February 22, 2018:
Since becoming independent in 1991 Ukraine has become one of the ten largest exporters of major conventional weapons. Rationale for this was that after 1991 the Ukrainian government cut defense spending, leaving few opportunities for domestic procurement. The newly independent Ukraine had inherited a surplus of military equipment that it didn’t have the ability to maintain. Since independence defense exports became one of the few ways the country can pay for its military suffered from much smaller defense budgets in the 1990s.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union Ukraine acquired an extensive collection of mostly modern combat vehicles. The T-54/55/62 main battle tanks, the conceptual heirs to the World War II T-34 tank were mainly in training units that tended to be further east, away from Ukraine which was considered a “front line” area of the Soviet Union. As such what Ukraine did have a lot of were more modern tanks like the T-80, T-72, and T-64.
Ukraine found there is a market for updated versions older tanks and other armored vehicles. This included production of a new, modernized version of the Soviet era T-72. Many of these upgraded T-72s were produced in the massive Ukroboronprom’s Kyiv factory in the last few years for the Ukraine Army, especially units facing Russian forces in the east (Donbas). Production concentrated T-72AB and T-72AMT models, enhancing them with the dynamic 'contact' protection system used on the T-64BV model. New BTR-3DAs have also been delivered, and numerous armored vehicles damaged in Donbas fighting have been restored and repaired.
Ukraine inherited 1,320 T-72 tanks from the Soviet Union. But because the manufacturing plant - Uralvagonzavod - was now in Russia, Ukraine decided to sell most of its T-72 tanks while maintaining the locally produced T-64s instead. Thus 863 T-72 tanks were sold to export customers between 1992 and 2015. The last delivery of 14 T-72 tanks to Nigeria took place after the fighting began in Donbas.
Until 2015 all Ukrainian T-72 tanks were fully equipped but spare parts all came from factories in Russia. After the conflict in Donbass broke out improvised parts production was started in Ukraine. By the end of 2016, Ukraine had about 300 T-72s, mostly older models, in service. The remaining inventory of T-72 tanks were in storage and available for use after some factory refurbishment. Only a small number of these vehicles took part in Donbas fighting and two were captured. One, a T-72B1 (the most modern T-72 in the country's arsenal) was described as a Russian T-72B3 by Ukrainian media and presented as evidence of Russian intervention. In early 2018 Ukraine has only 72 T-72 tanks operational although some 385 more remain in storage awaiting parts.
There were other problems. Ukraine had to concentrate on building a new version of the T-72 because the locally produced T-64 had performance problems and did not benefit much from upgrades. The T-72 was simply a better design. Although Ukraine has lost its former ability to produce new, modern tanks in large quantities, the armor vehicle industry does retain significant capabilities in the fields of repair and modernization.
The T-72 tank was considered by the Soviet military as a 'mobilization' tank, meant for second-tier divisions. Therefore, Soviet tank units within Soviet Ukraine and Crimea were primarily equipped with T-64 tanks, which was considered a “foundation” tank. In the early 1990s, the newly formed Ukrainian armed forces, which inherited a total of over 4,000 main battle tanks, only adopted the T-64s into service. T-72s were sent to the reserves, or used as training units. Ukraine also inherited 487 advanced T-80 tanks but over half of these were sold off to other countries in the 1990s. In 1991 Ukraine's inventory of modern tanks included 2,340 T-64s, approximately 1,320 T-72s, and 487 T-80s.
Among its inventory of T-64s, 227 are T-64R first generation tanks that required modernization and upgrades to prepare it for modern combat. Multiple T-64R tanks and 120 T-64BM “Bulat” tanks were updated for combat use against the Russian backed Donbas rebels. Current inventory in 2018 also includes 550 updated T-64BV tanks. There are an additional 1,000 T-64B tanks in storage that are considered “tier four” (bottom of the barrel) equipment and only useful as a source of spare parts.
During combat operations in eastern Ukraine in 2014 and early 2015, over 50 T-64s were captured by the rebels, with another 200 destroyed or damaged beyond repair. There are currently 670 combat-ready T-64s remaining in Ukraine's inventory. Accounting for the cannibalization for spare parts of stored vehicles and in the absence of significant combat losses, it is possible for Ukraine to maintain this level of combat ready tank operations in combat-ready condition for a relatively long time. However, getting new ones is out of the question.
Ukraine also operates 167 gas turbine powered T-80 tanks. In terms of components, these tanks have a lot in common with the T-64. The initial inventory that Ukraine had of these tanks was 487. But Ukraine sold 320 units to Pakistan for $650 million and these were delivered between 1997 and 1999. The remaining 167 T-80 tanks were put into long term storage in 2004 but because of the Donbas War in 2015, Ukraine decided to bring them back for frontline service after a complete overhaul. Restored T-80s are sent to Ukraine’s highly mobile assault forces. Each of the seven brigades of Ukraine's Airborne Troops is assigned a company of 10 T-80 tanks. To date, about 60 T-80s have been restored and delivered to the troops. Some 20- 40 more modernized T-80s will be delivered to the Ukrainian Army in 2018 and beyond. One caveat to the tank, however, is its use of a gas turbine engine, a finicky design requiring support from weapons maintenance specialists which are becoming increasingly difficult to find in the country.
Ukraine is also now producing its first indigenous tank, known as the T-84 “Oplot”. Ten T-84U tanks were produced before 2014 and were placed in storage. Six of these tanks are currently being restored to active service. The remaining four and ten additional T-84 tanks were ordered into service or production by Ukraine in February 2018. These tanks can certainly support Ukraine’s punitive military operations in the Donbas for the foreseeable future but in any possible conflict with Russia, Ukraine's tank forces would be immediately and hopelessly outmatched. – Ryan Schinault