February 28, 2010: Russia is buying the largest number of new tanks this year, 300 T-90s, than it has in nearly two decades. During the Cold War, the Russian Army often received over a thousand new tanks a year. But when the Cold War ended in 1991, so did the large procurement budgets for the Russian military.
Meanwhile, the biggest user of the T-90 is India, which has been buying them for $3.2 million each. This is about a third less that a new M-1, with similar capabilities, would cost. The most recent M-1 model costs twice that.
Four years ago, India adopted the Russian T-90 as its new main battle tank. There will be local production of about a thousand T-90s over the next twelve years. India already has imported over 500 T-90s so far. By the end of the decade, India will have 2,000 upgraded T-72s, over 1,500 T-90s, and few hundred other tanks. This will be the most powerful armored force in Eurasia, unless China moves ahead with upgrades to its tank force. The border between China and India is high in the Himalayan mountains, which is not good tank country. India's tank force is mainly for use against Pakistan.
The T-90 is a highly evolved T-72. Originally, the T-90 was done as a fall-back design. The T-80 was supposed to be the successor to the T-72. But like the T-62 and T-64 before it, the T-80 didn't quite work out as planned. So the T-72, with a much improved turret and all manner of gadgets, was trotted out as the T-90. Weighting 47 tons, it's 23 feet long, 11 feet wide and 7.5 feet high. Same package, better contents. And with well trained crews, it could be deadly.
Russia still has about 20,000 tanks in its inventory, most of them T-72s. But most of these are in "storage" and poorly maintained. Only 21 combat divisions are still active in the Russian Army, and these are equipped with about 5,000 tanks, in varying degrees of disrepair. Most of these tanks are more than twenty years old, and get used very little for training.
India, in contrast, trains its tank units constantly. The most effective, and most numerous, T-90 crews are Indian. Russia wants to change that, but it will have to buy several hundred T-90s a year for many years, and spend billions of dollars (to buy fuel, ammo and spare parts) on training. Traditionally, the Russians have not trained this way. Instead the crews spent most of their time with crude simulators and classroom instruction. But Russian commanders have observed the success of tank forces trained in the Western style, and how much more successful this approach is in combat. It remains to be seen if the Russian commanders will practice what they are now preaching.