Red Steel: Soviet Tanks II


The T-64 design introduced some radical changes from previous designs, which led to multiple problems. The engine, transmission, suspension, and automatic loader were all unreliable. It is powered by a 5TDF multi-fuel engine using opposing pistons, making it relatively small. Main armament is a 115mm 2A21 smoothbore gun with an automatic loader and coincidence optical rangefinder. A 12.7mm NSVT machine gun is fitted to the turret roof for anti-aircraft use, and can be fired remotely from within the turret. The turret and hull both have steel armour, with ceramic inserts for improved protection against HEAT warheads. Fold-out armoured panels (sometimes referred to as gills) are fitted to the sides to give added protection to the suspension. Two snorkels are carried for deep wading. One is fitted to the turret, the other to the engine. This initial version entered service in 1967, with production limited to about 600, all of which were later rebuilt to the T-64A or T-64B configuration and designated T-64R.

In 1969, the T-64A entered service. The Soviet army had acquired access to an M-60A1 provided by an Iranian defector, and this prompted the replacement of the 115mm gun with a 125mm 2A26M2 smoothbore gun, which was paired with an improved fire-control system. Smoke dischargers were fitted to the turret and the turret armour was improved. A self-entrenching blade and fittings for mine-clearing equipment were added to the hull front.

The T-64B entered service in 1976. This has a new type of armour in the hull and turret, which is thinner than that used in previous models, while still giving equivalent levels of protection. Side skirts are fitted to improve protection to the suspension. A new fire-control system is fitted, incorporating a ballistic computer and laser rangefinder. The AT-8 Songster ATGM is added, each tank carrying six missiles. Some tanks, designated T-64B1, do not have the AT-8 system. Some T-64Bs are fitted with ERA and designated T-64BV.

A command variant, the T-64AK, was accepted for service in 1973. This variant has an additional HF radio, navigation equipment, and auxiliary generator. It does not have a roof-mounted AA machine gun, and carries a 10m tall telescopic mast which can be deployed when stationary.

All T-64 models incorporate full NBC protection.


The T-72 was initially accepted for service with the Soviet army in 1973, and was fully operational by 1975. It has a 125mm 2A26M smoothbore gun with an optical coincidence rangefinder and computer-assisted fire-control system. A 12.7mm NSV anti-aircraft machine gun is mounted on the commander’s cupola. Unlike the NSVT fitted to the T-64, it cannot be fired remotely from within the turret, and the commander has to open his hatch to operate the weapon. The turret has cast armour, up to 280mm thick, and the glacis plate has 200mm thick laminated armour. Fold-out armoured panels are fitted to the sides to give added protection against HEAT warheads.

In 1979, the T-72A was introduced. This has a laser rangefinder to replace the earlier optical model, and a 125mm 2A46 smoothbore gun in place of the original 2A26M. Side skirts replace the fold-out panels, and extra laminate armour is added to the turret. This model became known as the “Dolly Parton” because of the appearance of the extra armour on the turret front. Smoke dischargers are added to the turret, and improved night vision equipment is fitted. From 1985, some T-72As were fitted with ERA and designated T-72AV. An export version of the T-72A, designated T-72M, was offered from 1980. This variant is equipped with less-effective armour and a different NBC protection system. In 1982, the T-72M1 was offered for export. This has an additional 16mm armour plate on the glacis and improved turret armour.

The T-72B entered service in 1985, with a new type of composite armour. This is a variant of the armour used on the T-80U, cheaper but particularly effective against HEAT warheads. This model is nicknamed the “Super Dolly Parton”, and also adds 20mm of appliqué armour to the glacis plate. It has a 125mm 2A46M gun, capable of firing the AT-11 Sniper ATGM. A variant designated T-72B1 does not have the AT-11 capability. Both T-72B and T-72B1 are sometimes fitted with ERA.

In 1990, the T-72BM entered production, the last variant to enter production before the Soviet Union collapsed. This has the same fire-control system as the T-80U, Kontakt-5 ERA, and the Shtora-1 electronic countermeasures suite. Shtora-1 has optical jammers to defeat SACLOS missiles and a laser warning system to warn the occupants about laser designators and rangefinders. Kontakt-5 is an advanced form of reactive armour, effective at reducing the effectiveness of APFSDS rounds as well as HEAT and HESH warheads.

The T-72K is the commander’s variant of the T-72. This has extra radios, and battalion and regimental command vehicles also carry a 10m antenna which can be erected when the vehicle is stationary. Similar variants of the T-72A and T-72B are designated T-72AK and T-72BK, respectively.

All T-72 models incorporate full NBC protection. They all have a self-entrenching blade mounted at the front, an unditching beam at the rear, and fittings for mine-clearing equipment. All models can carry two 200 litre fuel drums at the rear (these can be jettisoned if necessary) and a deep-wading snorkel. Preparation for deep wading takes 20 minutes. Once the water obstacle has been crossed, it takes two minutes to make the tank ready for action.


The T-80 is a similar design to the T-64 and T-72, mounting a 125mm 2A46 smoothbore gun with autoloader. However, it is powered by a gas turbine engine instead of the more traditional diesel. This is expensive and uses a great deal of fuel, but provides excellent performance. Initial production of the T-80 started in 1976. Full-scale production began in 1978 with the T-80B. This has improved composite turret armour and improvements to the fire-control system, including a laser rangefinder to replace the original optical rangefinder. In 1981, the T-80B was deployed to Group of Soviet Forces Germany (GSFG). The T-80B is fitted with the AT-8 Songster ATGM and carries four missiles, which are fired from the main gun.

Two add-on armour upgrades have been introduced. In the early 1980s, it was realised that 105mm APFSDS ammunition could penetrate the laminate armour on the glacis plate of the T-80B, and so 20mm of steel appliqué armour was added. In 1983, Kontakt-1 ERA started to be fitted to the T-80 fleet. T-80s with ERA were given a V suffix, and the existing T-80Bs were upgraded to the T-80BV configuration.

The T-80U was introduced in 1985, with a new type of laminate armour, Kontakt-5 ERA, 125mm 2A46M-1 gun, and a new fire-control system. Production of this model was relatively limited. In 1987, a model of T-80 with a diesel engine, the T-80UD, went into production. This sacrifices speed for lower production, fuel, and maintenance costs. It has the AT-11 Sniper ATGM system with six missiles, fired from the main gun. From 1989, the Shtora-1 ECM suite was fitted to the T-80 fleet.

Command variants of the T-80B and T-80BV are designated T-80BK and T-80BVK, respectively. These carry extra communications equipment, but sacrifice the AT-8 Songster ATGM system. The T-80UK is the commander’s version of the T-80U. As well as extra communications equipment, it has extra navigation systems, an auxiliary generator, and an improved fire-control system.

All T-80 models incorporate full NBC protection, and fire-detection/suppression systems. They all have a self-entrenching blade mounted at the front, an unditching beam at the rear, internal and external communications equipment, and fittings for mine-clearing equipment.

T-90 (1992)

Although the T-90 main battle tank had been intended as an interim upgrade to the venerable T-72 and the T-80, it has been in production since early 1993 and in service with the Russian armed forces since the late 1990s.

Although the new T-14 combat platform is reportedly slated for deployment by 2015, when the T-90 main battle tank entered production in early 1993 the debut of any new Russian tank design was indeed sometime in the distant future – and the military establishment of the Russian Federation knew it. The T-90 was intended as a short- to mid-term improvement over the aging T-72, constructed mainly for the export market and the T-80, which proved a disappointment in combat conditions during the First Chechen War between December 1994 and August 1996.

As the Russian government considered the high cost of research and development, a revision of the T-72 was determined to be the best alternative. The employment picture in Russia was grim at the time and production of the T-90 would also preserve manufacturing jobs in two cities, Nizhni Tagil, where the latest versions of the T-72 were built, and Omsk, the home of T-80 production. Kartsev-Venediktov was designated the principal design firm and the production itself was directed by Uralvagonzavod. The per unit cost of the T-90 was originally estimated at £1.5 million, or approximately $2.3 million, and this was believed to have escalated due to rising costs of raw materials.

Russian Revolutions

The T-90 is visibly similar to its predecessors in the long line of Soviet-era tanks that culminated with the T-80. Its elliptical or clamshell-shaped turret and characteristic low silhouette continue to afford little comfort to the crew. The T-90’s restricted headroom is somewhat compensated for by the installation of an automatic loading system for the main gun, dispensing with the need for a fourth crewman.

Nevertheless, by NATO standards the turret of the T-90 is cramped and ergonomically dysfunctional. The commander is seated to the right inside the turret with the gunner to the left, while the driver is centred and forward in the hull. Each crewman is equipped with thermal imaging and laser rangefinding equipment to direct the vehicle, acquire targets and lay the gun accurately. Typically, the driver is further tasked with serving as a field mechanic capable of performing basic maintenance and repair without removing the T-90 from a combat zone.

Explosive-reactive Kontakt-5 armour covers the turret and hull of the T-90 and is often easily recognized in brick-form appliqué. The Model 84 V-84MS 12-cylinder multi-fuel diesel engine powers the T-90 at up to 60km/h (37mph).

Holdover Firepower

The 125mm (4.8in) 2A46 smoothbore gun, a highly-modified version of the Sprut anti-tank gun, had been mounted in the earlier T-80 and was retained in the T-90. The 2A46 fires a variety of ordnance, including the Refleks 9M119 AT-11 Sniper, a laser-guided missile that is effective against aircraft and armoured targets. Secondary armament consists of a 12.7mm (0.5in) anti-aircraft machine gun mounted near the commander’s hatch and a coaxial 7.62mm (0.3in) machine gun.

In a defensive posture, the T-90 excels with an effective array of countermeasures known as Shtora-1, or Curtain. The Curtain components include laser early-warning sensors to alert the commander in the event that the tank is ‘painted’ by opposing target acquisition systems, infrared jamming equipment and aerosol grenades that obscure the vehicle from sight.

Radiation lining coats the tank’s interior, while nuclear, biological and chemical defences are active. Mine-clearing equipment reduces the likelihood of damage from such ordnance or an improvised explosive device. The driver’s seat is welded to the roof of the hull to reduce the concussion in the event an explosive is detonated inadvertently. Bulldozing equipment allows the T-90 to dig its own revetment and quickly assume a hull-down attitude.

The T-90 main battle tank shown below clearly displays the blocks of additional Kontakt-5 ERA that have been placed on its side skirts for additional protection against anti-tank weapons, mines and improvised explosive devices (IEDs). During its service life of nearly three decades, the T-90 has been deployed with Russian forces during the Second Chechen War in 1999 as Dagestan was invaded by Chechen fighters. It also entered combat during the brief but fierce fighting that ensued with the Russian invasion of neighbouring Georgia in 2011. Most reports indicate that the T-90 stood up to hits from Chechen anti-tank weapons without significant damage.

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