On June 2, 2017 a ceremony of transfer of four T-72B3 tanks, modernized by Russian company “Uralvagonzavod”, to the Belarusian army took place. The event is more than remarkable given the fact that in the last 17 years the priority of the development of the army was air defence, air force and the Special Operations Forces. Armored vehicles were not playing the main role, only experiencing major repairs or low-cost upgrades.
Prehistory. There are quite few details of the deal between the Ministry of Defence of Belarus and “Uralvagonzavod”. It is necessary to note that at the beginning of this year, the MoD didn’t mention delivery of T-72B3 while speaking about the plans for the development of the army. Supplying the troops with the modernization of the T-72BM1 from Barysau 140th repair plant was announced only.
Meanwhile, during the arms exhibition MILEX-2014 the talks between the Ministry of Defence of Belarus and “Uralvagonzavod” on the modernization of Belarusian T-72 tanks were held. It was assumed that modernization kits will be supplied from Russia, and the work itself will be carried out in Belarus (source). As far as one can judge, the cost of modernization was the deterrent for the Belarusian side: the work on each combat vehicle for the Russian army costs about USD 1.4 million.
The market offers a fairly large line of packages of upgrading T-72 tanks in a wide price range. But, as a rule, they exist only in the form of demonstration samples. While more than 1,000 tanks were modernized according to the T-72B3 project. The project was improved according to the experience of the first batches.
T-72B “Vityaz”. The fact that the use of Belarusian production capacity was assumed in 2014, means the ability of the Belarusian industry to offer a tank modernization project for the national army comparable with T-72B3. But one condition was obligatory — access to the necessary units and weapons. There may be a problem here: either Russian manufacturers refused to supply engines, means of protection and weapons for domestic modernization to Belarus, or they asked for a price that made modernization in Belarus not rational for financial reasons.
The project “Vityaz” should be taken into consideration here (source). A year after MILEX-2014 and the announcement of a possible cooperation with Uralvagonzavod in the modernization of the T-72, it was reported that the project of a large-scale modernization of the combat vehicle was developed at Barysau 140th repair plant. Moreover, “… factory workers started the serial upgrade of tanks T 72B “Vityaz”. Their new product is equipped with a modern fire control system …, an automatic target tracking system, as well as a fundamentally new sighting and observation facility of the tank commander, which makes it possible to fire during day and night from a cannon and a twin machine gun in the “Double” mode. The combat vehicle is equipped with a closed anti-aircraft machine gun — it is possible to combat more effectively not only air, but also ground targets from the combat compartment of the tank at a distance of up to 1,600 meters. The profound modernization of the combat vehicle made it possible to significantly improve the protection … from anti-tank weapons and mines with magnetic fuses, as well as its disguise, and many other combat and operational capabilities”. The fighting potential of the tank was increased by one and a half times.
The greatest interest in the message is the scheme of “Vityaz”, according to which the tank was supposed to be equipped with a universal dynamic protection “Nozh” and a complex of active protection “Zaslon” produced in Ukraine. This caused the flow of discontent in the Russian media. At the same time, two key elements of the tank — gun and engine, remained old. Without their replacement, carrying out costly modernization becomes meaningless. The fact that the Belarusian manufacturers did not provide for the replacement of the engine and gun means that they did not have access to new Russian-made equipment.
In “Vityaz” one could see an attempt to dislodge concessions from Russia. But there are two facts that do not allow to consider the Belarusian project a fake:
— the very idea of the project T-72B “Vityaz” has its history from 2011;
— In March of the current year, “Vityaz” project was mentioned as a probable future for the Belarusian armoured units.
The decisions put into the project “Vityaz” seem to be more advanced than ones implemented within the framework of T-72B3, except gun and engine. If the engine and the gun from the T-72B3 were added to “Vityaz”, it would result in a completely different tank with the price much higher than USD 2 million.
Prospects. The supply of the T-72B3 is a compromise solution, when the maximum possible is got using the limited budget. But much needed is not included. The T-72B3 is poorly suited for fighting in an urbanized area — the main theater of operations for the foreseeable future. On the other hand, the tank is able to withstand modern machines of Western production more successfully.
Currently, a contract to modernize another batch of Belarusian tanks has been signed. But will the Belarusian budget be able to finance the mass modernization of tanks? If it is an issue of a battalion in a year (31 units) — it will be very good result. It is very likely that the deal will be limited to a company — 10 units per year.
In addition, as far as we know, the modernization of Belarusian tanks is being carried out in Russia, and not in Belarus, as it was discussed in 2014. Obviously, the Belarusian military-industrial complex is not happy to see how money “flows” to Russia. It can be assumed that this will become a point of tension between the Ministry of Defence and the State Military Industrial Committee. Moreover, there is a precedent: the Ministry of Defence planned the purchase of Russian BTR-82, but eventually it was Aliaksandar Lukashenka’s decision to purchase the products of the domestic defence industry, even if their quality is worse. We must understand, that Lukashenka had some advice from the outside.
And another issue: are the Belarusian leaders considering T-72B3 as the final solution to the problem of obsolescence of the national tank forces? If there is room for alternative options (the plans to modernize the tanks by the national military-industrial complex to the level of T-72BM1 testify in favor of this), we can expect new proposals from domestic gunsmiths. For example, “Vityaz” with a Serbian engine and a Chinese gun.