A Russian language video recently appeared in which the new T-72B3M model was introduced and described. While the official most modern Russian tank is the T-90M, it is not the tank Russian crews prefer. The favorite is the T-72B3, which is as effective as the T-90 and lacks a lot of the additional features on the T-90 that don’t work, complicate operation of the tanks and the crews must maintain. The T-90 is for export customers and no Russian troops use the T-90 in peacetime. The new B3M model was described as having a lot more ERA blocks and other forms of protection. No mention was made of a solution to the T-72 vulnerability to top attack ATGMs that have caused the loss of nearly a thousand T-72s and T-90s in Ukraine. This vulnerability has existed since the auto-loader was introduced. While the auto-loader increased rate of fire for the 125mm main gun, and reduced crew size by one man, it also put many tanks shells in the crew compartment where the propellent charges and shells were vulnerable to any fire because it could cause the turret to explode, killing the entire crew.
Top attack ATGM warheads were introduced in 1988 by Sweden. The concept caught on with ATGM manufacturers and even the Russians eventually adopted it. For the Russians, top-attack ATGMs were not a wonder weapon because Western tanks did not use autoloaders and stored tank gun ammo in a special compartment at the rear of the turret. This ammo storage space has a “blowout” panel that directs an explosion in the ammo compartment towards the rear of the tank, not the crew compartment. Moreover, Western tanks had more effective turret top protection which usually defeats Russian top-attack ATGMs.
In Ukraine, the Russian tank top-attack vulnerability came as a surprise to Russian crews and soon the senior Russian commanders were dismayed at this revelation. Some Ukrainian troops, who had used Western top-attack ATGMS against Russian tanks in Donbas before the 2022 invasion, suspected that this vulnerability was widespread. No one believed the vulnerability was universal until all those invading Russian tanks had their turrets explode. This phenomenon soon caused many Russian tank crews to abandon undamaged T-72s and T-90s that were then captured by the Ukrainians who used them. Used against the Russians, the captured tanks were much less vulnerable to top attack because Russian forces did not have top-attack ATGMs as effective as the Western models. Ukrainian troops would still like to obtain Western tanks like the Leopard 2 and M1 but so far none of these have been sent to Ukraine.
Despite all this the T-90 remains a prestige model that is considered the best Russian tank available. Russian troops received the first batch of the new T-90M tank in early 2020. Those T-90Ms were supposed to appear in the May “victory (over Germany in World War II) day” parade. But that was canceled in April, despite being the special “75th Anniversary”, because of the covid19 virus risk. Neighboring Belarus went ahead and held its parade. Belarus, like Sweden and a few other nations, did not impose a covid19 quarantine, which was later found to be the best approach. Russian tank troops did not miss the T-90M because it was intended to please foreign (export) users of the T-90 and the M model was described as an essential upgrade.
The T90M was indeed a major upgrade of the original T90A as it incorporated lessons learned from the use of T-90As in Syria. The T-90M also addressed new developments in anti-tank weapons as well as introducing a more effective 125mm main gun and improved APS (active protection system). In terms of electronics, there is a new fire day/night control system plus digital communications that enable T90Ms to instantly exchange fire-control and other sensor data with each other in combat. There is also a new generation of ERA (Explosive Reactive Armor) that is designed to better defeat high-speed metal penetrator shells as well as dual-warhead HEAT (shaped charge) missiles and tank shells. This new generation Relikt ERA also includes protection for the top of the turret and rear deck (engine space). The need for better protection against top-attack dual-warhead shaped charge warheads was discovered the hard way in Syria. Relikt ERA is believed to provide at least 50 percent more protection than the current Kontakt-5 ERA found on existing T90As and the latest T-72s. The new 2А82-1М 125mm gun is the same one used in the new T-14 tank. This version of the smoothbore 125mm gun is longer and stronger and uses a more capable and reliable auto-loader. More powerful high-speed armor piercing shells can be used and the barrel lasts longer.
The need for an updated T90 became urgent after what happened to T90s sent to Syria in 2016. While the T90A incorporated a lot of new technology, it was still a 1980s project meant to incorporate T-80 features into many upgrades of the T-72. The T-90 was actually another such upgrade but so extensive that in the early 1990s it was rebranded as the T-90.
There was a major reality check after Russia gave Syria 30 T-90As in early 2016. These were immediately put to work fighting various rebel factions. What the Russians failed to note was that some of these rebels had the American TOW wire-guided missile. While the T-90A has defenses against most ATGMS, especially the ones that are laser-guided, these defenses were less effective against the wire-guided TOW. That was because the T-90A ATGM defenses consist of two systems. One is a “dazzler” that is connected to laser sensors on the tank. If the sensors detect a laser beam hitting the tank, the “dazzler” sends out a laser that disrupts the targeting laser and causes the ATGM, if it is headed for the front of the tank, to miss the target The second ATGM defense offers some protection against TOW because it consists of plates of ERA which explodes when hit by the HEAT warhead used by ATGMs. HEAT forms a super-hot plasma when it strikes something and the plasma can melt through most armor. The ERA explosion disrupts the formation of the plasma and prevents much of the penetration of the tanks’ metal armor. During the first incidents of ERA use against TOW, crews were seen abandoning the tank, even though the vehicle was shaken but not penetrated. Syrian crews came to fear even laser-guided missiles and would sometimes turn and try to get behind a building when the laser sensors alerted them that an ATGM was incoming. This was often a fatal mistake because it meant the dazzler was no longer aimed at the laser beam, which was now aimed at the side of the tank, which did not have ERA. The ATGM hit and the tank was destroyed. Worse, more recent models of the TOW have a “top attack” dual warhead to defeat the ERA by detonating as it goes over the tank and penetrating the thinner armor on top, which until the T90M lacked ERA protection. Many missiles without top attack do have dual warheads which are designed to defeat ERA. This involves the first warhead detonating the ERA while the second warhead goes off and does a lot of damage. Even with the better ERA on the T-90M, some of these dual warhead ATGMs can penetrate side and rear armor.
Even though the rebels didn’t have many top attack TOW missiles, Syrian troops, or at least their Russian and Syrian advisors, adapted and proceeded more cautiously when it was suspected that they were facing ATGMs, especially TOWs. Despite these precautions, six of the Syrian T-90s were lost to ATGMs since they first arrived in 2016. Another three T-90s were captured by rebels. Two of these were destroyed while being used by the rebels and the third one was recaptured. This highlights another problem the Syrian and Iraqi army shares; poorly trained and led troops. At this point, the Syrians avoid using their T-90s in close proximity to the enemy and the T-90s are less frequently seen in combat.
Iraq bought a large number of T90s and began receiving them in 2017. Against remaining ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) forces in Iraq, the T90s had bad experiences similar to what happened earlier in Syria. Russia attributed a lot of the T90 problems in Syria and Iraq to poorly trained and led crews. This is a valid complaint which the Russians have been using since the 1970s. But some of those Arab crews were quite good, survived combat and reported some very real problems with their Russian tanks.
The T-90 is one of many upgraded T-72s available on the market. Until 2003 the Iraqi Army operated hundreds of older T-72s, which proved no competition for the American M1. The T-90 has been produced in large quantities since the 1990s but not for Russia. It is mostly an export item. The T-90 was a late 1980s project that simply incorporated new features that had worked on the T-80, a failed replacement for the T-72. There were a lot of other new techs available and so many of those were incorporated into this new T-72 that it got a name change. Originally it was designated the T-72BU, but when Russia finally began production in 1993, it was renamed the T-90 in order to help with export sales. That succeeded in making the tank an export success with most (nearly 90 percent initially) of those produced going to export customers. In fact, India and Algeria each have more T-90s in service than Russia. Worse, the Russian Army quietly put over a third of its 550 newly-built T-90s into reserve.
While the T-90 was loudly proclaimed to be the next-big-thing, Russian officers and tank crews preferred the refurbished T-72s in the form of the T-72B3. These proved to be cheaper and more reliable than the T-90s, something that got little publicity. While all the upgrades (new engine, gun, fire control and protection) made T-72B3s nearly as expensive as the T-90A, it was preferred by the troops and the older officers quietly agreed that it was a better tank than the new T-90/T-72BUs. This apparently has something to do with the design of the T-72BU and the decline in manufacturing quality in the Russian defense industry after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. Since the T-72B3 was introduced in 2013 it has been produced in far greater numbers than any other tank and that continues. Especially telling was how T-90As began to be taken out of service (and put in reserve) as soon as enough T-72B3s became available. At the same time, the most popular Russian tank for export customers is the T-72B (a B3 with fewer of the upgrades). While T-72Bs cost nearly two million dollars each, they can be delivered in a few months after the contract is signed. The T-72B3 has been so popular with Russian troops that the government began giving it more publicity in the state-controlled mass media. The Iraqis don’t really care about the superiority of the T-72B3 because the T-90As are easier to obtain, do the job (usually fighting irregulars) and have large profits built in that allow for generous bribes to Iraqi officials who approve the purchase orders.
A potential problem with the T90M is that it incorporates even more very expensive equipment and is believed to cost nearly as much as the radical new T-14. The major reason the T-14 has not been produced in large numbers is the high-cost (over $5 million) per tank and the fact that it has no combat experience.