Т-90. Where are you, competitors?

By Leonid Nersisyan, military observer

According to the 2016 report of Uralvagonzavod, the company acquired two new contracts to supply T-90S tanks abroad: Iraq will get the first batch of 73 machines, and 64 equipment units more will be received by Vietnam. In addition, Uralvagonzavod plans to sign a contract in the nearest future to supply 146 Т-90МS tanks to Kuwait, and deploy an assembly plant for such machines in Egypt. This information was subsequently officially confirmed, moreover, as it turned out, Iraq had ordered an even greater number of tanks, but the real figure was not articulated. There is also no information about the cost of the contracts, however, the deliveries to Vietnam and Iraq, only taking into account the supply of ammunition and spare parts, etc., will total not less than $400-$500 million.

It becomes clear even proceeding from the above that the new Т-90S and Т-90МS tanks occupy a significant niche in the export of Russian arms. Does this Russian “bestseller” have any competitors? We will give consideration in our article to the most successful modern tanks in the world arms market. The quantity of new tanks sold abroad (including available solid contracts) and further project prospects will be the main criterion for us, while the quantity of sold pre-owned machines (the profit here is evidently smaller, and it normally goes not to the manufacturer but to the selling country) will be an auxiliary one. We have selected such an approach because of the secrecy of many military contracts, as well as extreme complexity of revealing the real profitability of deals and interest margin of the manufacturers (especially for the deliveries of old equipment). In addition, quantity also gives another important advantage – the need of permanent supplies of ammunition, spare parts, overhaul and upgrading for decades after the completion of the main agreement.  

Т-90 is a leader

Т-90АМ (for the Russian Army) and Т-90МS (for export) are the most up-to-date modifications of Russian Т-90 tank. This machine, built on the basis of the Soviet Т-72 tank, became the most commercially successful tank of XXI century, allowing Russia to become the unchallenged leader in the market of new tanks. More than 2,100 Т-90 tanks of different modifications have been manufactured, including more than 1,500 sold for export. Contracts are still being executed for hundreds of machines. Of 1,657 Т-90S ordered by India, about 1,000 tanks have been produced so far in the customer’s territory under license. Another 137 machines will be received by Vietnam and Iraq, while Egypt is, most probably, going to procure not less than 200-300 Russian tanks, since otherwise there would be no reason to establish a production facility in this Middle Eastern country. Thus, a minimum 1,000 more new tanks of this type will be sold in the nearest time, while taking into account the continuing talks with Kuwait (146 Т-90МS tanks) and India (464 Т-90МS tanks), there are prospects to increase the backlog of orders to more than 1,600 tanks. Thus, the manufacturer is selling a minimum of 2,500 new Т-90 tanks of different modifications in world arms markets, with good prospects of increasing this quantity to 3,100. No other country has such sales results for modern new tanks, just as no one has similar prospects for large contracts. As for selling used equipment, the quantities are minimal (mass production of the machines began after 2001; before that, in the period from 1992 to 1998, only 120 units were manufactured) and concern Syria, first of all. It is necessary to take into account the fact that the Т-90 is a de facto modification of the Т-72 tank (Western tanks in such situations do not receive a new name), not less than 30,000 of these machines have been built, nearly 7,000 tanks from this number have appeared in the service of 38 different countries. No other competitor can match this result, either. 

Such success can be explained by a number of reasons, while the main reason is the optimal price/quality ratio. The export cost of Т-90S tank is about $ 2.5 million, while the cost of highly upgraded Т-90МS amounts to $ 4.3 million. Meanwhile, new Western tanks cost no less than, and sometimes upwards of, $6 million.

As for combat efficiency, the military conflict in Syria and Iraq has demonstrated the vulnerability of American and German armor, which had previously been considered superior to Russian analogs. Meanwhile, the Т-90А of the basic modification, certain quantities of which were delivered to the government forces of Syria, have performed quite well. One distinct advantage of the Russian tank is the availability of an automatic loading mechanism, which makes it possible to reduce the crew to three members, when Western tanks have a loader as the fourth crew member. It makes the Russian machine lighter (47 tons) and more mobile, moreover, the expenses for crew training are also reduced. One more advantage of the Т-90 tank is the ability to fire Invar-M1 anti-tank guided missiles directly from the main gun barrel to a distance up to 5 km (standard armor-piercing sub-caliber rounds do not shoot further than 2-3 km).

Everything possible is done in the Т-90АМ/МS modification to solve the main drawbacks of Т-72 family tanks. The machine is equipped with the new automatic loading mechanism capable of using longer armor-piercing sub-caliber rounds (earlier the armor-piercing capability of the Russian ordnance were significantly inferior to Western ones because of this restriction). Modern Relikt dynamic protection has been installed. In order to “cure” the tendency of the ordnance payload on a T-72 tank to detonate when its armor is pierced -- causing the immediate death of the whole crew -- the automatic loading mechanism has beene armored, while the ordnance payload is redistributed in an optimal way. In addition, the tank has received the new Kalina fire control system, meanwhile that the Т-90 no longer inferior to its competitors in this area, either.

Leopard 2 – German might is left without orders?

The German Leopard 2 tank is considered by many to be the best in the world. Its latest modification, the Leopard 2A7+, has a Rheinmetall Rh-120 L55A1 120-mm main tank gun. One drawback of this weapon is that it does not use armor-piercing sub-caliber rounds with a depleted uranium core, and the tungsten core has a lower armor-piercing effect. The latest modification features an enhanced degree of protection against shaped-charge projectiles (assault antitank weapon, hand-held anti-tank grenade launchers), but it is attained due to increased weight of the machine to 70 tons. The 1,500 horsepower diesel engine manufactured by the MTU company is able to cope with such weight, but the mobility of the tank nevertheless suffers. The fire control system has also been renovated; a new concept of “digital turret” with all-round surveillance from under the armor has been implemented.

Having all these novelties, the tank crew of Leopard 2A7+ consists of 4 person, as with all Western tanks. Unlike Russian tanks, no automatic loading mechanism is present here – an “extra” crew member handles this process. Although this fact is a vivid drawback, the absence of an automatic loading mechanism provides one great advantage – the absence of restrictions in the length of armor-piercing sub-caliber rounds. 

As for combat experience, it is rather humble: limited use in Afghanistan and in the civil war in Syria as part of the Turkish army. During its intervention in Syria, Turkey used Leopard 2A4 tanks, which are by no means the latest modification. The results appeared to be quite unfortunate: the armed insurgents of ISIS (“Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham” – a terrorist state banned in Russia) have killed 10 tanks of this type with Soviet-made Fagot and Konkurs assault antitank weapons in the battle for the small town of Al-Bab alone.

Despite its considerable price (a new Leopard 2A6 costs $6.79 million, while the cost of the Leopard 2 A7+ exceeds $10 million) export of the tank was certainly not bad, and it was delivered to 21 countries, not counting Germany. In this respect, it is the main competitor of Т-90 at this time, together with the American M1 Abrams tank. Another fact should be noted – the greater part of the exported tanks were not new. In total, beginning in 1979 more than 3,200 Leopard 2 tanks of different modifications have been manufactured; 2,125 of this number were manufactured for the armed forces of Germany. This part of the tank fleet was sold from storage depots after the end of the Cold War as useless (Bundeswehr has only about 300 active tanks of this variety). Slightly more than 1,000 new machines have been supplied. In total, more than 2,800 tanks have been sold. Things don’t look good for future deals: There were expectations that Saudi Arabia would procure 600-800 Leopard 2A7+ tanks, however, the leadership of Germany has prohibited this deal for political reasons. Compared with Т-90, as we have already noted, it should be taken into account that the tanks sold from German depots mainly belonged to obsolete modifications comparable to Т-72 tanks in age and capablities. 

M1 Abrams – no expectations of big contracts for new tanks

The most complete modification of the American M1A2 SEP V3 Abrams tank is, for certain, the most high-tech Western tank. It is equipped with very efficient composite armor with the use of depleted uranium and a new fire control system (FCS). The 65-ton machine is propelled by a 1,500 horsepower Honeywell AGT1500 gas-turbine engine (such an engine, typical for aircraft, was also used in the Soviet Т-80 tank). Its main gun is an М256 120-mm smoothbore cannon (a licensed variant of German Rheinmetall Rh-120 cannon) featuring excellent accuracy. In addition, the new tank modification includes new armor-piercing sub-caliber rounds with a depleted uranium core, the M829E4 АКЕ (Advanced Kinetic Energy, which possesses the best armor-piercing effect today (among production models).

One more great advantage of this tank is the vast experience of its application in real conflicts – it has very successfully come through two Iraqi campaigns, and now it is engaged in combat actions in the civil wars in the Middle East. All this invaluable experience has been used for the development of optimal upgrade packages. Nevertheless, in those cases when M1A2 is used not by the US Army (e.g., by the armed forces of Iraq or Saudi Arabia) the results appear to be not among the best. The Yemenite Houthis rebels alone have killed at least 20 Saudi M1A2S Abarms; the armed insurgents of ISIS (“Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham” – a terrorist state banned in Russia) in Iraq also keep pace with them. In addition, far from the latest Soviet and American anti-tank missile systems (ATMS) have been used to perform these missions.

Despite its technological perfection, the cost of one M1A2 SEP Abarms, amounting to at least $ 8.6 mln, does not allow for its sale in great quantities. Instead, more simple and obsolete tank modifications have sold well before – Egypt alone has procured more than 1,200 M1A1 Abrams tanks (to tell the truth, the vast majority of tanks has been delivered from American army depots; only the engines, cannon and FCS have been new). In total, six countries, not counting the United States, have procured 2,217 M1 tanks, including about 750 of the advanced and expensive M1A2 modification. A considerable number of these machines has been taken from storage, overhauled and upgraded for sale abroad. As with the Leopard 2, there are no specific prospects for the sale of large batches of new tanks, therefore, in the commercial respect the project has “spent its force”.

MBT-2000/Al-Khalid  Chinese tanks can dictate competition to Т-90 in the Asian markets

For the last two decades, the military and industrial complex of China has made very rapid leaps. This concerns the tank-building industry, too. The Chinese MBT-2000/Al-Khalid tank has become the most successful modern tank on the world arms market. This machine was initially built for export purposes, first of all, to Pakistan. This in particular explains its name, Al-Khalid, which was given to the tank after the establishment of licensed production of these machines in Pakistan. Since 2001, 415 tanks have been sold to Pakistan, 150 – to Morocco, 150 – to Myanmar, 22 – to Sri Lanka and 44 – to Bangladesh. In sum, it is quite a presentable result - 781 new tanks, on top of that a market competitors were interested in has been occupied. The signature of a new agreement to manufacture an upgraded version for the Pakistani army is expected in the foreseeable future.

The tank’s success can be explained by a number of factors. First of all, the cost is quite low with reasonably good characteristics. The cost of one machine in 2011 amounted to $ 4.7 million, commensurate with the price/quality concept of the Russian Т-90s. Secondly, China has granted an opportunity to Pakistan to manufacture tanks at its factories with the utmost independence and with the transfer of many technologies. In this respect, China and Russia (to a somewhat less extent) also walk a similar path, which makes it possible to significantly outperform Westerns manufacturers. Of course, politics has something to do with it – the greater part of the above buyer countries (except Morocco) are allies or satellites of China. 

As for the tank itself, with respect to its concept it is close to the Soviet tank-building school, and many of its solutions make it very close to the Т-72 line. It also has three crew members and an automatic loading mechanism. The 125 mm gun caliber of also coincides with the Russian one, but not the Western 120-mm cannons. It should be noted too that the fire control system of the Chinese tank somewhat surpasses the Russian Т-90С tank (but not the Т-90МS), which, by the way, explains its higher price (the basic components are procured in France).

The AMX-56 Leclerc is expensive, comfortable and needless

As a member of the Western camp, France, unlike many other countries, has always strived for and strives for equipping its army domestically developed arms. The most up-to-date French tank is the AMX-56 Leclerc, which began being produced in quantity in 1990. Since that time the French army has received 406 tanks, while only 388 have been exported. The United Arab Emirates appears to be the sole buyer. This situation can be explained with reasonable facility – the tank costs an exorbitant amount money even in terms of the Western tank-building industry. Almost no country is ready to fork over 9.3 millions Euros for a single tank. No information about possible future contracts is available, and no new tanks have been produced since 2008.

It should be noted that, for instance, in Yemen, the Leclerc has made a good showing as part of the UAE army. Four tanks appear to have been damaged out of 70 tanks used in the battle zone. Two suffered in land mine blasts, one from the shell of a hand-held anti-tank grenade launcher, and one from the shell of a Konkurs antitank missile system. Only in the last case was there a fatality – the tank driver died. All of the tanks emerged in a reparable state and were returned to the ranks.

The vdesign of the French main combat tank is very interesting. Unlike the majority of Western tanks, the Leclerc is equipped with an automatic loading mechanism and, accordingly, is managed by three crew members. The machine differs from its competitors in the great attention paid to the crew’s comfort. The tank is equipped with quite versatile electronic devices, which help the crew handle various unexpected situations quickly and easily. In many respects, this very factor became one of the reasons the high cost of this tank, which its chances for great commercial success. Nevertheless, 388 exported machines make a good deal. By comparison, only 38 British tanks Challenger 2 have been sold.

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