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Middle East , Ground

Upgrading to Russian Tanks; Why an Elite Iraqi Army Brigade Abandoned the Abrams for the More Survivable T-90

June 14th - 2018

While the Iraqi military had for decades made use of advanced Soviet and Russian made arms, from Kornet anti tank missiles and T-62 battle tanks to MiG-25 interceptors and Su-22 strike fighters, the 2003 invasion by the United States and its allies which deposed the Ba’athist government of Saddam Hussein brought a new government into power which was heavily encouraged to invest in Western made arms. Fifteen years later, with the Iraqi military heavily engaged in war against a number of heavily armed Islamist insurgent groups, the most prominent of which is the Islamic State, the country’s ground forces have increasingly complained of the poor performance of U.S. made arms. The military has as a result begun to again look to Moscow to arm itself. With Iraq spending well over $7 billion on its armed forces annually, the country has been well positioned to acquire the latest and most capable Russian weapons systems, which have included advanced T-90 battle tanks for its ground forces.

Iraq’s M1 Abrams battle tanks provided by the Untied States, supposedly invulnerable armoured platforms, have suffered heavy losses against insurgent forces - often operating older handheld missile platforms with impunity against the American made tanks. A number of the battle tanks have reportedly been passed on to Iranian aligned militias, much to the chagrin of the U.S., and though the Abrams is arguably the most capable Western made battle tank in service and the only one in American service, the platform is increasingly being phased out of front line service in the Iraqi Army. With the Iraqi military expressing greater confidence in the capabilities of Russian made platforms, and having significant battlefield experience with both U.S. and Russian made battle tanks to test their capabilities, their strong preference for the T-90 over the M1 is a serious blow to the prestige of American armoured warfare units.

The Iraqi Ministry of Defence announced on June 8th that its elite 35th Brigade had taken delivery of 39 T-90S battle tanks to replace the M1 Abrams. The U.S. platform were transferred to the 34th brigade, which operates second rate Soviet era tank platforms and sees relatively little frontline action. According to Iraqi officials, Russian specialists had trained the 35th brigade to operate the new battle tanks. The fist T-90S battle tanks were delivered to Iraq in February 2018, and represents one of many orders placed for advanced Russian made hardware. One significant benefit of relying on Russian armaments for the Iraqi military, particularly in light of the election of the nationalist leader Moqtada Al Sadr who has taken a hard line against foreign influence in the country, is that it leaves Iraq more independent from both the United States and Iran - two major powers which maintain significant influence in the country and which are both more than willing to export their own hardware to the country. Reliance on Russia as a third party to provide arms has allowed Iraq to better assert its independence and maintain a military which relies on neither Washington nor Tehran for training, spare parts or servicing. Iraq has also made orders for Russian Mi-28NE Havoc helicopter gunships, Su-25 attack jets and Pantsir-S air defence platforms. It is also considering the purchase of the S-400 long range surface to air missile system, a move met with strong opposition by the United States. Other than Russia, Iraq has also increasingly turned to China and South Korea for arms which again serves to reduce its reliance on Iranian and U.S. equipment and assistance. 

The T-90S boasts a number of significant upgrades over the original T-90, and though it is not as sophisticated as the T-90MS used by the Russian military itself it is still one of the most capable tanks currently available for export anywhere in the world. The platform boasts a powerful and fuel efficient engine, allowing to to travel at nearly 40 miles per hour on roads with a range of 340 miles without refuelling. The platform uses a blend of steel and composite materials in its armour, reducing its weight while strengthening its protection. The battle tanks delivered to Iraq also feature a number of additional defensive measures to enhance their survivability against anti tank weapons deployed in large numbers by insurgent groups. These defence systems allow the tank to detect laser designators and rangefinders to alert crew to the fact they are being targeted. Advanced explosive reactive armour and slat armour screens are also critical to providing additional protection. With the U.S. struggling to manufacture comparable defence systems for its own battle tanks, the military has turned to Israel to upgrade its Abrams platform with Trophy Active Protection Systems in an attempt to match the survivability of Russian rivals. With the T-90 being harder to destroy and costing far less to maintain than the Abrams, and requiring considerably less fuel and less maintenance which minimises pressure on Iraq’s fragile supply lines, the battle tank remains in many ways a superior option to the heavier but less survivable American made platform. 


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