Procurement: When The Best Just Won't Do

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June 16, 2011: Ethiopia is buying 200 T-72 tanks from Ukraine. These will cost $500,000 each. Second hand T-72s are still big business. Not just the tanks themselves, but also refurbishing and upgrading them. For example, last year Russian firms were hired to upgrade 200 Libyan T-72s. The Libyans were also buying about 40 Russian T-90 tanks, but it was believed more cost-effective to refurbish some of their T-72s, rather than buy a lot more new tanks. The T-72s to be upgraded were purchased recently. Nearly 2,000 Russian tanks (315 T-72s, 170 T-62s and the rest T-55s) were bought by Libya in the last 40 years. These are mostly junk now, as Libya never had sufficient qualified personnel to maintain them. This particular deal is now dead, because of the civil war in Libya. This explains continued Russian support for the Libyan government.

The Russian T-72 tank is one of the most widely used tank ever. Over 25,000 were built, by several countries. This was more than any model in World War II. Ironically, the T-72 was a stopgap design, intended to provide a replacement for the more advanced T-64, which was not successful. Production began in 1972, and the T-72 entered service in 1976. Compared to the earlier T-62 and T-64, the T-72 was successful. It was reliable and combat ready, or so it was thought. In 1982, Syrian T-72s went up against Israeli Merkavas. The Syrians lost badly. In 1991, Iraqi T-72s were helpless against American M-1 tanks, and M-2 Infantry Fighting Vehicles.

Despite these defeats, the T-72 remained popular. Partly because it was so cheap. Cold War surplus vehicles, in running (if not fighting) condition, could be had for as little as $100,000. The vehicle was still popular because of its reliability. Most nations never expected to use their T-72s in combat, but it was more useful for them to be in running condition in peacetime, when they could control unruly civilians, or at least look good in parades.

Another reason for the popularity of the T-72 is the large number of upgrades available. While the basic T-72 was pretty unimpressive, a few upgrades can turn it into a much more formidable (and expensive) tank. For example, modern, computerized, fire control systems, with laser range finders and night-vision sights, and quality ammunition, transforms a T-72 into a very lethal system. While such a tank would still get blasted by an M-1, if the T-72 spotted the M-1 first, and got a flank shot, it could win. The T-72 is also a very mobile vehicle, about on a par with the famously nimble M-1. But protection is always going to be a problem.

The stock T-72 is a 41 ton vehicle that is 7.4 meters (23 feet) long, 3.6 meters (11 feet) wide and 2.45 meters (7.5 feet) high. An M-1 is 62 tons, 10 meters (32 feet) long, 3.7 meters (12 feet wide) and 2.6 meters (eight feet high). The extra weight of the M-1 is mostly armor, and from the front, the M-1 is still very difficult to kill. To survive, a T-72 not only needs to accessorize, but requires a well trained crew. Most nations using T-72s, don't like to invest in crew training. But that's what makes the most difference in combat.

The T-72 is surviving into the 21st century because Russia's new T-90 was, again, 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. Weighing 47 tons, the T-90 is still the same dimensions as the T-72. Same package, better contents. And with well trained crews, it could be deadly.

For Ethiopia, the T-72 is adequate. No neighboring countries have better tanks, and the T-72 is useful against rebels.

 


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