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The T-72B3; How a Modernised Battle Tank Based on a Design Over Four Decades Old Can Match Newer Combat Platforms

February 22nd - 2018

First inducted into service in the Soviet Army in 1973, the T-72 battle tank entered service with Soviet allies around the world and has since undergone several modernisations, with dozens of variants being produced by the USSR and Russia alone and sixteen other operators also modifying and upgrading their tanks. With more modern Russian battle tanks entering service since then including the T-80 in 1976, the T-90 in 1993 and the fourth generation Armata in 2015, the T-72 tank as initially designed in 1973 is increasingly outmatched by more modern designs. With thousands of T-72s in service, extensive modernisation is necessary to prevent operators' inventories becoming obsolete when facing adversaries with state of the art capabilities. The most advanced of these upgraded variants today is Russia's T-72B3 inducted in 2010.

The T-72B3 was itself a further upgrade based on the T-72B, one which was first introduced in 1985 which had capabilities far surpassing those of the original T-72. These included the addition of an 1A40-1 fire control system, vastly improved thicker and more composite armour including 20 mm of appliqué armour in the front of hull, as well as improved sights and laser guided missile capabilities. In the 1990s these were upgraded further with explosive reactive armour, cross wind sensors and improved V-92S2 engines. With such improvements the gap between Russia's T-72B battle tanks' capabilities and those of more modern third generation designs were narrowed significantly.

A further modernisation, the T-72B3, has taken this a stage further with capabilities in many ways exceeding those of early variants of more modern battle tanks such as the original T-80 and T-90 models. The T-72B3 boasts enhanced engines which more than compensate for its 45 tons of extra weight and grant it better mobility than the original T-72. Other upgrades include a new steering system, new universal twin-pin tracks, improved fire suppression systems, superior radio systems and anti-cumulative screens protecting the rear part of its hull. The main capability improvements of the T-72B3 however have been in the field of its firepower and fire control systems. The tank has received the advanced Kalina fire control system, new turret control panel and improved sights, PNM Sosna-U panoramic multi-spectral sensors - which increase the range of the tank's sensors drastically and include a built-in laser rangefinders and command guidance modules compatible with with 9M119M missiles. The new 2A46M5 main gun installed on the T-72B3 meanwhile has capabilities equivalent to those of some of the world's most sophisticated modern battle tanks.

To a greater extent than combat aircraft, older tank models can be upgraded to match or even exceed the capabilities of newer tank designs. This is demonstrated well by the T-72B3. While the tank would be unlikely to match the fourth generation K2 Black Panther, a South Korean design widely considered the most advanced in the world, it could very well supersede the capabilities of the U.S. M1 Abrams or even the more modern Russian T-90 in combat. In many respects the original T-90's capabilities share more in common with the original T-72 than the T-72B3 does. With the T-72B3 entering service in both Russia and Belarus' armed forces, they may well prove a match for some of the most advanced third generation tanks in combat in the European theatre and surprise analysts who dismiss the design as near obsolete due to their basis on the older T-72 design. With the original T-72 proving itself highly effective in combat, being referred to as 'the best tank in the world' by Syrian President Hafez Al Assad for its performance against the Israeli military in the Lebanon war in the 1980s, the T-72B3 has a strong foundation on which to prove itself a highly potent and modern battle tank over forty years after the original T-72 first entered service. It remains a highly effective modernisation which will keep the T-72 a viable platform against near peer adversaries as Russia continues to induct its next generation T-14 Armata into service - an advanced and similarly versatile platform expected to replace the T-72 in future.

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