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Russia is Short on Tanks, So Why Are There 1,000 T-72s in Storage?

The Russian military in Ukraine is losing nearly 100 tanks a month, according to analysts who scour social media to identify destroyed vehicles. At the same time, Russian industry is building no more than 50 new tanks a month.

To fill the gap as best as possible, the Russians are pulling old Cold War tanks out of long-term storage, refurbishing them, in some cases upgrading them, and then shipping them to the front along with newly built tanks. (Stored tanks are visible on commercial satellite imagery, making them fairly easy to count.)

The recovered tanks include T-55s from the 1950s, T-62s from the 1960s, and a variety of T-72s and T-80s from more recent decades. Oddly enough, they are mostly do not include the very oldest T-72s: the original T-72 Ural and T-72A models from the early 1970s. The models have thinner armor and coarser fire controls.

Twenty-eight months into Russia’s broader war on Ukraine, stockpiles of T-55s are down 31 percent, T-62s 37 percent, and T-80Bs an astonishing 79 percent. But only nine percent of T-72s have been removed from storage. The Russians “have not removed the T-72A/Ural tanks in any significant numbers,” analyst @Highmarsed noted.

To be clear, even a tank that is completely rusted through can be restored – if you strip and sand the hull and replace almost every part that isn’t solid steel. “With enough money, time, and spare parts, it’s probably possible to refurbish any tank,” @Highmarsed explained.

But that kind of thorough restoration is extremely time-consuming and expensive. If an old tank is really far gone — and to be clear, the 1,000 or so T-72 Urals and T-72As still in storage could be “in bad shape,” according to @Highmarsed — it’s probably better to spend the money on a brand new tank.

But why would the Kremlin spend money on restoring 70-year-old T-55s and 60-year-old T-62s, when not 50 year old T-72s? The answer is probably that the T-55s and T-62s have human loaders in their four-man crews; the T-72s have automatic loaders that replace the fourth crew member.

Autoloaders are complicated and can be difficult to maintain, which is why the U.S. Army and many other NATO armies have never used them in their own tanks. In a 1982 assessment, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency praised the T-72’s autoloader for its speed but noted its complexity.

Sure, a T-55 is 20 years older than a T-72 Ural, but it is a much simpler tank and certainly easier to refurbish.

So there is a strange neglected middle ground in the Russian stockpile of old tanks. Newer complex tanks are worth restoring, and so are very old simple tanks. But old complex tanks, the T-72 Urals and T-72As, are not worth the time and money to get them working again.

According to analyst Richard Vereker, the oldest T-72s account for only 10 percent of Russian tank losses. That’s to be expected, given how few of the old tanks are used in front line service.

But that still translates to about 10 destroyed T-72 Urals and T-72As per month, out of just 100 the Russians have pulled out of storage. If that continues, the old tanks could soon be wiped out.

The rest of the first generation T-72s may never leave the massive fleets where they have been slowly corroding for decades. The Russians would have to be pretty desperate to look at the 46-ton pile of rust that was once a functional T-72 Ural and see something to spend time and money on.

They may get that desperate, though. “I don’t think there will be a specific point at which Russia runs out of tanks,” @Highmarsed wrote, “but their tank fleet will likely shrink slowly but continuously over time, which will have an effect on their offensive capabilities.”

As their fighting power diminishes due to the lack of tanks, the Russians may eventually decide that it is worth restoring old and complex tanks, in addition to older, simpler tanks and newer, more complex tanks.

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Sources:

1. Oryx: https://www.oryxspioenkop.com/2022/02/attack-on-europe-documenting-equipment.html

2. @Highmarsed: https://x.com/HighMarsed/status/1809641392232075743

3. Central Intelligence Agency: https://www.cia.gov/readingroom/docs/DOC_0000498195.pdf

4. Richard Vereker: https://x.com/verekerrichard1/status/1790461001202012642

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