Ukraine Has the Largest Tank Force in Europe: Can Its 750 T-64s Slow Russian Armour Down?

Ukraine Has the Largest Tank Force in Europe: Can Its 750 T-64s Slow Russian Armour Down?

Although being retired from most post-Soviet armies such as those of Russia and Belarus, T-64 tanks make up the sizeable majority of Ukrainian tank units are have been relied on heavily for combat in the country’s eastern regions.

T-64 Tank

With Ukraine having the largest tank force in Europe, with an estimated 720-750 T-64s currently in service alongside approximately 100 T-72 and 5 T-84 tanks making up around 90 percent of Ukrainian armour. Although the T-64 was considered by a significant margin the world’s most capable tank when it entered service in the mid-1960s, and Ukraine relies on upgraded T-64B tanks from the 1970s, their ability to go head to head with modern armour or survive hits from anti-tank munitions has been brought to serious question particularly in light of heavy losses suffered in eastern Ukraine. An assessment of the capabilities of all three major Ukrainian T-64 variants, and comparison of their performances with modern Russian tanks such as the T-73B3/B3M and T-90M, provides insight into whether the Ukrainian Army’s tank units would be able to challenge Russian armour superiority on land and the extent to which the Russian advantage using newer tank designs may or may not be overwhelming.

Ukrainian T-64BM Tank

The T-64BV is an improvement of the T-64B tank which entered service in 1976, with hull armour seeing modest improvements and the introduction of Kontakt-1 explosive reactive armour. Additions to its weight bringing it to around 42 tons, however, have not been matched by improvements to its engines with its 700 hp diesel engine being underpowered for the tank’s new weight while mobility is highly limited. An improved variant, the T-64BM1, still uses the same fire controls as the T-64BV and similarly lacks modern sensors although it benefits from integration of an improved 850 hp engine. This still fails two compensate for the increase in weight from extra armour, however, meaning its speed and manoeuvrability are still below average. The most capable T-64 variant, the T-64BM2, has superior fire controls including second generation thermal sights which provides a significant advantage over older T-64s and brings its situational awareness up to a similar standard to lower end Russian tanks such as the T-72B3 – or higher end Soviet ones such as the T-80UK. Of both T-64BM variants combined, however, only around 100 have been built with the more costly T-64BM2 being a minority of these and ensuring that Russian forces would likely only face a couple of dozen of the tanks. Their cost led to the T-64BM2 being completed discontinued, despite them being considerably cheaper than the T-84 tank which it was originally considered an inexpensive alternative to.

Russian T-90M Tanks

A weakness shared by all T-64 tanks is their inability to deploy modern munitions, with their most capable projectiles dating back to the mid-1980s. This means that against even lower end Russian tanks such as the T-73B3, let alone medium end T-90M tanks, they will seriously struggle to cause meaningful damage at combat ranges. The T-64’s weak base armour, particularly compared to the T-90M or T-80 tanks, combined with the age of its explosive reactive armour, ensure that modern Russian anti tank projectiles which are over thirty years ahead of those in Ukraine will be able to penetrate Ukrainian tanks reliably. The T-72B3/B3M, for example, uses the 9M119M1 anti tank guided missile with 900mm penetration at an extreme 5km range and the 3BM-69/70 projectile with an 800-900mm penetration at 2km ranges – both very comfortably sufficient to penetrate any T-64 variant on its frontal armour. The munitions used by other frontline Russian tanks such as the T-90M are much more capable still, as are their guns. Thus while modern Russian tanks are decades ahead of Soviet era armour in terms of performance, Ukrainian tanks are generally inferior to top end Soviet tanks from the 1980s such as the T-80UK.

Ukrainian T-64BM Tanks on Parade

In engagements with Russian tanks there is a significant possibility that Ukrainian tanks will have very few opportunities to fire their guns, with the exception of a very small number of T-64BM2s that have thermal sights, due to the vast discrepancy in sensors. Very significant inferiority in mobility, firepower and armour protection mean that even if this were not the case, Ukrainian armour’s disadvantages would be overwhelming likely much moreso than those Iraqi T-72As faced against American M1 Abrams tanks in the Gulf War. Although Russian air superiority could avoid the need for tank battles and end a conflict quickly from the air, while neutralising a substantial portion of Ukrainian armour using guided air launched weapons, should major tank battles occur the impact on morale alone of the discrepancy in unit performance could be decisive and dissuade Ukrainian T-64 crews from going to battle.

Source: militarywatchmagazine.com