Armor: The Ukrainian Wonder

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November 6, 2021: The United States has been a regular customer for new Ukrainian armored vehicles since the 1990s, when newly independent Ukraine found it had the largest quantity of modern Russian weapons outside of Russia. This was because Ukraine was where a lot of these weapons were built and was the site of staging areas and storage of weapons to be used by follow-up divisions in any war with NATO. The United States noted this and became a regular customer, not only buying a few of the latest Russian armored vehicles and other equipment, but also new Ukrainian models of these weapons. Ukraine had long developed new models for Russia (the Soviet Union) and most of those developers and technicians were Ukrainian. The U.S. not only bought a few of each new model but larger quantities of some vehicles for realistic OPFOR (Opposing Forces) training for American troops. The U.S. also tested their latest weapons against the Ukrainian armored vehicles, sharing most of the results with Ukraine. In some areas Ukraine and Russia were ahead of the West in developing new tech for tanks and now the U.S. and NATO had access to most of that.

Some of the Ukrainian post 1991 tank models are exceptional. For example, the T-84 is a Ukrainian modification of the Russian T-80, which was a failed Cold War design that Ukrainian engineers managed to salvage. Before the Russians attacked Ukraine in 2014, Ukraine had designed a new version of their T-84, the T-84 Oplot-M. It was a 51-ton vehicle with a "western" style turret and lots of protection in the form of reactive armor and modern electronics for protection and improved combat capability. That included a combat proven (in Syria) Zaslon APS (Active Protection System). Ukraine sold Zaslon to Turkey, along with a manufacturing license

Oplot-M is armed with a 125mm smooth bore gun, an autoloader and 46 rounds on board. Most (28 rounds) are in the autoloader magazine. The 125mm gun can also launch a laser guided ATGM (Anti-Tank Guided Missile) with a max range of 5,000 meters against ground or air targets. The fire control system is designed to handle the ATGM, which can be carried in place of some 125mm shells. The ATGM must be loaded manually.

There are also two machine-guns. One is a 12.7mm with 450 rounds and the other is a 7.62mm machine-gun with 1,250 rounds. The 12.7mm machine-gun is linked to the fire control system that enables it to hit aerial targets more effectively. The fire control system also includes thermal (heat sensing) sights with a detection range of 8 kilometers. That’s more than three times the effective range of the 125mm shells. The fire control system can handle firing the 12.7mm machine-gun and 125mm shells and missiles on the move against moving targets. The armor protection is multilayered including standard and reactive armor that can protect against hits by all types of modern weapons.

That tank is very agile because of a 1,500 HP diesel engine that enables max-off road speed of 45 kilometers an hour and 70 kilometers on roads. Road range on internal fuel is 500 kilometers. The three-man crew uses an auto-loader and the tank is equipped with air conditioning that enables operation in tropical climates.

Ukraine began building the T-84 Oplot-M tank in 2009 but priority, especially after Russian invasion in 2014, was given to cheaper tanks and by 2018 only a few Oplot-Ms were in Ukrainian service. The cost per unit is up to $4 million each depending on features installed. The T-84 Oplot-M represents a major achievement for the Ukrainian arms industry as these are very effective tanks equipped with state-of-the-art tech, much of it combat proven.

Thailand ordered 49 Oplot-M tanks in 2011 and deliveries were slowed down but not halted by the Russian 2014 invasion. By 2017 most of the Oplot-Ms had been delivered to Thailand. The Thais were satisfied with their performance, noting that the air-conditioning system worked. That has not always been the case with Russia designed tanks.

Production priority was given to export orders because Ukraine discovered in 2014-15 that their older models could handle the latest Russian tanks. So far, the Ukraine army only has about six Oplot-Ms out of the 160 the army wants to get eventually. Ukraine spent a lot of money mobilizing defenses to stall the Russian offensive in the eastern Ukraine Donbas region.

To sustain operations against Donbas “rebels” working for Russia and Russian- manned modern Russian tanks, Ukraine was forced to quickly undergo rearmament using existing weapons production capabilities in Ukraine and coordinating repairs and refurbishment of existing equipment. Ukraine did receive some help from East European nations that had joined NATO after 1991 and still operated some Russian equipment from the Cold War era. Despite vigorous rhetoric from the European Union and United States, that support has been diplomatic and economic. EU and American help in modernizing the Ukrainian Armed Forces were token gestures because Russian threatened nuclear war if Ukraine got direct military support from the West or went ahead with plans to join NATO. Most of the work has been done by the Ukrainians themselves with some help from East European neighbors.

After 2014 Ukraine focused on refurbishment of the most modern existing equipment. The Ukrainian Army was already using 250 T-64BM “Bulat” tanks and 350 T-64BV tanks. Ukraine also has 1,000 T-64B tanks in storage. The T-64BM and T-64BV are upgrades of some of the 64Bs placed in storage after 1991. Ukraine had been upgrading 12 to 14 vehicles to the “Bulat” standard each year since 2007. This cost about $600,000 per vehicle.

Ukraine had so many Cold War era Russian tanks in storage that it could rely on these for a steady supply of replacement parts or components for refurbishing the 167 T-80 UD and 1,032 T-72 M1 tanks. Most of these tanks are still in storage. The vast majority of Ukraine’s T-80 and T-72 battle tanks were manufactured in Russia and parts were not available.

Initial battles in Donbas led to heavy losses of the existing T-64BV, so Ukraine began converting T-64B tanks to the T-64BM variant. Ukraine also began manufacturing key T-72 components and restoring the surplus (and in storage) T-72s to operational status. Ukraine noted that it could do an even better job of these T-72 refurbs and upgrades when they could depend on using components from Western firms. But those sources have been blocked since 2014. Ukraine found other sources, especially China. The Chinese wanted access to Russian weapons tech that Russia would not provide but that Ukraine possessed. Russia does not threaten China, which is its only ally these days.

 


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