Shortly after Jeeps_Guns_Tanks started his substantial foray into documenting the development and variants of the M4, I joked on teamspeak with Wargaming's The_Warhawk that the next thing he ought to do was a similar post on the T-72.
Haha. I joke. I am funny man.
The production history of the T-72 is enormously complicated. Tens of thousands were produced; it is probably the fourth most produced tank ever after the T-54/55, T-34 and M4 sherman.
For being such an ubiquitous vehicle, it's frustrating to find information in English-language sources on the T-72. Part of this is residual bad information from the Cold War era when all NATO had to go on were blurry photos from May Day parades:
As with Soviet aircraft, NATO could only assign designations to obviously externally different versions of the vehicle. However, they were not necessarily aware of internal changes, nor were they aware which changes were post-production modifications and which ones were new factory variants of the vehicle. The NATO designations do not, therefore, necessarily line up with the Soviet designations. Between different models of T-72 there are large differences in armor protection and fire control systems. This is why anyone arguing T-72 vs. X has completely missed the point; you need to specify which variant of T-72. There are large differences between them!
Another issue, and one which remains contentious to this day, is the relation between the T-64, T-72 and T-80 in the Soviet Army lineup. This article helps explain the political wrangling which led to the logistically bizarre situation of three very similar tanks being in frontline service simultaneously, but the article is extremely biased as it comes from a high-ranking member of the Ural plant that designed and built the T-72. Soviet tank experts still disagree on this; read this if you have some popcorn handy. Talking points from the Kharkov side seem to be that T-64 was a more refined, advanced design and that T-72 was cheap filler, while Ural fans tend to hold that T-64 was an unreliable mechanical prima donna and T-72 a mechanically sound, mass-producible design.
So, if anyone would like to help make sense of this vehicle, feel free to post away. I am particularly interested in:
-What armor arrays the different T-72 variants use. Diagrams, dates of introduction, and whether the array is factory-produced or a field upgrade of existing armor are pertinent questions.
-Details of the fire control system. One of the Kharkov talking points is that for most of the time in service, T-64 had a more advanced fire control system than contemporary T-72 variants. Is this true? What were the various fire control systems in the T-64 and T-72, and what were there dates of introduction? I am particularly curious when Soviet tanks got gun-follows-sight FCS.
-Export variants and variants produced outside the Soviet Union. How do they stack up? Exactly what variant(s) of T-72 were the Iraqis using in 1991?
-WTF is up with the T-72's transmission? How does it steer and why is its reverse speed so pathetically low?
I recently read about upgrade packages to old tanks like the M-60 and T-55, but kept seeing comments from people saying they would still be obsolete. Is this because the M-60 and T-55 are made entirely of steel (and not composite) armor?
I have this theory that thick steel armor is probably totally obsolete, and is just dead weight in the age of lighter weight composite armor. You can bolt on upgrades to an M-60 or T-55, but you're still hamstrung by the fact that either tank will be carrying around tons of useless steel. Am I right?
Also, if we wanted to upgrade old tanks like that, wouldn't the best idea be to develop a new turret--with lighter, modern composite armor and better technology inside--and just drop it into the old tanks? The hulls would still be made of heavy steel, but that could be helped a bit by adding applique armor.
Here are some of the upgrades I read about: