraqi armored divisions first and engaged them at ranges well above 3000m with TOW missiles from Bradleys or M829A2 Sabot rounds with depleted uranium penetrators, specifically designed to counter Russian armor. They usually found out that Iraqi tanks dug in or behind berms, thus taking out static targets was much easier than shooting on moving ones. Iraqis with bad sights always spotted the Americans late, usually destruction of a tank made them realize that they were under fire. During the battle, American formations usually attacked dug in Iraqi forces from a variety of directions whereas Iraqis were expecting them from a particular direction and were pointing in that direction. This increased reaction time for engaging an enemy attacking from an unknown direction. Many crews abandoned their tanks once a single tank of the formation was hit, thus weakening the position.
M1s moving as part of the formation
During combat only 7 M1s received hits from Iraqi tanks and all of which were withstood by the upgraded armor of the Abrams fielded in the theater. More Abrams were lost to friendly fire incidents, in which 120mm guns firing sabot rounds easily penetrated hull and rear armor on the Abrams causing several cases of injured in action.
A destroyed T-72, the the sabot round hit the rear end of the turret and the entry hole can be clearly seen.
Another T-72 which has got hit on the side
Interestingly most of the T-72s were hit on the side and rear sections, weakest areas for most of the tanks. This weakness was also used in the 1st Chechen war against the much more capable T-80 fielded by the Russian army. A single hit in most of the cases cooked off the ammunition and this incinerated the tank’s interior. In some cases the turrets blew off as the ammunition exploded. Thus the design flaw almost always meant complete destruction of the tank in case of a hit.
The the battle was comprehensively won by the American tank thanks to a variety of reasons and upgrades it received after the tests whereas the T-72M had no chance of getting the upgrades other variants had.
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