Murphy's Law: Russia Catches Up On The Cheap

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August 16, 2021: In July the Russian army received the first of 80 T-80BVM tanks they were told they would receive this year. The 43-ton T-80 was an unsuccessful effort to produce a new tank that would eventually replace the 42-ton T-72. While not a failed design, like the earlier T-62 and T-64, the innovative T-80, the first Russian tank with a gas-turbine engine, promised more than it could deliver. The T-80 entered service in 1976, three years after the T-72. These two tanks were designed by rival tank development teams. From a distance the T-72 and T-80 appear similar and that was because both use the same weapons and tank design concepts all Russian Cold War era tanks were expected to use. The gas-turbine engine wasn’t enough and while a successful design, only 5,700 were built so far, compared to over 25,000 T-72s.

The T-80 was about 20 percent more expensive than the diesel-powered T-72 as well as being faster and more maneuverable because of the gas-turbine engine. On the downside, a gas-turbine burned fuel much faster and that meant the T-72 had 75 percent more range than the T-80. The heavier and better protected American M1 also used a gas-turbine engine but the additional fuel needs were manageable because the U.S. had a better logistics system. Despite that, most nations prefer to stick with diesel engines.

The T-80 had lots of fans but most Russian export customers were on very tight budgets and the cheaper T-72 was preferred. Russia continues to upgrade the T-80 to keep it competitive with the T-72, which is still the favorite with Russian users. Better is not always the most popular.

That attitude is being exploited by Russia because of much reduced post-Cold War procurement budgets. For example, in early 2021 Russia announced that the army will receive over 400 upgraded tanks and IFVs (infantry fighting vehicles) in the coming year but none will be the new T-14 Armata tank and T-15 Armata IFV. Upgraded tanks like the T-80BVM are filling the gap for the missing T-14s. The Armata is a radical new design for tanks and IFVs but is too expensive given the defense budgets available. This is due to a 2013 plunge in oil prices that did not recover while the 2014 Ukraine invasion resulted in many economic and trade sanctions. Since then, the Russian replacement program for elderly Cold War era gear has had to settle for more rebuilt than brand new stuff. Russia does plan to start building more T-14s in 2022 or maybe late 2021, unless the procurement budgets suffer more cuts because of the poor state of the economy.

Most of the “new” tanks the Russian army has received since 2000 have been refurbished and much upgraded T-72B3s. Currently the Russian Army has about 3,000 tanks in service and most (65 percent) are T-72B3s, which you hear little about. Russian troops prefer the T-72B3M over the T-80 and T-90 and few have any personal experience with the T-14.

Since 2013 the army has been receiving an updated version of the old BTR-80 wheeled armored personnel carrier, the 8x8 BTR-82A. While the United States abandoned wheeled armored vehicles after World War II, Russia kept theirs and constantly improved their BTR series. The BTR-80 appeared at the end of the Cold War (in 1986). While not as heavy or as high tech as the American Stryker, the BTR vehicles are popular with many nations, especially for use by police and paramilitary forces. The current export model of the BTR-80 is the BTR-90.

The 15-ton BTR-82A is armed with a 30mm autocannon in a turret. This weapon is stabilized, enabling it to fire accurately while the vehicle is moving. There is also a 7.62mm machine-gun. The BTR-82A has a fire suppression system and a floor built to better protect the three crew and seven passengers from mines and roadside bombs. The hull incorporates a Kevlar layer to provide better protection against shell and bomb fragments. The BTR-82A has an improved engine, electronics, and is amphibious.

Then there are the older tracked IFVs. In mid-2017 Russia ordered 540 upgraded BMP-2 and BMD-2 IFVs as part of its 2018-2025 military modernization program. Upgrading the current fleet of BMPs and BMDs will take time as 540 vehicles are a small portion of 4,000 BMP-2 and BMD-2 IFVs in service and part of the modernization. The BMP upgrades are mainly about improving firepower and fire control capabilities while other areas like armor and mobility remain relatively unchanged. The 14.6-ton BMP-2 and 11.5-ton BMD-2 were designed in the 1980s as upgrades or successors of the original BMP-1 from the 1960s. The BMP-2 needs major mechanical and engine upgrades to support other weight increases. That’s why the BMP-2M weighs about 15 tons and basically has a new turret and fire-control system. The lighter BMD-2 is for airborne forces but is otherwise similar to the BMPs. BMD deliveries were soon completed but the upgraded BMP-2M will take much longer. The BMP-3M IFV features the new Berezhok turret, fitted with four ready-to-launch Kornet ATGMs (laser guided anti-tank missiles) in two twin launchers on each side of the turret. Kornet's range is 5,500 meters and is much easier to use than older Fagot or Konkurs single tube ATGMs previously used on IFVs. Not only were these older systems outdated versus more capable enemy IFVs, but with only one ATGM launch tube, it had to be reloaded manually by the crew. That was difficult and dangerous in combat. With four ready-to-fire missiles, reloads are less of a problem. In addition, the new ATGM is the Kornet, which can fire a two-missile salvo at one target. The 30mm cannon received improved stabilization. There is also a remote-controlled weapon station fitted with a 3 mm automatic AGS-30 grenade launcher. The commander/gunner sight, thermal imagers, missile guide channel and laser rangefinder will receive upgrades as well. All these improvements increase BMP-2 weight by half a ton. Nearly half of that is missiles and ammunition for the AGS-30. Meanwhile the airborne BMD-2M received similar weapons upgrades but with only two Kornet missiles and a new name’ BMD-4M.

These upgrades will dramatically improve BMP-3 and BMD-4 firepower capabilities and make them equal or superior to Western vehicles like the PUMA, CV90 or VBCI. This creates an interesting situation in which Russia will have a very well armed but poorly protected IFV compared to western designs which lack firepower (no ATGMs on CV90 or VBCI). This upgrade seems like a desperate attempt to modernize their mechanized forces because the new Armata tank and IFV are untried in combat and cost more than twice as much as the vehicles they replace. Russia has, for years, allowed the Armata based vehicles to remain in development while problems are discovered and worked out, and more money becomes available to mass produce them.

 


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