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T-72: The History Of Russia’s Once-Feared Now Failing Tank

How has the T-72’s once-vaunted armor become so vulnerable? It boils down to the so-called “jack-in-the-box” design flaw.

T-72 Russia Tanks in Ukraine. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
Russia's T-72 tank firing. Image Credit - Creative Commons.

According to the official website of The Tank Museum at Bovington Camp in South West England’s Dorset County, “The T-72 is the most widely used main battle tank in the world. It has been manufactured in six countries, is in service with the armies of 35 nations and has fought in all the major wars of the last 20 years.”

Indeed, 25,000 of these ubiquitous tanks have been built since the tank first entered production in 1970.

For the first two decades, it was also arguably the most feared MBT in the world.

However, heavy combat losses sustained in the past 30+ years, starting with the 1991 Persian Gulf War and more recently Vladimir Putin’s “special military operation” in Ukraine have done much to diminish the T-72’s luster. 

First Feared …

The Army Guide info page states, “The design work on their development was started in 1967 at the Urals Carriage Making Plant Tank Design Bureau under the supervision of L. Kartsev … However, L. Kartsev was not fated to see the tanks in mass production. The development work was continued by V. Venidiktov who succeeded L. Kartsev as chief designer … The tests of prototypes, developed in the town of Nizhny Tagil, confirmed their high effectiveness and reliability. In 1973 the tank was designated the T-72 and adopted for service.”

Two of the salient features of the tank are its low profile and its tough frontal armor. The former was made possible by eliminating the loader – who is literally a stand-up kind of guy who dictates the height of a tank – and replacing him with an auto-loader; besides making a smaller target and having a more efficient loading system, this also reduces the crew size to three (driver, commander, and gunner). Regarding the latter feature, the hull and turret front section is represented by multilayer armor panels that enable the tank to sustain hits from most types of high-velocity armor-piercing (HVAP) and high explosive antitank (HEAT) projectiles.

Another advantage of the T-72, at least in theory, is its ability to protect its crew from nuclear radiation. A September 14, 1982 article in The Christian Science Monitor in turn quoted an unspecified Soviet trade union newspaper, which claimed that the tank “reliably protects its crew from the shock waves, light radiation, and penetrating radiation of the nuclear blast.” That theoretical capability could, unfortunately, be put to the acid test if Putin does make good on his threat to use tactical nukes in Ukraine.

In terms of its ability to dish out punishment, the T-72 wields a 125mm smoothbore main gun backed up by a 12.7mm anti-craft machine gun and a 7.62mm coaxial machine gun. Speed is 60 to 75 kph (37 to 47 mph) and weight is 41.5 tons, which enables the tank to be – relatively – light on its feet compared against many NATO MBTs such as the French Leclerc, the British Challenger, and the American M1 Abrams. 

The T-72’s abilities to both take punishment and dish it out received the first combat test during the Iran-Iraq War, beginning in September 1980. Throughout this nine-year conflict, Saddam Hussein’s elite Republican Guard wielded the T-72 whilst regular Iraqi Army units were stuck with the older model T-62s and T-55s. The Guards’ T-72 indeed acquitted themselves quite well against Iranian armor; for example, early in the war, a battalion of T-72s completly destroyed an Iranian tank battalion comprised of British-made Chieftain tanks – leftovers from the reign of the Shah – without incurring a single loss. Indeed, one senior Iranian officer was quoted as saying “The T-72 has the maneuverability and firepower that British tanks” Chieftain “do not go to any comparison with it. Iran has no effective means of dealing with the T-72.”

The T-72’s reputation was further cemented during the 1982 Lebanon War. Whilst the Israelis and the Syrians alike engaged in a major propaganda pissing contest about how many Syrian T-72s were lost in the engagement, and moreover how many – if any – T-72s were killed by the IDF Merkava MBTs as opposed to TOW missiles, the bottom line is: (1) the Israeli’s rated the T-72’s armor as extremely tough to defeat from the front but somewhat easier to defeat on the flanks; and (2) the Syrians were very appreciative of their tanks, with that aforementioned CSM article citing stories of Hafez Assad’s troops hugging the armor of their MBTs “in gratitude.”

… to Faltering and Flopping

Then came the aforementioned Persian Gulf War, whereupon the T-72 ran afoul of the M1A1 Abrams and its supremely accurate and powerful 120mm main gun, wielding ammo with the range and power to go through Russian armor like a knife through butter. In particular, there was the Battle of 73 Easting on 26-27 February 1991, which is ofttimes described as “the last great tank battle of the 20th century.” It pitted the U.S. Army’s VII Corps against the Tawalkana Division of the Republican Guard, and it was an absolute turkey shoot for the American tankers; 160 Iraqi MBTs destroyed in exchange for zero American tanks killed. 

Fast-forward to the present conflict in Ukraine, and Russian-crewed T-72s are taking even more severe losses; though the exact number is impossible to pin down, being skewed by Russian and Ukrainian propaganda reports alike, many report that over half of Russia’s tanks have been destroyed. Putin’s T-72s are getting schwacked by everything from AT-4 man-portable antitank weapons to the famed Bayraktar drones

How has the T-72’s once-vaunted armor become so vulnerable?

It boils down to the so-called “jack-in-the-box” design flaw. As explained in a Washington Post article, “In these tanks, including the T-72, the Soviet-designed vehicle that has seen wide use in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, shells are all placed in a ring within the turret. When an enemy shot hits the right spot, the ring of ammunition can quickly ‘cook off’ and ignite a chain reaction, blasting the turret off the tank’s hull in a lethal blow.”

Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force Security Forces officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon). Chris holds a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Southern California (USC) and an M.A. in Intelligence Studies (concentration in Terrorism Studies) from American Military University (AMU). He has also been published in The Daily Torch and The Journal of Intelligence and Cyber Security. Last but not least, he is a Companion of the Order of the Naval Order of the United States (NOUS). In his spare time, he enjoys shooting, dining out, cigars, Irish and British pubs, travel, USC Trojans college football, and Washington DC professional sports.

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Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon).