- Thousands of tanks have been destroyed in Ukraine since Russia attacked last year.
- Most of the tanks each side is using were designed and built during the Cold War.
- Many of the vulnerabilities revealed in those tanks’ decades of service are on display in Ukraine.
Tanks have been a defining feature of land warfare for over a century, and the war in Ukraine is no exception.
Thousands of tanks and armored vehicles have been destroyed since Russia attacked in February 2022. An unusual feature of that fighting has been that both sides are using the same or similar models of tanks.
That commonality is a reflection of the Soviet military’s lasting legacy. While updated variants and new models have been introduced since the Soviet disintegration in 1991, most of the tanks being used in Ukraine were designed — and many of them built — during the Cold War.
While it may not be surprising that old tanks have vulnerabilities, nearly two years of combat have put their outdated qualities on full display.
T-72s, T-80s, and T-90s
The most common tank at the front has been the T-72. Introduced in 1973, it is the backbone of the Russian armored corps and is one of the most widely used main battle tanks in the world.
Weighing about 45 tons, the T-72 has a crew of three — a commander, a driver, and a gunner — and is armed with a 125 mm smoothbore gun capable of firing tank rounds and anti-tank missiles. It also has a coaxial 7.62 mm machine gun mounted in the hull and a 12.7mm heavy machine gun on the turret.
The T-72 is equipped with an autoloader and carries about 38 rounds — 22 in a carousel at the bottom of the turret and the rest stored in the turret.
There are multiple T-72 variants, some with their own sub-variants. The most modern in Russian service are the T-72B3 and the T-72B3M, which have improved sights, electronics, engines, and, on the B3M, a new gun. They also rely heavily on explosive reactive armor — explosive blocks mounted on the exterior that detonate outward to counter incoming anti-armor projectiles — though it can add as much as 2 tons in weight.
The T-72B3M only entered service in 2017, but it already has a sub-variant, the T-72B3M Obr. 2022, which has been modified based on lessons from Ukraine.
The Russians have also employed the T-80 in large numbers. Introduced in 1976, the T-80 is slightly larger and heavier than the T-72. It has a 125 mm smoothbore gun that also fires tank rounds and anti-tank missiles, a coaxial PKT machine gun, and a 12.7 mm heavy machine gun on the turret.
The T-80 also has a crew of three and an ammo carousel at the base of the turret that holds at least 28 rounds (the tank carries about 40 rounds total) and an autoloader. The T-80 is unique for having a gas-turbine engine instead of a traditional diesel engine and for having an especially large amount of ERA blocks.
The Russians primarily use three T-80 variants: the T-80U, T-80BV, and T-80BVM, which are distinguishable by how their ERA blocks are arrayed. The T-80BVM has also been upgraded as a result of experiences in Ukraine, resulting in a new sub-variant, the T-80BVM Obr. 2023.
Russian defense firm Uralvagonzavod has been tasked with building new T-80s from scratch — a good indicator of the tank’s battlefield value — but that isn’t as easy as it sounds.
Russia hasn’t built a new T-80 hull or a new gas-turbine engine for the tank in over 30 years. While machine tooling may be available, new construction may require hundreds of subcontractors who also haven’t built tank parts in decades.
The most modern tank that Russia has used widely so far is the T-90. It was adopted in 1992 and was intended to replace the T-72 and T-80. It is heavier than both, weighing about 50 tons. (Russian officials say the newer T-14 has been used in Ukraine but not in direct combat.)
The T-90 also has a crew of three and is equipped with an ammo carousel and autoloader in the turret, where about half of the tank’s 40 rounds are also stored, as well as with a 125 mm smoothbore gun, a PKT coaxial machine gun, and a 12.7 mm heavy machine gun.
In 2019, Russia adopted an upgraded variant known as the T-90M, which was developed based on the Russian military’s experience in Syria. It features a new turret with a rear external compartment capable of holding 10 additional rounds, new ERA blocks on its turret and sides, and a remote-operated 12.7 mm heavy machine gun.
In addition to cage armor on the rear of the hull and turret, the T-90M is equipped with a metal net covering the gap between the hull and the turret to stop anti-tank projectiles, an upgrade also featured on the newest T-72 and T-80 sub-variants.
Ukraine also has T-72 and T-80 fleets, which it has replenished with captured Russian T-72s, T-80s, and T-90s. It has also received hundreds of T-72s from NATO countries, including over 200 from Poland, which also sent its own upgraded version of the T-72.
Ukraine was a hub for Soviet tank manufacturing, including of the T-80, and retained that industry after the Cold War. In addition to inherited T-80Us, Ukraine has operated domestically built T-80UD (which the Russians also use) and T-84 variants, the latter of which has a sub-variant, the T-84 Oplot-M.
‘Crappy Russian armored vehicles’
While both sides have lost many tanks, Russia’s losses are considered especially high, with open-sources estimates counting as many as 1,500 destroyed and another 800 abandoned, captured, or damaged.
Those steep tallies can be attributed to inadequate training, poor tactics, and the sophistication of Ukraine’s anti-armor weapons, but Russia’s tank designs also have longstanding vulnerabilities.
One put on vivid display in Ukraine is the tendency of ammo stored in the unprotected turret carousel to detonate when incoming fire penetrates the turret or the side of the tank. This creates a “jack-in-the-box effect,” wherein the turret is blown off, killing the crew and destroying the tank.
Russian tanks “have been notorious for their flaws since 1967,” Barry Posen, a professor and expert on international affairs and military strategy at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said at an MIT event last year.
“We’re in the third or fourth generation of crappy Russian armored vehicles, and this is kind of a weird thing because people have been blowing these armored vehicles to pieces all over the world. Russian designers have had lots of time to work on this problem,” Posen said.
“So far there appears not to be much change — or to the extent that there is change, the Western designers who design anti-armor warheads manage to keep well ahead,” Posen added, pointing to the frequency of “k-kills,” or “catastrophic kills,” against Russian tanks in Ukraine.
Russian tactics early in the war “leaned into the flaws” of their tanks, Posen said. Russian troops have made adaptations since then, such as welding large cages to their tanks in hopes of thwarting anti-tank missiles and one-way attack drones.
In contrast, NATO tank designs emphasize crew survival. Their tanks have a separate internal storage compartment for ammunition, usually in the rear, with a blast door that opens and closes during the reloading process. If detonated by incoming fire, the rounds explode upward and to the rear rather than into the crew compartment.
Ukraine’s Soviet-era tank fleet is now being supplemented with newer Western-designed tanks, chiefly the German-made Leopard 2. Ukraine has received several dozen Leopard 2A4s and Leopard 2A6s from Germany, Poland, Spain, Norway, Canada, Portugal, and Denmark. Sweden also donated 10 Stridsvagn 122s — its version of the Leopard 2A5.
Keeping those Western-supplied armored vehicles in action could become a challenge. While Russian fire often immobilizes rather than destroys them, “rebuilding them demands a consistent provision of spare parts,” the Royal United Services Institute, a British think tank, said in a recent report.
That means Western countries “need to ensure that the industrial support is available to make the Ukrainian military sustainable,” the report said.
Parts notwithstanding, Ukrainian troops already hold their Western-provided tanks and armored vehicles in high regard, largely because they have better chances of surviving in them.
Despite heavy losses of armored vehicles — including several Western-supplied tanks — the design of the Western-made vehicles “is preventing this from converting into a high number of killed personnel,” the RUSI report said.
“The difference is huge,” a member of Ukraine’s 47th Mechanized Brigade, which has used Leopard 2A6 tanks in combat, said in an interview in September.
“The main advantage of this machine is crew survivability. Meaning when you go out in it, you are more at ease about your life and the lives of your fellows,” the tanker said. “There’s no such effect as in Soviet equipment — no detonation of the ammo rack and no turret flying off.”