Tanks, for the Memories

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Are you tired of tanks yet?

The latest in passive Russian armored defensive measures…a cage over the top of the turret. Do they work? The Russians would seem to think that they do.


Loki’s Fire,  coming soon, just in time for your

Christmas shopping. 


The T-72 Russian Main Battle Tank v Iraqi T-72

I’ve heard a lot of criticism of the T-72. Some of is fair and some is not fair, so let’s delve. When the T-72 first rolled out, it faced the American M-48 or M-60 Patton. The M-1 Abrams were not present in significant numbers until 1982.

The T-72 Faced the American M-1 Abrams for the first time in the First Gulf War (Operation Desert:  Shield/Saber/Storm) and they didn’t face Russian armor, they faxed T-72 export armor for the most part. The export T-72’s were designed to be inferior to Russian armor so that if the Russians faced their own equipment, they’d prevail.

Iraqi T-72, circa 1989.

T-72 of the Red Army, circa 1989.

There are differences between the two models showcased above. The most noticeable difference is the lack of Kontakt-1 Reactive Armor bricks on the Iraqi export version.

Export T-72s didn’t have composite armor. Their armor was flat steel, with no laminate inserts. The actual maximum armor thickness of 300mm was the practical thickness of 300mm RHA. The Lion of Babylon and T-72M1 variants less common among the Iraqi ranks had additional applique/composite armor on the upper glacis and turret fronts, but ultimately this wouldn’t make a big difference to the contemporary Russian and American APFSDS penetrators.

Even the 25mm Bushmaster APFSDS round from the M2 Bradley, which had a penetration of 100mm RHA and was intended for use against light armored vehicles and helicopters, was able to destroy Iraqi T-72s.

Russian T-72s of the comparable era had ceramic rods inserted into the turret armor. These strengthened the armor against impact, decreasing weight while adding effective protection. Russian T-72s had a practical thickness of 540mm of RHA vs APFSDS with the Kontakt-1 ERA. The Iraqi APFSDS rounds would have no effect on Russian T-72s and had none on the Abrams.

The Iraqi T-72’s electric turret rotating mechanisms were worn out from constant use, desert environment, and lack of maintenance, causing many crews to have to manually crank the turrets; the optics were inferior and they had no thermal vision, (The Russians called them “monkey” tanks for a reason).

The big problem with the Iraqi T-72 wasn’t the tank; it was the ammo. Russia exported APFSDS rounds for the 125mm gun-but the penetrator rods were made of soft steel instead of tungsten or depleted uranium. They had a penetration capability of around 250mm of RHA, not enough to pierce the frontal armor of a Russian T-72, let alone an Abrams.

Contemporary Russian APFSDS rounds were made depleted uranium (or tungsten)-nickel-iron alloy, and could penetrate between 450–650mm of RHA, depending on the variant.

These rounds are capable of penetrating the frontal hull armor of the Abrams in places.

The second problem with the Iraqi T-72s was the crew. They were poorly trained, much worse than Russian tank crews. Additionally, the tanks were horribly maintained, since they had been on the move through the desert for months prior without receiving proper maintenance. Spare parts were in critical shortage.

All in all, Iraqi T-72s were technologically 20 years out of date. Their main force weren’t even T-72s, only the Republican Guard and Saladin divisions used them.

They were facing a force equal in number of practically brand new M1A1 Abrams, operated by well-trained crews.

Their tactics were bad. The Iraqis decided to “dig in” all of their T-72s.

A destroyed, poorly dug-in Iraqi T-72.

You can see just from this image that whoever dug in this tank didn’t seem to think that it would need to fire. The main gun was still elevated and not on target when it was destroyed. Their armor was so bad that the APFSDS rounds of the Abrams could penetrate through the pile of sand and still destroy the tank.

Additionally, the optics of the Iraqi T-72s were inferior to the Abrams’ thermal optics, and many were also damaged or rendered useless by the harsh desert conditions. Many of them simply couldn’t see any Abrams to engage. They were literally sitting ducks; as good as target practice.

Whoever was in charge of the Iraqi tactics did not think this through at all.

The crew of this “Lion of Babylon” did the smart thing and surrendered.

Russian tactics stressed mobility. Had they been in charge of planning a defense like this, they would have kept all of their tanks mobile. A small division of T-72s would be positioned in front of the Abrams and Bradleys, while two larger formations would flank the attacking formation in a pincer movement, and strike their weak sides while they were engaging the first division.

(Zulu horns of the buffalo attack)

If the Abrams had faced a proper Russian division of T-72s at 73 Easting, the outcome would be pretty indeterminable. Russian tactics differed vastly from the Iraqi tactics, most of the Iraqi tanks weren’t even T-72 export models- They were Chinese Type 69 export models, copies of T-55s. 

The Russian T-72 is still an inferior tank to the Abrams, but this is compensated for with its low cost, simple mechanical complexity, and good trainability. Admittedly, they do have a nasty habit of cooking off and killing the crew, but upgrade kits should mitigate danger of penetration. Most of the penetrating hits that are capable of detonating the ammunition would kill the crew anyway.

The Russian T-72 is still a decent opponent when upgraded with the latest Relikt reactive armor, better optics and ammunition. Some T-72s have even received the “Arena” Active Protection System Package, something that very few Abrams have.

Over 25,000 T-72s have been produced, and are still being produced. An M1 Abrams has a top speed of 72 km/h, a T-72 has a top speed of 80 km/h. A single T-72 costs 2 million dollars to make. A single M1 Abrams costs 9 million.

The T-72 is much more susceptible to “cooking off” if hit, because its two-part ammunition is stored directly below the turret ring, practically inside the crew compartment. If hit by a penetrating shot, the ammunition tends to explode and blow the turret off in a spectacular fashion, killing the crew.

This happened quite a lot.

Is having 4 T-72s for every Abrams, price-wise, a fair trade? Some would say that quantity has a value all its own.

(below) Modernized T-72B3s in service with the Russian Army.

17 thoughts on “Tanks, for the Memories

  1. Thank you very much for this outstanding article!
    It should be basic teaching material at any Armour School in NATO.
    Very well done indeed!

    1. Martin, as a Navy guy I didn’t ever ride in them. In the Gulf War, I was part of a group that called down fire on them and they didn’t do well in the face of A-10 Warthogs, AH-64 Apaches. or tube artillery.

      The Army would invite me to leave the classroom and get back to teaching planned political kidnapping.

  2. The equipment and tactics would be a step up , but I wonder what the intangibles of crew training and familiarity would do too.
    My dad has a book somewhere about US armor training just prior to the Gulf war. Made fascinating reading. Something like dragons in the sand? Wish I could remember the title!

    1. There was a lot of arrogance on the part of the Iraqi officers who listened to Baghdad Bob on the radio and swallowed the Kool-Aid. They entered the war thinking that they’d be victorious, and it turned bad for them. The tanks they rode were junk even by Russian/Soviet standards. Even a DIRECT close-range shot from their gun using the faulty ammo that the Russians sold them wouldn’t dent the armor of a US M-1, a LeClerc, or even a RUSSIAN T-72.

      They were cannon fodder.

  3. “Is having 4 T-72s for every Abrams, price-wise, a fair trade? Some would say that quantity has a value all its own.”

    American tanks of WWII were not even close to the level of the superior German tanks. However, what we had that the Germans did not have was lots and lots and lots of them! When you can take on a Tiger with 4 Shermans….Tigers died.

  4. Interesting note- The third T-72 destruction picture ‘seems’ to show Kontakt-1 blocks on the glacis and the bottom front of the turret. Possible???

    And as you know, typical of the USSR/Russians export plan. Basic system similar, but not up to ‘home front’ quality. This pretty much ran across the entire export spectrum including ships, aircraft, subs, and armament/missile systems.

  5. Watched some brand new tanks being delivered on our post in West Germany in 1977. They had the new laser range finding system. IIRC, they were M-60A2’s.

  6. I remember what I believe to be M-60a3’s at Ft Carson in the early 80’s. I think they started bringing in the Abrams right around that time but didnt the 1st versions have 105 mm cannons?

  7. We know the A-10’s turned the Iraqi tanks to Swiss Cheese, but how do you think they’d do againts the first rate Soviet tanks?

    1. Same. A-10s can take out an Abrams. Abrams is tougher than the Russky’s stuff. Therefore…

  8. That basket on top? Anti-Javelin armor? Tells you the Russians are more worried about ATMs than they are in trying to be stealthy.

    1. Not just Javelin, anti- any top-attack munitions. Plausibly even helps against things like guided mortar rounds and air-dropped EFP type things.

      Also helps a lot against Chechens up in buildings with RPGs.


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