Russia Unveils Much Improved T-72 Variant with T-90M Features: A Much Needed Survivability Boost

The Russian Army has begun fielding a new variant of the T-72 tank with much improved armour protection, which appears to have been developed in response to heavy losses among its T-72B3 and T-72B3M tanks primarily to man portable anti tank missiles in Ukraine. These older T-72 variants form the bulk of the country’s armoured units, and although built in the Soviet Union they were modernised within 21st century engines, armaments and fire controls from the early the 2010s under a low cost program. The new upgrade package, possible called T-72B4 or T-72B3M2, brings armour protection standards significantly closer to the levels seen on the Russian Army’s most capable tank the T-90M, which has reportedly proven much more survivable in Ukraine as evidenced by the state of those units which were destroyed in the theatre. Some of the clearest changes include stronger side armour, with armour over tracks closely resembling that of the T-90M. New smoke launchers have been installed, as has an iron mesh under the turret resembling the T-90M’s own. New anti-explosive protection around the smoke grenade launcher is also the first of its kind seen on a T-72. 

It remains uncertain how survivable the new T-72 variant will be against attacks from anti tank weapons, particularly American Javelin missiles of which Ukraine is by far the largest foreign operator, but it is likely that crew survivability will be significantly higher if, as on the T-90M, the tank’s ammunition is now isolated from the crew. Although Russia produces far more tanks than the rest of the world combined, excluding China and North Korea which have unknown outputs, the large majority have for the last 30 years been built for export forcing the Russian Army to rely on modernised Soviet built T-72s and T-80s in the large majority of its units. Should the latest upgrade package prove effective, which remains a significant possibility due to the T-72B’s large commonalities with the T-90, it could potentially be implemented very widely across over 1000 tanks – and eventually on several hundred more operated by overseas clients such as Belarus and India. Should it fail, however, it could force Russia to rely more heavily on bringing more T-90Ms into service and belatedly operationalising its much delayed T-14 next generation tank, or else to reduce its reliance on manned armour overall.