Belarus Unveils New T-72 Upgrade Package For its Army’s Backbone: Is It Better Than Russia’s T-72B3M?

At the MILEX-2023 defence exhibition in Minsk the Belarusian Military unveiled a range of new pieces of domestically developed military equipment, with one of the most notable being the new T-72BM2 main battle tank prominently displayed at the centre of the event. The T-72 forms the backbone of the Belarusian Army’s tank units with approximately 600 in service, with these favoured over the higher end T-80 tanks the country also inherited from the Soviet Union due to their much lower maintenance needs, operational costs and fuel consumption – leading to the T-80s being sold off to Yemen despite their advantages in mobility and armour protection. While Belarus has modernised some of its T-72s to the T-72B3 standard with Russian support, the majority of tanks in service are still fielded with basic Soviet era capabilities as the standard T-72B. The T-72BM2 upgrade package from the Belarusian 140 Repair Plant provides an alternative both for the Belarusian Army and for foreign clients to upgrade their tanks with 21st century fire controls, armour protection and equipment, and has the potential to be widely adopted not only by Belarus, but potentially by the Russian Army itself which has reportedly struggled to upgrade many of the older T-72s being brought out of storage in a timely manner for use on the frontlines in Ukraine. 

The T-72BM2 upgrade package was reported to be in field testing at the Military’s 174th training ground in July 2022, although MILEX-2023 has provided the first close look at its capabilities. When first mentioned in July, Belarusian Defence Minister Viktor Khrenin announced: “The T-72BM2 fully meets the necessary requirements and is already undergoing a series of tests, after which a decision will be made on mass production and acceptance into Belarusian army service. The most important thing is that this is our tank, made by our people.” The tank uses new Belarusian third generation explosive reactive armour which closely resembles the Russian Relikt – a significant improvement over the first generation Kontakt-1 of the T-72B and second generation Kontakt-5 of the T-72B3 Belarus currently fields. The tank’s fire controls also benefit from new thermal sights including the Sosna-U gunner’s sight with thermal imager, which has a day/night and all weather combat capability. It also benefits from a new laser rangefinder and a wind sensor for superior accuracy.

The new tank’s armour protection is likely far superior to the standard Russian T-72B3 using Kontakt-5 armour, although its mobility is significantly lower due to its weaker engine. More ambitious Russian upgrade packages such as the T-72B3M, and an unnamed configuration with far more comprehensive armour upgrades first seen in lat 2022 speculated to be named T-72B4, are still considered overall far superior to the new Belarusian one however. The ’T-72B4’ brings armour protection standards significantly closer to the levels seen on the Russian Army’s most capable tank the T-90M. Some of the clearest changes include stronger side armour, with armour over tracks closely resembling that of the T-90M. New smoke launchers, and an iron mesh under the turret resembling the T-90M’s own, have also been installed. Its anti-explosive protection around the smoke grenade launcher is also the first of its kind seen on any T-72 variant. 

Over 1000 low cost upgrade packages for the T-72 were widely purchased by the Russian Army in the 2010s, with upgrading Soviet built vehicles to the T-72B3 standard costing little over $200,000 – although more for the B3M model which began to be purchased later in the decade. It is likely that the T-72BM2 was developed with some Russian support to allow Belarus to similarly cheaply bring its own armour forward from its current state of near obsolescence. The program was almost certainly initiated before February 2022, however, meaning the lessons of the war in Ukraine were unlikely to have been applied to the design – one of which was the need for armour protection on levels comparable to the ‘T-72B4’ in order to maintain crew survivability. The role of the T-72 in Russia forces is itself diminishing, as the country surges production of the T-90M to well over 1000 tanks per year and moves closer to bringing the next generation T-14 tank fully into service. Belarus has been speculated to be a potential client for the T-90M once the current hostilities in Ukraine conclude, with the country’s armed forces being increasingly closely integrated with those of Russia while its territory sits geographically on the frontlines with NATO. Its neighbour Poland’s heavy investments in modern armour, most notably with the acquisition of hundreds of state of the art South Korean K2 tanks and accompanying Korean artillery and rocket artillery assets, has made modernisation of Belarusian Army capabilities all the more urgent.