The Soviet Union had 1000s of tanks of various types and variants in its armies, designed to suite different set of requirements. Their tank formations were spearheaded by the T-80 which lead much larger numbers of slightly inferior T-72s and a generation older T-55s. The T-80 was the primary MBT for the Soviet forces due to the political backing , which meant it was rarely exported to other countries and was deployed in East Germany on routine basis thus following the policy of arming the Germans with the best available, whereas most of the Soviet allies got downgraded T-72s.
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After collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian Federation inherited most of the tanks operated by the Soviet forces, the economic condition of the country wasnt good. They couldn’t continue with a variety of tanks in their inventories and thus the Russian army requested for a singly type of tank, designated standard tank to be developed until a proper replacement for the Soviet era tanks was developed. T-80 and T-72 were pitted against each other as they were the primary new generation of tanks being produced, they had their advantages and disadvantages. Lets have a look at the advantages and disadvantages of both the tanks.
Advantages of T-72
- Higher reliability,
- Was powered by a diesel engine,
- Cheaper production and maintenance,
- Its design bureau was inside the Russian territory ie in Nizhny Tagil,
- Large numbers were in service, hence no spare issues,
- Production facility for the tank was well maintained due to international orders.
Disadvantages of T-72
- Inferior FCS (Fire Control System),
- Inferior sights,
- Inferior armor.
Advantages of T-80
- The turbine engine provided better mobility,
- Better FCS,
- Superior sights,
- Superior armor.
Disadvantages of T-80
- Only the turbine powered variant ie T-80U was produced in the newly formed Russia,
- Turbine engine had reliability issues,
- The engine was gas guzzling,
- Omsk production unit could only do minor design changes, as it was designed by the bureau in Kharkov and hence major upgrades were not possible,
- Omsk plant was about to shut down production due to lack of orders.
The above points, tipped the decision in T-72’s favor, but a major redesign was ordered to improve protection and performance of the new variant before it entered production. Ukraine on the other hand continued developing the T-80UD (diesel engine powered variant), their latest variant being the T-84M.
Interestingly T-72’s parent design bureau was testing a new variant under the company name of Object 187 just before the cold war ended. It sported T-80U’s sights and FCS along with a modified hull. The new hull had a flatter profile with a steeper frontal edge, similar to western MBTs incorporated to improve frontal hull protection. They developed 6 prototypes incorporating various power packs, a different main gun and armor configurations to test their feasibility. Four prototypes were extensively tested near the end of Cold War. After tests, all of the findings were incorporated in the 5th and 6th prototypes off which the 6th was said to be ready for mass production, as a new variant of the T-72. It sported the new hull, new power pack and a more powerful gun (2A66 instead of 2A46M) along with the latest Kontakt 5 armor. The USSR collapsed and budget cuts meant that this programme was scuttled. However the findings didnt go waste as they were used on the follow on Object 188.
3rd Object 187 prototype showcasing the modified front section of the hull.
6th Object 187 prototype underway, the shape of the hull and the gun are clearly different from standard T-72B and T-90.
Another picture of 3rd Object 187 prototype, showcasing one of the new armor configurations tested, along with the turbine engine.
When a variation of T-72 was selected as the standard MBT for the Russian army, it was developed under the company name Object 188. Due to lack of funds, hull and powerpack was kept the same as existing T-72B whereas the turret was taken from the Object 187. Hence the new tank became a low cost variant of the Object 187. Since the turret was taken from the Object 187, Shtora 1 dazzlers, configuration of Kontakt 5 armor, FCS and sights were the same, but the designers stuck with the old 2A46 main gun. This tank was ordered into production in early 1990s, under the original name of T-72BU but was later renamed as the T-90. It was the perfect combination of T-72’s reliability and T-80’s advanced technology. There are several international operators for this tank, some who have ordered more tanks than the Russians themselves along with local production. The entire T-72 family is supposed to be replaced by the MBT being developed as part of the Armata unified chassis platform. This new MBT will be unveiled on 70th anniversary of Russia’s victory in what they call as the Great Patriotic war, more commonly known as World War 2.
Here is the T-90 mod 1992, one can clearly see the similarities of its turret and that of 6th prototype of Object 187, however the hull is the same as T-72B.
T-90A was the variant which entered service with the Russian army after some modifications, for example the K-5 plates seen on the frontal part of the hull. This is the T-14 MBT, a part of Armata unified chassis family, which is supposed to replace the T-72 family.