The T-90 is the current Main Battle Tank of the Russian Army and developed from the successful qualities of the preceding T-72 and T-80 series. Compared to its contemporaries, the T-90 is one of the best protected tanks in the world and also one of the most heavily armed combat systems. As with other Soviet-era tanks, the T-90 makes use of an integrated autoloader, three-man crew and low profile design.
With the fall of the Soviet Empire in 1991, the Russian military fell into a period of low morale and curtailed spending. As such, many projects were either shelved indefinitely or canceled altogether. During the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Army enjoyed the prospect of fielding two Main Battle Tanks (MBTs) side-by-side, beginning with the introduction of the T-64 in 1963. This was then later complemented by the T-72 of 1971. Both tank designs showcased an autoloader feeding a large-caliber 125mm smoothbore main gun. The T-64 was designed as the technology-laden (and therefore more expensive) primary Soviet Army tank solution while the T-72 was intended as the cheaper, production-/export-friendly mark. In the end, however, it was the T-72 that gained the larger legacy thanks to export sales while the T-64 was limited to Soviet territories due to its "state secret" status. The T-64 was then modernized to become the T-80 and qualities of the popular T-72 were included in this revised design.
The T-80 entered service in 1976 and became the primary MBT of the Soviet Army up until the collapse of the Soviet Empire in 1991. The T-80 was notable in its use of a gas turbine engine which promised higher power output over that of traditional diesel-fueled tank engines. However, the powerpack was never wholly reliable and proved more fuel thirsty, uneconomical and complicated to produce.
Realizing an uncertain world was now upon them, Russian authorities began debating the merits of producing and operating two similar-yet-different concurrent MBT solutions. As such, the focus fell onto developing a modernized form of the T-72 with key qualities of the T-80 to overtake the aging pair of fighting vehicles. The fire control system of the T-80 was mated to the T-72 frame while an autoloading facility was retained as was the proven 125mm smoothbore main gun - this amalgam creating the prototype designation of "T-88". The engine of choice fell to a diesel-fueled installation capable of 830 horsepower and the resulting product was then adopted as the "T-90", essentially an evolution of the original T-72 line.
Low-rate production of T-90 tanks began in 1993 and these were eventually followed by full-rate production vehicles beginning in 1995. Since then, some 1,670 T-90 tanks have been produced for Russia and several operators worldwide. Production is handled by the local concern of Uralvagonzavod based in Nizhny Tagil, Russia.
As in the T-72 before it, the T-90 utilizes a very low profile thanks to its two-man turret housing the commander and gunner (commander right, gunner left). The autoloader is of a carousel design perfected throughout the decades and feeds the projectile and charge from two separate rungs. As in previous Soviet tanks, the T-90 supports firing of guided anti-tank missiles from the main gun barrel and this can engage ground as well as aerial targets (helicopters). The driver is seated in the front-center of the hull with the turret immediately behind. The engine is situated in a rear compartment apart from the crew. The track system straddles the hull in the usual way and is dominated by its six double-tired, rubber-tiredroad wheels with the drive sprocket at the rear and the track idler at the front. Side skirt armor is a standard defensive measure seen on all T-90 tanks. The glacis plate is nearly vertical and adds basic protection against incoming enemy fire. Likewise, the turret is very squat with pointed edges, again providing a basic defense policy against incoming penetrating projectiles. The commander is afforded a raised cupola with vision blocks while the gunner manages his own turret roof hatch for entry/exit. Armor protection is a mix of steel and composites and further benefits from add-on Explosive Reactive Armor blocks ("Kontakt-5") providing protection from HEAT (High-Explosive, Anti-Tank), APFSDS (Armor-Piercing, Fin-Stabilized, Discarding Sabot) rounds, kinetic and chemical penetrators. Blocks are affixed to the hull front, sides and turret as required.
The armor scheme, fire control system and anti-missile measures are all descended from the T-80. An NBC (Nuclear, Biological, Chemical) protection system and night-vision equipment come standard. The "Shtora-1" anti-missile countermeasures suite is an optional fitting but nearly almost always incorporated to field units and serves to jam incoming signals such as those emitted from guided missiles. A laser warning receiver alerts the crew to tracking of the vehicle. The fire control system is fully digital and coupled to a thermal imaging device as well as laser rangefinder. Altogether, this allows for "firing on-the-move" as well as low-light activity. A dozer blade is hidden under the bow of the hull and can be used to clear obstacles while a mine-clearing plow can be added to the existing T-90 frame thanks to integrated connection points under the dozer blade.
The T-90 makes use of the same main gun as featured on the T-72 and T-80 prior - the 125mm 2A46M smoothbore tank gun. As mentioned, the main gun retains the missile-firing feature and its breech is fed through an autoloader (missiles being the AT-11 "Sniper" type). 43 x 125mm projectiles are carried aboard and this can be a mix of HE-FRAG(FS), HEAT-FS and APFSDS-T rounds as well as Sniper AT missiles. Secondary armament includes a 7.62mm PKT machine gun in a coaxial fitting next to the main gun with access to 2,000 rounds of ammunition. A 12.7mm NSV or Kord heavy machine gun is mounted on the turret roof for anti-aircraft defense and this is fed by 300 rounds of ammunition. Two banks of six smoke grenade dischargers allow the tank to present its own smokescreen to cover movements. Additionally, diesel fuel can be injected into the exhaust for a secondary smokescreen alternative - a staple of feature of most Soviet tanks.
The powerplant of choice for the T-90 originally focused on the V-84 12-cylinder diesel-fueled engine of 840 horsepower. The system was then upgraded through use of the V-92 12-cylinder diesel series which outputted at 950 horsepower. The latest T-90s now make use of the V-96 12-cylinder engine of 1,250 horsepower. The chassis rests atop a torsion bar suspension system to provide the needed mobility when attempting cross-country travel. Maximum speed is up to 40 miles per hour on ideal surfaces with an operational range peaking around 430 miles. Overall, the T-90 weighs in at 52 tons.
The original T-90 models were designated simply as "T-90". Export versions of this variant were marked as "T-90E" with the modified command vehicle version known as the "T-90K". The first major new variant in the T-90 line became the "T-90A" which was fielded with the V-92 diesel engine, an ESSA thermal viewing device and a welded turret assembly. The T-90A was then offered for export as the "T-90S" with command vehicles designated as "T-90SK".
The T-90 was modernized in 1996 with "Relikt" ERA protection along with a new composite armor scheme in the "T-90M" prototype. The development incorporated the new V-96 diesel engine of 1,250 horsepower as well as a new main gun, new turret assembly and a new thermal imaging device. GPS navigation was standard. The T-90M entered production as the "T-90MS".
As with any expensive battle tank prospect, the Russian Army sought to make the most of their investment and procured battlefield systems built upon the chassis of the T-90. This has gone on to include the BREM-72 Armored Recovery Vehicle (ARV), the BMR-3 mine clearance vehicle, the IMR-3 Combat Engineering Vehicle (CEV) and the MTU-90 bridge-laying tank.
T-90 tanks were given their baptism of fire in the Second Chechen War during the invasion of Dagestan in August of 1999. Dagestan lay at the shores of the Caspian Sea to which Chechnya was bordered to the west (North Ossetia just west of Chechnya). The First Chechen War (1994-1996) proved something of a humiliation to the Russians as it resulted in a Chechen separatist victory and a withdrawal of Russian military forces after a formal cease fire. During the conflict, the T-80 had shown its limitations in urban fighting where Chechen guerillas, utilizing hit-and-run tactics with rocket-propelled grenades, were able to disable over 200 Russian Army tanks in a single month. The T-80 was designed with the expansive European countryside in mind and urban fighting was not a part of its forte. Russian tankers proved ill-trained for the environment and were not effectively supported by accompanying ground troops and infantry fighting vehicles for close-in defense against such attacks.
On August 7th, 1999, the Islamic International Peacekeeping Brigade (which included al-Qaeda fighters) invaded the Russian republic of Dagestan to begin the Second Chechen War, a war that would last until September 28th. Having benefited from the poor showing of their T-80s in the preceding war, Russian officials moved to avoid mistakes by sending the T-90 into battle as a well-prepared instrument complete with an integrated anti-missile defense suite and accompanying forces. Armor protection was deemed excellent by Russian observers as T-90s sustained direct hits without any catastrophic losses. The Second Chechen War ultimately ended with a Russian victory and 2,500 enemy combatants killed to the Russian 279. The Russian victory did much to reestablish the image of the powerful Red Army that emerged from World War 2.
To date (2015), the Russian military operates around 930 T-90 tanks including some 930 T-90A models. One of the larger operators of the type is the Indian Army, having procured over 600 T-90S tanks to help shore up the limitations of its indigenous "Arjun" MBT program (Indian purchases were built locally from Russian-delivered kits). A further 1,000 additional T-90 tanks may be added still. Modifications to these Indian versions to suit Indian military requirements has earned the tank the local designation of "Bhishma" ("He of the Terrible Oath"). Algeria received 305 T-90SA series tanks with orders placed back in 2009. Azerbaijan has ordered some 20 T-90 tanks while Turkmenistan manages 10 with an exercised option of 30 more to come. It is believed that Uganda received 44 T-90S tanks from Russia from an order of 100 strong in 2010.