Why the Soviets Ended Up With Three Tanks: T-64, T-72, and T-80
Why the Soviets eventually produced three different main battle tanks to meet the same requirements
As we all know, at the height of the Cold War in the mid-1980s, the Soviet Army ended up using three different frontline main battle tanks: T-64, T-72, and T-80. These three different tanks actually used to meet the same requirement: have enough armament, speed, and armor to break through the NATO defense line in Central Europe and to spearhead the advance of the combined Soviet and Warsaw Pact armies in case of war with NATO.
Other than having similar requirements, the three tanks also shared similar capabilities even though they were designed by three different design bureaus. The innovative T-64 was designed by the Kharkiv Mozorov Design Bureau (KMDB) in the Ukrainian SSR, the cheap but reliable T-72 was designed by Kartsev-Venediktov Design Bureau (KVDB) in the Ural Mountains of the Russian SSR, and the high tech T-80 was designed by Leningrad Kirov Design Bureau (LKZDB). To know why the three tanks have similar abilities or even external looks, let’s take a look at the review of each tank.
Kharkiv Morozov Design Bureau’s T-64
In 1955, Aleksandr Morozov was still eaten at by the fact that he had not been the sole creator of the T-34. He had managed to use his influence to get the names of Koshkin and Kucherenko (the other name officially credited with creating the T-34) removed from all of the histories and documents relating to the tank outside of the classified state archives, but still knew it was not his tank. While good, the T-54 was not a world-beater like the T-34. Therefore, Morozov gathered his designers around him and told them he intended to produce a radical new tank that would be superior to anything on the battlefield. Morozov wanted a more thorough departure than Kartsev-Venediktov — also known as the Vagonka — designs, which were only based on modified T-55 chassis.
The new tank was a very compact machine, with only a three-man crew and a full-up weight of 36 metric tons. The reason for the three-man crew was the use of an autoloader for the main gun. The hull was very small and very flat — the glacis was sloped at a 68-degree angle on top and 52 degrees below — and the tank used a new design of the engine. The engine, a five-cylinder flat engine using an opposed-piston design (effectively a flat 10), was called the 5TD and can be called a copy of the Fairbanks Morse diesel used in railroad engines provided under the Lend Lease Program in World War 2. It was light and powerful. The tank used lightweight, internally bushed steel wheels with a lightweight steel alloy double-pin “live” track. The first test model, called Object 430, appeared in about 1960. It mounted the 100mm hypervelocity gun. However, due to some problems, and the fact that the British introduced the famous 105mm L7 gun in that time frame, the design was sent back to be redesigned around the 115mm D-68 gun.
The D-68 was similar to the U-5TS in Object 166, now adopted for service in a panic as the T-62, but used combustible case separate loading ammunition which fit in its autoloader. This tank was given a short test period, and Khrushchev ordered it accepted for service as the T-64 in 1962. However, like the T-34 before it, while Morozov essentially had a world-beating tank, it had a plethora of problems. First off was an adamant opposition by senior officers, including the Chief of Tank Troops, Marshal Poluboyarov.
Low volume series production began in 1963. The T-64 suffered from too many innovations adopted too fast. The 5TD engine was notoriously unreliable and nearly impossible to start in cold weather. The tank was very cramped inside, and the crews did not like the absence of a fourth crew member when maintaining the tank. Lastly, the D-68 gun was highly unreliable, with the exposed autoloader gaining a bad reputation for grabbing the uniforms of the hapless gunner and commander and stuffing them into the breech. Only a limited number of these tanks were built, and they appear to have been sent to the Far East for long term testing.
A vastly improved model, Object 434, appeared in 1969. This used an improved 5TDF engine that was somewhat better than the 5TD, but most crews yearned for the simpler V-2 based engines. The biggest change in the tank was the replacement of the D-68 gun with the 125mm D-81 gun firing separate loading combustible case ammunition. At the time of its introduction, this was the most powerful tank gun in the world and would remain so for twelve years. The changes were minor and the T-64A tanks weighed between 37 and 38 metric tons, depending upon production lot. It also introduced a laser rangefinder, the TPD-2–49. This improved model is called T-64A Obr. 1971g.
Kartsev-Venediktov Design Bureau’s T-72
Because of the time-consuming construction of the 5TDF engines, which took about twice as long as the contemporary V-45, the Malyshev Factory in Kharkiv could not provide a sufficient number of 5TDF engines for all Soviet tank factories. As a result, GABTU (Main Agency of Automobiles and Tanks of the Ministry of Defense) sent a team with a T-64A prototype to KVDB in Nizhniy Tagil and presented Kartsev with the task of finding a way to build a cheaper, simpler, and more reliable T-64. Kartsev accepted the task but did not like any of the major innovations of the T-64 design. This led to efforts at Uralvagonzavod to design a version of the T-64 with the cheaper and much more reliable V-45 engine of 780 hp. This model was only to be serially produced in the event of a war, a so-called “mobilization model”. In 1967, the Vagonka (Uralvagonzavod) formed “Section 520”, which was to prepare the serial production of the T-64 for 1970. The team soon found out that the more powerful V-45 engine put a lot of stress on the T-64 hull so that after some time cracks started to materialize. A more stable solution was sought.
Finally, an idea from 1960 was used, when a modification of the T-62 had been discussed. While Morozov had been developing the T-64, the Vagonka had been working on a successor tank to the T-62. This tank, called Object 167, used the Object 140 running gear on a T-62 chassis and in its developed version, a V26 engine, which was a 700 HP version of the reliable V-2 design. Later, it added a launcher for three 9M14 missiles to increase its direct engagement range from 1,700 meters to over 3,000 meters. In 1961, two prototypes of “Object 167” had been built by Uralvagonzavod to test a stronger hull and running gear combination for that tank. A final variant used two 350 SHP helicopter turbines linked together to test the feasibility of turbine power in a tank. None of the designs were accepted for production because it was turned down by Moscow under the influence of Morozov. But this construction, with its big, rubber-coated roadwheels now formed the basis for the mobilization model of the T-64.
Another design saw an upgrade to the T-62. This tank used the 125mm D-81 gun with a totally new model of autoloader. Whereas the Kharkov design used a fork that selected the correct munition by index, placed both projectile and charge in a line, and then loaded them, the Vagonka design was more elegant, simple, and safer. Kartsev’s team used a cassette and a chain hoist and rammer, in which the charge was located in the top slot of the two-section cassette and the projectile in the bottom. The hoist pulled up the selected cassette, loaded the projectile, dropped, loaded the charge, and then dropped the cassette back into the floor carousel. The only drawback was that, unlike the T-64’s recovery of the “puck” from the expended round, the UVZ design had a port and ejected the “puck” out of the back of the turret. This compromised its NBC protection but was simple and reliable.
Kartsev decided to simply borrow the best ideas from the T-64A and the best ideas which had not gone into production from Object 167 and the T-62/D-81 project. The result, which was still called a modified T-64A, had the Object 140/Object 167 suspension on a hull that used the sharply angled glacis and driver’s position from the T-64A and little else. The complete T-62/D-81 turret and autoloader were used. The new tank also used a V-45 engine, another V-2 offshoot, producing 780 HP. This tank was readied on 10 January 1968 and received the interim index number Object 172.
After intensive comparative testing with the T-64A, Object 172 was re-engineered in 1970 to deal with some minor problems. However, being only a mobilization model, serial production of Object 172 was not possible in peacetime. In an unclear political process decree number 326–113 was issued, which allowed the production of Object 172 in the Soviet Union from 1 January 1972, and freed Uralvagonzavod from the T-64A production. The first batch was built as “Object 172M” and, after some modifications, it was tested again in 1973 and accepted into service as the “T-72” under Soviet ministry directive number 554–172 dated 7 August 1973.
LKZ Design Bureau’s T-80
By 1974, GABTU was stuck with a problem. They had the T-64A in production, but it was still a handful and somewhat unreliable. The T-72 was going strong, and export models, dubbed T72M, were being readied for sale and production abroad. But the new generation of US and German tank designs, the XM-1 and Leopard 2, were now undergoing preliminary testing, and the Soviet Union did not have a corresponding tank design. The T-64 was seen as too idiosyncratic, and the T-72 too conventional and old-fashioned. Thus, they turned to the Leningrad Kirov Factory and asked them to produce an advanced version of the T-72.
Nikolai S. Popov was the head of the LKZ at that time. Popov had some experience with turbine engines, and he felt that a turbine, as was being tested in the Chrysler version of the XM-1, was the way of the future. After testing a turbine in a T-72 chassis under the index number Object 219, they designed another tank chassis, using the best elements of the T-72 (hull layout and suspension system) and replacing all the rest. The new tank, called Object 219RD, used a modified turret design based on the T-64A and its autoloader. During the trials, it became clear that the increased weight and dynamic characteristics required a complete redesign of the vehicle’s caterpillar track system. The new design was designated as Object 219–2, which was accepted for service in 1976 as the T-80.
But why did they use three different tanks with similar ability to serve the same purpose and requirement?
Some military analysts said that the need of a large number of tanks made the Soviets used three different tanks. They also said that although there were already T-72s and T-80s in service, there were still not many of them to face a huge number of tanks fielded by the combined NATO countries in Europe. So they used T-64 to equip frontline units that still did not have the T-72 or T-80 models to keep the balance as happened to the T-54, T-55, and T-62 tanks in the reserve units. While some points of these arguments are true, there are still some elements that still incorrect. If they wanted to maintain the large numbers of tanks to keep the balance with NATO and deemed the T-64 as an unreliable tank, why did not they produce only the T-72 or even T-80 so they have both quality and quantity advantage over NATO? The fact that the Soviets still produced those three tanks in the same period as shown in the table below makes the argument above invalid.
Others said that the Soviets needed three tanks to face a wide variety of tank threats from Europe (NATO) and on their other border (China). The US fielded first M60 and later M1 Abrams tanks; the British, the Centurions and then the Chieftains; the Germans, the M48, Leopard 1, and last, the formidable Leopard 2; the French, AMX-30; and the rest, a variety of US, British, and German tank designs. In the east, the Soviets faced Chinese copies and variations of their own late and obsolete second-generation tank designs (T-54, T-55, and T-62). But all these tanks could be countered with a single superior main battle tank type, not three.
The answer to the question actually, in a single word, was the power of the “Oboronka”. This term was the Russian slang for the Military-Industrial Complex, which dominated nearly 50 percent of the Soviet economy for many, many years. With the incestuous relationship among Party leaders, factory heads, designers, and military commanders, this is a society within a society that ran the country. It also made and broke people at will, especially when political influence was turned all the way up. Few men in the USSR survived being broken by the members of the Oboronka, and few ever made their way back into its exalted ranks once expunged.
But in the end, the Oboronka was men, and it was men who made the machinery that kept the Oboronka in power, and the Oboronka kept the Party in power. This was not just the comic opera “KGB knock-at-the-door” threat of power, but wealth, position, and an enormous military force in being, which gave the trappings of power to those who fed it and worked with it. The reason that there were three main battle tanks in simultaneous production was that some men played the Oboronka game better than most, and were rewarded for their loyalties and achievements.
The Oboronka also made worse when Leonid Brezhnev took office in 1979 and things began to go downhill for the USSR. Leonid Brezhnev, in a classic example of what the Soviets constantly derided as “adventurism,” began direct, overt intervention into Afghanistan, heightening tensions with the West. NATO deployed more tanks to Europe, and new ones to boot — the M1, followed by the M1IP and M1A1; the Leopard 1A4 and Leopard 2 series; and the late model Chieftain with Stillbrew package and Challenger.
The Soviets became trapped by their own politics. The three factories, all with powerful friends in the Politburo and thousands of workers that had to be kept busy and continued unchecked. New models, aimed not so much at improving the tank park as “one-upmanship” over the other two rivals, appeared at regular intervals. For example, the T-64B, now with the 9M112 Kobra (AT-8 SONGSTER) through-the-bore launched ATGM, appeared in 1979; due to shared parts and components, the T-80B picked this feature up shortly afterward. In 1983, the T-64B, T-72A, and T-80B all began to receive reactive armor suites. This came about after the fortuitous 1982 Syrian capture of an Israeli M48 with “Blazer” proved its viability. In 1985, the T-72B and T-80U appeared. Both of them now mounted the 9M119 (AT-11 SNIPER) ATGM system, which used a laser beam riding system rather than the radio command guidance of the 9M112.
The Russians have always placed great stock in the “cult of personality.” It was essentially due to that feature of their national personality, plus the sheer power of the Oboronka, that three tanks with nearly identical combat capabilities were in production at the same time. However, when compared with Soviet thinking and their artificially generated Military Science, only the T-72 really stands out as the tank which met all their requirements and needs.
Soviet thinking on tanks was that, while they had to fully flesh out the three qualities of a tank — protection, mobility, and firepower — they also had to be simple, reliable, and capable of moving long distances under their own power. The T-64, which was a true quantum leap forward in tank design in 1962, proved to be too troublesome and difficult to maintain. While the tank never saw combat until recently (War in Donbass), its legacy — the awkward autoloader device — being indirectly responsible for the massive destruction among T-80 tanks sent into Chechnya.
The autoloaders in both tanks were quite similar, and extrapolation would show that the T-64 would have been as vulnerable to penetration of the fighting compartment as the T-80 was. The autoloader on both T-64 and T-80 has the same arrangement where the propellants are stacked vertically, increasing the chance of the projectile that penetrated the hull of the tank to ignite it.
The T-72 was a hybrid; for it combined the best of the past with the best of the new. Its autoloader was not as vulnerable or dangerous, and the tank was far more mechanically reliable and faithful. However, the T-72 garnered its own share of problems in the Gulf War, as the less capable T-72M, T-72M1, and Iraq domestically-built T-72, the Asad Babil tanks, were easily destroyed by first-line US and UK tanks. This is one of the main reasons that the last model, the T-72BU, was hastily re-designated as T-90 to try and shake off the stigma from Iraq.
The T-80, initially thought to be a world-beating tank, has proven itself to be a dog in service. Still plagued with low mileage — even the advertisements for T-80UM do not claim more than about 485 kilometers road range, including the auxiliary tanks — the T-80 was shown in combat. The tanks burn nearly as much fuel at idle as they do at road speeds, and as a result, most of the tanks which made the attack on Grozny on New Year’s Eve 1994 ran out of fuel while awaiting assignments. The Chechens then simply picked them off. While current models have an onboard 18 kW generator set, the ones used in Chechnya were the same T-80BV tanks that once worried commanders in Germany when they sat across the border in the Thuringerwald.
There have been some signs that the Russians are trying to fix the problem which the Oboronka left them, and are planning to settle on only one tank for the future. But the squabbling still persists as to whose tank it will be, and whose philosophy will be dominant. The fight today is between “parketniye generali” — the armchair generals in Moscow, so named because of the elegant parquet flooring in their offices — who still dream of sweeping across Germany to the English Channel on fleets of tanks, and the reformers, who want first-rate weapons for the scores of local conflicts and regional wars which they see as more likely in the future.
- Sewell, Stephen (1998). Why Three Tanks?. Fort Knox, KY: US Army Armor Center. ISSN 0004–2420.
- Zaloga, Steven J (1993). T-72 Main Battle Tank 1974–93. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, ISBN 1–85532–338–9.
- Zaloga, Steven (2009). T-80 Standard Tank. Oxford: Osprey Publishing. ISBN 978–1–84603–244–8.
- Zaloga, Steven (2015). T-64 Battle Tank: The Cold War’s Most Secret Tank. Oxford: Osprey Publishing. ISBN 978–1–47280–630–7.