The T-72 is a Soviet-designed main battle tank that entered production in 1971. It is a further development of the T-62 with some features of the T-64A (to which it was a parallel design) and has been further developed as the T-90. Chronologically, and in design terms, it belongs to the same generation of tanks as the US M60 Patton, German Leopard 1, and British Chieftain tank. More recently, the T-72's reputation has suffered following poor combat performance against modern Western tanks such as the M1 Abrams and Challenger 1 during the first and second Persian Gulf wars, although poor tank crew training must be taken into account.
An "economy" tank with the old design V-46 powerplant was developed from 1967 at the Uralvagonzavod Factory located in Nizhny Tagil. Chief engineer Leonid Kartsev created "Object 172", the initial design, but the prototype, marked "Object 172M", was refined and finished by Valeri Venediktov. Field trials lasted from 1971 to 1973 and upon acceptance the Chelyabinsk Tank factory immediately ceased T-55 and T-62 production to retool for the new T-72 tank.
The T-72 was the most common tank used by the Soviet Army from the 1970s to the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was also exported to other Warsaw Pact countries, as well as Finland, India, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Yugoslavia, as well as being copied elsewhere, both with and without licenses.
Licenced versions of T-72 were made in Poland and Czechoslovakia, for WARPAC consumers. These tanks had better and more consistent quality of make but with inferior armour, lacking the resin-embedded ceramics layer inside the turret front and glacis armour, replaced with all steel. The Polish-made T-72G tanks also had thinner armour compared to Soviet Army standard (410mm for turret). Before 1990, Soviet-made T-72 export versions were similarly downgraded for non-WARPAC customers (mostly the Arab countries). Many parts and tools are not interchangeable between the Russian, Polish and Czechoslovakian versions, which caused logistical problems.
The Yugoslavs called their copy the M-84, and sold hundreds of them around the world during the 1980s. The Iraqis called theirs the Lion of Babylon (Asad Babil), though the Iraqis assembled theirs from "spare parts" sold to them by the Russians as a means of evading the UN-imposed weapons embargo. More modern derivatives include the Polish PT-91 Twardy and Russian T-90. Several countries, including Russia and Ukraine also offer modernization packages for older T-72s.
Various versions of the T-72 have been in production for decades, and the specifications for its armour have changed considerably. Original T-72 tanks had homogeneous cast steel armour incorporating spaced armour technology and were moderately well protected by the standards of the early 1970s. In 1979, the Soviets began building T-72 modification with composite armour similar to the T-64 composite armour, in the front of the turret and the front of the hull. Late in the 1980s, T-72 tanks in Soviet inventory (and many of those elsewhere in the world as well) were fitted with reactive armour tiles and extra layer of synthetic ABV shielding carpet on the outside, which also served as an anti-slipping foot restraint.
Laser rangefinders appear in T-72 tanks since 1978, earlier examples were equipped with parallax optical rangefinders, which could not be used for distances under . Some export versions of T-72 lacked the laser rangefinder until 1985 or only the squadron and platoon commander tanks (version K) received them. After 1985, all newly made T-72 came with reactive armour as standard, more powerful V-84 engine and an upgraded design main gun, which can fire guided anti-tank missiles from the barrel. With these developments the T-72 eventually became almost as powerful as the more expensive T-80 tank, but few of these late variants reached the economically ailing WARPAC allies and foreign customers before the Soviet bloc fell apart in 1990.
Since 2000, export vehicles have been offered with thermal imaging night-vision gear of French manufacture as well (though it may be more likely that they might simply use the locally manufactured 'Buran-Catherine' system, which incorporates a French thermal imager). Depleted uranium armour-piercing ammunition for the 125 mm gun has been manufactured in Russia in the form of the BM-32 projectile since around 1978, though it has never been deployed, and is less penetrating than the later tungsten BM-42 and the newer BM-42M, which compares in penetrating ability to the German DM-53.
The T-72 is common around the world in the armies of many potential enemies of the U.S. and other Western nations. Many Western analysts regard this as worrisome because, at least theoretically, its 125 mm 2A46 main gun is capable of destroying any modern main battle tank in the world today, including the M1 Abrams. On the other hand, on the three occasions when Soviet clients using T-72s have met Western armies that possessed modern main battle tanks —Lebanon in 1982 (against the Israeli Merkava), Iraq in 1991 (against the U.S. M1 Abrams and the British Challenger 1), and again Iraq in 2003— the T-72 did not show its alleged abilities. After clashes in Lebanon in 1982, both the Israelis and the Syrians claimed their main tank's superiority. In both the Gulf War and the Iraq War, the Iraqi tank units were heavily defeated, although this might have more to do with poor Iraqi crew training and full Allied air supremacy than with any deficiencies of the T-72 itself. Furthermore, while facing the most modern Western tanks, the versions the Iraqi army fielded were out of date at the time. The Iraqi T-72s were downgraded export versions that had not been significantly upgraded, and were firing inferior ammunition (often with steel penetrators and half-charges of propellant).
Main models of the T-72, built in the Soviet Union and Russia. Command tanks have K added to their designation for komandirskiy, ‘command’, for example T-72K is the command version of the basic T-72. Versions with reactive armour have V added, for vzryvnoy, ‘explosive’.
The T-72 hull has been used as the basis for other heavy vehicle designs, including the following:
The T-72 is extremely lightweight, at forty-one tonnes, and very small compared to Western main battle tanks. Some of the roads and bridges in former Warsaw Pact countries were designed such that T-72s can travel along in formation, but NATO tanks could not pass at all, or just one-by-one, significantly reducing their mobility. The basic T-72 is relatively underpowered, with a supercharged version of the basic V-12 diesel engine block originally designed for the WWII T-34. The tracks run on large-diameter road wheels, which allows for easy identification of T-72 and descendants (the T-64/80 family has relatively small road wheels). Ride comfort is reported as poor compared to Western tanks equipped with hydrodynamic suspension.
The T-72 is designed to cross rivers up to deep submerged using a small diameter snorkel assembled on-site. Because the hull is not water-tight, the crew is individually supplied with a simplistic rebreather chest-pack apparatus for survival. If the engine stops underwater, it must be restarted within six seconds, or the T-72's engine compartment becomes flooded due to pressure loss. The snorkelling procedure is considered dangerous but is important for maintaining operational mobility.
The T-72M (export version of the Soviet T-72A) featured a different armour protection compared to the T-72A: it had a different composite insert in the turret cavity which granted it less protection against HEAT and armour-piercing (AP) munitions. The modernised T-72M1 featured an additional 16 mm (0.63 in) of armour on the glacis plate, which produced an increase of horizontally against both HEAT and AP. It also featured a newer composite armour in the turret with pelletised filler agent.
Several T-72 models featured explosive reactive armour (ERA), which increased protection primarily against HEAT type weapons. Certain late-model T-72 tanks featured heavy ERA to help defeat modern HEAT and AP against which they were insufficiently protected.
Late model T-72s, such as the T-72B, featured improved turret armour, visibly bulging the turret front—nicknamed "Dolly Parton" armour by Western intelligence. The glacis was also fitted with of appliqué armour. The late production versions of the T-72B/B1 and T-72A variants also featured an anti-radiation layer on the hull roof.
Early model T-72 did not feature side skirts, instead the original base model featured gill or flipper-type armour panels on either side of the forward part of the hull. When the T-72A was introduced in 1979 it was the first model to feature the plastic side skirts covering the upper part of the suspension, with separate panels protecting the side of the fuel and stowage panniers.
In contrast to recent Western tanks, the T-72 stores ammunition in the crew compartment, including in the turret. This means if the main compartment is penetrated, ammunition cook-off can occur, which is likely to kill the crew and blast the turret high into the air. American tank crews who faced Iraqi T-72s during the two Persian Gulf Wars referred to the tank as the "jack-in-the-box".
The July 1997 issue of Jane's International Defence Review confirmed that after the collapse of USSR, US and German analysts had a chance to examine Soviet made T-72 tanks equipped with Kontakt-5 ERA, and they proved impenetrable to most modern US and German tank projectiles; this sparked the development of more modern Western tank ammunition, such as the M829A2 and M829A3. Russian tank designers responded with newer types of Heavy Reactive Armour, including Relikt and Kaktus.
The T-72 is equipped with the 125 mm 2A46 series main gun, which was significantly larger than the standard 105 mm gun found in contemporary Western MBTs, and still slightly larger than the 120 mm/L44 found in many modern Western MBTs. As is typical of Soviet tanks, the gun is capable of firing anti-tank guided missiles, as well as standard main gun ammunition, including HEAT and APFDS rounds.
The main gun of the T-72 has a mean error of one metre (39 in) at a range of , which is considered substandard today. Its maximum firing distance is , due to limited positive elevation. The limit of aimed fire is (with the gun-launched anti-tank guided missile, which is rarely used outside the former USSR). The T-72's main gun is fitted with an integral pressure reserve drum, which assists in rapid smoke evacuation from the bore after firing. The 125 millimetre gun barrel is certified strong enough to ram the tank through forty centimetres of iron-reinforced brick wall, though doing so will negatively affect the gun's accuracy when subsequently fired. Rumours in NATO armies of the late Cold War claimed that the tremendous recoil of the huge 125 mm gun could damage the fully mechanical transmission of the T-72. The tank commander reputedly had to order firing by repeating his command, when the T-72 is on the move: "Fire! Fire!" The first shout supposedly allowed the driver to disengage the clutch to prevent wrecking the transmission when the gunner fired the cannon on the second order. In reality, this still-common tactic substantively improves the tank's firing accuracy and has nothing to do with recoil or mechanical damage to anything.
The vast majority of T-72s do not have FLIR thermal imaging sights, though all T-72s (even those exported to the Third World) possess the characteristic (and inferior) 'Luna' IR illuminator. Thermal imaging sights are extremely expensive, and the new Russian FLIR system, the 'Buran-Catherine Thermal Imaging Suite' was only introduced recently on the T-80UM tank. Most T-72s found outside the former Soviet Union do not have laser rangefinders. T-72 built for export have a downgraded fire-control system and automatic loader.
Western tanks have considerably more elevation range. However, the T-72 is fitted with an integral hydraulic bulldozer blade on the underside of the frontal glacis plate, which enables the T-72 to excavate and construct a defensive position that minimizes the need for gun depression.
Recent CIS export designs, intended to compete with Western tanks on the open market, have placed more emphasis on defence and crew survivability. The Ukrainian T-84 Oplot, T-84-120 Yatagan, and Russian Black Eagle appear to have armoured blow-out ammunition compartments.
The T-72 has been used by over 40 countries worldwide. It has been built under licence and further developed in several countries, including the following: