Russia Is Refitting Old T-72 Tanks For The War In Ukraine. But It’s Running Out Of Optics.
The Ukrainian army isn’t the only one getting new tanks. Well, new-ish.
As Kyiv’s allies pledge more and more of the best NATO-style tanks to Ukraine’s war effort, Moscow is upgrading and returning to service potentially hundreds of older T-72s.
The result is at least one new T-72 model: the T-72B3 Obr. 2022. It’s a 1980s-vintage T-72B with a suite of enhancements including a Sosna-U day-night digital gunner’s sight, new reactive armor, a rear-looking video camera and a fresh barrel for its 125-millimeter main gun.
Don’t get too excited. The additions don’t significantly improve the T-72’s performance—and don’t do anything to remedy the type’s fundamental problem: its dangerous ammunition stowage.
The T-72 stows its main-gun ammo in a carousel that’s situated underneath the turret. A direct hit can set off the ammo, resulting in a catastrophic explosion that destroys the tank, kills the three-man crew and often sends the turret flying high into the air.
Equally troubling for Russian tankers, a shortage of components apparently has compelled tank-maker Uralvagonzavod also to produce a down-rated “emergency” T-72B1 Obr. 2022 that lacks the Sosna-U sight.
Instead, the down-rated T-72 has an outdated 1PN96MT-02 analog thermal sight that’s comparable to the sights NATO armies installed on their own tanks back in the 1970s. This emergency T-72B1 Obr. 2022 is … not a great tank.
It should come as no surprise that the Russian army’s armor corps seems to be devolving back to the 1980s. The Russian army widened its war on Ukraine with thousands of reasonably modern T-72, T-80 and T-90 tanks—and quickly lost more than 1,500 of them to Ukrainian artillery, anti-tank missile teams and, yes, tanks.
As Russian tank losses deepened, the Kremlin opened up warehouses and tank parks where as many as 10,000 old tanks lay moldering. Ironically, many of the newer T-72 and T-80 tanks in long-term storage were in worse condition than were T-62s from the 1970s.
Sophisticated optics and electronics tend to degrade fast, or get stolen, while in open storage in Russia. The T-62s never had sophisticated subsystems, so hundreds of them still were intact even after decades of disuse.
Those T-62s that the Kremlin rushed to Ukraine last summer didn’t last long. The Ukrainians destroyed at least 20 T-62s and captured enough of them—40 or so—to equip their own T-62 battalion.
The T-62s were an obvious stopgap. They and their hapless crews bought time for Uralvagonzavod to identify old T-72s that the firm could recondition, slightly upgrade and send to Ukraine to begin restoring the Russian army’s depleted tank battalions.
There could be as many as 5,000 old T-72s in storage across Russia. It’s unclear how many are rust-free and in reasonably good repair. But a shortage of intact hulls might not be the main problem. Rather, it seems Uralvagonzavod will run out of tank optics before it runs out of tank chassis.
The most important feature of the T-72B3 Obr. 2022 is the Sosna-U sight. The Sosna-U, which allows a tank gunner to spot a target as far as four miles away in daylight or darkness, reportedly is built around unlicensed French optics that Russian industry acquired through not-quite-legal means around a decade ago.
Foreign sanctions, which have tightened since Russia first invaded Ukraine back in 2014, have stymied though not halted the flow of military-grade electronics into Russia. The Kremlin can, with great effort, get around sanctions by acquiring items from middlemen in non-sanctioned countries.
But it’s unlikely Russian companies, which aren’t exactly known for their precision manufacturing, can copy the optics without also sacrificing quality. All that is to say, when the French parts run out, the Sosna-U could get a lot harder to produce.
It might already be happening. It’s not for no reason that Uralvagonzavod is installing older 1PN96MT-02 sights, with an unimpressive two-mile range, on some of the revamped T-72s. The company previously added the 1PN96MT-02 to some of the T-62s it sent to get wrecked in Ukraine.
Tragically for Russian crews, the 1PN96MT-02s could run out, too. The latest version of the old-fashioned sight also might have foreign components that could be in limited supply in Russia.
So if the T-72B3 Obr. 2022 is a reconditioned, surplus T-72 with a Sosna-U sight, and a T-72B1 Obr. 2022 is the same basic tank but with a less-capable 1PN96MT-02 sight, what would you call the next former-surplus T-72 model—one with even worse optics?