So Much for the Myth of Russian Main Battle Tank Superiority

T-72 destroyed during Desert Storm. Image – Russian Army

Throughout the 1980s, the U.S. Army expended considerable time, effort, and angst searching for the answer to a singular question: Could the M1 Abrams survive against Soviet main battle tanks in a force-on-force engagement? At the time, the Soviet tank force consisted primarily of T-64, T-72, and T-80 (a gas turbine-powered development of the T-64) main battle tanks. The T-64, T-72, and T-80 share several basic design elements, and they are equivalent in terms of combat capability and survivability.

In 1991, after a mere 100 hours of ground combat in Iraq, the U.S. learned conclusively that not only could the M1A1 Abrams survive, but also that the Iraqi T-72s were simply not even in the same league as the Abrams and the British Challenger. During Operation Desert Storm, the Abrams and Challenger proved capable of engaging and destroying T-72s beyond the range of the T-72’s 125mm 2A64M main gun, enabling American and British tank crews to pick off T-72s at long range with impunity. An FV4034 Challenger achieved a kill at over 5,100 meters (5,577.4 yd, or 3.17 mi), the farthest known tank-versus-tank kill in history.

In close combat, the T-72 fared no better. Abrams and Challenger crews engaged, maneuvered against, and defeated T-72s faster than the Iraqi tank crews could react. During the battle of 73 Easting (26 February 1991), elements of the U.S. Army’s 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment – including approximately 36 M1A1 Abrams tanks – defeated two Iraqi armored brigades in close combat. In the battle, the 2nd ACR lost no Abrams tanks and only one M2 Bradley Fighting Vehicle to enemy fire. The Iraqi Army lost 160 tanks, 180 personnel carriers, 12 artillery pieces, and 80 wheeled vehicles.

Facing an American Abrams or British Challenger in a Russian-made T-72 proved little better than bringing a knife to a gunfight.

Fast forward 31 years . . .

The tank force of the Russian Army invading Ukraine consists primarily of T-72, T-80, and T-90 tanks. The T-90 is essentially a late-model T-72 hull and turret, integrating the newer V-84 MS diesel engine and the advanced turret components of the latest T-80U. Facing the Russian invasion is a mixed force of Ukrainian tanks, consisting of T-54/55s, T-62s, T-64s, T-72s, T-80s, and T-84s (a Ukrainian development of the Russian T-80UD).

While open-source reporting regarding tank-on-tank engagements in Ukraine has been scarce, it is a moot point. The Russians and Ukrainians are using essentially the same tanks against each other. Nevertheless, Russian losses thus far have been staggering. Analysis of open-source reporting suggests the Russian Army has thus far sustained over 22,400 casualties in Ukraine, with the loss of at least 939 tanks and 2,342 armored fighting vehicles. Amid the fighting, the Ukrainian Army has managed to increase its tank inventory, thanks to its recovery of Russian tanks abandoned in the field.

A significant factor in the Russian losses in terms of armored vehicles has been the effect of Western anti-armor systems donated to the Ukrainian Army. Beyond the well-publicized success of anti-armor missile systems such as the Javelin against Russian armor, man-portable systems such as the AT4, NLAW, and Panzerfaust 3 have also reportedly racked up impressive kill totals against Russian main battle tanks and armored fighting vehicles. Should the looming transfer of Leopard 1A5 tanks to Ukraine come to fruition, the odds stack even higher against the Russian forces.

For the Kremlin and Vladimir Putin, the invasion of Ukraine is providing the same hard lesson Operation Desert Storm gave 31 years ago. Complacency and reliance on propaganda are no substitutes for proven combat effectiveness. Talk is cheap . . . Soldiers’ lives are not.

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About Dean Lockwood

Dean is responsible for Military Vehicles Forecast and Ordnance & Munitions Forecast. Prior to joining Forecast International, Dean served as an intelligence analyst in the U.S. Army for 10 years. As an Order of Battle and weapons specialist, he served in a variety of assignments, ranging from running the intelligence section of an Apache attack helicopter squadron in combat to representing a theater-level intelligence organization in a national-level interagency intelligence working group. His intelligence assignments have included duty in Japan, Korea, the Netherlands, Germany, Turkey and Iraq, as well as Fort Hood, Texas, and Norfolk, Virginia.

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