The T-72 is a family of Soviet/Russian main battle tanks that entered production in 1969. The T-72 was a development of the T-64, which was troubled by high costs and its reliance on immature developmental technology. About 25,000 T-72 tanks have been built, and refurbishment has enabled many to remain in service for decades. It has been widely exported and has seen service in 40 countries and in numerous conflicts. The T-90 introduced in 1992 is a development of the T-72B; production and development of various modernized T-72 models continues today.
Development from the T-64
The T-72 was a product of a rivalry between design teams. Morozov KB was led by Alexander Morozov in Kharkiv. Uralvagon KB was led by Leonid Kartsev in Nizhny Tagil.
To improve on the T-62, two designs based on the tank were tested in 1964: Nizhny Tagil’s Object 167 (T-62B) and Kharkiv’s Object 434.
Ob. 434 was a technically ambitious prototype. Under the direction of Morozov in Kharkiv, a new design emerged with the hull reduced to the minimum size possible. To do this, the crew was reduced to three soldiers, removing the loader by introducing an automated loading system.
Ob. 167 was designed based on an Object 140 rebuilt by Kartsev and Valeri Venediktov. Ob. 167 was more advanced than Kartsev’s Ob. 165 and Ob. 166, and was also Kartsev’s favored model. In October 1961, when asked to ready Ob. 166 for production, Kartsev disagreed and instead offered to prepare the Ob. 167. This suggestion was rejected, and the Ob. 166 and Ob. 165 were readied as the T-62 and T-62A respectively. Unlike the Kharkiv tank, it eschewed the state-of-the-art. Prototypes used the turret from the T-62, and a manual loader. In 1964, the tank underwent comparative testing with the Ob. 434, in which the former proved its superiority to both the T-62 and T-55. Ob. 167 was favored by Uralvagonzavod director I.V. Okunev and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, who believed the tank was more affordable. Deputy Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the Soviet Union Dmitry Ustinov, believed the parallel development of Ob. 167 jeopardized the future of the Kharkiv tank. In December 1962, the Council of Ministers of the Soviet Union ordered Ob. 432 (later serialized as the T-64) into production, dooming Kartsev’s tank.
Kartsev continued to work on the Ob. 167. Ob. 167M incorporated an autoloader. This model too was rejected in May 1964.
Problems with the early production run were evident from the start, but a strong lobby formed around Morozov who advocated for Ob. 434 in Moscow, preventing rival developments and ideas from being discussed. Ob. 434 was accepted into Soviet Army service in May 1968 as the T-64A.
The T-64’s smaller design presented a problem when selecting a suitable engine. The chosen 700 hp 5TDF engine was unreliable, difficult to repair, and had a guaranteed lifespan similar to World War II designs.
In 1967, the Uralvagonzavod formed “Section 520”, which was to prepare the serial production of the T-64 for 1970. Because of the time-consuming construction of the 5TDF engines, which took about twice as long as the contemporary V-45, the Malyshev Factory in Kharkiv could not provide a sufficient number of 5TDF engines for all Soviet tank factories. The Military-Industrial Commission (VPK) authorized work on two alternative engines for a wartime T-64, a so-called “mobilization model” that could be produced more quickly and at half the cost. Obj. 219 (which became the T-80, with a GTD-1000T gas-turbine) was designed in Leningrad. Ob. 439 with a diesel V-45 engine was designed by Uralvagon KB at Uralvagonzavod in Nizhny Tagil.
GABTU sent a T-64A prototype with a team to Uralvagonzavod. Kartsev was to lead this team.
Kartsev was unsatisfied with the innovations of the T-64, and began instead a more comprehensive project to redesign the tank. Kartsev melded what he believed were the best aspects of the T-64A, Object 167, and an upgunned T-62.
During development the tank was code-named “Ural” after the Ural mountain region. Uralvagonzavod produced the first prototype with a T-62 turret, D-81 125-mm gun and V-45 engine in January 1968. Ob. 439 differed so greatly from the T-64 that it was redesignated as “Object 172”.
Kartsev’s defiance angered GABTU, which initially reprimanded him for his insubordination. However, after the tank proved indeed to possess potential as a less costly alternative to the T-64, Kartsev was allowed to continue work on his design. Politically motivated opposition continued to beset the tank throughout its development. Vagonka tank plant manager I.F. Krutyakov sought to subordinate Uralvagonzavod under Josef Kotin. Kartsev skillfully beat back this play for power, embarrassing Krutyakov in the process. Kartsev retired in August 1969, and was succeeded by Venediktov.
The team soon found out that the more powerful V-45 engine put a lot of stress on the T-64 hull, so that after some time cracks started to materialize. A more stable solution was sought.
Finally, an idea from 1960 was used, when a modification of the T-62 had been discussed: In 1961, two prototypes of “Object 167” had been built by Uralvagonzavod to test a stronger hull and running gear combination for that tank. Under influence from Kharkiv, the idea had been turned down by Moscow. But this construction, with its big, rubbercoated roadwheels now formed the basis for the mobilisation model of the T-64.
Additional changes were made to the automatic loading system, which also was taken from an earlier project, originally intended for a T-62 upgrade. The 125 mm ammunition, consisting of a separate projectile and a propellant charge, was now stored horizontally on two levels, not vertically on one level as in the T-64. It was said to be more reliable than the T-64 autoloader. In 1964, two 125-mm guns of the D-81 type had been used to evaluate their installation in to the T-62, so the Ural plant was ready to adopt the 125 mm calibre for the T-64A as well.
Venediktov’s team later replaced the T-64-style suspension with the Obj. 167’s suspension. The tank was trialed in Kubinka in 1968, and Central Asia in 1969. After intensive comparative testing with the T-64A, Object 172 was re-engineered in 1970 to deal with some minor problems. Further trials took place in Transbaikal in 1971.
Being only a mobilisation model, serial production of Object 172 was not possible in peacetime. However, by 1971, even Ustinov was growing tired of problems with the T-64. In an unclear political process decree number 326-113 was issued, which allowed the production of Object 172 in the Soviet Union from 1 January 1972, and freed Uralvagonzavod from the T-64A production.
An initial production run began in 1972 at Nizhni Tagil. These were trialed in the Soviet Army. A final trial batch was built as “Object 172M” and tested in 1973 and accepted into service as the “T-72” in 1974.
Uralvagon KB continued to iterate on the T-72 in a series of block improvements. Obj. 174 introduced ceramic/steel laminate turret armour. The coincidence rangefinder was replaced with a laser rangefinder. Obj. 174 was designated as the T-74A when it entered production in 1978. Turret armour was greatly improved with Obj. 174M. A more powerful V-84 engine was introduced to offset the increased weight. Obj. 174M entered service in 1985 as the T-72B.
At least some technical documentation on the T-72 is known to have been passed to the CIA by the Polish Colonel Ryszard Kukliński between 1971 and 1982.
Main models of the T-72, built in the Soviet Union and Russia. Command tanks have K added to their designation for komandirskiy, “command”, for example T-72K is the command version of the basic T-72. Versions with reactive armour have V added, for vzryvnoy, “explosive”.
- T-72 Ural (1973): Original version, armed with 125 mm smoothbore tank gun and optical coincidence rangefinder. The upgraded T-72A which appeared in 1979. This vehicle is the basis for the most numerous export version – the T-72M and T-72M1.
- T-72A (1979): Coincidence rangefinder replaced with laser rangefinder and electronic fire control added, turret front and top being heavily reinforced with composite armour (nicknamed Dolly Parton by US intelligence), provisions for mounting reactive armour, smoke grenade launchers, flipper armour mount on front mudguards, internal changes.
- T-72M: Export version, similar to T-72A but lacking composite armour (decreasing the weight to 37 tonnes), much simpler fire control system, and usually supplied with inferior ammunition compared to the Soviet army standard. Also built in Poland and former Czechoslovakia.
- T-72B (1985): New main gun, stabilizer, sights, and fire control, capable of firing 9M119 Svir guided missile, additional armour including 20 mm (0.8 in) of appliqué armour in the front of hull, improved composites in the turret armour, improved 840 hp (630 kW) engine.
- T-72B3 model 2011 (~2010): This upgrade was initiated in 2010 using the enormous stocks of T-72B’s held in reserve. They are rebuilt with new technologies including Sosna-U multichannel gunner’s sight, new digital VHF radio, improved autoloader, 2A46M-5 gun to accommodate new ammunition. Retains older V-84-1 840 hp (630 kW) engine and Kontakt-5 explosive reactive armour, and lacks satellite navigation.
- T-72B3M: Upgrade for T-72B3, with Relikt explosive reactive armour on the sides, side skirts with soft-container reactive armour and slat screens, 2A46M-5 gun capable of firing 9M119M Refleks guided missile, V-92S2F 1,130 hp (840 kW) engine, automatic transmission, digital display and rear-view video. Often incorrectly referred to as “T-72B4”
The T-72 design has been used into the following foreign models:T-72M4CZ (Czech Republic), PT-91 Twardy (Poland), M-84 (Yugoslavia), M-84AS1 (Serbia), M-84D (Croatia) and Lion of Babylon (Iraq).
In addition, the T-72 hull has been used as the basis for other heavy vehicle designs, including the following:
- BMPT Terminator – Heavy convoy and close tank support vehicle.
- TOS- – Thermobaric multiple rocket launcher, with 30-tube launcher in place of the turret.
- BREM-1 (Bronirovannaya Remonto-Evakuatsionnaya Mashina) – Armoured recovery vehicle with a 12-tonne crane, 25-tonne winch, dozer blade, towing equipment, and tools.
- IMR-2 (Inzhenernaya Mashina Razgrashdeniya) – Combat engineering vehicle with an 11-tonne telescoping crane and pincers, configurable dozer blade/plough, and mine-clearing system.
- MTU-72 (Tankovyy Mostoukladchik) – Armoured bridge layer, capable of laying a 50 t (55 short tons) capacity bridge spanning 18 m (59 ft) in three minutes.
- BMR-3 Vepr (Bronirovannaja Mashina Razminirovanija) – Mine clearing vehicle.
The T-72 shares many design features with other tank designs of Soviet origin. Some of these are viewed as deficiencies in a straight comparison to NATO tanks, but most are a product of the way these tanks were envisioned to be employed, based on the Soviets’ practical experiences in World War II.
The T-72 is extremely lightweight, at forty-one tonnes, and very small compared to Western main battle tanks. Some of the roads and bridges in former Warsaw Pact countries were designed such that T-72s can travel along in formation, but NATO tanks could not pass at all, or just one-by-one, significantly reducing their mobility. The basic T-72 is relatively underpowered, with a 780 hp (580 kW) supercharged version of the basic 500 hp (370 kW) V12 diesel engine originally designed for the World War II-era T-34. The 0.58 m (1 ft 11 in) wide tracks run on large-diameter road wheels, which allows for easy identification of the T-72 and descendants (the T-64 family has relatively small road wheels).
The T-72 is designed to cross rivers up to 5 m (16.4 ft) deep submerged using a small diameter snorkel assembled on-site. The crew is individually supplied with simple rebreather chest-pack apparatuses for emergency situations. If the engine stops underwater, it must be restarted within six seconds, or the T-72’s engine compartment becomes flooded due to pressure loss. The snorkeling procedure is considered dangerous, but is important for maintaining operational mobility.
Armour protection of the T-72 was strengthened with each succeeding generation. The original T-72 “Ural” Object 172M’s (from 1973) turret is made from conventional cast high hardness steel (HHS) armour with no laminate inserts. It is believed that the maximum thickness is 280 mm (11 in) and the nose is 80 mm (3.1 in). The glacis of the new laminated armour is 205 mm (8.1 in) thick, comprising 80 mm (3.1 in) HHS, 105 mm (4.1 in) double layer of laminate and 20 mm (0.79 in) RHA steel, which when inclined gives about 500–600 mm (20–24 in) thickness along the line of sight. In 1977 the armour of the T-72 Object 172M was slightly changed. The turret now featured insert filled with ceramic sand bars “kwartz” rods and the glacis plate composition was changed. It was now made up of 60 mm (2.4 in) HHA steel,105 mm (4.1 in) glass Tekstolit laminate and 50 mm (2.0 in) RHA steel. This version was often known in Soviet circles as T-72 “Ural-1”. The next armour update was introduced by the T-72A (Object 176), which was designed in 1976 and replaced the original on the production lines during 1979–1985. T-72 Object 1976 is also known as T-72A. With the introduction of the T-72B (Object 184) in 1985, the composite armour was again changed. According to retired major, James M. Warford, variants developed after the T-72 base model and T-72M/T-72G MBT, featured a cast steel turret that included a cavity filled with quartz or sand in a form similar to US “fused-silica” armour. The T-72 Model 1978 (Obiekt 172M sb-4), which entered production in 1977, featured a new turret with special armour composed of ceramic rods.
T-72 main battle tank armament
The tank is fitted with a 125mm D-81 smoothbore gun, a 7.62mm co-axial machine gun and a 12.7mm air defence machine gun mounted on the commander’s cupola. The T-72S carries 45 rounds of 125mm ammunition, 22 rounds of which are carried on an automatic loading carousel.
The gun fires separate loading armour-piercing discarding sabot rounds (APDS), high-explosive anti-tank (HEAT) rounds and high-explosive fragmentation (HE-FRAG) projectiles. Fire accuracy is attained by a laser rangefinder sight, ballistic computer and a thermal barrel sleeve. Dual-axis stabilisation ensures effective firing on the move.
The tank’s anti-armour missile system is the 9K120 Svir (Nato codename AT-11 Sniper), designed by the KBP Instrument Design Bureau, Tula.
The system is intended to engage tanks fitted with ERA as well as low-flying air targets. It has a range of 100m to 4,000m and firing requires the tank to be stationary.
The main battle tank is equipped with a V-84 liquid-cooled four-stroke multi-fuel diesel engine which develops 618kW (840hp), providing a power-to-weight ratio of 13.8kW/t, planetary transmission with hydraulic servo-control system, running gear with RMSH track and torsion bar suspension with hydraulic shock absorbers.
The tank has a road speed of 60km/h and 35km/h on dry earth roads. The range on roads with main fuel tanks is 500km. The tank can negotiate fording depths to 1.2m without preparation and snorkels can be fitted for fording to a depth of 5m.
|Mass||– 41.5 tonnes (45.7 short tons)
– 44.5 tonnes (49.1 short tons) (T-72B)
|Length||– 9.53 m (31 ft 3 in) gun forwar
– 6.95 m (22 ft 10 in) hull
|Width||3.59 m (11 ft 9 in)|
|Height||2.23 m (7 ft 4 in)|
|Crew||3 (commander, gunner, driver)|
|Armour||Steel and composite armour with ERA|
|125 mm 2A46M/2A46M-5 smoothbore gun|
|– 7.62 mm PKT coax. machine gun
– 12.7 mm NSVT or DShK anti-aircraft machine gun
|Engine||– 780 hp (580 kW)
– 1,130 hp (840 kW) for V-92S2F
|Power/weight||18.8 hp/tonne (14 kW/tonne)|
|Transmission||Synchromesh, hydraulically assisted, with 7 forward and 1 reverse gears|
|Ground clearance||0.49 m (19 in)|
|Fuel capacity||1,200 L (320 U.S. gal; 260 imp gal)|
|460 km (290 mi), 700 km (430 mi) with fuel drums|
|Maximum speed||60 to 75 km/h (37 to 47 mph)|