The Constitution was made to guard the people against the dangers of good intentions." --American Statesman Daniel Webster (1782-1852)

Sunday, April 30, 2017

The T80 and the T72 (Red Storm Rising)

Just came back from NRAAM and I will blog about that on Tuesday.  We had a great time and am looking forward to Dallas in 2018.
     This post was on the computer for a few days while I was doing the NRAAM thing.  The T80 and T72 were the mainstays of the Soviet armies during the latter part of the cold war.  In the book as was in real life the T72 was used to outfit the Soviet A and some of the B formations.  The Soviets used the T80 in real life and in the book for their OMG Formations.  The T72's were used to batter a hole in NATO lines and the T80's would race through the ruptured lines and capture what ever target that was specified by STAVKA.  When I was in Germany we would talk about the T72's coming through the Fulda gap like cockroaches in a new york apartment when the light is turned on.

The T-80 is a third-generation main battle tank (MBT) designed and manufactured in the Soviet Union. When it entered service in 1976, it was the first MBT in the world to feature a powerful multifuel turbine engine as its main propulsion engine. The T-80U was last produced in a factory in Omsk, Russia, while the T-80UD and further-developed T-84 continue to be produced in Ukraine. The T-80 and its variants are in service in Belarus, Cyprus, Egypt, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Russia, South Korea, and Ukraine. The chief designer of the T-80 was the Russian engineer Nikolay Popov.

The T-80 is similar in layout to the T-64; the driver's compartment is on the centre line at the front, the two-man turret is in the centre with gunner on the left and commander on the right, and the engine is rear mounted. Overall, its shape is also very similar to the T-64. The original T-80 design uses a 1,000 horsepower gas turbine instead of a 750-horsepower diesel engine, although some later variants of the T-80 revert to diesel engine usage. The gearbox is different, with five forward and one reverse gear, instead of seven forward and one reverse. Suspension reverts from pneumatic to torsion bar, with six forged steel-aluminium rubber-tyred road wheels on each side, with the tracks driven by rear sprockets. The glacis is of laminate armour and the turret is armoured steel. The turret houses the same 125 mm 2A46 smoothbore gun as the T-72, which can fire anti-tank guided missiles as well as regular ordnance. The tracks are slightly wider and longer than on the T-64 giving lower ground pressure.

The main gun is fed by the Korzina automatic loader. This holds up to 28 rounds of two-part ammunition in a carousel located under the turret floor. Additional ammunition is stored within the turret. The ammunition comprises the projectile (APFSDS, HEAT or HE-Frag) plus the propellant charge, or the two-part missile. The autoloader is an effective, reliable, combat tested system which has been in use since the mid-1960s. The propellant charge is held inside a semi-combustible cartridge case made of a highly flammable material – this is consumed in the breech during firing, except for a small metal baseplate.

A disadvantage highlighted during combat in Chechnya was the vulnerability of the T-80BV to catastrophic explosion. The reason given by US and Russian experts is the vulnerability of stored semi-combustible propellant charges and missiles when contacted by the molten metal jet from the penetration of a HEAT warhead, causing the entire ammunition load to explode. This vulnerability may be addressed in later models. When Western tank designs changed from non-combustible propellant cartridges to semi-combustible, they tended to separate ammunition stowage from the crew compartment with armoured blast doors, and provided 'blow-out' panels to redirect the force and fire of exploding ammunition away from the crew compartment.
The autoloader takes between 7.1 and 19.5 seconds to load the main weapon (28 rounds), depending on the initial position of autoloader carousel.
The T-80's armor is made of composite armor on the turret and hull, while rubber flaps and sideskirts protect the sides and lower hull. The later T-80 models use explosive reactive armor and stronger armor, like the T-80U and T-80UM1. Other protection systems include the Shtora-1 and Arena APS, as well as the discontinued Drozd APS (though a limited number of T-80Us have them installed).
The latest T-80 variant in service, the T-84 Oplot, has an entirely new turret with armoured ammunition compartment to help prevent accidental detonation.

Initially, the T-80 was confused with the Soviet T-72 by some Western analysts. They are the products of different design bureaus; the T-80 is from the SKB-2 design bureau of the Kirov Factory (LKZ) in Leningrad while the T-72 is from the Uralvagonzavod factory in Nizhny Tagil, Russia. They are similar in superficial appearance, but the T-80 is based on the earlier T-64, while incorporating features from the T-72, which was a complementary design. The T-64 in turn was an earlier high-technology main battle tank, designed by the Morozov Design Bureau (KMDB) to replace the T-54, T-55 and T-62 MBT's, used before in the USSR.
From a long distance T-64, T-72 and T-80 look alike even though the T-80 is 90 cm longer than the T-64. Despite the similarities, the T-80 and T-72 are mechanically very different. The T-72 is mechanically simpler, easier to manufacture, and easier to service in the field. As such, the T-72 was intended to be a tank mass-produced to equip the bulk of the Soviet Motor Rifle units, and for sale to export partners and eastern-bloc satellite states.
The T-80 design improved in several points upon the earlier T-64 design, introducing a gas turbine engine in the original model (which was denied for many years by western analysts), and incorporating suspension components of the T-72. This gave the tank a high power-to-weight ratio and made it easily the most mobile tank in service, albeit with acute range problems, as the turbine consumed fuel rapidly, even at engine idle. (Morozov's subsequent parallel development of the T-80UD replaced the gas turbine with a commercial turbo-diesel, to decrease fuel consumption and maintenance.) In comparison to its anticipated opponent, the M1 has a larger 1,500 hp (1,120 kW) gas turbine, but weighs 61 tons compared to the T-80s 42.6 tons, so it has a worse hp/t ratio of 24.5 compared to 27.1 and is less maneuverable than the T-80 (with GT). The T-80 can fire the same 9K112 Kobra (AT-8 Songster) anti-tank guided missile through the main gun as the T-64.

T-80U on exhibition at the Kubinka Tank Museum
The T-80U main battle tank (1985, "U" for uluchsheniye, meaning "improvement") was designed by SKB-2 in Leningrad (hull) and the Morozov Bureau (turret and armament). It is a further development of T-80A and is powered by the 1,250 hp (919 kW) GTD-1250 gas turbine. It is a step ahead of the GTD-1000T and GTD-1000TF engines that were installed on the previous tanks of the T-80 line. This gas turbine can use jet fuels as well as diesel and low-octane gasoline, has good dynamic stability, service life, and reliability. The GTD-1250 has a built-in automatic system of dust deposits removal. It retains the T-80s high fuel consumption, which the Russian army found unacceptable during the Chechen conflicts. It is equipped with the 2A46 fire control system and a new turret. The T-80U is protected by a second generation of explosive reactive armour called Kontakt-5, which can severely dissipate the penetrative capabilities of an APFSDS round, such as the M829A1 "Silver Bullet". The Kontakt-5 is integrated into the design of the turret, hull, and Brod-M deep wading equipment. Like all of the previous T-80 models, the T-80U has full length rubber side skirts protecting the sides but those above the first three road wheels are armored and are provided with lifting handles. It can fire the 9M119 Refleks (AT-11 Sniper) guided missile and the Long-Rod penetrator (HVAPFSDS) 3BM46. The remotely controlled commander's machine gun is replaced by a more flexible pintle-mounted one. A special camouflage paint distorts the tank's appearance in the visible and IR wavebands. The T-80U's 1A46 fire control system includes a laser range finder, a ballistics computer, and a more advanced 1G46 gunner's main sights, as well as thermal imaging sights, which greatly increases the T-80Us firepower over previous models. These new systems, together with the 125 mm D-81TM "Rapira-3" smooth bore gun, ensures that the T-80U can accurately hit and destroy targets at a range of up to 5 kilometers (ATGMs and HV/APFSDS). Experienced crew was able to successfully at the international exhibition missile to strike 52 targets without a miss at a distance of 5 km.
The T-80U(M) of the 1990s introduced the TO1-PO2 Agava gunner's thermal imaging sight and 9M119M Refleks-M guided missile, and later an improved 2A46M-4 version of the 125 mm gun and 1G46M gunner's sight was used.
Perhaps because of the turbine-powered tank's high fuel consumption, and the poor combat performance of older T-80BV tanks in the early days of the war in Chechnya, the Russian Army decided to standardize on the Uralvagonzavod factory's T-90 tank (derived from the T-72BM, but incorporating some T-80 technology), and have had some success selling it to the Indian Army. All T-72s, T-80s, and even the T-90 will be replaced starting 2025 by a new Russian tank, the T-14 Armata. The Omsk Tank Plant in Siberia is facing a shortage of domestic orders, unlike the Ukrainians which embraced the T-80 design and has had success updating and selling the tank. The Russians have only sold a small number of T-80 tanks to South Korea and China, and have demonstrated versions intended for export, including the T-80UM1 with active protection systems, and the advanced T-80UM2 Black Eagle concept tank. Although the T-80 production has stopped for the Russian Army, the Omsk plant still makes the tank for export.

In 1985 there were 1,900 T-80 MBTs overall. According to data publicized in Russia, 2,256 T-80 MBTs (Up to the T-80BV model, as T-80Us were never deployed in Europe) were stationed in East Germany between 1986 and 1987. NATO realized that new Soviet tanks could reach the Atlantic within two weeks and because of that started to develop counter methods that could stop them. This led to a sudden increase in development of anti-tank weapons including attack helicopters. In 1991 when the Soviet Union was breaking up the Soviet Army operated 4,839 T-80 MBTs in several different models.
T-80 MBTs were never used in the way in which they were intended (large-scale conventional war in Europe). They were deployed during the political and economical changes in Russia in the 1990s; In August 1991 communists and allied military commanders tried to overthrow Mikhail Gorbachev and regain control over the unstable Soviet Union. T-80UD tanks of the Russian 4th Guards Kantemirovskaya Tank Division drove onto the streets of Moscow but the Soviet coup attempt failed when the tank crews refused to attack the audience or the parliament.

The T-80's first (and only) use in combat was in 1994 in the First Chechen War, where they suffered heavy losses in urban combat. Due to design flaws and high operating costs, Russia has not used the tanks in later conflicts such as the 1999 Second Chechen War, 2008 Russo-Georgian War, or 2014 Russian intervention in Ukraine.

T-80B and T-80BV MBTs were never used in Afghanistan in the 1980s to maintain the tank's characteristics secret, but they were first used during the First Chechen War. This first real combat experience for T-80 MBTs was unsuccessful, as the tanks were used for capturing cities, a task for which they were not very well suited. The biggest tank losses were suffered during the ill-fated assault on the city of Grozny. The forces selected to capture Grozny were not prepared for such an operation, while the city was defended by, among others, veterans of the Soviet War in Afghanistan. The T-80 tanks used in this operation either did not have reactive armour (T-80B) or they were not fitted with explosive inserts before the start of the operation (T-80BV), and the T-80 crews lacked sufficient training before the war.
The inexperienced crews had no knowledge of the layout of the city, while the tanks were attacked by RPG teams hidden in cellars and on top of high buildings. The anti-tank fire was directed at the least armoured points of the vehicles. Each destroyed tank received from three to six hits, and each tank was fired at by six or seven rocket-propelled grenades. A number of vehicles exploded when the autoloader, with vertically placed rounds, was hit: in theory it should have been protected by the road wheel, but, when the tanks got hit on their side armour, the ready-to-use ammunition exploded. Out of all armored vehicles that entered Grozny, 225 were destroyed in the first month alone, representing 10.23% of all the tanks committed to the campaign.The T-80 performed so poorly that General-Lieutenant A. Galkin, the head of the Armor Directorate, convinced the Minister of Defence after the conflict to never again procure tanks with gas-turbine engines. After that, T-80 MBTs were never again used to capture cities, and, instead, they supported infantry squads from a safe distance. Defenders of the T-80 point out that the T-72 performed just as badly in urban fighting in Grozny as the T-80 and that there were two mitigating factors: after the breakup of the Soviet Union, poor funding meant no training for new Russian tank crews, and the tank force entering the city had no infantry support, which is considered to be suicidal by many major military strategists of armored warfare.

 The T-72 is a Soviet second-generation main battle tank that entered production in 1971. About 20,000 T-72 tanks were built making it one of the most widely produced post–World War II tanks, second only to the T-54/55 family. The T-72 was widely exported and saw service in 40 countries and in numerous conflicts.

The development of the T-72 was a direct result of the introduction of the T-64 tank. The T-64 (Object 432) was a very ambitious project to build a competitive tank with a weight of not more than 36 tons under the direction of Alexander Morozov in Kharkov. To achieve that goal, the crew was reduced to three soldiers, saving the loader by introducing an automated loading system. This and other steps allowed a reduced weight, but caused problems when looking for a reliable engine to fit in the smaller hull.
The production of the T-64 with a 115-mm gun began in 1964, but plans to build the T-64A with a more powerful 125-mm gun had already been made back in 1963.
Problems with the first batch of T-64 tanks were centred on the 5TDF 700 hp engine and the auto loading mechanism. The engine was unreliable, was difficult to repair and had a guaranteed life span of only a World War 2-era tank engine.
A strong lobby around designer Morozov advocated for the T-64 in Moscow, preventing rival developments and ideas to be discussed.

A mobilization model of the T-64 with the cheaper and much more reliable V-45 engine (780 hp) was to be developed by Uralvagonzavod, since the Malyshev Factory in Kharkov could not provide a sufficient number of 5TDF engines for all Soviet tank factories in wartime.
The 5TDF was too complex and its production twice as costly as the V-45 engine. In 1967, the Uralvagonzavod formed "Section 520", which was to prepare the serial production of the T-64 for 1970. The team soon found out that the more powerful V-45 engine put a lot of stress on the fragile T-64 hull, so that after some time cracks started to materialize. A more stable solution had to be found.

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 more powerful hull and running gear combination for that tank. Under influence from Kharkov, 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. Ammunition, consisting of a separate projectile and a propellant charge was now stored horizontally on two levels, not vertically on one level like 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 test their installation in the T-62, so the Ural plant was ready to adopt the 125-mm calibre for the T-64A as well.

Object 172 at the Kubinka Tank Museum
Uralvagonzavod produced the first prototype with a 125-mm gun and V-45K engine in 1968 as "Object 172". After intensive comparative testing with the T-64A, Object 172 was re-engineered in 1970 to deal with some minor problems. However, being only a "mobilization model", a serial production of Object 172 was not possible in peacetime. 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.
The first batch was built as "Object 172M" and, after some modifications, it was tested again in 1973 and accepted into service as the "T-72" under Soviet ministry directive number 554-172 dated 7 August 1973.
At least some technical documentation on the T-72 is known to have been passed to the CIA by the Polish Colonel Ryszard Kuklinski between 1971 and 1982.

The 1st series production of T-72 Object 172M begun in July at UKBM Nizhny Tagil. However, due to difficulties in getting the factory organised for the change in production from T-64 to T-72, only 30 completed tanks were delivered in 1973. Troubles continued in 1974 where out of state production quota of 440 only 220 were officially declared, with the actual number of completed tanks being close to 150. As a result, substantial investment in tooling was undertaken. Only after the factory was modernised could full-scale production of the T-72 begin. Nizhny Tagil produced T-72 in various forms until 1992.

The T-72 was the most common tank used by the Warsaw Pact from the 1970s to the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was also exported to other countries, such as Finland, India, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Yugoslavia, as well as being copied elsewhere, both with and without licenses.
Licensed versions of the T-72 were made in Poland and Czechoslovakia, for Warsaw Pact consumers. These tanks had better and more consistent quality of make but with inferior armour, lacking the resin-embedded ceramics layer inside the turret front and glacis armour, replaced with all steel. The Polish-made T-72G tanks also had thinner armour compared to Soviet Army standard (410 mm for turret). Before 1990, Soviet-made T-72 export versions were similarly downgraded for non-Warsaw Pact customers (mostly the Arab countries).Many parts and tools are not interchangeable between the Russian, Polish and Czechoslovakian versions, which caused logistical problems.
Yugoslavia developed the T-72 into the more advanced M-84, and sold hundreds of them around the world during the 1980s. The Iraqis called their T-72 copies the "Lion of Babylon" (Asad Babil). These Iraqi tanks were assembled from "spare parts" sold to them by Russia as a means of evading the UN-imposed weapons embargo. More modern derivatives include the Polish PT-91 Twardy. Several countries, including Russia and Ukraine, also offer modernization packages for older T-72s.
Various versions of the T-72 have been in production for decades, and the specifications for its armour have changed considerably. Original T-72 tanks had homogeneous cast steel armour incorporating spaced armour technology and were moderately well protected by the standards of the early 1970s. In 1979, the Soviets began building T-72 modification with composite armour similar to the T-64 composite armour, in the front of the turret and the front of the hull. Late in the 1980s, T-72 tanks in Soviet inventory (and many of those elsewhere in the world as well) were fitted with reactive armour tiles.

Laser rangefinders have appeared in T-72 tanks since 1978; earlier examples were equipped with parallax optical rangefinders, which could not be used for distances under 1,000 metres (1,100 yd). Some export versions of the T-72 lacked the laser rangefinder until 1985 or sometimes only the squadron and platoon commander tanks (version K) received them. After 1985, all newly made T-72s came with reactive armour as standard, the more powerful 840 bhp (630 kW) V-84 engine and an upgraded design main gun, which can fire guided anti-tank missiles from the barrel. With these developments, the T-72 eventually became almost as powerful as the more expensive T-80 tank, but few of these late variants reached the economically ailing Warsaw Pact allies and foreign customers before the Soviet bloc fell apart in 1990.
Since 2000, export vehicles have been offered with thermal imaging night-vision gear of French manufacture as well (though it may be more likely that they might simply use the locally manufactured 'Buran-Catherine' system, which incorporates a French thermal imager). Depleted uranium armour-piercing ammunition for the 125 mm (4.9 in) gun has been manufactured in Russia in the form of the BM-32 projectile since around 1978, though it has never been deployed, and is less penetrating than the later tungsten BM-42 and the newer BM-42M.

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) V-12 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-64/80 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 a simple rebreather chest-pack apparatus 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.
The T-72 has a comprehensive nuclear, biological, and chemical (NBC) protection system. The inside of both hull and turret is lined with a synthetic fabric made of boron compound, meant to reduce the penetrating radiation from neutron bomb explosions. The crew is supplied clean air via an extensive air filter system. A slight over-pressure prevents entry of contamination via bearings and joints. Use of an autoloader for the main gun allows for more efficient forced smoke removal compared to traditional manually loaded ("pig-loader") tank guns, so NBC isolation of the fighting compartment can, in theory, be maintained indefinitely. Exported T-72s do not have the antiradiation lining. 

Like all Soviet-legacy tanks, the T-72's design has traded off interior space in return for a very small silhouette and efficient use of armour, to the point of replacing the fourth crewman with a mechanical loader. The basic T-72 design has extremely small periscope viewports, even by the constrained standards of battle tanks and the driver's field of vision is significantly reduced when his hatch is closed. The steering system is a traditional dual-tiller layout instead of the easier-to-use steering wheel or steering yoke common in modern Western tanks. This set-up requires the near-constant use of both hands, which complicates employment of the seven speed manual transmission.
There is a widespread Cold War-era myth that T-72 and other Soviet tanks are so cramped that the small interior demands the use of shorter crewmen, with the maximum height set at 1.6 m (5 ft 3 in) in the Soviet Army.  According to official regulations, however, the actual figure is 1.75 m (5 ft 9 in)

T-72A top view. This model sports thick "Dolly Parton" composite armour on the turret front.

Indian T-72 Ajeya with ERA
Armour protection of the T-72 was strengthened with each succeeding generation. The original T-72 "Ural" Object 172M (from 1973) turret is made from conventional cast HHS steel armour with no laminates insert. It is believed that the maximum thickness is 280 mm (11 in), 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 steel, 105 mm (4.1 in) double layer of laminate and 30 mm (1.2 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 place 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 MBTs, featured a cast steel turret that included a cavity filled with quartz or sand in a form similar to US “fused-silica" armor. Steven J. Zaloga on the other hand mentions that the T-72 Model 1978 (Obiekt 172M sb-4), which entered production in 1977, featured a new turret with special armor composed of ceramic rods.
The T-72A featured a new turret with thicker but nearly vertical frontal armour. Due to its appearance, it was unofficially nicknamed "Dolly Parton" armour by the US Army. This used the new ceramic-rod turret filler, incorporated improved glacis laminate armor and, mounted new anti-shaped-charge sideskirts.
The T-72M was identical to the base T-72 Ural model in terms of protection, retaining the monolithic steel turret. The modernized T-72M1 was closer to the T-72A in terms of protection. It featured an additional 16 mm (0.63 in) of High Hardness Steel appliqué armour on the glacis plate, which produced an increase of 43 mm (1.7 in) in line of sight thickness. It was also the first export variant with composite armour in the turret containing ceramic rods sometimes called "sandbar armour".The turret armor composition was essentially identical to the T-72 "Ural-1" where as Soviet only T-72A had slightly increased turret protection.
Several T-72 models featured explosive reactive armour (ERA), which increased protection primarily against HEAT type weapons. Certain late-model T-72 tanks featured heavy ERA to help defeat modern HEAT and AP against which they were insufficiently protected.
Late model T-72s, such as the T-72B, featured improved turret armour, visibly bulging the turret front—nicknamed "Super-Dolly Parton" armour by Western intelligence.The turret armour of the T-72B was the thickest and most effective of all Soviet tanks; it was even thicker than the frontal armour of the T-80B. The T-72B used a new "reflecting-plate armor" (bronya s otrazhayushchimi listami), in which the frontal cavity of the cast turret was filled with a laminate of alternating steel and non-metallic (rubber) layers. The glacis was also fitted with 20 mm (0.8 in) of appliqué armour. The late production versions of the T-72B/B1 and T-72A variants also featured an anti-radiation layer on the hull roof.
Early model T-72s did not feature side skirts; instead, the original base model featured gill or flipper-type armour panels on either side of the forward part of the hull. When the T-72A was introduced in 1979, it was the first model to feature the plastic side skirts covering the upper part of the suspension, with separate panels protecting the side of the fuel and stowage panniers.
The July 1997 issue of Jane's International Defence Review confirmed that after the collapse of the USSR, US and German analysts had a chance to examine Soviet-made T-72 tanks equipped with Kontakt-5 ERA, and they proved impenetrable to most modern US and German tank projectiles. U.S. Army Spokesperson claimed at the show: "The myth of Soviet inferiority in this sector of arms production that has been perpetuated by the failure of downgraded T-72 export tanks in the Gulf Wars has, finally, been laid to rest. The results of these tests show that if a NATO/Warsaw Pact confrontation had erupted in Europe, the Soviets would have had parity (or perhaps even superiority) in armour" KE-effective ERA, such as Kontakt-5, drove the development of M829A3 ammunition.

The following table shows the estimated protection level of different T-72 models in rolled homogeneous armour equivalency. i.e., the composite armour of the turret of a T-72B offers as much protection against an APFSDS round as a 520 millimetres (20 in) thick armour steel layer.
Model Turret vs APFSDS Turret vs HEAT Hull vs APFSDS Hull vs HEAT
T-72 'Ural' 1973 380–410 mm (15–16 in) 450–500 mm (18–20 in) 335–410 mm (13.2–16.1 in) 410–450 mm (16–18 in)
T-72A(1979–1985)/1988+Kontakt 1 410–500 mm (16–20 in) 500–560 mm (20–22 in) 360–420 mm (14–17 in) 490–500 mm (19–20 in)
T-72M 1980 380 mm (15 in) 490 mm (19 in) 335 mm (13.2 in) 450 mm (18 in)
T-72M1 380 mm (15 in) 490 mm (19 in) 400 mm (16 in) 490 mm (19 in)
T-72B+Kontakt 1 1985 520–540 mm (20–21 in) 900–950 mm (35–37 in) 480–530 mm (19–21 in) 900 mm (35 in)
T-72B+Kontakt 5 1988 770–800 mm (30–31 in) 1,180 mm (46 in) 690 mm (27 in) 940 mm (37 in)
T-72B3+Relikt (2012)

Possible easy replacement of Kontakt 5 (or 1) with Relikt. Relikt defends against tandem warheads and reduces penetration of APFSDS rounds by over 50 percent. Calculation T-72B + Relikt vs APFSDS, on turret 1,000–1,050 mm, on hull 950-1,000 mm. For T-90MS Relikt is a basic set, for the T-90S basic set – Kontakt 5.
The calculation for a * vs HEAT * is more complicated.

Polish T-72 firing during training
The T-72 is equipped with the 125 mm (4.9 in) 2A46 series main gun, a significantly larger (20-mm larger) calibre than the standard 105 mm (4.1 in) gun found in contemporary Western MBTs, and still slightly larger than the 120 mm/L44 found in many modern Western MBTs. As is typical of Soviet tanks, the gun is capable of firing anti-tank guided missiles, as well as standard main gun ammunition, including HEAT and APFSDS rounds.
The original T-72 Object 172M (1973) used 2A26M2 model gun first mounted on T-64. The barrel had a length of 6350mm or 50.8 calibers and had maximum rated chamber pressure of 450 MPa. The cannon had an electroplated chrome lining but lacked a thermal sleeve. The cannon was capable of firing 3VBM-3 round with 3BM-9 steel projectile sabot and 3VBM-6 round with 3BM-12 Tungsten sabot APFSDS projectile. Allowing respectively 245 mm (9.6 in) and 280 mm (11 in) penetration of RHA steel at 2000m at 0 degree angle. In addition to APFSDS rounds T-72 Object 172M could also fire 3VBK-7 round incorporating 3BK-12 HEAT warhead and 3VBK-10 round incorporating 3BK-14 HEAT warhead. HEAT rounds allowed respectively 420 mm (17 in) and 450 mm (18 in) penetration of RHA steel at 0 degree angle. The High Explosive rounds provided included 3WOF-22 with 3OF-19 warhead or 3WOF-36 with the 3OF-26 warhead. For all rounds, the Zh40 propellant was used. Complementing the original gun setup was 2E28M "Siren" two-plane electrohydraulic stabilizer allowing automatic stabilization with speeds from 0.05 to 6 degrees per second.
Even as the T-72 Object 172M (1973) was entering production new ammunition was developed to offset armor developments in the West. Beginning in 1972, two new APFSDS rounds were introduced, the 3VBM-7 round with 3BM-15 Tungsten sabot projectile and the "cheaper" 3VBM-8 round with 3BM-17 sabot but without the tungsten carbide plug. These allowed penetration of respectively 310 mm (12 in) and 290 mm (11 in) RHA steel at 2000m at 0 degree angle. At the same time, a universal Zh52 propellant charge was introduced. The 3VBM-7 was the most common APFSDS round found in T-72 Object 172M tanks during the 70s.
The stated barrel life expectancy of the 2A26M2 model gun was 600 rounds of HE/HEAT equivalent to 600 EFC (Effective Full Charge) or 150 rounds of APFSDS.
The main gun of the T-72 has a mean error of 1 m (39.4 in) at a range of 1,800 m (1,968.5 yd). Its maximum firing distance is 9,100 m (9,951.9 yd), due to limited positive elevation. The limit of aimed fire is 4,000 m (4,374.5 yd) (with the gun-launched anti-tank guided missile, which is rarely used outside the former USSR). The T-72's main gun is fitted with an integral pressure reserve drum, which assists in rapid smoke evacuation from the bore after firing. The 125 millimeter gun barrel is certified strong enough to ram the tank through forty centimeters of iron-reinforced brick wall, though doing so will negatively affect the gun's accuracy when subsequently fired. Rumours in NATO armies of the late Cold War claimed that the tremendous recoil of the huge 125 mm gun could damage the fully mechanical transmission of the T-72. The tank commander reputedly had to order firing by repeating his command, when the T-72 is on the move: "Fire! Fire!" The first shout supposedly allowed the driver to disengage the clutch to prevent wrecking the transmission when the gunner fired the cannon on the second order. In reality, this still-common tactic substantively improves the tank's firing accuracy and has nothing to do with recoil or mechanical damage to anything. This might have to do with the lower quality (compared to Western tanks) of the T-72's stabilizers.

The vast majority of T-72s do not have FLIR thermal imaging sights, though all T-72s (even those exported to the Third World) possess the characteristic (and inferior) 'Luna' Infrared illuminator. Thermal imaging sights are extremely expensive, and the new Russian FLIR system, the 'Buran-Catherine Thermal Imaging Suite' was only introduced recently on the T-80UM tank. Most T-72s found outside the former Soviet Union do not have laser rangefinders. T-72s built for export have a downgraded fire-control system.

Like the earlier domestic-use-only T-64, the T-72 is equipped with an automatic loading system, eliminating the need for a dedicated crewmember, decreasing the size and weight of the tank.
However, the autoloader is of a noticeably different design. Both the T-64 and T-72 carry their two-section 125 mm ammunition (shell and full propellant charge, or missile and reduced propellant charge) in separate loading trays positioned on top of each other; but firstly, in T-64, 28 of these were arranged vertically as a ring under the turret ring proper, and were rotated to put the correct tray into position under the hoist system in the turret rear. This had the disadvantage of cutting the turret off from the rest of the tank, most notably, the driver. Accessing the hull required partial removal of the trays. The T-72 uses a design that has lower width requirements and does not isolate the turret compartment: the trays are arranged in a circle at the very bottom of the fighting compartment; the trade-off is the reduction of the number of trays to 22. The second difference is that in the T-64 the trays were hinged together and were flipped open as they were brought into position, allowing both the shell/missile and propellant charge to be rammed into the breech in one motion; in the T-72 the tray is brought to the breech as-is, with the shell in the lower slot and the charge in the upper one, and the mechanical rammer sequentially loads each of them, resulting in a longer reloading cycle.
The autoloader has a minimum cycle of 6.5 seconds (ATGM 8 seconds) and a maximum cycle of 15 seconds for reload, in later versions the sequence mode allows to reload in less than 5 seconds, allowing to reach 3 shots in 13 seconds.
The autoloader system also includes an automated casing removal mechanism that ejects the propellant case through an opening port in the back of the turret during the following reload cycle.
The autoloader disconnects the gun from the vertical stabilizer and cranks it up three degrees above the horizontal in order to depress the breech end of the gun and line it up with the loading tray and rammer. While loading, the gunner can still aim because he has a vertically independent sight. With a laser rangefinder and ballistic computer, final aiming takes at least another three to five seconds, but it is pipelined into the last steps of auto-loading and proceeds concurrently.
In addition to the 22 auto-loaded rounds, the T-72 carries 17 rounds conventionally in the hull, which can be loaded into the emptied autoloader trays or directly into the gun — slowly and awkwardly due to the absence of a human loader.

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