Why Russia Hasn't Written Off the T-80 Tank

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By Charlie Gao, The National Interest

While many Russian tank types are nominally meant to be replaced by the T-14 Armata, the modernization of old tank types is still occurring. Perhaps one of the more overlooked tanks that continues to be modernized are variants of the T-80.

While some in the West thought the design was a dead end after what was seen as a lackluster performance in Chechnya, many firms continued work on some very ambitious upgrade projects for it. Despite the economic hardship of the 1990s resulting in the cancellation of most of those, the Russian military has not given up on the T-80, and the type continues to be updated up to modern standards.

The primary reason for this is Russia’s geographic location. While T-72s and T-90s perform well in most climates, in the north where the temperatures can get very low, the T-80 is a far superior machine due to the turbine engine.

While Russian diesel tanks can take around 45 minutes to start at -30 degrees Celsius, gas turbine tanks can be up and running in around one minute. T-80s are also said to be more comfortable and warmer for the crew in such climates than other tanks.

So how did Russia plan to upgrade the T-80? Originally, the focus was going to be on improving the (then) top of the line T-80U. One of those projects was the Object 640 “Black Eagle” developed by the Leningrad (then Omsk) Plant. This tank was very forward-looking for its time and had a number of innovative concepts.

The chassis was a stretched T-80U hull to allow for increased frontal armor thickness. An additional road wheel was added to accommodate the additional length. Practically every component of the Black Eagle was compartmentalized, from the armament to each individual crew member. This would limit damage in the event of a successful penetration as the spall would be compartmentalized.

The armament was also placed in its own compartment, to allow for it to be easily changed and upgraded to meet evolving threats. In a change from the carousel autoloader featured in regular T-80s and T-72s, the Black Eagle used a bustle autoloader that allows for a higher rate of fire and improved survivability with blowout doors on the bustle. Unfortunately for the Omsk Tank plant, there was almost no appetite for such a tank in the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) or on the export market.

Other proposed modernizations of the T-80U line in the 1990s consisted of the T-80UM, which placed some simple thermal sights on the turret and allowed for the firing of the 9M119M gun-launched anti-tank guided missile (ATGM). Prototypes were also made that integrated various hard-kill active protection systems, the T-80UM1 with Arena and T-80UM2 with Drozd-2.

The one modernization of the T-80U that did reach serial production was the T-80UA, which incorporated an updated fire control system (FCS) and support for new ammunition in the autoloader.

Limited modernization of the earlier T-80B series of tanks (which were even more outdated at this point) was also undertaken in the 2000s in the form of the T-80BA which, like the T-80UA, added some small augmentations to the FCS and allowed for the shooting of more modern APFSDS ammunition. The T-80UE1 was also created by swapping the turrets on some T-80BVs with a surplus T-80UD turret that included the “A” modifications (with the improved autoloader and FCS).

It’s important to note that at this time, the T-72B was not receiving any big modernization packages either. The T-72BA upgrade procured around then is broadly similar to the T-80BA, T-80UA, and T-80UE1 upgrades in that it mostly featured small upgrades and no major improvements.

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For awhile, it was assumed that the T-80s had no future in Russia after the deep modernizations of T-80UM, T-80UM1 and T-80UM2 were not adopted. A Russian MoD official said on the Echo of Moscow radio station that only T-72 and T-90 tanks would remain in service by 2015.

In the end, this turned out not to be true. In 2017 the T-80BVM, a deep modernization of the T-80BV, was revealed to the public. This included the new standard Sosna-U thermal sight, a new Relikt explosive reactive armor (ERA) fit and a general overhaul of the chassis, bringing the T-80BV up to the standard of the T-72B3.

The T-80BVM is even superior to the T-72B3 in some aspects, as the ergonomics of the gunner’s station are said to be better than the B3 as the Sosna-U station is placed directly in front of the gunner as opposed to off to the side on the T-72B3. The superior characteristics of the T-80BVM have resulted in it being assigned to the elite 4th Guards Tank Division “Kantemirovskaya” instead of T-72 or T-90 variants.

Not only T-80BVs are getting modernized though, as in July 2018 it was reported that the Russian MoD was also looking into modernizing the T-80UE1. This modernization would likely replace the older PLISSA thermals on the UE1 with the new Sosna-U. Similar modernizations would probably be easily applied to the regular T-80Us and T-80UAs that are still in service. As some may say, reports of the T-80’s obsoleteness are greatly exaggerated.

Charlie Gao studied political and computer science at Grinnell College and is a frequent commentator on defense and national-security issues.

Image: Wikipedia.

This piece was originally published by The National Interest

Comments (1)
No. 1-1
MMAI
MMAI

With a Welded Turret, you can set up the backpack to be replaceable, within the limits of the turret ring balance. With a cast turret, you are stuck with what the tank was built with and often this will worsen over time, even beyond the dated baseline RHAe performance as the ceramics inside settle and/or degrade and new penetrators greatly change the way armor must operate to maintain even as-built RHAe levels.

See the Leclerc or Leo2A7+ for how modern armor is properly set up for modular updating and understand that you WILL PAY a weight penalty for the flexible mount system needed to accomodate upgrades, every five years or so.

The other big issue for the Russians is how much bigger a propellant/long rod combo they can go with while maintaining the breach length of the 2A46M2/3. If you cannot fit the 2A82, you're in a non-starter condition as you cannot nest the SLRP inside the propellant block which means you are at a developmental dead end because propellant chemistry doesn't make ~30% energy improvements very often and even when something does change, the operating pressure of the tube vs. mantlet penetration of the turret face and/or shot life becomes limiting.

The other thing to keep in mind is that while the Turbine Tank has some utility in the cold of Russian winters, the basic engine of the T-80BVM is likely still the older, 1,000hp, version instead of the 1,250hp model fitted to the later T-80U series.

This isn't too bad when you are still operating within the base 46-48 ton limit of the tank as built in 198x. But in a modern environment, where an armor upgrade can easily add 4-6 tons to the vehicle, it starts to mean genuine HP:Ton power losses which the smaller, less well protected, vehicle simply cannot afford.

Replacing the engine means upgrades to the trailing arm suspension units, transmission and possibly tracks as well and if you do this, you might as well strip th driver's station and fit a proper, modern, automatic gear box and steering setup.

All this for a vehicle which, at start, is going on 40 years old.

If you are going to go down this road, standardize with a kit. Pull the entire turret, replace it with something like that of the T-90M and/or invest in automation and a smaller caliber (57mm, AU-220M Baikal from the BMP-3 upgrade) autocannon, backed by an entirely different, less expensive, in-vehicle camper-back to support multi-shot HVM (carry eight missiles, ripple fire four @ 4,500fps, guide on two+two targets in a 4 second ripple, defeat any APS).

Now your propellant limit is that of a SIX FOOT missile instead of a 2ft propellant bag and upgrading the weapons system is fairly simple as you have the Ataka and Vikhr starting points on the Terminator series vehicle (which foolishly fails to put the missiles under armor).

Removing the 125mm gun turret would additionally give you a working weight differential and so allow replacement of the hull armor with much better roof protection against top attack by ATGW or smart artillery rounds as well as main gun SLRP while using rapid-salvo missiles would bypass the biggest LER bottleneck in armored warfare which is always the breach cycle on 2-3,000lb gun tube that has to be brought to battery to access the autoloader and costs you anything up to an added 4 seconds for want of an on-mount magazine of 3-5 shots, itself impossible in the tight confines of the T-80 turret.

Either approach would be vastly more effective than the existing system of penny packet prodution of T-90M and T-80BVM upgrades while 'awaiting funds' for the gold plated T-14 which may frankly never be economically viable.

Coupled to Uran based automation of 3:1 vehicle platoons with upgrades to formation linked common maneuver steering across a discrete MMW or laser link, and single fire control setup, and the nature of mechanized maneuver combat could finally move beyond the WWII King Tiger levels it has presently stabilized at under the extant PFM trinity of plateau'd armor design.

This is important because, as is, tanks lack a firm roadmap for moving into an increasingly urbanized warfare setting which is increasingly where you will have to fight as open field maneuver is dominated by indirects and PGM driven CAS.


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