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When Russia launched its “special military operation” into Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, its offensive was spearheaded by tanks, primarily drawn from its Soviet-built Cold War stocks of T-72s and T-80s. Although both are similar in appearance, the T-80 was built around an innovative engine that proved to be both problematic and expensive.

Now both sides of the Russian-Ukraine War are fielding these aging, troublesome tanks.

History of the T-80

The mid-1960s saw an attempt by the Soviet Union to produce a new, radical generation of technically sophisticated main battle tanks that were lighter than their foreign contemporaries and capable of fighting with a three-man crew, rather than the more usual four. This began in 1964 with the 38-ton T-64, which among other things featured a compact engine arrangement; an auto-loader for its 125 mm smoothbore cannon, which could fire shells or anti-tank missiles; smaller all-steel rollers in place of the big-wheeled Christie suspension that had reached its practical limit in the T-62; and composite armor made of layers of steel and ceramic compound.

Manufactured in Kharkiv, the T-64 displayed a disturbing difference between an impressive prototype and a production model full of problems, most notoriously a tendency of its auto-loader to “eat” the left arms of inattentive gunners inside the cramped turrets. Another flaw lay in where rounds had to be stored: just outside of the turret mounting ring but within the crew compartment, which would be deadly for all hands in the event of a hit. Only 13,108 T-64s were built between 1964 to 1987, compared to the 22,096 built at Nizhni-Kagil between 1973 and 1990 of the T-72, a simpler but more reliable step back that cost 40% less to produce than the T-64.   

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While diesel engines had predominated in Soviet tanks since World War II, the Soviets introduced a third main battle tank in 1976, powered by an SG1000 gas turbine engine but otherwise of similar configuration to the T-64 and T-72. It was armed with the same 125 mm 2A46H1 Rapira smoothbore cannon as the other types, later capable of firing M9K112 Kobra missiles, as well as a coaxial 7.62×54 machine gun and a 12.7 mm machine gun atop the turret.  

The prospect of three tanks similar in basic configuration but each differing under the skin presented a potential maintenance nightmare to the Soviet army, and the T-80 became the on-and-off target of every senior officer who opposed its adoption. In November 1975, Defense Minister Andrei Grechko blocked its acceptance, but, five months later, his successor, Dmitriy Ustinov, approved it. The first 30 had rolled off the production line at Omsk by the end of 1976.

USSR’s Fastest Tank

In 1978, the Soviets were referring to the T-80B as “The Tank of the English Channel,” because their war game scenarios envisioned them rolling from Germany to the Channel in five days. In practice, however, the T-80 itself offered the unlikelihood of that happening.

Although its turbine engine made the T-80 the first tank capable of exceeding 70 kilometers per hour, was lightweight and could warm up quickly, even in the dead of winter, it was expensive, consumed fuel at a disturbing rate and was far more vulnerable to dirt and dust than the diesels. On top of all that, each T-80 cost $3 million, 3 1/2 times the expense of a T-64A. 

Making JObs and Improvements

Counterbalancing all the arguments for writing off the T-80 as a well-meant mistake were the economic consequences of closing down factories and laying off workers. And so a relatively reduced production continued, along with a series of attempts to improve the breed.

In 1991, 800 T-80UDs were built in Kharkov, regarded as the premier Soviet tank factory — until it became the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv. T-80U production at the Leningrad Kirov Plant ended in 1990, just before the Soviet collapse. And the last T-80Bs emerged from the Transmash Plant in Omsk in 2001, bringing the total to 7,066. 

Among the T-80 improvements was the T-80BV, with Kontakt 1 explosive reactive armor. The T-80U introduced improved 1A45 fire control and the 9K119 Refleks guided missile. In the T-80UD, the GTD1250 turbine was replaced by a diesel engine. 

Dismal Debut to Unimpressive in UKraine

The T-80’s combat debut in the First Chechen War was jarringly poor, with large numbers of the tanks falling victim to multiple attacks by Chechen rebels armed with RPG-7V and RPG-18 rocket-propelled grenades. For the most part, this was less a reflection of the tank as it was of how poorly trained their crews were in urban warfare, a martial art not seriously practiced since the Soviet army took Berlin in 1945. One universal problem with the T-64, T-72, T-80 and T-90 was the relatively limited up-and-down movement of their main guns within their cramped turrets, a major handicap in urban engagements.

As a consequence of their galling performance in Chechnya, along with the monetary cost whenever one was destroyed, the T-80s were not committed to the 1999 Second Chechen War, the 2008 Russo-Georgian conflict or the 2014 Russo-Ukrainian war.

In 2022, however, heavy attrition on the T-72s and T-90s compelled the Russians to send their stocks of T-80s into the fray. For essentially the same reasons as their stablemates, they too suffered heavy losses. By April 10, the Russians lost 19 T-80BVMs and 52 T-80Us — and in the case of the latter model, 15 had been destroyed and 42 had been abandoned.

By Aug. 14, the open-source chronicle Onyx reported the total of Russian T-80 losses to be 178, though not all of them had been destroyed — the Ukrainian 93rd Mechanized Brigade has been operating captured T-80s against their former owners. In either case, Russians and Ukrainians alike face a challenge when dueling with T-80s, which may claim one of the most wretched histories, from its very inception to the latest dispatches, of any tank ever conceived.

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