850 Obsolete Tanks Can’t Stop Russia: Ukraine Chose Sheer Numbers Over Modernisation and Suffered

Following the initiation of large scale strikes by the Russian Military against targets across Ukraine on the morning of February 24, questions long raised regarding the capabilities of both countries’ armoured units have gained a new relevance. Ukraine deploys the largest tank force in Europe at 820-850 vehicles, close to 90 percent of which are variants of the T-64 of which an estimated 720-750 are in service. Russia’s own tank forces are the largest in the world and are both more modern and more diverse with significant numbers of post-Soviet tanks in service. Ukraine has very strongly prioritised quantity over quality when investing in armoured warfare, fielding no tanks built after the Soviet collapse and doing very little to upgrade the Soviet era vehicles that it does deploy, where the operational costs of its very large fleet could have potentially been used to make meaningful improvements or even acquire new tanks if numbers had been cut. Assessing Ukraine’s armoured warfare capabilities provide insight into the consequences of its choices, and can be best considered in the context of needing to prepare for potential conflict with the armoured units of neighbouring Russia.

Although Ukraine inherited one of the very largest and most sophisticated tank factories the world when the Soviet Union collapsed, the Malyshev Factory with a peacetime capacity of 800 tanks per year, the sharp decline of the country’s economy meant that aside from production to meet a single order from Pakistan in the mid-1990s, the factory has otherwise produced a negligible output and today struggles to complete half a dozen tanks per year. Ukraine’s unique decision to keep the T-64 tank in operation as its primary tank, where the T-72 was generally seen as more cost effective, was largely due to the fact that the Malyshev Factory produced T-64s and T-80s but not T-72s, meaning they could be more easily modernised and maintained there. Furthermore, the T-80’s much higher operational costs led to these superior vehicles being placed in storage. As a result, while Russian T-90 tanks have all been built after the Soviet collapse, as have other advanced tanks such as the T-80 and T-14, Ukraine’s tanks were almost without exception inherited from the Soviet era, with those few new tanks produced at Malyshev being for export. 

The T-64 dates back to the mid-1960s, with all variants in Ukrainian services being derivatives of the T-64B that first entered service in 1976. Improvements have included integration of Kontakt-1 explosive reactive armour (ERA) and some minor external armour additions. Even compared to Soviet era vehicles, the armour of Ukrainian tanks remains poor with the T-64’s base armour being far inferior to top end Soviet tanks such as the T-80U, while Kontakt-1 remains three generations behind the latest Soviet ERA with even advanced Soviet tanks having adopted Kontakt-5 from the mid-1980s. The T-64BV forms the large majority of Ukrainian tank units with an estimated 630-650 in service, and even for the 1980s was far from state of the art making it hopelessly obsolete on a modern battlefield. Its lack of thermal sights means its situational awareness is poor, and combined with weak armour means it would likely be taken out without firing a shot even if outnumbering its adversary if facing 21st century tanks. 

A more capable T-64 variant, the T-64BM, uses an improved 850hp engine which helps compensate for added weight and improves on the T-64BV’s mobility, although this still remains below average for modern tanks. The tank integrates the Nizh explosive reactive armour, comparable to the late Soviet era Kontakt-5, as well as a new 125mm gun. A further improvement, the T-64BM2, uses a more powerful 1000hp engine and notably benefits from thermal sights - a feature used in the Soviet era on the T-80UK and on all frontline Russian tanks but integrated onto Ukrainian armour only from 2020. 100 T-64BM and T-64BM2 tanks are thought to be in service, only around 12-24 of them being of the latter, with the remainder of Ukrainian armoured units comprised of the even more obsolete T-64BV. The T-64BM2 upgrade package was considered a much cheaper alternative to production of new T-80-derived tanks, but was itself unaffordable with plans for anything more than a token number reportedly cancelled. 

The remainder of Ukrainian armoured units are formed of an estimated 100-120 T-72AV tanks, with Ukraine being one of the very last remaining operators of derivatives of the T-72A family from the 1970s that were already considered obsolete when the Cold War ended. Ukraine has exported many of its T-72s, a notable client which used them in combat being South Sudan, and those in service are expected to fare worse in combat than even the T-64BV. The decision made with regards to which tanks to maintain in the Ukrainian inventory have left it with armoured formations which are entirely obsolete, and would be unlikely to cause significant damage even to lower end Russian tanks such as the T-72B3M - let alone to medium level tanks such as the T-90M which is expected to spearhead any armoured thrust and was developed using technologies 30-40 years ahead of those deployed on Ukraine’s armour. 

While savings from downsizing its armoured units could have financed modernisation, Ukraine’s decision to field large numbers of tanks but to largely ignore their complete obsolescence has had significant consequences. One alternative would have been to operate T-80 tanks rather than leaving them in storage, with several dozen reportedly being stored but none operational. The T-80UD, which was one of the USSR’s most capable, was produced at Malyshev and would present a more much credible threat to Russian armour than anything currently in the Ukrainian inventory. Its high operational costs led the Ukrainian Army to choose to place the vehicles in reserve and instead field larger numbers of T-64s that were cheaper to operate. New production of T-80 tanks, including the T-80UD and later its derivative the T-84, were directed at export markets meaning not even a single unit of T-80/84s, either inherited or newly built, are operational.

Ukraine also refrained from upgrading its T-64s to the T-64BM2 standard in meaningful numbers, despite the necessary technologies being very far from new and upgrades having the potential to be implemented for over a decade. Furthermore, a lack of investment in developing modern penetrative rounds compatible with the T-64 design has meant that even the T-64BM2 has a negligible ability to threaten modern Russian armour at combat ranges despite its less obsolete degree of situational awareness and armour protection. As it stands the very overwhelming performance advantages enjoyed by Russian armour mean that Ukraine’s tanks will pose little challenge in combat, and the impact on morale of very one sided losses could itself be decisive in persuading personnel to abandon their vehicles or avoid the battlefield altogether. Had Ukraine fielded a force even one fifth the size of the current one, but comprised it around 150-200 of the more capable T-80UD, T-84 or even T-64BM2 with a more viable class of penetrative round, it would have arguably been much more threatening than 850 totally obsolete T-64s and T-72s against which Russian armour will face little threat.   



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