At Last, the U.S. Is Sending Army Tanks to Ukraine ... Just Not the Ones You Imagined

ANATOLII STEPANOV//Getty Images

While not the most modern tanks in the world, Washington is paying for critical upgrades.

  • The U.S. and the Netherlands are financing upgrades to nearly 100 older tanks destined for the Ukrainian army.
  • While relatively old, the tanks will get critical upgrades that will give them an advantage over Russian tanks.
  • The $400 million arms package also includes funding for HAWK surface-to-air missiles and Guardian armored cars.
The U.S. is finally sending tanks to the Ukrainian Army … just not the tanks we were imagining. Along with the Netherlands, the Pentagon is splitting the tab to refurbish 90 older tanks originally built for the Czechoslovak Army. The two countries will pay to install modern equipment in the four-decade-old tanks, giving them a fighting chance against their Russian counterparts.

These tanks are part of a $400 million U.S. aid package, announced late last week, that also includes surface-to-air missiles and armored cars for Ukraine. It includes “45 refurbished T-72B tanks with advanced optics, communications, and armor packages.” The Netherlands will match that with another 45 refurbished tanks.

Ukrainian troops repair the tracks on what appears to be a rare T-80BV main battle tank, Donbas, June 2022.
ARIS MESSINIS//Getty Images

Dating back to the Cold War, the T-72B main battle tanks are drawn from Czechoslovak Army stocks. The service maintained a force of five tank divisions equipped with T-72Bs— tanks later split between the Czech and Slovakian republics when the two countries parted ways in 1992. Ironically, Czechoslovakia would probably not have had such a large army had it not been at the insistence of the Russian-dominated Soviet Union.

In the Czech Republic, the defense industry will refurbish the tanks. Czechia has traditionally had a strong and independent tank industrial base since well before World War II, and Ukraine has been sending damaged tanks to Czechia and Slovakia for repairs since April. This has likely given Czech engineers even more experience with the T-72 tank platform, which will prove invaluable when upgrading the tanks.

As for the upgrades themselves, we can make some educated guesses. The addition of “advanced optics” is likely a reference to installing night vision equipment. The original T-72B used an infrared spotlight to illuminate targets. This technique is not only old, but the spotlight beam is visible to newer forms of night vision, pinpointing the location of the tank. The new upgrades will almost certainly include third-generation night vision equipment that will allow the tanks to see and shoot at night and through smoke screens, heavy mist, and fog. Relatively few Russian tanks on the Ukrainian battlefield have this technology, which means the defenders will have a decisive edge at night.

The T-72B1 tank, including this destroyed Russian tank, has reactive armor tiles applied directly across the front and top of the turret, as well as the front of the hull.
Global Images Ukraine//Getty Images

The communications package is likely more of a local Ukrainian solution. While the U.S. might install GPS to help tankers pinpoint their locations on chaotic battlefields, one obvious solution is installing the Kropyva command-and-control system. Kropyva is a tablet-based system that Ukraine developed in 2015. The software was designed to be installed on ordinary Android tablets, and allows the user to view a unit’s position on the map. Even better, it lets the user see the location of other users on the map, allowing the various units to coordinate their actions. It can also calculate road march times, mark the positions of enemy units located by other users, and even mark positions for artillery fire.

Finally, the refurbishment specifies armor upgrades for the tanks destined for Ukraine. This is a sort of weighty problem: The T-72Bs are several decades old, and steel armor is heavy. Adding tons of new armor plate to a tank will stress the tank’s engine, transmission, and suspension systems. Armor added to the turret will also stress the system that traverses the turret.

The solution is likely to be in the form of reactive armor tiles, possibly a Czech version of the Cold War-era Kontakt-5 system. Reactive armor consists of an array of lightweight tiles, like ceramic wall tiles, each filled with an explosive charge. As an enemy anti-tank warhead crumples against the tile, the explosive charge detonates facing the warhead. The explosive dissipates the shape charge’s molten jet, preventing it from piercing the tank’s armored hide. Reactive armor is also much lighter than steel plate, allowing it to cover and protect a wider area.
An M1117 Guardian armored security vehicle in Tikrit, Iraq, 2006.
Sgt. Antonieta Rico

Despite these issues, the Ukrainian Army will find the Guardian useful. IEDs are non-existent on the battlefield, and the Guardian’s turret can lay down a lot of firepower. The use of wheels instead of tank tracks will allow it to deploy faster along Ukraine’s excellent network of roads. Although it has little room inside for mounted troops, infantry will probably ride on the top of the vehicle, dismounting before encountering enemy fire.

For months, Ukraine and her supporters have wished for Western-style, modern main battle tanks. That, for logistical and political reasons, is now looking unlikely. Still, Ukrainian forces have decades of experience fighting with and maintaining the T-72 platform, and that counts. The larger, more important question is whether or not the U.S. will continue to offer meaningful levels of aid after the midterm elections. If the aid stops, the war stops—and not under favorable circumstances for Ukraine.

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