Forces: Making The Old New Again


January 9, 2021: In late 2020 Serbia revealed that it had received the first of thirty T-72B1MS tanks from Russia, which provided the tanks at a heavily discounted price. This is a significant upgrade to the Serbian armored force, which currently consists of 236 operational tanks, all older variants of the T-72. Most of these are the 41-ton M-84AS1, is a local T-72 upgrade manufactured in Yugoslavia, the Cold War-era Balkan state that violently came apart in the 1990s. Serbia was the largest component of Yugoslavia and basically ran things, including the program to build weapons locally, instead of importing whatever Russia had available.

One unique feature of the M-84S1 was its advanced, for the time, fire control system developed and manufactured in Yugoslavia. Some 650 M-84S1s were produced from 1984 to 1999. Production was limited to Serbia after 1991 and the tank was more expensive to build because many of the 240 component suppliers were in non-Serbian parts of the former Yugoslavia and now independent, and not willing to support continued M-84 production. Serbia and Croatia did continue upgrading their M-84s and some exported ones until 2003. This was to continue the Yugoslavia-era policy of doing upgrades that  export customers wanted. By 2003 there was not much demand for those upgrades and it was clear that the old Yugoslav tank industry was not going to be revived.  . 

What makes the T-72B1MS variant unique is its battle management system and a more advanced fire control system with thermal sights for the commander and gunner. The MS has better reactive armor than the M-84 as well as other modern features like component monitoring, which alerts users when components are due maintenance or replacement. While the M-84 was seen as a superior T-72 in the 1980s, by 2012, when the T-72B1MS was introduced it was clear that the M-84 could no longer compete.

Many nations have continued to develop more capable T-72 variants, especially China. What makes each T-72 variant different is the quality of the components used. The T-72 was the most successful Russian post-World War II tank design and the basic model was pretty solid and reliable. The T-72 also proved to be a good platform for variants that added new (or more) armor, better electronics and improved engines that resulted in some impressive tank models. The most outstanding of these has been the Russian 46-ton T-72B3. As proof, consider that 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. The new breakthrough design, the T-14, has fewer than a hundred in service and cuts in production, which began in 2015, were followed by an announcement that only 10-20 a year were being built. The T-14 is mostly about publicity. Before the T-14 there was the T-90, which has been produced in large quantities, but not for Russia. The T-90 was a 1980s project that was to incorporate T-80 features into many upgrades of the T-72. Originally it was designated the T-72BU but when Russia finally began production in 1993 it was renamed the T-90 for marketing purposes. That succeeded in making the tank an export success and most (84 percent) of those produced were for export. In fact, India and Algeria each have more T-90s in service than Russia. Worse Russia has quietly put over a third of its 550 T-90s into a reserve. While the T-90s were loudly proclaimed to be the next big thing, the Russian army preferred the T-72B3. The B3 proved to be more reliable, something that got little publicity. While all the upgrades, including new engine, gun, fire control and protection, made it nearly as expensive as the T-90, 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.

The best Chinese T-72 mod is the Type 99, which is 25 percent heavier than the T-72B3 and even more expensive to build. That’s because the Type 99 has better armor protection and electronics. The Chinese can afford this because of their much larger GDP while the Russians cannot. It’s as simple as that and the main reason China is surpassing Russia militarily. Chinese manufacturing capabilities are also, on average, superior to what the Russians had when the Cold War ended and for tank design and production that makes a big difference.

India and Pakistan have not been able to match Russian or Chinese production standards or development capabilities, which is largely due to corruption and government regulations that make it difficult to innovate and excel. Most of the best South Asian (India and Pakistan) design and production talent moves to the West. A glance at the design and development stars in the West, especially the United States, shows a lot of these South Asians playing leading roles. China managed to keep more of this talent at home and even attract some that had settled in the West to return. In the end high-tech, like everything else, is about the people creating it.

An example of how this works could be seen in nations that tried to develop upgraded T-72s and failed. For example, in early 2020 Pakistan became the first export customer for the Chinese VT4/MBT-3000 tank equipped with ERA (Explosive Reactive Armor) that can defeat or degrade most kinds of anti-tank weapons. This includes high-speed metal penetrators. Superior ERA, as well as modern electronics are the two things that make for a better T-72 variant. This was Pakistan admitting that its tank development project had failed.

Pakistan had been trying to create its own tank development and production capability but gave that up back in 2018 and ordered the first batch of VT4s in 2019. Pakistan would like to get several hundred. That depends on the Pakistani economy, which is in bad shape and getting worse. China expects to be paid on time for arms shipments.

Once Pakistan decided to get out of the tank manufacturing business, the army placed an order for a hundred 52-ton VT4 tanks. This is an updated version of the 330 46-ton VT1/Al Khalid tanks Pakistan already has. The Al Khalid was a joint China-Pakistan project to create a Pakistani tank that could be built in Pakistan. Basically, the Al Khalid was a variant of the Chinese VT1, which is also known as the MBT2000. The VT1 was the export version of the Chinese Type 90 tank. Actually, the Type 90, another improved T-72, was not accepted by the Chinese army, which instead went with the 54-ton Type 99, a superior T-72 variant that entered service in 2001, underwent a major upgrade (the 58-ton Type 99A) in 2011 and is still in production with over a thousand in service so far. China would have built more Type 99s were the tank not so expensive at nearly $3 million each. There are more than twice as many cheaper 43-ton Type 96 tanks in service. These cost about half as much as the Type-99 and are considered adequate for most potential battlefield opponents. The VT4 is similar to the Type 99 in size, performance and price.

The VT1 entered service first in 2001 equipped with Ukrainian engines and a few other imported items but was mainly Chinese. The Al Khalid had trouble finding an engine that could handle the desert conditions on the Indian border where Indian and Pakistani tank battles tend to be fought. Because of these delays, Pakistan bought 300 Ukrainian T-80UD tanks, which are upgrades of a Russian Cold War design that could handle hot, sandy environments. That was mainly because of its Ukrainian built engine which Pakistan also ultimately bought for its Al Khalid.

The rest of Pakistan’s 2,000 tanks are based on much older (1950s) Russian models, with some upgrades. Pakistan also looked at the latest Ukraine had to offer but decided to go with China, which has access to more advanced tech than Ukraine and is willing to be competitive when it comes to price. This confidence in China was based on how the 2012 agreement worked out. For that deal, Pakistan and China also agreed to jointly market the Al Khalid tank. There were no customers because there were a lot of improved T-72s on the market, including the Chinese MBT-2000. Al Khalid was more expensive to develop because Pakistan began the project in 1991 and made a lot of mistakes. The Al Khalid ended up costing ten percent more than the MBT-2000 and Pakistan was unable to keep its costs under control. When it came time to develop and install a major upgrade for Al Khalid, it was pointed out that China already had what Pakistan wanted in the VT4. In the end the Al Khalid demonstrated why Pakistan has never been a major player in the arms export business and this deal with China was more for show than anything else. Same thing with the JF-17 jet fighter joint development that resulted in an expensive variant of the American F-16.

Pakistani tanks have always sought some kind of superior protection. That is important on the battlefield and ERA has become a lot more effective than other forms of protection. ERA is a block of explosives that explodes when hit by solid metal warheads or the HEAT warhead used by ATGM (Anti-tank guided missiles), RPGs and some tank gun projectiles. HEAT forms a superhot 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.

First developed by Russia in the 1960s, other nations, like Israel, also adopted and further developed the concept. Soon ERA was also able to stop the more common high-speed metal penetrator-type warheads. There are now many types of ERA and China does not export all of them. Pakistan is China’s largest export customer and often the first to get new Chinese military tech.

In response to ERA, many current models of the ATGMs have a “top attack” warhead that defeats ERA by detonating as it goes over the tank and penetrating the thinner armor on top, which also lacks ERA. The only protection against this is an expensive APS (Active Protection System). China has one, the GL5 PS, in development and the VT4 tanks are among the first to receive it if the customer wants to pay half a million dollars and add a ton of weight to each APS equipped tank. At the moment GL5 is only meant for exported tanks. China cannot afford to equip its own tanks, at least not yet.

During the first incidents of ERA use against ATGMS, crews were visibly alarmed because their armored vehicle was shaken by ERA detonations, though  not penetrated by warheads. Since then, crews of ERA-equipped tanks are usually shown a video of ERA testing, including the interior of tanks when the ERA goes off. ERA exploding is still a danger to nearby troops and civilians but in practice this has not been a major problem. Experience in Syria demonstrated that modern ERA designs are effective and that is why Russia spends so much to design new or upgraded tanks with the latest ERA designs.




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