How India sipped T-90 (T-72BU) poison to save Russian Tank Industry?

The T-90 tank is far from the best tank in the world, but perhaps the worst in terms of price and quality.

Some Russian domestic experts claim that “the adoption of the T-90 into service was the biggest crime against the defense capability of the Russian state.

And some of the Indian military experts believe that “the adoption by the Indian army of the Russian T-90 tank for service was the largest Indian defense miscalculation of our time .

Basic layout of a T-72 BU AKA T-90

So what caused such a negative assessment? Why the symbol of the tank power of the new Russia so bad?

The Uralvagonzavod called T-90 as the T-72BU. The T-72 has a bad reputation in Iraq, earned the name “Iron Coffin”. The US Army Apache, M1 Abraham Tank and British Challenger tanks successfully destroyed more than 700 Iraqi tanks. The Challenger tank achieved world’s longest kill record against T-72 tank using HEAT round. So, why did the rebranded T-72BU called T-90 ended up in India?

In the early 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Uralvagonzavod, located in the city of Nizhny Tagil, Sverdlovsk Region, found itself in a difficult financial situation, which only worsened from year to year. In 1992, the main battle tank T-90 was adopted by the Russian Federation, developed by the Ural Design Bureau of Transport Engineering, a part of the UVZ, but the Ministry of Defense did not order large batches of these vehicles, and in the second half of the 90s the Russian defense department reduced it to almost zero the number of orders for plant products.

On June 15, 1995, UVZ test driver Vasily Tropin drove through the Dzerzhinsky district of Nizhny Tagil in a stolen T-72S tank, and then returned the combat vehicle to the factory with the words that he wanted to “at least somehow express his protest against the hopeless poverty of the defense industry.”

T-90 demonstration in Nizhny Tagil, 1998 Press service of UVZ
T-90 demonstration in Nizhny Tagil, 1998

During 1990s, Russian Uralvagonzavod, like many other Russian enterprises, not only looked for a customer, but fought for survival.  Russian tank building was on the verge of total destruction. The Russian Army, like the Government of the Russian Federation, did not need new tanks from the word at all. The issue of survival for the industry was left at the mercy of the industry itself – you can arrange export supplies – you will live, no – die for health. Under these conditions, the management of Uralvagonzavod had a tremendous effort to break through the signing of a contract for the supply of a large batch of T-90S tanks to India. 

Indian delegation in Nizhny Tagil, 1998 Press service of UVZ
Indian delegation in Nizhny Tagil, 1998

Ukrainian competitors were breathing in the back, Indians, trying to bring down the price, tried to disable the tank engines at a trial run in India, and the main loss was the death of General Designer Vladimir Potkin.

“If only two or three months – and the plant would have gone bankrupt. Salary arrears were seven months, debts to power engineers, gas workers, to all levels of the budget. There was dirt and desolation everywhere. There were no orders for cars or tanks. But the idea of ​​export literally hovering in the air, the factory workers wanted to continue supplying the T-72 tank there in the course of military cooperation with India, “Malykh recalls.

The sending of the first three T-90S tanks for testing in India and the subsequent“ Indian contract ”are crucial moments of history not only for Uralvagonzavod, but for the entire tank industry of Russia. Then, as soon as possible, it was necessary to adapt existing developments to customer requirements, organize production and returning unique specialists to the plant, reviving the lost cooperative ties and providing the conveyor with the necessary components – this was at that time a difficult, almost impossible task, but the UKBTM teams (Uralsk the second design bureau of transport engineering) and Uralvagonzavod coped with it, having done tremendous painstaking work, ”said Alexander Potapov, Director General of the Uralvagonzavod Research and Production Corporation (UVZ), in an interview with TASS.

A bit of diplomacy, old soviet-era technology transfer trick, rename T-72BU to T-90 and grease payments lead to the $1 billion contract which had become truly fateful for Uralvagonzavod. 

T-90S for the Indian Army
T-90S for the Indian Army

According to known data, at present in the Indian Army there are at least 1000-1100 MBT T-90S and Bhishma. This number includes Russian-built tanks and vehicles assembled in India from transferred vehicle kits. There are also a number of licensed tanks assembled from components mainly of local origin.

The first T-90 tank of Indian assembly, 2004 Press service of UVZ
The first T-90 tank of the Indian assembly, 2004

From Flying Coffins to Iron Coffins: Why grease payments overpowers national interest?

If we go back three decades ago, we recall that in the USSR there were several design bureaus and large tank plants: in Kharkov, in Leningrad, in Nizhny Tagil (UKBTM) and Omsk. On the one hand, competition between the design bureaus gave a good impetus to the development of engineering and design, but powerful lobbying groups were created around each design bureau that promoted the product of their design bureau in the Ministry of Defense. As a result, by the beginning of the 90s, the USSR was armed with 3 main tank models, not counting the obsolete ones: T-80, T-72 and T-64. With the dump of Ukraine, the weakest UKBTM became the leading Russian developer of armored vehicles with its not-so-best T-72 tank.

The T-90 tank, which appeared in 1991, was originally called the T-72 BU, but for foreign buyers, the main of which was India, it was important to create the appearance of a completely new model of the tank. Moreover, Ukraine began supplying Pakistan, the main enemy of India, its T-80 tank, which was noticeably superior to the T-72, which was in service with India.

Iron Coffin

The 1991 Gulf War, Babylon Lions, as Iraq’s T-72 tanks were popularly called, supposedly constituted one of Saddam’s Hussein’s most potent weapons, manned by his elite Republican Army and present in the thousands. Saddam used T- 72s for eight years in the war against Iran and his army’s tactics, while regarded as overly conservative by U.S. intelligence, did not betray any serious flaws.

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A T-72 destroyed by M1 Abraham during operation desert storm.

The  lion, it turned out, had no teeth, at least when pitted against America M1A1 Abrams, the British Challenger and older U.S. M-60 A3s in the Gulf War. Since then, both the British tanks (Challenger 2) and the Americans (M1A2 varieties) have only improved. Iraq, in effect, is stuck with an obsolete tank force.

A turret of a tank belonging to forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi is left on the ground after an air strike by coalition forces, along a road between Benghazi and Ajdabiyah March 20, 2011. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic.

Iraqis caught by surprise, all tanks are in danger from Apache attack helicopter and Hellfire missile. Iraq built thousands of the T-72M1 varieties locally. In recent years, many were equipped with laser range-finders for ensuring higher hit probabilities at ranges up to 2,000 meters.

T-72 Tank

The “thousands” of the late 1980s are long gone — victim mostly of ‘tank-plinking’ by U.S. and British aircraft during the Gulf War. According to International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Iraq could field some 700 T-72s in 2001.

T-72 Tank in Iraq War

U.S. officers don’t think much of these weapons any more. They argue that the tank is more like an “Iron Coffin with wheels when up against new technology possessed by the Americans,” as one U.S. tank officer put it.

“These tanks have to be used with lot of skill to survive attack from the new technology tanks,” an Army spokesman said. “They are irrelevant because of their speed and they are less likely to hit their targets the first time.”

Does India really need Soviet-era technology?

The T-72 tank was first bought and then manufactured by India under license.
The T-72 tank was first bought and then manufactured by India under license.

You can imagine the terrible state of the tank building in the 90s, and what kind of trouble it was worth pushing the Indian contract, which delivered several hundred T-90s and licensed assembly of 1000 vehicles at Indian enterprises. Thanks to this multi-billion dollar contract, domestic tank production was able to survive the reforms.

T-90S Bhishma Made in India
T-90S Bhishma Made in India

But, sadly, just to survive was not enough. The fabulous money under the Indian contract could not solve the systemic problems of the Russian military-industrial complex, which received a fatal blow. Production chains were broken, thousands of related enterprises were broken, personnel training was virtually discontinued. India, which has more T-90 tanks in service than Russia, has experienced all the shortcomings of the crude design and technical flaws of the new tank. He could not qualitatively strengthen the combat capabilities of the Indian army, becoming its main disappointment.

As soon as the Indian military T-90 didn’t fire: the nickname “night butterfly” he earned for the inability to conduct combat operations during the day, in the heat the tank engine overheated and lost up to half its power. In addition, high temperature incapacitated the Fire Control System (LMS). Constantly having problems with the electronics. The suspension is very stiff, which leads not only to discomfort of the crew, but also to restrictions on firing in motion due to large fluctuations in the hull. In the early 2010s, the question even arose of removing the T-90 from armament and replacing it with the Indian tank Arjun.

Indian tank of own production Arjun MK2
Indian tank of own production Arjun MK2

It should be noted that the Russian Ministry of Defense is also not enthusiastic about the combat qualities of the T-90. It preferred to modernize the old T-72 tanks than to buy not very different from them, but three times expensive T-90s. At one time, for the money that the Uralvagonzavod demanded for the new T-90A tank, it would be easier to buy three German Leopards.

Leopard 2A6
Leopard 2A6

As a result, the Indians turned out like in that proverb about mice that “cried, pricked, but continued to eat the cactus.” They cannot accept the adoption of the T-90 as an error. The financial costs of this project are too high, and most importantly, the reputation losses of the country’s top military leadership cannot be measured with any money.

If you draw conclusions from this story, you need to worry about the state of tank construction (and not only) in modern Russia. I’m afraid that the systemic problems of the military-industrial complex haven’t gone anywhere. The story with Armata also speaks about this. Russian media continue to assure Russian that Russia is capable of creating the latest weapons,–propaganda brochure states that the new T-90 MS tank is three times superior to any modern tank, yet the Ministry of Defense continues to upgrade old T-72 tanks.

The Russian defense ministry spin doctors come up with press releases that the modernized T-72 tank is so good that it makes no sense to make the T-90 MS and Armata,–the Armata is carefully pushed into the background by cheers-patriotic propaganda.

All the latest Russian weapons, which are presented as almost serial, are created, at best, in the form of prototypes and are not ready for mass production and are unlikely to be. The overwhelming number of weapons of the modern Russian army is still Soviet-made. It is rapidly becoming obsolete. The Russian army is losing its combat readiness. The Russian military-industrial complex is simply not capable of producing modern technology and weapons in sufficient quantities. The state program for the rearmament of the army 2020 is disrupted and bashfully transferred to 2030.

According to Maev, in the end, the Indian contract not only played a decisive role in saving the Uralvagonzavod, but also allowed it to create a “good groundwork for our tanks, for our army.” Alexander Potapov confirms his words: “The Indian contract, without exaggeration, breathed new life in factories and design bureaus. Gave a powerful impetus to the industry. And UVZ did not miss this unique opportunity, but realized it and continued its development.

Without the financial support from India, Russian defense industry is domed, evidences are MiG-35, Zhuk-AME Radar, Su-57 and Armata tank.

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