The T-72 was even worse than its predecessor the T-62: Russia still uses both

When Abrams and Challenger overwhelmed in 1991 tanks like the ones Russia still uses

These days there is a lot of talk about the new tanks that Ukraine will receive from its Western partners, but there is hardly any news about their possibilities.

Advantages and disadvantages of deliveries of new tanks to the Ukrainian Army
Russia ended 2022 reaching the symbolic number of 1,600 tanks lost in Ukraine

Who would win in a battle between Russian tanks on the one hand and Abrams, Leopard 2, Challenger 2 and Leclerc tanks on the other? We can make assumptions based on the level of protection, firepower and aiming that each of these tanks have, but we can also review the operational history of one and the other to find out what happened when They've been at odds with each other so far. That is, his combat record.

M1A2 SEPV3 Abrams tanks from the US Army's 1st Cavalry Division at Fort Hood, Texas (Photo: US Army).

M1 Abrams against Russian tanks: the case of the Gulf War

Let's start with the famous American M1 Abrams. These tanks have been used in several wars. The US deployed theirs in the Gulf War (1990-1991), in the Afghanistan War (2001-2021) and in the Iraq War (2003-2011). Likewise, Saudi Arabia has used them in the Civil War in Yemen (since 2015). Of all these wars, the one that can offer us the most information is the Gulf War, since it was there that the Abrams faced tanks of Soviet origin more times, specifically T-55, T-62 and T-72. . These last two models are being used by Russia in Ukraine.

According to the official report "Operation Desert Storm. Early Performance Assessment of Bradley and Abrams" (see PDF), "23 Abrams were destroyed or damaged in the Persian Gulf area. Of the nine Abrams destroyed, seven were due to friendly fire, and two were intentionally destroyed to prevent capture after they became disabled." The report added: "The Abrams also survived well on the battlefield. For example, according to officials from the Center for Army Lessons Learned, several M1A1 crews reported receiving direct frontal hits from Iraqi T-72s with minimal damage. In fact, the enemy destroyed no Abrams tanks during the Persian Gulf war, according to the Army. Crews said Abrams tanks were fast and maneuvered well in the sand." The crews of the American Abrams suffered no casualties in these combats.

The most revealing result of the capacity of each tank could be seen between February 26 and 27, 1991: in the Battle of 73 Easting, Iraq lost 160 tanks and the US did not lose a single M1 Abrams. The Soviet tanks used by the Iraqi Army were literally run over by the Abrams tanks.

An Iraqi Army T-72M abandoned during the Iraq War in 2003 (Photo: US Army).

The disastrous result of the T-72, the most numerous tank in Russia, against the Abrams

An extensive report published by a Russian website, titled "Abrams в Персидском заливе. Звёздный час" (Abrams in the Persian Gulf. The finest hour), noted: "The protection of the The armor of the M1A1 and M1A1HA tanks also turned out to be quite good. At least seven Abrams received direct hits from 125mm shells, but none of them were able to penetrate the armor, furthermore, one Abrams received two hits with armor-piercing sub-caliber shells fired from a distance of 500 m without special consequences, one hit the frontal part of the hull, the other hit the front of the tower."

That same website pointed out the problems of the T-72, which today is the most numerous tank in the Russian Army: "The T-72 tanks, on the other hand, turned out to be extremely vulnerable precisely when they hit the ammunition charge: it detonated immediately, a catastrophic explosion for the tank and its crew.The T-72's armor was easily penetrated by 120mm armor-piercing subcaliber rounds. In most cases, the impact of armor-piercing shells on the T-72 led to the detonation of the ammunition - in this case, the pyrotechnic reaction of the core material of the depleted uranium shell with the steel of the tank's armor, which caused an internal fire. Also, if a shot ignites in the T-72 ammunition load, the fire quickly spreads to those nearby. As a result of the detonation, the turret was blown out of the T-72."

The Russian report added: "American tank crews observed T-72s with their turrets torn off much more frequently than older T-55s or T-62s, possibly because in the T-72 ammunition occupies a relatively larger volume in the fighting compartment, and its explosion caused more destruction than the explosion of ammunition from the T-55 or T-62. It should be noted what moral impact the explosion of ammunition from the T-72 in the crews of other tanks. Seeing the tower flying from the "seventy-two", other Iraqi crews in a panic simply abandoned their tanks!"

Two M1A1 Abrams tanks from the US Army's 3rd Armored Division during the Gulf War, on February 15, 1991 (Photo: US Army).

Experience with the Abrams in Afghanistan and Iraq

In the Afghan War there were no tank engagements, while in the Iraq War they were very rare. Jason Conroy and Ron Martz, in "Heavy Metal: A Tank Company's Battle To Baghdad" (Potomac Books, 2005), noted that on April 3, 2003, seven Iraqi T-72M1 tanks they were mopped up by M1 Abrams tanks near Mahmoudiyah, without the Americans losing any tanks. The use of Abrams tanks by the Iraqi Army in its war against ISIS proved more disastrous, with 140 tanks lost or captured by terrorists, often due to the skillful preparation of Iraqi crews (a fact to take into account in the case of Ukraine) and by the use of improvised explosive devices to damage those tanks.

Two British Army Challenger 1 tanks in the Gulf War (Photo: UK Ministry of Defense).

The overwhelming success of the Challenger in the Gulf War

Now let's look at the history of the British Challenger 2, a tank with similar features to the Abrams: it also has a 120mm main gun and Chobham armor. Its predecessor, the Challenger 1, was used in the Gulf War and was also used in the vanguard of the Allied offensive. The result was as sweeping as the Abrams: according to a report by Global Security, British Challenger 1s destroyed some 300 Iraqi tanks without suffering or losing a single tank of their own.

In turn, the British Army deployed the Challenger 2 in the Iraq War. None of these tanks were lost during that war, in which engagements with Russian tanks were rare. There is some surprising data about the great resistance of these British tanks. As reported by the BBC on 2 April 2003 , a Challenger 2 was ambushed by the Iraqi Republican Guard in an urban area, near Basra. The following day, the BBC reported that Challenger 2 had received 70 hits from RPG grenade launchers, despite which the Iraqis failed to destroy it and the crew survived.

A Leopard 2PL tank of the Polish Army during some maneuvers (Photo: Polska Zbrojna).

What will happen to the Leopard 2 and the Leclerc?

The question now is how the Leopard 2 promised by various countries and the Leclerc promised by France will respond, since these tanks have no combat history against Russian tanks. Turkey has indeed used the Leopard 2A4 in the Syrian War with unsatisfactory results, losing 10 of those tanks to ISIS, but not because they had engaged in combat with other tanks, but because of the explosion from improvised explosive devices or from attacks by anti-tank weapons. The poor preparation of the Turkish crews played a decisive role in those failures.

Keep in mind that, like the M1 Abrams and Challenger, the Leopard 2 and Leclerc have been designed to be most effective in open field combat, which may offer them advantages in a country with a fairly flat orography as is the case of Ukraine. The worst performance of these tanks occurs in urban areas, where they become vulnerable to attacks such as those from ISIS. Keep in mind that the Leopard 2A5, A6 and A7 (and the Spanish Leopardo 2E, equivalent to the A6) are better protected than the A4 version, especially in its turret.

However, even the Leopard 2A4 is a noticeably better tank than its Russian counterparts. The most modern Russian tanks (T-80 and T-90) are still developments of the same concept as the T- 72, inheriting its defects, although they have added additional armor and reactive armor. That explains the disaster suffered by russian tanks in Ukraine. A disaster that could be worse if they have to face the Abrams, the Challenger 2, the Leopard 2 and the Leclerc , if they manage to provide the Ukrainians with good training.


Main photo: US Army.

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