By Joseph Dempsey, Research Analyst for The Military Balance
In late March 2014 a number of videos were published online reportedly showing the deployment by rail of Russian Main Battle Tanks (MBTs) to areas adjoining the border with Ukraine. These include an unknown number of T-72B3 MBTs, as identified by IISS analysts. The T-72B3 is the latest update of the venerable, Soviet-era T-72 MBT family, which forms the majority of the active Russian MBT fleet and represents the most common tank type worldwide.
In comparison to earlier T-72B series variants, the T-72B3 incorporates a number of upgrades designed to improve offensive capability. These are reported to include a new fire-control system, a ballistics computer to improve accuracy, and all-weather thermal sights. In addition, the MBT features a new arrangement of Explosive Reactive Armour (ERA) on the turret (a key recognition aid).
At least two videos apparently indicate deployment near Klimov on the Russian border with Ukraine, although the precise locations remain unconfirmed. Klimov is in Russia’s Western Military District, within which 20th Army, 6th Tank Brigade, and 6th Army, 138th Motor Rifle Brigade are assessed to be recipients of the T-72B3, making them possible candidates for the role of operating these MBTs. To date, no T-72B3s have been identified in Crimea, though the presence of earlier Russian T-72B and Ukrainian T-64B MBTs has contributed to some observer misidentification. The deployment of T-72B3 to the border, as opposed to another MBT type or variant, may simply reflect the inventories of available units, rather than any specific intent or prioritisation stemming from this platform’s capability.
By the end of 2013 at least 250 modernised T-72B3s had reportedly been delivered to the Russian Army. However total contract numbers and the extent of any 2014 deliveries remain unknown. At least two brigades in the Western Military District and one brigade in the Eastern Military District are assessed to have received this variant, though further deliveries may since have occurred. In all known cases the T-72B3 has replaced the T-80 series MBT in service. It is assessed that the remaining T-80s will also be phased out over time and replaced with T-72B3. Whilst the full extent of the T-72B3 modernisation programme is unclear beyond these replacing T-80s, it does seem to indicate a desire to standardise the Russian fleet towards the T-72 MBT family, providing a degree of proven capability as well as equipment and maintenance commonality.
A previous attempt to standardise the MBT fleet was made in the early 1990s with the T-90, an extensive further development of the T-72. The T-90 incorporated some of the advanced defensive and fire-control features of the more expensive late-production T-80, but due largely to further budget constraints T-90 series production was ultimately very limited. This type now accounts for less than 16% of Russia’s operational MBT inventory. Unlike the new-build T-90s, the delivered T-72B3s are assessed as upgrades of existing T-72s, with those first replacing fleet T-80s likely drawn from stores. Given the large numbers of T-72s available this represents a more cost-effective solution towards standardisation and capability improvement.
The T-72B3 modernisation programme is considered only an interim measure, as the next-generation Russian MBT is long overdue. The as-yet-unrevealed Armata tank is intended to become the standard Russian MBT for future decades. Armata refers to a Common Universal Platform, which will form the basis for the new MBT along with other future Armoured Fighting Vehicles (AFVs), intended to introduce a new level of standardisation and commonality across multiple service types.
Additional details on Russian military capabilities including MBT numbers and fleet composition can be found in the Russia and Eurasia chapter of The Military Balance 2014