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By Charlie Gao,The National Interest
While many Russian tank types are nominally meant to be replaced by the T-14 Armata, the modernization of old tank types is still occurring. Perhaps one of the more overlooked tanks that continues to be modernized are variants of the T-80.
While some in the West thought the design was a dead end after what was seen as a lackluster performance in Chechnya, many firms continued work on some very ambitious upgrade projects for it. Despite the economic hardship of the 1990s resulting in the cancellation of most of those, the Russian military has not given up on the T-80, and the type continues to be updated up to modern standards.
The primary reason for this is Russia’s geographic location. While T-72s and T-90s perform well in most climates, in the north where the temperatures can get very low, the T-80 is a far superior machine due to the turbine engine.
While Russian diesel tanks can take around 45 minutes to start at -30 degrees Celsius, gas turbine tanks can be up and running in around one minute. T-80s are also said to be more comfortable and warmer for the crew in such climates than other tanks.
So how did Russia plan to upgrade the T-80? Originally, the focus was going to be on improving the (then) top of the line T-80U. One of those projects was the Object 640 “Black Eagle” developed by the Leningrad (then Omsk) Plant. This tank was very forward-looking for its time and had a number of innovative concepts.
The chassis was a stretched T-80U hull to allow for increased frontal armor thickness. An additional road wheel was added to accommodate the additional length. Practically every component of the Black Eagle was compartmentalized, from the armament to each individual crew member. This would limit damage in the event of a successful penetration as the spall would be compartmentalized.
The armament was also placed in its own compartment, to allow for it to be easily changed and upgraded to meet evolving threats. In a change from the carousel autoloader featured in regular T-80s and T-72s, the Black Eagle used a bustle autoloader that allows for a higher rate of fire and improved survivability with blowout doors on the bustle. Unfortunately for the Omsk Tank plant, there was almost no appetite for such a tank in the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) or on the export market.
Other proposed modernizations of the T-80U line in the 1990s consisted of the T-80UM, which placed some simple thermal sights on the turret and allowed for the firing of the 9M119M gun-launched anti-tank guided missile (ATGM). Prototypes were also made that integrated various hard-kill active protection systems, the T-80UM1 with Arena and T-80UM2 with Drozd-2.
The one modernization of the T-80U that did reach serial production was the T-80UA, which incorporated an updated fire control system (FCS) and support for new ammunition in the autoloader.
Limited modernization of the earlier T-80B series of tanks (which were even more outdated at this point) was also undertaken in the 2000s in the form of the T-80BA which, like the T-80UA, added some small augmentations to the FCS and allowed for the shooting of more modern APFSDS ammunition. The T-80UE1 was also created by swapping the turrets on some T-80BVs with a surplus T-80UD turret that included the “A” modifications (with the improved autoloader and FCS).
It’s important to note that at this time, the T-72B was not receiving any big modernization packages either. The T-72BA upgrade procured around then is broadly similar to the T-80BA, T-80UA, and T-80UE1 upgrades in that it mostly featured small upgrades and no major improvements.
For awhile, it was assumed that the T-80s had no future in Russia after the deep modernizations of T-80UM, T-80UM1 and T-80UM2 were not adopted. A Russian MoD official said on the Echo of Moscow radio station that only T-72 and T-90 tanks would remain in service by 2015.
In the end, this turned out not to be true. In 2017 the T-80BVM, a deep modernization of the T-80BV, was revealed to the public. This included the new standard Sosna-U thermal sight, a new Relikt explosive reactive armor (ERA) fit and a general overhaul of the chassis, bringing the T-80BV up to the standard of the T-72B3.
The T-80BVM is even superior to the T-72B3 in some aspects, as the ergonomics of the gunner’s station are said to be better than the B3 as the Sosna-U station is placed directly in front of the gunner as opposed to off to the side on the T-72B3. The superior characteristics of the T-80BVM have resulted in it being assigned to the elite 4th Guards Tank Division “Kantemirovskaya” instead of T-72 or T-90 variants.
Not only T-80BVs are getting modernized though, as in July 2018 it was reported that the Russian MoD was also looking into modernizing the T-80UE1. This modernization would likely replace the older PLISSA thermals on the UE1 with the new Sosna-U. Similar modernizations would probably be easily applied to the regular T-80Us and T-80UAs that are still in service. As some may say, reports of the T-80’s obsoleteness are greatly exaggerated.
Charlie Gao studied political and computer science at Grinnell College and is a frequent commentator on defense and national-security issues.