Ukraine’s German Armour Getting Stuck in the Winter Mud: T-80 Tanks with Turbine Engines Praised For Much Greater Mobility

Russian state media sources reported on January 4 that Army units operating on the frontlines the disputed Zaporozhye region have for the first time received modernised T-80BVM tanks. The region has seen Western-supplied armour including Bradley Fighting Vehicles and Leopard 1 tanks take particularly heavy losses since hostilities there escalated in June 2023. The delivery of new T-80s comes as a growing number of reports have highlighted a strong preference among Russian units for the tank class, which is thought to have influenced the decision announced in September 2023 to restart production of the tank class almost a quarter century after production lines closed. Speaking to reporters, the unnamed commander of the unit in Zaporozhye which received the new tanks emphasised that the reliability and manoeuvrability of the new T-80BVM tanks were superior to other tanks such as the German-suppled Leopards being widely used by Ukrainian forces. “The same Leopards are drowning in the mud, they are constantly, constantly drowning. We can observed from drones how they are being taken out [of the mud]. Our vehicle has a gas turbine engine, it is not afraid of mud or slush, it flies over all potholes. This is the difference that allows our tank units to operate in any weather, support infantry and overcome enemy trenches and dugouts without slowing down,” he observed. While the Leopard 1 has long since been considered obsolete, mode modern Leopard 2s available in smaller numbers have also taken heavy losses and seriously struggled with the local terrain.

Regarding the capabilities of the latest T-80 variants, the commander stated when interviewed by local media: “We have received a completely new vehicle. The vehicle has a fundamentally new communication system … It cannot be jammed, it works very well. Its sound is high-quality, clear, there are no interruptions. The machine is also equipped with a completely new protection system.” He added that “additional armour modules were installed on the tank, enabling it to withstand strikes from drones and anti-tank missiles.” While there are growing signs that Russia has struggled to increase tank production, the country’s defence sector has been highly successful in modernising and refurbishing over 1000 Soviet built tanks that were previously in storage to equip frontline units in 2023. The T-80 is by far the most costly tank class in frontline use, and although mass produced in the Soviet era saw production quickly contract after the state’s disintegration as the less capable T-72 and its derivative the T-90 were considered much more cost effective both to produce and to operate. The T-80’s gas turbine engine, although significantly adding to its maintenance needs, provides a major advantage in mobility over both other Russian tank classes and over all Western tanks. Only the American M1 Abrams also uses a gas turbine engine, although these have much poorer power: weight ratios than T-80s due to their much larger sizes. It is notable that while Ukraine also operates a very small number of T-80s and their indigenous derivative the T-84, these almost all use cheaper and less powerful diesel engines more similar to those of the T-72, with such low cost variants having been built in Ukraine under the T-80UD program in the final years of the Cold War.