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T-72 tank

By Sakhal

The Soviet main battle tank T-72 was presented in public for the first time in the commemorative parade of the 60th Aniversary of the Revolution on November 1977. It was the tank of which more units were produced in the Soviet Union and it was exported to every country in the Warsaw Pact. On the contrary, the T-80, of similar dimensions to the ones of the T-64, started to be produced in 1981 and it remained in use only with the Soviet Union.

Some commentators stated that the relatively small number of T-64 tanks produced indicates that there were serious problems with this model and it seems that a simplified version was put under production. This version had a more conventional, less complex engine with 12 cylinders in V and it lacked capability for shooting missiles, but it kept the new suspension system and a very similar morphology in the hull and turret. But it remained as speculation if this new tank was introduced to fix the imperfections of the original T-64 or if it was a provisional model fitted with some experimental characteristics. Some pointed that the T-64 was of more advanced conception, one which would link directly with the T-80, and that because of it the Soviets were more careful about showing it in public or exporting it. Traditionally the Soviets only exported - including the satellite states of the Warsaw Pact - military material of second rate, rarely of first rate, which constituted an important difference between the policies of the Warsaw Pact and the Atlantic Alliance. Unlike the Soviet Union, the rest of the countries in the Warsaw Pact lacked high-technology equipment.

T-72 tank

The new tank was finally denominated T-72 and it became the backbone of the armored divisions in the Warsaw Pact and its satellite states from the moment of its introduction in 1971, and it seemed that this state of things would last for quite a long time, even if only due to purely economical reasons. Among others, the T-72 was sold to Algeria, Cuba, India, Libya and Syria. It is believed that the T-72 is a much better tank than the T-64, even if this one seemed to have more advanced characteristics. The T-72 was much simpler mechanically - which was always an important consideration for the Soviet, their allies and their satellite states - and actually it has a better power-weight ratio than the T-64, thanks to the increase in power and the decrease in weight. The maximum speed in the T-72 was better than in the T-64 (reaching 60 kilometers/hour) and the preservation of the hydropneumatic suspension system meant that this speed could be sustained as well. The engine in the T-72 was a derivative from the V-12 engine used in the T-62 and like that one it was equipped with an integrated smoke generator, unlike the T-64, which used smoke launchers. Besides, the reduction in length in almost 50 centimeters in respect of the T-64, combined with a slight increment in width, granted better stability and control. The improved systems for automatic load and fire control for the new 125-millimeter cannon granted a superior firepower and increased the chances to hit with the first shot. Actually, the T-72 soon demonstrated to be a very powerful and interesting machine. A series of variants were made, reintroducing the usage of armored skirts to better protect the upper part of the tracks and the compartment of the engine. The first important remodeling was denominated T-72M; among its modifications were a fore protection of increased thickness and armored panels applied in other parts, along with an anti-radiation coating. The chassis of the T-72 was used as well as the base for a recovery vehicle and an engineers' tank, and also for the anti-aircraft tank ZSU-30-2, which was armed with a twin 30-millimeter cannon controlled by radar. Every T-72 was equipped with retractile dozer blades to allow them to prepare their emplacements by themselves.

T-72 tank

The elevation sector in the cannon (from +18 to -5 degrees) and the ammunition types used matched those of the T-64. Also the data about the machine guns is similar, but in the T-72 the machine gun in the cupola is directly actuated by the commander instead of from a distance, which increases practical rate of fire to 200 rounds per minute instead of 100. Also are similar the characteristics of the transmission, suspension and NBC (Nuclear-Bacteriological-Chemical) protection. Regarding wheel arrangement, the T-72 had three return rollers (these were four in the T-64) and the tracks were assembled with simple uncoated steel pins, as in the T-62, whereas the T-64 used twin articulated steel pins. The driver and the gunner were provided with optical systems of several magnification levels for diurnal and nocturnal use. The telemeter, originally optical, was later replaced by a laser rangefinder. The automatic loader was different to the one used in the T-64. This one stored the forty 125-millimeter projectiles vertically, next to the sachets containing the propulsion charges. Both the projectile and the sachet had to be swiveled to be introduced in the breech. The T-72, in return, had in the turret a rotatory plate with forty boxes, containing each a sachet and a projectile. A computer had stored in memory the location of the projectiles according to their type (subcalibrated, high explosive or shaped charge) and it selected the corresponding box, which was placed under the loading mechanism by means of the rotation of the plate. The barrel would then be inclined four degrees and the box raised so the projectile would make contact with the rear part of the firing mechanism. Finally, an oscillating arm would introduce the projectile in the breech and then do the same with the sachet.

T-72 tank

T-72 tanks during maneuvers. The automated load system for the 125-millimeter cannon has been very criticized, because of being impossible to manually manipulate it and difficult to reload.

The introduction of the T-72 caused in the NATO a serious concern. It was affirmed that its armor could not be pierced by the available anti-tank ammunitions nor by missiles. It is doubtful the fundament of such alarming reports; perhaps they were part of a relatively frequent tactic carried by the military command in the Atlantic Alliance, which often overrated the threat posed by the new Soviet weapons, either for prevention or for pressing for better defense budgets. What is true is that more powerful anti-tank ammunitions were developed - such as the missile TOW and its improved versions - and the new main battle tanks were built with much stronger protection that the ones from the previous generation. However, the participation in combat of the T-72, when being used by the Syrians against the Israeli in the Lebanese conflict of June-July 1982, did not confirm the fearsome expectatives aroused by the T-72. The Israeli Merkava, armed with the veteran 105 -millimeter cannon of 51 calibers, imposed themselves to the T-72, whose armor did not demonstrate to be specially resistent. The Israeli used the magnificent piercing ammunition developed by themselves and, of course, their military instruction was on average very superior to the one of any of their neighbors, but in any case it became clear that the T-72 was far from invincible. The Israeli failed, however, in capturing any exemplar of the T-72 for examination, for the Syrians put great determination in protecting the damaged exemplars, sometimes surrounding them with mines. The same could be said about the speed. In the beginning, fantastic numbers were stated: 100 kilometers/hour; later the estimated speed was reduced to 80 kilometers/hour, and in 1984 the Pentagon determined it in 60 kilometers/hour.

Since its introduction in 1971 until the desmembering of the Soviet Union in the first years of the 1990s, the T-72 was being constantly produced. In 1985 production numbers were already close to 25000 units. Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it continued in production despite the severe difficulties - even if in much lesser quantities - due to the demand from the former clients of the Soviet Union, such as Finland, which could afford it to increase its force of T-72 tanks. But in the factories in Czech Republic, Poland and Serbia the production was discontinued. However, in the mid 1990s the T-72 tanks were still present in large numbers in the world. In most cases, these tanks were the best that the respective armies had and it is logical to think that they would maintain them in the best conditions possible. The T-72 entered action in 1982 in Middle East, during the invasion of Lebanon by Israel, in Afghanistan, in the Persian Gulf and in the Yugoslavian War, apart from service with the very Soviet Union. It should be stated that it is believed that the T-72 was never a true rival for the "improved" M60, the Merkava, the M1 Abrams, the Chieftain, the Challenger and not even for the AMX-30 [1]. But, since in most occasions these tanks entered action manned by second-rate forces, there is space to speculate about the true cause of their bad performance.

[1] The author/translator has serious doubts about the T-72 not being a true rival for the AMX-30.

T-72 tank

1) Driving lights FG 125 2) Steering levers 3) NBC protection system 4) Gearshift lever 5) Manual control for cannon elevation 6) Daytime display TPD- 2-49 7) Nighttime gunner's display TPN-1-49-23 8) Commander's searchlight 9) Anti-aircraft 12.7-millimeter machine gun NSV 10) Ammunition for 12.7-millimeter machine gun 11) Antenna base 12) Box containing fording equipment and cold rations 13) Engine V-84 of 780 horsepower 14) Gearbox 15) Auxiliary fuel tank 16) Cannon projectiles with separated propulsion charges to ease manipulation 17) Circular-shaped ammunition repository of the cannon's automatic loader 18) Loader's seat 19) Decontamination equipment 20) Driver's seat 21) Parking brake 22) Crate containing spare parts 23) Manual control for turret rotation 24) Indicator of turret azimuth 25) Breechblock of the 125-millimeter cannon 2A46 26) Co-axial 7.62-millimeter machine gun PKT 27) Commander's periscopes 28) Protection side skirts 29) Ammunition for 7.62-millimeter machine gun 30) Radio equipment 31) Hydraulic engine for turret rotation 32) Muzzle brake 33) Thermal and anti-curvature shirt 34) Bore evacuator.

T-72 tank

Crew: 3

Armament: One smoothbore 125-millimeter cannon; one PKT 7.62 millimeters co-axial machine gun; one DShK 12.7-millimeter machine gun in the commander's cupola

Ammunitions: 40 for 125-millimeter cannon

Armor: 35-280 millimeters

Lenght (with the cannon facing forward): 9.24 meters

Lenght (hull): 6.95 meters

Width: 3.6 meters

Height: 2.37 meters

Weight: 41 tonnes

Ground pressure: N/A

Engine: Supercharged Diesel with 12 cylinders in V, water-cooled and with a maximum power of 780 horsepower

Power/weight ratio: 19 horsepower/tonne

Maximum speed (in road): 60 kilometers/hour

Maximum speed (in countryside): 50 kilometers/hour

Maximum operational range (in road): 450-480 kilometers (1000 liters tank)

Maximum surmountable trench: 2.7 meters

Maximum surmountable step: 0.8 meters

Maximum surmountable slope: 60 percent

Maximum fording: 1.4 meters unprepared and 5.5 meters with snorkel

Article updated: 2015-07-10

Categories: Tanks - Cold War - 20th Century - [General] - [General]


Website: Military History

Article submitted: 2015-06-06

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