Friday, 1 May 2015


The T-72 is known as one of the most numerous tanks in the world today, and the tank is likely to remain in some form of service for the rest of the 21st Century, so before we examine the history of the T-72, let us see how many of these tanks were actually built. A few years ago, Uralvagonzavod (UVZ) made efforts to declassify much of the history of the T-72 tank, including the number of tanks built by the factory. The table below was from the factory archives of the UVZ, published in the book "T-72/T-90: The Experience of Creating Domestic Main Battle Tanks" by the Nizhny Tagil factory, authored by S. Ustmantsev and D. Komalkov (head designer of the UVZ transport engineering bureau).

From 1973 to 1990, 18373 T-72 tanks and T-72 derivatives were manufactured at the UVZ factory floor, and another 1600 tanks were manufactured from 1991 to 1996. The Chelyabinsk Tractor Factory also took part in the manufacture of the T-72 tank, producing 1894 tanks themselves between 1978 and 1990. In total, 20267 T-72 tanks were produced in Soviet Russia, making it the second most numerous tank ever produced in both the USSR and the world. But how did it come about? The 2010 book "T-72 Ural armor against NATO" by noted military historian Mikhail Baryatinsky details the history of the development of the tank, and is the source for many of the diagrams and pictures shared below.

Firstly, it should be clear that the T-72 is indeed a "mobilization model" with slightly inferior performance compared to the T-64. Some Internet sleuths found this chart of prices showing that the T-72A (1979) was significantly more expensive than the T-64A (1968), but despite this, the fact remains that the T-72 was created primarily because the Kharkov design bureau responsible for the T-64 was too busy with the T-64 itself to be concerned with designing a simplified version of it - a mobilization model, in other words. The technology of the T-72 Ural was also very conspicuously inferior to the T-64A in major ways. The more expensive pricing of the T-72 does not change the fact that it is a less sophisticated product compared to the T-64.

Moving on, let us take a look at the Object 167. It is a precursor to the T-72, but is better described as a T-62 taken to the extreme.

The Object 167M had an early form of the now-famous AZ carousel autoloader, composite armour for the upper glacis and turret, a 125mm D-81T cannon, a V-26 engine which developed 700 HP, a reinforced transmission to deal with the increased power, hydraulically powered gear shifting systems, new "Liveni" two-plane stabilizer system, and a new suspension composed of six roadwheels and three return rollers. The tank did not enter mass production because the T-64 had already been ordered to enter production by a resolution from the Council of Ministers of the USSR, but this was definitely for the best, since the Object 167M had numerous drawbacks of its own. In February 26, 1964, the scientific-technical council GKOT examined the Object 167M project and rejected it. This was the end of the road for the Object 167, but it was destined to leave its mark on Soviet tank history, as we shall see later on.

Vitaly Kuzmin has good photos of the Object 167 when it was exhibited at Patriot Park 2015. Click here to view the photos on his website.

On 5 January, 1968, the Minister of Defence Industry S.A Zverev gave the order to begin the "modernization" of the T-64A by the Uralvagonzavod design bureau in Nizhniy Tagil after some persuasion by Leonid Kartsev on the advantages of replacing the basket-type autoloader in the T-64A with the carousel autoloader developed by UVZ, and also on the replacement of the 5TDF engine on the T-64A with a supercharged derivative of the V-2 engine (from the T-34) developed in Chelyabinsk. The minister was impressed by the autoloader and was enthusiastic on the idea of putting it in the T-64, but he only caved in and agreed to also changing the engine after Kartsev's persistent attempts to sway him. As part of the programme, six T-64A tanks were sent to UVZ. For the next few years, all prototypes of Kartsev's new tanks would either be modifications of these six T-64A tanks or modified copies thereof.

The first of these modifications, dubbed "Object 172", was completed in the summer of 1968, and the second was completed in September of that same year. The Object 172 differed from the T-64A only in the fighting compartment, which had to be rearranged to fit the new autoloader, and in the engine compartment, which was completely reworked for the V-45K engine and T-54-style cooling system. 
Because most of the modifications were internal, the Object 172 was practically indistinguishable from a typical T-64A from the front, but the rear of the turret had to be modified for the autoloader's ramming and ejection system, while the engine compartment had to be lengthened to accommodate the new powertrain and cooling system. The left side of the hull gained an exhaust port just above the second rearmost roadwheel - a location reminiscent of the earlier T-54 and T-62.

Baryatinsky's book gives us the details of the late stages of gestation of the T-72. Here are a few translated paragraphs:

"Then in the Design Bureau of the UVZ, which since August 1969 was headed by V.N. Venediktov, it was decided to use the chassis of the Object 167 with rubberized roadwheels of increased diameter and more durable tracks with open metal track pins similar to those of the T-62 tank. The development of this tank was carried out under the designation "Object 172M". The engine, boosted to 780 hp, received the index of V-46. A two-stage air-cleaning cassette system was introduced, similar to that used on the T-62 tank. The weight of the Object 172M increased to 41 tons, but the mobility characteristics remained at the same level (author's note: same level as the Obj. 172) due to the increase in engine power by 80 hp, the capacity of fuel tanks by 100 liters and the width of the track by 40 mm.

From November 1970 to April 1971, Object 172M passed a full cycle of factory tests and then on May 6, 1971, was presented to the defense ministers A.A. Grechko and the defense industry SA. Zverev. By the beginning of the summer, an installation lot was set up from 15 vehicles, which, together with the T-64A and T-80 tanks, passed many months of unprecedented scale. At the suggestion of Major-General Yuri M. Potapov, a battalion composed of platoons of three companies was formed. At the same time, each company was manned by tanks of the same type. The route of the traffic was chosen from Dnepropetrovsk through Ukraine to Belorussia to Slutsk and then back to Dnepropetrovsk, and then through the Donbass and the North Caucasus to Baku, across the sea by ferry to Krasnovodsk, through the Karakum desert and the Kopetdag mountain range. The tests were due to be completed at a range of 60 km from Ashgabat. During the march, live firing tests were conducted at various firing range, and platoon and company level exercises with live firing and driving were carried out at various tankodroms (training grounds).

After the end of the tests, a report with the title "Report on the results of military trials of 15 tanks 172M, manufactured by Uralvagonzavod in 1972." was submitted. The final part of the report contained these remarks:

  1. Tanks have passed the tests, but the lifespan of the tracks of 4,500 - 5,000 km is insufficient and does not fulfill the requirement for tank travelling capability of a distance of 6500 - 7000 km without replacement of tracks.
  2. Tank 172M (warranty period - 3000 km) and engine V-46 (350 m / h (?)) worked reliably. In the course of further testing up to 10,000 - 11,000 km, most of the units and assemblies, including the V-46 engine, operated reliably, but a number of major units and assemblies showed insufficient lifespan and reliability.
  3. The tank is recommended for adoption into the armed services and serial production, provided that the identified shortcomings are eliminated and the effectiveness of their elimination is checked before serial production. The scope and time frames for improvements and inspections should be agreed between the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Defense Industry.

In accordance with the decision of the Central Committee of the CPSU and the Council of Ministers of the USSR of August 7, 1973, Object 172M was adopted by the Soviet Army under the name of T-72 "Ural". The official order of the Minister of Defense of the USSR was published on August 13, 1973. In the same year, an pilot batch of 30 tanks was produced at Uralvagonzavod."

And thus, the T-72 was born. An amalgamation of the T-64A and the Object 167, the T-72 would go on to become the second most widely produced tank in the world, behind only the T-54.

In the end, the T-72 turned out to be so similar to the T-64 that you could not easily tell them apart, yet different enough that there was minimal parts commonality between them. This was one of the many headaches caused by the rivalries in the Soviet tank building industry, but this does not change the fact that the T-72 was an extremely capable tank.

But before we take a look at the T-72 in earnest, we must first remember that the original Ural variant has undergone several major upgrades throughout its lifetime, creating significant discrepancies between each successive model, and to complicate matters, each model in itself may have subtle improvements implemented during overhauls. Without going into very much detail, we can condense the evolution of the T-72 tank into a few main models. Some of the information below comes from the Russian military historian A.V Karpenko, but there are many other details that cannot be e.

Object. 172M (T-72 Ural) 1973-1974

The original T-72 model, with the simple pure cast steel turret and optical coincidence rangefinder-based sighting system. The IR spotlight was originally located on the left side of the cannon like the T-64A, but it was relocated to the right side in 1974.

Object. 172M1 (T-72 Ural-1) 1975-1979

In this model, the "Gill" armour panels on the side of the hull from the T-72 Ural (originally from the T-64) were replaced with conventional side skirts sometime in the middle of the production run. The optical coincidence rangefinder-based sighting system was replaced by a laser rangefinder-based version sometime during the production run, at an unknown point. New turrets lacking the protrusion for the second optic port for the coincidence rangefinder were devised for these variants.

Object. 176 (T-72A) 1979-1985

First serious modernization of the tank. Almost everything was changed; the tank had a revised hull armour and a new turret with a composite filler was implemented, the D-81TM cannon was installed, the 902V "Tucha" smoke grenade system was added, a new convoy light with a digital numerical display was installed, and more.

Object. 184 (T-72B) 1985

Second serious modernization of the T-72. The new tank featured completely revised hull and turret armour, a new autoloader, a guided missile firing capability, a new cannon, a new engine, and more.

Object. 184-1 (T-72B1) 1985

Downgraded T-72B variant without the missile firing capability and with the original Ural autoloader. This aspect of the T-72B1 is examined later on in the article, in the section on the autoloader.

Table of Contents

  1. Commander's Station
  2. TKN-3M
  3. Commander's Fire Controls
  4. Communications

  5. Gunner's Station
  6. Sighting Complexes
  7. TPD-2-49
  8. 1A40
  9. 1A40-1
  10. Auxiliary Sights
  11. TPN-1-49-23
  12. 1K13-49
  13. 1A40-4 Sosna-U

  14. Stabilizers
  15. 2E28M "Sireneviy"
  16. 2E42-2 "Zhasmin"
  17. 2E42-4 
  18. Meteorological Mast
  19. D-81T Cannon
  20. 2A26M-2
  21. 2A46
  22. 2A46M
  23. 2A46M-5

  24. Ammunition Stowage
  25. Autoloader
  26. Loose Stowage

  27. Ammunition
  28. HE-Frag
  29. HEAT
  30. APFSDS

  31. PKT

  32. Protection
  33. Common Characteristics
  34. T-72 Ural
  35. Gill Armour
  36. T-72A
  37. Kontakt-1
  38. T-72B
  39. How Does NERA Work?
  40. Kontakt-5

  41. Fuel Tanks as Armour
  42. Smoke Screen
  43. Escape Hatch
  44. NBC Protection
  45. Firefighting
  46. Entrenchment Dozer Blade
  47. Storage

  48. Mobility
  49. Engines
  50. Cooling System
  51. Transmission
  52. Suspension
  53. Water Obstacles
  54. Road Endurance
  55. Driver's Station


From Stefan Kotsch's fantastic website

The commander's station is somewhat cramped, which can be exacerbated by bulky winter clothing, but still noticeably less cramped than the gunner's station, which is suitable since his duties involve more movement. If we refer to this diagram from "Human Factors and Scientific Progress in Tank Building" by M.N. Tikhonov and I.D. Kudrin as provided by Peter Samsonov, we can see that the commander of a T-72 has much less space (0.615 cubic meters) compared to a T-55 commander (0.828 cubic meters), but this is obviously not possible. For one, the commander in a T-55 has to wrap his legs around the gunner seated in front of him - because there is simply not enough legroom - and the breech guard squeezes him against the turret wall. It is the exact opposite for the T-72. As the commander's station in the T-72 is completely separated from the gunner's station, there is nothing in front of him below chest level, and as a result, he has all the legroom in the world. His upper body is less well accommodated, but it is still a huge improvement over the T-54, as much of the equipment attached to the wall of the commander's station (like the bulky radio) has been moved forward so as to free up more space for his shoulders, as you will see in the many photos below. Overall, the T-72 definitely offers more space for the commander than a T-55, though that is not a very high bar to pass.

According to this presentation from the TASS news agency, the turret compartment has a volume of 5.9 cubic meters, presumably total space, while the driver's compartment has a volume of 2.0 cubic meters and the engine compartment has 3.1 cubic meters of volume, for a grand total internal volume of 11.0 cubic meters.

The commander's cupola follows the same pattern set by the cupola of the T-54, but with some significant differences. The T-72 cupola is taller, has more thickly armoured hatch, and the hatch has a clam shell shape rather than a simple half-moon shape. In terms of width, the two cupolas are very similar in diameter. The race ring of the T-72 cupola extends below the turret roof, whereas the one in the T-54 cupola doesn't. This is because the T-72 cupola has an extra toothed ring to engage the counter-rotating motor - we will explore this further later on.

T-72 (left), T-55 (right)

The cupola housing is secured to the cast steel turret roof by a ring of bolts around its circumference, but unlike the T-54 cupola, the bolts are sheltered against gunfire and the weather. The T-72 cupola is also more complex as the race ring it runs on is not directly connected to the fixed base bolted to the fixed cupola housing but to an intermediate metal band, and that connects to the cupola housing via a larger race ring. The intermediate metal band is between the inner cupola (which carries the optics and hatch) and the fixed base, and the anti-aircraft machine gun mount is installed on this band. By releasing a locking mechanism, the intermediate band can be freed from the fixed base, thus allowing it and the machine gun installed on it to be rotated degrees independently of the rest of the cupola, as you can see in the photo below (photo from Russian Ministry of Defence).

The independence of the machine gun mount from the cupola is demonstrated in this video, and in this video. This video from TV Zvezda shows a fully assembled turret with the machine gun cradle on its mount, traversed to a forward position. This aspect of the cupola is further discussed in the section on the anti-aircraft machine gun later on.

I could not find the diameter of the cupola or the dimensions of the hatch, but by scaling the TNPA-65A periscope housing to the rest of the cupola in the diagram, I found the diameter of the hatch to be 665mm, and the maximum width to be 413mm. Those are only the external dimensions, however. The interior dimensions are probably 2 to 3cm smaller.

A snug fit ensures that the commander will not be rocked around too violently while traversing difficult terrain, but it also means more things to knock into, and it can get uncomfortable in hot weather. Like in the gunner's station, the commander is ventilated by a single adjustable DV-3 plastic fan, a simple 5.2W fan running on the tank's 27V electrical system. The DV-3 is shown in the photo below.

The DV-3 is closely related to the DV-302T, which is a very similar plastic fan used in aircraft like the Mi-8 helicopter, Il-76 and many more. In other words, the DV-3 was essentially an off-the-shelf product at the time the T-72 began mass production.

Because the commander has his own hatch, he may opt to simply stick himself out of the hatch and ride on the turret roof. Still, the negatives of the crampedness of the station outweigh the benefits, especially in winter time.

The amount of legroom afforded to the commander is more than adequate. Due to the ammunition carousel of the autoloader, the internal height of the hull is somewhat limited, but the horizontal space is unaffected. The commander can stretch his legs out as far as he desires.

The commander's main means of battlefield surveillance is a forward-facing TKN-3M pseudo-binocular periscope, augmented by two rectangular TNPO-160 periscopes on either side of it and two narrow TNPA-65A viewing prisms aimed to his rear quarters. There is no periscope that allows the commander to see directly behind the turret. For that, he must spin the cupola just a little to one side, and look out of either one of his TNPA-65A viewing prisms. All viewing devices are electrically heated using the RTS system to prevent fogging in cold weather. RTS stands for "Регулятор Tемпературы Стекла" (Regulyator Temperatur' Stekla), which means "Glass Temperature Regulator".

The two photos below show the TKN-3MK, a slightly updated version of the TKN-3M. It is impossible to visually distinguish them from each other - the only way to know is to see what model of T-72 you are looking at.

As for equipment, the commander's station is packed chock full of various knick-knacks essential for commanding the tank. There is also an assortment of accessories that are not directly related to his job, but are placed near him because it was the only available space in the squeezed turret.

In the photo above, we can see the R-123 radio transceiver (BLUE) at the very bottom. The silver-gray box above it is a switch box (RED) for the communications system to switch between radio and intercom communitcation, and the white box beside it is a master control panel (GREEN) for most of the functions in the tank. This control panel (pictured below) gives the commander dominion over things like the lights and the ventilator, and behind the silver and milk-white metal flaps at the corners of the panel are the emergency engine stop button and the emergency fire extinguishing system engagement (activates all the fire extinguishers connected to the automatic firefighting system in the fighting compartment) button, respectively. This control panel also enables the commander to initiate the autoloader.

The commander is responsible for setting the fuse on HE-Frag shells, and this control panel enables him to do so. Pressing one button partially activates the autoloader so that it stops before the ramming cycle commences. The commander will then use his special fuse setting tool to set the fuse to either the High Explosive or Frag mode. Then, another press of a button finishes the loading procedure.

The silver box (YELLOW) to the right of the intercom switch enables the commander to control the autoloader for the purpose of unloading it.

The box flips open to reveal control toggles for operating the individual elements of the autoloader system, like raising and lowering the shell casing catcher, opening and closing the ejection port, activating the rammer, and so on. If the autoloader is only partially malfunctioning, the commander can use this control box to operate some parts of the loading procedure automatically, and operate other parts manually. If the autoloader carousel malfunctions, it is possible to rotate the carousel manually, and crank the autoloader elevator by hand to extract ammunition and use the electric chain rammer to ram the ammunition into the breech.

Above that is a TN-28-10 dome light and the already-mentioned DV-3 plastic fan. The dome light is part of the PMB-71 lighting system.  At the upper left corner is a wooden dowel with a rubber head. This is a ramming stick for the commander to use when manually loading the cannon. Beside the dome light is the gyroscopic tachometer for the stabilizer system.

Besides the dome light in front of the commander, there is another dome light light directly above the gun breech, making it quite easy for him to perform his duties, including loading and unloading the autoloader and loading the co-axial machine gun.

Here is another view of the station, this time from below. Photo from KyivPost.

Toggle switches for turning on the external and internal lights and the periscope heating system are located around the cupola ring. Two such switches are shown below. The switch on the right is to turn on all of the forward facing lights on the tank, and the switch on the left is to turn on all of the rearward facing lights.


The TKN-3M is an pseudo-binocular periscope with night vision capability in two modes; passive and active. In the passive mode of operation, the TKN-3M employs a first generation light intensifier system, which is usable in lighting conditions as dark as a typical moonless, starlit night (0.005 lux). As the amount of light increases, the effective viewing distance increases. An enemy tank can be identified at up to 400 meters at 0.005 lux ambient light, but identifying the same tank is entirely possible at distances of up to 600 m in moonlit nights or even up to 800 m during the brighter part of twilight hours. Any brighter and the image would be overexposed. The most significant advantage of the light intensifier is that it enables the commander to detect the signatures of enemy IR spotlights and headlights from extremely long distances.

Overall, the TKN-3M offers very poor night viewing capabilities compared to modern thermal imaging sights, but it was equally advanced as other image intensifier optic built in the 60's (the TKN-3 first appeared in 1964 on the T-62), and the use of image intensification technology was completely novel feature, up until the 70's. From the 70's onwards, the TKN-3 was outstripped by Western passive light intensifier optics.

To switch between the day and night channels, the user simply rotates a dial on the right side of the periscope housing by 90 degrees. This flips an internal mirror by 90 degrees, thus changing the optical path between the night vision unit and the regular daytime optic. The diagram below shows the two choices. Diagram (a) on the left shows the path of the light from the aperture through the night vision system and into the eyepiece, while diagram (b) on the right shows the mirror flipped 90 degrees and the light from the aperture passing through the normal optical channel for daytime use.

The periscope itself has a fairly average angular FOV of 10 degrees in the day channel, or 8 degrees in the night channel. The periscope has two eyepieces, but only one aperture, making it a pseudo-binocular periscope. Since it is not a truly binocular periscope, the TKN-3M offers practically no depth perception. This does not make much difference at long distances, but the viewing experience may take some getting used to. The single aperture of the periscope is seen below.

It has a fixed 5x magnification in the day channel and 3x magnification in the night channel. This is quite limited, making long-distance observation problematic, especially if the weather is unfavourable. It can be manipulated to elevate and depress to a reasonable degree, offering some limited aerial view for the commander. Overall, it is not a great system, and it was outstripped as early as 1973 by the new TRP 2A sight installed on the Leopard 1A3, and by the highly advanced PERI-R12 panoramic surveillance and sighting system installed in the Leopard 1A4 in 1974. Both of these devices were capable of very high magnification and had powered traverse with stabilization, but the PERI-R12 had the additional function as the sighting complex for the commander when he used the gunnery override mode. Having this ability in an independent surveillance device was a breakthrough for the early 70's, and many tanks would not have a similar feature until the late 80's or 90's.

The TKN-3MK is a slightly updated variant with a 2nd generation image intensifier system, giving it better image quality and a slightly better nominal tank identification range of 500 meters under the same lighting conditions stated before (moonless, starlit nights with ambient light levels of 0.005 lux). According to, 2nd generation image intensifiers differ from their 1st generation counterparts by the implementation of an MCP, a so-called "electron multiplier". The addition of an MCP substantially increases the amplification power of the device compared to a 1st generation image intensifier, but the cost of a 2nd generation image intensifier is also much greater. All T-72B tanks are equipped with the TKN-3MK. The T-72B3 is also equipped with the TKN-3MK, which is entirely inappropriate for its time.

Due to the fact that the periscope is unstabilized, identifying another tank at a distance is very difficult while the tank is on the move over very rough terrain. The commander is meant to bear down and brace against the handles of the periscope to control his line of sight, and that is adequate for keeping the target within view for the smoother parts of off-road driving, but the degree of accuracy is not enough for range finding or precise target designation.

The active mode requires the use of the OU-3GK IR spotlight which is mounted on the rotating cupola. The distance at which a tank-sized target can be identified in this mode is apparently around 400m, although the spotlight can in fact illuminate objects much further away than that. The main issue is the low magnification, which is simply not enough for spotting camouflaged tanks. Surplus OU-3GA spotlights have become rather popular on the civilian market in recent times as floodlights for off-roading 4x4s, or just for recreation. In this site here, you can see the spotlight in action. The photo below perfectly illustrates the power of the spotlight.

The spotlight clearly illuminates an apartment building 700 m away, though the effect is not as pronounced because of the nearby streetlamps increasing the amount of ambient light. Also, the OU-3GA that they used was battery powered and ran on only 55W. The spotlight is designed to run on 110W when connected to the tank's electrical system.

The periscope aperture has a small wiper, as you can see in the photo below.

Rotation of the cupola can be done by either using the TKN-3M's set of grips to slide the cupola around the race ring, or the cupola-mounted anti-aircraft machine gun cradle's handles, if the commander is outside the hatch. By rotating the cupola, the commander can attain a full 360 degrees of vision.

At the end of the left hand grip of the TKN-3M is a button to designate a target for the gunner, in the same way as the hunter-killer T-54B system with the TPK-1. Unlike the T-54, though, the T-72 features an additional electric motor that automatically counter-rotates his cupola so that his original orientation is preserved while the turret is spinning. The photo below shows the direction sensor, painted red, in contact with the three metal bands on the cupola ring above the golden toothed band. These metal bands interface with a roller inside the direction sensor, and the sensor detects which direction the cupola is facing relative to the turret by detecting the direction in which the roller is deflected. The counter-rotating motor is the silver box, underneath the red direction sensor, as seen in the photo below. The counter-rotating motor spins the cupola through a drive gear in contact with the toothed band around the circumference of the cupola ring.

Once the turret is slewed towards the target, the gunner will see the target, lay the gun more precisely, and then engage. The commander has duplicated controls for ammunition selection, so can select the most appropriate shell type for the type of target upon spotting it, allowing the gunner to open fire as soon as he has laid the sights on target. This sort of cooperation between the gunner and commander helps the T-72 to attain a higher rate of fire.

It is worth noting that while the target designation system is activated with a single click of the left hand grip button on the TKN-3M periscope, the button can be held down to slave the turret to the commander. Wherever he aims the reticle, the turret will follow. Turret rotation is always done at maximum speed, so small corrections in turret orientation may be a little jerky.

The TKN-3M sight has a stadia reticle intended for approximate manual range estimation of tank-sized targets 2.7m tall from a distance of 800m to 3 to 3.2km, although this might be slightly optimistic for most situations. However, it is entirely possible for the crew to see and engage targets at such distances if weather conditions and the geography of the battlefield allows for it. Example of such geography should include plenty of high ground. Stadiametric ranging is not an accurate way to determine target distance. At long distances, the errors in estimation may amount to hundreds of meters.

A horizontal stadia rangefinder is objectively superior to a "choke" type stadia rangefinder, like the type found on M551 Sheridan light tanks. Whereas a "choke" rangefinder indicates target distance based on width, a horizontal rangefinder depends on height instead. A "choke" rangefinder would not be able to accurately determine distance if the target tank was not oriented directly towards the observer, which meant that against both stationary and mobile targets, and especially targets moving side-to-side, it would be mostly useless for actually finding range. Keep in mind that depending on the direction which a tank could be travelling, the observer could be seeing the tank lengthwise and not its actual design width. It would also be impossible to accurately guess a target's real width given a silhouette of an unknown size. A horizontal-type rangefinder, on the other hand, can measure distance no matter which direction the target is travelling in, and if a tank was in a hull-down position, the height of a tank would generally be halved, given that only the turret is exposed, giving the observer a fighting chance to approximate target distance.

As mentioned before, the TKN-3M sight depends on an OU-3GA xenon arc IR spotlight for illumination when operating in the 'active' mode. An inherent shortcoming to the usage of IR spotlights is that enemy tanks using a sight operating on the same type of system can see the light as well, along with its source. The SVD sniper rifle, for example, was fitted with the PSO-1 scope with an IR filter that let the sniper exploit this trait and allowed him to see enemy tanks at night. This makes it easy for the T-72 to be caught in an ambush at night by other tanks of the era like M48s, M60s, Leopard 1s, Chieftains, etc, although it must be said that the inverse also applies. The T-72 can easily see and engage enemy tanks maneuvering in the dark without switching on its own spotlight. Like turning on a flashlight in the dark,you may not be able to see very far, but anyone can spot your torch from miles away. 


None of the Soviet era T-72 models featured a set of firing controls for the commander. This feature only came on the recent T-72B3 modernization. Before, the commander only had access to the autoloader controls, but in the T-72B3, the commander is now equipped to override the gunner entirely. He has a flatscreen display linked to the Sosna-U sight, and the necessary controls for firing the main gun and the co-axial machine gun at his disposal in the form of a set of handgrips similar to the gunner's. This arrangement is no different from what most Western tanks already had for decades.

The control unit is almost exactly the same as the type installed in the T-80 tank as part of the PNK-4 fire control system. Control of turret traverse and gun elevation is accomplished using the thumbstick. The decision to use a thumbstick was because a full joystick could not be easily manipulated with precision if the operator's body and arm was rocking around if the tank were going over rough terrain. However, the thumb would be completely stationary if the hand was securely gripping a handle. The index finger rests on the trigger.


The T-72 was originally supplied with an R-123 radio. The R-123 radio had a frequency range of between 20 MHZ to 51.5 MHZ. It could be tuned to any frequency within those limits via a knob, or the commander could instantly switch between four preset frequencies for communications within a platoon. It had a range of between 16km to 50km. The R-123 had a novel glass prism window at the top of the apparatus that displayed the operating frequency. An internal bulb illuminated a dial, imposing it onto the prism where it is displayed. The R-123 had an advanced modular design that enabled it to be repaired quickly by simply swapping out individual modules.

Beginning in 1984, the R-123 was replaced by the R-173 radio in the new T-72B. The R-173 had a frequency range of between 30 MHZ to 75.999MHZ and 10 preset frequencies. It had an electronic keypad for entering the desired frequency, and a digital display. Both the radio and intercom system are directly routed to the throat mike and headset, which are integral parts of the iconic Russian tanker's helmet.

The throat mike gives very good voice clarity and doesn't pick up any ambient noise, which makes the throat mike system inherently superior to open mikes. However, this is counteracted by the very poor sound quality from the headphones installed in the helmet. It is more pleasant for the commander to shout commands to the other crew members rather than use the intercom.

Communications through the R-173 are rather easy to intercept and jam or listen in to. For instance, Chechen fighters during the Chechnya campaign were able to listen in to radio chatter and even interject bogus commands over Russian airwaves. For this very reason, the new, frequency-hopping R-168-25UE-2 was rapidly launched into service in the 2000's to replace it.


The R-168-25UE-2 frequency-hopping encrypted radio set is used for communications on all levels. It replaced both the R-173M and R-123 radio stations in the T-72B3 modernization.


The R-168 family of radios is now the standard throughout the Russian ground forces, from infantry platoons to tank companies. It can produce frequency hops 100 times a second, and the data is encrypted as well.

Command variants of the T-72 were equipped with an additional R-123 radio. As of today, the R-123 radio is completely antiquated. It is an analogue design first used in the T-62 back in the early 60's to replace the R-113. Command variants were identifiable via their distinctively elongated second antenna.

The modern day Russian army no longer fields command variants of the T-72 due to a drastic shift in combat doctrine. Instead, all modern T-72B3 tanks have only a single R-168-25UE-2 radio. Command variants of Soviet era T-72s have been reverted to their base variants.

Besides the updated communications hardware, the tank's intercom and radio control panel was also replaced with an all-new digital one shown below:

Unlike some NATO tanks like the M60A1, the commander's means of surveying the battlefield is conducted with periscopes and not with vision blocks. The commander's head is located below the cupola ring as well. The implications of this design decision is that the commander has rather unremarkable all-round visibility compared to an American tank with their large cupolas and large vision blocks, but like all design decisions, this one has a few advantages of its own. The commander is completely withdrawn from large-caliber sniper fire (12.7mm-type) and concentrated machine gun fire directed at the cupola. There is absolutely zero chance that his eyes may be injured by broken glass due to the nature of the periscope and because the periscope eyepiece is protected by ballistic glass, as shown in the photo below, to the left.

For forward observation, two TNPO-160 periscopes are provided. They have a total horizontal range of vision of 78 degrees, and a vertical field of view of 28 degrees; 12 degrees above the horizontal axis and 16 degrees below.

Two TNPA-65A periscopes bring up the 4 o'clock and 8 o'clock positions. They are mounted directly in the hatch, and give the commander a view of the rear two quadrants of the turret. Unfortunately, there is a blind spot directly behind the cupola, since this is where the hatch's locking latch handle is located.

TNPA-65A provides only 14 degrees of binocular vision horizontally and 6 degrees of vertical vision, meaning that its width is within the normal and acceptable range, but it is very narrow.

The TNPO-160 periscopes with the TKN-3 binocular periscope comprise the forward vision assembly of the commander. Despite the limited all-round visibility (compared to NATO tanks) offered by the commander's five periscopes, he can still compensate by simply rotating his cupola. This essentially negates the smaller number of observation devices, but it does not compensate for the periscopes being more constricted than the type found in typical NATO tanks. Nevertheless, while the commander may not have perfect immediate all-round awareness, he has a very reasonable degree of coverage, definitely enough to fight with.

The commander's hatch is of a forward-opening half-moon type, mounted on the rotating cupola. The hatch is quite small, and exiting through it in a hurry may be problematic if the commander is wearing winter clothing.

It is spring-loaded to assist the commander in opening the heavy hatch. A simple rotating handle locks the hatch when closed, preventing it from bouncing up and down when the tank is in motion, and a smaller handle at the bottom of the hatch serves to lock the hatch in place when it is opened, which is useful when the commander wishes to view the battlefield from outside the hatch, or when he needs to use the complementary cupola-mounted machine gun..

Because it opens forward, the thick hatch gives the commander full-body protection from machine gun fire whenever he wants to pop out for a tactical assessment with binoculars. To look over the hatch, all he needs to do is to stand on his seat.

The commander is shielded from machine gun and sniper fire by his hatch

In some modifications beginning in the mid-70's, the commander's cupola may also have peculiar shield installed forward of the hatch. All T-72s operated by the Russian ground forces today feature this shield.

The lower part is a simple hanging canvas sheet, which isn't intended to be part of the protection scheme. The upper part is just a face shield for the commander for if he were to sit outside on the turret while on road marches, probably to protect his face from bugs.

The shield made of very thin sheet steel with an equally thin polycarbonate or perspex window and is thus not bulletproof, splinter-proof or fragmentation-proof (though the commander's hatch is). Therefore, the protection afforded to the commander does not change. The only ballistic protection the commander gets still comes from his hatch, only now he has dust and bug protection. See the photos above and below.


The gunner's station is dominated by the massive GPS (Gunner's Primary Sight), which tips the scales at 80kg. He is responsible for all of the weapons-related equipment, including the autoloader, stabilizer, cannon, co-axial machine gun, the sighting devices and their associated instruments.

The gunner's station is the most cramped position in the T-72, and even more so if he is wearing winter clothing. However, it would be a mistake to consider the cramped nature of the gunner's station as a unique and defining feature of the T-72. As a whole, the T-72's turret does indeed have a much smaller volume than most tanks, but the space delegated to the gunner is very much on par with its contemporaries.

Looking again at this diagram from "Human Factors and Scientific Progress in Tank Building" by M.N. Tikhonov and I.D. Kudrin as provided by Peter Samsonov, we can see that the space afforded to the gunner is seriously tight, only 0.495 cubic meters. However, this is a big improvement over the T-55, which gave its gunner only 0.395 cubic meters of space.

In any case, internal space in this tank seems to be more psychological than physical. Volume and comfort-wise, the gunner's station in a T-72 is quite adequate for a legacy tank, though still undoubtedly cramped. However, that is not to say that crampedness of the gunner's station is entirely negative. A snug fit ensures that the gunner will not be knocked around too much while the tank is in motion, which is undoubtedly a small benefit to targeting precision while driving on uneven ground. It isn't so much an issue while on long marches, because both turret occupants may simply sit on the turret roof instead. In this respect, the T-72 has a slight ergonomic advantage over many tanks in that the gunner has his own hatch and he can exit whenever he likes to sit on the roof, or to stand upright. In the event of an internal fire,the entire crew can bail out with no fuss. This is quite unlike tanks like the T-55, Leopard 1, Abrams, or indeed, any other manually-loaded tank except for a few oddball designs like the M60A2. Usually, the gunner is not provided with his own hatch. On long marches, he might be forced to stay put in his decidedly cramped station for hours at a time.

Case in point: in Part 2 of his "Inside The Chieftain's Hatch" video review of the Centurion tank, Mr. Nicholas Moran from Wargaming noted that after just 20 minutes, it was beginning to get uncomfortable in the gunner's seat. If it began to get uncomfortable in his seat, the gunner of a T-72 can open his hatch and sit on the roof, or just stand on his seat and stretch. Additionally, in a typical manually loaded tank, if the commander were incapacitated or killed, the gunner would have to squeeze through the commander's body or shift it aside in order to bail out. This is not a problem for the T-72.

Mr. Moran also noted that the gunner's station in the T-55 was very well laid out, but mentioned that legroom was somewhat limited unless the turret was pointing straight forward, in which case he could stretch his legs all the way into the driver's station. The T-72 fully preserves the reportedly excellent layout of the T-55, but is more spacious by 0.1 cubic meters and offers the same great legroom no matter where the turret is pointed. This is not due to the lack of a turret basket, but to the large turret ring diameter and separated seating of the commander and gunner.

Ventilation is provided by a DV-3 plastic fan, like in the commander's station. It is more than enough in European climates where temperatures are usually around 20° C (68° F) or less, as it is a relatively powerful 5.2W fan, but in hot, desert regions averaging 30° C to 40° C is only useful for increasing air circulation to stave off stuffiness, and little else. Still, it's better than some tanks that do not provide any personal ventilation at all.

For general visibility, the gunner is provided with a single forward-facing TNPO-165 periscope and another TNPA-65A periscope on his hatch, pointing to the left. The TNPO-165 periscope has a large field of view. It is placed there for the gunner to check the orientation of the gun barrel, and to make sure that if the tank is entering a ditch or a trench, the gun barrel is elevated safely. In daytime, the periscopes are also sources of light.

1A40-1 sighting complex and 1K13-49 night vision/auxiliary sight

As you can see in the photo above, the gunner is supplied with a duplicate of the commander's master control panel. Besides being able to initiate the fire control system, control the ventilation, turn on the lighting system, and much more, having the master control panel gives the gunner complete control over most of the electrical equipment in the tank, and also enables the gunner to set the fuse on a HE-Frag shell in lieu of the commander if necessary. This means that technically, the T-72 can fully operate on a 2-man crew with a minimal loss in combat capability. This may be useful when a tank company or battalion is understaffed and there are no sufficiently qualified substitutes for the tank commander's position.

The circular box between the TPD-K1 eyepiece and the handgrips is the AZ-175 autoloader control box. The autoloader is turned on from this box, and the ammunition type can be selected by the gunner.

In a high tension tank duel, a good gunner will have his right hand on the handgrips to pull the trigger, and his left hand on the loading switch, so that at the moment immediately after firing, the autoloader will kick into action. The autoloader control box can set the autoloader to automatic operation or manual operation. Setting it to manual operation enables the crew to manually load the gun with partial assistance from individual components of the autoloader, such as the chain rammer, or to manually load the gun entirely by hand. Setting the autoloader to the manual mode for manual loading is necessary because it locks the stabilizer to fix the gun at a certain angle for easier loading and to prevent any accidents from occurring.

The gunner is also provided with an autoloader ammunition indicator. The indicator is rather crude, even for its time, as the indicator system is based on simple milliammeter technology. Due to the small size of the indicator pin, it may be difficult to easily see the indicated number in a high intensity situation.

The indicator does not have any selectors or dials on its own housing. Rather, it works in conjunction with the autoloader control box. When the gunner selects an ammunition type on the dial on the autoloader control box, the ammunition indicator automatically displays the ammunition reserve for that ammunition type currently stowed in the autoloader carousel. The number of empty slots in the autoloader carousel is determined by setting the ammunition selector dial to the "Load" position. The ammunition indicator only goes up to eleven, so if the number of rounds for any ammunition type exceeds eleven, the exact number of rounds can only be determined by finding out the number of rounds of the other ammunition types and the number of empty slots in the carousel. Needless to say, it was not a very good system.

Besides the autoloader controls, there is also a turret azimuth indicator, installed just next to the manual turret traverse flywheel.

The indicator is akin to a clock, with an hour hand and a minute hand. The hour hand is mainly a tool of convenience as it shows the direction the turret is pointing to, but it is also an important tool for laying the gun for indirect fire. The minute hand is read with the hour hand to obtain a precise reading of the orientation of the turret for indirect fire purposes.

The gunner is provided with a single half-moon hatch. Its most distinctive feature is the smaller circular port hole at its center, intended for snorkel installation.

The hatch is spring loaded to hold it in place when open, and to give a little leeway for the gunner when opening it. It is locked with a simple rotating latch. There is a single TNPA-65 periscope embedded in it, pointing to the left (mentioned above). It is rather small and slit-like, but it provides the gunner with some precious limited sideways visibility. It provides only 14 degrees of binocular vision horizontally and 6 degrees of vertical vision.

In the gunner's case, periscopes are not very useful on a day-to-day basis. For one, the gunner must concentrate on his job of gunning the gun, and he will not be able to see much from out of the few vision devices that he has. Still, the periscopes are useful for letting outside light in, and they give him a decent sense of his surroundings, all the better for the gunner when buttoned up.


Because of the T-72's status as a "mobilization model", the more expensive parts were usually kept as affordable as possible. It was to be manned by conscripts with minimal training (though I emphasize that it was still much better and more thorough training than what many 3rd world country tank crews received), and T-72 crews received fewer opportunities to conduct firing exercises during peacetime than T-64 and T-80 crews. The sighting systems suffered the most from this practice. The T-72 never had a true ballistic computer and the fire control system required far more manual input than the best analogues of the time. Furthermore, T-72 units usually received new ammunition later than units equipped with the T-64 or T-80. This fact exacerbated the lack of sophisticated sighting devices, and this shortage of technology in an increasingly technological stage of the Cold War was not comforting.

T-72 Ural


The T-72 first entered service in 1973 sporting the TPD-2-49 sighting complex with an integral optical coincidence rangefinder. The sight is independently stabilized in the vertical plane. The internal gyroscope installed at the far end of the sight housing, in a protruding block underneath the sight aperture. The vertical stabilizer of the cannon is slaved to the sight. This improves the accuracy of the cannon in the vertical plane.

The viewfinder is split into two halves, top and bottom. The two measuring optics see the same target, but half of it is blocked out, and the gunner must use the adjustment dial near his hand grips to line up both halves and obtain a seamless picture. This process was cumbersome and somewhat inaccurate - the error margin was 3% to 5%, which meant that the range could be off by up to ±200m at 4000m, or a much less serious ±30m at 1000m range. However, it's worth considering that the average tank engagement distance expected in Europe was estimated to be 1500 m, not to mention that the use of hypersonic APFSDS ammunition meant that the error margin could usually at closer ranges be ignored since the ballistic trajectory was so flat that amount of drop was completely negligible at out to 1500 m or more. The problem was much more pronounced with HEAT and HE-Frag ammunition, which were heavier, had more drag and came out of the barrel at much lower velocities. With the advent of long range ATGM systems mounted on jeeps, scout cars, IFVs and even light tanks, accurate long-distance fire with HEAT and HE-Frag shells was imperative.

The sight has a fixed 8x magnification with a field of view of 9 degrees. The second measuring optic also has a fixed 8x magnification, but has a much smaller field of view of only 2 degrees.

Because TPD-2-49 is independently stabilized in the vertical plane, it is possible to conduct rangefinding while the tank is in motion. There are two eyepieces for this system. The left eyepiece shows the view from the aperture of the sight itself, while the right eyepiece is from the second optic; the second eye of the binocular pair.

The gunner turns a range adjustment wheel located just above his hand grips to line up the two halves, as shown in the GIF below and in this short video (link).

The gunner keeps both eyes open, but make no mistake, the rangefinder is not stereoscopic. The gunner sees one half of the target from each of the eyepieces, but since the field of view from the second measuring optic is very narrow (2 degrees) compared to the view from the main sight (9 degrees), the gunner must find the target using his main sight and then place target near or at the center of the viewfinder of the main sight, or the target will not be in view of the second measuring optic. See the diagram below.

In case of low visibility from poor weather conditions or from enemy countermeasures, the rangefinder can be set to a secondary mode, where instead of splitting the target into two halves, two full images of the target are displayed on top of one another. There is a fixed vertical line at the left side of the viewfinder, and the gunner must lay the line on the edge of the target tank in the bottom image by using his handgrips, then turn the range adjustment wheel until the same edge of the target tank in the top image touches the line. In other words, if the same part of the tanks in both images touch the vertical line, then the two images are aligned. Refer to the diagram below.

This method is less precise, but may be easier to use if the outline of the tank is not clear or if the target is not a tank but something with an irregular shape.

A major flaw with optical coincidence rangefinders in general is that they don't work very well on camouflaged targets, especially without a high magnification sight. Even tanks simply painted the same shade as the environment can be difficult to accurately range because the outlines of the tank may not be very clear to the gunner. As mentioned before, ranging errors were more or less irrelevant to the T-72 because it fired very-high-velocity APFSDS ammunition, but firing HEAT on targets would be very difficult at longer ranges, not to mention moving ones.

While the TPD-2-49 would have qualified as among the world's best sighting systems when it was introduced with the T-64A in 1967, it was not quite as fresh by the time the T-72 Ural came onto the scene in 1974. As time went on, it became increasingly clear that optical rangefinders were no longer satisfactory, largely because it took a great deal of concentration from the gunner to operate, and in the case of the TPD-2-49, it was very expensive to manufacture an advanced independently stabilized sight with an integrated optical rangefinder. They were also fragile, despite extensive shockproofing and anti-vibration bushings. Any misalignment as a result of shocks from tank shell impacts could cause some lens to be misaligned even slightly and that would be enough to put it out of commission, and this was a big problem with the T-72 (and indeed, every other tank with such a rangefinder) because an optical tube connecting the first aperture to the main sighting unit ran across the turret ceiling above the cannon breech block. A shell impacting the turret roof might bounce off and not penetrate the steeply sloped armour, but the impact and the shifting of the relatively soft and relatively thin cast steel roof could cause enough damage to the optical tube that it might not be usable. The optical tube connecting the two apertures can be seen in the photos below (credit to

This, in addition to the issues mentioned above, meant that production of TPD-2-49 sighting complexes was summarily discontinued just two years later in 1975 and the Ural-1 modernization programme to refit T-72 Urals with TPD-K1 laser rangefinding sights began in that same year. The Ural-1 modernization retained the turret of the Ural, but only swapped out the sight. Since it was of no use anymore, the second optic port for the rangefinder aperture was blocked off and permanently welded shut.

TPD-2-49 placed the T-72 Ural on at least equal footing with the best NATO tanks at the time, including the Leopard 1. As the optical coincidence rangefinder was integrated into the sight and the whole package was independently stabilized (which no other system could boast of), the TPD-2-49 could be considered a rather advanced sighting complex of the time, on par with the fire control system of the Leopard 1 and superior to the setup on the M60A1, which had a separate primary sight and M17 rangefinder unit. While the gunner of an M60A1 would have to conduct ranging and then switch over to the primary sight to engage the target, the TPD-2-49 sight was adjusted concurrently with the rangefinder, and target acquisition time was slashed accordingly. The only flaw is that the commander of the T-72 is not able to take over the rangefinding procedure via a sight extension, like on the aforementioned Western tanks.

T-72 Ural-1, T-72A

1A40 Sighting Complex, TPD-K1

The TPD-K1 is part of the 1A40 sighting complex, which included the TPD-K1 itself, plus the internal ballistic calculator and the sight-stabilizer interface. It was first installed on the 1975-76 upgrade of the T-72 Ural, which became the 'Ural-1', later carrying over to the T-72A in 1979 and to the T-72B in 1985. It is very closely related to the TPD-2-49. It has a fixed 8x magnification and a 9° field of view. TPD-K1 gave the T-72 a 3-year head start over its Western nemesis the M60, which received its own AN/VVG-2 laser rangefinder unit in 1978 as part of the M60A3 upgrade. German Leopard 1s did not receive their own laser rangefinders until the 80's rolled around, and British Chieftains had to wait until 1988 to get theirs.

The TPD-K1 is independently stabilized in the vertical plane, and it has an internal gyroscope installed in the same location as the one in the TPD-2-49. However, the sight is not stabilized in the horizontal plane. This has implications that we will explore later.

The stabilizer system for the sight is connected to the cannon for referencing purposes. The mechanical rods that connect the sight (left side) to the cannon (right side) can be seen below.

The cannon is slaved to the sight, meaning that the stabilizer for the cannon is an independent system but its movement is dictated by the stabilizer for the sights. This yields better accuracy.

The sight aperture housing on the turret roof is armoured to withstand small arms fire, and a thin steel shroud extension shelters the aperture from thrown mud, rain, sand and snow. The extended side walls are of a much thicker steel meant to protect from bullets and fragmentation. The aperture itself has a layer of bolt-on SET-5L ballistic glass (19mm thick) to protect it from bullets and shell splinters. The ballistic glass panel comes with an integral heating system to prevent fogging, and it is provided with a small external wiper to remove any debris or mud that might obstruct the gunner's vision.

Tank crews carry an extra sight aperture in internal stowage for quick field replacement.


The TPD-K1 comes with a removable solid-state infrared laser rangefinder, but the sight is unusual in that the laser rangefinder is installed inside the sight itself on the right hand side of the housing, but the rangefinder computer is installed outside the sight.

The two photos below show the detached rangefinder processing and readout unit.

The photo below show the rangefinder unit attached to the right side of the TPD-K1 sight module. 

According to the Indian Ordnance Factories website, the laser rangefinder uses an IR laser in the 1060 nm wavelength. The rangefinder has an automatic range compensation mechanism for firing on the move, whereby the rangefinder computer will automatically subtract the distance covered by the tank from the final figure. The laser rangefinder has a maximum error of 10 m at distances of 500 m to 3000 m. From 3000 m to 4000 m, the maximum error threshold increases to 15 m. The rangefinder may become unresponsive and highly inaccurate past 3000 meters, so it could be necessary for the gunner to manually dial in the range to the target by other methods. This limitation makes it infeasible to engage targets at distances beyond 3000 m.

The 1A40 sighting system includes a delta-D system which automatically accounts for the distance traveled by the tank into the final measured range to the target. The system uses an accelerometer to register the speed of the tank, and then periodically subtracts or adds the distance covered by the tank depending on whether it is moving closer to the target, away from the target, or parallel to the target. This system enables the gunner to lase the target once and then lay the gun on target while the tank is in motion, and then open fire at the target even if the tank has moved, say, 100 m closer or further from the target in the period between lasing and firing.

It has a digital display for precise readouts, and range information is ported through to the range indicator dial on the top of the gunner's viewfinder, which the gunner can read for manual input if necessary. To lase a target, the gunner must place the illuminated red circle over it and fire off the laser for 1 to 3 seconds. If the target is mobile, it must be tracked within the boundaries of the red circle until the range is obtained. The rangefinder unit must take 6 seconds to cool down between uses.

BVD-2 Range input unit

Range information is automatically routed to the sighting unit, and the sight makes the necessary corrections and adjusts the reticle accordingly. The illustrations below shows what happens during the ranging process.

Firstly, notice the circle at or near the center of the viewfinder. That is where the target must go in order to initiate the rangefinding process. Once that is done, the reticle instantly lowers to account for ballistic drop, and the range indicator dial at the top spins to give a visual reference for the distance (with an accuracy of within 10 m). The lasing circle remains static for lasing the next victim.

This procedure is completely normal in the realm of tank fire control systems, but one oversight is that the path for the laser beam is not merged into the same lenses for the main optic. Rather, the laser rangefinder has its own optical path parallel to the lens tube which the gunner uses. This is evident when you closely inspect the sight aperture:

As you can see, the mirror is divided into two halves by an opaque block in the middle. Underneath the mirror, you can see two apertures. One for the laser rangefinder, and one which the gunner sees out of. This means that the rangefinder circle is never directly on top of the reticle. The gunner must lay the rangefinder circle over the target, lase it, and then finish by laying the reticle on the target. There are a multitude of disadvantages to this. Instead of laying a reticle on the target once and letting the fire control system handle it, the gunner must conduct the laying process twice. This creates room for operator error and consumes precious time.

Without an optical coincidence rangefinder system installed, the optical tube that ran across the ceiling over the cannon breech block in the T-72 Ural is no longer present.

The TPD-K1 has a stadia-reticle rangefinder with markings for distances of 500 m to 4000 m that can be used to gauge target distance if the laser rangefinder is malfunctioning. This and the manual gun laying drives allow the gunner to continue engaging targets even if all aiming systems have completely lost power. The sight will raise and depress along with the cannon when the stabilizer is off because the sight is linked to the vertical manual drive for cannon elevation via mechanical linkages.

All reticle lines can be illuminated (red colour) by an internal light bulb for better discernability in cloudy weather or at night.

1 - Ranging scales for co-axial machine gun (ПУЛ stands for Pulemyot, or machine gun), 2 - Ranging scales for HE-Frag shells (ОФ stands for High Explosive), 3 - Laser range finder distance indicator dial, 4 - Stadia-reticle range finder

The sight includes graduations for firing the PKT machine gun to a maximum range of 1800m, for firing HE-Frag shells to a maximum range of 5000m, for manually applying lead on moving targets, and an auxiliary stadia rangefinder for manually determining the distance to a tank-type target or a bunker 2.7m in height at distances from a minimum of 500m up to 4000m (there is no need for a ballistic solution for targets closer than 500m). The stadia rangefinder is for emergency use only. On the top of the sight picture is the range indicator dial for the laser range finder, which is also capped at 4000m. Once the gunner has lased the target, the range will be displayed here for reference is necessary. The range data is automatically inputted into the ballistic calculator.

The ammunition type is inputted into sighting system via the autoloader ammunition selection dial, which we have already examined. The silver coloured dial can be seen in the photo above, to the bottom left of the eyepiece of the TPD-K1. When the ammunition type is set, the autoloader begins loading the desired type and the gunner can proceed to lase the target during the loading cycle. Once the gunner has lased the target, the sight automatically adjusts to the appropriate superelevation and commands the weapons stabilizer to do the same. All the gunner must do now is to place the center chevron onto the target and fire. Subsequent shots do not require the process to be repeated, even if the gunner changes shell types or uses the co-axial machine gun. All he must do is select a new ammunition type, and the sight will automatically adjust to the proper superelevation using the range information from the previous lasing.

1A40-1 Sighting Complex, TPD-K1M

The 1A40-1 sighting unit features a slightly improved TPD-K1M primary sight and is distinguished from the 1A40 system by the increased number of ballistic variables that may be inputted into the system. The gunner can input ambient temperature, cannon chamber temperature, and atmospheric pressure, in addition to the few original permissible variables from the 1A40 system. The catch was that all of these variables had to be entered manually by the gunner. There were no additional external sensors installed on the T-72B to automatically record environmental conditions. Variables do not change significantly during the course of battle - like atmospheric pressure - can be entered before or in between engagements, but entering the variables that change dynamically like ambient temperature and cannon chamber temperature is obviously impossible in the middle of a fight. The 1A40-1 still does not feature a true ballistic computer, as the ballistic variables can only be entered manually.

The sight also includes an additional eyepiece for the gunner's left eye, which is a part of the UVBU lead calculation system. The new UVBU unit calculates the necessary amount of lead for a moving target and displays it in figures which can be manually applied by the gunner on the lateral scale in the TPD-K1M. It works by determining the rate of rotation of the turret as the gunner is lasing the target and then translating that information into mils, which is displayed in the eyepiece for the gunner to read. The gunner will then know which secondary chevron on the lateral mil scale on the reticle he should adopt as the new aiming point. The use of an eyepiece rather than a separate digital display is so that the gunner does not need to break visual contact with the target. As the UVBU eyepiece displays a virtual number on a black background, the gunner can keep both eyes open (and see the number floating in his vision), see the mil figure, and then apply it, all done without tearing his eyes away from the TPD-K1M eyepiece.

The precision of the UVBU unit is not high compared to the systems employed in more advanced fire control systems, as it can only calculate a difference in the angular velocity of the target compared to the tank down to ± 0.5 mils. This is more than enough even for medium range shooting, as a target tank travelling laterally across the sight would be presenting its side profile, but the system is insufficient for long range shooting, but other than that, its most serious drawback is the lack of automation. In the fire control system for, say, an M60A3, lead for the target is calculated and automatically applied to the reticle by the ballistic computer after the target is lased, meaning that the sight automatically adjusts horizontally (via independent horizontal stabilization) so that the reticle has already compensated for lead. This allows the gunner of an M60A3 to press the trigger immediately after lasing - no need to use secondary markings to engage. This is much faster than the system employed on the T-72B. This is an inherent flaw in the TPD-K1M sight as it cannot automatically adjust the reticle for lead, since it lacks independent horizontal stabilization. Overall, the system is somewhat crude, and could be considered technologically obsolete the moment it was introduced. By the time the T-72B entered mass production in 1985, the entire 1A40-1 sighting complex could be considered outdated, especially considering the fact that the T-72B did not have a ballistic calculator like the T-64B with its 1A33 fire control system.

The TPD-K1M sight itself differs from the TPD-K1 by the presence of mil values printed on the secondary chevrons.

It is possible to use different shell models by simply twisting a dial on the UVP control unit, pictured below.

Notice the blank spaces on the indicator card; these are left in anticipation of new ammunition. The introduction and use of 3BK-29, for example, would necessitate reprogramming the UVP unit at a depot. The card would then be filled in. Each ammunition type (APFSDS, HEAT, HE-Frag) has 4 slots for different ammunition.

The UVP unit allows the gunner to instantly reset the sights for different types of each category of ammunition. It is also possible for the T-72 to use "exotic" ammunition this way. For example, one of the blank spaces on the indicator card for HE-Frag (labelled OF in the photo above) can be filled for flechette rounds. The gunner can then toggle the sight for the HE-Frag ammunition type, and then cycle the HE-Frag dial on the UVP panel to the flechette slot. This means that the T-72 can fire up to 12 different types of ammunition with different ballistics, and switch between them at the flick of two switches.

Unlike the handgrips for the gun laying systems of previous Soviet tanks, the handgrips are permanently attached to the TPD-K1 sight. The handgrips have a protruding ledge at the base for the gunner's hands to rest on. The handgrips have two buttons each. The left trigger button is for firing the co-axial machine gun and the left thumb button is resetting the laser rangefinder. The right trigger button is for firing the main cannon, and the right thumb button is for firing off the laser rangefinder. An ex tanker has remarked to the author that he found it difficult to operate the handgrips sometimes as it was rather confusing for him. He had previously operated a T-55 tank, and the thumb buttons were for firing the cannon and co-ax. With the T-72, the trigger buttons had not only moved, two more buttons were added!The price of progress is high indeed.


The gunner has access to a secondary gun sight primarily intended for night operations, although this may also be used as a backup in case the main sight is damaged. The auxiliary sight of the T-72B had the dual purpose of guiding the gun-launched anti-tank missiles.


The TPN-1-49-23 is the gunner's auxiliary sight for the T-72 Ural and T-72A variants. It can either use ambient image intensification or use infrared light conversion and intensification by relying on the L-2AG "Luna" IR spotlight for illumination. The Luna spotlight is mounted co-axially to the main gun, and swivels along with it. Like the commander's OU-3GA spotlight, the L-2AG Luna spotlight is a xenon arc lamp with a simple IR filter slide. Removing the filter transforms the IR spotlight into a regular white light spotlight. The level of ambient infrared light and therefore visual clarity can be cumulatively improved if multiple vehicles sporting IR spotlights, like BTRs, BRDMs, BMPs and other T-series tanks are illuminating the battlefield.

Like the main sight, the TPN-1-49-23 is protected by a squarish, squat armoured housing, with a bolt-on steel cover for the aperture. Beside the aperture is a single FG-125 infrared light, which is used as a driving light and not for the TPN-1-49-23.

The sight can be relied upon to identify tank-type targets at around 800 m in the active mode with the IR spotlight, but the distance at which the gunner can see a vehicle - but not distinguish it - is a few hundred meters farther. The passive setting allows the same target to be spotted at ranges of up to 800m if the ambient light is no less than 0.005 lux, which is the typical brightness of a moonless, starlit night with clear skies. Clarity and spotting distance improves with increasing brightness. The identification distance is expanded to around 1000m on moonlit nights, and it is possible to spot tanks at distances of more than 1300m during dark twilight hours, although low magnification and mediocre resolution complicates viewing beyond that range. Soviet enthusiasm for image intensification technology gave the T-64 and T-72 a significant night fighting advantage over their Western counterparts, which relied solely on IR illumination technology for until the end of the 70's. Case in point: The M60 received an image intensifier - a so-called "starlight optic" - sight only in 1977 with the M60A1 Passive modernization, and the original 1978 production M60A3 had the passive nightsight before receiving the AN/VSG-2 thermal imaging sight in 1989. As for IR imaging technology, the TPN-1-49-23 fell behind both the M60A1 and the Chieftain. The M60A1 used the advanced AN/VSS-1 with adjustable beam width and an overcharge mode, while Chieftain benefited from a massive 2 kW 570mm spotlight while the L-2AG ran on just 600 W.

If used as a backup sight, TPN-1-49-23 can be used to identify tank-type targets at up to 3000m in daylight or more, if the geography and weather permits it. It has a field of view of 6 degrees at maximum magnification. Variable zoom allows reduction of magnification to 1x to give the gunner much better general visibility for spotting targets. The sight is independently stabilized in the vertical plane with 20 degrees of elevation and 5 degrees of depression. This sight does not have the ability to guide gun-launched ATGMs like the Svir.

Though the cover can be removed and the sight used during daytime, the image intensification system must never be activated, because excessive light input will overload the sight unit and possibly damage it. In accordance with this, the aperture has shutters linked to the trigger unit. Upon firing, the shutters automatically close to shield the unit from the intense flash of cannon fire at night. The shutter may also be manually opened and closed via a handle, if the situation calls for it.

This sight first appeared with the T-72 Ural in 1972.


The 1K13-49 sight was implemented in part due to the introduction of GLATGMs (Gun-Launched Anti-Tank Missiles) for the T-72. The maximum range of guidance is 4000m. Aside from this feature, 1K13-49 also represents a significant improvement over the TPN-1-49-23 in target engagement capabilities; With a fixed 8x magnification in the daytime channel and 5.5x magnification in the nighttime channel, its useful range for tank-type targets is expanded in daylight mode. Its active infrared optoelectronic imaging system is also improved over the TPN-1-49-23. Now, the viewing range in the active mode is increased to 1200 m, though the image intensification system has not been improved, meaning that the 1K13-49 sight still only has an 800 m viewing distance (under ambient lighting conditions of no less than 0.005 lux). As with the TPN-1-49-23, the identification distance and image clarity improves with increasingly brighter lighting conditions, but excessive brightness can oversaturate the image, and overwhelming brightness can overload and possibly damage the sight.

Daytime mode
1K13-49 image in the passive light amplification mode, aimed at nothing in particular (Photo credit: Stefan Kotsch)

The sight has a field of view of 5 degrees in the daylight setting or 6°4' in the nighttime setting. It is independently stabilized in the vertical plane, with +20° elevation -7° depression.

The sight aperture has two protective housings; one enclosing the sensitive optical workings of the aperture itself with a tempered glass window and a shock-proof shell, and another very heavy duty steel carapace covering that, along with a thick steel window shield.

Like the TPN-1-49-23, it too has automatic shutters. Key exterior differences lie in its distinctly larger armoured housing, and the aperture window cover is now openable from inside the tank via a pull lever.

1A40-4 Sighting Complex, SOSNA-U

SOSNA-U is a multi-channel thermal imaging sighting complex with capabilities matching those of its contemporaries, giving the T-72 a much needed boost in target acquisition and engagement capabilities. SOSNA-U uses the French-designed 2nd generation Catherine-FC thermal imager. The SOSNA-U sighting complex features an internal ballistic computer that enables it to automatically detect targets, track them, and calculate a ballistic solution including lead using the data from its internal rangefinder, its image processing software and its internal gyroscope (to calculate cant). As you would expect, the sight is stabilized in two planes. The sight has a very limited 3x optical magnification with an equally disappointing 6x maximum digital magnification. Contemporary thermal imaging sights are typically capable of very high digital zoom with double digit magnification factors.

The sighting unit can be seen in the photos below.

The view through the eyepiece in the optical day channel can be seen below.

SOSNA-U can reportedly be used to identify and engage tank-type targets at a nominal distance of 5 km in daytime in the normal optical channel, and up to 3.5 km in either day or night through the thermal imaging channel, but this is extremely optimistic. For one, there is hardly any location that is flat and featureless enough that tanks can be spotted at such a distance, assuming that the weather is clear enough that tank-sized targets can be distinguished from the terrain. The 3x optical zoom of the sight is simply insufficient for anything more demanding than general observation. It is just not possible to spot and identify a tank-type target at 5 km through the daytime optical channel. Secondly, the limited 6x digital zoom of SOSNA-U makes it very difficult for the gunner to identify even a halfheartedly camouflaged tank at the claimed 3.5 km distance. When looking through the thermal imaging channel, any vehicle will appear more as a white blob on the screen at such long distances.

Like the 1K13-49 sight it replaces, SOSNA-U has a missile guidance unit that allows it to be used to guide existing gun-launched missiles as well as newly developed missiles. The automatic target tracking feature of the sighting complex would be quite beneficial when engaging moving targets with guided missiles.

The gunner has two means of looking through SOSNA-U - the eyepiece, which is for the right eye and comes with a very comfortable forehead pad, and the 640x480px (5.7 inch) flatscreen display.

In addition to the sight itself, the T-72B3 upgrade also comes with a new digital ballistic computer of unknown make, as seen below. The sight itself cannot accept data from peripherals such as anemometers, thermometers, muzzle reference sensors, and so on, so in order to make use of such data, a ballistic computer is necessary. The addition of a digital ballistic computer elevates the fire control system of the T-72B3 up to a level on par with, and quite possibly exceeding the T-90A.

The addition of the flatscreen display and the digital ballistic computer eliminates the possibility of stowing ammunition in the turret on the wall behind the gunner, as the gunner's master control panel is now moved to a spot behind his left shoulder, and the ballistic computer housing occupies quite a lot of space behind his seat.

The SOSNA-U is considered the de facto main sight for a T-72B3 gunners, relegating the TPD-K1 to the back-up role instead. The UVBU lead calculator device installed parallel to the TPD-K1M sight has been removed as it is now totally obsolete, thus retrograding the 1A40-1 sighting complex into the 1A40. Unfortunately, the designers apparently didn't see it fit to swap the placement of these two sighting units, resulting in less than optimal placement of the SOSNA-U, which is only somewhat negated by the use of a separate flatscreen display. Another rather strange quirk is that the sight aperture window cover has to be manually opened by unbolting it, which seems to be a step backwards from the 1K13-49.

Also note the IR lamp mounted next to the sight housing. As SOSNA-U is a thermal imaging sight, this lamp is totally unrelated to its operation. To the contrary, this lamp is used to replace the normal driving headlights if they are submerged under water or plastered with mud, which could happen if the tank is fording a stream or driving through a swamp. This lamp is turned on and off by the commander.


Stabilizer precision and sensitivity is a crucial factor in overall engagement capabilities, especially when on the move. In a continuation of the endearing Russian tradition of naming military hardware after innocent, peaceful things, the stabilizers are named after flowers. The hydraulic pump and power supply system are located in the hull, while the electric motor for turret traversal is at the turret ring in front of the gunner, behind the sights.

Turning on the stabilizer is done with the toggle switch located just above the handgrips on the TPD-K1/M sight. It is also possible to put the stabilizer in standby mode, so that the manual flywheels can be used can be used without turning off the stabilizer, which remains idle and ready to power up fully when needed. A well trained gunner would know not to keep the stabilizers on for too long, as it will overheat if left in the ready mode for more than a few hours. This is a bigger problem in hot climates.

2E28M "Sireneviy" (Lilac) Electric/Hydroelectric Stabilizer

The 2E28M dual-axis stabilizer is used in the T-72 Ural. The precision offered by this stabilizer is technically quite high, but holistically the weapons system is still too imprecise to guarantee hits on the move at very long ranges. Nevertheless, the high precision of "Sireneviy" is extremely valuable for its ability to automatically lay the gun on any given target quickly and precisely on short stops. It enables the tank to engage tank-type targets at average European combat distances or 1.5 km in a static position and on slow crawls with a reasonable degree of accuracy.

The stabilizer has two modes of operation: automatic and semi-automatic. The automatic mode is the mode used in combat; the stabilizer is at full operational capacity and will keep the gun aimed with maximum precision at the target when the tank is in motion. The semi-automatic mode is considered the standby mode. The stabilizer is set to this condition until combat is imminent in order to maximize the operating life of the stabilizer, which is not very long. In this mode, the gun is elevated and locked, so the elevation system is disabled, but the powered turret traverse system remains operating, albeit at a reduced capacity; gun laying precision is greatly reduced, but the turret rotation speed is slightly increased. This helps the crew to survey the battlefield for threats. Upon spotting one, the gunner switches the stabilizer from the semi-automatic mode to the automatic mode by flipping a toggle switch on his handgrips. The stabilizer is turned off entirely during marches, and the time needed to get the stabilizer to operational condition is 2 minutes.

The screenshot below (screenshot taken from this video) shows the location of some of the stabilizer components at the top left corner.

One of the components visible in the screenshot above is the gyroscope unit for the stabilizer.

Using this stabilizer, the turret is somewhat slow to turn at only 18° per second. It would take it a minimum of 20 seconds to do a complete 360° revolution. This has the effect of inhibiting the T-72's ability to react to the unexpected emergence of a dangerous target from different directions at close range. In the semi-automatic mode, the rate of rotation is increased to 20° per second, but this is irrelevant in combat because

As usual, the stabilizer system revolves around the use of a pair of gyrostabilizers to measuring angular velocities in order to enforce corrections. Turret traverse is done electrically while gun elevation is accomplished using a hydraulic actuator. The hydraulic pump for powering the cannon elevation system is located under the cannon's breechblock, and the electric motor for turret traverse is installed in front of the gunner, behind his TPD-K1 sight unit.

An inherent shortcoming of hydraulic components is the heightened risk of an internal fire in the event of a full turret perforation. Hydraulic fluid is highly flammable, and it would most likely cause and spread an internal fire very quickly. This is an especially serious concern to the T-72, since it has numerous shells in loose storage which can accidentally detonate from uncontrolled fires.

The hydraulic fluid used is MGE-10A, a type of mineral hydraulic oil with very low temperature sensitivity, having an operating range of between -65°C to 75°C. The entire system operates at 7.25 psi. This is quite dangerous, as with all hydraulic systems, because hydraulic oil may spurt out from burst tubes at high speeds, spraying large portions of the interior with the flammable liquid.

Automatic mode:


Maximum Cannon Elevating Speed: 3.5° per second
Minimum Cannon Elevating Speed: 0.05° per second


Maximum Turret Traverse Speed: 18° per second
Minimum Turret Traverse Speed: 0.07° per second

Semi-automatic mode:


Maximum Turret Traverse Speed: 20° per second
Minimum Turret Traverse Speed: 0.3° per second

Average time taken for complete rotation: 20 seconds

For a minimum traverse and elevation speed of 0.05° per second, the stabilizer should have an accuracy of 0.88 mils, equivalent to a stabilization accuracy (not mean deviation) of 0.88 meters at 1000 m. The speed of turret rotation is reasonable enough by Soviet standards, considering that earlier tanks like the T-55 were not very good. The turret of a T-55 with a "Tsyklon" stabilizer could spin around at 15 degrees per second, and the turret of a T-62 could do 16 degrees per second. Sirenevny is an improvement over earlier stabilizers in every possible way.

Combined, all of the components belonging to the stabilization system weigh a sum total of 319 kg, including the working fluid (hydraulic fluid). On average, the stabilizer system consumes 3.5 kW of power.

2E42-2 "Zhasmin" (Jasmine) Hybrid Electro-Hydromechanical Stabilizer

Hydraulic pump, relay box and high-precision electric motor, from left to right.

The 2E42-2 is still very conventional as it combines an electric turret traverse and stabilization drive with a hydraulic gun elevation and stabilization drive. It was first used on the T-72B. This stabilizer is not more precise than the "Sireneviy".

The T-72B obr. 1989 manual states that the maximum turret traverse speed is 16-24° per second, but also mentions that the traverse speed when prompted by the driver in an emergency is 16° per second, indicating that the normal maximum is 16° per second, but that this is not the hard limit. A rate of rotation of 24° per second is achieved under the "overcharge" condition, basically meaning that the gunner can get the turret to turn at this rate by turning his handgrips hard until it cannot physically go any further. This feature does not come at the cost of greater power consumption, as the average power consumed by the stabilizer system is still the same as the 2E28M at 3.5 kW.


Maximum elevating speed: 3.5° per second
Minimum elevating speed: 0.05° per second


Maximum turret slew speed: 16-24° per second
Minimum turret slew speed: 0.07° per second

The turret traverse speed is improved to 24 degrees per second, enabling the turret to complete a full 360° rotation in just 15 seconds.

2E42-4 Electric/Hydroelectric Stabilizer

The 2E42-4 two-axis stabilizer is an improved modification of the 2E42-2, now including a much more powerful horizontal drive for faster turret rotation. The T-72B3 is equipped with this stabilizer.

The 2E42-4 stabilizer offers a huge weight reduction of 120 kg over the 2E42-2 stabilizer, for a total weight of 200 kg. This is mainly because of the design simplification of the hydraulic gun elevation drive, the improved turret traverse motor, and the usage of solid state electronics in the digitized control systems. The screenshot below gives us a good view of the hydraulic pump for the gun elevation drive. The pump is mounted below the breech, and connects to the hydraulic elevator piston seen in the upper right corner of the picture.

Screenshot taken from the RT Documentary show "Tanks Born in Russia (E5) Kirill’s girlfriend reveals her biggest secret" (link).


Maximum elevating speed: 3.5° per second
Minimum elevating speed: 0.05° per second


Maximum turret slew speed: 40° per second
Minimum turret slew speed: 0.054° per second

The much faster turret traverse speed enables the turret to complete a full 360° rotation in 9 seconds.


Manual traverse and elevation is possible with all T-72 turrets through the use of two flywheels located behind the hand grips. There are two gear settings; coarse and precise. The former allows the turret to turn as fast as the gunner can work the flywheel, while the latter produces minute changes to the turret and gun's positioning. Gun laying with the manual traverse can be just as accurate as with stabilizers, if not more so given that extreme care is taken, though obviously much, much slower and nearly impossible to achieve on the move. The gun elevation flywheel has a solenoid button for firing the main gun.


The T-72 first received a meteorological sensor unit with the T-72BA sub-variant. This manifested in the form of the DVE-BS unit, which can detect changes in wind speed and automatically register it in the ballistic computer. The maximum calculable winds speed is 25m/s. The information gathered is synchronized with the automatic lead calculation unit found in the 1A40-1 sighting complex. The T-72B2 and T-72B3 are also equipped with a DVE-BS unit.


The T-72 is equipped with the 125mm smoothbore D-81T cannon, otherwise known as the 2A26 and the 2A46. It can fire a wide range of shells including; APFSDS, HEAT, HE-Frag, and even guided missiles beginning from the T-72B. The cannon weighs 2400 kg.

The cannon is partially derived from the U-5TS 115mm smoothbore gun, and the evidence of this heritage can be found upon close inspection. The recoiling mechanism is much more compact, which helps to reduce the volume of internal space taken up by the cannon in the small turret. Unlike the D-10T and U-5TS cannons, the recoil buffer is located at the bottom of the breech block rather than on top of it, so despite the larger caliber and mass of the cannon, it was possible to create a very low turret with a very steeply sloped roof while still affording the cannon the same range of vertical motion as in previous Soviet tanks.


The original Obyekt. 172 and Obyekt 172M prototypes use the 2A26M-2 (D-81T), and earlier T-72 Ural tanks sported the 2A26M-2 as well. The 2A26M-2 is a modernized derivative of the 2A26 gun from the T-64A with appropriate modifications for the T-72. It had a barrel length of 6350mm, or 50.8 calibers. All variants of the 2A46 series had a barrel length of 6000mm, or 48 calibers. This is shorter than the 55-caliber 120mm British rifled L11 and L30 canons (6600mm) and shorter than the smoothbore Rheinmetall L/55 cannon (6600mm), but longer than the Rheinmetall L/44 (5280mm) cannon. One of the main problems encountered with the original 2A26M2 gun was reduced accuracy due to its excessive length and insufficient stiffness, and the lack of a thermal sleeve exacerbated the issue as the barrel easily warped from temperature differences. Also, the excessive length meant that oscillations at the muzzle had a greater amplitude, thus generating larger shot dispersion. The recoil buffer is installed asymmetrically, at the bottom right hand corner of the breech block, and the recuperator is installed directly underneath the breech block. The asymmetric installation of the recoil buffer resulted in the unbalanced motion of the cannon during its recoiling cycle while the shell is still in the barrel, and the unbalanced motion generated more intense oscillations at the muzzle, resulting in large shot dispersion. This configuration was carried over from the U-5TS gun.

The 2A26M2 cannon had an electroplated chrome lining but lacked a thermal sleeve and had generally poor longevity. The barrel had a life of a measly 600 EFC (Effective Full Charge). Replacing it was no easy task, either. The turret had to be lifted by a crane and positioned so that the gun assembly could be removed through the rear. This was a highly time consuming process that required specialized equipment. In the field, the crane would have been provided by recovery vehicles. In this regard, the Soviet tank industry was very much behind their Western counterparts. The 90mm gun on the M48 Patton, a 50's tank, already featured a quick change barrel. The 2A26M2 cannon had a rated maximum chamber pressure of 450 MPa. The photo below shows a T-72 Ural participating in exercises; notice the lack of a thermal shroud.


In 1970, the 2A46 was created as a modernization of the 2A26M cannon to rectify its most glaring issues. New technologies were mainly applied to the design and manufacturing of the barrel, but the rest of the cannon was not neglected. Various improvements increased the durability and accuracy of the new barrel, raising it to around 900 EFC. The maximum rated chamber pressure was not increased from the 2A26M2 and remained at 450 MPa, and the recoiling system remained essentially identical to the 2A26M2. The typical recoil stroke is 270mm to 320mm, and the maximum is 340mm.

According to "Increasing Firing Accuracy of 2A46 Tank Cannon Built-in T-72 MBT", 81% of 3BM-15 APFSDS shots fired from an unmodified 2A46 cannon will land within 0.5 meters of the aiming point in the vertical axis at a distance of 1 km, and 43% will land within 0.5 meters of the aiming point in the horizontal axis at the same distance. The probability of hitting a T-72 tank target at a distance of 2 km is 57%. Keep in mind that this is the mechanical accuracy of the cannon alone. Errors from the fire control system of the T-72 tank will most definitely increase the dispersion of shots.

Since the T-72M is the export modification of the T-72 Ural, one would expect it to mount the 2A26M2 cannon like its domestic counterpart, but it is difficult to verify this, because the presence of a thermal shroud on the barrel is not a reliable way to differentiate a 2A26M2 from a 2A46. The photo below is a good example of this; the tank is a T-72M, since the turret is clearly the plain cast steel turret of the T-72 Ural (no composite insert) and the flip-out side armour panels are visible, but the barrel has a thermal shroud.

This photo and this photo both show the same configuration. The tanks are clearly T-72M models, but the barrels are equipped with a thermal shroud. The strongest evidence comes from "The Soviet T-72 Tank Performance", where on page 19, the specifications of the T-72M are given, and the 2A46 is listed as the main gun. From this, it is possible that the T-72M used the 2A46 since it began production, making it very likely that the design of the T-72M is a mixture of elements of both the Ural and Ural-1. Depending on the manufacturer, a T-72M may not be exactly the same as another.

The T-72A began its service life in 1979 with the 2A46, and the T-72M1 export model also used the 2A46. Several years later, the 2A46 was replaced by the newer and more accurate 2A46M, but its service life did not end there. The 2A46 was reverse engineered by the Chinese and a slightly modified copy of the gun is currently in production to equip the current generation of Chinese main battle tanks, including the Type 96, Type 99 and even the latest VT-4. A video of the assembly of a Chinese 2A46 is available on YouTube as part of a documentary on the VT-4. With that in mind, the screenshots below, taken from the video, shows - for all intents and purposes - a disassembled 2A46.


In 1974, NII Stali mastered and implemented several advanced material processing technologies, which were subsequently transferred to the production of new cannons. These new technologies included electroslag remelting, differential isothermal quenching and improved thermomechanical processing. The T-64BV was introduced in 1981 with the 2A46M-1, and was the first benefactor of the deeply modernized weapon. In 1984, the T-72B was introduced, and it came with the 2A46M.

The barrel life was substantially improved by the use of a new, more durable chrome lining to reduce wear from new high-energy APFSDS shells. Thanks to the new chrome lining, the barrel life was increased to 1200 EFC. Accuracy was improved by a very impressive 50% due to the completely revised recoil system. The photo below (credit to Dmitry Derevyankin) shows the symmetric installation of two recoil buffers at the top right and bottom left corners of the breech block, and the retention of the recuperator at its original position directly underneath the breech. The symmetrical installation of two smaller recoil buffers greatly reduces the moment (the turning effect of a force) experienced by the cannon during the recoiling cycle, and thus reduces the oscillations at the muzzle while the shell is still in the barrel. The 2A46M has a typical recoil stroke of 260mm to 300mm, and a maximum recoil stroke of 310mm.

The cannon in the photo below is actually a 2A46M-1 for the T-64BV/80BV, but the breech block is otherwise identical to the 2A46M. The only differences are in the shape of the breech guards and in the presence of an electric motor for raising and lowering the shell casing stub ejection mechanism.

Furthermore, the method of seating the barrel to the gun cradle was changed. According to a marketing presentation by UVZ, the seating of the barrel was changed from the combination of the breech ring and support from a single contact point with the cradle to purely cradle support with two contact points.

Assuming that the increase in the mechanical accuracy of the 2A46M over the 2A46 is indeed 50%, then the probability of a 3BM-15 round fired from the 2A46M hitting a T-72 tank at 2 km would be 85.5%, if all other conditions are equal.

The 2A46M was also a milestone product in another way: the new mounting system for the barrel enabled quick replacement in the field from the outside of the turret by pulling it out from the front, without needing to remove or shift the turret. The procedure reportedly takes around 2 hours, but it is not clear if this is for an operation done in a depot or in the field. The maximum rated chamber pressure was increased to 500 MPa in accordance with the appearance of high energy APFSDS shells. Due to the relocation of the recoil buffers, the manual breech opening mechanism was redesigned, but remained principally identical. The oil level in the recoil buffers and recuperator can be checked without the opening of the stopper caps, making it much simpler and quicker to perform routine maintenance on the gun. The modifications increased the mass of the cannon to 2.5 tons.

The introduction of the 2A46M can also be seen as a good example of the status of the T-72 within the Soviet tank fleet. The T-72 had to wait until 1984 to receive the 2A46M, whereas the T-64BV and T-80BV were already ahead by three years with their own 2A46M-1.


The T-72B3 builds upon the T-72B with the inclusion of the 2A46M-5 gun (D-81TM-5), which was first introduced in 2005 and used in the T-90A. The 2A46M-5 can be considered the most perfect of the entire series thus far.

The dynamic balancing of the barrel during the firing procedure (while the shell is still in the barrel) have been better tuned, thus minimizing oscillations at the muzzle. The barrel itself was improved, now having 11% greater rigidity than the 2A46M barrel. The final result is a further reduction in shot dispersion. The maximum rated pressure in the barrel was increased to 608 MPa. According to the manufacturer, dispersion of all shell types by an average of 15% to 20%, and the accuracy when firing on the move has been increased 1.7 times, thanks to the greatly decreased vibration of the gun the tank is in motion over rough ground. Overall, the estimated probability of hit in combat was increased by 20-29% for APFSDS ammunition, 4-12% for HEAT ammunition, and 21-38% for HE-Frag ammunition.

The 2A46M-5 follows the 2A46M with the inclusion of a quick-replacement barrel. Like before, the barrel is released from the gun chamber and receiver assembly by twisting it by 45 degrees fitting a special hexagonal wrench on a hexagonal part of the barrel. The threads that lock the barrel to the receiver are seen in the screenshot below, taken from a news tour on the No. 9 Factory which builds these guns.

As you can see in the photo below (credit to Stefan Kotsch), the location of the recoiling mechanism elements remained unchanged from the 2A46M. The main differences were not so obvious.

The drawing below (from here) showcases the location of the recoil buffers and the recuperator in relation to the axis of the cannon barrel. The drawing is probably valid for the 2A46M as well.

Furthermore, the 2A46M-5 is provisioned with special notches at the muzzle of the barrel, which are used for boresighting. Using the sights, the gunner aligns special markings to the notches and calibrates the sights to the gun from the recorded angle; a process that takes only 1 minute. It is presumed that this is only possible in the T-72B3 using the Sosna-U sights as the TPD-K1 lacks independent horizontal movement.

The gun can elevate +14 degrees and depress -6 degrees when facing the front, but elevate +17 degrees and depress only -3 degrees when facing the rear, with the engine compartment in the way. This is generally sufficient for cross-country driving with lots of minor dips, dives and bumps, but the T-72 is unable to fully take advantage of certain hills for hull-down shooting, but it is free to take cover behind mounds, rocky outcrops, or maybe in a self-made tank hole dug into the ground. The lackluster gun depression as compared to NATO tanks can become an issue in highly irregular terrain. Compared to previous Soviet tanks, the gun depression of the T-72 is slightly better than average.

All of the D-81T cannons have a normal recoil stroke of between 300 to 340mm, more for the high-pressure APFSDS rounds and less for HEAT and HE-Frag rounds.

The end of the barrel has four shallow cuts in the shape of a cross.

This is for the gunner to align and tie two pieces of string into a crosshair over the end of the barrel for the purpose of zeroing the gun in the field. The photo below shows the gunner of a T-72B doing this during a snap exercise.

(Photo from Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation)

Here is another photo:

Worn out barrels tend to exhibit worse accuracy. This was especially noticeable during the war in Iraq, where Iraqi T-72s often urgently needed barrel replacements, because they had been used since the Iran-Iraq war. Because of the embargo on military equipment, they had no access to fresh barrels and they lacked the technology to produce their own. Firing APFSDS shells, especially the first generation ones that Iraq was supplied with (steel sabot with copper driving bands, and bore-riding projectile fins), was especially harsh on the barrel. The 2A28M2 cannons that Iraqi T-72Ms (analogues of T-72 Ural and Ural-1) and T-72M1s could only tolerate 160 to 170 of such APFSDS shells before becoming unsafe to fire. The 2A46M-2 on the T-72B could fire 220 contemporary APFSDS shells (high energy APFSDS), but the latest 2A46M-5 can let off at least 500 of the currently most common shells (3BM-44).

Needless to say, firing from a worn-out gun barrel can be very dangerous. Fracturing of the barrel is possible, but thankfully, the fuses of explosive ammunition like HE-Frag and HEAT shells exclude the possibility of premature detonation. Still, disintegrated fragments may potentially harm people and equipment in the vicinity.



The T-72 uses an AZ electromechanical carousel-type autoloader with a 22-round capacity. The autoloader was modernized in the T-72B to missiles to be carried. The new autoloader had higher reliability, and could also store longer and larger projectiles. We will examine the original Ural autoloader, and examine the newer T-72B autoloader in the context of improvements to the original. The patent for the T-72B autoloader (Russian Patent No. 2204776) is available here.

Each shell and propellant charge stored within the carousel is housed within a two-tiered steel cassette with extended bills to properly line up the shell or propellant charge with the gun chamber. The diameter of the carousel spans the width of the hull. Being made from steel, the cassettes provide some meager protection for the ammunition.

Below, you can see the ammunition cassettes being dropped in place on a T-72B3 autoloader. You can also see the tank's escape hatch to the left of the photo. The metal arm protruding from the silver-coloured central hub is part of the emergency manual carousel rotation mechanism. The carousel rotates independently of the turret and the armoured bulkhead on top of it during both normal and manual operation.

The notch on the edge of the central hub marks where the tray lines up flush with the trapdoor on the carousel cover. The notch allows projectiles that are physically longer than the ammo cassette to pass through the trapdoor.

Here is a diagram of the ammo cassettes. The maximum length of each cassette is 680mm, just 2mm longer than the HEAT projectiles carried by the T-72 like the BK-14 and BK-18, and only 5mm longer than HE-Frag shells like the OF-19. The APFSDS ammunition employed in the USSR during the Cold War was the shortest among the three main ammunition types.

Modified cassettes are used in the T-72B carousel in order to accommodate guided missiles. The modified cassettes have special latches on both sides accommodate guided missiles and to prevent the stabilizing fins of the missile from accidentally deploying when the missile is violently rammed into the cannon.

While the new cassettes are designed to accommodate guided missiles, the length of the cassettes remain at 680mm, so the "Svir" guided missiles (695mm long) employed by the T-72B will overhang the cassette by 15mm.

The cassettes are arranged radially around the central hub.

The autoloading cycle requires the gun to be locked at a pre-programmed elevation of +3°30', which is done so automatically as the cycle begins. It is claimed in the memoirs of Leonid Kartsev that this was superior to the Kharkov T-64A as the spent shell stub was a significant source of propellant fumes from smoldering residue inside the stub, and that disposing of the stub reduced the concentration of fumes in the fighting compartment. There may be some truth to this claim, as video evidence has shown that even when there is no escape of fumes from the cannon breech after firing (indicating that the fume extractor is working well), the spent shell stub may still pollute the fighting compartment until the propellant residue is completely burnt. This video is a good example of this. The immediate ejection of the stub would indeed be beneficial.

Steven J. Zaloga claims there were some problems with sight and cannon zeroing because the sight was independently stabilized, and the vertical stabilizer for the cannon would sometimes fail to synchronize with the stabilizer unit in the sight as the cannon resets to its original position when finishing its loading cycle. However, it is doubtful if this issue truly exists, because the stabilizer for the cannon is slaved to the independently stabilized TPD-K1 sight, so the stabilizer will always attempt to lay the cannon as close as possible to the aiming point of the sight. The alignment will never be perfect, because the weapons stabilizer is less precise than the stabilizer for the sight. Zaloga may have mistakenly labelled the small alignment error between the two cross-linked systems as a design flaw instead of a limitation.

During the reload cycle, a cassette is elevated to the ramming position, and the two-part ammunition is rammed into the gun breech. Because the cannon automatically elevates by +3°30' degrees at the beginning of the reload cycle, the top half of the autoloader elevator is slightly tilted to bring the cassette into alignment with the breech. The slight tilt is visible in the diagram below. The diagram shows a T-72 Ural type autoloader. The T-72B has a different carousel.

Shell casing stubs are automatically ejected by a stub catcher and ejector through a small port at the rear of the turret, visible below:

The stub catcher can be seen in the screenshot below (the perforated circular thing at the back has nothing to do with the stub catcher). It is possible for shell casing stubs to miss the stub catcher, although it is a rare occurrence.


The autoloader is able to recognize the position of each round stored in the carousel through the carousel storage memory unit, shown below. Three ammunition types can be indexed into the carousel.

To load ammunition into the autoloader, the commander must use his control box to cycle between cassettes. After loading a cassette, he must input the ammunition type into the memory unit by pushing one of three optional buttons, one for each type of shell: HEAT (K), APFSDS (B), or HE-Frag (O). He can then complete the loading procedure and cycle to the next tray.

The memory unit indexes the type of ammunition on a data disc stored inside the circular housing. The type of ammunition is identified by the system using a binary system on the data disc. There twelve radial magnetic rings on the surface of the disc divided into three groups and twenty two sectors. Four of the radial rings are for recording the type of ammunition, four are used to determine when to brake the carousel rotation motor, and four are used to determine where to stop the carousel in order to line up the ammunition to the trapdoor.

Recording the information is done by three current carrying pins, with interact with the magnetic rings via electrical contacts. Storing the information itself is done by changing the polarity of the magnetic spot to either positive or negative through the electrical contacts. The electrical contacts are kept in contact with the magnetic rings via small springs to ensure that reading the data is still possible even while the device is experiencing strong vibrations (such as when the tank is on the move over rough ground) or a shockwave from an explosive blast. However, the constant pressure wears out both the magnetic ring and the electrical contact over time leading to a loss in the ability to record and read data, and the metallic dust from the worn surfaces can contaminate other parts of the unit, causing reading errors. Such errors could prevent the autoloader from accepting new ammunition when reloaded, or cause the autoloader to lose track of where ammunition is stored or even to "forget" when to stop rotating the carousel if it is already in motion (so it rotates indefinitely). Even if the recording surfaces are not worn out, it is also possible for the device to fail from the accumulation of dust and grime over time. At this point, it is possible to either replace the electrical contacts the hard disc, or replace the entire memory unit.

The rotation of the data disc is not powered by an internal motor, but by the carousel itself via a crankshaft passing through the bottom of the memory unit. When the autoloader is activated by the gunner or commander initiating the reload, the carousel motor receives the command to rotate, but it does not know when to stop until the memory unit reaches the appropriate ammunition type, so if the gunner selects HEAT rounds, the carousel will rotate until the system reads the appropriate binary code on the data disc, whereupon the command to stop the carousel motor is given (which is also written on the data disc, as mentioned before).

In other words, the system does not know what the shortest route to the selected ammunition type is. This system limits the carousel to rotating in only one direction - the motor is capable of rotating in both directions, but due to the system limitations, the reverse rotation is only activated when braking the rotation of the carousel. After the round is loaded and the ammo cassette returns to the carousel, the memory unit rewrites the data to a null value (000) to represent the empty status of the cassette.

The design of the data disc is clearly an extremely simple and archaic form of a hard disc storage with an extremely low storage capacity. The lack of sophistication, however, is completely justified by the lack of a need to store large volumes of data and the high robustness required of the system. The simple design of the memory unit grants high resistance to shock and mechanical damage, and its self contained housing facilitates quick replacement if it is damaged. The most common source of autoloader malfunctions is the memory unit.

Due to the limit of three ammunition types, this memory unit is not used in the T-72B, as there is a new type of ammunition: guided missiles. According to the patent for the T-72B autoloader (Russian Patent No. 2204776), the memory storage was upgraded to accept a fourth ammunition type; missiles. The upgraded memory storage unit was also improved for better reliability.

The upgraded memory storage unit had a rotary dial instead of three buttons. The dial has four positions for the four ammunition types. To select and index an ammunition type, the dial is turned to one of the four positions, and then pressed. A closer look at the dial is available in this video at (3:08). The new memory unit can be seen in the screenshot below.

The photo below shows a T-72 Ural or T-72A, as evidenced by the welded appliqué armour plate on the upper glacis. Note the T-shaped box with wires coming out of it to the left of the blue torsion bars, at the center of where the carousel would be.

The T-shaped box is a VKU-330-4 power distribution unit to supply power to the tank turret. The VKU-330-4 is shown below.

The permissible length of projectiles in the T-72B autoloader carousel was increased by reducing the size of the central hub. This was done by redesigning the hub and replacing the VKU-330-4 power distribution unit installed on top of the carousel rotation motor with the VKU-1 unit. The photo below shows a T-72B3 with a VKU-1. Note the three protruding arms instead of a T-shape.

This modification enabled the 695mm-long "Svir" guided missile to be used with the carousel. The T-72B1 uses the Ural autoloader and memory system, as it is a low cost version of the T-72B without the missile firing capability.

In the T-90A autoloader, the system was revised and digitized. The information on the type and location of the ammunition in the carousel is stored digitally in a separate device, and the shortest distance to reach the ammunition is determined by an algorithm. The absence of the old disc-type memory unit is confirmed in the photo below, although the crankshaft housing from the carousel that would have rotated the hard disc is still present as a "vestigial tail" of sorts. This is evidence that although the control system was overhauled, the T-72B carousel was retained. The issue of two-way rotation is resolved by the implementation of a sufficiently sophisticated control system. The carousel rotation motor itself is reversible and has always been capable of both clockwise and anti-clockwise rotation since the original version in the T-72 Ural, but due to the rather crude ammunition retrieval system, the reverse function of the motor had only been used for braking until then.

There are some claims that the T-72B3 uses the autoloader from the T-90A, and that this allows the T-72B3 to use more elongated APFSDS rounds. Currently available evidence shows that this is almost completely incorrect. A T-72B3 with the old T-72B memory unit (Red) and commander's control box (Yellow) can be see in the photo below.

This shows that the ammunition indexing and retrieval system is still based on the older T-72B, so the carousel must also be from the T-72B. However, it is clear that the system has been revised. Note that the old ammunition selector dial has been replaced with a new one. The photo below - this time showing the T-72B memory unit (Red) in a T-72B3 obr. 2016 - supports this theory. Even in 2016, the T-72B3 is evidently still using the old T-72B carousel, and even the same control box (Yellow) is used.

Another piece of evidence showing that the T-72B3 uses elements of the T-90 autoloader is the fact that the stub ejection port hatch momentarily opens and closes immediately after firing without actually ejecting a shell casing stub, presumably to evacuate the fumes. This is feature first seen in the T-90, and displayed in this videothis video and this video and many others. The fact that the T-72B3 also has this feature indicates that it shares something in common with the T-90 autoloader. Whether the T-90 autoloader is capable of loading longer shells or not is still not clear, so it would be a little presumptuous to assume that the T-72B3 can. As we have seen, there is evidence to show that the T-72B autoloader can load longer projectiles than the Ural autoloader, but there is nothing concrete that indicates that there were any further upgrades to projectile length after the T-72B. It is often assumed that the carousel is to blame for the limited projectile length, there is evidence that the carousel has no part in this limitation.

In June 2005, a patent (Patent No. 2300722) filed by UKBTM for a method of increasing the permissible length of projectiles usable in the autoloader was filed. The patent describes a modified autoloader elevator design wherein the ammo cassette is pulled backward to avoid the cannon breech as it is elevated to the ramming position. It is hinted in the patent that the main restriction on the projectile length is not the carousel, but the cannon. To be more specific, the patent states that a possible method of increasing the permissible length of projectiles involves moving the cannon forward, and that this would require significant reworking of the turret, and it would disrupt the balancing of the cannon. The carousel is not mentioned at all. It is not clear if this patented system was actually implemented in new production tanks or implemented at all, but since the carousel is not the main limiting factor, it is absolutely possible that the T-72B3 can simultaneously have the old T-72B carousel installed and still be able to fire the same shells as the T-90A. It is very likely that the patented autoloader modification was implemented in the new T-90M modernization, and not in any other T-72-pattern tank.

The photo below shows the location of the memory unit for the Ural and the carousel trapdoor through which the two-piece ammunition passes through.

This scan comes from the book "T-72/72M/72M1 in detail", from preview pictures available on (link).

The time taken per loading cycle is around 7 seconds. This enables the tank to achieve a maximum rate of fire of 7 to 8 rounds per minute. The cyclogram below shows the chronological order of the steps in the autoloading process. The cyclogram gives a total loading time of around 7.7 seconds, but this is because the cyclogram includes the rotation of the carousel over two ammunition cassettes instead of transferring directly to the next one, probably to represent a randomized sorting arrangement of ammunition in the carousel or a change in ammunition types. The cyclogram also includes the firing and recoil of the cannon after the loading cycle, so the cyclogram can be considered to be representative of the maximum rate of fire of the T-72 with a mixed ammunition load.

As you can see in the cyclogram, the last second of the loading cycle is taken up by the release of the cannon from hydrolock and by the automatic laying of the cannon back into the last previous aiming position and then onto the new aiming point, so the gunner can open fire immediately, which is also represented by the tag "Recoil of the cannon", which represents the firing of the cannon immediately after loading is concluded. This is possible because of the independent vertical stabilization of the gunner's primary sight and the separation of the turret traverse system from the rotation system of the autoloader carousel, so he can conduct ranging and aim at a new target during the loading cycle. This is no different from any other modern fire control system. The biggest drawback of the AZ autoloader is that it requires two ramming cycles. Each ramming cycle takes 1.5 seconds, so if there were only one ramming cycle, the autoloading cycle would take less than 6 seconds, putting it on par with the 6ETs-15 "Korzina" autoloader used in the T-64A and T-80.

The AZ autoloader carousel is very compact, as you can see in the photo below. For some reason, there is a T-80 in the background. Based on this official UKBTM drawing of the cross-section of a T-72, the carousel occupies around half of the internal height of the hull, so its height is likely to be around 0.45 meters. Note that the carousel in the photo below lacks a memory/input unit, but has a cylinder attached to the central hub, indicating that this carousel is for a T-72B.

There is some additional equipment installed on top of the carousel cover. The silver box you see near the center of the carousel cover is a KR-175 relay box. It connects to the VKU-330-4 power distribution unit and supplies power to the turret.

The T-72 does not have a significant disadvantage when compared to human loaded counterparts, which include the majority of NATO tanks. Most examples can achieve a 4 to 5 second loading time - when their tank is immobile. However, it's a whole different story on rough terrain. An advantage to the autoloader is that a bumpy ride, change of direction or slope traversal will never affect the autoloader's operation in any way. It can maintain its normal cyclic loading rate in whatever condition or orientation the tank is in. In manually-loaded tanks, the whole vehicle will pitch and dive as it drives over ruts and mounds while the gun, which would be disconnected from the stabilization system in tanks like the Abrams when the loader drops the safety lever, will move up and down on its own volition, making it less straightforward for the loader to get the shell aligned with the chamber to ram it in.

Firing on the move is usually done at a low cruising speed or at a crawl in order to maximize accuracy, but a tank speeds up and performs evasive maneuvers in between shots in order to avoid enemy fire, before slowing down again to return fire. The stressful time between shots is when the loader must perform his duties, and it would be much, much harder to load the cannon during that time. This video illustrates this point perfectly. At 1:08 and 1:31 in the video, the movement of the gun delays the loader by around a second, extending his loading time to 7.9 seconds and 8.2 seconds respectively (loading time is defined as the time between dropping the loader's safety lever and moving back to a position away from the path of recoil). This would not be an issue for a tank furnished with an autoloader, but to be fair, this is also not an issue for tanks installed with a loader's assist system where the gun automatically raises by a few degrees and fixes the breech in detente, placing it at the optimum loading angle for the loader. The earliest tank to have this feature was the T-54B, followed by the T-62. Later on, tanks like the Leopard 2 and the Merkava 4 featured similar loader's assist systems.

The autoloader can maintain its cyclic loading speed throughout an extended engagement until the carousel is exhausted. A human loader, on the other hand, will be exhausted from long before the ammunition is exhausted or even before combat even commences, whether it be due to excessive heat, excessive cold, shortage of food, shortage of water, or anything else you can imagine. None of the crew members in a T-72 have to perform manual labour under duress.

All in all, the T-72's autoloader is entirely satisfactory for generating a sustainable rate of fire for realistic encounters. While NATO tanks with human loaders were intended to put out as many shots as possible on huge formations of approaching Soviet tanks while staying stationary behind cover, the T-72 never had such a requirement. In modern shoot-and-scoot combat where tanks rarely stop moving or risk getting hit themselves, the advantage of human loaders become much less apparent. In this sense, the T-72's autoloader is not a hindrance at all, but an advantage, if the system is not at least on par with its Western counterparts.

Having compared firing rate, it would be illogical to not also compare ammunition capacity, especially against the T-72's famous rivals; the Abrams and the Leopard. Surprising as it may be, the T-72 carries more ready ammunition; 22 in the carousel compared to 18 and 15 in the bustle ready racks of the Abrams and Leopard respectively. This is not an issue for any three of these tanks, because it is rare for a tank to expend so much ammunition in a single engagement. There is typically a lull in the fighting, which is when the loader in any tank would take the time to replenish his ready racks from the less convenient stowage racks. In the case of the T-72, the commander will replenish the carousel using the loose ammunition stowed onboard the tank.

The overhead cover on top of the carousel acts as a false floor for the turrets' occupants. Here is a better view of the cover.

This close up of the surface of the autoloader carousel reveals that it is actually made of thin sheet steel, but it is covered in a layer of thick, rigid matting. The matting resembles the anti-radiation lining and cladding around the rest of the tank, so its purpose is likely to serve as radiation protection for the crew. However, the anti-radiation lining is known to be an effective spall liner, so it serves as additional protection as well. The anti-radiation lining carried over from the T-72 Ural to the T-72A, T-72B and the T-72B3, but was removed in the T-90 and compensated by thickening the cover. A good view of the matting is visible in the picture below (screenshot taken from TV Zvezda series "Made In the USSR", episode "T-72 Main Battle Tank").

The sheet steel cover is bent down at the edges for structural stiffness, so the cover you see in the screenshot above does not represent its true thickness.

The perimeter of the carousel is protected by sheet steel guards at certain places, as shown in the photo below. In other places, the perimeter of the carousel intersects with conformal fuel tanks. The thickness of the guards was increased for the T-72B autoloader. The original perimeter guards can be seen in the photo below (open image in new tab and zoom in). Note the two reinforcement ribs pressed in to the plate - this indicates that the plate is quite thin and flimsy.

This photo gives us a closer look at the guard. The sheet is really quite thin, so it is more likely that their main function is to help prevent unintentional interactions between the driver and the carousel. The ballistic protection of such a thin plate is questionable at best.

Here is another look at the sheet steel guard. Screenshot taken from TV Zvezda series "Made In the USSR", episode "T-72 Main Battle Tank".

In the T-72B, these ribbed steel guards were replaced with a thick solid plate, as seen in the photo below of a late model T-72B undergoing repairs at the 103rd Armoured Repair Plant in the Far East (photo credit to darkbear-ru). It is very unlikely that the tank in the photos below is a T-72B3 model because the delivery of the very first T-72B3 tanks only began in 2013, whereas the photos below were uploaded to darkbear-ru's livejournal in December 2012. Also, the tank has clearly seen some use, as shown by the worn rubber rims of the roadwheels.

The lower left corner of the screenshot below grants us a closer look at the steel guards for the T-72B3 carousel. It appears that the steel guard plate was not changed from the T-72B to the T-72B3.

The T-90A appears to have the same steel guard plate as the T-72B and T-72B3, as shown in the photo below (credit to twower). Note that there are two fire extinguisher canisters clipped to the guard plate. The same clips are seen in both of the photos of the T-72B and T-72B3, likely indicating that all three tanks have the same armoured plate installed in front of the carousel. The rather large gap seen in the photo below is only due to the top-down perspective of the photographer. When viewed horizontally, the armoured plate fully covers the carousel.

As T-72B-1 uses the autoloader of the T-72 Ural, it also retains the same steel guard, as proven in the picture below. Screenshot taken from a video by user Khercrit, titled "T-72: how a mechanic crawls into the turret". You can get an idea of how thin the sheet steel cover atop the carousel really is in the screenshot below.

The type of steel used for the perimeter guards are not known, but the thickness of the older T-72 Ural sheet steel guards would be insufficient. The thick plate in the T-72B can be considered a serious armoured plate, and would undoubtedly have a positive effect on the survivability of the tank. It is important to point out that we know that the guards are made from steel and not aluminium because we can observe rust on the surface of the sheets.

This article translated by Peter Samsonov details the post-penetration effects of 125mm APFSDS ammunition. The original pages of the Russian document were first shared on Andrei Tarasenko's blog. The document featured in the article pertains to a lethality analysis done on 3BM-9, 3BM-15, 3BM-22 and 3BM-26. These four rounds will all be examined more closely later on, but for now, it is only necessary to summarize that the 3BM-9 is an all-steel "torpedo" projectile, while the 3BM-15 and 3BM-22 are composite shells with a a tungsten carbide core at the front of the projectile, and the and 3BM-26 has a tungsten carbide core in its tail. All of the shots were for a 60 degree obliquity impact, and the velocity of all of the shells corresponds to their velocities at 2 km.

According to the article, the vast majority of fragments expelled behind the armour plate are smaller, low energy particles that are only capable of penetrating 3-6mm of aluminium sheeting at a distance of 0.5 to 1 meters. Keeping in mind that the overmatch factor used in the experiments was in the range of 100mm to 300mm, these figures simply cannot be considered realistic if the same or equivalent ammunition was fired at a T-72 tank, but assuming that a composite shell managed to overmatch the front hull armour of the T-72B by 100mm to 300mm, the fragments will definitely not be able to penetrate the steel guard around the perimeter of the carousel, especially not after passing through the anti-radiation lining (which doubles as a spall liner) lining the interior walls of the tank. This is important, because igniting or detonating ammunition requires a certain amount of energy. Very low energy fragments that can barely pierce a millimeter of steel would have no hope of igniting the ammunition, and more energetic fragments may lose enough energy from impacting the carousel perimeter guard that they may fail to ignite the ammunition. The thick armour plate in the T-72B may even be able to protect the carousel from fragments that are capable of penetrating 30mm of aluminium or more, of which there are comparatively few. It is not known what type of aluminium allow was used for the plates in the lethality analysis, but is is likely to be structual aluminium and not armour-grade aluminium. This is because the equipment in Soviet tanks (radios, control boxes, relay boxes, sights, etc.) is encased in a thick cast aluminium housing. We can safely say that the armoured plate, which appears to be around a centimeter thick, is equivalent to more than 30mm of structual aluminium.

It is worth mentioning that the inefficient composite construction of Soviet APFSDS rounds like the aforementioned four models makes them exceptionally prone to disintegration and fragmentation after passing through armour plates. Early 105mm APFSDS also relied on composite projectiles, but later on, more efficient long rod ammunition was deployed, and such ammunition would produce much fewer but much more powerful fragments given the same degree of overmatch. So unless the penetrator barely makes it through the armour of the tank, long rod ammunition has a much better chance of penetrating the armour plate around the carousel than composite penetrators, even if the composite penetrator achieves a greater degree of overmatch somehow. All in all, the chances of reaching - let alone igniting - the ammunition in the carousel is rather low, even in the event of a hull penetration. Fragments from a turret penetration would most likely fail to even reach the carousel.

In short, only the T-72 Ural and T-72A use the original autoloader and original carousel with minimal side protection. The T-72B used a different autoloader carousel with revised ammo cassettes in order to fit missiles, and the size of the central hub was reduced in order to fit projectiles that exceeded the length of the ammo cassettes. The armour protection for the carousel was also upgraded by installing a bona fide armoured plate in front of the carousel, behind the driver.

The carousel rotates independently of the turret. It can rotate to line up new shells at a speed of 70 degrees per second, but as mentioned before, it can only rotate in a counterclockwise direction. This needlessly prolonged the loading cycle in some circumstances, but it is entirely possible to avoid this issue by practicing smart ammo placement. If APFSDS ammunition is stowed to the right of HEAT ammunition, and HEAT ammunition is stowed to the right of HE-Frag ammunition, the time needed to load anti-armour rounds can be greatly reduced at the expense of greatly increasing the time taken to reach the HE-Frag rounds. This way, the gunner can start with APFSDS, and then switch to HEAT without delay when APFSDS is exhausted, or switch to HEAT quickly to deal with IFVs when the high priority tank targets have already been knocked out. Switching to HE-Frag from APFSDS takes longer, but if the target is supposed to be engaged with HE-Frag, then it can be assumed that it is not a high priority target like, say, a tank.

Here is a video of a demonstrator autoloader carousel spinning:

In the summer of 1969, a comprehensive test cycle conducted on a number of Object 172 tanks in Central Asia and in the South-Western regions of Russia revealed that the air purification system, engine cooling system, the autoloader and the T-64 suspension had insufficient reliability. These issues were partially eliminated on the subsequent batch of Object 172 tanks. Work on these tanks continued until February 1971, and by then, most of the subsystems in the tank were working within acceptable parameters. The reliability of the autoloader at that point was excellent, having a loading failure rate of only 1 per 448 loading cycles (Baryatinskiy 2010). This roughly corresponded with the barrel life of the 2A26M-2 cannon of 600 EFC. 600 EFC equates to 600 rounds of ammunition with an EFC rating of 1 like HE-Frag or HEAT, but harsher and high pressure APFSDS rounds which erode the barrel quicker have a higher EFC rating of 4 to 5. As such, the rule of thumb is that the autoloader should undergo maintenance or light repair work whenever the gun barrel is in need of replacement. Periodic inspections and testing would greatly benefit the longevity of the autoloader. The newer T-72B autoloader has improved reliability, but the magnitude of the improvement is not known. If troubleshooting is not successful or if individual components cannot be repaired from inside the tank, then the replacement of the entire carousel can be done in the field with the help of an engineering/recovery vehicle like the BREM-1 or at any garage with a hoist large enough to detach the turret. Replacing the rest of the autoloader requires the turret to be partially dismantled.

The gunner has a full set of autoloader controls for selecting ammunition to fire, or to replenish the autoloader. In order to fill up the autoloader, the loading process has to be reversed. According to the manual, reloading the carousel with a full stock of ammunition from an external supply of ammunition takes 4 to 5 minutes only.


Aside from the carousel itself, ammunition is stored in racks located throughout the interior of the tank in various nooks and crannies with varying degrees of accessibility. While much of the ammunition in stowed in fairly secure conformal fuel tanks, there are a few rounds of ammunition that are placed out in the open. For the T-72 Ural, 17 rounds are carried in loose stowage. The stowage layout in the T-72 Ural was carried over to the T-72A, but the layout was was revised in the T-72B, leading to an increase in the number of shells carried in loose stowage to 22. This enabled the tank to carry two full complements of ammunition into battle and fully reload the carousel in the absence of resupply trucks.

The stowage layout for the T-72 Ural and T-72A is presented in the diagram below. The diagram is from the T-72A manual.

The layout for the T-72B is shown in this diagram:

Almost all of the propellant charges - the most vulnerable half of the two-part ammunition - are stowed in cylindrical slots inside these conformal fuel tanks. There are twelve slots in the large fuel tank behind the autoloader carousel for propellant charges. Due to the excellent location, the charges are almost completely safe - the carousel would always be hit instead. A cross-section of the propellant charge slot in the fuel tank can be seen below.

The right hull fuel tank on the right hand side of the driver has slots for three propellant charges and four shells plus a single exposed propellant charge stowed in a circular cup at the back of the fuel tank. See the photo below.

A single propellant charge and shell is stowed on a clips on the left hand side of the driver; exposed, but still reasonably protected as it is behind the left hull fuel tank. This was changed so that three propellant charges are stowed instead in the T-72B.

Cross-sections of the slots for the shells in the conformal fuel tank are shown in the diagram below. The slots are designed with the dimensions of HE-Frag shells in mind, so they are large enough to accommodate the two other ammunition types, which were shorter, even the long rod APFSDS ammunition appearing late in the Cold War. The shells are held in place by a simple crescent shaped rotating cover.

The conformal fuel tank was modified in the T-72B and limited to only three.

More shells and propellant charges are stowed on top of the carousel cover. Some of the propellant charges and shells are clipped to the cover, and others are placed vertically and clipped to the turret ring. There is one position at the 11 o'clock sector of the carousel cover where a single shell can be clipped onto the cover lying down. This shell prevents the driver from moving to the gunner's position, or the gunner from pulling the driver out of the tank through the turret. Two propellant charges

The circular "ashtrays" at the back of the carousel at either side of the trapdoor are where the shells and propellant charges are placed upright. The shells are secured using clips attached to the turret ring. The "ashtrays" can be seen in the photo below, but the diagrams from the manuals are much more useful. It is shown that two pairs of shells and propellant charges are stowed to the left of the carousel trapdoor, behind the backrest of the commander's seat.

The two pairs of shells and propellant charges stowed on the racks on the carousel cover are located behind the commander's seat. The clips that secure them to the turret ring can be seen in The Challenger's video review of a Czechoslovakian T-72M1 tank.

The degradation of the propellant charges stowed out in the open atop the carousel cover is reduced by the inclusion of a protective sleeve that fits over the exposed combustible charge. The sleeves are meant to protect the combustible charge from environmental damage, mostly from moisture.

Eight shells can be stowed on the engine compartment bulkhead, on top of the conformal fuel tank behind the autoloader carousel. The shells are secured to the wall using clips, which are able to accommodate any type of ammunition.

All of the stowage spaces on the engine compartment bulkhead and on the side hull wall are visible in the screenshot below (T-72B type tank hull on display).

The screenshot above gives us a good view of the ammunition from the driver's perspective, so while it may appear that a shell penetrating the hull armour would seriously jeopardize the ammo, this is not the case. Due to the highly cluttered fighting compartment and the very large distance from the upper glacis armour to the ammunition mounted to the wall (more than two meters), the ammunition has a very good chance of avoiding any damage whatsoever. The photo below, for example, shows that the engine compartment bulkhead is completely obscured behind the stabilizer components underneath the cannon and behind the seats for the commander and gunner.

All in all, there can be up to 22 additional cartridges stowed outside the carousel for a total of 44 rounds of ammunition. However, in practice, crews tend to ignore certain spaces such as the shell stowage rack on top of the carousel cover (as seen above), and some crews may decide not to have any ammunition in loose stowage at all, so the actual sum total of loosely stowed ammunition can be anywhere from 22 to none. Nevertheless, from a design standpoint, the fact that the T-72 has a total ammunition capacity of 44 rounds when the T-54/55 had only 43 and the T-62 had just 40 - while having smaller cannons and slightly larger silhouettes - is a highly noteworthy achievement and a grand step forward in design efficiency.

However, ammunition carried in loose stowage can be a huge liability in battle, as is has been proven to be the main cause of irrecoverable or catastrophic tank losses. The loose ammunition stowed in the hull is still somewhat secure, but the ammunition in the turret constitutes a significant risk to the survival of the crew. As the diagram below shows (diagram taken from Tank-Net), only 2% of shots land at a height of one meter from the ground. This is good news for the carousel autoloader, but the diagram shows that 65% of shots hit the turret. As such, the benefits of the low placement of the carousel may be completely undone by loose ammunition in the turret. 

However, it should be understood that the distribution of hits fluctuates over the years. In the Second World War, the majority of hits sustained by tanks were on the hull. It is commonly thought that this was because the hulls of the tanks of the era tended to be much larger than their turrets. Later on, combat in Korea and in the Middle East showed that more hits were being taken on the turret than on the hull, creating a more even distribution between the turret and hull. Later on, it was observed by Dr. Manfred Held that in Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm (ODS), the vast majority of shots landed on the turret. The diagram below, taken from "The Main Battle Tank of Russia: Frank Conversation About The Problem of Tank Building", shows the distribution of hits in the vertical plane by percentage for the 1967 Six-day war, the 1983 Yom Kippur war and ODS in 1991.

The three black bars in the diagram indicate (from top to bottom) the bottom of the turret, the belly of the tank, and ground level. The bottom of the turret - the turret ring - is considered to be 1.5 meters from ground level, and the belly of the tank is considered to be around 0.5 meters from ground level. The hull is therefore considered to be around 1 meter tall.

As you can see, even though the distribution of hits was not very consistent across the three conflicts, the fact that the lower half of the hull (between 0.5 to 1.0 meters) statistically sustained the fewest hits was universally true for all cases. The turret ring sustained the greatest number of hits statistically, which makes sense as the turret ring would be the center mass of any tank in the sights of an enemy gunner.

The total time needed to restock the tank with its entire complement of ammunition takes between 15 minutes to 20 minutes. Most of that time is taken up by replacing ammunition in loose stowage, since there are multiple nooks and crannies that can only be accessed by turning the turret to a specific direction. For that reason alone, it should also take more than the usual 4-5 minutes to reload the carousel using the ammunition from loose stowage.

Like the gunner, the commander has a full set of autoloader controls at his disposal, and he is responsible for placing the ammunition into the carousel during the reloading procedure, so a special control box for operating the autoloader reloading system is installed at his station. In combat, the commander can either aid the gunner in selecting the appropriate shells for the target type (which he identified), or load shells for his own use in the case of the T-72B3.

If the autoloader elevator malfunctions, it is still possible to operate the elevator mechanism manually using a crank wheel (pictured). The commander and the gunner must take turns to load the cannon depending on the location of the ammunition in loose stowage. The commander would obviously load the cannon using ammunition close to him, and vice versa. Some of the ammunition requires the turret to be oriented in a specific direction to access. The T-72A manual has a full table detailing the locations of the ammunition, the orientation of the turret needed to access it, and whose responsibility it is to load that ammunition. The benchmark time needed for a complete manual loading cycle is 26 to 30 seconds.

If the carousel fails, it is possible to manually crank the carousel and access the ammunition inside using a cranking lever located underneath the commander's seat. However, the commander would have no idea where the desired ammunition type is located in the carousel, so it is more feasible to simply use the ammunition in loose stowage.

Manual loading is something to be done in emergencies only, not only because it is much slower than normal automated loading, but because it also forces one of the two crew members to abandon his usual duties. In reality, autoloader failures are exceedingly rare (but not non-existent), so there is little need to worry about manual loading. The propensity for autoloaders to malfunction either from wear and tear or from a knock on the turret is greatly exaggerated by a few vocal armchair generals on the internet.

Loose ammunition stowage is the leading cause of total tank losses involving ammunition detonation. While the carousel is decently protected from overhead fragments, the shells and propellant charges located behind it and behind the commander's seat are not. The easiest course of action is, of course, to simply remove these loose shells before entering battle. Russian tank crews learned this and reportedly practiced this widely during Chechen campaign.


There are 4 main types of ammunition for the 125mm gun. There is no predetermined mix of ammunition. A typical loadout for a breakthrough assault or troop support mission would see that HE-Frag shells are loaded in large quantities, for example, while more HEAT and APFSDS shells would be loaded for ambushes where light vehicles and other MBTs are expected.



125mm ammunition for the D-81 gun series is two-piece - propellant and projectile. Each propellant charge is contained within a thin TNT-impregnated pyroxylin-cellulose outer shell that is consumed upon firing, and the entire assembly is embedded into a steel cup, much like a shotgun shell.

The GUV-7 electric/percussion primer is used, giving the option to either fire the shell normally using the fire controls on the gunner's hand grips or the button on the manual traverse flywheel, or to use the manual lever-operated striker pin incorporated into the gun's breechblock.


Original propellant charge designed for the D-81T, used since the T-64A. It uses the 15/1TR VA propellant compound. This propellant charge is rather smokey.

Charge mass: 5.66 kg
Case Diameter: 138mm
Length: 408mm


Newer propellant charge modified to produce minimal smoke upon firing without changing its ballistic potential to maintain compatibility with all shell types excluding high-energy APFSDS ones. It uses 12/7 VA propellant compound. 4Zh52 is completely interchangeable with 4Zh40.

This model has completely replaced the Zh40 in frontline use. Here is a video of the Zh52 propellant charge being opened up: click. Nowadays, HE-Frag and HEAT rounds are fired exclusively with Zh52.

Charge mass: 5.786kg
Case Diameter: 138mm
Length: 408mm


High-energy propellant to launch APFSDS shells at even higher velocities. It uses 16/1TR VA propellant compound. It is used with newer APFSDS shells, but it seems that there is nothing to stop it from being used with older models.

Charge mass: 5.8kg (?)
Length: 408mm



Two part superquick, distance armed piezoelectric fuse. Point-detonating design that has provisions for graze initiation to allow detonation despite steep angles of incidence. It is distance-armed by inertia at a distance of 2.5 meters from the muzzle.


The V-429E fuze is point-detonating, distance armed and with variable sensitivity settings. It has two settings - superquick and delayed. The superquick setting detonates the shell with a 0.027 second delay and the delayed setting detonates the shell at 0.063 seconds. Superquick action guarantees reliable detonation in snowy or swampy ground, and delayed action gives a small time allowance for the shell to penetrate its target before detonating. The shell is set to the Fragmentation mode when the fuze is set to the "O" position. HE mode is set when the fuze is set to the "O" position but the safety cap is left on. Delayed HE or "bunker busting" mode is set when the fuze is set to the  "З" (a Cyrillic "Z") position, and the safety cap is left on. The additional delay enables the shell to penetrate more deeply into hardened targets.

The fuze is armed by inertia; the shell experiences a momentary braking effect from the unfolding of the stabilizer fins 5 to 20 meters from the muzzle, and this is used to arm the fuze.


The V-429V fuze is an updated version of the V-429E fuze. The safety cap has been replaced with a safety pin with a protruding ribbon. To deactivate the safety "cap", the ribbon is pulled to tug the pin out. This is much faster than unscrewing the old safety cap.


The T-72 normally carries 12 HE-Frag shells in the autoloader, although this will almost certainly vary by situation. These shells have traditionally been predominant in Soviet armoured tactics, where tanks were regarded as the tip of the spear during breakthroughs. Bunkers, ATGM teams and troop concentrations - not tanks - were the bane of any and all armoured targets, and thus became high priority targets. Heavy breakthrough tanks with thick armour for charging down anti-tank guns to clear the way for calvary tanks were once the main counterforce, but with the advent of the Main Battle Tank and the phasing out of heavy tanks, the T-72 takes over this role in full, fulfilling both the role of a breakthrough heavy tank and calvary tank. HE-Frag shells therefore comprise the most important part of the T-72's loadout.

The V-429E fuse gives 125mm HE-Frag shells a great deal of flexibility. When attacking infantry in the open or in covered positions, such as anti-tank teams, advancing troops, or machine gun nests, the fuze should be set in the "superquick" mode, giving it a delay of 0.027 seconds to ensure that the shell will detonate instantly upon meeting soft ground like mud and snow, allowing it to exploit its thick steel shell to its fullest as shrapnel.

When attacking reinforced concrete targets like bunkers and pill boxes, the shell should be set in the "penetrating" mode, giving it a delay of 0.063 seconds, allowing the shell with its thick steel casing to travel a fair distance into target material before detonating. This is great for bunker busting because the impact of the big, heavy shell creates fractures, cracks and fault lines in concrete, making it a lot easier for the explosive charge to shatter and blow apart the entire structure. If targeting non-hardened buildings like houses, the shell could pass through cinder block or brick walls and explode on the other side of the wall.

With that in mind, HE-Frag may even be used as a substitute to more specialized anti-armour shells like APFSDS and HEAT against heavy armour under certain circumstances, like when all other ammunition has run out, or if effective destruction cannot be achieved. A direct hit will likely result in the debilitating disability of the cannon, destruction of aiming devices and the destruction of the driver's vision blocks, producing a firepower and mobility kill. In many cases, the driver of a modern tank has an unsettlingly high probability of being killed or at least severely injured by a hit to the turret or glacis due to insufficient blast attenuation. The explosion of a large caliber HE round on the turret ring will most certainly send spall and fragments shooting down into the driver's neck through the thin hull roof. The T-72 itself is vulnerable to this, as the roof over the driver's head is a mere 20 millimeters of steel, but conversely, the T-72 is very capable of inflicting the same damage on most legacy NATO tanks, which often do not have spall liners. This makes it exceptionally easy for a 125mm HE-Frag shell to kill, maim, and injure the crew behind the armour of all-steel tanks like the M60, Chieftain, Leopard 1, AMX 30, and so on. However, modern tanks sporting composite armour arrays and spall liners may not have the same vulnerability.

When set in the HE mode, 125mm shells are extremely deadly to lightly armoured vehicles. There are a few good reads available on the internet on this topic, but Peter Samsonov's translation of a report on the effects of 76mm HE-Frag shells at tanks with a variable fuse is especially enlightening. Here is a fascinating paragraph from that report:

"When firing 85 mm HE shells from mod. 1931 guns consider that they can penetrate 45 mm of armour at 30 degrees from 500 meters, and 50 mm of armour under the same conditions can be penetrated from 300 meters or closer."

If 85mm HE shells are capable of defeating 45mm of armour plate angled at 30 degrees at 500 meters, imagine what a 125mm HE shell could do?

When adjusted to the HE setting, the shell is able to punch huge holes in relatively thick armour and explode inside. The 38mm layer of steel appliqué armour on an M2A2/A3 Bradley will be entirely insufficient to stop such a shell even at long distances, and many legacy NATO tanks may be threatened across the flanks as well. The Chieftain's thin side skirts may offer too little resistance to set off the V-429E fuse, with the result being total destruction as the tank's thin (1.5-inch) side hull armour is easily perforated. The Leopard 1's thin side armour is extremely vulnerable to this shell as well. With hull side armour measuring only 30mm thick and turret sides measuring 40mm (angled at 30 degrees), even the aforementioned 85mm HE shell may potentially defeat the Leopard 1 from 500 meters. The addition of a 30mm spaced appliqué plate on the turret in later Leopard 1 variants might still not be enough to defend it from a 125mm HE shell, and even if the shell was successfully stopped, the explosion might still be powerful enough to split open the base armour plate.

Even though the T-72 carries more HE-Frag shells than anti-armour shells, you can see that this is not always a problem as HE-Frag shells have a very substantial multi-role capability. The use of V-429E fuses introduces a new field of possibilities for 125mm HE-Frag.

HE-Frag shells are quite barrel-friendly. They have an EFC rating of 1, meaning that if a barrel was rated for 1000 EFC, it would be able to fire 1000 HE-Frag shells before needing replacement.


Regular shell with copper driving bands. The shell has the shape of an ogive. It is interesting to note that this shell has a length of 675mm, making it the longest projectile among the three ammunition types carried by the T-72. This only changed with the inclusion of guided missiles in the T-72B, and high elongation long rod projectiles later on.

Complete Shell Mass: 23 kg
Complete Shell Length: 675mm
Wingspan (deployed): 356mm
Muzzle velocity: 850 m/s

Explosive mass: 3.148 kg
Explosive composition: TNT

It's worth noting that TNT is a relatively sensitive explosive compound. The risk of an ammo detonation is significantly higher if these shells are present.


Improved HE-Frag shell with compressed explosive charge of a different composition designed to provide added incendiary effect. Explosive compression means that the explosive charge has increased in density - that is, it has a greater mass for the same volume.

This shell uses plastic driving bands instead of copper ones, in an effort to reduce barrel wear.

Maximum Chamber Pressure: 3432 bar

Total Length: 676mm
Total Shell Mass: 23.3 kg
Muzzle velocity: 850 m/s

Explosive mass: 3.4kg
Explosive composition: A-IX-2 (Phlegmatized RDX + Aluminium filings) (Aluminium is pyrophoric. Detonation produces incendiary effects, increasing the chance of igniting or burning objects in its proximity)

A-IX-2 is much less sensitive than TNT. The risk of ammo detonation is much lower if these shells are stowed.

Practice HE-Frag

Practice HE-Frag shell that emulates the ballistic characteristics of live HE-Frag shells. Contains a 200-gram TNT charge to produce a bright flash that acts as a visual hit marker for the trainee gunner.

Maximum Chamber Pressure: 3432 bar

Total Length: 676mm

Total Shell Mass: 23.3 kg
Muzzle velocity: 850 m/s


The T-72 carries a substantial number of HEAT shells in stowage for its proven flexibility, high performance and economy. They are powerful enough to pierce contemporary armour in most cases and their explosive factor allows them to be used against light or unarmoured vehicles with a much better result than with APFSDS shells. HEAT shells may also be used against hardened concrete bunkers or simple earthen fortifications with good results, and it is entirely feasible to engage personnel owing to the very thick steel case containing the charge which is able to produce high-velocity splinters magnificently.

Against thickly armoured targets, HEAT shells produce deep but small holes. The secondary methods of destruction aside from the cumulative jet itself (which is the primary one) is the blast of the explosion of expanding gasses rushing through the hole in the armour, the flash of heat (capable of causing flash burns) and the spray of high velocity fragments of armour and shaped charge material following perforation, which can set internal equipment alight and injure the crew. It is difficult killing crew members without a direct hit by the cumulative jet unless there is a very significant armour overmatch, forcing HEAT shells to rely mostly on causing internal fires. But still, due to the enclosed nature of tanks, there is a high likelihood of striking at least one crew member if one could score a hit on the occupied sections of the tank.

HEAT shells also retain a characteristic advantage over APFSDS shells in that they wear down the barrel at a greatly reduced rate. One HEAT shell is only equivalent to one EFC, whereas an APFSDS shell can be equivalent to 3, 5 or even 7 EFC. This makes them the preferred choice of training ammunition during live fire exercises, besides HE-Frag shells. Training with APFSDS is not held quite as often, as scoring a hit with hypervelocity shells is obviously not quite as challenging as doing the same with shells that are travelling at almost half the speed. HEAT ammunition is also more expendable than APFSDS ammunition during live fire exercises, as it is now almost entirely useless against modern tank armour.

Vasily Fofanov's old website popularized the thinking that Soviet HEAT ammunition was more accurate than their APFSDS ammunition. One paragraph in particular has been frequently quoted:

"HEAT-FS rounds were also substantially more accurate than APFSDS (which might also be surprising to a Western reader). This is reflected in the Soviet deviation criterion, which was more strict for HEAT rounds (0.21 mil) than for APFSDS rounds (0.25 mil). However, in practice HEAT-FS rounds were even more accurate. As control trials of a random mass-production T-64A held in the 70s (the details of which were made available to the author) indicated, while APFSDS rounds hugged the outer bounds of acceptance criterion, HEAT-FS rounds actually demonstrated the average deviation of well under 0.1 mil!"

This may or may not be true, since Fofanov has admitted that the information presented in his website is mostly outdated and unreliable. Thankfully, there are more solid sources for our perusal. According to firing tables for 3BK-14M provided by Stefan Kotsch, the HEAT shell has a horizontal deviation of 0.19 m and a vertical deviation of 0.19 m. On the other hand, the firing tables for 3BM-15 - also provided by Stefan Kotsch - show that the APFSDS shell has a horizontal dispersion of 0.20 m and a vertical dispersion of 0.20 m. The gap in probable deviations remains minor even at 2 km. At that distance, 3BK-14M has a horizontal dispersion of 0.38 m and a vertical dispersion of 0.39 m, whereas 3BM-15 has a horizontal dispersion of 0.4 m and a vertical dispersion of 0.4 m. Evidently, there is some truth to the claim that Soviet HEAT ammunition was more accurate, but the enormity of the gap between the two types has clearly been highly exaggerated. Furthermore, these firing tables only represent the mechanical accuracy of the projectile and the cannon it is fired from, and does not represent the accuracy of the entire weapon system, including the aiming and gun laying devices.

In practical real world conditions, the expected hit probability of HEAT ammunition is vastly lower than that of APFSDS ammunition for a variety of factors. The most major factor is the interference of crosswinds and head or tail winds, and another factor to consider is ranging errors, particularly at longer distances. The high velocity of APFSDS ammunition (3BM-15 has twice the muzzle velocity of 3BK-14M) also makes it much easier to score hits on moving targets at any distance.


Wave Shaper: Object or device that infleunces the propagation of blast waves in a way that is beneficial to jet formation. Typically composed of an inert material with low sound speed.

A-1X-1: Phlegmatized RDX, consisting of 96% RDX and 4% wax.

OKFOL: Explosive compound composed of 75% HMX and 25% RDX.

Standoff Probe: Extended structure to increase the distance between the shaped charge cone and the target material, i.e, standoff.

Explosive Pressing: The process of increasing the density of explosive compounds by high-pressure mould pressing. The result is more explosive mass per volume, translating to more energy.

All of the information presented below are backed by either photographic or videographic evidence, or official documentation.


3BK-12, 3BK-12M

First 125mm HEAT shell, originally for complementing the T-64. By the time the T-72 emerged, it had been long replaced by the 3BK-14. The 3BK-12 is the low cost version with a steel shaped charge liner, and the 3BK-12M is the more expensive version with a copper liner. The shell is characterized by the rather thin walls of the standoff probe, straight standoff probe, and a house shaped wave liner, as seen in the diagram above.

Projectile weight: 19.8 kg
Total Projectile Length: 678mm

Muzzle velocity: 905 m/s

Explosive Charge: A-1X-1
Explosive Charge Weight: 1760g

Shaped Charge Cone material: Steel
Shaped Charge Cone diameter: 105mm
Shaped Charge Cone angle: 36°

Penetration (at all distances):
420mm RHA (unknown target obliquity)


3BK-14, 3BK-14M

Updated HEAT shell with similar dimensions as the 3BK-12, but with minor internal differences. It is characterized by distinct knurls around the top edge of the main body surrounding the standoff post, probably to enable the shell to fuse even on extremely high obliquity impacts by tilting the tip towards the armour plate on a glancing blow. This shell uses a cylindrical wave shaper with a slight taper, and the standoff probe now has a slight taper.

The BK-14M warhead uses a copper liner ("M" stands for "med", which means "copper" in Russian). This results in improved penetration performance, but at slightly higher cost. The wave shaper is different.

Maximum Chamber Pressure: 2900 bar

Projectile Weight: 19.8 kg
Total Projectile Length: 678mm

Muzzle velocity: 905 m/s

Explosive Charge: OKFOL
Explosive Charge Weight: 1760g

Shaped Charge Cone material: Steel
Shaped Charge Cone diameter: 105mm
Shaped Charge Cone angle: 36°
Shell wall thickness: Tapering from 7mm (front) to 17.5mm (base)

Standoff probe diameter: 65mm tapering to 45mm
Standoff probe wall thickness: 7.5mm

Penetration (3BK-14):
450mm RHA at 0°

Penetration (3BK-14M):
480mm RHA at 0°



The 3BK-18 is a further improved design. Visually identical to previous designs, but differs in that it features an aluminium shaped charge cone. Aluminium is pyrophoric, meaning that it burns when finely pulverized and when under extreme stress. Under those conditions, it can produce a very fierce incendiary effect, increasing its killing power in the event of a perforating hit. The noxious fumes produced by burning aluminium may also force the crew to leave their vehicle.

Unlike the lightly tapered wave shaper of the 3BK-14, it has a cylindrical one, which coincides with the usage of a different cone material with different physical properties. Like its predecessors, it has distinct knurls around the top edge of the main body.

The 3BK-18M is a variant of the 3BK-18 using a copper cone. Both models are very widespread in current Russian Army stocks.

The 3BK-18 is characterized by its thickened walls, both for the warhead casing and for the standoff probe. This presumably translates to a significant improvement in the anti-personnel capabilities of the shell compared to earlier designs, and the more robust standoff probe may be beneficial for other reasons.

Maximum Chamber Pressure: 2900 bar

Total Length: 678mm
Projectile Weight: 19.8 kg
Muzzle velocity: 905 m/s

Explosive Charge: OKFOL
Explosive Charge Weight: 1760 g

Shaped Charge Cone material: Aluminium
Shaped Charge Cone diameter: 105mm
Shaped Charge Cone angle: 36°
Shell wall thickness: Tapering from 7mm (front) to 17.5mm (base)

Standoff probe diameter: 65mm tapering to 45mm
Standoff probe wall thickness: 7.5mm

Penetration (3BK-18):
500mm RHA at 0°

Penetration (3BK-18M):
550mm at 0°



Improved shell featuring a dirty copper-coloured cone with extreme elongation. It uses a cylindrical wave shaper. It isn't seen very often.

Projectile Weight: 19.8 kg
Muzzle velocity: 905 m/s

Explosive Charge: OKFOL
Explosive Charge Weight: ~1400g (?)

Shaped Charge Cone material: Copper or Brass
Shaped Charge Cone diameter: 105mm
Shaped Charge Cone angle: 36°
Shell wall thickness: Tapering from 7mm (front) to 17.5mm (base)

~650mm at 0°


Radically improved, using a DU-Ni alloy cone. DU-Ni cumulative jets exhibit superior jet consistency and will not break up in flight as quickly as other materials, offering very good overall performance. The new liner also seems to offer superior penetration against complex armour arrays. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your perspective), production costs and the difficulty of controlling the variables associated with using it makes usage impractical. The shell uses an arrow-shaped wave shaper.

DU as a material for shaped charges is highly polluting. If perforation occurs, the interior of the tank will be filled with highly dangerous DU particles, which will be very difficult to remove. Whereupon the lack of perforation, the hole created in the armour array will still contain DU particles, posing a hazard for crew and technicians working in and out of the target object or vehicle.

DU is also pyrophoric, and like aluminium, will wreck havoc in the confined spaces of an armoured vehicle. 

Projectile Weight: 19.8 kg
Muzzle velocity: 905 m/s

Explosive Charge: OKFOL
Explosive Charge Mass: ~1400g (?)

Shaped Charge Cone material: DU-Ni
Shaped Charge Cone diameter: 105mm
Shaped Charge Cone angle type: Medium, 60°
Shell wall thickness: Tapering from 7mm (front) to 17.5mm (base)

Penetration: >650mm



A HEAT shell that is very seldom seen. Cutaway photos show that it has a silvery-gray shaped charge cone, but its shape and dimensions betray that it is definitely not steel nor aluminium like the ones before it. It is very likely that it is tantalum, which is known to be a viable cone material. It uses a rather oddly rounded wave shaper. Very little is known about this shell other than these facts.

Projectile Weight: 19.8 kg
Muzzle velocity: 905 m/s

Explosive Charge: OKFOL
Explosive Charge Mass: ~1400g (?)

Shaped Charge Cone material: Tantalum / Tantalum alloy
Shaped Charge Cone diameter: 105mm
Shaped Charge Cone angle type: Medium, 60°
Shell wall thickness: Tapering from 7mm (front) to 17.5mm (base)

Penetration: ~600mm (?)


Same interior configuration as its parent but with a bulkier bevel connecting the standoff post to the main body. Liner material is unknown, but all other components appear to be identical.

Projectile Weight: 19.8 kg
Muzzle velocity: 905 m/s

Explosive Charge: OKFOL
Explosive Charge Mass: ~1400g (?)

Shaped Charge Cone material: (?)
Shaped Charge Cone diameter: 105mm
Shaped Charge Cone angle:
Shell wall thickness: Tapering from 7mm (front) to 17.5mm (base)

Penetration: ~600mm (?)



Relatively recent (late 80's) shell with tandem warhead configuration primarily to aid in penetration of complex armour arrays and to defeat ERA-equipped targets. Despite being heavier than its single-charge predecessors, it somehow travels slightly faster.

The precurser shaped charge is located halfway down the standoff probe and may be rightfully considered a fully-fledged warhead all on its own, having a considerable explosive charge and complete with its own standoff accounted for. The use of a precursor warhead makes it very effective against the special armour of NATO tanks from the early 80's, prior to the use of depleted uranium in the armour of the Abrams tank.

This shell is characterized by the lack of "teeth" on the front edges of the primary warhead case, and the new fuse, which is fully conical in shape. The shell uses a hemispherical wave shaper. Both charges have base fuzes.

The 3BK-29M is same shell as its parent, but with a copper liner. Whether both the precursor and the main charge use copper is unclear, but it is likely.

Projectile Weight: >20 kg
Muzzle velocity: 915 m/s

Explosive Charge: A-1X-1
Explosive Charge Weight: (?)

Precurser Explosive Charge: A-1X-1
Precurser Charge Cone material: (?)
Precurser Charge Cone diameter: 40mm

Primary charge penetration (without precurser/after reactive armour): ~620mm at 0°
Primary charge penetration (after precurser/without reactive armour): ~820mm at 0°

BK-29 should be considered the most important development in tank cannon-fired HEAT ammunition in recent times, as it is the only example of a tandem warhead HEAT tank shell in service. Now that we know of the armour composition of the M1 Abrams, we can speculate on how BK-29 would fare against it. One of the things that we can be certain about is that the front armour plate protecting the NERA array is relatively thin. The precursor charge of BK-29 could probably punch through the armour plate, enter and leave holes in several of the NERA plates and leave an open channel through which the main warhead can then pass through and defeat the main armour, since the precursor and the main charge are coaxial. With the extra spacing created by the large and mostly hollow armour array, the main charge could easily reach its optimum standoff distance and reach its maximum penetration power. Following this train of thought, it is probable that BK-29 can defeat the front hull armour of the M1A1 Abrams, but probably not the turret, since the thickness of the new turret composite armour was substantially increased over the M1.

However, it will not be able to defeat the turret cheeks of a T-72B. The Kontakt-1 boxes that encapsulate the composite armour of the T-72B will reduce the effect of the precursor charge of BK-29 (and indeed, any tandem warhead projectile) so much that it will be easily stopped by the relatively thick front wall of the armour cavity in the turret, meaning that the primary warhead will still have to deal with the untouched NERA armour contained within, and the warhead will most probably fail to defeat the entire array.



Enigmatic and ingeniously designed triple-charge HEAT shell. It is probably not in service at present. It can penetrate 800mm of steel armour with a hardness of probably about 280 BHN, as demonstrated by a cutaway.

Total length: 665mm

Penetration: 800mm RHA (No reactive armour)

From Vasily Fofanov's website

Practice rounds


Single-charge inert HEAT warhead designed to exactly emulate the ballistic trajectories of the 3BK-14 and 3BK-18 shells. There is a 200-gram squib inside the warhead that acts as a visual hit marker for the trainee gunner.

Total Length: 678mm
Projectile Weight: 19.8 kg
Muzzle velocity: 905 m/s


Training round imitating the exact flight characteristics of the 3BK-29 shell.


Despite pioneering APFSDS shells with the introduction of the 2A20 115mm gun, the Soviets never had the technology to mass produce true long rod tungsten or depleted uranium projectiles until the mid-80's, whereas the Americans had already fielded the M774 DU APFSDS round since the mid-70s. So they were in a bit of a quandary. Their best APFSDS rounds were technologically crude sheathed core projectiles that were incredibly economical (very little tungsten is present in them), but limited in scope and growth potential.

According to a firing table provided by Stefan Kotsch, 3BM-15 suffers a 138 m/s drop in velocity over 1 km from the muzzle, and a 127 m/s drop from 1 km to 2 km. This is slightly greater than the drop suffered from the 115mm 3BM-3 shell. The ballistic characteristics of 3BM-15 can be used as a surrogate for every other APFSDS shells from the 3BM-9 to the 3BM-22, as they all share the same torpedo shape. Compared to Western APFSDS, Soviet shells suffers from very high drag - more than twice as high.

The only way to improve their performance without any radical design changes was to increase mass and increase speed, but this could not be easily done with the 115mm gun. The HEAT rounds for the "Molot" were good, but undependable due to terrible accuracy, so they weren't of much use even though they were more than capable of taking out any tank, bunker or anything in between. For the moment, the "Molot" was more than capable of killing any NATO tank at average combat distances, but it would not have been enough had there been even a modest uparmouring like the Stillbrew modification on the Chieftain. They never really got past this problem until the 80's when the Soviet ammunition industry progressed sufficiently to begin the mass production of long rod penetrators, but before that, in one form or another, all 125mm APFSDS ammunition followed the basic principle as the 3BM-3 introduced in 1961. The use of steel caps meant that the performance of these early APFSDS shells at high obliquities was somewhat lower than at lower obliquities, whereas it was the exact opposite with new, long rod monobloc rounds like the M111 "Hetz". Incremental improvements reduced the severity of the issue over time, but the problem was only truly solved when long rod tungsten alloy or depleted uranium shells were introduced in significant quantities in the mid 80's.

Producing high-quality weapons-grade tungsten carbide and other tungsten alloys in slug form was difficult and expensive, and extruding tungsten alloy rods was no mean feat. The equipment simply didn't exist in the USSR.

The main defeat mechanism of APFSDS shells against armoured targets is by killing crew members with shards and fragmentation of the shell after armour perforation, but a secondary mechanism is setting internal equipment alight, just like HEAT shells. The huge kinetic energy and extreme forces imparted during armour defeat results in some of that kinetic energy being converted to heat energy, which results in a flash of heat and a shower of high velocity sparks from particles of both armour material as well as penetrator material. And of course, the flash and sparks work to set flammable items on fire.

The selection of APFSDS ammunition available to the T-72 gave it the upper hand in any engagement with any one of NATO's heaviest, until the new generation of tanks rolled out in the early 80's. The heaviest NATO tank before the Leopard 2 and M1 Abrams was, of course, the Chieftain, but we already know how it would fare against the APFSDS rounds fired from the T-72. The Chieftain Mk.10, on the other hand, is worth more scrutiny.

In 1986, the Chieftain Mk.10 was introduced and Stillbrew armour made its debut. It is rather difficult to find a credible source that describes Stillbrew with any amount of useful detail, but Volketten has done some research into the topic and claimed in an article published on Rita Sobral's blog that Stillbrew was a form of composite armour that worked like NERA.

The thickness of the frontal projections of the turret are well known; an average of 125mm at 60 degrees across the cheeks on both sides, and 158mm at 45 degrees at the base. However, there is some difficulty in determining the exact thicknesses of Stillbrew over the various curves and bumps of the turret. Volketten states that the center part of the Stillbrew plate over each cheek had a thickness of 167mm, equivalent to a 150mm rolled armour plate, and these photos from the Leicester Modellers website help us estimate the thickness of the add-on cast steel plates to be exactly 60mm thick over the right mantlet (no rubber) and less than 100 for the edge of the plates over the cheeks.

U.S Patent 4848211 is the patent for Stillbrew. If any doubts persist, note that one of the inventors listed is a "John H.T Brewer", and that the priority date for the patent is 4 June 1986. The patent states that the armour is a composite armour, but makes absolutely no mention of the movement of the add-on plate, and it is easy to see why. The add-on cast armour plate is simply too thick and too heavy to move with the limited amount of energy transferred to the rubber interlayer, and the plate is securely screwed to the turret by large countersunk stainless steel screws. The countersunk screws is the most significant piece of evidence, because the beveled rim of the screws (something like this) pins the plate down and prevents the plate from sliding up the shaft of the screw.

One of the confirmed roles of the rubber interlayer is to absorb the shockwave of an impact landing on the add-on cast front plate, and to prevent the plate from falling off in much the same way as the rubber mounting blocks found on the Leopard 1A1A1. The function of the rubber is almost certainly as a simple sandwich material in the same way silica was used in siliceous core armour and GRP was used in the sandwich armour in the upper glacis of the T-64A and the T-72. The 50mm interlayer has an effective thickness of 100mm when sloped at the 60 degree angle of the turret, so the effects of the rubber layer are considerable, especially against shaped charge jets.

Adding up the layers, we find that the total thickness of the armour has now increased to more than 500mm. This would have made the turret immune to all Soviet 125mm HEAT shells as well as any APFSDS round from before 1985, probably down to point blank range. Interestingly, Stillbrew appears to give Chieftain more armour than the M1 Abrams possessed, if the oft-quoted figure of 400mm vs KE is believed. Stillbrew can be considered a good and cheap method of increasing the protection of the Chieftain up to the level of NATO's new generation tanks, but it must be emphasized that this was achieved by simply adding more steel on top of steel, not by some ingenious new type of armour.

Having said this, it must still be understood that Soviet 125mm APFSDS ammunition never had any real trouble defeating NATO tank armour from the same era. Stillbrew, for example, was introduced in 1986, but by 1985, the "Vant" depleted uranium monobloc shell with more than 500mm of penetration at 2 kilometers became available in the Soviet arsenal. This would have handily defeated the Chieftain Mk. 10. Even non-NATO tanks like the Strv 103 from 1967 would have fared very poorly against Soviet 125mm guns. reports that during a Swedish test in the early 90's involving an Strv 103 and a T-72M1 purchased from the ex-GDR, 3BM-22 shells fired at the frontal armour of the S-tank proved to be so powerful that it went through the front and came out the back, albeit at an unknown distance. It is not difficult to imagine that the 3BM-15 shell from which the BM-22 was derived would produce a similar result at a slightly closer range, and combat experience with the T-62 and its 115mm APFSDS ammunition had shown that it was more than enough against Iranian Chieftains. This changed with the introduction of the new generation of NATO tanks, but even then, the sides of the hull and turret remained inconveniently soft, so Western engineers had to find creative solutions.

The Leopard 2 shielded the crew compartment from the side with three heavy 100mm steel plate modules (consisting of two 50mm plates each) bolted to the side of the hull just over the first two roadwheels (Source). From an incidence angle of 30 degrees from the longitudinal axis of the tank, this arrangement yielded a 200mm thick sloped plate. Absolutely miserable protection against long rod penetrators and HEAT warheads, but quite effective against the sheathed core APFSDS rounds common in the Red Army inventories. Refering to this report here (link), it's clear what they were going for. The 125mm APFSDS rounds that are so effective against individual homogeneous plates also shatter magnificently after passing through them. This would have been incredibly lethal to the older plain-steel legacy tanks like the M60 and Leopard 1, but the 100mm ballistic plates on the Leopard 2 would be capable of stripping the steel from cored projectiles like 3BM-15 and 3BM-22, leaving only the small tungsten carbide core to travel on by itself. Though lethal enough on its own, the small size of the tungsten carbide core and the limited fragmentation spread produced by passing through the 50mm base armour of the side hull is too limited to be of much worry. The probability of achieving a first round kill was thus greatly reduced. The Abrams implemented a similar design with its 60mm composite sideskirts. These were thinner than the Leopard 2's 100mm plates, and the Abrams' base armour is much thinner at only 28.575mm (1 1/8 inches 420 BHN welded hard steel bilayer), but they covered the hull all the way down to the fifth roadwheel. Such a configuration should be sufficient against Soviet APFSDS rounds that had their tungsten carbide cores near the nose, and still somewhat effective against ones that had them near the tail. These protective measures would be useful until the introduction of Soviet monobloc long rod APFSDS rounds in the mid-80's, which, incidentally, is not far from the introduction dates of the Leopard 2 and Abrams.

The Soviet standard for certifying armour piercing projectiles is V80, meaning that the expected consistency of achieving full armour perforation given a certain projectile velocity must be 80%. In formulas, V80 must replace V50 (50% chance of armour perforation). For example, if a certain projectile has to penetrate 500mm of steel, then at least 80% of all projectiles of that type must achieve that standard. This is very different from the NATO standard of only 50%. Soviet standards were not only stricter, but the steel they used for targets was of a greater hardness than NATO targets. In reality, the given penetration data does not correspond to the actual achievable penetration of these shells.



An extremely rudimentary projectile with a maraging steel penetrator body. Maraging steel is preferred for its malleability, which prevents the high-velocity shell from shattering outright upon impact, but maraging steel is superior to normal steel in that it retains its strength with its malleability. However, the softness of the steel (about 300 BHN) hampers its ability to penetrate armour somewhat. The decision to use a pure maraging steel projectile without an armour piercing cap must have been a deliberate one, as tool steel with a hardness up to 600 BHN had been used as early as 1945 in the BR-412B 100mm APBC shell. 3BM-9 might be an attempt to conserve tungsten carbide while achieving the same performance as 115mm tungsten cored rounds, as 3BM-9 can penetrate the same armount of armour as 115mm 3BM-3 tungsten core rounds but without doesn't use any tungsten carbide itself. Besides that, maraging steel is renowned for being very easy to work with and cheap, so the existence of 3BM-9 must be for economic reasons.

Nevertheless, 3BM-9 was more than enough for any NATO tank of the time, including the Chieftain. According to a Soviet analysis of an Iranian Chieftain captured by the Iraqi army during the early part of the Iran-Iraq war, available here on Andrei Tarasenko's, the Chieftain Mk.5 had totally insufficient protection even from the 3BM-9. The frontal part of the entire turret, hull upper front plate and lower front plate could all be defeated at 3 km or more. This essentially means that the T-72 Ural can defeat NATO's toughest tank at any reasonable combat distance with zero expenditure of valuable tungsten.

3BM-9 is quite remarkable for being the first service munition that is fired at truly hypersonic speeds (Mach 5+). This shell used a steel "ring" type sabot with a copper driving band. Sabot construction is critical to shooting accuracy, and the steel "ring" type sabot was perfectly fine compared to any other APDS sabot at the time. Plus, any deficiencies in accuracy from the sabot would be unnoticeable given the gobsmacking speed of the projectile coming out of it.

This is all just speculation, but it is possible that 3BM-9 might have been what T-72 Urals were given for their first year of service as a sort of intermediary before the supply of 3BM-15 shells (introduced in the same year as the T-72 Ural) was assured. T-64s should be the first to transition to the newer ammunition, and the T-72 might have had to wait.

Muzzle velocity: 1800 m/s

Mass of Projectile: 3.6 kg
Mass of Sabot: 2.02 kg
Total Mass: 5.67 kg

Length of Projectile: 410mm
Minimum Diameter of Projectile: 36mm

Certified Penetration at 2000m:

245mm at 0°
185mm at 45°
140mm at 60°

Certified Penetration at 1000m:

300mm at 0°
160mm at 60°

(According to a Soviet GRAU document)

Penetration at 2000m:

290mm RHA at 0° (Zaloga)

The achievable armour penetration of 3BM9 is quite a bit higher than its certified penetration capability. Post armour penetration effects are very powerful, due to the large hole created by the inefficient steel penetrator.



The 3BM15 is a steel-sheathed, tungsten-cored APFSDS shell with a tri-petal steel sabot, introduced in 1972. It is externally identical to the 3BM-9 projectile.

Although decently hefty and very speedy, the shell primarily relies on a small tungsten carbide subcaliber core to do the job. A ballistic windshield was crimped onto the soft steel shock absorber cap, whose duty was to prevent ricochets and to soften the shock of the impact to the rest of the projectile body. The projectile body is maraging steel, which more or less peels away upon impact while the core continues onward - an extremely inefficient arrangement. The maraging steel body creates a crater almost as large as the one created by the 3BM-9, but not quite so large.

All this doesn't mean that it cannot go through large amounts of steel, however. The 3BM-15 is certified to penetrate 150mm RHA at 60 degrees. The photo below shows the result of the shell penetrating a 200mm steel block (of unknown hardness) at 0 degrees, entering from the top and exiting from the bottom, leaving very large holes on either end. The 3BM-15 clearly outmatched all NATO armour at the time, which could not stand up to it even in the thickest places.

The photo below shows the result of a steel block meeting a BM-15 projectile on a perpendicular impact at an unknown range. steel body disintegrated inside the armour as it entered, but the tungsten slug passed onwards leaving a very clean tunnel (indicating that it still had plenty of momentum).

In the event of a penetration whereby the steel body has not peeled off fully, it functions to blast the interior of the target tank with hundreds of large pieces of steel - absolutely devastating to interior equipment and crew members alike. Thus, while the 3BM-15 was lethal to all NATO tanks of the time, it was exceptionally lethal to tanks like the AMX-30 and Leopard 1, which had particularly thin armour. However, this shell became essentially useless against new NATO armour emerging in the early 80's, like the Leopard 2 and the M1 Abrams, as these new generation tanks had thick steel or composite sideskirts designed to expend the steel projectile. The tungsten carbide slug could not be stopped so easily, of course, but a small slug could do only a fraction of the damage that the full package would have done.

3BM-15 uses the same steel "ring" type sabot as the 3BM-9. The photo below is from a Rheinmetall brochure on PELE ammunition, demonstrating a modified 3BM-15 PELE round in flight and the airflow around the components of the round. The sabot was unmodified.

An incremental propellant charge is wrapped around the projectile body.

Mass of Incremental Charge: 4.86kg
Maximum Chamber Pressure: 4440 bar

Muzzle velocity: 1785 m/s

Steel body maximum diameter: 44mm
Steel body minimum diameter: 30mm
Core diameter: 20mm

Length of Projectile only: 435mm

Length of Core: 71mm

Mass of Steel body: 3.63kg
Mass of Core: 0.270 kg

Total Mass of Projectile: 3.83 kg

Certified penetration at 2000m:

400mm at 0°
200mm at 45°
160mm at 60°

(According to a Soviet GRAU document)

The firing table for the 3BM-15 are available to the public, courtesy of Stefan Kotsch.


The steel "wedge" in front of the tungsten carbide slug is an armour piercing cap to protect it from shattering the instant it impacts the target, and to improve performance on highly sloped armour.

3BM-15 was designed with adherence to the same design principle as the older 115mm 3BM3 round. 3BM3 was intended to have armour penetration capabilities similar to or exceeding that of a contemporary APDS shell without incorporating as much tungsten carbide in its construction. 3BM3 was highly successful in this regard, as it managed to achieve more penetration than BM-8 APDS for the 100mm D-10T using only a tenth of the amount of tungsten carbide in its core. It achieved this mainly by being faster, because by having a long steel rod behind the tungsten carbide core and not in front of it, it was the core that impacted the armour first, and it was the core that penetrated the most armour. 3BM-15 had a better armour piercing cap design, and a slightly lighter core (0.27 kg vs 0.3 kg) but it achieves its superior penetration mainly by being faster. We can confirm this theory by simply checking the penetration values of 3BM3 against the 3BM-15 at the same velocity. We know that 3BM3 loses speed at a rate of 130 m/s per kilometer, and that the 3BM-15 must lose speed at an even faster rate since it has slightly larger (by 1 cm) diameter stabilizer fins. So assuming that 3BM-15 loses speed at a rate of 140 m/s, we can calculate that 3BM-15 will only be 20 m/s faster than 3BM3 at 1 km when it is at 2 km. So is the penetration of 3BM-15 at 2 km comparable to 3BM3 at 1 km? Absolutely. At 0 degrees, 3BM-15 penetrates 310mm at 2 km, and 3BM3 penetrates 300mm at 1 km. The difference can be explained by the better armour piercing cap and some error in the assumed rate of speed loss.

Compared to the tungsten carbide core of 3BM-8 (far left), the core for 3BM-15 (far right) is incredibly tiny, and yet 3BM-15 penetrates far more armour.

(Credit for photos to PzGr40 from

(Sourced from,, Vasily Fofanov)



This shell is essentially identical to the 3BM15 externally, but it lacked the tungsten carbide core of its parent and only had a modified AP cap, presumably to reduce ricochet probabilities. Thus, it was slightly superior to the 3BM9, but still far behind the 3BM15 in penetration performance.

Muzzle velocity: 1780 m/s

Total length: 548mm
Length of Projectile only: 435mm

Certified Penetration at 2000m:

310mm RHA at 0°

Average penetration at 2000m:

330mm RHA at 0° 



A derivative of the 3BM-15. It began mass production in 1976, but only formally entered service in 1977. It features an enlarged and improved armour piercing cap in front of the tungsten carbide core, presumably to further improve performance on heavily sloped armour plate. The projectile is shorter than the 3BM-15, and it retains the steel ring-type sabot.

Despite the rather high armour penetration capability, this projectile is woefully inadequate against the special armour arrays found on the new NATO tanks appearing in the early 80's. This is because the composite design of the projectile is simply too fragile to handle strong lateral stresses - being made from steel and all - so the projectile is can be defeated by anything more complex than a simple solid block of steel. Even a simple double layer of spaced steel armour will work against a round like 3BM-26 when some obliquity comes into play; the first layer of armour strips the armour piercing cap in front of the tungsten carbide slug, and the naked disembodied slug travels forward and impacts the main armour with some possibility of shattering or ricocheting (due to its ogive tip). Of course, it wouldn't be enough to put two thin steel plates together and call it a day, since there is also the large and heavy steel body travelling at 1700 m/s+ to consider, but even so, the penetration capability of the projectile would still have been severely compromised. The NERA array of the M1 Abrams would be exceptionally good at defeating this round.

It has been claimed that the M1 Abrams is equivalent to 400mm of RHA steel, but it is obviously not possible for this to be true for the simple reason that composite armour is simply too complex to be distilled into a single figure in RHA equivalence.

The "400mm" figure might hold up in the context of a sheathed long rod penetrator, since those became the norm during the 80's and would undoubtedly be tested against the armour of the Abrams, but even so, the RHA equivalency rating should not be used to determine if Soviet APFSDS ammunition could or could not penetrate the armour. Having said that, it must be noted that since we know the configuration of the hull front armour of the M1, there is quite a good chance that at shorter ranges, even the damaged steel tail of the projectile might be able to punch through the back plate after passing through the NERA array.

Existing stocks are currently being expended in live-fire exercises, for which older projectiles are favoured since they are less harsh on the gun barrel.

Mass of Incremental Charge: 4.86 kg
Maximum Chamber Pressure: 4440 bar

Muzzle velocity: 1785 m/s

Steel body maximum diameter: 44mm
Steel body minimum diameter: 30mm
Core diameter: 20mm

Length of projectile only: 400mm
Length of core: 71mm

Total projectile mass: 4. 485 kg
Mass of core: 0.270kg

Certified Penetration at 2000m:

380mm at 0°
170mm - 200mm at 60°

3BM-27 (Nadezhda)


Introduced in 1982, the 3BM-26 projectile is the most optimum APFSDS shell that is still based off the composite design principle of a small tungsten carbide slug placed in a long rod steel body. Like the 3BM-22, the 3BM-26 projectile rides on a "bucket" type sabot made from a lightweight aluminium alloy. This shell was the first to use the high-energy Zh63 propellant charge, giving it an extra performance boost over previous models (the incremental charge has the same composition as 4Zh63).

Unlike the 3BM-22 and 3BM-15 that preceded it, the tungsten carbide core is located at the tail of the projectile body. This means that it will only begin to come in contact with the armour only when the steel body in front has been completely expended from doing its share of the work. There is an air space forward of the core to allow it room for forward travel as the rest of the body decelerates within the target material. This is to allow the core to retain the same 1720 m/s velocity despite the rest of the steel body having decelerated to a complete stop.

At the very front is the ballistic windshield, crimped onto the armour piercing cap, now even larger than ever before. Not coincidentally, the enlargement of the armour piercing cap has further improved the penetrator's performance on sloped armour, probably even more so than the relocation of the subcaliber core to the rear of the projectile.

Out of all Soviet slug-within-a-steel body designs, this projectile has the best prospects against the NERA array of the M1 Abrams and later variants thereof. The projectile is still as vulnerable to fracturing and disintegration when strong lateral forces are imparted onto the steel body by the moving plates of NERA or ERA arrays, but due to the location of the tungsten carbide slug, 3BM-26 still retains its most potent component upon reaching the back plate of the armour array. In previous designs, the tungsten carbide slug could be dislocated from the tail of the projectile, resulting in the tip section of the projectile gaining a yaw and shattering upon impact with the hard back plate, while the intact steel tail of the projectile could continue on and do the little damage it could. The use of a small tungsten carbide slug instead of a long penetrator like on the M735 is undoubtedly something of an anachronism, but at least it is an economical solution to the lackluster technological capabilities of the munitions industry at the time. An additional economic advantage to 3BM-26 is that it uses the same core as previous APFSDS models, so it is possible to scrap old stocks of ammunition and recycle the cores to be used in a more effective carrier.

The new "bucket" type sabot reportedly has a significant contribution to improved accuracy, but the magnitude of the improvement is not publicly known at the moment.

Mass of the sabot: 2.2 kg

Mass of the projectile only: 4.8kg
Mass of core: 0.270kg

Length of projectile only: 395mm
Length of core: 71mm

Maximum diameter of the projectile: 36mm

Muzzle Velocity: 1720 m/s

Certified penetration at 2000m:

410mm at 0°
200mm at 60°

Despite total obsolescence, this shell is still used in reserve units. Their fate is to be expended in live firing exercises. High readiness units in the Western military district have gotten rid of this shell long ago.

3BM-33 (Vant)


Having being informed of new Western developments of advanced composite armour, GRAU set forth new requirements to defeat future dynamic armour in the mid-70's. In 1977, work began on new APFSDS projectiles to accomplish this. The new projectiles would be based on totally new design concepts in order to avoid the limitations of the previous cored design principle. The first result of the development process was "Vant".

3BM-32 "Vant" is a jacketed depleted uranium projectile introduced in 1985. It is quite short, but still longer than its predecessors. The depleted uranium-nickel-zinc alloy penetrator rod is encased in a steel jacket of an unknown alloy. The sheath was thinner over the front and rear thirds of the projectile, but it was much more pronounced in the middle. The projectile is aesthetically similar to the 120mm DM13 APFSDS shell. The "bucket" style sabot design from the 3BM-26 was carried over and slightly modified, which meant that large bore-riding fins were necessary.

As you can see in the photos below, the type of damage inflicted by long-rod (left, 120mm APFSDS on T-72M turret) and cored shells (right, 3BM-15 APFSDS hit on T-72A turret marked "5") is drastically different. While the long-rod shells enter cleanly and efficiently imparts its kinetic energy over as small an area as possible, cored shells tend to waste most of their energy blowing out a large crater. (Note the very deep impressions from the 3BM-15's steel fins in the photo on the right, as compared to the skin-deep cuts from the aluminium fins of the unknown 120mm APFSDS shell.)

The DU rod is made from an alloy based on Uranium-238. The reason why the depleted uranium penetrator was so short compared to the ones commonly used today is simple; they couldn't make them longer. Nevertheless, "Vant" could still be considered a decent round for the mid-80's. The long rod penetrator is somewhat longer than the 105mm M774 and M833, but it was technologically outclassed by the American 120mm M829 which arrived a year before (1985). However, pure length was not the only criteria for success by the 1980's, because tanks with composite armour protection were becoming more and more common outside of the Soviet Union. In that context, the jacketed long rod penetrator of the "Vant" may have been on equal footing with the longer monobloc M829 penetrator against modern threats, as it is understood that jacketed heavy alloy long rod projectiles may have better performance against spaced armour and certain types of composite armour than monobloc projectiles of the same mass. 

With that in mind, it is important to note that the use of a jacket was still primarily a method to maintain the integrity of the rod during acceleration in the gun barrel and during flight, which was commonly done for early long rod heavy alloy projectiles. According to "Numerical Analysis and Modelling of Jacketed Rod Penetration", the common use of steel jackets on early long rod penetrators was due to the poor mechanical properties of the heavy metal alloys at the time. The most serious issue was the shearing of the threads that held the long rod penetrator to the sabot during acceleration inside the gun barrel when firing, which is why the steel jacket over the depleted uranium rod in "Vant" is thickest in the middle, where it joins with the sabot.

The weakness of jacketed long rod penetrators is its reduced penetration power against homogeneous steel armour, as detailed in "Numerical Analysis and Modelling of Jacketed Rod Penetration". In general, decreasing the thickness of the steel jacket relative to the diameter of the rod to a ratio of 0.1 results in the smallest degradation of penetration against steel armour, and may actually increase the residual length of the penetrator emerging from behind the armour plate, albeit at a lower velocity compared to a monoblock rod. However, reduced penetration against homogenoeus steel targets was hardly an issue by the mid-80's.

Muzzle velocity: 1700 m/s

Mass of the projectile: 4.85kg

Length of penetrator rod: 480mm
Minimum diameter of the projectile rod: 34mm

Penetrator L/D ratio: 14.12:1

Penetration at 2000m:

430mm RHA at 0°
250mm RHA at 60°

(From plaque)

Certified penetration at 2000m: 

500mm RHA at 0°
250mm RHA at 60°

The photo below shows a 120mm DM13 APFSDS shell made for the Leopard 2. It was introduced in the same year as the Leopard 2; 1979.

1. Steel windshield and ballistic cap 2. Steel ballistic cap 3. Tungsten penetrator 4. Steel sheath 5. Tailfins and tracer assembly

As you can see, the resemblance is striking. The dimensions are also quite similar, and so is the mass - 4.85 kg for the Vant, and 4.6 kg for DM13. Form follows function, of course, and the "Vant" being a jacketed long rod projectile meant that it didn't have many forms to choose from anyway. What is especially remarkable about the DM13 is that its tungsten penetrator is only about 240mm in length and the front half of the projectile is just plain steel, but apparently, that does not prevent it from penetrating 230mm RHA at 60 degrees at a distance of 2200 m. The 105mm DM23 was introduced years later in the early to mid-80's, and had a longer tungsten alloy core, with a better L/D ratio, and yet it offered much worse performance. Why? How? Maybe it is better not to ask...

Vant is comparable to the American M829, which began production in 1984 and entered service in the same year as the Vant (1985) to equip the freshly inducted M1A1 Abrams tank. M829 is only 30 m/s slower than Vant at 1670 m/s, but M829 had a longer 540mm-long sheathless monobloc DU penetrator capable of penetrating approximately 275mm RHA at 60 degrees at 2 km.

3BM-44 (Mango)


Developed in parallel with "Vant", "Mango" is a more advanced counterpart using tungsten instead of depleted uranium. The 3BM-42 projectile has a two-part tungsten alloy penetrator, but technically it is a three-part penetrator, as the rod supplemented by a short tungsten alloy segment at the tip. The penetrator is encased in a thin steel jacket which holds the two long rod penetrators together.

It is commonly thought that the two-part penetrator rod was used instead of a single rod because the technology was not yet mature enough to produce a single full length rod, but if that is the case, then it is a mystery why the Germans designed the DM13 to have a steel segment in front of its tungsten long rod penetrator instead of simply putting two tungsten rods together.

Since one of the long rod penetrators in "Mango" is shorter than the other, it is unclear why the shell is not longer than it is, as it should not be difficult to have two long rods instead of one long rod and one short rod. From various studies on the behaviour of long rod tungsten alloy penetrators on spaced armour and thin oblique plates, it is very likely that the short tungsten alloy segment at the tip of the projectile will prevent the rest of the rod from breaking up after perforating a spaced armour plate at high obliquity, or at least control the damage in such a way that the rest of the rod will penetrate any further armour plating with greater efficiency. The use of a separate tungsten alloy segment at the tip of the projectile was definitely a deliberate design solution meant to counter non-homogeneous armour, as there would be no limitations against producing a simple flat tip or a frustum for the shorter half of the two-part penetrator.

The segment at the tip is only partially jacketed, and is therefore largely separate from the rest of the projectile, so the damage sustained by the segment will be mostly isolated from the rest of the projectile. This will protect the integrity of the jacket, and thus preserve the performance of the projectile against a spaced or composite armour array behind the initial front armour plate. As the armour of both the Abrams and Leopard 2 are understood to rely on an array of NERA and steel armour plates, the effectiveness of "Mango" could be quite high despite the less technically advanced nature of the shell. The shorter half of the two-part penetrator is at the front, and may possibly give "Mango" the ability to counter dynamic protection such as Kontakt-5, besides generally improving its effectiveness against NERA.

German military expert, author and lecturer Rolf Hilmes has said that the German 120mm DM53 is specially constructed to deal with advanced composite armour and dynamic (reactive) armour. Its construction, he says, consists of a three-part tungsten alloy penetrator. If having multiple segments is a valid method of overcoming complex composite and reactive armour, then "Mango" may be an example of "taking one step back but two steps forward". Of course, it should be stated that "Mango" is not nearly as advanced as DM53. It is simply interesting to note that the design of "Mango" has more in common with the latest anti-tank ammunition than the ammunition of its time. One of the features of "Mango" that make it more suitable against non-homogeneous armour is the steel jacket over the tungsten alloy penetrataor rod, same as "Vant". As mentioned before, it is known that jacketed penetrators perform substantially better against spaced armour and may have better performance than monobloc ones against certain types of composite armour. 

The 3BM-42 projectile is generally similar to the 3BM-32 in external layout (midway taper) due to the use of a similar "bucket"-type sabot, but the projectile is significantly lengthier. The sabot is made out of a light V-96Ts1 aluminium alloy, helping to decrease parasitic mass and thus increase firing efficiency. Like with the 3BM-32, the long-rod Tungsten alloy penetrator (or penetrators, in this case) are encased by a thin sheath. The sheath itself is composed of a EP-836 maraging steel. It is known that jacketed or sheathed long rod penetrators have superior performance on composite armour arrays, because the sheath protects the rod from external perturbations and keeps it intact as the projectile passes through the array.

Mango in the possession of a lucky individual

However, as you can see clearly in the photo above, "Mango" still has bore riding fins. The copper-coloured nubs on the apex of the fins you see above are copper ball bearings. Larger fins create more drag, leading to a lower velocity downrange.

Mass of sabot: 2.2 kg
Mass of projectile only: 4.85 kg

Length of projectile only: 574mm
Diameter of projectile: 31mm

Length of two-part core: 420mm
Diameter of core: 18mm

Penetrator L/D ratio: 20:1

Chamber pressure with Zh40/Zh52:  443.8 mPa
                               with Zh63: ?

EFC rating: 5

Muzzle velocity: 1715m/s

Certified penetration at 2000m:

450mm at 0°
230mm at 60°

(From Fofanov's website)

As 3BM42 was designed with composite armour in mind, it was subjected to special tests against projected NATO composite armour arrays. Among these attempts to replicate advanced and complex armour were two different types of 7 layer arrays and a 3 layer array. It is not known precisely what the layers of the array were made of, but it is assumed to be steel plates of different hardnesses, forming a type of advanced spaced armour.

7-layer array at an angled of 60 degrees (630mm LOS) could be defeated at 3300 m.

7-layer array at an angle of 30 degrees (620mm LOS) could be defeated 3800 m.

3-layer spaced array at an angle of 65 degrees (1830mm LOS) could be defeated at 2700 m.

Without knowing more specific details regarding these armour arrays, we cannot know how correctly they represent NATO armour at that time. It is very likely that the armour of the M1 Abrams will be defeated effortlessly by "Mango", since we now know the composition of the armour, and it is very possible that M1A1, which had a thicker array, can be still defeated by 3BM-42 at combat ranges. The use of an upgraded armour array in the M1A1HA in 1989 undoubtedly resulted in an increase of protection, but we do not know the details, besides that it incorporates depleted uranium.



9K119 "Svir"

The 9K119 "Svir" is a guided missile with a single 4.2 kg shaped charge warhead. The missile achieves excellent armour penetration with a limited length and warhead diameter thanks to the placement of the warhead at the rear of the missile, thus creating a large amount of standoff distance without the need for a special standoff probe.

The missile is soft-launched by a 9Kh949 reduced load piston-plugged ejection charge, giving the missile some momentum before the rocket motor kicks into action. The piston plug is designed to properly seat the missile in the chamber, but its primary purpose is to protect the laser beam receiver at the base of the missile from propellant gasses. The total weight of the 9Kh949 charge is 7.1 kg.

The missile itself has an efficient layout with the rocket motor placed in the middle, the warhead at the very rear, and the control surfaces and mechanism at the front along with the fuse at the tip. The large distance between the fuse at the tip of the missile and the warhead gives the warhead a good standoff distance without the need for a special standoff probe. The layout enables the 125mm missile to have a comparable flight range as the 127mm ITOW missile, and superior armour penetration performance, but in a much more compact package. With 700mm of penetration, "Refleks" is a much more serious weapon with a much better chance of defeating the new generation (at the time) of NATO tanks like the Leopard 2 and M1 Abrams, albeit from the side. The chances of defeating such tanks from the front with this missile are rather slim.

The missile uses a solid fuel motor, with four nozzles arranged radially. Flight stabilization is maintained via five pop-out tail fins with curved and angled surfaces to impart a slow spin onto the missile, while steering is accomplished by the two canard fins at the front. These are operated pneumatically, so the more corrections the gunner makes while the missile is mid flight, the less responsive the missile will be over time, though the gunner will have to be tracking a very difficult target like a moving helicopter for this to become noticeable.

Guidance is accomplished by the integrated 9S517 modulated laser beam unit on the 1K13 sighting complex. The system has a maximum range of 4000 meters.

Missile Diameter: 125mm
Missile Length: 695mm

Wingspan (Stabilizer Fins): 250mm

Maximum Engaging Distance: 4000 m
Minimum Engaging Distance: 100 m

Penetration: 700mm RHA

Hit Probability On Tank-Type Target Cruising Sideways At 30 km/h:
100 m to 4000 m =  >90%

Flight Distance Time:
4000 m - 11.7 s

The "Svir" missile was the longest ammunition type available to the T-72 before the end of the Cold War. This fact is illustrated by the photo below (although the missile shown in the photo is a 9M119M).

3UBK20M "Invar"


Thermobaric missile.

3UBK20M-1 "Invar-M"

With nothing less than a decade's worth of technological enhancement, the Invar-M boasts a more powerful tandem warhead, while maintaining the same flight distance and with no real changes to the dimensions of the missile body. Aesthetically, it is identical to the Refleks missiles. Invar-M was introduced in the latter half of the 90's, and is currently in service. It is unknown if T-72 tanks currently in active service are equipped with Invar-M missiles.

Armour Penetration:

900 mm RHA (Without ERA)
850mm RHA (With ERA)


The PKTM is mounted as a co-axial machine gun, with 250 rounds readied per box and with 8 boxes carried in the stowage bins on the outside of the tank and inside as well. Ball and tracer ammunition are usually linked in a 2:1 ratio, though sometimes tracers are used exclusively. The theoretical maximum effective firing range is 650 m against a running target, and up to 1500 m against stationary targets. However, the actual practical ranges are much lower at around 600 m for both running and stationary targets, depending on terrain and meteorological features. The gunner's ability to actually see and track personnel at extended ranges also plays a huge part in the co-axial's practical engagement envelope.

It is fired by the gunner using his "Cheburashka".

Notice the cable leading away from the PKT to the left

The machine gun is mounted to the right of the main gun, and protrudes from a pill-shaped port which provides vertical space for gun elevation. Since it is mounted alongside the main gun, it receives all the benefits of the stabilization system.

The co-axial machine gun is only a limited solution to the infantry problem, especially if hard cover is available. In practice, the co-axial is only useful in very specific situations, and desirable only when HE-Frag shells are not suitable due to concerns of collateral damage or (more brutally) when the concern is ammunition wastage. In essence, the PKTM is more of a weapon of opportunity than anything else.



The T-72 has a heavy machine gun for the commander mounted on the ZU-72 mount with an NSVT heavy machine gun. The machine gun is primarily intended for the anti-aircraft role, though it may be used to shoot at ground targets too. The ZU-72 mount has a range of elevation of -5° to +75°. The cantilever mounting of the machine gun is balanced by a pair of springs affixed near the center of gravity of the machine gun.

Rotating the cradle and elevating the machine gun is done manually, and firing is done by squeezing a trigger paddle on the left handle. The machine gun is traversed left and right by simply moving the cupola using body weight, and the elevation of the machine gun is manipulated by working a flywheel located to the right of the machine gun. The commander has to stand on his seat in order to reach the machine gun. The elevation flywheel has a braking button. The brake is used to hold the machine gun at a fixed elevation while shooting to ensure better accuracy. If the brake is not activated while shooting, the machine gun may experience overwhelming muzzle rise due to the cantilever mounting of the machine gun.

As mentioned before in the "Commander's Station" section, the machine gun is mounted on a race ring that can spin independently from the rest of the cupola, thus allowing the commander to fire the machine gun with a modicum of frontal protection from the hatch.

Unfortunately, the IR spotlight prevents the machine gun from being aimed when it is traversed to directly in front of the cupola, although it is possible to traverse the machine gun 360 degrees by elevating it to its maximum elevation to clear it from the IR spotlight. In the travelling position, the race ring for the machine gun mount is locked to the fixed turret base by a spring loaded plunger, marked '18' in the diagram below. The inner cupola - which carries the commander's optics and hatch - runs on a smaller race ring along the intermediate band.

When not in use, the machine gun is kept in the travel position, meaning that the inner cupola rotates without bringing the machine gun along, making it lighter and easier to spin around and survey the battlefield. When the plunger locking the intermediate band to the fixed base is released, the machine gun is allowed to traverse freely along the race ring between it and the fixed base. The inner cupola may be locked to the intermediate band or left free. In the former case, the cupola rotates with the machine gun, so spinning the machine gun to face the front would spin the cupola to face the rear. This is the normal combat procedure, because it gives the commander complete access to the machine gun and allows him to reload it more easily. In the latter case, the position of the machine gun relative to the cupola can be changed as the commander wishes. It is possible for him to open fire on either side of the turret (at strafing aircraft, for instance) while keeping the cupola facing where bullets are expected to come from.

The machine gun is complemented with a K10-T collimator sight, which facilitates aiming at both ground level and high altitude targets. It is tinted to reduce glare when aiming in the direction of the sun.

Using the collimator isn't compulsory. If it is damaged or unsuitable, the iron sights on the machine gun may still be readily relied upon.  

Hungarian Ron Swanson aiming through such a sight

View through the sight
The collimator projects a clear, crisp aiming reticle

The machine gun has a nominal effective range of approximately 800 meters against aerial targets, but this is variable. Obviously, the probability of hitting a hovering helicopter would be much higher than hitting a moving fixed-wing aircraft.

As a rule, anti-aircraft machine guns (AAMG) are more or less useless for shooting down aircraft. Although it isn't difficult penetrating some of the more obvious weak areas such as the plexiglass windscreen on a helicopter, the chances of actually hitting a fast, moving target is rather slim. On the contrary, the role of an AAMG is to be a deterrent; it's objective is to "shake up" the pilot(s) into pulling back from an attack, or perhaps even make him miss his shot. Serious anti-aircraft work is to be carried out only by the SHORADS (Short Range Air Defence Sytems) accompanying the T-72.

The machine gun is fed from a 60-round box, holding a mix of B-32 API and BZT API-T ammunition. Four additional boxes of ammunition are stored in metal bins in the turret and two more are strapped to the outside of the turret, which the commander can reach down and access. The commander has to pull a large charging lever to cycle the gun (pictured below).

The lack of a remote control aiming and firing system for the machine gun like on the T-64 has been said to be one of the greatest drawbacks of the T-72. Tank crews in Chechnya mentioned that it was suicidal to man the machine gun when in combat, so despite its high power and high rate of fire, it essentially became dead weight in the real world. Tank crews in Syria have also never been observed to use the machine gun during urban combat, for the same reasons.


A good indication of a tank's true survivability is its resistance to catastrophic destruction, which can refer to the tendency for a fire to start and the likelihood of that fire spreading and consuming the entire vehicle or the possibility of the ammunition exploding. In this sense, the T-72 stands on equal footing with opponents of the era. But seeing as modern rivals now often include armoured or separated ammunition storage, the T-72 is clearly at a serious disadvantage. Nevertheless, the protection level of the T-72 was remarkably high for its time as a result of its combination of thick armour and low silhouette.

Protection qualities depend greatly on the variant being considered. As the years go on, the protection value markedly increases, reaching its zenith with the T-72B2 variant with the Relikt armour package. We shall examine the protection qualities of all the main variants in detail armour-wise.

The myth of the T-72's inferiority in terms of protection is just that - a myth. Various T-72s have proven their worth in various conflicts when placed under competent command, but the lack of media coverage on the successes tend to skew the view in favour of the image of burning wrecks. To list one incident in Grozny, in the year 2000, a T-72B with the tail number 611 took 3 hits from Fagot anti-tank missiles and 6 hits from RPGs during 3 days of intense fighting and remained in battle with only minor damage. Most of the hits landed on the sides of the tank, with one rocket impacting the lower rear of the hull These are the same types of weapons that an Abrams or a Challenger 2 faced during campaigns in the Middle East, and there are plenty of other cases to be found in the second Chechen war. One only needs to be motivated to search.

A lot can be said about the inherent design issues of the T-72, but one cannot accuse it of being made from inferior steel. As a testament to its quality, an ex-GDR T-72M1 tested in Meppen (details here) withstood 24 hits from a mix of 105mm and 120mm APFSDS and HEAT shells on the turret front without a single fracture or crack. Whether or not the shots defeated the armour is a different matter.


The hull side, hull roof, hull bottom and rear armour of all T-72s are identical, regardless of the variant. The hull side and the turret side are both 80mm thick, but the hull side thickness over the engine is slightly thinner at 70mm. The side armour is more than enough to withstand 20mm armour-piercing ammunition fired from various aircraft, such as the AH-1 Cobra firing the 20x102mm round, or A-1 Skyraider, firing the 20x110mm round. Ad hoc use of M61 Vulcan gattling guns on non-ground attack aircraft such as on the F-4 Phantom would not have yielded any better result.

Drive sprocket area. Note the thickness

This picture shows quite clearly how the upper hull side is thicker than the lower sloped side.

The side armour is thickest at the top half, visibly appearing bulkier (as shown in the picture above) both outside and inside, thinning down to 20mm with a modest slope at the roadwheel region. The upper and lower sides are not the same plate. The upper sides are a single, very long piece of steel, while the lower side is actually the same plate as the belly armour. The belly armour was bent into a tub shape and welded to the upper sides. This probably helped increase the resistance of the hull to the explosions of anti-tank mines under the tracks, as the shape encouraged the deflection of blast waves. This is speculation only, but it is supported by evidence that the Soviets were well aware of the improved mine resistance of the M48 Patton due to its arched hull belly design.

The interior surface of the hull sides is coated in a 20mm layer of anti-radiation lining, which can help absorb spall and other secondary penetrator fragments or even stop residual penetration from lower energy projectiles. This is discussed later in the "Anti-radiation" section below.

The thickness of the side armour can be clearly seen here

It is without a doubt that the sides of the tank were only sufficient for a very limited period of the service life of the T-72. Being only 80mm thick, the side armour plate could offer only a fraction of the protective value of the front armour, and this was not a trifling issue. The number of hits sustained by a tank's sides were statistically significant, as shown by the analyses conducted by Dr. Manfred Held in "Warhead Hit Distribution on Main Battle Tanks in The Gulf". The charts below are from the study.

The sides would have been mostly resistant against 105mm APDS like the L28 and its American derivative at combat ranges within a somewhat reasonable 40 to 50 degree arc, but this narrow arc limits the tank's freedom to maneuver in open spaces. The appearance of 105mm APFSDS rendered the side armour completely inadequate as protection against contemporary anti-tank firepower. 

The hull roof is 20mm thick, the rear armour plate is 40mm thick, and the hull floor is 20mm thick. The hull bottom is only sufficient against explosive charges with a mass of less than 10 kg detonated over the tracks and not directly under the hull. These parts of the hull are most likely constructed from the same steels used in the same locations in the T-54 and T-62; 49 S grade steel for rear armour plate and the hull roof, 43 PSM grade steel for the floor. These grades of steel were first used in the T-54 obr. 1953. The hull bottom is constructed from a single plate of rolled steel, which is then pressed into a complex shape with protruding ribs for the installation of torsion bars and a depressed section to accommodate the driver. Reinforcing nubs were pressed into the plate between every torsion bar rib to improve the stiffness of the floor. The side edges of the plate were bent upward to join with the side hull plate, thus forming a tub shape. All this is only possible with the use of low hardness steels like 43 PSM steel, and it is all but certain that this steel is used in the T-72.

The armour plates used in the side hull and front hull armour of the T-72 is medium hardness steel, most likely 42 SM steel with a hardness of around 340 BHN. The cast turret probably employs MBL-1 armour grade cast steel with a hardness of 270-290 BHN. This grade of steel was first used in the turret of the T-62. The HHS (High-Hardness Steel) employed in the tank is most likely BTK-1Sh with a hardness of 400-450 BHN. The appliqué armour plate used in the 1983 modification of the T-72A is probably BTK-1Sh, but may also be simple medium hardness steel.

The lower glacis is a 80mm plate, sloped at 61 degrees. The properties of the plate are identical to the other welded plates used for the hull, like the side armour plate and the front plate of the upper glacis. Being a traditionally weak area of the tank, the relatively poor armour of the lower glacis is partially counteracted by its small size and low exposure to enemy fire. Furthermore, the presence of the upper glacis armour array partially reduces the height of the weakened zone

At a 61 degree obliquity, the lower glacis is immune from anything short of 105mm APDS, but even so, it provides a certain degree of protection at longer ranges. Although the thickness and sloping is insufficient for the lower glacis to resist L28 or M392 APDS on its own at combat ranges, it is supplemented by the strategically placed integrated dozer blade, which is approximately 1cm thick. The dozer blade is probably made from some high hardness armour grade steel, but it is also possible that it is made from high strength structural steel with a hardness of around 200 BHN, as was common for commercial bulldozers at the time. Having the lower glacis backed by the upper glacis array at the top third of its profile and supplemented by the dozer blade for the other two thirds means that the vulnerability of the area to earlier 105mm APDS is significantly reduced. However, later APDS rounds with more elongated tungsten alloy cores and with tungsten alloy tilting caps would not find this part of the tank to be any challenge at any range.


The entire turret is made of cast steel. The side has a considerable curve to it, exaggerated in the T-72B variant, while the rear of all variants have a distinct beak, which houses the autoloader rammer.

The stub ejector port is also visible here

As mentioned before, the side of the turret is 80mm thick, thinning to around 40mm at the rear. The vertical slope of the turret provides a nominal increase in relative thickness to around 88mm when viewed perpendicularly, but the amount of vertical sloping is very minor as the turret is built with a heavy emphasis on horizontal curves. With a thick layer of anti-radiation lining backing it and with the storage bins - plus cargo - acting as rudimentary spaced armour, the sides are more than enough to withstand any 20mm and 23mm shell at point-blank and any 25mm autocannon shell at typical combat ranges (in the vicinity of 1500m). This is including the 25mm M919 APFSDS shell. However, the armour is not thick enough to reliably resist 30mm, 35mm and 40mm shells. Still, with some extra angling, the side turret would have very good prospects. The rear of the turret, however, is completely hopeless.

The shape of the turret is such that the sides will be completely unreachable by enemy fire from within the frontal 70 degree arc. This means that if you shot at the turret at a relative angle of 35 degrees, you will only be able to hit the strong turret cheeks, never the sides. If the relative angle is increased to 45 degrees, the sides will be visible, but then the relative angle will be so steep (80 degrees) that shaped charge warheads might fail to fuse and all KE projectiles will ricochet. Even if an attacking projectile manages to dig into the armour, the LOS thickness is very formidable at 460mm, which is close to the thickness of the turret cheeks. In other words, the turret of the T-72 is very, very tough nut to crack.

It is interesting to note that although the turret of the T-72 lacks handrails for tank riders like preceding Soviet tanks, the practice of hitching a ride was still occasionally taught and exercised.


The T-72 Ural was the original T-72, and is the least technologically gifted among its "brothers". Although the hull glacis benefited from a rudimentary tri-layer composite armour array, the turret remained purely steel.


The timeline of the evolution of the hull array is as follows (front to back):

1973: 80mm RHA + 105mm STEF + 20mm RHA

1976: 60mm RHA + 105mm STEF + 50mm RHA

1983: 16mm Appliqué + 60mm RHA + 105mm STEF + 50mm RHA

The original upper glacis armour for the T-72 Ural from 1973 is a composite sandwich consisting of a 105mm "steklotekstolit" (glass textolite) layer sandwiched between an 80mm RHA front plate and a 20mm RHA backing plate. The total thickness is 205mm to the normal. The glacis is angled at 68 degrees, producing a total LOS thickness of 547mm. The source for the 105mm thickness figure of the glass textolite layer is "Kampfpanzer" by noted German armour expert Rolf Hilmes. Two glass textolite plates were pressed together to form the 105mm layer.

The high obliquity of the glacis armour presents a mixture of advantages and disadvantages. The most obvious advantage is that the penetration power of earlier APDS ammunition will be drastically reduced and some HEAT warheads may fail to fuse on impact, but the disadvantage is that long rod penetrators will actually penetrate more armour at higher obliquities up until the critical ricochet angle, which is usually around 85 degrees, but depends on the length to diameter (L:D) ratio of the penetrator. This characteristic of long rod projectiles is confirmed by the Lanz-Odermatt equation, and applies to tungsten alloy, DU alloy and steel rods alike. It is known that the higher penetrative power of long rod penetrators on high obliquity plates is caused by the asymmetry of forces acting on the back of the plate as the penetrator passes through, and the glacis armour of the T-72 suffers accordingly.

One benefit of the heavy slope of the armour is that some warheads may not detonate properly. During the famous Yugo tests, the 90mm M431 HEAT shell with the M509A1 PIBD fuze was demonstrated to have a very high probability of failing to detonate against the 60-degree upper glacis of the target tank (a T-54) when the tank was angled 20 degrees sideways. Although 90mm guns were obsolete against the T-72, the bad news is that the 105mm M456A2 HEAT shell also uses the M509A1 PIBD fuze, so the likelihood of having such a shell detonate on the 68-degree upper glacis of the T-72 in combat conditions is very slim indeed. If a shaped charge succeeds at detonating on the upper glacis, it will be handled by the highly effective composite armour array, so let's take a look at that:

Glass textolite is a material consisting of layered sheets of glass textile bonded by resin and pressed together. Glass textolite is not the same as fiberglass, because glass textolites are manufactured using laminated sheets of glass matting bonded together by resin, whereas fiberglass is manufactured using continuous glass fibers or chopped strands suspended in resin.

A U.S Army technical translation of "Plastmassy v bronetankovoy tekhnike" (Plastics in Armor Materiél) originally published by the USSR Ministry of Defence in 1965 gives us some information on the glass textolite and fiberglass types used in the Soviet Union that would have been used in the armour of the T-64 and T-72. The Eurokompozit website gives a description of the glass textolite used in the T-72. It mentions woven glass roving (rovings are woven bundles of glass fibers) and special phenolic resin film, and the phenolphenolic resin-based glass textolite listed in "Plastmassy v bronetankovoy tekhnike" matches the description exactly, so we can say with great certainty that the density of the glass textile layer is around 1.8 g/cc. Rolled AG-4S phenol resin-based fiberglass from the AG-4 series of fiberglasses matches the description to some degree, but this conflicts with Russian sources that explicitly state that "steklotekstolit" was used. Furthermore, AG-4S uses continuous parallel glass threads, not woven glass rovings as described in the Eurokompozit website. The Eurokompozit website states that website mentions that the glass textolite used in the armour uses a specially modified phenolic resin, so it is not likely that a commercial glass textolite was used.

According to the old NII Stali website from way back in 2003, the efficiency of multi-layered armour against APFSDS ammunition increases as the filler density increases at obliquities of 0 to 40 degrees, but conversely, the efficiency increases as the filler density decreases when the armour is angled at obliquities of 60 degrees and more. The final remark is that the absence of a filler (air gap) leads to a negative result, presumably compared to a monolithic steel plate of the same mass, which is logical because the Lanz-Odermatt formula tells us that the penetration of long rod projectiles increases when the obliquity of the target plate is increased.

The site mentions that high strength steels, titanium, aluminium, ceramics and glass textolite were among the materials studied for the composite filler, and that glass textolite was found to be the optimal filler material. Based on the properties of commercial glass textolites, it is extremely likely that the glass textolite used in the composite sandwich has a density of 1.3-1.5 g/cc, and as the NII Stali website stated: the efficiency of composite armour increases when lower density fillers are used at an angle at 60 degrees or more.

These claims also appear to hold true for shaped charge threats as well, as shown in "Jet Penetration into Low Density Targets". One of the simulations detailed in the paper was for a case where a 100mm plate of variable density was placed in front of a filler of variable density. It was found that the velocity of the shaped charge jet tip emerging from the 100mm plate tended to be lower as the filler density decreased, but the jet increased in velocity when the density of the 100mm plate itself was decreased. As you can see from the graph below, the most serious reduction in jet tip velocity occurs when low density material is placed behind a 100mm plate with high areal density (m=500 km/m^2).

The paper goes on to detail that low density materials are more effective against particulated jets than continuous jets. The graph above was plotted with the assumption that the jet emerging from the 100mm front plate is continuous, but the mass efficiency of a filler increases as the density of the filler decreases if the jet is particulated as it enters the filler.

The most optimal configuration is to have a front plate of high areal density in front of a filler of low areal density. This ensures that the jet is particulated as it emerges from the front plate, so that the low density filler performs at an optimum level. Having a 80mm front plate sloped at 68 degrees for a LOS thickness of 213.6mm, the armour of the T-72 Ural should be more than enough to particulate any shaped charge jet from the era, yielding very high efficiency from the glass textolite filler.

The addition of the 20mm steel back plate behind the glass textolite filler was most likely meant as a final barrier against KE threats rather than shaped charges, although a steel back plate would certainly be effective at stopping residual jet particles. The path taken by Russian engineers to reach this solution is detailed by Andrei Tarasenko in his article on the armour of the T-64, where he also describes the armour of its predecessor - the Object. 432. The armour of the Object. 432 had the 80mm steel front plate, but had a 140mm low density filler of glass textolite behind the plate. From what we have learned so far, this configuration would be highly optimal against shaped charges. According to Tarasenko, this configuration was estimated to provide protection equal to 450mm of RHA against shaped charges. However, this configuration was changed to the familiar 80-105-20 combination in the Obj. 432SB-2 variant.

The new 80-105-20 configuration substituted 35mm of low density filler for a 20mm plate. If we look at this design solution from the perspective of mass efficiency against shaped charges, then the mass efficiency of the armour decreased, because 20mm of steel is obviously much heavier than 35mm of glass textolite. However, the level of protection offered by the new configuration against shaped charges did not change; it was still equal to 450mm of RHA steel, as shown by the table below (row: T-64A, column: "KC").

(Note the given areal density figures; 785 kg/sq.m for the T-62, 980 kg/sq.m for the T-64A)

Therefore, the substitution of 35mm of glass textolite for 20mm of steel can only be to improve protection against APDS and APFSDS threats, while maintaining the same level of protection from shaped charge threats.

Regarding APDS threats - the heavily sloped array should be quite adept at defeating contemporary APDS projectiles, which were still credible threats even while new APFSDS was being developed on the other side of the Iron Curtain. The primary threat was the Chieftain, which relied on the powerful L15 series of APDS shells, but 105mm APDS was still in widespread usage as well, though 105mm APDS had virtually no chance of defeating the upper glacis armour.

Part of the function of the heavy front plate is obviously to erode the penetrator, but the reason why a thick plate was placed at the front of the array and a thin plate at the back was in order to effectively break up APDS and APFSDS projectiles. Being fragmented will severely reduce the penetration power of the projectile, partially because the shape of the fragments is not optimal for penetration and partially because the kinetic energy of the projectile is dissipated over a large area for the glass textolite interlayer to absorb. This arrangement is different from simple spaced armour arrangements, which typically consist of a thin hard steel plate in front of a thicker but softer base armour plate. The use of a thicker front plate in the T-72 upper glacis array is probably because the interlayer material plays a much larger role in stopping the projectile than the air gap in simple spaced armour. Residual fragments are stopped by the 20mm RHA backing plate.

It is known that APDS projectiles with a tungsten carbide core break up more readily during their travel through a target plate than long rod or composite APFSDS shells (like the M735) due to the brittleness of tungsten carbide, but some APDS shells do not use tungsten carbide. The L15A3 is a good example of a more sophisticated APDS shell, as it has a tungsten alloy core with a relatively high elongation. The shell has very good performance on highly sloped armour plate thanks to this, but still exhibits the same propensity to disintegrate inside the armour plate as it penetrates, as demonstrated in the picture below (full page originally shared on tankandafvnews). It is not the best example, of course, because the thickness of the defeated plate shown in the picture was at the limit of the capabilities of the shell at that range and at that angle, but the same concept applies: the asymmetry of forces acting on the plate due to the different relative thickness of metal above and below the penetrator cause the part of the plate below the penetrator to buckle, resulting in the early structural failure of the plate compared to a vertical plate. Conversely, the penetrator also experiences asymmetrical forces as it penetrates the plate, causing the penetrator to fracture inside the plate and break apart as it exits. If the target is monolithic, this effect is beneficial as it increases the post-penetration lethality of the shell. Against oblique spaced armour, however, the shell will usually successfully perforate the spaced front plate, but the shattered core may fail to defeat the back plate. The composite armour of the T-72 Ural would be the most difficult target of all.

The graph on the left shows that the penetration of the APDS shell at 1000 yards (914 m) on a steel target at a 68 degree obliquity is between 110mm and 120mm, so the 80mm front plate of the upper glacis array is completely insufficient on its own at that range, but it is thick enough that the tungsten alloy core is shattered as it exits, as shown by the photo below.

Page 3 of the brochure states that the shell is "the first high velocity shot of its type which effectively defeats multiple targets" (armour plates), hinting that it was different from previous APDS designs and that previous designs would have performed worse against spaced armour or perhaps even composite armour. This is most likely referring to the use of a tungsten alloy core as opposed to a tungsten carbide one, as older APDS shells like the L28 have all the other features of the L15, including the shape of the core and armour piercing cap. It is understood that the L15 was the first to have a tungsten alloy core, and that the 105mm L7 received an analogue later on in the form of the L52, which was fundamentally the same as the L15A3 but smaller. The diagram below shows the L15A5, which is structurally similar to the L15A3 and differs only in the alloy of the core. Note the sharp-tipped conical steel armoured cap, labelled "nose pad", on top of the hemispherical nose of the tungsten carbide core.

Despite all this, it is still very unlikely that it could have defeated the upper glacis array of the T-72 Ural even at the short range of 1000 yards, due to the combination of the high slope, high thickness of the nonmetallic filler and the thickness of the front plate. The 80mm front plate should be more than enough to completely erode the tungsten cap, erode most of the core and fracture it as it exits the plate, where it is absorbed by the glass textolite layer and finally stopped by the 20mm backing plate.

In 1976, a new glacis array was introduced for the T-72 Ural-1 modernization. The new array retained the 105mm glass textolite filler, but it now had a 60mm RHA front plate and a 50mm backing plate instead. The total thickness becomes 574mm when angled. The vast majority of the Red Army's T-72 tanks incorporated this newer armour scheme, and this is instantly obvious when we examine the production record of the T-72; the production volume at Nizhny Tagil in 1976 was 1017 units, whereas only 950 units were released during the entire production run of the original model T-72 Ural from 1973 to 1975.

The replacement of the 20mm backing plate in the 1973 variant might be for two possible reasons; a tendency to buckle or bulge excessively when impacted by the remnants of an APDS or APFSDS shell, and possibly its inability to reliably absorb the degraded penetrator of the latest long rod APFSDS projectiles. It is possible that the front steel plate was made slightly harder to further improve its protective characteristics, and because it is thinner and therefore easier to harden further.

A 60mm plate will not be as effective as an 80mm plate at particulating a shaped charge jet, so a more continuous jet will penetrate the glass textolite filler. The glass textolite filler is less optimal against a continuous jet, and it is apparent that not only was the thicker 50mm back plate intended to absorb the rest of the jet, but an additional 10mm of steel had to be added to the array, giving it 110mm of steel instead of just 100mm as in the previous configuration. We can view this as a compromise to improve protection against KE threats while keeping the protection against SC threats at the same level, with the penalty of a reduction in mass efficiency. Therefore, the additional 10mm of steel should not be regarded as additional armour against shaped charges, but as compensation for the reduced front plate thickness. Any attempts to add 27mm of armour (10mm / cos 68°) to the 450mm RHA figure is fundamentally invalid; the protection offered by the 60-105-50 array should still be equal to around 450mm RHA against shaped charges.

Blast attenuation is an aspect often overlooked when referring to tank armour. This is no different for the T-72 Ural, which has an advantage through its laminated hull armour. By placing two materials of drastically different properties in the path of the blast wave, the laminate array's effectiveness in attenuating the blast is significantly improved as compared to homogeneous materials of the same weight. This was quite important seeing as HESH (High-Explosive Squash Head) shells were and still are a British favourite.

In 1983, an additional 16mm plate was added on, which came about as a result of live fire testing of captured Israeli M111 tungsten-cored shells from Lebanon (in the 1982 war in Lebanon). Contrary to popular belief, the Israelis did NOT "discover" that their M111 Hetz could perforate the T-72 from the front "at about 650 meters". The Israelis never got their hands on an intact T-72, nor did they ever face them with 105mm guns in combat. Strong evidence has indicated that at best, the T-72s were destroyed in an ambush by TOW missiles fired at their flanks from gunships.

However, it is true that the M111 "Hetz" was acquired by the Soviet Union. A very popular theory is that these rounds came with the captured Israeli M48A3 that was until recently on display in Kubinka. The M48A3 doesn't have a 105mm gun, of course, but Israelis had a habit of upgrading their tanks. So knowing that the Soviets did capture M111 Hetz in some quantities, then evidently the hull upper glacis of the T-72 (as well as other autoloading T-tanks) was vulnerable to these new acquisitions, thus necessitating the installation of the appliqué plate. As the appliqué plate is only 16mm thick, the boost in armour protection is really quite minor. It is known that the Soviet revelation prompted the application of appliqué armour on the T-64 and T-80 as well, but both received 20mm plates rather than 16mm plates. The reason for this is not that the T-64 and T-80 were more valuable than the T-72 and deserved better armour. Rather, it was because the vast majority of T-72 tanks at the time had already upgraded to the 60-105-50 hull glacis armour scheme while the T-64A and T-64B were still reliant on the older 80-105-20 armour scheme. As it had the newer armour scheme, the T-80B received a 16mm appliqué armour plate in 1983 like the T-72, whereas the T-80 received a 20mm plate in 1979 as part of an unrelated modernization effort to increase its protection to the same level as the T-80B.

Therefore, we can assume that the hull glacis with the 16mm appliqué plate is proofed against the M111 "Hetz" at a range of 500 m, which is in line with the original requirement of the T-72 to be immune from enemy KE ammunition at a distance of around 500 meters. This tells us that the armour must be equivalent to at least 400mm RHA for the plain 60-105-50 hull armour. With the addition of the 16mm plate, the armour should be equivalent to more than 400mm RHA.

The November issue of the famous Russian Tekhnika i Vooruzhenie 2006 (Журнал Техника и Вооружение) magazine mentions in page 14 that in 1993, a report published in the specialized magazine "German Airspace" by A. Mann states that the armour protection of the T-72M1 exhibited protection equivalent to 420-480mm of rolled homogeneous armour when tested against modern 105mm and 120mm ammunition from West Germany. The upper glacis armour of the T-72M1 is the same as the 1976 modification of the T-72 Ural, plus the 16mm appliqué armour plate (16-60-105-50). For all intents and purposes, this can be interpreted to mean that the hull armour is equivalent to 420mm RHA against modern long rod tungsten alloy ammunition like the 105mm DM33 (standard 105mm APFSDS in the late 80's and the decade after), while the turret is equivalent to around 480mm RHA, probably at the cheeks.

It is worth noting that M111 "Hetz" and the similar DM23 were the most advanced 105mm APFSDS rounds of the early 80's, were the best anti-tank ammunition available for the Leopard 1A4 and 1A5 and were practically standard for the remainder of the decade.

High hardness steel is best used as appliqué armour, as in the T-72's case. The hardness and thickness yields the best results for defeating KE projectiles, especially at a high angle, but very high hardness steel is difficult to weld, so it is more than likely that the appliqué plate has a hardness of around 400 BHN, but no more. However, we must keep in mind that this was merely a temporary stopgap measure to keep the Red Army's large fleet of T-72 Ural and T-72A tanks viable against the most common threat - 105mm guns - for the next few years, while the emerging threat of 120mm guns required a serious upgrade in armour protection that took the form of the T-72B.


The turret is made from MBL-1 armour-grade cast steel, assembled from two pieces. The turret front, sides and rear are cast as a single piece, but the roof is cast separately and welded on. This slightly degrades the structural integrity of the roof, as the weld seams can be weak points.

According to a well known CIA analysis of a diagram from a captured Soviet T-72 manual, the thickness of the turret at the mantlet area is 350mm. The mantlet is the area immediately next to the cannon. The machine gun port, barely a few centimeters away from the cannon, is already 475mm thick, and from there, the turret only gets thicker, so even the weakest part of the turret can survive a hit from 105mm M392A2 APDS. The diagram is shown below.

Now that T-72 manuals are no longer classified, we can actually find and confirm the CIA's scaling efforts.

And here we see the very same diagram. The diagram processed by the CIA has poorer contrast, so the original diagram from the Soviet manual gives us a better idea of the armour profile. What is not mentioned by the CIA is that the mantlet area which has a thickness of 350mm is also where the gun trunnion mounts to the turret. The trunnion is highlighted below:

While it is definitely quite robust, the strength of the gun trunnion may not be on the same level as the armour-grade cast steel surrounding it. The difference is not likely to be very big, but it is probably big enough to have some meaning for ammunition with a very small margin of penetration, such as L28 APDS rounds. If we convert the cast steel of the turret into its equivalent value in RHA using a simple 0.9 multiplier, the 350mm mantlet would be worth 315mm RHA. MK.3 APDS from the 20 pdr. of early Centurion tanks would consistently fail to defeat this armour even at point blank range, but if we assume that the steel of the gun trunnion is weaker than the cast steel armour, then the MK. 3 has a fighting chance, albeit still at point blank range. The same idea applies for L28 and M392 APDS, and shaped charges as well.

The diagram from the manual appears to show that only the turret cheek on the right has a thickness of 475mm, and the turret cheek on the left appears to be substantially thinner, but both cheeks are equally thick. We are able to confirm this with the photo below. See how the turret armour is thinnest at the gun trunnion area (350mm), and how it jumps a much greater thickness (475mm) immediately beside the co-axial machine gun port and the gunsight interface port - the port that allows a mechanical connection between the gunsight and the gun. In other words, both sides of the turret are symmetrical, and the gunsight interface port constitutes a weak point on the left side of the mantlet, mirroring the machine gun port.

As you may notice, the gun mantlet area is thickest near the bottom. This is the 350mm thick area. The area above it gets progressively thinner and thinner, though the vertical slope of the turret also increases on both the outside and inside of the cast steel walls. Although it may be weaker than the turret cheeks, the extremely small size of the mantlet should be appreciated.

The diagram from the manual can be used to determine the thickness of the roof of the turret above the gun breech. The best figures obtainable by scaling are shown below.

Adjusted for the lower hardness and strength of cast steel, the roof armour is still more than capable of consistently causing all contemporary APDS and APFSDS rounds to ricochet harmlessly. Even depleted uranium long rod monobloc projectiles like the M774 from 1979 would not be up to the task as it had a low aspect ratio (L:D) of 13.32, an ogived tip, and a relatively low velocity of 1508 m/s at the muzzle. When newer and longer long rod penetrators began to appear in the mid-80's, the invulnerability of the roof was seriously challenged.

Due to the geometry of the turret, the maximum physical thickness of around 475mm is not replicated anywhere other than the area immediately beside the gun mantlet. The cheeks become progressively thinner as it nears the edge of the frontal profile of the turret, but the relative thickness increases due to the round shape of the cheeks. From a side angle, however, the relative thickness of the cheeks is significantly lower than 475mm, although still extremely formidable. According to Baryatinsky, the relative thickness of the turret cheeks at a side angle of 30 degrees is 400 to 410mm with a vertical slope of 10 to 15 degrees, noting that "other sources" give the side angle to be 35 degrees. The thickness of the side armour varies between 395mm to 440mm at a side angle of 20 to 25 degrees.

The lack of a composite filling in the turret is disadvantageous when it has to deal with HEAT and HESH ammunition, but this is compensated by the extreme thickness of the steel. HESH works well on homogeneous plate, but there is a limit to how thick the plate can be. As far as the Ural is concerned, HESH is no more deadly than any other high explosive round, which is to say that the Ural turret is completely immune. A bigger challenge would be 105mm HEAT shells. The most common 105mm HEAT round of the day, the M456A2, could only penetrate 425mm of steel armour, which is not enough to go through the turret in a head-on attack, but may have a chance on a shot from the side at an angle of more than 30 to 35 degrees. The fuze on the M456A2 will not work on the roof of the turret due to the extreme slope. Despite the lack of composite armour, the chances of defeating the turret armour from the frontal arc with 105mm HEAT was very, very slim indeed.


In addition to solid armour protection elements, the T-72 Ural is also equipped with four flip-out panels, known as "gill" armour. "Gill" armour was notoriously fragile. These panels took the place of traditional side skirts and were originally found on the T-64A and were carried over. Why they never made the effort to combine both side skirts and gill armour on standard production model tanks is not known.

The purpose of these panels were to detonate shaped charge warheads at a great distance from the sides of the tank, thus providing a great deal of spaced armour. However, the coverage offered by these "gills" was limited, as gaps will begin to appear past 35 degrees obliquity. Though they could still work at greater angles, the chance of intercepting an incoming warhead becomes slimmer and slimmer. From frontal angles, "gill" armour augmented the high resistance of the T-72 to even the most powerful ATGMs of the time. Even when folded, the panels still provide a modicum of spaced armour, as you can see in the second B&W photo below. It is interesting to note that the suspension is rather densely packed, so there is hardly any room for a shaped charge jet to slip through without colliding with some part of a track or a roadwheel or something. As long as the jet does not break a track link, all that can act as additional armour - especially the roadwheels.

The panels are made of hard vulcanized rubber flaps mounted on sheet steel. They offer absolutely no protection whatsoever from KE projectiles, though it is very clear that there was a lot of missed potential here. The panels are probably great for drying clothes.

The primary disadvantage to gill armour is that the gills are very easy to knock off when maneuvering in wooded areas. The gills are spring loaded, so they bend quite easily if they happen to cross paths with a tree, and the heavy duty hinges upon which the gills rotate are very robust. However, the heavy duty hinges are secured onto the fragile miniskirt with only two small bolts, as you can see in the photo below:

Notice the thick L-shaped wire; it's the spring that flips these panels out.

Struck squarely in the center of any one of the panels from a 30 degree angle, "gill" armour can provide 2.2 meters of space from the hull side armour, more if the panel is struck at the outer edge and less if struck at the inner edge. Under such optimum conditions, a great deal of spaced protection can be achieved. This would have given the T-72 Ural a great amount of protection from guided missiles and man-portable rockets of the era within a 70 degree frontal arc. For example, the diagram below shows the depth of penetration of a 100mm shaped charge increasing to 700mm (7 CD) when the standoff distance is increased to 0.6 meters, but the penetration drops down to less than 400mm at a standoff of 1.2 meters, less than 200mm at 2.4 meters, and less than 50mm at 4.8 meters.

The normal achievable penetration of the 100mm diameter warhead would probably correspond to the penetration at a 15cm standoff distance or less, since the typical built-in standoff for a rocket-delivered shaped charge warhead with a regular pointed aerodynamic fairing without a standoff probe or a spike tip is only around 2 CD or slightly more. As you can see in the chart, an additional 0.45 meters of space in front of the built-in standoff yields the best penetration obtained from the warhead, and this really helps to communicate the peculiarities of shaped charges. Spaced armour can be effective, but only when applied properly and in sufficient portions. For example, if an APC with a ~400mm-wide track had a sideskirt installed to cover the suspension, it would actually become even more vulnerable to a shaped charge grenade. Even at 30 degrees, the sideskirts of a typical tank would not provide sufficient spacing to defeat a tank-fired HEAT shell. Because of this, the primary reason why tanks have sideskirts is to reduce the amount of dust kicked up into the air, mainly to prevent the enemy from spotting the tank from faraway distances and also to improve the visibility for other tanks at the back of a convoy.

Older missiles like the SS.11 (1956) using older shaped charge technology form less cohesive cumulative jets due to imperfections in the manufacturing of the shaped charge liner, so the shaped charge jet dissipates more quickly over spaces. A large but old large diameter missile like SS.11 will most likely fail to perforate the side armour of the T-72 despite having a 165mm diameter warhead with up to 600mm of penetration, whereas the smaller 135mm diameter warhead of the Konkurs missile (1974) might get through, despite having the same 600mm of penetration.

If a "gill" armour panel was struck at 30 degree angle by the warhead described in the diagram, there is a good chance that it could have offered just enough space to protect the 160mm side armour (80mm at 60 degrees). Protection would be guaranteed at angles steeper than 30 degrees since the amount of air space provided would increase drastically, but at such angles, the possibility of striking the thinner (70mm) engine compartment side armour arises. All taken together, the side aspect of the tank is quite evenly protected.

Gill armour is useless from the side

These panels are no longer seen even on unmodernized T-72 Urals, having being rapidly replaced with conventional side skirts as seen on the T-72A. This could be due to two reasons already mentioned above; fragility and incomplete coverage. One concrete advantage of the conventional side skirts is that it keeps the amount of dust kicked up by the tracks under control, but why not combine the two?

Such a modification appears to only exist on Czech T-72M1 tanks, but even then, it is not a standard modification for Czech derivatives of the T-72 or even a large scale one-off modification for the T-72M1 specifically. It is rather likely that the gills simply kept falling off and it became tedious to replace them after every exercise, so they were removed once and for all.


Protection-wise, the production model T-72A differs from the T-72 Ural and Ural-1 mainly by the implementation of composite armour in the turret. The gill armour had also been replaced with conventional side skirts. The front hull armour was the same as in the Ural-1. The T-72A can be directly compared to the Leopard 2A0, as both were introduced in 1979.

Glacis Array

The upper glacis armour on the T-72A was identical to the T-72 Ural-1, which was introduced just three years prior. In 1983, the T-72A received a 16mm appliqué armour plate alongside its predecessors. The total thickness of the glacis with the appliqué armour plate now becomes 231mm, or 616mm when angled at 68 degrees. As we have already examined the armour in full detail, there is nothing else to talk about.

Determining the presence of appliqué armour is simple business. The tow hook area is a good indicator. If the cut-out over the tow hook is present, then appliqué armour is present. This is a good way of distinguishing earlier T-72 models from the T-72B, which has thicker armour but no appliqué armour, as sometimes claimed.


Notice the characteristic ledge on the middle of the turret "cheek"

The T-72A has a composite turret featuring a filler known as "Kvartz", sometimes referred to as "sandbar armour" or "sand rods". "Kvartz" translates to "Quartz", so quartz may be an ingredient, but the exact composition of this compound is unknown, though the name implies that it includes granules or powdered substances. Based on an ARMOR article penned by James Warford, the armour of captured Iraqi T-72M1 tanks was thoroughly analyzed in the U.S but the composition of the filler has not yet been disclosed to the public. Warford emphasizes that typical sand is probably not used, and he speculates that the name "Kvartz" hints that quartz may be used and recalls the use of quartz gravel as an ingredient in HCR2 add-on armour kits during WWII. The full ARMOR article can be read here.

The three-layer arrangement of the armour may help it attain greater standards of protection than homogeneous armour of the same mass against shaped charges. As noted with the hull array, the composite nature of the T-72A's turret should give it an added damping effect against high explosives and high explosive squash heads, but also against the shockwave of nuclear explosions.

All this does not yet factor in the sheer thickness of the turret, which is perfectly illustrated by the photos below:

If the turret cheeks of the T-72 Ural were 475mm thick near the mantlet, then it is quite clear that the cheeks of the T-72A turret exceeds that thickness handily at the same location. It is estimated to be 500mm thick at the minimum, going up to 600mm or more as we move away from the gun mantlet. From a 30 degree angle off axis, the turret cheeks should maintain a uniform thickness of 450mm to 500mm.

Looking closely at the photo below, you will also notice that the filler material is clearly not sand. It has a metallic silver colour, and it appears to have some structural integrity, as it has not poured out.

Based on the thickness of the steel and "Kvartz" in the photo, it can be surmised that the cavity containing the "Kvartz" layer, whatever it is, is present in a 1:5 ratio to the steel aspect of the turret, as you can see in the photo below. If we take the total thickness to be approximately 500mm, then the cast steel portions of the cheeks should total up to 400mm or more. The outer wall of the cavity should be between 150mm to 200mm thick, and the inner wall should be thicker than that by a decent margin. The cavity containing the "Kvartz" filler should be 75mm to 100mm thick, assuming that it is about half the thickness of the outer wall. This is very different from the distribution of thicknesses in the turret of the T-64A, which had almost the same thickness of filler as the steel walls of the composite armour cavity. The low thickness of the filler in the T-72A turret indicates that it has low mass efficiency (ME) but high thickness efficiency (TE) against shaped charges, as the bulk of the work is done by the steel components of the armour.

Compared to the turret armour of a Leopard 2A0, the armour is thinner, but substantially denser.

Circular markings are visible in the photo below. These are filler plugs. Evidently, "Kvartz" is poured into the armour cavity after the cheeks are cast. This is a good foundation to rule out sand as the filler substance, as there would be no need to pour sand into the cavity because sand is used in chill casting molds and it would not be necessary to remove the sand used in the casting process. If "Kvartz" is not sand, then it is quite likely to be a plastic.  

Whatever it is, it is proven to be effective against 3BM-15 APFSDS. This was shown by the famous T-72A (or T-72M1) turret in the Parola Tank Museum, Parola, Finland. Tag number 5 in the photo below marks the impact of a 3BM-15 shell into the left turret cheek. Photo by Andrej Smirnov.

According to the placard (see below) at the museum hosting the "ventilated" turret, the shell was stopped completely after digging only 170mm into the composite armour. This would mean that the shell passed through the cast steel wall of the cavity, but then apparently stopped dead in its tracks in the "Kvartz" layer. However, we do NOT know the range (simulated or otherwise) at which the shot occurred, and we have no idea how they determined the depth of penetration. The inner wall of the turret was obviously not cut up to examine the armour, so they must have poked a stick into the shell crater until they hit solid resistance. If the theory that the "Kvartz" filler is sand or some other easily powderized solid is correct, then it could be that the filler substance simply refilled the hole where the shell passed through and the measuring stick compacted the filler as it was pushed in. It would not show how deeply the tungsten carbide slug of the 3BM-15 shell entered the inner wall of the armour array. If nothing else, at least the shot proved that the outer wall of the cavity is around 170mm thick or less, which fits perfectly into our estimation.

Using the 3BM-15 as an example, it should be clear to the reader why the usage of "RHAE" is erroneous and misleading. 3BM-15 is known to be capable of penetrating 310mm of steel at 0 degrees at 2 kilometers. And yet, it could only penetrate 170mm into the composite armour of the T-72A turret. Composite armour simply cannot be expressed in terms of steel equivalency, because even if you separate the RHAE category in "KE" and "CE", you have to contend with the fact that there are are multitude of unique APDS and APFSDS penetrator designs. M735 APFSDS, for instance, has a tungsten alloy penetrator with a raindrop shape.

And the 3BM-15 along with all Soviet APFSDS designs before Vant comprised of a steel projectile encasing a small tungsten carbide slug. These penetrators will NOT behave in the same way as M735, or long rod penetrators when striking the same composite armour. As such, it would be rather foolish to assign a fixed armour value to a composite array. That said, we can still express the cast armour component of the composite armour array in RHAe, and for the T-72A turret cheeks, the cast armour is worth about 375mm RHA when we don't factor in the "Kvartz" layer. With "Kvartz", the value may be anywhere above that, but presumably somewhat more than 428mm RHA against KE threats, which is what the armour on the T-72 Ural turret was worth. Some penetrator designs may be badly affected by "Kvartz", and some may be less so.

However, the point of the composite nature of the armour was to boost protection from shaped charge warheads, so we can say with great certainty that the armour equivalency of the turret cheeks will be much, much greater than 428mm. I would say that the cheeks are equal to 550mm RHA versus HEAT warheads, because it seems like a nice, reasonable number. The resilience of the cheeks against contemporary APDS against kinetic energy projectiles of all sorts should still be very high, definitely high enough to resist 105mm APFSDS from well into the 80's. It should not, however, be able to resist 120mm DM13 at combat distances of 1500 meters, unless the composite penetrator design of DM13 is badly affected by non monolithic armour in the same manner as 3BM-15. If DM13 is indeed much worse off from not being a monobloc penetrator, then it is perfectly possible that DM13 cannot penetrate the cheeks at combat ranges or at least the upper boundaries of normal combat ranges.

According to first hand accounts on the performance of ex-East German T-72M1s during Canadian testing, found here, new experimental 105mm shells, presumably designed in the late 80's, claimed to be "jazzed up" to match 120mm rounds in performance, failed to perforate the turret armour. Apparently, the impact only formed a "slight [dinner] plate sized bulge in the armour and cast some paint flakes around the turret wall". 

The hull armour fared slightly worse, but still quite respectably. These tanks were probably fitted with the 16mm appliqué armour plate. If true, these tests echo the initial relationship between M111 "Hetz" and the T-72A, as "Hetz" was able to defeat the glacis armour at close ranges, while the turret was effectively invulnerable.

The T-72A introduced steel-reinforced plastic side skirts (interwoven textile skirt), which provided complete coverage for the sides, excluding the roadwheels. They were mounted 610mm away from the side of the hull, and could thus still drastically reduce a shaped charge warhead's effectiveness when fired at a steep angle, though certainly not to the degree that the gill armour configuration could achieve.

In general, "soft" side skirts like the type which the T-72A uses do not provide enough protection from serious shaped charge warheads at most angles of attack. At angles of 30 degrees or so, the amount of spacing provided (1220mm angled) would be enough to dissipate the cumulative jets from most tube-launched HEAT grenades and ATGMs of the 50's and 60's enough that the 80mm of side armour (160mm when angled) might be able to handle them, but the chances of even such modest hopes are slim.


Kontakt-1 is a type of ERA first introduced in 1982. Upon beginning mass production, the Soviet army immediately embarked on a large scale upgrading programme in 1983 to equip all tanks in active service with the new ERA. The extensive programme saw the majority of T-72 tanks outfitted with Kontakt-1 within the year, and almost all tanks were outfitted by the end of the 80's. 

There are two types of Kontakt-1 blocks - full sized and reduced size. The reduced size block is used to protect special areas of the tank, like behind the headlights.

Mounting the blocks are easy. Each one is bolted onto a tinny spacer mounted all over the surface of the hull and turret. The ease of installing and replacing the blocks meant that the entire modification could be done as part of regular scheduled maintenance. However, simplicity comes at a price in this case. The ERA boxes are rather fragile, and can be quite easily knocked off when the tank is travelling through densely wooded areas, or perhaps traversing obstacles in urban sprawl. This is perfectly illustrated by the example below:

Kontakt-1 utilizes two angled explosive sandwich plates, designated 4S20, to disrupt cumulative jets through the separation of the steel plates sandwiching the explosive plates and the separation of the steel walls containing the explosive plates. It is sometimes claimed that the large number of small gaps between the individual blocks leaves a statistically large portion of the tank surface vulnerable, but this is only partially true. This is examined in the diagram below, taken from "Защита Танков" (Protection of Tanks) by V.A Grigoryan. The column of numbers to the left indicates the number of reactive plates that a shaped charge jet must pass through depending on the point of impact. As you can see, even if a warhead impacted the edge of one of the Kontakt-1 blocks, the design of the blocks is such that the jet must pass through at least two 4S20 elements. If a warhead impacted the middle of a Kontakt-1 block, the shaped charge jet will intersect with the 4S20 element of the first block, and then continue into the next block, where it will intersect with both 4S20 elements.

At the angle of installations on the upper glacis and on the turret cheeks, the 40mm gap between the Kontakt-1 blocks does not significantly weaken the overall protective qualities of the entire set. The overlap between the blocks when viewed frontally is also sufficient to counteract edge effects (shaped charge jet impacting the edge of the ERA plate).

From a frontal perspective, Kontakt-1 provides uncompromising coverage despite the presence of gaps between the individual blocks. The same can be said of the blocks installed on the sideskirts. It is obvious that the height, angle and spacing of the reactive armour package was tailored specifically for an installation angle of 68 degrees, and problems arise when the blocks are installed as smaller angles than that. As long as the blocks are installed at the appropriate angle, there are only a few circumstances in which the gaps between the blocks become weak points, and even so, they are quite small.

Each Kontakt-1 block consists of two 4S20 explosive elements, which are plastic explosives packed into a flat steel plates. The 4S20 elements are arranged in a V-shape with an angle of 9 degrees between them. The mass of the explosive material in each element is 260 grams, equivalent to 280 grams of TNT. They are high insensitivity to ensure that they can survive rough handling, being hit by machine gun fire, autocannon fire, set aflame in napalm and anything else as long as it is less powerful than a shaped charge. Kontakt-1 is so safe from external damage that the one thing that you will always notice with destroyed tanks clad in Kontakt-1 is that even if they are completely burnt out from a cook-off of catastrophic detonation, all of the ERA boxes will survive intact. Here are some examples:

Kontakt-1 on this T-72B:

And this Georgian T-72B:

And on this Georgian T-72AV:

The plastic explosive contained inside the 4S20 explosive elements are especially insensitive compared to later reactive armour explosives as a matter of necessity, because Kontakt-1 blocks lack a thick protective front plate like Kontakt-5, ERAWA-1/2 and Relikt. This is the main reason why Kontakt-1 has absolutely no effect on KE rounds - they are so insensitive that they fail to detonate when hit. The low sensitivity also makes Kontakt-1 easier to defeat by tandem warheads using the non-initiation approach.

The weight of each block is 5.7 kg, while the reduced size block weighs slightly less. A full set covering the entire tank weighs approximately 1.2 tons. The 4S20 explosive elements can be removed from the block by simply unbolting it, essentially leaving empty metal boxes bolted to the tank. This was always done as a safety precaution when putting tanks into long term storage. 

Kontakt-1 is extremely easy and simple to install. All that are needed are some bolts and nuts.


When a cumulative jet passes through the explosive elements, the resulting explosions will propel the walls of the box at a very high velocity at oblique angles to the jet, thereby cutting off most of the body of the jet. Compared to the Israeli Blazer ERA, Kontakt-1 is much more powerful, has more flyer plates, is better angled, much less sensitive to changes in angle, and has a more optimized sandwich arrangement.

Each individual 4S20 explosive element is technically considered an explosive reactive armour panel by itself. In Russian nomenclature, each explosive element is classified as a so-called "Dynamic Element", as it can work adequately on its own, like "Blazer", for example. The explosive element consists of of two medium hardness steel sheets sandwiching a layer of plastic explosives. The steel box containing the two explosive elements has walls measuring 3mm thick. The steel box does not merely function as a container for the explosive elements; it also contributes to the overall disruptive effect against shaped charges when the explosive charge is detonated. 

The thicknesses of the three layers of 4S20 is not disclosed, but from the photo above, it appears that the ratio of the thickness of the steel plates sandwiching the explosive layer thickness is 1:2. By scaling the known thickness of a full 4S20 plate to the 3mm walls of the steel box, the thickness of the steel sheets should be around 2.3mm or less, while the PVV-5A plastic explosive layer is around 5.4mm or more. This means that 4S20 has a slightly better ratio of flyer plate thickness to explosive layer thickness compared to "Blazer" ERA, which had a simpler 3/3/3 steel-explosive-steel sandwich configuration according to This would be a 1:1 ratio.

Using the known characteristics of the PVV-5A plastic explosive used in 4S20, we can apply the Gurney equation for symmetric sandwiches to calculate the velocity of the flyer plates. As mentioned before, the mass of a complete 4S20 element is 1.35 kg, while the mass of the explosive charge is 0.26 kg. The mass of the flyer plates sandwiching the explosive layer is obtained simply by subtracting the mass of the explosives from the total mass of the sandwich. The detonation velocity of PVV-5A is 7400 m/s, so we obtain a Gurney constant of 2.46 km/s. From all this, the velocity of the flyer plates is predicted to be approximately 1.156 km/s. The Gurney method of predicting plate velocities is detailed in "Gurney Energy of Explosives: Estimation of the Velocity and Impulse Imparted to Driven Metal".

In "Stopping Power of ERA Sandwiches as a Function of Explosive Layer Thickness or Plate Velocities", Dr. Manfred Held observed that the performance of 1mm thick flyer plates increased exponentially as the explosive layer increased, concluding that the increases in the flyer plate velocity is responsible for the increased performance. 

This is further supported by the theoretical model proposed by Yadav in "Interaction of a Metallic Jet with a Moving Target". Yadav's model showed that the magnitude of the reduction of penetration of a shaped charge jet was primarily affected by the velocity of the flyer plate, and not by the density of the plate, and that by increasing the ratio of explosive charge thickness to the flyer plate, the penetration of a shaped charge jet could be reduced. A reduction in the density of the flyer plates resulted in an increase of performance due to the subsequent increase of the velocity of the plate. 

Held states that the experimental data obtained by M. Ismail in "Optimization of performance of Explosive Reactive Armors" using 1-3mm flyer plates and explosive layers with thicknesses ranging from 2-5mm fits well into his model, to his surprise. Since access "Optimization of performance of Explosive Reactive Armors" is not currently available, the reproduction of Ismail's data in Held's paper is extremely useful. As we can see in pages 235 and 236, the reduction of residual penetration of shaped charge jets plateaus between explosive layer thicknesses of 2-5mm with both Held's 1mm flyer plates as well as Ismail's 3mm flyer plates. From this data, we can predict that the 2.3/5.4/2.3 configuration of Kontakt-1 should achieve something close to the maximum performance possible from a symmetrical sandwich layout, considering that PVV-5A is slightly weaker than the explosives used by Held.

According to an NII Stali information placard, the dimensions of a 4S20 explosive element is 252x130x10 mm. A complete Kontakt-1 block measures 314 x 148 mm overall, including the sheet metal flaps at each end of the block for attachment bolts to pass through. There are two variants of Kontakt-1 blocks, as you can see below. Diagram taken from "Защита Танков" by V.A Grigoryan.

Stock footage and stills of a Kontakt-1 block being disassembled are available here (link). Disassembly and the removal of the explosive elements can be done with a simple wrench.

The V-shaped arrangement of the 4S20 elements inside the Kontakt-1 block was a unique Soviet development and was substantially more advanced than any other reactive armour configuration available anywhere else in the world at the time. The research paper "A numerical study on the disturbance of explosive reactive armors to jet penetration" penned by a team of Chinese researchers, gives us a good look into how Kontakt-1 would work. The research, which was funded by the Chinese Ordnance Society, involved testing reactive armour on armour plate inclined at an obliquity of 68 degrees using a 54mm shaped charge warhead with a copper liner. This oddly specific angle hints that this research was perhaps part of a Chinese evaluation of the performance of Soviet reactive armour on tanks like the T-72, which had an upper glacis plate sloped at 68 degrees. We can learn much from it as well. The paper describes the effects of a single layer of ERA placed at oblique angles of 45 degrees to 68 degrees under subheading 4.2. Here are the relevant paragraphs, given verbatim:

"4.2. Oblique penetration

The typical interaction patterns of the jet penetrating into ERA and main target at an impact angle of 68° are shown in Fig. 7. Compared with the normal penetration shown in Fig. 6, the reactive armor disturbs the jet more significantly during oblique impact. When the explosive of ERA is detonated, the outward movements of the plates cut the jet directly, thus severely disturbing the penetration process. With the formation of more jet segments as a result of the continuous interaction, the residual penetration capability is reduced significantly. It can be seen from Fig. 7 that, when the disturbed jet penetrate into the plate at a larger impact angle, its tip slides along the surface of the rear plate, resulting in bending, breaking, and scattering the jet (segments). Thus the depth of penetration into the main target is significantly reduced."

"It can be seen from Fig. 9 that the greater the impact angle is, the shallower the penetration depth is. In addition, the penetration depth is reduced significantly when the impact angle is more than 45°. The penetration depth is reduced by 55%–75% in the range from 45° to 68° (impact angle) with respect to case without ERA"

This is Fig. 9:

As you can see, a single layer of ERA with a design similar to a 4S20 cell (if not exactly the same) can provide a 75% decrease in penetration at 68 degrees obliquity. But Kontakt-1 is a V-shaped design. How would that fare? Let us take a look under subheading 5.2:

"5.2. Influence of impact angle

Fig. 11 shows the predicted results of main target penetration for the cases with and without 9° V-shaped ERA at various impact angles. It can be seen from Fig. 11 that the penetration capability is reduced by 60%–90% for the range of impact angles studied. Fig. 12 shows the penetration holes of the disturbed jet penetrating into the main target. It is shown that the penetration path is deviated, and the deflection increases with the increase in impact angle. The diameter of the hole, especially at the entrance, becomes larger with the increase in impact angle. Similar to the case of flat ERA described in Section 4.2, the former and the latter are probably caused by the bend of jet and the decentralization of jet, respectively."

Fig. 11 is show below:

With a V-shaped design, the pair of ERA layers, or elements, can reduce the penetration of a shaped charge by 90% at 68 degrees obliquity. According to a fact sheet from NII Stali, Kontakt-1 can reportedly reduce the penetrating effects of cumulative jets by an average of 55% at 0 degrees obliquity, and up to 80% when angled at 60 degrees. Based on this, increasing the obliquity to 68 degrees could easily garner a 90% reduction, so we have complete justification to treat the Chinese V-shaped ERA as an exact replica of Kontakt-1. 

Furthermore, NII Stali claims that Kontakt-1 can reduce the penetration power of a typical anti-tank missile, using the Konkurs as an example (130mm diameter) by up to 86%, or 58% for a 125mm HEAT shell, or up to a whopping 92% for smaller sized warheads like the one on the 66mm LAW. We can only assume that these are for 60 degree impacts, and not 68 degrees. It is not exactly known why a 125mm HEAT shell would fare so much better than even an anti-tank missile with a much large shaped charge diameter (the 125mm HEAT shell has a thick casing, so the actual diameter of the shaped charge inside it is only 105mm). A plausible explanation is that the thick-walled spike tip/probe partially protects the tail of the jet when the reactive armour block is detonated and the flyer plates are propelled into the path of the jet.

The details of why the explosive elements are arranged with an angle is examined under subheading 5.3. The research shows that the maximum performance of the ERA can be obtained if the two elements are arranged parallel to each other, but if a shaped charge impacts at 0 degrees obliquity to ERA with such an arrangement, the effect will be absolutely minimal. Since practical experience shows that tanks are not always hit where it is toughest, the V-shape of the experimental ERA would give it better performance in low obliquity hits. Where a simpler single cell ERA may be of minimal value at low obliquity, a V-shaped ERA like Kontakt-1 may still perform its duties with an acceptable loss in performance. But why 9 degrees specifically? The paper explains that varying the angle between the ERA layers does not significantly change the performance of the reactive armour. Here is the relevant excerpt:

"However, the variation of penetration depth with increase of V-angle is quite small. It is observed that the penetration depth is reduced by 85%–90% for all the studied V-angles. Therefore it is demonstrated that the reduction of the penetration depth is not sensitive to V-angles investigated in this paper."

Note that the researchers tested angles of 0, 5, 9, 13, 17, and 21 degrees. 

Here are X-ray photos and simulations of the passage of a shaped charge jet through the V-shaped ERA at a 0 degree obliquity. Even at 0 degrees, the disruptive effect of the ERA is substantial.

Now that we have covered the working mechanism of Kontakt-1, it is important to note that it is not only used to protect the tank from frontal attack. The addition of Kontakt-1 blocks is also important for a different reason, which is that the crew now becomes much better protected from tube-launched or air-dropped shaped charge bomblets and submunitions, though the hatches are not protected. It does not matter very much that ERA blocks have a much smaller obliquity relative to a vertically descending bomblet when mounted on the turret roof, which is almost but not flat, because all small-sized HEDP bomblets have very low armour penetration. Even if penetration is achieved somehow, the after-armour effects from the highly degraded cumulative jet will be pitiful at best. The only disadvantage is that there are numerous gaps between the Kontakt-1 blocks, so the roof of the T-72 cannot be considered immune to such attacks.


The T-72B and the series it spawned represented a very significant step in the evolution of the T-72, with the introduction of bulging armour in the hull and turret. Bulging armour is a type of non-energetic reactive armour (NERA), meaning that it is a reactive armour having the effect of degrading the projectile rather than only passively resisting it. This will be explained in an expository section below. The T-72B is also notable for being the first T-72 to incorporate an ERA package as part of its original factory configuration. That is, all T-72Bs were built with Kontakt-1 installed.


The glacis array of the T-72B represents the first major update since the original type found on the T-72 Ural. The thickness of the armour remained practically the same after the first update in 1976 with the introduction of the Ural-1. The spaced armour array of the T-72B may have significantly better protection from KE projectiles than the NERA arrays used in its NATO adversaries, but significantly worse shaped charge protection. Nonetheless, this was fully compensated by the use of Kontakt-1 reactive armour.

The illustration below was prepared by Otvaga and Tank-Net user Wiedzmin, and is confirmed to be correct using photographic evidence.

Arrays 4, 5, and 6 refer to the glacis configuration of the T-72B models obr. 1983, obr. 1985 and obr. 1989 respectively. Here is a listing of each layer, translated from the original claims.

Obr. 1983 / Transitional

60mm RHA + 15mm Air Space + 15mm HHS + 15mm Air Space + 15mm HHS + 15mm Air Space + 15mm HHS + 15mm Air Space + 50mm RHA (215mm Total)

 Obr. 1985 

60mm RHA + 10mm Air Space + 10mm HHS + 10mm Air Space + 10mm HHS + 10mm Air Space + 20mm RHA + 10mm Air Space + 20mm RHA + 10mm Air Space + 50mm RHA (220mm Total)

Obr. 1989

60mm RHA + 35mm NERA (5mm Rubber + 3mm RHA + 19mm Air Space + 3mm RHA + 5mm Rubber) + 60mm RHA + 10mm Anti-Radiation Layer + 50mm RHA (215mm Total)

The first and second T-72B versions incorporated simple spaced steel armour in different configurations, but a pair of bulging plates was finally implemented in the 1989 model. Before we go into detail, be reminded that the T-72B is always outfitted with Kontakt-1, and the 1989 variant is always outfitted with Kontakt-5. Only a few T-72Bs went into service without Kontakt-1, and it appears that these variants were exclusively used for Victory Day parades only. It is very likely that they were special parade models that never had Kontakt-1 installed, although it would be very straightforward to add it on at a later time. Note that the T-72B entered service in 1984 and began serial production in 1985, so the most relevant variants are the obr. 1985 and obr. 1989. The pre-production model (Obr. 1983) has been described as a transitional model of the T-72A, and was only produced in small numbers.

BTK-1Sh steel is possibly used in lieu of the usual 42 SM medium hardness steel for the thicker plates of the upper glacis array, and also possibly for the side hull armour as well. It is known that BTK-1Sh was used in the hulls of late production T-64A tanks since 1973 - 1975, and in the hulls of T-64B tanks since the beginning of production in 1976. The T-80 tank also makes extensive use of this steel in the hull, while the cast turret of the T-80U contains thick plates of the steel within the armour cavities.

BTK-1Sh steel is a high strength steel produced by electroslag remelting (ESR), giving it higher hardness than normal medium hardness steel while maintaining a good level of ductility to prevent brittle failure when struck. According to Andrei Tarasenko, the steel BTK-1Sh is used in the turret of the T-72B, but it is very likely that it was used in the hull of the T-72B as well because BTK-1Sh was explicitly stated to be used in the hull of the T-80 tank according to this document. In general, BTK-1Sh is recognized as a general purpose high strength steel, suitable for welding (according to the aforementioned document, which dealt with the weldability of the steel) and for manufacture in thick plates of up to 85mm, or perhaps more. Depending on the thickness of the plate, the hardness of the steel ranges from 400 to 450 BHN. Tarasenko asserts that the resistance of BTK-1Sh is around 5-10% more compared to RHA steel against subcaliber projectiles at angles of 68 to 70 degree, but the type of subcaliber projectile is not specified. It is likely that the "subcaliber projectile" refers to tungsten alloy long rod penetrators.

That said, there is no confirmation that the T-72B uses BTK-1Sh in the hull. Nevertheless, the implementation of this improved steel by 1985 is to be expected, seeing as BTK-1Sh has been used in the production of welded hulls since the early 1970's.

The steel used for the high hardness spaced plates is unclear. It is possible that normal 42 SM medium hardness steel was used for the walls of the array while BTK-1Sh is used for the spaced steel plates, but it is also very possible that true high hardness steels were used for the spaced steel plates. If so, then it is highly likely that BT-70Sh steel was used, as it is treated a hardness of around 534 BHN when produced in thin plates. In fact, the patent for BT-70Sh specifically mentions that the range of thicknesses for BT-70Sh is from 15mm to 25mm. This matches perfectly with the thicknesses of the spaced steel plates in the upper glacis array. The relevant passage from the patent is presented below:

"Техническим результатом настоящего изобретения является получение листового проката толщиной 15-25 мм, обладающего высокой противопульной стойкостью в сочетании с пониженной склонностью к образованию вторичных осколков, повышенными характеристиками прочности и твердости при достаточной пластичности и вязкости, что позволит увеличить надежность защитных конструкций."

The translation (using Google Translate, and proofread):

"The technical result of the present invention is the production of sheet steel with a thickness of 15-25 mm, having high ballistic resistance combined with a reduced propensity to form secondary fragments, increased strength and hardness characteristics with sufficient ductility and viscosity, which will increase the reliability of the protective structures."

BT-70Sh is also manufactured using ESR technology, and is suitable for welding, as proven by its usage in the BMP-2 infantry fighting vehicle. However, the spaced steel plates of the armour arrays described for the Obr. 1983 and Obr. 1985 variants are not secured to the side hull plates by welding but are suspended by spacers, as we will see later.

Without clear answers regarding what steel is used in the T-72B, we shall divide our attention to two possibilities:

  1. A conservative estimate where 42 SM steel is used for the thicker plates, including the side hull armour, and BTK-1Sh is used for the spaced steel plates.
  2. A progressive estimate where BTK-1Sh steel is used for the thicker plates, including the side hull armour, and BT-70Sh is used for the spaced steel plates.

Obr. 1983

The photo above shows a destroyed T-72 from the first Chechen war. The glacis array of a different destroyed T-72 is visible down at the bottom half of the left side of the photo - it is the ramp on which the tracks are laid upon. Apparently, this array is used by a transitional variant of the T-72A built in around 1983. Note that the spaced steel plates are not welded to the side hull walls which the thick front and back plates are welded to. Rather, the spaced steel plates are held by spacers, presumably with the intention of ensuring proper spacing between the plates.

We will not be examining this array in much detail, because the T-72B obr. 1983 is not a common variant and does not represent the T-72B as a whole. Our analysis will be focused on the Obr. 1985 variant. That said, there are some preliminary observations we can make of the Obr. 1983 glacis array that hold true for all of the other variants.

This array design is a good example of a Whipple Shield; a multi-layered spaced armour array comprised of multiple thin steel plates. Some of the protection value of the array may come from the interference of a shaped charge jet or a long rod projectile by the "lips" formed at the edges of the perforated plates, which are deflected from the neighbouring plate and into the path of the penetrator. The photo comes courtesy of Militarysta from the Polish forum.

According to Militarysta, it was noted that only slightly better results were observed at high angles of obliquity, and that an improvement can be gained by packing more spaced plates in a smaller space. It is inferred that the additional protection offered by the intersection of the "lips" with the body of the cumulative jet is rather low, and would be an inefficient method of employing spaced armour, especially for the T-72B, as there are only three (!) spaced plates in the array, and the ratio of plate thickness to air gap size is one to one. The back surface of the heavy 60mm front plate and the front surface of the 50mm back plate would also have some effect, but overall, the contribution of the "lip" effect is obviously very minor.
Indeed, if the array in the T-72B obr. 1983 truly focuses on relying on the use of these "lips" to disrupt the cumulative jet, then it is very likely that the armour would be worse than that of the uparmoured T-72A upper glacis. Recall that the combined thickness of the steel in the array amounts to only 155mm, while the rest of the array is filled with nothing but air. An up-armoured T-72A upper glacis contains 126mm of steel, and 105mm of glass textolite, which was identified as the most optimal composite sandwich filler according to NII Stali. The design of the armour of the T-72B obr. 1983 does not hold up even if we make the conservative assumption that the spaced plate array maintains the same resistance to shaped charges as the T-72A but has improved ballistic resistance against long rod penetrators.

Therefore, the theory that the spaced armour for the T-72B obr. 1983 relies on "lips" for increased protection is a completely insufficient explanation, and does not justify the change from a glass textolite filler to a spaced plate array. We will further examine spaced armour in more detail in the section regarding the Obr. 1985 array. 

Obr. 1985

The photo above shows the exposed glacis armour of a damaged T-72B3, taken during the 2015 Tank Biathlon. As you may recall, the T-72B3 program refurbishes and modernizes old T-72Bs. The vast majority of T-72B in the Russian army are Obr. 1985 tanks, so it should be no surprise that the vast majority of T-72B3s will have the same base armour. 

The total thickness of this array is 220mm, which is only 5mm more than the 60-105-50 array of the T-72A, and the amount of steel in the array is increased from 110mm to 170mm. The total thickness of steel is also greater than in the Obr. 1983 array; at the 68-degree angle of the upper glacis, the physical LOS thickness of the Obr. 1985 array is 434mm.

Again, it is very obvious that the spaced steel plates are not welded to the side hull armour plate by looking at the photo below. Note the jagged edges of the front and back plates and on the lower glacis plate. This is evidence of welding. The spaced steel plates, on the other hand, are clean. The spacing between the plates is presumably maintained by spacers similar to the type seen on the Obr. 1983 variant, but they appear to be removed in the photo below. This explains why some of the plates are in contact with each other, whereas the plates seen in the photo above clearly show uniform spacing between the plates. The spacer was presumably removed for the tank in the photo below, probably because it was about to be scrapped.

The glacis array of T-72B obr. 1985 is similar to the early obr. 1983 version, but probably more effective due to a more nuanced design. If the thin spaced steel plates are made from BT-70Sh steel, they will have a very high hardness of around 534 BHN, and the heavy front and back plates would have a hardness of 450 BHN if BTK-1Sh is used. If BTK-1Sh is used for the spaced plates instead of BT-70Sh, then the hardness of the spaced places will be around 450 BHN, while the heavy front and back plates plates would remain the softest at 340 BHN if 42 SM steel is used. 

One conceivable weakness is that long rod penetrators would find it easier to penetrate the spaced plates due to the low thickness and high obliquity. However, further inquiry reveals that sloped armour plates at such high obliquity are effective at fracturing and defeating long rod projectiles under the right conditions.

The 60mm front plate is intended to particulate shaped charge jets and to fracture and erode long rod penetrators before they can enter and interact with the spaced armour array. The relatively high thickness of the front plate is meant to effectively particulate shaped charge jets. The same reasoning applies for long rod penetrators; long rod penetrators are generally capable of penetrating more armour at higher obliquities than at lower obliquities, so the steep 68 degree angle of the upper glacis is ostensibly disadvantageous, but that is not the case here. Long rod penetrators are susceptible to fracturing after perforating oblique armour plates, especially at very high angles. This is due to the asymmetric buildup of stress within the tip of the rod during penetration, which is immediately released once the rod emerges from the back surface of the plate. The release of stress fractures the rod at the tip, and the asymmetric forces also deflect the rod sideways or downwards. The fracture also tends to be diagonal to the axis of the rod due to the asymmetry of forces acting on the rod as it penetrates through the rear portion of the sloped plate, caused by the greater relative thickness of the sloped plate in the region above the rod and the lower relative thickness below the rod. Thicker plates are more effective and more reliable at producing fractures because the longer duration of penetration causes a bigger buildup of internal stress in the rod, leading to a more severe fracture once the rod exits the back of the plate, but thinner plates can be used in this capacity as well.

The paper "The Penetration Process Of Long Rods Into Thin Metallic Targets At High Obliquity" by Yaziv et al. helps us to understand the functions of the spaced steel plates in the array. The experiments and numerical simulations were conducted at target plate angles of 70 to 80 degrees, with two of the numerical simulations having been conducted at angles of 73 and 76 degrees. The angles are slightly higher than that of the upper glacis of the T-72B, but it is still perfectly acceptable to apply the results to the armour array, as the same obliquity can be achieved on the T-72B by simply angling the hull to the side by a few degrees. High hardness steel plates with a yield strength of 1200 MPa were used in the simulations and in both experiments (A and B).

The long rod penetrators were detailed as being 135mm long with a length to diameter ratio of 17, denoting that the diameter of the rod is 7.94mm. The plates had a thickness ranging from 7mm to 13mm - closely equivalent to the diameter of the long rod penetrator. The L:D ratio of the tungsten alloy rod is slightly better than that of the 120mm DM23 APFSDS round (1983), and the rod has a slightly tapered frustrum that matches the profile of common tungsten long rod projectiles.

The tip of the rod ricochets on impact with the plate and shatters into fragments, and only the central part of the rod actually does the work of penetrating the plate. As the central part of the rod penetrates the plate, it is deflected downwards and begins to rotate as it emerges from the plate. These effects are apparent on armour plates at lower angles of obliquity as well, and generally become significant at angles of more than 60 degrees. The ricocheting of the tip of a tungsten alloy long rod becomes very apparent at a target plate obliquity of 75 degrees, and increases in severity until the critical ricochet angle of the projectile is reached, whereby the entire rod ricochets off the plate and not just the tip. 

The downward deflection of the central part of long rod projectiles is caused by a bending moment exerted on the rod due to the non-uniform thickness of plate material above and below the rod as it travels through the sloped plate. The deflection effect occurs at any obliquity and is manifests as a fracture on the rod that promptly detaches from the rest of the body. "Experimental and Numerical Simulation Analysis of the Impact Process of Structured KE-Penetrators onto Semi-infinite and Oblique Plate Targets" offers a more concise explanation of the loads experienced by a long rod projectile as it penetrates an oblique plate.

"During the perforation process  the maximum bending moments occur at the tip of the projectile. This corresponds to a situation where the penetrator can be regarded as a cantilever beam with a fixed tip region and the inertial forces acting as loads leading to the typical concave bending of the  projectile ... bending dominates the structural loads during the perforation process of KE projectiles."

The bending moment also introduces a downward velocity component to the rod, and thus induces yaw. The severity of the yaw for tungsten alloy rods depends on a variety of factors, including: The momentum of the rod, the thickness to diameter ratio between the target plate and the rod, the obliquity of the target plate, and the length to diameter ratio of the rod. It is very important to note that this phenomenon could be avoided if a separate heavy alloy segment is added at the tip of the rod, so that the tip of the rod suffers most of the effects of the ricochet and sustains the bending moment during the penetration process described in the citation above, whereupon it detaches from the rest of the rod. Because the tip segment is separate from the main rod, the main rod does not get bent or yawed in any way, and maintains the shape of its own tip. There are very few heavy alloy long rod projectiles that feature a separate segment at the tip of the main penetrator, one of them being the BM-42 "Mango".

The rear 55% of the long rod penetrator remains mostly intact during the penetration process and emerges unmolested from the highly sloped plate. As a result of the interaction with the thin sloped plates, the penetration power of the rod is reduced by 50%. The results of this study are supported by "Oblique Impact of Elongated Projectiles on Massive Targets" by Veldanov et al. and "Ricochet of a tungsten heavy alloy long-rod projectile from deformable steel plates" by Woong Lee et al., and multiple other studies.

From this, it is easy to see the advantage of multiple spaced plates of high hardness steel. The actual penetration of the plate itself only erodes and deflects 18% of the rod, whereas a much larger segment of the rod (27%) was lost from ricocheting and shattering on impact with the surface of the plate. This effect can be harnessed by arranging multiple plates at high obliquity to repeatedly degrade the long rod penetrator with each successive impact. The size of the air gap between the plates is has no significant effect on the integrity of the rod, because a sideways force component is generated during penetration, so the rod is already deflected as it emerges from the plate. However, this does not mean that the size of the air gap is arbitrary; one of the functions of the air gap is to allow the tip of the rod to ricochet up and away from the plate and to allow the shattered fragments of the tip to be ejected away. Increasing the size of the air gap also gives more time and space for the rod to rotate and yaw before it impacts the next plate, but the amount of space needed to produce a useful reduction in the penetration power of the rod is impractical for tank armour.

In the T-72B obr. 1985, the first two plates are of high hardness but are only 10mm thick, so the thickness of the plates would be smaller than the diameter of virtually all long rod penetrators for tank guns. These two plates will be deformed by the impact of a long rod penetrator, but it is not yet clear how they contribute to the overall scheme.

The last two plates, measuring 20mm thick, should have the effect of further destroying the long rod penetrator, which should be severely degraded and somewhat deformed by this point. These two plates best agree with the experimental parameters in the paper by Yaziv et al. and can be considered direct analogues, so a long rod penetrator could very possibly lose up to 50% of its residual penetration power after passing through one of these plates, its residual penetration power being its penetration power after passing through the heavy front plate and two thin spaced plates.

Scientific studies have shown that the propensity of the tip of the tungsten alloy long rod penetrator to ricochet and shatter on impact with an oblique armour plate depends greatly on the hardness of the armour plate. The description of the high hardness plate in the paper by Yaziv et al. is consistent with armour plates with a hardness between 400 and 500 BHN, making the conclusions from the paper compatible with BTK-1Sh steel, but if BT-70Sh is used instead, then the protection level offered by the array increases astronomically. According to the patent for BT-70Sh, the maximum strength of the steel is between 1900 to 2000 MPa when treated to the maximum hardness of 54 HRC (543 BHN). This greatly surpasses the strength and hardness of the steel used in the simulations and experiments, and would have yielded even better results.

This array design should be adequate for APFSDS shells appearing in the early 80's such as the 105mm DM23 and DM33 at 1 km or perhaps less. This estimation is based on the knowledge that DM23 is a licence produced version of the M111 "Hetz", and that the reinforced T-72A glacis array is already sufficient to resist the M111 even at short range, and the DM33 simply has a more elongated penetrator. Composite shells like the 120mm DM13 (1979) and DM23 (1983) will not perform well against this array, and will most likely fail to penetrate even at a distance of 1 km. The longer DM33 round (1987) with 480mm of penetration at 2 km (according to the manufacturer, as stated in this document) will be sufficient at combat ranges of 1.5 km, but the reliability of the shell may be uncertain if the hull is angled slightly.

In short, the ballistic resistance of the spaced armour should be very high. However, the resistance of the armour to shaped charge threats mainly depends on the raw physical thickness of the steel, and is nowhere close to the level of protection offered by Non-Energetic Reactive Armour (NERA). 


After learning about how the side skirts on a tank may increase the standoff distance of a shaped charge jet and thereby increase its penetration rather than decreasing it, it seems counter-intuitive that the T-72B uses multiple spaced armour plates in the upper glacis array rather than evolving the simple composite sandwich from the T-72 Ural (originally from the T-64A) into a multilayered steel and glass textolite array like the T-64BV or T-80BV, but as is often the case, the terminology is misleading as not all spaced armour is the same.

From what we have seen of the original T-72 Ural and T-72A composite armour sandwiches, it is known that the heavy front plate of the array is intended to particulate a shaped charge jet before it enters the low density glass textolite filler, thus maximizing the performance of the filler. The chief concern with side skirts acting as standoff for shaped charges is that the skirting is too thin or too light to particulate a shaped charge jet, so it emerges as a continuous, undisturbed jet and gains increased penetration power as it stretches in the air gap. When a side skirt of sufficient thickness is used, the jet is particulated as it emerges, meaning that it ceases to stretch and the jet splits into individual particles as a result of the velocity gradient along the body of the jet - the tip is the fastest, so it separates from the segment behind it because it is slower, and that segment is slightly faster than the segment behind it, so it separates, and so on - this is avoided in a continuous jet because the entire jet is accelerating forward. 

The heavy 60mm front plate of the T-72B is still thick enough to particulate a typical shaped charge jet, so the penetration of the jet cannot possibly increase. This resolves the issue of spaced armour acting as standoff for a shaped charge warhead. However, having air instead of a low density filler makes the armour inefficient against shaped charge jets. As mentioned before, a brief explanation on the NII Stali stated that a low density nonmetallic filler sandwiched between two steel plates was the most optimum configuration at angles more than 60 degrees, and having an air gap instead of a nonmetallic filler gave the worst results of all. In this context, the spaced steel array in the T-72B obr. 1985 appears to be a step backwards, but this is not necessarily the case.

According to "Shaped Charge Attack of Spaced and Composite Armour", spaced armour can be effective against shaped charge jets due to the forces acting on the jet as it penetrates the target plate. The relevant passage is presented below:

"It has been shown [1,2] that the shaped charge jet tip is disrupted when it exits from a finite thickness plate. This is due to longitudinal and radial shock wave effects in the jet causing mushrooming of the jet tip or enhanced particulation. This effect has been utilised in the design of 'Whipple shields' which consist of multiple thin plates."

This is supported by "Spaced Armor Effects of Shaped Charge Jet Penetration", where it is stated that: 

"During the process of target perforation, the jet was compressed, which increased the jet tip diameter. Upon leaving the first target plate, relief of the compressed material occurred, which led to further expansion of the jet tip."

It was also confirmed in "Shaped Charge Attack of Spaced and Composite Armour" that there is a danger of spaced armour having the opposite of the desired effect; noting that "Conversely the ultimate warhead penetration may actually increase with spacing and/or standoff as the warhead is brought closer to an optimum standoff compared to the normally fused short standoff". Other studies dealing with spaced armour have included similar remarks, and is a legitimate concern with spaced armour. This was solved by including a heavy front plate in the glacis array of the T-72B, but it is good to have confirmation nonetheless.

A detailed examination of the effects of thin plates on shaped charge jets is provided by "The Shaped Charge Jet Interaction With Finite Thickness Targets". The paper examines the interaction of shaped charge jets with individual and multiple armour plates of finite thickness. As we already know, a plate of sufficient density and thickness can particulate a shaped charge jet as it emerges (termed "foreshortening"), but the effect of multiple spaced plates has not yet been broached thus far. The paper gives this explanation on the effect of finite thickness targets on shaped charge jets:

" ... the problem concerning the interaction of the shaped charge jet with the target whose thickness does not exceed several jet diameters as well as with a set of such targets, spaced at some distance apart from each other, is considered. The existence of air gaps between such targets lead to additional losses of the jet length due to the erosion of its tip region upon the target perforation, which was first noticed by Brown and Finch [1] and was termed "foreshortening" (forefront shortening)."

In other words, the existence of air gaps prevents us from simply adding up the physical LOS thicknesses of the individual plates to find out the nominal RHA equivalency of the armour against shaped charges. It is necessary to understand that the publicly available RHA penetration figures for shaped charges is always obtained using semi-infinite target plates - targets where the penetration of the jet does not exceed the thickness of the plate. This is the most optimal condition for shaped charges and cannot be applied to spaced armour, so for example; a shaped charge warhead with 500mm of penetration may not be able to defeat the spaced armour of the T-72B obr. 1985, even though the physical thickness of steel in the armour is only 454mm. 

The most relevant reference for us is "On Modelling of Shaped Charges Jet Interaction With Spaced Plate". The paper directly deals with spaced plates at a normal impact angle as well as oblique spaced plates and is highly expository, making it a convenient resource in analyzing the armour of the T-72B obr. 1985. The conclusion of the paper supports the previous claim that spaced armour cannot be directly compared to homogeneous plates, even though shaped charge jets penetrate both types of targets via hydrodynamic interaction. Indeed, it is explicitly stated in the conclusion that equating the two types of targets leads to an overprediction of the jet velocity in the case of spaced plates, meaning that the spaced plates reduce the velocity of a shaped charge jet by a greater amount given the same material, the same cumulative total thickness of plate material, the same standoff, and so on. The relevant passage is given below:

"It has been shown that the hydrodynamic penetration theory can be used for getting a good estimation of shaped charge performance against homogeneous steel targets, provided to know the lateral velocities of all jet elements. But it has also been shown that such modelling is not suitable against spaced targets and overpredicts the jet residual velocities after perforating metallic plates."

The paper examines and compares normal and oblique spaced plates of 10mm thickness angled at 60 degrees. Using the same penetration models (1D-code + eq. (5)) as the plates impacted at a normal angle but with the addition of a simple equation (eq. (6)) to account for the new relative thickness of the oblique plates, it was proven that oblique spaced plates behave and interact with shaped charge jets in the same manner as non-oblique plates.

It is common knowledge that shaped charges are unaffected by armour slope and will penetrate the same thickness of homogeneous armour at any angle, but this essentially proves that shaped charges are unaffected by armour slope for spaced plates as well, effectively enabling us to use other reference material that examine spaced plates but not at an angle. 

Everything considered, it is clear that the spaced armour array in the T-72B obr. 1985 is highly inefficient against shaped charge threats, but still effective nonetheless. All together, it is likely the anti-shaped charge properties of the spaced armour array are at least on the same level as the T-72A, but no lower. It is important to note that the raw physical thickness of the steel in the T-72B obr. 1985 array (454mm) already exceeds the claimed HEAT resistance of 450mm RHA of the original 80-105-20 array of the T-72 Ural. As we now understand, the peculiarities of spaced armour means that we cannot equate it with a single homogeneous steel target, so in reality, there can be no doubt that the shaped charge resistance of the spaced armour array exceeds 454mm RHA. It is very likely that it is sufficient against the majority of handheld antitank weapons, older missiles like the TOW (430mm penetration), and 105mm HEAT rounds from the early 80's like the DM12 and M456A2. 

It is very unlikely that the basic armour could resist the ITOW on its own (630mm penetration), and it definitely will not hold up to the Milan 2 (790mm) or to the TOW-2 (890mm penetration), but this is based on the assumption that Kontakt-1 is not present. Due to the installation of Kontakt-1 as standard equipment on the T-72B, the upper glacis should still be completely invulnerable to all of these missiles, and any other single-charge HEAT warhead. The use of tandem warheads would negate Kontakt-1 to a large extent, so missiles like the TOW-2A would be a serious threat to the upper glacis armour.

In conclusion, the spaced steel armour of the T-72B obr. 1985 cannot be labeled as "simplistic" or "crude". The armour is designed to make full use of a complex set of mechanisms aimed primarily at destroying long rod projectiles, and with comparable or better shaped charge resistance to the earlier pattern of composite sandwiches. The perception of spaced steel as a crude method of protection is largely invalid except when compared to NERA armour in terms of shaped charge resistance.

Obr. 1989

According to the description provided by Wiedzmin, the glacis array of T-72B obr. 1989 can be considered to be slightly more advanced on account of its meager NERA array, but it is still rather crude. It is designed to work in conjunction with Kontakt-5, which may explain the change from simple spaced plates to thicker solid steel plates. The NERA plate installed immediately behind the front plate is comprised of two opposing bulging plates, and should be equivalent to a single NERA sandwich. Against shaped charges, the NERA works by disrupting the cumulative jet (this is further discussed in the section on the T-72B turret). Against KE threats, the NERA works based on the principle of penetrator deflection and shearing. As the long rod penetrator enters the array, it activates the first bulging plate, which bulges downward, exerting downwards force on the penetrator, and as the second bulging plate is activated, it bulges upward, exerting upwards force. This exerts a shearing force on the rod.

Stopping the rest of the attacking projectile or shaped charge jet would be the the job of the remainder of the array, 110mm thick in total. The 60mm steel plate, 10mm anti-radiation layer and 50mm steel plate sandwich behind the NERA layer could technically be considered a composite armour sandwich, as the 10mm anti-radiation layer is probably made from polyethylene. Assuming the anti-radiation layer is composed of borated UHMWPE (Ultra-High Molecular Weight Polyethylene) with a density of 1.00 g/cc (density of polyethylene produced in the Soviet Union was 0.92-0.96 g/cc), then the composite sandwich should be quite decent in principle, though it might not be the most optimal configuration given the low thickness of the anti-radiation layer.

Note that the total thickness of steel in the array is 170mm, which is the same as the Obr. 1985 array. Except for the NERA plate and the anti-radiation layer, the mass of the Obr. 1989 array should be very close to the Obr. 1985 array.

The photo below confirms that the array described by Wiedzmin is indeed used on late T-72B models. Credit for all photos goes to

As you can see, the exposed upper glacis array matches the description perfectly. There are three solid plates, and two gaps of appropriate sizes between the three plates. Also, the rearmost plate appears to be slightly thinner than the middle plate, and this matches the thicknesses given by Wiedzmin. The tank in the photo is clearly a T-72B and most likely a T-72BA, because the tracks are UMSh tracks and not RMSh tracks, as shown in the photo below.

It is known that very late T-72A models had the T-72B turret and early spaced armour upper glacis array, but these models still used RMSh tracks. Furthermore, the exposed glacis array in the photo above looks nothing like the spaced armour array, and it is not possible that the exposed array of the tank shows the earlier STEF composite sandwich because it does not have spacer plates, like in the usual T-72A array and also in the transitional T-72A models with spaced armour.

The tank cannot be a T-72B3 either, because the disembodied turret shows four Kontakt-5 panels on the right side, where a T-72B3 would have five. A T-72BA would have four panels because the IR searchlight occupies the position next to the gun mantlet. Therefore, it is not possible that that this tank is somehow a very late T-72A model upgraded to T-72B3 standard.

According to illustrations published in Sergey Suvorov's "T-90: First Serial Tank of Russia", the T-90 has the same hull armour as the T-72B obr. 1989. The illustration below shows a T-72B obr. 1989, as identified by the presence of Kontakt-5 on the hull and the manually operated anti-aircraft machine gun. The drawing of the hull array appears to match what we now understand to be the correct configuration of the armour.

The drawing below shows a T-90, as identified by the forward-facing remotely controlled anti-aircraft machine gun and the large housing for the Agava thermal imaging sight. As you can see, the hull array is identical. Since the T-90 uses the same cast turret as the T-72B, it is safe to assume that the composition of the armour is totally identical between the T-90 and T-72B.


The November issue of the famous Russian Tekhnika i Vooruzhenie 2006 (Журнал Техника и Вооружение) magazine mentions in page 14 that the protection of the 1985 edition of the T-72B is equivalent to more than 550mm against a KE projectile. This is probably an average between the turret and the hull, but it is widely accepted that the turret of the T-72B is the stronger of the two, for reasons which we will see later on.

The turret of the T-72B - dubbed "Super Dolly Parton" by Western observers (quite a compliment) - fully retains the usual T-72 layout, with the frontal projection up-armoured and the associated changes made to the armour profile. The two primary constituents of the turret's frontal armour are the solid steel portions and the NERA array. The steel armour has a hollow cavity for the insertion of NERA plates. The front wall of the cavity is approximately 130mm thick at its thickest part (LOS), near the gun mantlet, thinning to 90mm as the turret cheek curves into the side of the turret (normal). The rear facing is composed of the 90mm cast steel wall of the turret cavity casting supplemented by a 45mm HHS rolled steel plate in front of it (pictured below). The HHS plate is most likely BTK-1Sh armour grade high hardness steel.

We don't actually know exactly how thick the cast steel is, but we know for a fact that the rolled plate is 45mm from the famous ARMOR magazine article. The thickness of the cast steel is estimated from the distance between the armour cavity and the gunner's primary sight aperture (it is recessed a bit into the armoured housing). Based on the photo below (one black/white segment = one inch) we can see that this LOS thickness is around 6 inches. Converting the LOS thickness to perpendicular plate, we can confidently say that the thickness of the cast steel is 85mm to 90mm. Combined with the 45 rolled steel plate, the total thickness of the plates behind the NERA array is a healthy 235mm.

The ARMOR Magazine article mentions that the plates inside the cavity are angled at 55 degrees from the gun barrel. As far as NERA armour goes, this is completely sufficient, and the relative angle increases as the turret is viewed from a sideways angle. The combined total weight of the contents of both cavities is 781 kg. 
The multi-stack bulging plate array of the turret consists of 20 modules. This type of armour can be considered a form of integrated NERA (Non-Explosive Reactive Armour).

Each NERA plate may vary greatly in length, but all of them are uniform in their thickness, each module being 30mm thick. The modules are composed of a 6mm rubber interlayer sandwiched between a 21mm HHS front plate and a 3mm HHS bulging plate. Andrei Tarasenko confirms that the plates are made from BTK-1Sh. The maximum length of the NERA plate is 280mm. The plates are spaced 22mm between one another by metal brackets. The entire array is angled at 55 degrees relative to the gun barrel.

The placement of the plates means that four to six plates will intersect with the direct line of fire of a projectile when the turret is being shot at head-on, more plates if the shot lands at the center of the turret cheek and less at the ends. Only two or three plates will be in the path of a projectile when the turret cheek is struck at an angle of 35 degrees. This is superior to the arrangement of the NERA plates in the front hull of the M1 Abrams, which places a maximum of four plates in the line of fire. Behind that is a spacer, which appears to provide almost no armour value as it is only there to brace the NERA plates and provide proper spacing. At best, it is a perforated steel plate, which would offer much more substantial protection, but the large size of the holes depicted in the diagram make this unlikely. Behind the spacer/perforated plate is the main armour, which is a rolled steel plate that is estimated to be about 160mm thick.

How NERA Works:

NERA was first proposed by Dr. Manfred Held in 1973 in a research paper, after inventing reactive armour in 1969 . The Wikipedia page on reactive armour has this to say about NERA:

"NERA and NxRA operate similarly to explosive reactive armour, but without the explosive liner. Two metal plates sandwich an inert liner, such as rubber.[3] When struck by a shaped charge's metal jet, some of the impact energy is dissipated into the inert liner layer, and the resulting high pressure causes a localized bending or bulging of the plates in the area of the impact. As the plates bulge, the point of jet impact shifts with the plate bulging, increasing the effective thickness of the armour. This is almost the same as the second mechanism that explosive reactive armour uses, but it uses energy from the shaped charge jet rather than from explosives.[4]"

The description of how the inert interlayer is energized by the impact of a shaped charge jet is simplified, but accurate. To be more specific, the source of energy is the shock waves travelling through the inert liner between the two metal plates sandwiching it. Here is a relevant passage from the paper "3D Numerical Simulation Of Non-Energetic Reactive Armor", quoted verbatim:

"The protective mechanism of bulging armors is slightly different than explosive reactive armors. When a shaped charge jet hits the inert intermediate layer, a shock wave interactions through the interlayer results in bulging of the metallic layers [Yaziv, Friling and Kivity , 1995], [Gov, Kivity, Yaziv, 1992], [Mayseless et al., 1993]"

The Wikipedia article's explanation of "increasing the effective thickness of the armour" is, sadly, only a half-truth at best. The research paper quoted above gives a short but concise explanation that the moving plates interact with the shaped charge jet and distort it. There is no mention of increasing the effective thickness of the armour in the paper, or in almost every other paper or journal article on NERA published in the last few decades. Dr. Held's early patents for explosive reactive armour describes the mechanism of the reduction in the penetration of a shaped charge jet as a product of the disruption of the jet. Patent 5811712 from 1975, for example, makes this very clear in the following excerpts:

"... the destruction of a hollow charge spike takes place in such a way that the spike is chopped up over large portions of its length, the individual particles of the spike being additionally diverted. The spike, of which the penetrative capacity in a homogeneous wall of steel is otherwise too high, then loses its boring power and remains in a divergent crater in armour plating following disruptor walls of this kind."

"The military effect of the invention resides quite generally in the efficient disruption and destruction of even elongated hollow charge spikes with a very high energy content and with a high velocity gradient, by the intervention of moving parts of the layer or wall in the total length of the spike ..."

"As shown by the present example, the invention makes it possible for the following charge spike, over its entire length, and despite its considerable velocity gradient, to be combated by moving walls and layers, so that by introducing material over a cutting (oblique) path into the traject of the spike the latter is completely disrupted and finally destroyed, or deprived of its boring action."

However, United States Patent 4,368,660 filed by Dr. Held in 1980 under assignment by MBB GmbH mentions the "consumption" of a shaped charge jet as an additional penetration reduction factor. Reading the "Summary of the invention" section of the patent, we see that Dr. Held describes the action of the flyer plates of the reactive armour having the purpose of "cutting up" or "consuming" or "spending" the shaped charge jet, which is referred to as a "thorn". The term "consumption" had so far never been used before when describing the action of flyer plates against shaped charge jets. Based on this, and the remarks of various scientists and academicians, it appears that Held was the first to identify the increase in effective armour thickness as a factor in the reduction of penetration. 

In 2004, Dr. Held published "Dynamic Plate Thickness of ERA Sandwiches against Shaped Charge Jets" in Volume 29 of Propellants, Explosives, Pyrotechnics, issue No. 4. Held examines the mechanism behind the generation of dynamic plate thickness and concludes that the disruption and destruction of shaped charge jets is still the main method of jet defeat by reactive armours. It is important to note that Held defined "dynamic plate thickness" as the virtual plate thickness that intersects with the path of the shaped charge jet. Held made no attempt to explain how the jet is degraded by the intersection, so his definition of "dynamic plate thickness" is merely arbitrary.

It is well known that the intersection of a moving plate obliquely against a shaped charge jet results in the loss of plate material and jet material alike through erosion. However, classifying the interaction as the penetration of the moving plate is misleading. In actuality, the moving plate is penetrating the shaped charge jet as much as the jet is penetrating the plate, so the mechanism cannot be described as simple armour penetration. The most important distinction is that the tip of the cumulative jet will almost always be on the other side of the plate before the plate even begins to move, due to the immense speed of the jet tip, so it is not the tip of the jet impacting the edges of the plate as the plate moves obliquely against it, but the midsection of the jet body. This cannot be described as hydrodynamic armour penetration. Rather, the interaction causes jet particulation, meaning that the single continuous jet is divided into smaller segments, each with their own discrete velocities. The result is that the armour plate behind the NERA plate will be impacted consecutively by two forms of shaped charge jets; a disembodied continuous jet (jet tip), and a smattering of particulated jet segments.

This is why a shaped charge jet does not penetrate smoothly into armour plate after passing through a NERA plate. Instead, shallow craters are created on a large area of the surface of the plate from the impact of the particulated jet, and some end up on the inside the deepest tunnel, which is invariably made by the disembodied jet tip. Jet particles that do not impact the tunnel made by the disembodied jet tip do not contribute to the final depth of penetration of the target plate. This is best seen in the four photographs below, taken from "Study on Rubber Composite Armor Anti‐Shaped Charge Jet Penetration". The craters were produced by a shaped charge jet disturbed by a rubber NERA sandwich plate at four different obliquities.

The greatest reduction in penetration was achieved when the rubber NERA plate was angled at 60 degrees. It is interesting to note that even at 0 degrees, the NERA plate caused some particulation to occur, as evidenced by the pockmarks around the tunnel created by the otherwise untouched shaped charge jet. In this case, the NERA plate acted as simple spaced armour, causing some of the tip of the jet to particulate due to the compression of the jet while it passes through the NERA plate, and subsequent decompression as it exits. At 30 and 45 degrees, the degree of particulation increased drastically, as evident from the much larger surface area covered with pockmarks, but the jet appears to remain somewhat unperturbed. At 60 degrees, the jet is badly disturbed by the NERA plate and is split into a number of segments. Lateral forces from the bulging plate gives the segments a sideways velocity component, causing them to impact some distance away from the main tunnel created by the disembodied jet tip.

Although Held's paper "Dynamic Plate Thickness of ERA Sandwiches against Shaped Charge Jets" deals with reactive armour, his findings can be applied to NERA to some extent. We cannot equate ERA to NERA directly in this context, of course, because the behaviour of bulging plates is simply not the same as flyer plates. The most significant differences are in the kinematics of the plates and their geometry while they are in motion. Held's calculations are based on the assumption that the flyer plate is flat and maintains a constant velocity throughout its interaction with the jet. A bulging plate, on the other hand, takes quite a lot of time to accelerate to peak velocity, and the shape of the bulging plate is curved rather than flat. Thus, the paper can be read to gain an understanding of the general mechanism of dynamic plate thickness only.

Referring to the graph above, we see that as the plate velocity increases, the dynamic thickness increases. For a rear plate (in-pursuit), there is an exponential increase in dynamic thickness against plate velocity, whereas for a front plate (head-on), the rate of increase is almost linear. Note that the velocities required to achieve a high dynamic plate thickness are well beyond the range achievable by NERA plates, so we can confidently infer that dynamic plate thickness is a very minor factor in the reduction of a shaped charge jet during its interaction with NERA bulging armour. 

For an explanation of how we can know the bulging plate velocities attainable by NERA plates, read the three research papers below:

The first paper investigates the deformation characteristics of the rubber interlayer and its ability to displace (bulge) the steel plates sandwiching it, with experiments conducted using a 3/5/3 bulging armour arrangement. The second and third papers examine the mechanisms behind the transfer of energy into the inert interlayer material of a NERA sandwich. All of the papers deal with the impact of shaped charge jets and the transfer of the jet energy into the NERA interlayer at a normal impact angle, but Rosenberg states that the motion of bulging plates is not sensitive to obliquity since the main source of propulsion is the energy transferred into the interlayer. Yadav's paper states that the amount of energy transferred into the interlayer depends on the duration of contact between the shaped charge jet and the interlayer during penetration, and on the velocity of the jet - the higher the better. Rosenberg's paper is the most convenient for us, as the bulging plate velocities for 3mm steel in-pursuit plates have already been modeled for us. Rosenberg's simulations use a 10mm plexiglass interlayer, but also investigate the effect of varying thicknesses. 

Since plexiglass is less dense than rubber, it can be assumed that the peak bulging plate velocity of the T-72B NERA at H=13.2 will be higher than the value stated in the graph. Only the peak bulging plate velocity matters to us because that is the region in contact with the shaped charge jet as it passes through. 

Rosenberg goes on to state in page 304 that NERA plates bulge faster with thinner back plates (in-pursuit) than with thinner front plates (head-on). He goes on to recommend an asymmetric NERA plate design for optimum performance. The context is that NERA plates with thicker front plates and thinner back plates will have superior overall performance, so this is not direct advocacy of the design of the NERA in the T-72B turret, but it is still strongly suggested that such a design would be advantageous as it would cause the back plate (in-pursuit) to bulge at a higher velocity. Based on Rosenberg's data on plexiglass interlayers, a reasonable guess of the peak bulging velocity of the rubber-based bulging plate of a T-72B NERA plate should be between 0.5 km/s and 0.55 km/s.

The graph below, taken from Held's "Dynamic Plate Thickness of ERA Sandwiches against Shaped Charge Jets", shows that the dynamic plate increases exponentially with increasing NERA plate obliquity. At 55 degrees, an in-pursuit flyer plate travelling at 0.4 km/s generates barely more than 50mm of dynamic plate thickness. A flyer plate travelling somewhat faster than 0.4 km/s would be able to generate more dynamic plate thickness. Based on our guess that the bulging plates in the T-72B turret have a peak bulging velocity of between 0.5 km/s and 0.55 km/s, the dynamic plate thickness offered by the bulging plate should be between 60mm and 80mm, but only if we treat the bulging plate as a flyer plate. If we do not, then the actual dynamic thickness should be much less.

Based on this information, it is clear that the primary mechanism of shaped charge jet defeat by bulging plates lies in the disruption effect of the plate. This confirms the earlier claim that the contribution of dynamic plate thickness to the anti-shaped charge capability of NERA is either negligible, misunderstood, or both.

The photos below illustrate the effect of a NERA plate on a shaped charge jet. The three photos are from three separate repetitions of the same experimental set up. Note that a substantial portion of the tip of the jet is unaffected in all three tests, and the location of the disturbed regions of the jet is consistent between the second and third photo.

The body of the jet behind the tip is disturbed due to the formation of instabilities caused by the disruption of the shape of the jet. According to "The role of Kelvin-Helmholz instabilities on shaped charge jet interaction with reactive armour plates", the disruptions experienced by the cumulative jet are Kelvin-Helmholz instabilities. Kelvin-Helmholtz instabilities are formed when there is velocity shear in the continuous flow of a fluid, namely the shaped charge jet.

There must be some space behind the NERA plate in order for it to perform at peak efficiency. This is because the perturbations to the shaped charge jet do not manifest until a small period of time has passed. Here are several X-ray photographs, taken from Dr. Manfred Held's paper "Disturbance of Shaped Charge Jets by Bulging Armour", page 194.

The photo below shows three bulging plates shot through by a high power shaped charge jet. Notice that there are keyhole-shaped cuts in the plates, and that the plates are cracked.

More energetic interlayer materials can improve the reaction speed of the NERA plates and increase the lateral energy imparted onto the jet. Rubber is the earliest and most basic material for this application, and can be considered the least sophisticated.

According to the document Multiple Cross-Wise Oriented NERA-Panels Against Shaped Charge Warheads, (the same document contains the photos above) a single NERA panel can decrease the penetration of an 84mm shaped charge warhead from 410mm to just 70mm - a reduction of 83%. Placing two NERA panels in parallel reduces the penetration by only one centimeter more, to 60mm. This seems rather odd, but is actually due to the rather simple fact that bulging armour cannot react quickly enough to intercept the tip of a shaped charge jet. Remember that the tip of a cumulative jet formed from a typical shaped charge travels at velocities of between 8 km/s and 10 km/s or more. The high velocity jet tip imparts a lot of energy into the inert interlayer, but it is simply too fast intercept and disrupt, but it is possible to cut off the rest of the jet and prevent it from doing any harm. This fact is illustrated the photo below, taken from the aforementioned document.

The very small reduction in performance offered by the second NERA plate is almost entirely due to the erosion of the jet from impacting the material of the panel (two 3mm RHA plates and one 5mm layer of rubber), not by the movement of the plates. This was because the body of the shaped charge jet had been disrupted by the first NERA plate, leaving only the disembodied jet tip to continue. The disturbed jet body could not contribute to the final penetration depth, as many of the particles were stopped on impact with the second NERA plate. More importantly, however, this tells us that NERA plates alone are not enough to stop shaped charges. The hypervelocity jet tip is too fast to be affected by the movement of the NERA plates, and can only be stopped by erosion against a solid plate. This is why it is always necessary to install an armour plate behind a NERA array. This also shows that there are diminishing returns past a certain number of layers of NERA plates in an armour array, so it may not be beneficial to install so many plates and neglect the base armour.

Moreover, the efficacy of NERA panels will depend on the material of the bulging plates as well. The document "Combination of Inert and Energetic Materials in Reactive Armor Against Shaped Charge Jets", gives us some perspective. A rubber-based NERA panel was also involved in their testing. However, their NERA panel could only effect a 22% reduction in penetration performance for a 64mm shaped charge warhead. Where did the 61 percentage point difference go? Well, here they used a sandwich of 8mm of rubber between two 2mm thick mild steel plates. In the first document, they used a sandwich of 5mm of rubber between two 3mm thick sheets of Domex Protect 300, which is ballistic grade steel with a hardness of 300 BHN, much tougher and harder than mild steel, which has a hardness of only 145 BHN. Both examples were set at an obliquity of 60 degrees. This shows us that even though shaped charge jets achieve penetration by hydrodynamic interaction whereby both the jet and the target behave as fluids, the strength of the bulging plates still matters, and that hydrodynamic penetration is not a sufficient explanation for the interaction between bulging plates and shaped charge jets.

It is understood, then, that all of the sandwich materials are important, not just the interlayer. The potential reduction in penetration performance for a shaped charge warhead could be as high as 83% using 300 BHN steel sheets for a NERA plate with a 5mm rubber interlayer, because the ability of a bulging plate to effectively disrupt a shaped charge jet depends on the strength and toughness of the plate itself. Plus, a minor reduction in the penetration of the cumulative jet comes from penetrating the thickness of the plates themselves (not dynamic thickness). Now, let's see what the T-72B uses.

How T-72B bulging Armour Works:

The bulging plates in the T-72B work essentially as described above, except that the one plate is much thicker and therefore much more rigid than the other, forcing the thinner plate to bulge. The time taken for the rubber interlayer will be slightly shorter, because the pressure wave from the impact of the shaped charge jet with the thick front plate will energize the rubber interlayer before the jet actually passes through it, and the thick front plate will slow down the jet somewhat before it reaches the interlayer, so the bulging plate can manage to interact with the front part of the jet. The diagram below, taken from the old NII Stali website, shows the passage of the shaped charge jet through the NERA plate in three successive stages.

The first stage shows the shaped charge jet penetrating the front plate, creating a bulge in the rear surface of the plate. The second stage shows the destruction of the rear surface, causing an expansion of the rubber interlayer and the subsequent bulging of the thin rear plate. The third stage shows that by the time the shaped charge jet passes through the rubber interlayer and the thin plate, the thin plate has already begun to move perpendicularly to the front plate.

The unidirectional NERA plate might propel its single bulging plate more violently, since all of the energy absorbed into the inert sandwich layer is used to propel only one plate and not two. Still, the effect of a single bulging plate will be less effective than two plates taken together, because there is one fewer plate to disrupt the cumulative jet. However, this might be compensated by emphasizing more violent expansion in a certain direction, as shown below:

(a) "Backwards moving" means that the plate bulges against the direction of travel of the jet. This is known as an "in retreat" or "head-on" type NERA.
(b) "Forwards moving" means that the plate bulges in the same direction as the direction of travel of the jet. This is known as an "in pursuit" type NERA.

The pictures above are not of an actual simulation of cumulative jet hitting a NERA panel. The plates pictured were moved by explosives which were detonated before the jet reached the plate, but they achieve the same effect in its essence. The photos above shed light on an extremely important phenomenon, which is integral to the operation of the armour of the T-72B. In the turret, the NERA panels are all of the "in pursuit" type. This maximizes their performance, effectively reversing any penalties potentially incurred by the unidirectional design, or at least neutralizing the disadvantages.

The reason for the increased effectiveness of in-pursuit plates over head-on plates is explained on page 59 in "Interactions Between High-Velocity Penetrators and Moving Armour Components". Here is the relevant passage:

"The severe scattering of an SC jet is due to instabilities of the same kind as can be found in two fluids in contact moving in parallel with different tangential velocities (Kelvin-Helmholtz instabilities). Although this kind of instability is seldom observed in solid materials, the very high velocity and relatively low material strength of the jet, in combination with the high contact pressure and the motion of the plate allow instabilities to occur in spite of the stabilizing effect of the material strength. It is recognized in fluid mechanics that an accelerating flow is more stable than a decelerating flow, and the negative pressure gradient due to obliquity of a backwards moving plate accelerates the flow in the jet direction while the positive pressure gradient in the case of a forwards moving plate decelerates the flow in the jet direction."

The bulging armour design on the turret of the T-72B cannot be compared directly to its NATO counterparts like the Abrams. The Abrams uses conventional bidirectional bulging plates. Defeat of the tip of the cumulative jet in all cases is achieved by the erosion of the jet against the NERA plate material itself and by relying on the thick steel plate of the main armour. This is not optimum against long rod projectiles, or any KE projectile, really, as thin NERA plates will do very little against such threats and the bulging effects of the NERA armour will only do so much to the projectile before it impacts the main armour. Therefore, we can say that the NERA armour in the Abrams is capable of handling kinetic energy threats, but it is optimized for shaped charges. Given that all of the APFSDS rounds employed by Soviet tanks before the advent of Vant were of a composite design with a tungsten carbide slug, the NERA armour of the Abrams should be sufficient for its purpose. Indeed, the original requirements for the M1 Abrams were to stop 115mm APFSDS rounds at 800 meters. This was not a very high bar to pass, seeing as the T-64A turret from 1967 could have done the same.

The NERA plates have thick, high hardness steel front plates acting as spaced armour (in the same manner as the glacis array, which we have already discussed) working with bulging plates to defeat the projectile before it reaches the main armour, which is itself additionally reinforced. The substitution of bidirectional bulging plates for a unidirectional bulging plate with a thick armour plate could be a deliberate compromise to boost protection from KE threats, but having a thick plate in front of a bulging plate also improves the performance of the bulging plate, as we will later see.

NERA armour can work with both both long rod projectiles and shaped charge jets, but the mechanism of defeat is not exactly the same.

When faced with shaped charges, the bulging armour works in the same way as typical NERA plates. As the first bulging plate bulges, the midsection of the jet (the tip is far too fast to be affected) are put under lateral stresses, thus interrupting its shape. Disruption of the flow of the jet causes it to disintegrate into individual particles, and the disruption of the flow also results in Kelvin-Helmholtz instabilities forming in the jet. A sample of the NERA plates used in the T-72B turret can be seen doing exactly this in the X-ray photograph below, taken from The plate is angled at 68 degrees. 

We can see that large disrupted portions in the jet, like troughs in a sine graph, appear quite often down the length of a jet, indicating the the jet is highly disrupted. It is unfortunate that the photo is so closely focused on the NERA plate, because we cannot see the tip of the jet and its length and condition - that is the most important observation we could make from an X-ray photo like this. Besides that, it is quite clear that the disturbances in the jet only appear after travelling a certain distance behind the bulging plate, which is completely consistent with Dr. Held's findings in "Disturbance of Shaped Charge Jets by Bulging Armour". Interestingly, we can see the base of the cumulative jet at the far left of the photo, indicating that the shaped charge was detonated at a relatively short standoff distance. Overall, it would appear that the NERA configuration was successful, but we must take into consideration that the plate is oriented at 68 degrees obliquity, and this is somewhat steeper than most experimental samples demonstrated in the research papers cited, not to mention the fact that the NERA plates are angled at only 55° degrees in the T-72B turret.

However, this does not mean that the armour in the T-72B turret is ineffective. There are a variety of factors that vastly increase the performance of the NERA plates. As mentioned before, the unidirectional bulging plate of the T-72B NERA can be highly beneficial. The research paper "Study on Rubber Composite Armor Anti-Shaped Charge Jet Penetration" examines the effects of interlayer thickness in bulging armour with a rubber interlayer. It is stated on page 701 that "The interference between the back plate and the jet was neglected because the B plate gave a relatively smooth deflection of the jet without characteristic instabilities, whereas the jet was severely scattered by the F plate". The authors defined the back plate as the front bulging plate, and the front plate as the rear bulging plate. See the diagram below, taken from page 696.

The paper "Shaped Charge Optimisation against Bulging Targets" authored by Dr. Held shows that as the velocity of a shaped charge jet tip decreases, the effectiveness of bulging armour increases. This is succinctly illustrated in the diagrams below.

The velocity of the shaped charge jets was adjusted by varying the thickness of the shaped charge liner without changing the the diameter or the cone angle, which remain at 96mm and 60° respectively. The target was a 10mm steel plate in front of a 2/15/4 bulging armour plate. Shaped charges with liner thicknesses of 1mm, 2mm, 3mm and 4mm were tested. As the thickness of the shape charge liner increases, the lower the jet tip velocity. Jet tip dimeter, however, was unaffected. All warheads were detonated at a standoff of 2 CDs, except for the 2mm liner warhead, which was detonated at 6 CD. This skewed the results slightly, but the trend is very clear:

The shaped charges consistently exhibited more symptoms of disturbance as the liner thickness increases, except for the 2mm liner, but again, this exception exists only because the warhead was detonated at a greater standoff distance so that it attained higher velocity by stretching. The 2mm liner jet was also observed to be thinner than the other three, all of which had the same diameter despite having different liner thicknesses, but this was attributed once again to the increased standoff distance of the 2mm liner shaped charge.

Reducing the velocity of shaped charge jets greatly degrades its performance against bulging armour. The jet tip velocities and the liner thicknesses are given on page 368 in the graph. They are as follows:

Liner thickness, mmJet tip velocity, km/s

This is relevant to the T-72B because the thick steel armour in front of the turret cheek cavities will slow down a shaped charge jet drastically as it is penetrated, and thus improve the performance of the NERA plates by the time the jet emerges from the back of the turret cheek and into the cavity. While the bulging armour used in the test is not directly equivalent to the bulging armour configuration of the T-72B, these results are still perfectly applicable since all bulging armour designs work on the same basic principles.

The design of the bulging plates in the T-72B have another advantage because of its thick steel plate. A typical NERA array with multiple thin plates would easily reduce the penetration of a small shaped charge to nearly nothing by the time it reaches the main armour at the very back, but the tip of the cumulative jet will pass through each and every NERA plate on its way there, since it is too fast to be affected by any one of the NERA plates, and the NERA plates themselves offer too little resistance, since they are (usually) made from some plastic or elastomer sandwiched between two thin metal sheets. Because of this, there will be a hole in the second plate, third plate, fourth plate and every other plate behind it all the way to the main armour if attacked by a serious large caliber anti-tank missile. This would presumably make the NERA array of an early M1 Abrams highly vulnerable to tandem warheads.

Some tandem warheads have precursor shaped charge with a shallow cone angle like the type found in the PG-7VR, Panzerfaust 3-T, and in many other designs, including guided missiles like the Kombat. The precursor shaped charge in a tandem warhead would simply fail to penetrate all the way through, or not penetrate much at all in the case of tandem warheads that work on the principle of bypassing the reactive armour rather than destroying it. Case in point: patents for tandem warheads like Patent US5415105 A by Dynamit Nobel Aktiengesellschaft (manufacturer of Pzf. 3-T) have outright stated that:

"When firing against ERA-boxes, such boxes were penetrated by the preliminary charge so that the jet from the main charge could flow almost undisturbed through the hole in the box generated by the preliminary charge."

And the Dynamit Nobel official website says this about the Panzerfaust 3-T:

"The warhead of the Pzf 3-T is designed in such a way that the first of both shaped charges immediately penetrates the add-on armour without initiating the explosive contained therein. Less than one millisecond later, the main charge of the tandem warhead ignites and thereby immobilises the vehicle. The shooter therefore is not exposed to fragments thrown back from a reactive protection element."

In such tandem warhead designs, a hole is created without detonation of the ERA block due to the low energy of the shaped charge jet, owing to the shallow cone angle of the precursor warhead which produces a large diameter, low velocity jet. A large diameter, low velocity jet has less energy and spreads the force of impact more widely over the ERA block, thus preventing its detonation. There are proposals to use non-metal shaped charge liners to further enhance this quality, but it appears that copper or brass liners for precursor warheads are still the norm.

Besides this, other tandem warheads may have a high penetration precursor shaped charge. Such designs may protect the primary shaped charge from being damaged by the flyer plates of the ERA block by extending the delay of the detonation of the primary shaped charge so that the flyer plates have flown clear of the path of the primary shaped charge jet. This is described in detail in Russian Patent 2062439. The TOW-2A, for example, relies on detonating the ERA block to clear a path for the primary warhead, as you can see by the high angle liner for the precursor shaped charge in the diagram below (from official U.S government document, acquired by armamentresearch).

In any case, the thick front wall of the turret cavities of the T-72B turret protects the NERA array within from the influence of tandem warheads, though the same cannot be said of any externally mounted reactive armour blocks.

Also, recall that there are diminishing returns when multiple NERA plates are installed in an armour array, so it may not be advantageous to install 6, 7 or 8 NERA plates in a composite armour array but place a relatively thin main armour plate behind it. Such an array would be incredibly effective against individual shaped charges of all sizes, but incredibly ineffective against a KE penetrator.

Besides the effects of bulging armour, we must also not ignore the fact that the thick 21mm front plates make a substantial contribute as both spaced armour and to aid in increasing the effectiveness of the bulging plate by decreasing the jet tip velocity. Reading "Spaced Armor Effects on Shaped Charge Jet Penetration" by researchers from the Nanjing University of Science and Technology, we learn that the space in spaced armour may actually increase the penetration of the shaped charge jet if the air gap corresponds to the optimal stand off distance of the shaped charge. Beyond such unlucky coincidences, increasing the size of the air gap is not as beneficial as compared to increases in the thickness of the spaced plates.

Here is the conclusion of the paper, verbatim:

(DOP = Depth Of Penetration)

"The effect of the distance and plate thickness of spaced armor on penetration was analyzed. For a spaced armor plate with a given size, DOP decreased with the increase in the distance between the first and second plate. However, within a certain stand-off range, DOP did not decrease with an increase in distance mainly because of jet stretch, which created increasing penetration on the penetration vs. stand-off curve. When the distance was constant, DOP decreased with an increase in spaced armor plate thickness."

The paper also details the changing physical condition of the shaped charge jet as it impacts and exits the spaced plates. It is noted that "During the process of target perforation, the jet was compressed, which increased the jet tip diameter. Upon leaving the first target plate, relief of the compressed material occurred, which led to further expansion of the jet tip". Needless to say, an increase in the jet tip diameter and its partial particulation are not very beneficial to the penetration power of the shaped charge jet, but not only that; as noted beforehand, Dr. Held's research showed that "robust" jets with larger diameters but lower velocities performed more poorly against bulging armour.

The RHA plates used in the experiment were 10mm thick, angled at 69 degrees - analogous to the spaced steel plates in the T-72B glacis. The LOS thickness of each plate was therefore 27.9mm (nowhere near the 36.6mm of the plates in the turret). It is stated that the original jet velocity at the point of formation was 6.5 km/s, decreasing to 5.3 km/s as it exited the first plate, further decreasing to 4.8 km/s as it exited the second plate. In other words, the first plate decreased the velocity of the jet by 18.46%, and the second plate by 9.4%. The smaller reduction offered by the second plate is likely due to the stretching of the jet - the first plate was probably not thick enough to particulate the jet and halt stretching. Since we have already established that the heavy front wall of the turret cavity (up to 130mm LOS thickness) will substantially decrease the velocity of a shaped charge jet before it even impacts the thick front wall of the NERA plate, it is clear that the jet will be particulated, slow, and therefore highly vulnerable to the bulging plates in the turret cavity when it finally reaches them.

In addition, the shaped charge jet will most likely be disrupted and particulated as it leaves the first NERA plate, leaving only a section of the jet tip travelling at hypervelocity to continue through the array. The jet tip will probably escape the bulging effect of any subsequent NERA plate past the first or perhaps the second plate in an array of typical NERA sandwiches, but the thick steel wall of the NERA plates in the T-72B turret may reduce the velocity of the jet tip before it impacts the next bulging plate. Reducing the velocity of the jet tip may enable the bulging plate to disrupt the tail part of the jet tip segment, which will probably not result in a big reduction in penetration, but in theory, there should at least be some small contribution. The thick walls also help stop the jet tip by acting as spaced armour.


NERA works in a similar way against long rod projectiles. In this context, the Soviet style NERA is clearly more suitable than a traditional sandwich configuration, thanks to the heavy front plate if nothing else. One conceivable advantage of the Soviet NERA design is that the heavy front plate enables energy to be transmitted to the rubber interlayer before the projectile impacts the rubber itself, and this may be a major source of energy for the interlayer. Typical NERA sandwiches with plastic interlayers may find themselves neatly perforated without substantial energetic expansion.

The movement of the bulging plates in the T-72B turret may induce lateral movement and produce internal stresses in a long rod penetrator. The addition of a sideways velocity component in a long rod penetrator can lead to yaw.

According to "The Relation between Initial Yaw and Long Rod Projectile Shape after Penetrating an Oblique Thin Plate" authored by Israeli researchers, even one degree of yaw before striking a thin angled plate would significantly reduce that projectile's penetration potential against any armour behind that plate as a result of the deformation of that projectile.

The x-ray photos above show tungsten alloy rods interacting with a sloped armour steel plate with yaw, and no yaw. The rod with no yaw appears to be worse off, as it lost its tip, but that is simply the result of impacting a sloped armour plate (recall the glacis array of the T-72B). The rod with 1 degree of yaw, on the other hand, is seen visibly bent, although it retains its tip. A subsequent impact would show the difference between the two. A bent rod would fail to penetrate as much armour as an intact and straight rod. A combination of the loss of the tip and the bending of the rod would yield the best results, of course, and the combination of sloped spaced armour and NERA in the turret of the T-72B may work in that direction.

The greater the yaw, the greater the negative effect. The hard steel strike plate (45mm) behind the NERA array is angled in the opposite direction to the angle of the NERA panels, so that as the long rod penetrator passes through each panel is becomes increasingly deflecting away (both due to deflection from the bulging plates and due to the natural tendency of long rod penetrators to tunnel inwards into the plate), the relative angle between the rod and the strike plate continually increases. Be reminded that there are at least five bulging modules in the projectile's flight path if the turret is shot head-on. Each individual bulging module works with the next module directly behind it to place the penetrator under great stress, causing it to bend, and perhaps fracture as it passes through the multi-layer array.

According to German tank expert author and lecturer Rolf Hilmes, one method to augment the efficacy of NERA armour against kinetic threats is to incorporate a heavy armour plate in front of the NERA array, so that the penetrator is shattered or fractured before it enters the array. This is the function of the heavy cast steel front plate of the turret cheeks. In later iterations of the T-72B, this effect is augmented by Kontakt-5 reactive armour, so that the NERA array in the turret is highly amplified.

If and when the projectile has gone through all of the NERA panels, it will meet the hardened rolled steel plate backing. Angled at 55 degrees to the horizontal axis, the 45mm plate measures 78.45mm. However, the function of the plate is much more significant than its mere thickness suggests, since the projectile that will be striking it will no longer have an optimal shaping, meaning that this plate could function to totally outright shatter the already fractured and damaged penetrator. The dissimilar hardnesses of the 45mm steel plate and the 90mm cast steel wall behind it turns it into a DHA (Dual Hardness Armour) pairing, making it inherently stronger and more resilient than a single monolithic steel plate of the same thickness. The softer 90mm cast steel wall behind the hard steel plate will also produce less spall. This, in addition to the anti-radiation lining acting as a spall liner, means that the beyond-armour effects of a projectile or a shaped charge would be greatly diminished whether it perforates the armour or not.

Note that bulging armour shouldn't be specially affected by projectiles with impressive length/diameter ratios by any great amount. In fact, it's quite possible that greater length/dimater ratios will actually increase the effectiveness of the array if said projectile is longer but not wider, which would make bending and fracturing it easier, as the stiffness is decreased, while the material properties of the metal remain the same. Snapping of the rod is possible because of the forward momentum of the projectile, which naturally resists a change in the direction of motion. Pressure builds up in the rod due to the large forces opposing each other, and if there is a weakened point in the rod, the thing might fracture or snap. So why continue to increase the L/D ratio of modern tank ammunition? Because the benefit of increased penetration totally offset whatever drawbacks there are.

Also, a rather important point related to the effectiveness of the NERA array in the turret is its ability to perform when hit at abnormal angles, especially considering the regularity in which tanks are hit from the flank. The answer is that the NERA plates would work even better at steeper angles, as it would be if the turret was struck from the side. But that is not to say that the tank is better protected from the side. Not at all; against shaped charges, the array would still have more to lose than gain since fewer bulging modules would be in the path of the shaped charge jet. It is in this situation that the high hardness steel front plates of the NERA plates again become particularly useful as the already good thickness of the plate will further increase due to steeper angling. From an angle of 30 degrees to the side of the turret, a pair of 21mm front plates would measure a total 240mm in thickness, having a relative slope angle of 80 degrees. Also, the high obliquity of the spaced plates at this turret angle ensures high resistance to long rod projectiles. 80 degrees is very close to the critical ricochet angle of long rod projectiles in the 1700 m/s to 1800 m/s velocity range. Since the heavy front wall of the turret cavity will decrease the velocity of an attacking long rod projectile greatly, the angle of the NERA plates will almost certainly be at the critical ricochet angle of the projectile as it comes out the other side of the heavy front wall. See this simulation of a model of 3BM48 "Svinets" interacting with a 50mm hard steel plate at 1600 m/s at an 81 degree slope, with catastrophic results. Also, a long rod penetrator can lose 50% of its penetration power after penetrating a high hardness steel plate of the same thickness as the rod diameter at an angle of 73 to 76 degrees, as we have already learned from our earlier examination of the spaced armour in the upper glacis of the T-72B obr. 1985. Even when not at the critical ricochet angle of a long rod projectile, the very high obliquity of the spaced plates may ensure the immunity of the turret even when fired from the side.

In short, we can say with confidence that the T-72B is essentially impenetrable from a frontal 70-degree arc by contemporary munitions unless the weak gun mantlet was hit.


As with all composite and spaced armours, the complex operation of the T-72B's armour does not allow an expression of its protection value in the simple terms of homogeneous RHA plates. However, we can give a good estimate of how it would perform against certain types of munitions on a case by case basis. With Kontakt-1, T-72B is immune to any and all single charge HEAT missiles, and highly resistant against the majority of missiles with tandem warheads. The base armour in the turret cheeks is itself probably capable of taking on a shaped charge with at least 800mm of penetration. TOW-2 and MILAN-2 missiles will be ineffectual against T-72Bs, and it is very likely that the turret will be resistant to TOW-2A and MILAN-2T as well, but only on the thickest parts of the cheeks.

A very basic estimation of the total steel thickness of the turret cheek against shaped charges can be done by adding up the LOS steel thickness of all the plates. First, we add up the 117mm cast front wall (adjusted from 130mm actual thickness) with the 141.2mm cast steel rear wall (adjusted from 157mm actual thickness) and 78.5mm rolled backing plate, and then we add the LOS thicknesses of four 21mm high hardness steel plates, and add four 3mm steel plates to that. If we ignore the disruptive effect of the bulging plates entirely, then the turret cheek should be equivalent to around 503mm RHA against KE and 530mm against HEAT in pure thickness alone. This is quite close to the claimed protection value of 550mm against a KE projectile (Tekhnika i Vooruzhenie Magazine, November 2006 issue, p.14), considering that we are simply adding up the thickness in pure steel and ignoring the benefits of the spaced armour configuration and the different hardnesses of the steel plates inside the array. Since jet disruption is the primary mechanism of bulging plates, the actual protection offered by the T-72B turret cheek must be much, much higher than this. Kontakt-1 is installed as standard equipment on all T-72B tanks, and we know that the reduction in penetration offered by Kontakt-1 at 0 degrees obliquity is 55%, so we can divide 530mm with 55% to get 963.6mm. Adding on the effects of NERA and the spaced armour, the protection value of the turret cheeks must be equivalent to much more than 1 meter of RHA steel. Against KE threats, the "more than 550mm" claim should be considered accurate, but an underestimation. These estimations are for the cheek armour in front of the gunner's primary sight aperture. The closer to the edge of the turret, the stronger the armour will be.

Both the turret cheeks and the upper glacis armour would be able to handle M833 (1983) very well, as the M833 is less impressive than the M829 but still slightly better than 120mm DM23. For reference, M833 has a 24mm diameter, 427mm long DU penetrator, travelling at 1495 m/s. Seeing as it would have been the most common ammunition available to M60A3 and M1 Abrams tanks prior to the introduction of the M1A1, this is rather important. Latecomers like the M900 (introduction in 1989 to 1990) would still be worse than its more powerful 120mm counterparts like the M829A1, as it travels at a lower velocity (1500 m/s) than the relatively slow M829A1, and it does not have a superior L/D ratio. For reference, the M900 has a 23mm diameter, 603mm long DU penetrator. The penetration of the German DM23 and DM33 tungsten long rod projectiles are completely insufficient, being less than the physical thickness of the steel in the turret array. M829A1 has the best performance among all other 105mm and 120mm tank gun rounds of the time, but it is probably still insufficient at combat ranges.

The turret cheek cavities offer a great deal of modularity and repairability. The bulging armour is simply inserted into the turret cavity panel by panel - as simple as that. In the field, replacing the bulging armour is a simple matter of cutting off the top at the weld lines (very distinctly seen in the picture below), putting new panels in, and replacing the top. This makes battle damage very easy to repair, and it also simplifies the installation of upgraded panels in the future.

Aside from that, it must be noted that despite the huge leap in protection relative to the previous T-72 models, the T-72B's turret remains just as inexpensive. The sheer commodity of steel and rubber makes it very easy and inexpensive to produce the NERA plates of the T-72B, while the workmanship required to process the cast turret does not demand any new skills or any retraining. This is undeniably an important asset during wartime, and would have ensured a very high volume of production even in the hardest times. Indeed, it is worth noting that the peak of T-72 production in Uralvagonzavod was in 1985 - the year the T-72B obr. 1985 entered mass production.


All T-72Bs are outfitted with a set of 227 blocks of Kontakt-1 covering the most of the hull and the forward arc of the turret as well as the turret roof. As mentioned before with the T-72A, each block can reduce the penetrating effects of cumulative jets by an average of 55% at 0 degrees, and by up to 80% when angled at 60 degrees. NII Stali claims that it can reduce the penetration power of a typical anti-tank missile like the Konkurs (130mm diameter) by up to 86%, or 58% for a 125mm HEAT shell, or up to a whopping 92% for low power warheads like the one on the 66mm LAW.

According to NII Stali, the percentage of the tank surface covered by Kontakt-1 is as follows:

Turret Hull Front Hull Sides

The weight of the Kontakt-1 blocks over the three individual surfaces are as follows:

Turret Hull Front Hull Sides
422 kg
288 kg
300 kg

The total weight of the Kontakt-1 set for the T-72B is 1310 kg, 110 kg more than on the T-72A. There are 46 blocks on each sideskirt, 63 blocks on the upper and lower glacis plates, and 72 blocks on the frontal arc of the turret and turret roof.


Kontakt-5 is classified as integrated reactive armour, as opposed to add-on reactive armour like Kontakt-1. Being somewhat heavier and more powerful than Kontakt-1 per block, it was not possible to simply bolt the Kontakt-5 reactive armour panels onto the tank, thus necessitating the installation of the panels onto the base armour by welding. The only way to remove them is to cut off the plates at the weld seams, so it is only possible to remove the panels if the tank is at a depot or if a BREM-1 recovery vehicle is available. If a panel is spent, a new one is simply welded in its place. A complete set of Kontakt-5 weighs 1.5 tons, most of it from heavy steel plates. The weight is distributed evenly between the turret and hull. NII Stali claims that the total area of the tank protected by Kontakt-5 from a frontal view is 55%. The hull is 45% covered when viewed from a sideways angle of 20 degrees. The turret is 45% covered at a sideways angle of 35 degrees. Atrocious as it may seem, these figures still do not tell the whole story; a large part of the unprotected area is at the turret ring area of the tank, which is the center mass of the tank and would be where the majority of enemy shots will land.

Although Kontakt-5 is also used on the T-80U, there are actually a few distinct variants of Kontakt-5 that all differ in the exact construction but operate on the same basic unifying principle. The Kontakt-5 reactive armour package used on the T-72B obr. 1989 is unique to the T-72.

There is sufficient information in the public domain for us to simulate the interaction between Kontakt-5 and many modern long rod projectiles. Equipped with the theoretical models designed by Dr. Manfred Held and H.S Yadav, among others, it would be rather simple. However, that is not the aim of this examination. Instead, the aim is to gain an accurate understanding of Kontakt-5, its many intricacies, and the paths taken by Soviet engineers more than 30 years ago.


Kontakt-5 was designed to use 4S22 explosive elements, as opposed to 4S20 which was used in Kontakt-1. 4S22 is an improvement over 4S20 in every way. Chemically, the PVV-12M plastic explosive used in 4S22 is composed of 85% RDX and 15% inert phlegmatizing agent, similar to 4S20. However, 4S22 retains its ductility at a slightly expanded temperature range of -50°C  to +50°C, and 4S22 has a higher flash point of 300°C, making it more resistant to napalm.

The manual for the tank and NII Stali both state that the total number of 4S22 explosive elements installed in the T-72B obr. 1989 is 240 pieces.

According to an NII Stali information placard shared by Alexey Khlopotov, 4S22 is identical to the 4S20 explosive element in dimensions, measuring in at 252x130x10 mm. The mass of the complete explosive element is 1.37 kg, while the mass of the explosive charge alone is 0.28 kg. The PVV-12M explosive charge has a similar composition as PVV-5A but is denser and more powerful. PVV-12M has a density of 1.5 g/cc and a detonation velocity of 7.76 km/s. Because PVV-12M has a higher detonation velocity compared to PVV-5A and a bigger mass, 4S22 has an explosive power equivalent to 0.33 kg of TNT. The thickness of the sandwich layers are assumed to be the same as the 4S20; a pair of 2.3mm steel plates sandwiching a 5.4mm plastic explosive interlayer. Using the Gurney equation for symmetrical sandwiches, the velocity of the plates of the 4S22 element at the moment of detonation should be around 1.258 km/s.

The anti-shaped charge capabilities of 4S22 on its own was demonstrated on a TV Zvezda show called "Военная приемка" ("Military Acceptance"), in episode "Т-90. Бункер на колесах" (T-90: Bunker on Tracks). The screenshot below, taken at the 18:40 mark of the show, shows the experimental set up used for the demonstration. The 60 kg armour plate used as the target is claimed to be equivalent to the steel used in the T-90 tank, and the so-called "dynamic element" is claimed to weigh 1.37 kg, which means that it can only be 4S22. The shaped charge is similar to the one previously used at the 18:17 mark of the show, which was shown to be capable of penetrating around 200mm of the same type of armour plate in LOS thickness. The targets are angled at 60 degrees.

As you can see in the screenshot below, an imprint of the forwards (in-pursuit) flyer plate is left on the armour plate and the penetration of the shaped charge jet is reduced to practically nothing. The fragments of the particulated jet only gouge the plate and crater the surface.

Evidently, a shaped charge with around 200mm of penetration into RHA can reduced to just a few millimeters by 4S22 at a 60 degree obliquity. This is only a demonstration, however, and not necessarily a scientific one. This is definitely not a demonstration of how much Kontakt-5 can reduce the penetration of a shaped charge, as the 4S22 elements are arranged differently in Kontakt-5.


Part of the T-72B3 obr. 2016 modernization involved the replacement of the 4S22 elements in the built-in Kontakt-5 panels with the somewhat newer 4S23 elements originally developed for the Relikt reactive armour system. 

A more detailed examination of 4S23 and its function in Kontakt-5 will be available shortly.


Kontakt-5 is much more complex than commonly thought. The typical description of Kontakt-5 paints it as a head-on flyer plate design using a thick and slow flyer plate, and that the design is very inefficient as a consequence. Other descriptions mention the high thickness of the flyer plate as a positive thing, as it would "feed more armour into the path of the penetrator" as it passes through the armour, but we already know that that is largely incorrect. In reality, Kontakt-5 propels a total of three flyer plates head-on towards a projectile in a timed sequence to enable the ERA to resist both shaped charge jets and KE penetrators with minimal compromises.

Dr. Manfred Held conducted exhaustive studies on impact initiation, and his works in this subcategory of ballistics are relevant to us now in our examination of Kontakt-5. It is known that when a projectile or shaped charge jet passes through a barrier placed over an explosive charge, a highly energetic burst of spall and fragments is generated at the back surface of the plate and travels towards the explosive charge, thereby initiating detonation. According to a summary on page 8 in "The Legacy of Manfred Held with Critique", Dr. Held observed that an explosive charge directly in contact with a barrier was less easily initiated by a jet impact than a one with an air gap between the barrier and the charge. One of the explanations is that an explosive charge placed in contact with the barrier is exposed in a smaller area than the charge with an air gap between it and the barrier, as the air gap considerably increases the spall cone angle and therefore the area of the explosive charge exposed to the spray of spall and fragments emerging from the back surface of the barrier. This is supported by a later study titled "High Explosive Initiation Behavior by Shaped Charge Jet Impacts", where it was reported that an explosive charges with a gap between it and the steel barrier will detonate in the impact initiation mode, whereas an explosive charge in contact with the steel barrier detonates in the penetration initiation mode. This essentially means that when an air gap is present, the explosive charge detonates promptly whereas the lack of an air gap requires the shaped charge jet to penetrate far into the charge to initiate detonation. In practical terms, we can safely say that having an air gap decreases the reaction time of Kontakt-5 to shaped charge jets, and thus improves its effectiveness at disrupting the shaped charge jet.

These results apply for both bare explosive charges as well as cased charges (charges encased in a steel container), so it is applicable to 4S22 explosive elements. Russian publications have mentioned that Kontakt-5 relies on this phenomenon to achieve detonation when impacted by long rod penetrators. The explanation is that spall is readily produced when a thin and brittle plate of high hardness is struck by a projectile as well as during the penetration process. This is validated by infamous Russian expert and pessimist Mikhail Rastopshin, a former NII Stali scientist, who revealed in an article penned in 2005 that the flyer plate of Kontakt-5 has a high hardness and is very brittle. According to Rastopshin, this facilitates the generation of spall and fragments upon impact and penetration by a long rod penetrator, thus ensuring reliable and quick detonation of the explosive elements. However, this does not mean that Kontakt-5 relies exclusively on the spall from its heavy flyer plate to initiate its explosive content.

"Test Setup For Instrumented Initiation Tests" by Dr. Held deals with the effects of projectile mass, projectile velocity and barrier thickness on the initiation threshold of encased explosive charges. Held found that adding a barrier in front of the case explosive charge increased the initiation threshold for projectile velocity compared to a plain cased charge, and increasing the thickness of the barrier increased the velocity threshold. This is completely unsurprising, because there is a pressure threshold that needs to be met or exceeded for an explosive charge to detonate, and the spalling and fragmentation of a barrier would transfer only a portion of the energy of a long rod projectile to the explosive charge. The impact of the projectile itself would invariably generate higher pressure for thin long rod projectiles.

This essentially means that the front flyer plate of Kontakt-5 would be detrimental to the reliability of detonation when compared to exposed 4S22 elements. The presence of an air gap in the design of Kontakt-5 would reduce the velocity threshold necessary to initiate detonation due to the increased spall cone angle, but the net effect would still be an increase in the velocity threshold. However, this would not matter if the velocity threshold is within the range of striking velocities for modern APFSDS ammunition. Needless to say, the specific velocity threshold varies between modern long rod projectiles due to the different characteristics of different rounds, so giving a fixed number to represent all long rod penetrators would be misleading. We can only estimate that this threshold encompasses the striking velocities of typical long rod projectiles at combat ranges of 1.5 to 2 km.

In short, if the velocity and mass threshold of the projectile is sufficient, the air gap between the heavy front plate and the explosive elements in each Kontakt-5 module will have the effect of shortening the reaction time of the system against shaped charge jets and facilitates the action of Kontakt-5 against long rod projectiles. For shaped charge jets, the quicker reaction time enables the flyer plates to intercept the tip of the jet and more of the body, thus preventing much of the hypervelocity tip from continuing into the main armour. This explains the very high reduction in shaped charge warhead performance against Kontakt-5 of up to 80% despite having fewer flyer plates and the use of head-on flyer plates rather than a mix of head-on and in-pursuit flyer plates like Kontakt-1. 

The confined nature of the Kontakt-5 panels also improves their chance of detonation for a wider range of shaped charge jet velocities. Held observed that confined explosives have a lower threshold between detonation and reaction and between reaction and no reaction for significantly lower shaped charge jet velocities. The confinement would be partially from the built-in steel case of the 4S22 element itself and from the thick walls of the Kontakt-5 panels. If the velocity threshold for detonation from spall and fragmentation is not attained, the explosive elements can still be initiated by the direct impact of the projectile.

According to "A numerical study on the detonation behaviour of double reactive cassettes by impacts of projectiles with different nose shapes", the detonation of a double stack of explosive cassettes (elements) by high velocity long rod steel penetrators can be prevented by changing the shape of the nose. The paper is highly relevant to our study on Kontakt-5 as the double stack of explosives modeled in the same arrangement as the 4S22 explosive elements in Kontakt-5, and the mechanisms that dictate the initiation of the explosive charge are explained in full. 

Steel rods were used in the simulations detailed in the study. The striking velocity of the rods was 1800 m/s. The explosive elements used in the simulations were roughly analogous to 4S22. The Composition B filler in the explosive elements in the study had a thickness of 7mm, and were encased in steel walls 2mm thick. Needless to say, the Composition B explosive charge used in the study is not directly comparable to PVV-12M, as PVV-12M has a much higher phlegmatizer content and is therefore much less sensitive to impact, but detonating 4S22 elements by direct impact from long rod projectiles is still completely plausible.

The main method of initiating detonation is by shock. The study "The Shock-to-Detonation Transition in Explosives - an Overview" gives a concise explanation of this phenomenon. In short, the impact of an object on the surface of an explosive charge produces a shockwave. The shockwave accelerates deeper into the explosive charge and detonation occurs after the shockwave has travelled a certain depth into the charge, and this depth is called the run distance to detonation. The run-to-detonation differs between explosives, but as a rule, the thickness of the charge must be equal to or greater than the run-distance of the explosive in order for the charge to detonate by this method.

It also found that reducing the velocity of the flat-nosed rod from 1800 m/s to 1700 m/s effectively prevented the initiation of a run-up detonation, but detonation was still achieved from the reflection of the shockwave of impact from the backplate of the explosive element and the build-up of pressure from the compression of the explosive material against the backplate. This effect is undoubtedly reinforced in Kontakt-5 by the placement of the 4S22 elements flush against the surface of the glacis plate, and by the fully contained nature of each Kontakt-5 panel. As detailed in the summary of the paper, the backplate effect is independent of the run-up detonation, and is therefore also independent to the spall effect. It was possible to avoid this effect with hemispherical noses as the build-up of pressure was followed by the displacement of the pressurized explosive material away from the path of the rod, so the pressure was insufficient to initiate detonation. The fact that a small reduction in velocity from 1800 m/s to 1700 m/s was enough to prevent detonation of the Composition B charge by the conventional run-to-detonation method indicates that PVV-12M would most definitely not be initiated even at higher striking velocities due to its low sensitivity. This essentially leaves the shockwave reflection effect solely responsible for initiating Kontakt-5 in the case of a failure to detonate from the spall effect.

There is less unpredictability with shaped charges, as the incredibly high pressure imparted onto an explosive charge upon impact and during penetration by a typical shaped charge jet practically guarantees detonation under any condition. The spall effect from the heavy flyer plate of Kontakt-5 merely reduces the reaction time of the system.

Although Rastopshin is entirely correct in his suggestion that Western long rod projectiles may defeat Kontakt-5 via their relatively low striking velocity, decreasing the velocity of the projectile has a negative effect on its penetration power, and this limits its ability to defeat the base armour. As such, the only viable methods of defeating Kontakt-5 are to have a special tip and to have a segmented penetrator rod. Indeed, modern APFSDS shells fielded by the major leaders in the field - Germany, Israel, U.S.A - are fired at their optimal velocities to maximize their penetrative power, rather than at velocities that are low enough to bypass reactive armour. The best example is the introduction of the Rh 120 L55 cannon in Germany to increase the muzzle velocity of existing 120mm APFSDS ammunition when fired from upgraded Leopard 2 tanks. Even the M829A3 - which is rumoured to be aimed at defeating Kontakt-5 via its low velocity of 1670 m/s - almost certainly has a relatively low muzzle velocity because it is closer to the optimum velocity for its particular alloy of depleted uranium. The graph below, created by Willi Odermatt (a well known scientist specializing in terminal ballistics), shows the relationship between the penetration depth of a generic long rod penetrator for generic alloys of depleted uranium, tungsten alloy and steel. As you can see, the optimum velocity for depleted uranium penetrators is generally lower than tungsten alloy.

From this, it is apparent that the defeat of Kontakt-5 by low velocity impact is currently not being pursued by Western militaries, and is not a feasible solution for the future. Indeed, the renowned German military expert, lecturer and author Rolf Hilmes stated that DM53 has a three-part penetrator and is specially designed to deal with composite and reactive armour, and it is reported that the DM53 is optimized to be fired from the L55 cannon, which allows it to attain a muzzle velocity of 1752 m/s. While this is not the optimum velocity for tungsten alloy long rod penetrators, that is only because the optimum velocity is unattainable with current generation tank guns.

With that in mind, it is clear that the detonation of the explosive elements in Kontakt-5 is not always guaranteed. Special nose shapes on APFSDS projectiles may be able to reduce the pressure exerted on the explosive charge or prohibit the complete detonation of the charge. Russian engineers were fully aware of this fact, as proven by evidence of numerous experiments conducted in the USSR aimed at penetrating explosive elements without detonating them.

During the development of Kontakt-5, Soviet engineers spared no expense to find ways to overcome their own brainchild. According to Rastopshin, experiments have confirmed that long rod projectiles travelling at low velocities do not cause detonation of reactive armour from barrier spall. Another effort was aimed at modifying existing high velocity APFSDS rounds to defeat the armour. One of the successful solutions took the form of a protruding steel probe of small diameter installed on the tip of a specially modified 3BM-22 "Zakolka" shell.

As part of our analysis, we will once again refer to "Test Setup For Instrumented Initiation Tests" by Manfred Held deals with the effects of projectile mass, projectile velocity and barrier thickness on the initiation threshold of encased explosive charges. From his findings, we can surmise that the function of the small steel probe was to avoid the detonation of the explosive elements by presenting a small impact area, whereby the relative mass of the projectile impacting the front plate of the Kontakt-5 panel is minimal, thus preventing detonation from the spall effect. The subsequent detonation of the explosive elements from the direct impact of the rod itself might be prevented by the change in the shape of the armour piercing cap from the interaction of the steel probe. The stresses experienced by the soft armour piercing cap could presumably change its shape from a frustum to a shallow ogive or some other shape that was incompatible with the detonation of 4S22 elements.

As the double stack of 4S22 explosive elements is pinned to the backplate of the reactive armour module, a reliable detonation of the explosive elements should be expected from a long rod projectiles with flat noses. Examples of such projectiles include the 3BM-32 "Vant", 3BM-42 "Mango", DM13 (120), DM23 (120), DM33 (120), DM23 (105), DM33 (105) and many more, including older projectiles. Information on the behaviour of projectiles with stepped tips like the M111 and the M829A2 is not easily found in the public domain, but it is known that stepped tips are used to dampen the shockwave travelling down the rod at the moment of impact to reduce the severity of the damage to the rod.

From what we now understand of Kontakt-5 and the methods of overcoming it, it should be immensely clear that there are no modern long rod projectiles currently in use that are aimed at defeating Kontakt-5 by low velocity or by low contact area, and this generalization includes some of the most modern ammunition such as M829A3 and DM53. M829A3 overcomes Kontakt-5 via a two-part segmented penetrator with a steel segment at the tip, and DM53 overcomes Kontakt-5 via a segmented penetrator as well, albeit with three-parts. It should also be clear now that the M829A2 has no special provision for defeating Kontakt-5, despite widespread rumours that it was designed as a special countermeasure to Kontakt-5. A simple comparison of muzzle velocities between the four members of the M829 series confirms this. The M829 travels at 1750 m/s at the muzzle, while the M829A1 has a greatly reduced velocity of 1575 m/s, and the M829A3 is only slightly slower at 1555 m/s. The M829A2 had the second highest muzzle velocity at 1675 m/s, behind only the original M829. With the initiation of the reactive armour being all but unavoidable, the objective of M829A2 was to defeat the base armour in spite of the damage taken from the flyer plate of Kontakt-5.


It has been shown by Dr. Manfred Held that the primary mechanism of long rod projectile defeat by heavy reactive armour is the transfer of momentum from the flyer plates to the projectile. The desired effect is the deflection of the projectile from its original direction of travel and in the disruption of the shape of the projectile, whether it be by fracturing it, shattering it, bending it, introducing yaw or by cutting it into fragments. In order to achieve this, a sufficiently thick and heavy flyer plate must be used against the long rod projectile, and the emphasis is on the mass of the flyer plate and not the velocity. 

Kontakt-5 modules on the hull rely solely on the action of head-on flyer plates to defeat attacking projectiles, whereas the modules on the turret and on the side hull are designed to send flyer plates in both directions. We have already examined the peculiarities of forward moving (in-pursuit) and backward moving (head-on) flyer plates, and from what we know, it is quite clear that head-on flyer plates are much less efficient than in-pursuit plates. There are a few general rules of improving the performance of flyer plates; increasing the mass of the plate; increasing the velocity of the plate; and increasing the angle of the plate, and any combination of the three.

The efficiency of the modules on the hull are increased through a combination of all three methods to a certain extent, but not without a few negative consequences. The high angling of the Kontakt-5 modules for the hull is guaranteed by the good 68 degree slope of the upper glacis, so there were no compromises that needed to be made here. However, the heavy flyer plates of the hull modules are conspicuously thicker than the plates on the turret modules, and this led to an increase in the mass of the plates. To accelerate this heavy mass to a high velocity, as many as twelve 4S22 explosive elements are used in each module. The twelve explosive charges have a combined explosive power equivalent to 3.36 kg of TNT. The blast has a small contribution in the reduction of the penetration of a shaped charge jet, of course, but the side effect is that external equipment on the tank may be destroyed or damaged and personnel both inside and outside the tank may suffer injuries. There is even a possibility of a flyer plate impacting the gun barrel under the right conditions, but I digress.

Upon detonation, the thin front plates of the first and second explosive elements are propelled at high velocity head-on against the direction of travel of the jet. Estimating the velocity of the thin flyer plates of the 4S22 elements on their own is straightforward, but predicting the velocity of the heavy flyer plates requires a few more steps, because there is momentum transfer from the thin flyer plates of the 4S22 elements to the heavy plate. A simplified model of Kontakt-5 will be used for our calculations.

Due to the very high velocity of the thin flyer plates of the 4S22 elements, it is assumed that they will fuse to the surface of the heavy flyer plate upon impact, so we can classify it as an inelastic collision. The small gap between the 4S22 elements and the heavy flyer plate enable the thin flyer plates to is inconsequential due to the closed nature of Kontakt-5 panels. This enables us to conveniently add the mass of the thin flyer plates to the mass of the heavy flyer plate without other considerations to determine the final velocity of the heavy plate. This assumption is validated in "Momentum Transfer in Indirect Explosive Drive". The heavy flyer plate will be driven by the expansion of gasses only after it impacted by the thin flyer plates. Due to the conservation of energy, the momentum of the thin flyer plates and the heavy flyer plate cannot be calculated as separate entities and then added together, because there is a finite source of energy. Therefore, the mass of the heavy flyer plate alone cannot be plugged into a Gurney equation to obtain its velocity. We must add the mass of the thin flyer plates to the heavy flyer plate, and treat the resultant final mass as a single entity.

According to Russian academicians and experts, the thickness of the heavy flyer plates is 15mm. This is confirmed by the drawings from the T-72B obr. 1989 technical manual. Beyond that, we can figure out the mass of the heavy flyer plate with minimal guesswork by simply adding up the widths and lengths of the 4S22 elements behind each plate to get the approximate surface area, and then multiply that with the approximate thickness of the heavy flyer plate. The simplest modules to calculate are the modules along the top row on the upper glacis. Since there are six 4S22 elements behind the plate, the plate has a surface area of at least 0.19656 sq.m. There is a small gap between the explosive elements and the partitions onto which the flyer plate is welded, and if we make the assumption that these small details add just under 1 cm to the length and width of the plate, then we can round off the surface area to 0.2 sq.m. Using these figures, we get 23.55 kg.

The mass of the 4S22 thin flyer plates is readily determined by simply subtracting the mass of the explosive charge (0.28 kg) from the total mass of the explosive element (1.37 kg), and then dividing that by two. Six flyer plates gives us 3.27 kg, and another twelve flyer plates gives us 6.54 kg for a total of 9.81 kg. Therefore, the final mass of the heavy flyer plate is 33.36 kg.

The mass of the explosive charge will be 0.28 kg multiplied by twelve, giving us 3.36 kg. This is rather low compared to the final mass of the heavy flyer plate after factoring in the mass of the thin flyer plates. It is explained in "Flyer Plate Motion by Thin Sheet of Explosive" by H.S Yadav that at very low C/M ratio, the calculated velocity of the flyer plates using the Gurney model is at variance with experimental results. This is supported by "Gurney Energy of Explosives: Estimation of the Velocity and Impulse Imparted to Driven Metal", which mentions that the recommended restrictions for the Gurney model is 0.2 < M/C < 10 (p. 11). Fortunately, the M/C ratio of the final mass of the heavy flyer plate to the explosive charge is 9.92, placing it just within the stated restrictions. Thus, the results from the Gurney model can be considered reasonably accurate.

It is stated on page 11 in "Gurney Energy of Explosives: Estimation of the Velocity and Impulse Imparted to Driven Metal" that a small gap between the flyer plate and the explosive charge will result in very little decrease in plate velocity, so for all intents and purposes, we will assume that the heavy flyer plate is in contact with the explosive charge, and this means that the Gurney model is applicable. The loss in plate velocity will be considered negligible, but it will be represented in our calculations by rounding down our result to the nearest ten.

Now that we have ascertained all of our variables, we can use the Gurney equation for an infinitely tamped sandwich in our calculations. The reasoning is that even though the 60mm backing plate (the front plate of the base upper glacis armour) is only four times the thickness of the 15mm heavy flyer plate, the backing plate is affixed to a rigid structure - the hull - and the Kontakt-5 panel only occupies a relatively small area of the upper glacis, so the base armour plate does not experience any acceleration from the blast. Since the velocity of the backing plate would be zero, it has the same behaviour as an infinitely thick tamper plate, and it will be treated as such.

Plugging our figures into the Gurney equation, we get 807.47 m/s. Rounding it down to account for the air gap between the flyer plate and the explosive charge, we get 800 m/s.

Despite our precautions, these are still only approximations. The Gurney model used for this calculation is for an unenclosed explosive charge, so the true velocity of the heavy flyer plate could be slightly higher because no energy is lost from the system. An enclosed system like Kontakt-5 would force all of the propulsive energy of the explosive charge to be focused on the single flyer plate.


Due to the high strength of long rod penetrators compared to shaped charge jets, the interaction between it and the heavy flyer plate of Kontakt-5 is generally not the same. One similarity is that both long rod penetrators and shaped charge jets are only eroded while penetrating the heavy flyer plate prior to the detonation of the explosive charge. During the movement of the flyer plate, the interaction can no longer be described as erosion, so by definition, the notion that reactive armour places "more material in the path of the projectile to penetrate" is immediately demonstrated to be false. Rather, during the stage where the flyer plate moves laterally against the penetrator, whether it be a rod or a shaped charge jet, the interaction is better described as the sliding of the plate against the penetrator. Throughout the sliding action, lateral forces are imparted on the penetrator, and the resistive force cuts a crater into the plate.

The operating mechanism of flyer plates against long rod penetrators is summarized on pages 60-61 in "Interactions Between High-Velocity Penetrators and Moving Armour Components". The effect of heavy reactive armour on a long rod penetrator during the penetration of the front plate and before the detonation of the explosive charge is essentially the same as simple spaced armour.

"KH-instabilities do not occur in the case of an LRP interacting with reactive armour. In this case, the high strength of the projectile material and the low projectile velocity relative to that of an SC jet prevent the generation of instabilities. Instead, the abrupt change in pressure at the exit of the plate gives rise to fracture of the projectile."

So before the explosive charge even reacts, the projectile is fractured as a result of perforating the heavy front plate - or rather, the tip is fractured. The mechanisms of spaced plates has already been examined in the section on the T-72B obr. 1985. Navigate to that section for more information. There is a possibility that the heavy flyer plate may also partially condition the penetrator to facilitate more reliable detonation by blunting the tip. As we have seen from the studies presented earlier, long rod penetrators with a flat tip will detonate explosive elements most consistently; but I digress. The vast majority of the effect of Kontakt-5 comes from the motion of the flyer plate against the penetrator, and the paper clarifies the ramifications of the head-on direction and the thinness of the flyer plate.

"The positive pressure gradient and longer interaction time make forwards moving plates more effective than backwards moving plates. Besides from the direction of motion of the plate, the most significant plate parameter for effectively disturbing the projectile is the thickness. Increased plate thickness results in substantial increases in rotation, translation, bending, length reduction and fragmentation of the projectile.

For fractures to occur in the projectile, the plate velocity has to be relatively high, 300 m/s for a plate thickness of one projectile diameter and 200 m/s for a plate thickness of two projectile diameters (only forwards moving plates). Lower projectile velocity results in longer interaction time which increases the effect of the moving plate on the projectile. The experiments also indicated increased effect at higher projectile velocity which has not been explained in these studies."

As mentioned in the passage, the longer interaction time obtained from a forwards moving (in-pursuit) flyer plate is beneficial and vice versa. Not only is less force imparted on the rod, but less of the rod is affected. For Kontakt-5, this means that only the front part of a long rod penetrator will be affected. For this reason and many others, it is apparent that it is not the most efficient arrangement. It would be more efficient to have a single in-pursuit flyer plate of increased thickness, but this is not feasible for tank armour due to the limited space, and the best compromise would be bi-directional flyer plates, which would be a simple description of Relikt. As such, the focus is on maximizing the effectiveness of the head-on flyer plate used in Kontakt-5.

According to "The Break-up Tendency of Long Rod Projectiles", the ductility of high strength tungsten alloy rods appears to not have much bearing on the bending of the rod from interacting with oblique flyer plates, but brittle high strength rods were unsurprisingly more prone to fracturing or fragmenting than more ductile high strength rods. Also, it is noted in the conclusion of the paper that the tendency for a long rod projectile to shatter increases with the strength, thickness and obliquity of the flyer plate, which is quite obvious, but more interestingly, it is stated that high velocity is beneficial for head-on flyer plates while high velocity is disadvantageous for in-pursuit flyer plates. In addition to that, it is stated that the velocity of the flyer plate and projectile have a bigger influence on the tendency of the projectile to shatter than the other parameters, which includes the thickness of the plate. As a rule, increasing the velocity of the flyer plate is more advantageous than increasing the thickness, but having a thick flyer plate travelling at high velocity would obviously be the best of both worlds. Considering the limitations of the practical application of heavy reactive armour on tanks, the high velocity of the flyer plate of Kontakt-5 appears to be the correct choice.

Although it is considered a heavy flyer plate, the 15mm front plate of Kontakt-5 actually has a rather low thickness when contrasted with the diameter of the long rod projectiles likely to be used against it. Even adding on the thickness of the thin flyer plates of the 4S22 explosive elements, the final thickness is only around 21mm to 22mm thick, which is still slightly less than the diameter of a typical heavy alloy long rod penetrator. Nevertheless, the combination of high velocity (800 m/s) and relatively high thickness would make the flyer plate of Kontakt-5 very effective at bending and fracturing a long rod penetrator. The famous photo below appears to demonstrate the effect of a head-on flyer plate against a long rod penetrator:

The penetrator in the photo was moving from right to left. The fragments appear to be a mix of pieces from the fragmented penetrator and spall from the flyer plate, which seems to be the black blob to the right of the rod. The downward curl of the damaged rod is clear evidence that the plate that intercepted it was travelling head-on towards the plate at an oblique angle, representing the flyer plate of Kontakt-5. It is evident that the plate was propelled independently of the rod and intercepted the rod at a predetermined point where the photograph was taken, so it does not fully represent the mechanism of Kontakt-5 where the penetrator impacts the plate and initiates detonation. The heavy fracturing experienced by the rod in the photograph is probably a consequence of the imperfect tungsten alloys available in the USSR at the time (early 80's).

Beyond fracturing and bending the rod, the interaction also induces yaw into the long rod penetrator. According to "Experimental and Numerical Simulation Analysis of The Impact Process of Structured KE Penetrators Onto Semi-Infinite and Oblique Plate Targets" even 1 degree of yaw can cause a tungsten alloy long rod penetrator to break apart in half after passing through a thick oblique spaced plate. The study is particularly useful for us as it explores the effects of a positive yaw angle on the rod, which is compatible with a scenario where a long rod penetrator passes through Kontakt-5. The heavy flyer plate of Kontakt-5 would impart lateral forces on the rod in an upwards direction, and thus generate positive yaw. However, the oblique plate used in the study was angled at only 60 degrees. It is known that increasing the angle of an oblique plate exacerbates the damage experienced by a yawed long rod penetrator. A long rod penetrator with 1 degree of yaw impacting a thick spaced plate angled at 68 degrees would be highly destructive towards the rod.

The method of defeat against shaped charges is the same as any reactive armour or non-energetic reactive armour (NERA), and that has already been covered in the earlier review of Kontakt-1 and the armour of the T-72B. The efficiency of the Kontakt-5 design is not high against shaped charge jets, but the effectiveness of the system is still quite high by virtue of brute force. As explained before, Kontakt-5 sends three flyer plates head-on towards the shaped charge jet; two thin plates from the casing of the 4S22 explosive elements (one 2.3mm plate and one 4.6mm plate), and the single heavy flyer plate, 15mm thick, but the majority of the effect stems from the heavy flyer plate.

A quantitative analysis of Kontakt-5 has not been done yet, although it is definitely possible to do so now, having been equipped with a full understanding of the mechanisms at play. If any researcher or amateur enthusiast would like to assist me in conducting quantifying the effect of Kontakt-5 on generic heavy alloy long rod penetrators, you are welcome to contact me (see "Contacts" page).

NII Stali claims that the reduction in penetration for subcaliber shells (long rod penetrators) to be equivalent to 250mm RHA, but describing it as a solid figure is both illogical and misleading. All other materials published by NII Stali state instead that Kontakt-5 decreases the penetration of subcaliber shells by 1.2 times. Some publications describe the reactive armour as being able to reduce the penetration of a generic long rod projectile by 20% to 35%. Regardless, all given figures were deliberately left vague, as the actual effect of Kontakt-5 depends on the penetrator in question. Long rod projectiles with a very high L:D ratio will not be affected in the same manner as a short and stubby long rod projectile with a very low L:D ratio, and the strength of the rod in question makes a tremendous difference as well. Penetrators with a composite construction like the American M735 or Soviet 3BM-22 will behave even more differently. A "Tekhnika i Vooruzhenie" (Журнал Техника и Вооружение) article claims that Kontakt-5 reduces the penetrating capability of cumulative jets by a minimum of 50% to a maximum of 80%, while NII Stali claims that Kontakt-5 reduces the penetration of shaped charges by 1.9 to 2 times.


Kontakt-5 blocks are mounted in a clamshell layout around the frontal arc of the turret. There are total of 120 4S22 explosive elements installed in the turret, 46 on the upper half and 32 for the lower half. The other 42 explosive elements belong to the ERA blocks on the roof, two elements per block.

There are three different sizes of blocks used for the front of the turret, and the manual gives instructions on how to arrange the 4S22 explosive elements inside each type. All of the blocks have two layers of 4S22 elements arranged crosswise.

  • The most numerous type are the blocks for the lower half of the clam shell; 8 of these square blocks are installed on the turret. Each block contains four 4S22 explosive elements. The first layer of 4S22 is laid into the slot horizontally, and the second layer is laid vertically.
  • The second most numerous type are the blocks for the upper half of the clam shell, marked (1) on the diagram; 7 of these rectangular blocks are installed. Each block contains six 4S22 explosive elements. The first two elements of the first layer are laid vertically, and then another cell is added horizontally on top. The second layer is laid horizontally.
  • The third type is a squarish block - marked (2) on the diagram - for the upper half of the clam shell. There is only one example of the third type on the turret; it's the first block to the left hand side of the cannon. The first layer is laid vertically, and the second layer is laid horizontally.

Unlike the panels on the hull, the Kontakt-5 panels on the turret are bolted onto the turret and not welded. This makes it extremely easy to remove the panels if necessary.

As the photo below shows, the cover plate at the end of each reactive armour panel can be unbolted to remove the explosive elements inside. The explosive elements are typically salvaged from destroyed tanks like the one in the photo below and sold on the black market.


Kontakt-5 blocks cover a little over two thirds of the upper glacis. There are total of 84 4S22 explosive elements installed on the upper glacis; 48 in the top row of panels and 36 in the bottom row. The top row of panels all have the same rectangular design, housing twelve 4S22 elements each. The panels at the corners of the bottom row have a narrower rectangular design with only eight 4S22 elements each. The two panels at the center of the bottom row have an unusual L-shaped design with ten 4S22 elements each.

The photo below (Photo credit to Bellingcat) shows the Kontakt-5 blocks on the upper glacis of a catastrophically destroyed T-72B3 in Ukraine. The access panels for all eight reactive armour panels have been removed, and you can see the explosive elements within.

And here is a photo of an intact tank.

Inserting explosive elements into the two Kontakt-5 panels at the bottom corners is done by unbolting the cover plate at the bottom, laying the 4S22 elements into a tray and sliding it into the panel, as demonstrated in the two screenshots below (Screenshots taken from RT Documentary show "Tanks: Born in Russia (E9)").

Once filled, the panels are simply bolted shut. A tray is used to make it easier to keep the elements from sliding out while bolting the cover plate back on. The tray has no active role in the design of the reactive armour.


There are three Kontakt-5 panels located on either side of the hull. These are a type of explosive flyer plate. They use the same 4S22 explosive elements as the Kontakt-5 plates on the front hull and turret. The side panels provide coverage for the fighting compartment in a 35 degree frontal arc, as illustrated in the photos below:

The panels are mounted on special brackets bolted to the steel screens over the fenders. It is possible to flip the panels up to access the suspension. To do this, the panels are simply lifted upwards until the hole (shown in red in the photo below) is above the hinge, and then the panels are locked in the upward position by inserting a retaining pin through the hole.

The side panels contain six 4S22 explosive elements. There are three reactive armour panels on each side of the hull, each with six 4S22 explosive elements for a total of 36 elements. Each element is laid flush onto the sheet steel tray, and held in place by rubber studs embedded onto the front plate for spacing. This creates an air gap between the front plate and the explosive elements in the same manner as the Kontakt-5 plates on the front hull and turret. This is illustrated in the diagram below, which has been coloured for easy identification. The areas marked in green denotes steel, while the light blue area is the rubber spacer stud and light red marks the explosive elements.  The rubber stud is marked with a (7), the explosive element is marked with a (6), and the front plate is marked with a (5).

An opened panel can be seen in the photo below. Note the six protruding studs on the front plate, corresponding to the positions of the six 4S22 explosive elements. The strip of empty space down the middle of the sheet steel tray is very obvious in the photo.

It is not clear what the strip of empty space is meant for, but it should have no negative effect on the consistency of detonation if the panel is struck from the frontal arc of the tank, because the spray cone of high energy spall and fragments generated by an impacting long rod projectile or a shaped charge jet should be wide enough to detonate at least one of the explosive elements. The only way for an attacking projectile or warhead to slip through would be if it was fired perpendicular to the side of the tank and struck the panel squarely in the middle, but in that case, the reactive armour panel would have very little effect even if it managed to detonate as some obliquity is required for the flyer plates to be effective. 

Like the reactive armour plates on the front hull and turret, the front plate of the side panels is 15mm thick. The sheet steel backplate is just under 3mm thick. However, the 2.3mm-thick steel casing of the 4S22 explosive elements also contributes to the overall thickness of material present in the panel. Since the elements lie flush to the sheet steel tray, the backplate of the system would have an effective thickness of 5.3mm, and the front plate will have a final thickness of 17.3mm after the explosive elements detonate and the front flyer plate of the explosive elements fuse to the back surface of the front plate of the panel.

It is quite obvious that the side panels are not as powerful as the ones on the hull or even the ones on the turret, despite the fact that the panels on the turret also house up to six 4S22 explosive elements, because the turret panels are of the same thickness (15mm) but are much smaller. This deficiency is not entirely counteracted by the bi-directional design of the side armour panels, as the turret panels are bi-directional as well. Rather, the overall effectiveness of the armour for the sides is heavily dependent on the very large air space between the side panels and the side of the hull. According to figures obtained from the T-72B obr. 1989 technical manual, the perpendicular space between the side of the hull to the end of the side panels is exactly 760mm. After subtracting the approximate thickness of the panel itself, the space should be around 720mm. At a 30 degree obliquity (viewing the side of the hull), the air gap is therefore 1440mm wide between the Kontakt-5 side panels and the side hull armour. 

The large air gap gives ample time and space for a long rod projectile or shaped charge jet to disintegrate before striking the main armour. This is particularly important for long rod projectiles, as the penetrator is given much more time to yaw before it strikes the main armour as compared to the reactive armour panels on the front hull and turret, where a 1-degree yaw would be expected. A heavily yawed long rod penetrator has a greatly enhanced likelihood of shattering on impact with the side hull armour.

More of these side panels can be installed if desired.


The T-72B obr. 1989 had unique hexagonal Kontakt-5 reactive armour bricks installed on the turret roof. Each brick is mounted directly to the cast steel turret roof on a pair of metal spacers. The bricks sit directly atop the anti-radiation cladding, with no air gap in between. This variant of Kontakt-5 roof armour is only one of several variants, as shown on Andrei Tarasenko's btvt.narod. A steel barrier is installed around the forward perimeter of the roof bricks to provide protection from bullets.

One of the biggest mysteries concerning the T-72B obr. 1989 is why the designers felt the need to use a new design of roof ERA blocks with interlocking geometry that would have allowed the blocks to cover the entire turret without leaving any gaps, yet install so few of the blocks that the turret roof is less covered than the original T-72B with Kontakt-1.

Unlike the Kontakt-5 panels on the rest of the tank, these bricks have an entirely unique design, strongly indicating that they are not meant for the same purpose as the others. The bricks are composed of a front plate and a thin sheet steel tray, into which four alternating layers of inert lining and 4S22 explosive elements are inserted. The diagram below, taken from the manual and modified, shows a cross section of the bricks. The areas marked in green denotes steel, while the areas in light blue mark the inert liners and light red marks the explosive elements.

However, the diagram has a small inaccuracy. The two cropped photos below show that the sheet steel trays are actually very thin. The dimensions of the components illustrated in the diagram clearly do not represent reality, but it is safe to say that the arrangement of the components are accurate.

The cropped photo below confirms that there are no protrusions from the interior surface of the front plate at all.


The cost of this performance is the danger of sympathetic detonations of the neighboring modules. As you can see in the adjacent photo, the top of the welded body blew off. Since there is no hole under that particular panel, it seems like the panel beside it inadvertently set it off, meaning that the partition between the two modules disintegrated under the pressure of the detonation of the first panel. This was long-known issue with ERA in general, and particularly with Kontakt-5 due to the large mass contained in each panel.

Presumably, one of the contributing factors would be poor welds. Perhaps sympathetic detonations could be prevented if the partitions were welded onto the hull by professional welders and not journalists.

Although it has been obsolete for over two decades, Kontakt-5 should be appreciated as a unique and ingenious solution to the problem of powerful long rod projectiles during the mid to late 1980's.


Two fuel tanks are located on the two front corners of the hull (flanking the driver), which extend from the nose of the glacis to almost up to the turret ring. These fuel tanks provide a modicum of armour.

Diesel fuel is can act as a form of liquid armour in enclosed spaces. The entry of a high energy shaped charge jet into an enclosed liquid medium at high velocities create a shock wave, which are reflected back into the jet. The shock wave emanates from the tip of the shaped charge jet and reflects off the walls of the fuel tank at a right angle to the original shock front. This is shown in the diagram below, taken from the NII Stali website. Due to the fast forward motion of the tip of the cumulative jet, the reflected wave will intersect with the body of the jet.

The ability of a fuel tank to sustain such an effect hinges on the rigidity of its walls. However, testing has proven that even fuel tanks with thin walls are able to stop a shaped charge jet to a limited extent. The main factor is the energy of the jet; when the energy of the shaped charge jet is high, a powerful shock wave is generated and thicker walls are required to effectively reflect the wave without rupturing. A thin-walled fuel tank will be sufficient for a weak shaped charge jet, or a powerful shaped charge jet given sufficient armour in front of the fuel tank to slow down the jet. Soviet testing of the fuel tanks in the T-34 and the T-54 showed that as long as the residual penetration of the shaped charge jet or armour piercing projectile is low, even thin-walled fuel tanks are able to completely absorb the threat without rupturing or exploding.

It wouldn't be wrong to consider the areas of the hull with fuel tanks underneath them to be essentially immune unless the warhead can overmatch the armour by a factor of more than 100 millimeters of RHA steel, though those same fuel tanks might also be a fire hazard if punctured or compromised. The fuel tanks do not have thick walls, and they are not foam-filled, and according to ex-tankers in Chechnya, they will visibly bulge and swell if penetrated by an RPG, though in those cases they were still strong enough to not burst or leak. In one incident during battles in Grozny, a T-72 was struck from the side by an RPG or SPG warhead in the driver's station. This T-72 did not have Kontakt-1 installed, but the combination of the spaced armour of the side skirt and the properties of the fuel tank managed to stop the cumulative jet from hitting the driver. Therefore, we can quite confidently say that the armour over the driver's station from the side aspect is equivalent to more than 400mm RHAe (with side hull armour and side skirt spacing factored in), which should account for its ability to resist a fairly typical PG-7VS rocket grenade. (Obviously, that is not a definitive value, considering the infinite variety of warheads available). The T-72 in that incident escaped with very minor damage.

In some other cases, like the T-72B obr. 1989 in the photos below, damage to the fuel tank may not produce any fire at all. Here, we see that the tank was pierced on the LFP by either a shaped charge warhead or an APFSDS shell from the front. The penetrator easily passed through the thin armour, passed through the starboard side fuel tank, and if the loosely hanging Kontakt-5 panel on the side of the hull means anything, the penetrator exited out the side. If the damaged Kontakt-5 panel was damaged in a separate incident, then the penetrator must have been stopped by the fuel tank. If it had continued, it would have hit the ammunition.


The T-72 can either lay its own smokescreen by injecting a fine mist of diesel fuel into the exhaust manifold, or make use of its smoke grenade mortars. The former option is an an ingenious, inexpensive, extremely useful and near-inexhaustible source of anti-IR smoke cover - A little-known fact is that the smoke generated from this method is the temperature as the exhaust, thereby completely masking the tank's thermal signature. The only shortcoming of this system is the time taken to envelop the tank. A large number of battlefield maneuvers revolve around the use of this method of smoke generation for concealment.

Low volume smokescreen while idling

High volume smokescreen while moving
But aside from this, the T-72 also features the Tucha smoke grenade system. It can launch two types of caseless grenades; the 3D6 and the 3D17. They take advantage of a high-low propulsion system much like 40mm VOG series of grenades to launch them out of their tubes at a relatively low velocity. Twelve grenades are available.

Earlier T-72 versions had their smoke grenades installed on the turret cheeks.

This wasn't the wisest idea, since a direct hit on the turret cheeks could potentially remove half the tank of its ability to react by deploying a smoke screen. 


The 3D6 smoke grenade emits "normal" smoke that can only obscure the tank in the visual spectrum. This type of grenade has been rendered next to useless with the gaining popularity of thermal imaging sights in the mid-80's, now long supplanted by the 3D17 model. It is of the slow-burning type, emitting smoke from the ground-up. It travels anywhere from 200m to 350m after launch, and it takes between 7 to 12 seconds to produce a complete smokescreen 10m to 30m in width and 3m to 10m in height, depending on various environmental factors like wind speed, humidity, altitude, etc. This is not including the time taken from launch to the grenade actually hitting the ground. This is in accordance with frontal assault tactics where tanks advance and maneuver behind a continual wall of smoke generated every forward 300m until they literally overrun enemy positions. The smokescreen can last as long as 2 minutes, depending on environmental factors.


The 3D17 is an advanced IR-blocking aerosol smoke grenade. It completely obturates the passage of IR signatures or IR-based light as well as light in the visible spectrum. It is effective at concealment from FLIR sights and cameras as well as at blocking and scattering laser beams for tank rangefinders and laser-homing missiles. Unlike the 3D6, the 3D17 grenade detonates just 1 seconds after launch, allowing it to produce a complete smoke barrier in 3 seconds flat. The drawback to this is that the lingering time of the smokescreen is only about 20 seconds, depending on environmental factors. This is enough for the tank to hastily shift its position, but not much more. This grenade detonates 50m away from the tank.


Nakidka is a type of multi-wavelength infrared suppressant camouflage developed in 1971. Contrary to popular belief, the Soviet concept of warfare was centered around "deep battle" (rather than Zerg rushing), which greatly depended on "maskirovka" - the element of camouflage and deception. Implementation of "maskirovka" includes decoys, stealthy operations, concealment and surprise attacks. Nakidka plays an important role in this. It is a textile "dress" for the tank, which can neutralize the tank's IR signature (except at its exhaust outlet) and reduce its radar cross-section in addition to presenting a totally non-reflective camouflaged surface, thus drastically reducing the tank's likelihood of being detected in the visual and non-visual spectrums.

Nakidka is resistant to napalm and is unaffected by machine gun fire, though it is possible to destroy it with high-explosives. Still, the point of Nakidka is to prevent the tank from being spotted in the first place. It holds up fine against indiscriminate area weapons. A full suit of Nakidka only adds several dozens of kilograms to the tank's overall weight.


Like many tanks of the era, the T-72 has an escape hatch. The (rather small) hatch is located directly behind the driver's seat, and therefore most easily accessible by him. The gunner and commander can get to the hatch as well, but they have to be very, very flexible in order to do so unless the turret is traversed to the rear. Nevertheless, it is indispensable in certain situations, allowing crew members to escape the tank if it is flipped over or when the tank is under fire from dismounted infantry. The escape hatch cannot be used while the crew are wearing winter clothing or a bulky IP-5 rebreather. The hatch is strong enough that it does not compromise the integrity of the hull against a 6kg to 10kg anti-tank blast mine detonated under the tracks.

The hatch is far too small for anyone wearing winter clothes, and more rotund tankers will obviously find it impossible to exit through it. The hatch is fully air-tight, and drops out to open. The hatch is as thick as the rest of the hull floor, and is held in very, very firmly in place by four locks.


Ventilation is controlled from the KUV-11-5-1S ventilation and filtration management box. The ventilation system has a built-in dust ejector at the air inlet to ensure a supply of clean air under normal operating conditions.

The diagram below - taken from "Special Electrical Equipment of the T-72" published by the military department of the Omsk State University of Technology - gives us a cross section of the system. The air outlet for the ventilator in the normal operating mode is marked (21). Air is taken in by the fan, flows through the air booster, and exits through the outlet (21). A dust ejector is installed at the air inlet to ensure that clean air is supplied into the crew compartment even under highly dusty conditions.

The ventilator draws air from a port on the hull roof, located just behind the turret ring. Before crossing water obstacles, the ventilation system is deactivated and the air intake is closed to prevent water from entering the fighting compartment and to prevent damage to the electric motor.

The ventilator housing and the white pipe leading to the air intake can be seen tucked away in the rear corner of the fighting compartment in the photo below. The air outlet from the filtration system drum is indicated by a red arrow.


Soviet tank designers were very conscious of the dangers of nuclear warfare, especially artillery-fired tactical nukes. The T-72 perfectly reflected their seriousness, featuring the GO-27 NBC protection suite and the KUV-11-6-1S ventilation system with a filtration unit and the capability to generate an overpressure. A radiation lining shielded the occupants from neutrons. The photo above shows the B-1 instrument and control box, the B-2 sensor for gamma radiation detection, and the B-3 power supply unit. 

The dosimeter detects and measures gamma radiation levels. The B-1 instrument and control panel displays the radiation level in rads per hour (rad/h), and is able to measure and display the radiation level in a range between 0.2 to 150 rads per hour. The system has a measurement accuracy of ± 30%. The B-1 instrument and control panel is shown in the photo below. Photo credit to Leonid Varlamov.

The system has different reactions depending on the rate of dosage of radiation. The system is able to react instantaneously to a nuclear detonation (classified as a Type "A" radiation threat) and initiate the necessary protective measures.

  • Type "R": When the tank is exposed to gamma radiation from a radioactively contaminated site and is exposed to a dose rate of 0.85 Rads/h and above, the response time of the system does not exceed 10 seconds.
  • Type "A": In the event that the tank is exposed to a gamma ray flux with a dose rate of 4 Rads/s and, the response time of the system does not exceed 0.1 seconds.
  • Type "O": When biological or chemical contaminants are detected, the response time of the system does not exceed 40 seconds.

The reaction of the system includes visual and audio signals to alert the crew. The above photo of the B-1 instrument and control box shows three coloured incandescent lights marked "O", "P" (R in Cyrillic) and "A". When any one of the threats is reacted upon, the driver is instantly informed of the type of threat by the colour of the light.

Once a Type "A" radiation threat is detected, the system immediately activates the air filtration system and initiates the lock down protocol, which seals every gap exposing the interior of the tank to the outside environment. Gaps such as the co-axial machine gun port are sealed using steel barriers propelled into position by pyrotechnic charges. Due to the immense speed of gamma rays (very close to speed of light) and the quick reaction of the system, the tank will be hermetically sealed by the time the blast wave from the nuclear explosive arrives. This protects the crew from the blast wave itself as well as from exposure to fallout after the initial blast wave.

A Type "R" radiation threat is a much less serious situation. Type "R" threats are detected when the tank is exposed to radiation from an irradiated environment. The long reaction time of the system to this type of threat is offset by the low danger of minor irradiation.

Type "O" threats are airborne biological or chemical threats. The system detects contaminants in the air using a cyclone-based air sampler and analyzer. The air inlet for the sampler and analyzer is depicted in the diagram below. Due to the rather long reaction time, the driver is sometimes obligated to manually switch on the chemical and biological threat protection measures when entering contaminated zones, assuming that the tank is preceded by a forward reconnaissance force that included chemical troops mounted on NBC reconnaissance vehicles like the BRDM-2RKh.

The air inlet is installed just next to the driver's hatch. Photo credit to the Facebook page.

The location of the B-2 gamma radiation sensor can be seen in the photo below, taken from the STV Ground website.

The B-3 power supply unit is installed just next to the gear shift:

PKUZ-1A Digitized Protection Suite

The GO-27 system was replaced with the PKUZ-1A in the T-72B3 modernization. The PKUZ-1A was first used in the T-90A, and features improved detection and reaction time to chemical, biological and nuclear threats. The PKUZ-1A analyzes the air outside the tank using an ionizing system.

The system capable of detecting gamma rays with energies ranging from 0.66 to 1.25 MeV. The system is capable of measuring gamma radiation at dose rates of 0.1 to 500 rads/hour, making it somewhat more versatile than the GO-27. In order to measure the true level of radiation outside the tank, the radiation attenuation coefficient of the armour of the tank and the anti-radiation linings is manually inputted at the factory. This improves the accuracy of the system. Like the GO-27 system, PKUZ-1A automatically executes defensive systems and alerts the crew via visual and audio signals when an NBC threat is detected.

The PKUZ-1A system comes with a new instrument and control box. The new control panel fulfills the same function as its predecessor, but is more user friendly. The old ammeter-based radioactivity gauge was replaced by a digital LCD segment display for quicker and more precise readings. The old ammeter gauge display could not give an accurate reading if the tank was moving because the vibrations caused the indicator needle to jump around.

The new control panel can be seen at the right side of the screenshot below.



Anti-radiation measures have been among the top priorities regarding crew protection, no less important than solid armour itself, given the nuclear environment that the T-72 was expected to thrive in. In accordance with this requirement, the T-72 has had an interior anti-radiation lining since the very beginning, and the exterior of the tank had an anti-radiation cladding of the same type installed on the turret and on the hull since 1983. The internal liner is called "Podboi", and is around an inch thick. The lining is applied on all internal surfaces of the tank, giving the crew protection in all directions. The top of the autoloader carouse is also covered with this lining, giving the crew protection from radiation from below the tank. The external cladding is called "Nadboi", and adds additional protection to the areas of the tank with thinner armour to compensate for the reduced radiation absorption from the steel.

The liner is composed of borated polyethylene, a type of high density polyethylene infused with boron, woven into fibers and made into sheets, which are then laminated and molded by a resin to fit around the curves of the tank, presumably using a heat gun. According to Anderi Tarasenko, the name of the material is "boron 2EP002". Boron is known to be extremely effective at capturing neutrons thanks to its large absorption cross section, making it suitable for use as radiation shielding. The fibrous construction of the sheets and the lamination process also makes it a suitable spall liner not dissimilar to early flak vests that used woven nylon plates. NII Stali states on their website that as a rule, spall liners are made from aramid (kevlar) or from UHMWPE (Ultra High Molecular Weight Polyethylene). This hints heavily at the dual roles of the anti-radiation lining.

In the photo below, a T-64 sporting the same type of anti-radiation cladding displays the damage dealt by a 122mm HE-F artillery shell. Note the charred chunks of fabric, proving that the cladding is made from textile sheets.

The 1983 model of the T-72A received anti-radiation cladding all around the occupied regions of the turret. It is around an inch thick in most places, including the turret cladding, most of the turret's interior, the side hull exterior, the hull's interior and most of the hatches. The lining for the driver's hatch is 20mm thick. T-72Bs received this cladding almost immediately after introduction, and are never seen without it.

The circles with four holes that pockmark the surface of the cladding are simply retainers to hold the cladding in place. When the lining is burnt away, these retainers remain. See the photos below (credit to armour-kiev-ua).

The hatches on the turret are covered in a set of specially moulded cladding. The thickness of the cladding is most obvious on the commander's hatch, seen in the photo below.

The shell casing stub ejection port is heavily covered both inside and outside with the anti-radiation material:

As mentioned before, the lining and cladding not only function as neutron absorbers, but they perform admirably as a form of spall liner as well. According to Swedish trials of purchased ex-East German T-72M1s, it was concluded that the anti-radiation liner was perfectly capable of absorbing secondary fragments of penetrating cumulative jets, not only spall. Spall liners, depending on their efficacy, may reduce the spray cone angle of secondary fragments from a HEAT warhead by up to 50% or more if the armour is greatly overmatched, and it is possible reduce secondary fragments by up to 80%. If the armour is not physically perforated, the spall liner may absorb all of the spall. The anti-radiation lining and cladding should have good performance due to its substantial thickness both inside and outside. In fact, this feature has helped to saved lives in at least one incident:


In this instance, the T-72 was hit in the flank by an RPG attack which also blew off a part of the port side storage bins. The crew survived and the tank only suffered from a minor puncture wound. It is interesting to note that that part of the tank is above the autoloader carousel, but loose ammunition is stowed on the wall with clips. The survival and quick repair of the tank indicates that there was no ammunition stowed in that particular area. Note that the exterior of the side hull over the fenders is also covered with the anti-radiation cladding.

The presence of the lining is a huge factor in the safety of the carousel ammunition in case of armour perforation, especially from the side, but that's not all; due to boron's large surface area-volume ratio, it does quite well at absorbing blast waves, thus mitigating some of the effects of blast damage. Additionally, the lining helps to insulate the tank and prevents condensation. This helps preserve the myriad of electric and electronic components in the tank.

However, the material does not come without some risks. It is flammable, and constitutes a minor fire hazard. The lining and cladding was partially removed in the T-72B3, as you can see in the photos below.


To prevent the spreading of internal fires in the engine and crew compartments, the 3ETs11-2 quick-acting firefighting system was installed. There are a total of 15 TD-1 analog thermal sensors installed inside the tank, strategically placed in the engine compartment and crew compartment. The fire fighting system reacts regionally when a temperature difference of at least 150°C is detected in the crew compartment or engine compartment. 

The TD-1 thermal sensor has a maximum response time of 50 milliseconds The reaction time does not exceed 10 seconds, meaning that it takes a maximum of 10 seconds between detecting the fire to the activation of the fire extinguishing system. The sensors do not guarantee reliable detection of fires in the 60°C to 150°C range of temperature differences due to insufficient contrast. This is due to the hardware limitations of the TD-1 sensors.

The driver can manually activate the fire extinguishers wired to the automatic firefighting system from a red control panel to his right.There is also an additional manual fire extinguisher to the driver's left foot.

A TD-1 thermal sensor is shown below.

The photo below shows a T-72A tank. Notice the large number of TD-1 sensors placed on the walls and around the floor. Note that the sensors are all concentrated near potential fire hazards; the conformal fuel tanks, loose ammunition stowage positions, and the powerful amplidyne amplifier for the turret traverse motor. There are five TD-1 sensors placed next to the rear conformal fuel tank alone.

The P11-5 control and information panel is part of the firefighting system. The panel has seven indicator lights. The three lights on the top row (3, 5, 6) are to inform the driver of the serviceability of the pyrotechnic fire extinguisher quick release valves, the light on the center left (2) indicates the presence of a fire in the fighting compartment, the light on the center (4) indicates the presence of a fire in the engine compartment, the light on the center right (7) indicates the status of the air filtration system, and the light at the bottom center (12) indicates if the OPVT mode is activated. By referring to indicator lights (2) and (4), the driver can manually discharge the fire extinguishers for either the fighting compartment or the engine compartment by pressing the buttons (1) and (15), which are located behind a hinged metal cover.

The panel is partially visible at the very top of the photo below (from Prime Portal, credit to Marek Solar).

Like most firefighting systems for armoured vehicles, the 3ETs11-2 uses freon gas as the fire extinguishing agent.

Two handheld OU-2 carbon dioxide fire extinguishers are also provided to supplement the automatic fire extinguisher system. If the TD-1 fire detectors fail to respond (usually in the case of small flames), then these will be the only firefighting tools available to the crew, if the driver opts not to manually activate the extinguishers connected to the 3ETs11-2 system.

The T-72B3 modernization replaced the 3ETs11-2 firefighting system with the newer 3ETs13 "Iney" system.

"Iney" employs a slightly more modern control system, but the fire detection and response algorithms are essentially the same as in the 3ETs11-2. The main improvement offered by "Iney" is the use of new OD-1S optical thermal sensors. Ten of the fifteen TD-1 thermal sensors of the earlier 3ETs11-2 were replaced with OD-1S optical sensors, all installed in the crew compartment to maximize crew survivability. The engine compartment is still only equipped with five TD-1 sensors in the same locations as before.

The response time of the OD-1S optical sensor does not exceed 2 ms. This is a very substantial improvement over the 50 ms response time of TD-1, and contributes towards the much quicker overall reaction time of the system.

The P11-5 control and information panel was replaced with the P708 digital control and information panel. P708 replaces the simple incandescent light bulbs for the indicator lights on the P11-5 with an LED display, which is a much more intuitive way of conveying information to the driver quickly and efficiently, but other than that, the new panel is exactly the same as the P11-5. A close look shows that besides the new LED screen, the buttons, toggles and other interactive components are exactly the same as in the P11-5.

A P708 control panel can be seen tucked away at the right side of the photo below. Photo taken from Popular Mechanics Russia.


An a self-entrenchment blade is provided at the lower front hull of the tank. It is secured by two rotating latches, which need only to be turned with a wrench by a crew member for the dozer blade to be usable. Needless to say, it is an invaluable tool for self-fortification, allowing the tank to enter hull defilade when natural cover is unavailable, or even augment existing cover with additional concealment.



With the dozer blade, the T-72 can create a soil barrier in front of itself from even ground in about 20 minutes or more and much less if on uneven ground, but depending on meteorological conditions. On snowed-over terrain, a snowbank may be created in as little as 5 minutes to help conceal the tank.


The T-72 is furnished with a plethora of stowage bins intended for the storage of various things. The most prominent ones are the two large bins located around the rear arc of the turret. These are used for storing the crews' personal effects as well and other accessories. The lids of the bins are sealed by tension latches. These latches are effective at keeping water from entering the compartments.

This is quite the improvement over the T-55 and T-62, as these tanks were not equipped with external stowage bins on the turret. As a result, places to stow day to day necessities was rather limited on these tanks. The Israelis gave their Tiran tanks with Centurian-esque external stowage bins on the turret for this very reason.

The photo below shows the stowage bin at the very rear of the turret. There are two isolated stowage compartments in the bin. One on the right hand side (the left side in the photo) for smaller things, and the central compartment, which is large enough to stow anything you want to. The bin is hinged to the turret, as you can see in the photo below.

The photo below shows the bin hinged open to allow easier access to the engine access panel. How it stays up isn't exactly clear.

Besides the rearmost bin, there is also the side bin. It also has two isolated compartments.

The bins are too thin to deflect bullets or mortar shell fragments.

There is also bank of 4 storage bins on the port side of the hull, directly above the tracks.

The port side storage bins are usually used to store maintenance equipment and spare parts.


The T-72 followed the T-64 in breaking the mold on the standards of mobility in the face of the need to compromise between the "Big Three": Firepower, Protection and Mobility. The T-72 had the world's most powerful gun, world's best armour, and was also among the world's fastest tanks at the time. Its on and off road performance almost reached the same level attained by the the speed-centric but paper-thin Leopard 1 and AMX-30, outmatched the heavily armoured tottering Chieftain and Challenger tanks and greatly outpaced the sluggish M60A1 and A3, all while weighing and costing less than any of them.
The superior engine power of the T-72 and its light weight meant that it could not only traverse difficult terrain, but that it could safely cross low-capacity bridges and make good use of the thousands of tactical bridge layers in Soviet army service, even including the ones derived from the then-already-antiquated T-54. Not only is it possible for the T-72 to exploit light load masonry bridges or pontoon bridges, it is possible for a convoy of T-72s to travel over such structures without needing take turns to drive at a snail's pace.
Swedish mobility trials of T-72M1s (and MTLBs) in Northern Norrland between 1992 and 1994 yielded very positive results. The T-72s in question displayed good performance over snow as deep as 0.8m, though it still failed at times to reliably traverse frozen ice banks, but it can be argued that that was because of the inexperience of the Swedish test drivers who might not be too familiar with the idiosyncrasies of the T-72.


The T-72 has been host to several engines over the years, starting with the V-46, evolving into the V-84, and finally the V-92. All of the T-72 engines to date are V-12 four-stroke diesels, with some limited multifuel capability. They are able to consume low octane gasoline (A-66 and A-72), diesel, and jet fuel (T-1, TS-1 and T-2). The driver can set the type of fuel by simply setting a dial located in his station. The engine does not need to be further modified beyond that, but it is highly inefficient when using anything except diesel.

The main method of starting the engine is via an electric starter. In cold weather, the engine can be started with compressed air, or even perhaps by towing. In exceptionally cold weather conditions, the most dependable method of starting is a combination of compressed air and the electric starter. It takes around 20 minutes to start the engine in extremely cold weather, which is much longer than the 3 minutes needed by the GTD-1000T gas turbine engine used on the T-80, but diesel piston engines have their own advantages. Usage of the compressed air starting system is avoided except when absolutely needed as it wears out the engine.

A pair of compressed air bottles are used for the engine starting system. They are placed at the very front of the hull, to the right of the driver's feet but to the left of the right hull fuel tank. The compressed air is also used for the pneumatic periscope cleaning system.

It is not known if the compressed air bottles pose a hazard when the tank armour is struck but not pierced. There is no doubt that the bottles will explode if penetrated by a shaped charge jet or by metal fragments, but the small size of the bottles make that unlikely unless a very specific part of the front hull armour is hit.

V-46-4 / V-46-6

The V-46 liquid-cooled engine is the baseline engine for the T-72 series, first appearing on the T-72 Ural and then the T-72A. It traces its roots to the V-2 which once powered the legendary T-34. True to its remarkable origin, it has a remarkable power density, far above its competitors such as the; MB 837, which powered the Leopard 1 series, AVDS-1790-2A, which powered the M60 tank series, and even the "lightweight" opposed-piston Leyland L60 series, which powered the Chieftain tank. When compared: AVDS-1790-2A - 0.324, MB 837 - 0.426, Leyland L60 - 0.535, V-46 - 0.795, the V-46 comes out on top. Overall, the V-46 and all its descendants are unquestionably robust, dependable engines in every way. A disadvantage of this engine is the amount of smoke it produces, which may expose its position to enemies equipped with thermal imagers.

Output: 780 hp
Rated speed: 2000 rpm
Idle speed: 800 rpm
Fuel Consumption: 1 g / 245 kWh or 1 g / 180hp.h
Torque back up: 9% ... 18%
Weight: 980 kg

T-72 Ural and T-72A power to weight ratio: 18.1 hp/ton

The exhaust port for this engine is characteristically long and narrow. It has very rudimentary sheet steel cooling fins on top. The fins are arranged so that as the tank drives forward, cool air rushes from one side of the fins to the other, drawing away some heat along the way.

The exhaust port connects to the exhaust manifold via a simple duct. The exhaust port is secured onto the duct via a pair of bolts and nuts on either side.

The V-46-4 is the variant which the T-72 Ural uses, while the V-46-6 is used in the T-72A. The only difference between the V-46-4 and the V-46-6 is a change in the placement of oil containersWith the V-46, both the T-72 Ural and T-72A can achieve a top speed of 60 km/h on asphalt, and set an average speed of 35 to 40 km/h on dirt roads.

V-84-1 / V-84MS

The V-84 engine differs from its predecessor mainly by an increase in output, along with an insignificant weight gain. The additional power comes from the new centrifugal gear-driven supercharger, which provides better aspiration for cleaner combustion in the cylinders. The increased power offsets the added weight of the T-72B, allowing it to remain as nimble as its predecessors. This engine is much less smoky than the V-46 because the higher oxygen levels in the combustion chamber allowed a greater portion of the fuel particles to be consumed for more efficient consumption of energy, producing more output. One side effect of the added power is the increased heat output. Since the cooling fan for the radiator draws power directly from the engine, the increased heat is mostly eliminated, but more heat escapes from the exhaust manifolds. The engine also wears out faster because of the increased power.

Output: 840 hp 
Rated speed: 2000 rpm
Idle speed: 800 rpm
Fuel Consumption: 247 g/kWh or 182 g/hph
Torque back up: 6% ... 18%
Weight: 1020 kg

T-72B, T-72B1, T-72BA power to weight ratio: 18.87 hp/ton 
T-72B3 power to weight ratio: 18.2 hp/ton 

The exhaust port for the V-84 is identical to the V-46.

Like previous variants, the T-72B has a top speed of 60km/h on asphalt, and an average speed of 35 to 40km/h on dirt roads. This remains mostly unchanged even with the burdensome Kontakt-5 installed. Most T-72B3s are equipped with this engine.


The V-92SF turbocharged engine boasts an impressive power density of 1.02 hp/kg combined with high standards of reliability. The increased torque reserve greatly improves driving characteristics across rough terrain and the fuel efficiency has been substantially increased, boosting the T-72's already good fuel economy to a new high. The engine is virtually smokeless. The cylinders and pistons were updated and more robust compared to previous engines to cope with the added power.

Output: 1130 hp 
Rated speed: 2000 rpm
Idle speed: 800 rpm
Fuel Consumption: 215 g/kWh or 158 g/hph
Torque back up: 25% ... 30%
Weight: 1100 kg

T-72B3M / T-72B4 power to weight ratio: 21.73 hp/ton

Variants outfitted with the V-92SF can be identified by the heavily modified exhaust unit, now much narrower, but fatter and with different fins. A new exhaust unit was needed for the V-92SF due to the turbocharger.

Without the cooling fins and muffler removed, the exhaust duct itself is just a simple metal tube.

The exhaust duct is fitted over the exhaust manifold on top of the engine, which is oval shaped.

The use of the V-92SF on the T-72B3M boosts its top speed to a blistering 75 km/h on paved roads and allows it to cruise cross-country at a speed of up to 60 km/h on dirt roads. This elevates the tank's mobility to the level of the T-80U or the M1A2 Abrams speed-wise, and gives it parity when moving cross country thanks to the high torque reserve.

The MS-1 cyclone air filter used with all of the V-series engines is adequate for most environments. It requires a filter change once every 300 km traveled under extremely dusty conditions. 

The T-72's engine deck is taken up by the engine access panel, the engine's air intake, radiator/air intake and the cooling system air outlet. All of them except the engine air intake have armoured covers to protect them from bullets and shrapnel coming from above. 

Left and right sides. Engine access panel up front, radiator/air intakes behind it (with armoured covers), and cooling system air outlet behind that (again with armoured covers)

The engine can be easily removed with the help of a 1-ton crane, which can be found at even the most modest depots. In the field, engine replacements are done with the help of engineering vehicles.

Engine access panel hinged open.

However, the T-72's engine is not integrated as part of a powerpack, like on the Leopard 2. Powerpacks are far more convenient to replace. It usually takes more than an hour to replace both the engine and transmission of a T-72, compared with only about 35 minutes or less for more modern vehicles, like the Leopard 2. Highly skilled teams can replace the powerpack of a Leopard 2 in less than 20 minutes.

Air intake for V-46 engine, tucked away discreetly behind the turret

Modified air intake for V-84 engine

The engine deck is cool enough that people can ride on top of it.


The liquid cooling system is of a convection type. It works with water and air, used to cool hot coolant oil that is pumped around the engine. The coolant oil first runs up to the radiator unit, where it is cooled by water flowing in a labyrinth of aluminium fins with turbulators, which is itself cooled by flowing air being sucked in by an engine-driven fan at the rear of the engine compartment. The unwanted hot air is pulled into the fan and ejected out of the rearmost outlet in an upwards direction. 

The biggest drawback of this system is that dust particles kicked up into the air from driving at high speed may be sucked up by the high velocity air stream from the cooling fan, thus creating a distinctive "rooster tail" dust cloud behind the tank. It is possible for an observant enemy to detect and distinguish a Nizhny Tagil tank from long distances through this method, as the basic operating principle behind the cooling system is derived directly from the system used in the T-54 and T-62, while the first widespread application of this cooling principle was the T-34. The radiator pack is shown in the photo below.

All reports indicate that this system is slightly limited - sufficient for European climates at best. It was designed so that the engine will work with no loss in efficiency at an ambient temperature of up to 25° C, but the engine will begin to experience very marginal reductions in performance at temperatures exceeding that. Overheating becomes a major issue in ambient temperatures of up to 50° C, which is sometimes recorded at the Thar desert in India. At temperatures above 45° C, the engine will begin to suffer huge reductions in power (up to 33% loss). At such temperatures, the tank must be stopped every 25 kilometers to allow the engine to cool to prevent excessive wearing. The simplest solution, as practiced by most tank crews, is to remove the armoured covers, which helps to improve air intake volume to improve cooling capacity, but this is not sufficient on extremely hot days. At temperatures of 30° C or so, the cooling system is adequate.

Apparently, the V-92 engine series and its accompanying modifications have partially solved the overheating issue. Specific details are not known to the author, but it could only either be an increase in the centrifugal fan's power, or a simple modification of the water flow channels in the radiator, as Indian T-72s and T-90Ss apparently have.

Radiator cover removed, exposing the protective louvers within
Cooling system air outlet. Armoured covers for it are removed, but not for the radiator in front of it

The photo above shows the engine compartment with cooling pack and engine access panel removed. Note the crossbar to hinge both of the aforementioned accessories. Also note the centrifugal fan at the bottom left corner. It is directly powered by the engine, and thus increases or decreases its power in accordance with the engine's requirements. It is strong enough to throw water out of the engine compartment like a blowhole even while idling.

Centrifugal fan

In the event of damage from air attack or whatever, maintaining or replacing the radiator is quite simple, since the entire unit can be hinged open. The radiator can be disconnected from the coolant pump quite easily, as the two components are only connected by two hoses.

The louvers that protect the radiator inlet, cooling fan outlet and engine air intake can all be shut or opened with the press of a button from the driver's station. Closing these louvers can help protect from attacks coming in various forms, from molotov cocktails to autocannon shells. With the louvers closed and the armoured cover on, the radiator and engine access panel - the largest and most obvious parts of engine deck - can have a very high resistance to hits from air-delivered cannon fire from low angles of attack. Examples include 20x110mm AP-I rounds from A-1 Skyraiders, the USAF's main ground attack plane in the early-mid stages of the Cold War, or 20x102mm AP-I rounds fired from AH-1 Cobras and in many fixed wing aircraft such as the F-4 Phantom and F-16, which may be used ad hoc for the close air support role.

The photo above shows the engine access panel and armoured cover hinged open. Note the spaced armour arrangement. Note the thickness. Since ground attack aircraft and attack helicopters almost never fly at high altitudes to deliver cannon attacks due to the risk of being seen and shot down, the armour is more than enough to deflect hits from all manner of cannon fire. A-10 pilots are trained to approach targets at an angle of attack of around 3 degrees from treetop level. Reducing the obliquity by a few more degrees will not change the fact that the engine deck is too thickly armoured to be affected even by shelling from 30mm DU rounds.


The T-72 uses a hydraulically assisted mechanical syncromesh transmission with dual planetary gearboxes and dual planetary final drives, a type of transmission that is known as a dual transmission system. This type of transmission is principally the same as one from the T-54, but better, of course. It is highly compact, rock solid, extremely reliable (practically unbreakable), and also quite precise, meaning that the driver can direct the tank between obstacles more easilyThere are seven forward gears and one reverse gear. 

According to this post by dejawolf on Tank-Net, the gears and corresponding speeds for a T-72A are as follows:

Gears for T-72A (km/h)

1st: 7.32
2nd: 13:59
3rd: 17.16
4th: 21.47
5th: 29.51
6th: 40.81
7th: 60

R: 4.18

These are assumed to be true until I can find an original T-72 manual.

Results of the tests of Object 172 tanks in the Turkestan Military District in 1968 showed that the average speed of the tanks on a paved road was 43.4 to 48.7 km/h, and the maximum speed recorded was 65 km/h, presumably achieved by driving down a perfectly straight stretch of highway.

The gear shift is much more linear than the one in the T-54.

Here is a GIF of the gear shift of a T-64 being operated. It is identical to the type used in the T-72.

The brakes are of a disc type, hydraulically operated. The T-72 is capable of neutral steering, but it can only turn on a false pivot, meaning that to turn the tank on the spot, one of the two tracks are locked in place while the other drives the tank around it. This system of neutral steering is mechanically simple, but inferior to a true pivot-type steering system where both of the tracks receive power, and one of the tracks is run at the desired speed while the other is run slightly slower in the opposite direction. Besides being slower, false pivot steering creates a huge amount of friction and places more strain on the inactive track, leading to a quicker gradual weakening of the track and a slightly shorter lifespan. As such,it is common practice to release the built-up tension in the track by letting the tank lurch forwards periodically during the turn.

The steering tillers (or levers) are hydraulically assisted, so that steering the T-72 is very light and easy even for an inexperienced driver. The synchromesh gearing system enables the driver to steer the tank smoother than on a  T-54 when he pulls on either one of the tillers, as the changing of gear ratios in the gearbox is smoother with a synchromesh system than with a typical constant mesh system. The synchromesh system is also less harsh on the gears, thus increasing the lifespan on the gearboxes. Driving the T-72 is a very pleasant experience, according to people with firsthand experience. One of the reasons besides the steering system is the low center of gravity of the tank itself. Being so low-slung, turning the tank simply feels better; after all, a double decker bus doesn't turn quite like a lowrider.

Nevertheless, the tiller system is inherently less ergonomic than a steering bar or wheel. The only advantage of the tiller system over the more complex steering bar system is that it is much easier and cheaper to manufacture, and also more durable - durability being a key factor in the decision to stick with tillers. It is no coincidence that the powertrain of the T-72 has a legendary reputation for reliability.

A little-known fact is that with the mud guards on, it is true that the T-72 can only climb vertical obstacles measuring around 0.85m in height. When they are removed, however, the T-72 can scale obstacles at least as tall as 1.2m (already taller than the tracks) or more. The GIF below shows the tank literally climbing straight up a concrete wall.  

(From 1992-1994 Swedish trials in Northern Norrland). Video credit goes to Ren Hanxue from the Swedish Tank Archives blog.


The T-72 can mount an APU, but only the command variants have one. The T-72AK and T-72BK were both equipped with an AB-1 petrol generator, producing 1kW.  


The T-72 uses full-length torsion bar suspension. Each wheel has its own torsion bar, which runs across the hull floor and to the other end of the hull. The front two torsion bar-wheel hub interfaces have reinforced bolts, since the T-72 is slightly front heavy and so they will bear the brunt of the tank's weight during forward movement, especially across pot-holed ground.

There are six 750mm roadwheels with three return rollers per each side. The roadwheels are die-cast aluminium alloy, with thick rubberized rims. The wheels weigh 180 kg each. The T-72 Ural used an 8-spoked wheel design, but all subsequent models used a 6-spoked wheel.

The first, second and last roadwheel on both sides are augmented with hydraulic shock absorbers. The front two shock absorbers are highly beneficial as the tank crosses rough terrain, while the rearmost shock absorber is intended to assist recovery when driving through dips and bumps. The shock absorbers are of a rotary type, and are very similar to the ones installed in the T-54.

The photos below give a good view of the wheels.

The T-72 first came with single-pin RMSh tracks measuring 580mm in width. These tracks have rubber bushings that help reduce vibrations and thus, reduce wear and tear as well as noise levels (though still relatively high). A full set weighs just over 1700 kg.

Old drive sprocket

Newer UMSh dual-pin tracks are available, also measuring 580mm in width. Usage of the newer tracks requires modified drive sprockets to be installed. Thus, only the newer modifications of the T-72 have this installed, like the T-72B3, though many of the late production T-72B models have it as well. The main attraction of this track is the ability to install asphalt-friendly rubber pads, and the higher durability. These tracks are less noisy as well. This is a benefit to the stealthiness of the vehicle as well as to the comfort of the crew. An entire set weighs just a hair under 1800kg.

New tracks and new drive sprocket

Rubber pads installed (Photo credit: Vitaly Kuzmin)

There is a simple mud scraper bolted on to the side wall, just above the drive sprocket. It helps to prevent loss of traction from excess soil on the tracks, especially sticky mud.

Removing rubber pads on T-90
Throughout the T-72's evolution, it has "fattened up" somewhat, gaining the most weight in the T-72B upgrade. While the T-72 Ural and T-72A both weighed 41 and 41.5 tons respectively, the T-72B tipped the scales at 44.5 tons. The T-72BM weighs 46 tons thanks to its Kontakt-5 package, and Kontakt-1 adds around 1.2 tons.

The T-72 Ural and T-72A exerted 0.83kg/ of ground pressure, while the T-72B, being heavier for the thick bulging armour array inserts, put in 0.898kg/ of pressure. Compared to its immediate foreign counterparts, the T-72 had little to no advantage in soft terrain, despite being a great deal lighter than all of its adversaries. Against the Chieftain, Leopard 1 and M60A1 of its era, the T-72 Ural and T-72A fared slightly better in this respect, but the T-72B was neither better nor worse off than its more modern challengers like the Leopard 2, Challenger 1, M60A3 and the M1 Abrams. The weight discrepancy doesn't manifest in this regard, but it suddenly becomes apparent when we consider the infrastructure of Eastern Europe at the time, especially the bridges - both permanent and temporary ones - that a huge advantage lays in the fact that the T-72 remains light enough to cross many of the more modest bridges as well as light enough to be compatible with the weight limit of the old MTU-55 bridge layers and TMM truck-based bridge layers, both of which were and still are present in huge numbers in the Russian Army Engineers.  

If the T-72 were to be trapped in swamps, bogs or in extremely deep snow, it may escape with the help of the eponymous log.

By tying the log to track pins on both right and left tracks as illustrated below, the tracks will drag the log along and under them, thus forcing that section of the track to rise above the mud while simultaneously giving the track something more solid to drive over. This allows the tank to get out of the hairiest situations.

The unditching log was demonstrated in Sweden by an ex-GDR T-72M1 in 1991 as part of a series of tests. Colour photo available on the website.

Here is a video (link) demonstrating a tank unditching itself using the log.


Like the T-62 and T-54 preceding it, the T-72 is capable of crossing deep water obstacles. Safe fording depths are usually cited to be around 1.2m, but water obstacles measuring up to 1.8m deep may be forded for short distances if necessary. Doing so will require the air intakes to be shut off and the partial implementation of the snorkeling feature (engine draws air from fighting compartment, turret hatches are left open, but snorkel is not installed), since the water level would be above the hull. With the installation of the proprietary OPVT snorkel, fording up to a depth of 5m is possible.  Pre-fording preparations are necessary in order to do so, requiring the edges of all hatches and the openings of various openings and periscopes to be coated with a thick resinous waterproofing paste, as the water pressure at such depths is simply too much for rubber seals to handle. 

The driver must then turn on the bilge pump. It is located to his lower left side.

Crew members are each given a closed-circuit IP-5 rebreather. The crew must put on the IP-5 before entering water as a precautionary measure.

It comprises a watertight, form fitting gas mask, a chemical respirator chamber containing potassium superoxide (KO2), and a flotation collar. The rebreather uses the chemical reaction between potassium superoxide and carbon dioxide, activated by water from the user's breath reduce the former two to oxygen and potassium carbonate. The freshly produced oxygen gas is mixed into the previously exhaled breath to replenish its oxygen content for rebreathing.


The OPVT snorkel "breathes" for all three occupants, as well as the engine. In the latter case, an air intake fan duct draws air from the crew compartment and routes it to the engine. The suction effect from the intake fan helps to circulate the air inside the fighting compartment as well. 

The normal NBC-capable ventilation system is inoperable while snorkeling, but this does not mean that the crew is vulnerable to such dangers while snorkeling; recall that the crew must don a closed cycle rebreather system before entering water. This means that the crew never has to breathe contaminated air, although the interior of the tank will be unavoidably contaminated. The OPVT snorkel is installed on the gunner's hatch, through a circular porthole, visible in this picture:


Because the hatch can be simply swung open, installing the snorkel is not difficult. The snorkel is fitted with two floating markers during training exercises to indicate the tank's position underwater to help rescue teams locate the tank if it has stopped underwater.

The two photos below shows the snorkel being installed during a river crossing exercise.

Also, the exhaust port must be replaced with a special valve bank to prevent water from entering into the exhaust manifolds.

T-72s equipped with the V-92S2 or V-92SF engines must use different valve units.

All T-72 variants are capable of snorkeling regardless of variant.


All T-72 variants have a total internal fuel capacity of 705 liters, spread across several fuel cells. Two tanks are located on the forward hull on either side of the driver. Another conformal fuel tank is located directly behind the right frontal fuel tank. It also doubles as ammunition racks, and so does the conformal fuel tank directly behind the autoloader, which holds 12 propellant charges. Another 495 liters of fuel is stored in conformal fuel cells located externally on the starboard side fender. The total fuel capacity is 1200 liters.

As you can see in the diagram above, the external and internal fuel systems are not interconnected. They each have their own separate fuel lines, but both connect to the same fuel pump.

Being entirely separated from each other, the driver-mechanic is able to shut off and isolate the internal and external fuel tanks from his station. Isolated fuel tanks will be disconnected from both the fuel pump and the fuel return lines, so the fuel within the tank will be left to sit. This can be beneficial in some circumstances, such as when there is an imminent threat of an internal fire spreading. By shutting off all of the internal fuel tanks, the fuel will not leak out as energetically as it is no longer being drawn by the fuel pump, or maybe even stop leaking entirely, depending on the specific location of the damage to the tanks. It is also possible for the driver to shut off all internal fuel tanks, and rely on external fuel only if the situation allows it. This creates the possibility of filling the internal fuel tanks with water,and since the majority of the volatile propellant charges are stowed in conformal fuel tanks, they can become ad hoc wet stowage racks for increased safety. 

The two externally mounted auxiliary fuel drums each have a 200-liter capacity. These connect directly to the fuel system, and both can be disconnected by the driver at the same time by the push of a button.

The auxiliary fuel tank holders are hinged, and may be folded flush to the hull rear when not in use. 

The T-72 Ural can travel 480km on internal fuel alone, or 700km with external fuel tanks. Thanks to improvements in fuel efficiency on the T-72B3, it can travel 550km on internal fuel alone, or 800km with external fuel tanks despite having the same fuel capacity. As with all automobiles, fuel efficiency decreases while driving cross-country. The amount of engine power needed increases as the harshness of the terrain increases, and so does fuel consumption. 
Because of the T-72's relatively large fuel capacity and high fuel efficiency, refueling the T-72 isn't even necessary for short continuous operations (lasting no more than 3 days), and this greatly eases the logistical burden on the frontlines.


According to user testimonies compiled by the author, the driver's station can be definitively said to be the most comfortable place to be in the T-72. Anecdotes from people who have sat in the driver's seat have reported that the station is spacious enough to let someone more than six feet tall to operate the pedals with a comfortable allotment of legroom. When driving, the driver must hunch slightly forward in order to operate the steering levers, step on the pedals and look through the periscope at the same time. Besides anecdotal sources, we can once again refer to this diagram from "Human Factors and Scientific Progress in Tank Building" by M.N. Tikhonov and I.D. Kudrin as provided by Peter Samsonov, we can see that the driver of a T-72 gets 0.864 cubic meters of space. That's more than the 0.621 cubic meters afforded to the driver of a T-55. The driver enters and exits his station via an oval 530mm-wide hatch located centrally on the hull axis, underneath the cannon. The driver can only exit the tank when the cannon is elevated or oriented to one side.

The driver is provided with a single forward-facing TNPO-168V periscope to facilitate driving. It is a very wide periscope measuring 267mm across - much wider than the driver's head - with a binocular field of view of 38 degrees, and a total field of view of 138 degrees. The periscope provides 31 degrees of vision vertically - 15 below the horizontal axis and 16 above. The view from the TNPO-168V is superb (reportedly). Szabó István, a non-military Hungarian with extensive experience driving demilitarized tanks, described the TNPO-168V periscope as "so wide that it looks like a small window from inside! Forward visibility is excellent for such a periscope! No complaints here". Like all the other periscopes on the T-72, the TNPO-168V is heated through the RTC heater system.

There is a horizontal handlebar below the periscope. It is not part of the periscope. It is simply a handlebar for the driver to hold on to when shifting in or out of the hatch.

The picture below shows the view from a TNPO-168V. As you can see, forward visibility is very good indeed. It helped that the periscope itself is quite short, meaning that the distance between the eyepiece mirror and the aperture mirror is very short, so the "tunnel effect" is minimized. 

Another good example of the excellent visibility from the TNPO-168V periscope is demonstrated in this video (link).
When not in use, the TNPO-168V periscope is stowed away in its aluminium container.

For night time driving, the driver is provided with a TVNE-4B passive-active binocular periscope with a pair of Gen 2 light intensifier moduleThe periscope runs on the tank's 27V power supply system, and can run continuously for eight hours. It is typically kept in its proprietary aluminium box and stowed away by the driver until it is needed.

The periscope is much narrower than the TNPO-168V, but the TVNE-4B still provides a decent field of vision as well as an acceptable viewing distance. TVNE-4B stands for "Tank Driver's Passive Night Vision Optic, model 4 with built-in power supply". According to "Optical Night Vision Devices For Armoured Vehicles" by S.A. Belyakov and published by the Russian Ministry of Defence, TVNE-4B facilitates a viewing distance of up to 100 m in the passive mode under ambient light conditions of 0.005 lux (moonless, starlit night), and 60 m in the active mode using the FG-125 IR headlight. The active infrared mode of vision is very similar to the M24 active IR periscope, but the passive mode offers inferior range compared to the AN/VVS-2 passive periscope, which offers a viewing distance of 150 m. In terms of overall quality and functionality, the TVNE-4B is closer to the obsolete M24 than the AN/VVS-2. The TVN-5 closely mimicked the AN/VVS-2 and offered better performance, but came much later and is used only in limited numbers, so we will not be examining it in this article.

The periscope can be directly inserted into the periscope slot for the TNPO-168V without any modifications, but a plastic spacer is slipped on top of the aperture head to give it a proper fit and to prevent water and mud from ingressing through the gaps. The plastic spacer can be seen at the very top of the exploded diagram below. The periscope only has a decent horizontal field of view of 36 degrees and a vertical field of view of 33 degrees, but more importantly, the driver has depth perception. Most night vision periscopes have two eyepieces but only a single aperture, so the driver lacks stereoscopic vision and thus lacks depth perception.

Although TVNE-4B only has a 60 meter view range in the active mode using only the hull's single small IR headlight, it may also pick up infrared light from the turret's three IR spotlights. Indeed, the single FG-125 IR light located just beside the auxiliary/night sight on the turret is meant to augment the driver's viewing distance when operating in the active imaging mode and also to provide a source of light when the tank is wading across water obstacles. The periscope has 1.12x magnification. Compared to the AN/VVS-2 passive driver's periscope, the TVNE-4B has poorer performance all across the board, except that it enables stereoscopic vision.

This video shows the image intensifier of the TVNE-4B periscope in use. Here is a screenshot from the video:

From the video, the claimed 100-meter viewing range of the periscope is shown to be valid, and it appears to be more than adequate for nighttime driving. Here is another video of the TVNE-4B in use, this time in a T-90. The IR headlight on the left side of the upper glacis is used for illumination in this instance, and the range of vision seems to be worse, but this could be due to the low video quality (240p).

There is an accessory windshield that may be attached to the outside of the hatch. Its main purpose is to protect the driver from bugs and dust while driving in non combat conditions.

It is not unique to the T-72 in any way. Many other Soviet vehicles can mount these windshields.

The driver enters through a pill-shaped hatch. Two TNPA-65A viewing prisms are embedded in it, one looking in the 10 o'clock and the other in the 1 o'clock direction. Looking through them requires the driver to look upwards. This layout is generally far less convenient than the more commonly encountered bank of three viewing prisms found on the T-80 and Abrams as well as most others. The TNPA-65A periscopes are very narrow, almost slit-like. It is difficult to see very much other than the tracks and part of the road, but it would also be very hard to hit or damage them with machine gun fire. The TNPA-65A periscopes are meant to check the corners of the tank only. They are far too limited for driving during combat.

As mentioned before, the TNPA-65A periscope provides 14 degrees of binocular vision horizontally, and only 6 degrees of vertical vision.

The driver's hatch itself is 20mm thick. The rubber seals make them completely watertight down till a depth of around 1 or 2 (relative to the height of the hatch, not the turret roof). Unfortunately, the seals on the TNPO-168V periscope are not nearly as dependable. Being mostly watertight, the tank can ford streams as deep as 1.2m or deeper without the danger of excessive water ingress.

Steering the tank requires the use of two hydraulically assisted tillers, which are located on either side of the knees of the driver. Though the tiller steering system can be considered one of the more antiquated aspects of the T-72, it's worth noting that many of its rivals like the AMX-30, Chieftain and Challenger used the same system as well. However, most main battle tanks had already grown out of tillers and progressed into steering wheels even by the 1960s, like the M60 and Leopard 1 did. The Leclerc and Leopard 2 both use steering wheels and the Abrams tank uses motorcycle handlebars. The only exception is the Challenger 2, which (shockingly) still retains a tiller system as well.

The driver sits on a bucket type seat, with bolsters on each side. The seat can be adjusted for height in order to accommodate persons of a wider range of height, and also to raise the driver high enough to peek over the hatch. It has been reported to the author that the driver of a T-72 gets quite a lot of legroom, and that it is quite comfortable, more so even than the commander's and gunner's stations.

Like the commander and gunner, the driver's "air conditioning" comes in the form of a DV-3 plastic fan.

All of the driving-related indicator gauges are placed on a board to the driver's left, like in previous tanks like the T-62, T-54 and T-34. The placement isn't exactly convenient, but looking at them while driving (in any tank) isn't really very necessary anyway.

Behind is the left front hull fuel tank. The fire extinguishers for the hull's automated firefighting system is located underneath it. 

Over at his left foot there is a rather rudimentary GPK-59 gyroscopic compass for directional navigation. It is particularly useful when driving underwater when nobody in the tank has any scenery to refer to for a sense of direction. The use of gyrocompasses can perhaps be labeled as a rudimentary form of an Inertial Navigation System (INS), advanced versions of which are often present in modern combat vehicles due to their independence from outside input contrary to a GPS-based navigation system. Sadly, the T-72 has not received either in any of its iterations.




Михаил Барятинский, Т-72 Уральская броня против НАТО
(Mikhail Baryatinsky, T-72 Ural Armour Against NATO)

Tekhnika i Vooruzheniye 2006, November issue
(Журнал Техника и Вооружение 2006 год, 11)

Article Properties

Pages: 436
Graphics: 502

Words: 84,321