Or is just the best of the USSR's long line of tanks?
Could Ukraine's T-84 Tank Take on the World's Best in a Fight?
The T-84 Oplot-M is Ukraine’s latest Main Battle Tank. While it hasn’t seen combat service in the Ukrainian military, the type contains many advanced features. But the Oplot is hardly a clean slate design. In many ways, it is simply a highly advanced version of the T-80U main battle tank, one of the most lethal tanks the Soviet Union produced. But how did the T-80U become the T-84?
To understand where the T-84 comes from, it is important to understand its heritage. Like the T-64 and the T-80UD, the T-84 is a product of the Ukrainian Kharkiv Morozov Machine Design Bureau (KhKBM). As such, it draws many design features from the earlier tanks. The roots of the T-84 lie in a 1970s Soviet project to improve the T-64B: the Object 476 “Kedr.” In this project, the seven hundred horsepower 5TDF diesel engine in the T-64 is replaced by the more powerful 6TD engine, and the turret protection is set up in a manner that would become the setup on the T-80U. As the T-80U didn’t use diesel engines, preferring the GTD-series of gas turbine engines, the 6TD went unused on the basic T-80U. However due to some problems and the high cost of the GTD-series of engines (ten times that of the 6TD), a diesel variant of the T-80U was built, called the T-80UD (Object 478B). Introduced in 1985, the T-80UD was one of the best MBTs fielded by the Soviet Army before the dissolution of the union. This tank was the basis on which the Oplot would be built upon.
The lineage from the T-80UD to the T-84 is clearly traceable, as different variants of the T-80UD for export and versions of the T-84 all use the Object 478 designation. At the time of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, various versions of the T-80UD were being trialed with advanced equipment such as the Prana and Shtora Active Protection Systems (APS). Shtora was fit to the command tank variants of the T-80U, the T-80UK. The Soviets wanted to fit these to the T-80UD as well, so they commissioned a prototype that implemented Shtora and welded turret modules that improved protection. This prototype was called the Object 484, or T-80UDK.
The designers at KhKBM post-dissolution realized that it would be good for business if they rolled all of these advanced features into their own “new” tank. The T-80UD already was an export success, with sales to Pakistan. The process of creating the “new” T-84 began with the upgrading of the 6TD engine. The original 6TD-1 as installed on the T-80UD had a horsepower of around 1000 horsepower. The 6TD-2 upped this to 1200 horsepower, allowing the tank to retain its mobility with the increased weight of additional modules. The welded turret was also incorporated. The research and development to create welded turrets were there prior to the collapse of the union, but at the time, disrupting the production of cast turrets was not seen as a logical tradeoff to switch to welded production. When restarting production after the collapse, no reason was seen not to transition to the superior welded design, which gave better protection, greater upgrade potential of the armor in the future, and increased survivability. The first T-84 “Oplot,” designation Object 478DU2 rolled off the assembly line in the spring of 1995. The only substantive differences from the first T-80UDs were the new welded turrets, standard Shtora installations, and 6TD-2 engines. These changes added two tons of weight to the design, bringing the weight up to forty-eight tons.
However, this basic T-84 design was not adopted by any nation. So KhKBM continued improving the design. One problem that came with the dissolution of the union was a lack of new 2A46 125 millimeter tank guns to arm new production T-84s with. Various plants and industries were retooled, and Ukraine began producing its own indigenous KBA-3 125 millimeter tank gun, a close copy of the 2A46M-1. In addition, the “Kontakt-5” ERA that was used on the T-80UDs was also produced in Russia. For later versions of the T-84, domestic “Nozh” ERA was produced. Unlike Kontakt-5, which has limited effectiveness against kinetic energy projectiles such as the APFSDS projectiles used by most tanks, Nozh is designed to defeat these as well as HEAT warheads. The Soviet-era “Shtora” APS was replaced by the new “Warta” APS with the same capabilities but new sensors. Other changes included the addition of an APU, changes to the side screens to improve protection there, new radionavigation equipment, and new “shoes” for the tracks to reduce wear on road surfaces. With all these improvements, this “new” T-84 was called T-84U or Object 478DU9. Ten of these machines were acquired by the Ukrainian military in 2000.
While the T-84U Oplot (Object 478DU9) was adopted by the Ukrainian military, KhKBM also was gunning for contracts in NATO countries, specifically Turkey To this end, they created a version of the T-84 with a 120 millimeter NATO gun. Called the “Yatagan” or T-84-120 (designation Object 487N), this tank was more than a simple gun conversion of the T-84. Because 120mm NATO ammunition is one-piece, and standard 125 millimeter ammunition is two-piece, a new autoloader design was devised for the Yatagan. This allowed the storage of some rounds in a blow-out compartment similar to those used on the M1 Abrams to increase the chances of crew survival in an ammo strike. A 120 millimeter gun-launched ATGM along with the fire control systems to guide it was also part of the Yatagan package. However, Turkey, in the end, decided not the acquire the Yatagan, and the project faded into obscurity.
Sometime in the mid-2000s, KhKBM realized that the T-84U tanks adopted by the Ukrainian military in the early 2000s were getting outdated and needed replacement. Here, the T-84 “Oplot-M” or BM Oplot (designation Object 478DU9-1) project was born. Planned as a modernization kit for the ten T-84Us already adopted by the Ukrainian military, this kit improves the protection of the type by installing a newer “Nozh-2”/“Duplet” ERA with improved resistance to all threat types. It also adds the massive PKN-6 stabilized thermal commander sight to the tank (commonly known as the “bucket”). While earlier versions of the T-84 and T-80UD had stabilized commander sights and gunner thermal sights, the PKN-6 introduced the thermal function for the commander, allowing the BM Oplot to have a true analog to the American M1A2’s CITV sight. Due to the size of the PKN-6, the commander’s machine gun was also moved. The engine was also changed to the 6TD-2E, a more ecological version of the 6TD-2 that produces less toxic exhaust. Some changes are made to the ammunition storage as well, with some rounds being stored in the turret bustle with blowout panels to protect against ammunition cookoff. The order to modernize all Oplots in Ukrainian service to the BM Oplot standard was given in May 2009, however lack of funds has delayed this upgrade. Only one tank has been seen with this package in Ukraine. The BM Oplot upgrade package adds another three tons, bringing the weight up to fifty-one tons.
Fortunately for KhKBM, the BM Oplot found limited success on the export scene. In 2011, Thailand signed a contract to buy forty-nine BM Oplot-Ms modified for Thai service. These Oplots were called Oplot-T (designation Object 478DU9-T) and featured an air conditioner, and different radios and APU. However, the slow pace of delivery caused Thailand to cancel the full contract.
A rough comparative evaluation of the Oplot’s combat qualities versus its Russian counterparts can be found in the Malaysian tank trials in the 2000s. A basic variant of the T-84 (designation Object 478DU7, a variation of the Object 478DU2) performed at around the same level as Russia’s export T-90S. If the Ukrainian ERA systems hold up to their claims, the BM Oplot would be a rough equivalent for any tank Russia can field. The independent commander thermal sight gives better situational awareness than a standard T-72B3, T-90A, or even the T-80BVM, Russia’s take on T-80 modernization. Recent tanks such as the T-90M or the proposed T-72B3M might match the BM Oplot in capability, and the new T-14 “Armata” almost definitely surpasses it. While the BM Oplot might be better than Russia’s “line” tanks, the tiny numbers in service render its advantages irrelevant. The T-84U’s poor performance at Strong Europe 2018 may also cast doubt on the quality of Ukrainian sights versus modern Western tanks.
Charlie Gao studied Political and Computer Science at Grinnell College and is a frequent commentator on defense and national security issues.