Ukrainian tanks could be better than Russian ones. It might not matter.


The Russian army has massed around 1,200 tanks for a possible invasion of Ukraine. The tanks include the latest T-90s and upgraded T-72s.

Across the border, the Ukrainian army has mobilized its own tanks for a possible defensive campaign. Ukraine has some of the same tank models as Russia, but the one in Kiev better tank – an updated T-64 – is Ukrainian only.

In Soviet doctrine, which the Russian and Ukrainian armies follow, tanks rarely fight tanks. But if and when Russia openly invades Ukraine and sharply escalates the frozen seven-year conflict in eastern Ukraine, tanks on both sides will play a key role in attack and defense, helping to shape the battlefield so that the decisive force – the artillery – can do its terrible job.

The possible war ahead would test Ukraine’s mainstay, the T-64BV, and by implication Kiev’s approach to tank purchasing.

The T-64 is a quirk from the Cold War. Designed by the Kharkov Tank Factory in Ukraine, the 40-ton vehicle was a huge improvement over the existing T-55 and T-62 tanks when it entered service in the mid-1960s.

The T-64 introduced a number of advancements, including a new diesel engine. It also replaces the human magazine with an automatic device for ramming shells into the breech, reducing the overall crew to just three people and saving weight.

The T-64 was the first Soviet tank to feature the now standard 125-millimeter smooth-bore cannon, which in upgraded T-64Bs can fire a guided missile through its tube.

The Soviets never exported the T-64, preferring to sell cheaper and simpler T-55s, T-62s and T-72s. During the last decades of the Cold War, thousands of T-64s outfitted the Soviet armies, ready to wage an apocalyptic tank war with American M-1s, German Leopards and British Challengers.

The T-64 was more than adequate for the task. “This particular tank had some more advanced capabilities than NATO tanks that wouldn’t appear for another 15 or 16 years,” US Army Major James Warford wrote in a 1992 thesis.

The T-80, an improved T-64 with composite armor and a gas turbine replacing the diesel engine, appeared in the mid-1970s. When the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, Ukraine inherited hundreds of T-64 … and the factory that built the guy.

Russia, for its part, has retained thousands of T-64s and T-80s, but their numbers have steadily declined over the years. Today, the Russian military has abandoned most of the T-64 variants in favor of the T-72 models, which are easier to build and maintain. The latest variant of the T-72, the T-90, borrows some of the best features of the T-80, including composite armor, but retains the basic automotive systems of the T-72.

In short, Ukraine as an accident in history ended up with the most complex and conceptually advanced type of tank, while Russia – by far a far bigger and richer country – ended up with the more complex and conceptually advanced type of tank. installed on the less sophisticated but more practical tank.

Kiev initially struggled to maintain and modernize its T-64s. The government began modernizing the 1983 T-64BMs in 1999. The resulting T-64BM Bulat benefits from improved reactive armor, a new gun and a locally made night sight.

Bulat’s production was slow. When Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014 and subsequently supported anti-government separatists in Ukraine’s Donbass region, the Ukrainian army went to war primarily against the old 1985 T-64BVs in its inventory. Less than a hundred Bulats were available.

The war has been hard on the Ukrainian Armored Corps. Last year, the military revealed that 440 of its tanks were destroyed or damaged in Donbass between April 2014 and June 2016. Artillery, including rockets and mortars, was responsible for most of the losses.

Perhaps anticipating open war with the Russians, Kiev made a serious commitment in 2017 to modernizing its surviving tanks. The Kharkov plant started producing T-64BV mod 2017 with improved night sights, satellite navigation systems, new radios and better reactive armor. In 2019, a second factory, in Lviv, also started producing the new T-64 variant.

Today, the Ukrainian Armored Corps has 410 old T-64BVs, 210 T-64BV mod 2017, 100 T-64BM Bulat and around 130 T-72. A thousand additional tanks are in storage.

The improved T-64s are, in principle, technologically superior to most Russian tanks. But there is no point in comparing one tank to another when the two might never meet in battle.

Tanks are tools of broader combined arms operations. Battalions maneuvering or digging alongside the infantry, all in order to position their support artillery for the best effect. Planning, training, leadership and discipline on the battlefield are all more important than the finer points of one piece of equipment or another.

Against this background, the question remains open as to how well the Kiev T-64s could perform in a larger operation when their crews are under enormous stress and, by extension, how they could fare in a larger operation. total war with the much larger Russian army with its own, probably less sophisticated tanks but much more numerous.

Hopefully we’ll never find out.

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