The Turbulent Reason Why Romania Is Buying Abrams Tanks From America

m1 abrams tank
Why Romania Is Buying M1 Abrams TanksPhoto by Spc. Kevin Brown/DVIDS

Romania technically has more operational tanks than France, Germany, or the United Kingdom, with 377 in service according to the 2023 edition of The Military Balance. But that fleet is also amongst the most outdated in the alliance for a country of its size, based on the Soviet T-54/T-55 tank, which entered service in 1954.

As neighboring Ukraine battles a Russian invasion, that state of affairs is no longer sitting well in Bucharest, which has increased defense spending to 2.5 percent of GDP, exceeding NATO’s often flouted 2 percent requirement, and moved to purchase Patriot air defense missiles, F-16 fighters, and HIMARS batteries.

Earlier this month, Romania’s military procurement chief Lt. Gen Teodor Incicas said Bucharest would soon seek to purchase a “battalion” of M1 Abrams main battle tanks from the United States, per Observatorul Militar. A standard Romanian battalion has 54 tanks.

The 65- to 70-ton Abrams still ranks amongst the best-protected and hardest-hitting tanks on the planet, alongside Leopard 2, Challenger 2, and Leclerc tanks operated by its NATO allies, and would represent a big change for Romania, as its current fleet is under-gunned versus modern Russian T-72B3, T-80 and T-90 tanks.

Romania’s military modernization will complement an expanded NATO defensive contingent in Romania, including a rotating multi-national battlegroup under French command, supplementing elements of the 2nd Armored Cavalry regiment equipped with Stryker armored vehicles and a 4,000-strong brigade of the 101st Airborne Division.

Undoubtedly, the Abrams battalion will be expensive. Neighboring Poland spent $4.75 billion for an order of 250 new M1A2s, followed by $1.4 billion for 116 used M1A1s from the U.S. The total of $6.15 billion reflects the steep additional overhead costs to introducing the new type into service, and suggest a price hovering around or below the $1 billion mark for Romania. But Polish investments in M1 training, logistics, and maintenance could substantially ease service-entry costs for Romania.

It will take years before any tanks are delivered, however, between 31 tanks promised to Ukraine, Poland’s in-progress deliveries, and Taiwan, which is anxiously awaiting 108 M1A2T Abrams tanks. While the U.S. has thousands of M1s in storage, the annual capacity to refurbish these into modern vehicles remains low as heavy tanks were increasingly regarded as Cold War dinosaurs.

Other notable Romanian arms deals in the works include a recent $410 million deal to procure seven Watchkeeper X unmanned combat air vehicles; an armed drone based on the Israeli Hermes 450, which will lead to an assembly line opening in Romania; and procurement of license-built Piranha-5 armored vehicles.

Romania’s Tank Dilemma: Importation or Self-Sufficiency?

The Romanian Land Forces today dispose of one tank and five mechanized brigades, each with one battalion of tanks and two of infantry mounted on either BTR-style armored troop carriers (APCs), Piranha Vs, or tracked MIL-84 infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs).

Active inventory includes 220 T-55AMs, an upgraded model with reinforced BDD-type laminated “brow” armor, laser range-finders, smoke grenade launchers, stabilized guns and sights, and gun-launched missile capability thanks to new fire control systems. It also counts 103 indigenous TR-85 tanks based on the T-55, and 54 heavily enhanced TR-85M1s.

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T-55 tanks at Cincu firing range during MILREX ’07 military exercise.Wikimedia Commons

The TR-85s emerged in response to Romania’s experience during and after the Second World War. During that conflict (in which Romania fought first against and then for the Allies) Romania’s army operated under-gunned tanks imported from France (FT-17s, R-35s) and stouter German-supplied Panzer IIINs, IVs, 38ts and assault guns. Romanian factories did manage to strap effective guns onto the hulls of captured and outdated tanks, resulting in various tank destroyers known as TACAMs.

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A TACAM R-2 tank destroyer at the National Military Museum in Bucharest.Wikimedia Commons

Post-war, Romania became a Soviet client state. But after the Moscow-instigated invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, Romanian leadership grew determined to become self-sufficient in arms production. In the 1970s, Romania developed a domestic version of the ubiquitous Soviet T-55 tank called the TR-77-580, with a stretched hull with six instead of five road wheels, a modified turret, and a rifled A308 100-millimeter gun adapted from an indigenous M1977 towed anti-tank gun.

But after Romanian spies acquired specs on the MTU engine and transmission used by Germany’s nimble Leopard 1 tank, it was reverse-engineered into an 830-horsepower, turbocharged diesel engine and hydromechanics transmission fitted to the still-serving 46-ton TR-85.

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TR-85 tank without side skirts.Wikimedia Commons

Severe problems with the TR-85’s power pack and fire control systems were only beginning to be resolved when the homebrew tanks saw their only combat use in the Romanian Revolution between December 16-27, 1989—initially to fend off mass protests against dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu.

revolution square of bucharest, romania, during the 1989 revolution
Revolution Square of Bucharest, Romania, during the 1989 Revolution.Wikimedia Commons

When Romania’s defense minister died suspiciously—possibly after demurring on orders to instruct troops to fire on protesters—the military switched sides in support of the protesters, ultimately executing Ceaucescu and battling hardliners in the dreaded Securitate secret police.

In the 1990s, Romania developed an improved 55-ton TR-85M1 Bizonul (Bison) model fit with modern thermal night-fighting capable sensors harnessed to an indigenous Cyclops-M fire control systems (75 percent accuracy out to 1.86 miles), computer-aided gun stabilization, an uprated 860-horsepower engine, improved sloped spaced and composite armor to maximum 580-millimeter equivalent versus kinetic, and other survivability features.

But while the TR-85M1 and T-55AMs do benefit from respectable armor and fire control enhancements, they retain 100-millimeter guns that are underpowered by modern standards. Romania did co-develop with Israel an unusually high-performing 100-millimeter tungsten fin-stabilized discarding-sabot (APFSDS) shell called the BM-421 Sg (or M309) that achieves 425 millimeters of penetration at 1 kilometer. That still falls short given a typical T-72B has frontal hull and turret armor equivalent to 480-540 millimeters RHA versus kinetic shells.

Romania is now joining Poland, Taiwan, and Ukraine as late adopters of the Abrams more than four decades after it entered service. Romania will probably eventually receive the latest M1A2 variant, reconstructed from the hulls of retired older-model Abrams tanks, but fitted with tungsten armor instead of depleted uranium on U.S. vehicles. (There is debate amongst experts on whether deplete uranium armor is more effective than Tungsten, or just much less costly.)

As Romania receives Abrams, it could hypothetically transfer retired TR-85s to Ukraine—if there’s mutual interest. Ukraine has inducted a full battalion of Slovenian M-55S tanks also based on the T-55, but these heavily upgraded vehicles sport 105-millimeter L7 guns more likely to pierce Russian tank armor. To be fair, direct engagements between tanks remain relatively rare in Ukraine.

Complicated History: Romania, Russia, and Ukraine

In 1940, the Soviet Union forced Romania to cede the region of Bessarabia, a move greenlit under a secret accord with Nazi Germany. The seized territory was reallocated to Ukraine and the Moldavan autonomous republic. When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, some former Romanian territory became Ukraine’s, leaving Bucharest with a territorial disputes with Ukraine over possession of the infamous Snake Island near the key shipping channel in which the Danube River enters the Black Sea.

The rest went to a newly independent state of Moldova—which was then riven in a conflict by pro-Russian separatists. Backed by Russia’s 14thArmy and some Ukrainian elements, the Transdniestrian separatists repelled attempts by the Moldovan government to reassert control. To this day, Moldovan territory on the east bank of the Dniester is ruled by a separatist state-within-a-state, shielded by 1,600 Russian “peacekeeping” troops in two to three battalions.

While Romanians mostly support reunification with Moldova, Moldavans themselves haven’t reached a consensus on doing so. Moldova’s government, however, has grown nervous, alleging that Russia plans to orchestrate a coup (reminiscent of a failed Russian-instigated coup attempt targeting Montenegro in 2016) or that the separatists might redefine their territory as Russian soil.

Meanwhile, Ukraine worries, Transdniestria could be used as a base for attacks on Ukraine, though that prospect seems remote after Russia’s withdrawal from the western bank of the Dnieper river. In fact, Ukrainian officials state they even offered to intervene militarily against the Transdniestrian separatists if invited by Moldova’s government, which turned the offer down.

Russian officials have nonetheless talked about creating a “land-bridge” through Ukrainian territory to Transdniestria—rhetoric likely intended to troll, misdirect, and threaten rather than something they’re militarily in any position to do. Moscow has also long complained about the U.S. Aegis Ashore missile defense systems deployed to Deveselu, Romania, claiming its naval-origin Mark 41 launchers could also be used to launch Tomahawk land-attack missiles at Russia.

While neither Bucharest nor Chisinau seem inclined to use force, they’re undoubtedly closely observing events as turbulence in the wake of Putin’s war threatens to thaw what had seemed a frozen-over conflict. That may explain Bucharest’s willingness to finally invest in new tanks—even if they aren’t built domestically.

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