Evolution of Russian Army T-72 Tanks: From Baseline T-72B to Enhanced 2020s ‘Javelin Proof’ Armour

The T-72 tank has formed the backbone of the Russian Army’s armoured units since the 1990s, with the vehicle having been one of three third generation tank classes developed in the Soviet Union alongside the T-64 and T-80. The T-72 was developed as a less costly and less maintenance intensive counterpart to the T-64, which when it entered service in the early 1960s had been considered close to two decades ahead of the leading overseas tank designs and would retain unrivalled superiority until Germany and the United States began to introduce the Leopard 2 and M1A1 Abrams in 1979 and 1987. As an inferior vehicle to the T-80 and T-64, the T-72 was permitted to be exported soon after it entered service in 1973. It performed effectively in combat in Iraqi and Syrian hands in the 1980s – in the former case winning overwhelming victories against Iran’s U.S. and British supplied armour.

The end of the Cold War, sharp contraction in the Russian economy, and slashing of funds for defence, led the Russian Army to reduce investments in the T-80 program and eventually cancel promising next generation tanks such as the T-95 and Black Eagle. It instead focused investments on the T-72 due to the class’ large numbers and low operational costs. Efforts to modernise the T-72 with protection levels and fire controls on par with the latest T-80 models resulted in the development of a new variant in the early 1990s, with the tank renamed the T-90 and providing by far the most successful in the world on export markets. Russia’s limited defence budget, however, meant T-90s were only acquired in conservative numbers and the T-72 continued to be relied on very heavily. The T-80 retained significantly more potential as a design, with its mobility in particular being far superior to the T-72/90, but at over twice the cost to produce and as a much more maintenance intensive vehicle it was seen as far less cost effective for the new era of post Soviet austerity. 

Modernisation of Russia’s T-72s was pursued from the 2010s as a less costly measure to acquiring new T-90 tanks, and as a stopgap until the next generation T-14 tank, based on the Soviet T-95, was ready for service. The T-72B3 upgrade package saw tanks integrate new 2A46M-5 125mm smoothbore guns, providing compatibility with new 21st century munition types, while fire controls were revolutionised with the integration of the Katherine FC thermal imaging system, digital displays, modern communications and the Sonsna-U gunner sight among other additions. Also added were Kontakt-5 explosive reactive armour providing a significant survivability boost. From 2016 T-72s were modernised to the T-72B3M standard with an improved autoloader, superior Relikt explosive reactive armour, and the V-92S2 1,000hp engine from the T-90. The result was a very significant improvement in performance over the baseline Soviet design, but still a tank that was far from outstanding but considered capable enough – particularly as NATO had also failed to move past its Cold War era designs. By 2020 close to 70 percent of T-72s had been brought up to the T-72B3/B3M standards, each at a very low cost. The B3M package cost approximately a quarter of a million dollars per tank, and the B3 considerably less still. The upgrade packages were notably more conservative than the T-72B2, which was proposed in the late 2000s and benefitted from Relikt, laser warning receivers, and thermal imaging panoramic sights for commanders providing greater situational awareness. The T-72B2 never moved past the prototype stage.

The very conservative investment Russia made in its armour was a significant contributing factor to the modest performance of its tank units in Ukraine, with crews suffering substantial losses particularly to handheld anti tank munitions most notably the American supplied Javelin after the outbreak of war between the two countries in February 2022. By contrast the T-90M tank, which was by far the most capable in Russian service, showed signs of being much more survivable as indicated by the state of a disabled T-90M photographed in May. The T-72B3/B3M’s lacking performance against some of NATO’s most powerful anti tank weapons is thought to have been a primary cause for Russia’s renewed investment in T-90 acquisitions and in a new much more ambitious T-72 upgrade package which was first seen applied in the first week of December. The unnamed new T-72 variant, possibly called T-72B4 or T-72B3M2, improves armour protection to a standard much closer to that of the T-90M albeit inevitably at a much greater cost than the standard T-72B3/B3M packages. Some changes include much improved side armour, with armour over tracks closely resembling that of the T-90M, as well as new smoke launchers, an iron mesh under the turret resembling, and new anti-explosive protection around the smoke grenade launcher. Ammunition is also thought to have been isolated from crew, which was a major advantage of the T-90M over other Russian tanks that did much to improve crew survivability. The new upgrade package may well be sufficient to improve survivability significantly in Ukraine, although there is only so far that the 1970s T-72 design can be taken particularly as neighbouring Poland has begun to receive state of the art Korean K2 tanks that are with little dispute considered the top NATO-compatible tanks in the world. 50 years after it first entered serial production, the future of the T-72 in Russian service remains uncertain, as does whether the new upgrade package will be applied as widely as the T-72B3/B3M.