Procurement: The T-64 Tragicomedy In Congo


August 12, 2017: In Congo it was recently revealed that Ukraine had delivered 25 refurbished T-64BV1 tanks for a 2104 order that was thought to be cancelled. The tanks apparently arrived, largely unnoticed, in late 2016. They showed up in mid-2017 patrolling rebellious areas in southwest Congo (Kasai province) where a local rebellion threatens the rule of a Congolese president who is attempting to become president-for-life. So far the government has failed to end that rebellion in large part because of popular opposition to the ambitious outlaw president. The T-64BV is known to be an effective modern design. At 39 tons it has good protection and effective weapons. But older and cheaper T-55s (which are still widely used) would have done the job in Kasai just as well.

T-64s showing up in Congo was unexpected on several levels. To appreciate that you have to understand how the T-64 (that entered service in 1966) came to be and why some were still being manufactured when the Cold War was ended.

There was another unexpected aspect to these T-64BV showing up in Congo. Fifty of them were ordered by Congo in early 2014, just as Russia began an effort to seize parts of Ukraine. In short order Russia took possession of Crimea in the south but was stopped by an unexpectedly robust Ukrainian resistance to a similar effort to seize a large part of eastern Ukraine (the Donbas region). It was thought that the Congolese T-64 order was cancelled as Ukraine scrambled to reinforce its army and get forces east to defend the Donbas (where the situation is still stalemated). But Ukraine needs the money and it is still unclear if they are going to deliver the rest of the T-64 order. The Soviet Union never exported the T-64, even though over 12,000 were produced between 1963 and 1987. Congo was paying $230,000 for each of the T-64BV1s. It is unknown if that included shipping costs.

Ukraine has been supplying Congo with hundreds of armored vehicles, plus artillery and other weapons since shortly after the current Congo president, Joseph Kabila, succeeded his assassinated father in 2001. Kabila the elder had been president since 1997 after a civil war that ended the rule of a decades old dictatorship. Congo has been fighting local warlords and various other rebel groups since 1997 and they had been content to buy less sophisticated Cold War era Russian weapons, which Ukraine has been a major supplier of since the 1990s. By 2014 it was believed that fewer than a thousand of the T-64s built were still in service. Most of the 13,000 T-64s built had been scrapped because there were cheaper, more reliable and easier to operate and maintain tanks available. But the price Congo paid was certainly low enough and perhaps the sales negotiations involved some well-placed bribes.

Ukraine has also been upgrading Cold War era Russian tanks a lot since it became independent from the Soviet Union in 1991. Those upgrades became more urgent and imaginative after 2014 when Russia began going after a lot of Ukrainian territory. By the end of 2015 the Ukrainians improvised and stalemated the surprised Russians. Many Russians still believed that Ukraine was an integral part of Russia. But most Ukrainians have never agreed and point out Kiev was the birthplace of Russian nationalism.

Why the T-64 has never been exported before has a lot to do with embarrassment. Russia has been trying to develop a radical new tank design since the 1960s. That resulted in the T-64, T-72 and T-80. The T-64 was innovative (first tank with 125mm smoothbore gun, autoloader and composite armor). But it was too complex to operate reliably and too much work for the three man crew to maintain in the field. The T-64 took over a decade of tinkering before it became reliable enough for regular service and by then (the mid-1970s) the upgraded T-72 was recognized as the best tank available from Russia (in terms of price, reliability and ease of use).

The only design that survived all the hype was the T-72, but it was not radically new, just a refinement of designs (especially the T-34) that appeared early in World War II and quickly replaced all competing designs and became the basis for all modern tanks (T-72, M-1, Leopard and so on). Russia was also embarrassed by the fact that the T-62 (an improvement on the post-World War II T-55) also suffered early problems with new tech. Meanwhile Western tank designs were appearing with even more innovative tech that actually worked. Russia finally made another effort to improve on the T-55/T-62 line with the T-72 in 1971. While successful it was inferior to current Western designs.

When it was clear (by the 1980s) that the T-72 was the best they had, several new versions appeared, not all of them Russian. But it was obvious (especially after several wars) that the T-72 was inferior to Western designs. Russia always wanted to create something radically new that worked. Sort of a T-34 for the 21st century. The T-64 (and a second attempt with the T-80) was a much publicized effort at a breakthrough design that never really lived up to all the hype. With the T-64 most of the breakthroughs broke down with embarrassing results. This was especially the case with the autoloader for the new 125mm gun. That allowed the crew to be reduced to three men. That was not enough to handle the higher maintenance demands of the autoloader and other new tech (engine, suspension system and so on.) Admitting failure was not seen as an option so production continued as did efforts (eventually successful) to get all the new tech working. The Soviets insisted these new technologies were too valuable to export. Meanwhile potential export customers found out about what really happened and there was never much demand anyway. Although both the T-62 and T64 were seen as unsuccessful designs the need to keep the tank factories working meant that about 35,000 of these two tanks were produced and the factories kept going into the 1980s.

That changed after 1991 when the Soviet Union dissolved into 14 new states (or restoration of older ones, like Ukraine). The dissolution deal was kept simple and any Soviet military assents ending up in the new nations belonged to them. Ukraine contained many Soviet era armored vehicle plants and inherited them when the Soviet Union dissolved. In addition Ukraine was a major mobilization area for the wartime Soviet army and ended up with thousands of modern tanks, including late model T-64s which, unlike the first models, actually performed quite well.

Meanwhile in 2014 Ukraine needed modern military equipment to fight the Russian-backed rebels in Donbas. Ukraine focused on its local resources to rebuild its armed forces. This was a necessity because most Western countries refused to supply Ukraine with weapons because Western leaders believed it would not help Ukraine on the battlefield and would simply escalate the conflict. Ukraine disagreed and in order to maintain a credible defense against the modern Russian weapons, often used by Russian troops pretending to be local rebels, Ukraine successfully rearmed itself with local resources. Despite the vigorous European and American rhetoric, their support was mostly diplomatic and economic. Foreign attempts to assist in modernizing the Ukrainian armed forces were also largely token gestures.

Ukraine needed new and improved armor vehicles and to obtain them quickly they refurbished existing equipment using their own resources. Emphasis was on armored vehicles, which Ukraine had lots of. Most were elderly but were little used in the past and still effective. The best tanks available to Ukraine in 2014 were 250 T-64BMs and 350 T-64BVs. Ukraine also has 1,000 older T-64B tanks in storage. Only the T-64BM and T-64BM were operational and were in use with the Ukrainian Army. Since 2007 Ukraine has been upgrading about one of the older T-64Bs to the T-64BM standard each month. This cost about $600,000 per T-64B. Ukrainian arms factories are also building the T-84 Oplot-M tank and 55 were in service by the end of 2015 and 120 more in 2016 at a cost of $3.7 million each.

Ukraine also began upgrading about 300 T-72B tanks held in reserve. These will become similar to the Polish PT-91. The official reason for this is that Ukraine wants the T-72Bs to meet NATO requirements but the upgraded tanks would also improve the defensive capabilities of the Ukrainian Army forces fighting in eastern Ukraine. The upgrade idea came as a result of Ukrainian military officials being given an opportunity to test some Polish PT-91s.

Ukraine sought to upgrade late-model T-64s for their own use as well as export. But the bad reputation of the T-64 persisted and in the meantime T-80s (basically a re-branded T-64 that turned out pretty well once it entered service in 1976. But the most attractive export model was the T-72 which was, especially after 1991, available, slightly used and at bargain prices. The reason for the Congolese purchase of the T-64s will eventually come to light and that will add yet another chapter to the sad, often tragic and occasionally comedic history of the T-64, the tank of the future that never quite made there.


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