The Soviets/Russians have always maintained a penchant for successful (and globally popular) tank designs since they unveiled their war-winning T-34 Medium Tank during World War 2. The T-34 began a long-running history of capable, cost-effective combat machines designed to match - or in some cases surpass - available Western offerings. The Cold War-era T-72 proved no exception, granted with excellent speed for its class and an inherent reliability that is always require by the modern battlefield. Perhaps most important to procurement authorities, the T-72 was a budget-conscious end-product which could be produced in the tens of thousands during a period when every effort was being made to stay one step ahead of the United States and Europe in comparable developments. As such, the T-72 has gone on to see an extended service life in many foreign inventories and has undoubtedly proven an export success. With over 25,000 examples delivered, the T-72 ranks only second to the most successful post-World War 2 tank - the T-54/T-55 (with as many as 100,000 being built). In comparison, the wartime T-34 saw 84,000 units produced.
The T-72 originated as a design to counter the expensive nature of the technologically-advanced T-64 of 1963. The T-64 was the primary spearhead Soviet Main Battle Tank and introduced the D-81T 125mm smoothbore main gun. To this point, Western offerings relied on a rifled 105mm system and have since gone on to adopt a 120mm smoothbore design themselves. The T-64 also coupled the 125mm main gun with an automatic loader which reduced the crew size to three and contained overall operational weights to manageable levels while promoting a reduced profile on the horizon. The T-64B was the first Soviet tank line to support firing guided anti-tank missiles from the main gun barrel which broadened its tactical value considerably. However, its procurement costs proved limited and only 13,000 T-64 tanks were produced from 1951 to 1962 from plants originating in Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and Uzbekistan.
The prototype T-72 was born as the "Object 172" which evolved into the modified "Object 172M". Evaluations of this new vehicle were undertaken in 1971 and concluded the tank to be functional and capable, leading to its adoption as the "T-72" for the Red Army. Serial production began that same year, quickly replacing the T-55 and T-62 in production, and formal deliveries occurred the following. The T-72 was first unveiled to the public in the 1977 "May Day" parade and, amazingly, would retain its frontline status until the collapse of the Soviet Empire in 1991.
The T-72 utilized a 125mm D-81TM (2A46M) smoothbore main gun and this instrument could fire a healthy dose of projectile types (39 maximum carried aboard) including HEAT-FS (High-Explosive, Anti-Tank - Fin-Stabilized), HE-FRAG (FS) (High-Explosive-Fragmentation (Fin-Stabilized)) and APFSDS (Armor-Piercing, Fin-Stabilized Discarding Sabot) . Common to other Soviet/Russian tanks, the T-72 main gun could also fire a guided anti-tank missile from the barrel (later models). To counter any potential armored/unarmored battlefield threat, usually a mix of projectiles was carried by all Red Army T-72 tanks. A 12.7mm NSVT anti-aircraft machine gun could be fitted at the commander's cupola position for countering low-flying threats such as helicopters and engaging lightly armored ground vehicles. A 7.62mm PKT series coaxial machine gun was a standard fitting alongside the main gun in the turret and actuated by the gunner. A self-generated smokescreen could be set through 12 x smoke grenade dischargers located along the frontal sides of the turret.
Running gear for the T-72 consisted of six double-tired road wheels to a track side. The drive sprocket was at the rear while the track idler was at the front. The upper track portion was covered by side skirt armor for basic defense against enemy fire. The engine was situated in a rear compartment apart from the fighting cabin and consisted of a 12-cylinder diesel fueled installation outputting at 780 horsepower running at 2,000rpm. The engine was aligned with a hydraulic synchromesh transmission system featuring seven forward speeds and a single reverse speed. The track support system was tied to a torsion bar suspension system offering excellent cross-country mobility. Maximum listed road speed was between 37 and 40 miles per hour on ideal surfaces (less when going offroad) with an operational road range of 250 to 290 miles. External fuel drums could be affixed to the rear hull, helping to improve operational ranges out to 430 miles.
Local license production of the T-72 was eventually granted to facilities in Czechoslovakia, India, Iran, Poland (produced as the PT-91 "Twardy") and the former Yugoslavia (produced as the "M-84", now evolved into the modernized Croatian M-95 "Degman") and this only served to expand the system's reach across the globe which led to its use in over 40 national armies. Overall production has since exceeded 25,000 units and continues in some regions. Beyond local production, exports were highly common and Romanian T-72s were recognized as "TR-125" joining Finland and Syria to become some of the notable export operators (see operators listing below for complete list). Of course the simplicity of design and cost-effectiveness led the T-72 to also see illegally, unlicensed production by some parties. Non-Warsaw Pact countries generally received lesser versions of the true Soviet originals during early production runs. India has accrued around 1,900 T-72Ms and T-72M1s while Iran manages around 480 available T-72M1s and T-72Ss. Belarus is listed with ownership of some 1,465 T-72B models while Kazakhstan owns 980.
The initial production models of 1973 was known simply as the "T-72" (the "Ural" name sometimes assigned to these) and these were fielded with an optical coincidence range finder. This mark was then followed by the improved "T-72A" of 1979 which featured a laser range finder and an electronic fire control system for improved accuracy on-the-move. Additionally, frontal protection was improved through use of composites. The T-72A was designated as "T-72M" ("modernized") to Warsaw Pact inventories and the export version became "T-72G". The "T-72M1" was the T-72M with increased armor. The" T-72AV" was given Explosive Reactive Armor (ERA) blocks for further point protection. The "T-72AK" proved a command tank with increased communications equipment.
The "T-72B" of 1985 was given a new main gun with support for firing guided anti-tank missiles and saw its frontal turret armor protection increased. The T-72B also supported use of improved add-on (ERA) blocks to help enhance system survivability. The export version of this mark was known as the "T-72S". The "T-72BK" was a modified T-72 tank destined as a command vehicle and outfitted with increased communications equipment. The "T-72B1" was a simplified T-72 lacking the capability to fire a laser-guided anti-tank missile from its main gun. The export version of the T-72B1 became the "T-72S1". The "T-72BM" incorporated 2nd Generation ERA protection.
The "MTU-72" was a bridge carrier conversion model utilizing the T-72 chassis. Similarly, the "BREM-1" was an armored recovery and repair vehicle form while the IMR-2 was a combat-centered engineering vehicle complete with dozer blade and mine-clearing facilities (both obviously lacking the turret assembly of the original combat-minded T-72 tank). The "BMR-3M" was a mine-clearing vehicle while the "BMPT" turned into a heavy convoy/close tank support vehicle. The "TOS-1" was a rocket-projecting system utilizing the chassis of the T-72.
Several developmental T-72s existed beyond the production examples listed. The modern Russian Army "T-90" of 1995 (detailed elsewhere on this site) is the most recent incarnation of the T-72 and essentially represents a highly modified version of the original Cold War tank with some of the improvements brought about by the interim T-80 series.
The T-72 proved one of the most combat-engaged tank systems of the post-World War 2 world. It was utilized in the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) through to the ongoing Syrian Civil War (2012). In-between, the tank forged its history through actions in Lebanon (1982), the Persian Gulf War (1991), the Yugoslav Wars (1991-2001), Rwanda (1994), Chechnya (1994-2009), Operation Iraqi Freedom (2003), South Ossetia (2008) and the Libyan Civil War (2011).
Unlike other tanks fielded in the Persian Gulf War of 1991, the T-72 was able to fight along both sides of the conflict thanks to it being in inventory with the Iraqi and Kuwaiti armies (the latter in its Yugoslav M-84 form). The Iraqi Army fielded at least 100 T-72s under the "Asad Babil" ("Lion of Babylon") name to the 200 or so Kuwati M-84ABs. On the whole, the Soviet T-72 compared poorly against the advanced nature of the American M1 Abrams and British Challenger 1 tank which held a distinct advantage in the theater. Many T-72s fell victim to coalition tank guns, anti-tank missiles, attack helicopters and strike planes (or simple abandonment during the retreat) - such proved the lasting legacy of the fabled Iraq Republican Guard on the world stage. Iraq eventually purchased (locally assembled due to embargo restrictions) around 1,000 T-72 tanks. Kuwait still manages around 150 M-84s alongside 218 M1 Abrams.
The former Czechoslovakia, East Germany (defunct), Finland, Germany (proper), Romania, Ukraine and the former Yugoslavia have all since become former operators of the T-72 tank family. Turkey evaluated the T-72 but never formally procured the tank. Various T-72 producers have since marketed upgrade packages to help keep the T-72 a viable player on the modern battlefield. This will only serve to extend its general usefulness and value for years to come - particularly with modern MBT solutions being cost prohibitive to most.
April 2018 - An upgraded version of the T-72B MBT, the T-72B1, was presented to Laos military officials.
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