Top Five Potential New Clients For Russia’s New T-90MS ‘Breakthrough’ Tank

Russia’s New T-90MS ‘Breakthrough’ Tank

Entering service in early 2020, the T-90M Breakthrough tank is currently in production in Russia in parallel to the heavier and more costly T-14 Armata to phase out upgraded variants of Cold War-era T-72 and T-80 tanks, with both relying on many of the same technologies in their sensors, communications and armour. 

Among its features are the integration of the new 2A46M-5 gun and the T-14 tank’s Kalina fire control system, the Afghani active protection system and Relikt explosive reactive armour which provide a degree of survivability with few rivals in the world and far superior firepower to older T-90 variants. The tank also uses similar communication and command suite and digital communications systems to the T-14 for greater situational awareness and network-centric warfare capabilities. 

The T-90 has been the most popular tank in the world in terms of export sales over the past 25 years, with 12 countries have placed orders for the vehicles including Russia itself, and many ordering several hundred. As a marked improvement over older T-90s, and combining very high performance with much lower operational costs or maintenance needs than Western rivals or the T-14, the T-90M is expected to see considerable export successes and has already seen two foreign orders - one from Egypt in 2020 for 500 tanks and another from India the year before for 460 tanks. Based on their military needs and previous purchasing patterns, a look at the five leading potential clients for the T-90MS, the designation for the export variant of the T-90M, is given below. 

1. Vietnam 

Although Vietnam fields one of the largest tank forces in East Asia, the overwhelming majority of its approximately 1900 vehicles are obsolete first or second gyration designs including approximately 1200 Soviet T-54/55s and their Chinese derivative the Type 59, and approximately 300 each of the PT-76 and Type 62/63 light tanks. 

Vietnam’s fighting elite s comprised of 70 T-62 tanks, a design which dates back to 1961, with its only modern tank being the T-90S of which just 64 are in service. With the country maintaining a high defence budget and continuing to invest in modernisation, the possibility of further T-90 purchases, very possibly of the more advanced new T-90MS variant, remains considerable. Although the country’s navy and air force are expected to continue to receive budget priority, significant modernisation of Vietnamese armoured units is likely over the next decade with the T-90MS remaining by far the most likely candidate.

2. Algeria

As the second-largest foreign client for the T-90 tank, Algeria has long been a major client for Russian armour and currently fields over 1500 Soviet and Russian tanks. These include over 600 T-90S tanks, which are a variant of the T-90S adapted and modernised for the country’s requirements, as well as approximately 300 each of the T-72M1/M1M, the T-62 and the T-55. 

While the T-55 and T-62 are expected to remain in service despite their age, largely for training and reserve units, the possibility of replacing the T-72 either with more T-90s or with the next generation T-14 remains considerable. The possibility remains considerable that future T-90s ordered could be of the more capable T-90MS variant, which would provide a more comfortable performance advantage over the M1 Abrams of neighbouring Morocco or NATO tanks fielded by European powers. 

Older T-90s could also potentially be upgraded to the T-90MS standard, much as Russia plans to upgrade most of its own units to the T-90M standard, which would provide a cost-effective means to very significantly improve the country’s armoured warfare capabilities. 

3. Belarus

Despite being Russia’s only major defence partner in Europe, and benefitting from a sizeable military-industrial base inherited from the Soviet Union, Belarusian armoured units notably leave something to be desired with reliance solely on the T-72B3 and T-72B in frontline roles. Although by far the most formidable T-72 variant, the T-72B3 is still far inferior to frontline NATO platforms such as the K2 Black Panther set to be acquired by neighbouring Poland, or the latest variants of the M1A2 Abrams deployed by the U.S. Army across much of the continent. 

With Minsk having repeatedly highlighted that it perceives growing NATO forces on its borders to pose a major security threat, the possibility of the country investing in acquiring new armour from Russia, possibly on friendly terms or financed by loans from Moscow, remains significant. As the T-72 becomes increasingly obsolete for an unsupported frontline role, and particularly the ageing T-72B variants, the T-90MS represents the most obvious replacement - and a tank which Moscow would likely see the benefit in providing to Belarus as affordably as possible. 

4. Syria

The Syrian Arab Army has long been a leading foreign client for Russian tank designs, and after being one of the first countries to deploy the T-62 in combat during the Yom Kippur War it became the first-ever client for the T-72 in the 1980s - a tank from which the T-90 is directly derived. Syria has received considerable armoured units from Russia as aid since the Russian military intervened in the country in September 2015 to support counterinsurgency efforts, with its 5th Corps formed under Russian patronage being supplied with T-62M and T-72B3 tanks from Russian reserves - the latter which is still used in Russian frontline units today. 

More capable Syrian Tiger Force units were equipped with T-90A tanks - a much older T-90 variant that had been in service in the Russian Army since 2004. Although Syria will likely continue to be supplied with legacy Russian armour if it faces a serious shortfall, with the conflict has ended in the vast majority of the country Syria may seek to equip its elite units with more capable tanks still in the form of the T-90MS - either as an upgrade package for older T-90s or, more likely, purchased off the shelf from Russia. This could be seen as necessary to provide a more distinct advantage over Turkish Leopard 2 tanks and greater survivability against Turkish air attacks as the possibility of further confrontations over Turkey’s effective occupation of Syria’s northern Idlib governate become a possibility. 

5. Iran

Iran’s armoured units are some of the most antiquated in the Middle East or Central Asia, with over 1500 tanks in service all of which are pre-third generation and effectively obsolete for frontline engagements. The elite of the Iranian Army is approximately 500 T-72S tanks that were produced under license in the country, and which have extremely limited capabilities relative to modern T-72 variants such as the T-72B3 used in the Russian Army and delivered as an aid to Syria in the 2010s. 

Although Iran has unveiled the indigenous Karrar tank, which appears to be derived from the T-72 based on experience in license manufacturing the Soviet vehicle, its capabilities have been brought to serious question particularly conspiring Iran’s lack of experience in the field of tank design or modernisation or in armoured warfare in general. 

The possibility of Iranian acquisition of T-90 tanks, possibly produced domestically under license, has been raised in the past, and it is likely that if such a purchase is made the country will choose the latest and most sophisticated variant. Armoured warfare, however, has hardly been a priority for the Iranian military meaning a much-needed upgrade to its units could be postponed until the second half of the decade or later.

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