Russian Army Receives New T-90M Tanks: An Asset Much Needed to Confront NATO?

The Russian Army has received a new batch of T-90M ‘Breakthrough’ main battle tanks from the Uralvagonzavod company, which other than experimental units of T-14 Armatas represents by far the most capable tank class in the Russian Military. Preceding the outbreak of the Russian-Ukrainian War in February, the Russian Defence Ministry had planned the acquisition of approximately 600 T-90Ms, although the bulk of these would be developed by modernising older T-90s already in service. The tank first entered service in the Russian Army in April 2020 after testing was completed two months prior, with notable features including integration of the new 2A46M-5 gun and Kalina fire control system, use of Afghanit active protection system and Relikt explosive reactive armour, and extra armour isolating ammunition from the remainder of the tank which makes the vehicles far less prone to exploding. This final advantage was demonstrated in Ukraine, where the sole destroyed T-90M tank seen in May appeared far more in tact than most of the T-72s and older T-90 variants that were lost in the theatre. The tank is not only far more survivable, but also maintains much better situational awareness particularly due to its network centric warfare capabilities and array of modern thermal sights, while its new main gun allows it to deploy many new kinds of rounds. 

It remains uncertain how the Russian-Ukrainian War and accompanying rise in tension with NATO will impact the T-90M program, with much likely depending on how Russia assesses the performance of its current armoured units based primarily around T-72B3/B3M. Progress on the T-14 program, and the tank’s affordability in terms of both its acquisition and its operational costs, will also be a factor as will the sustainment of high oil prices which have increased Russian state revenues considerably. Although the T-90M was long seen to provide parity with the most capable tanks in NATO, with alliance members other than Britain all dependant on tank designs from the early 1980s or late 1970s such as the Leopard 2 or M1 Abrams, moves by Poland and Turkey to acquire more capable vehicles from South Korea in very large numbers has led to the possibility of a very steep Russian disadvantage should it fail to invest in the T-14. Turkish plans to acquire close to 1000 Atlay tanks, a derivative of the South Korean K2 built under license, and Polish plans to also acquire close to 1000 K2s and order more capable K3 tanks in future, represents the leading threat to Russian armour superiority with further sales of the advanced Korean vehicles to NATO states remaining highly possible. The K2 and T-14 are currently considered effectively in a league of their own in terms of performance, and the Korean tank’s deployment in Poland in particular may well influence assessments of the future viability of the T-90M.