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Russia hit by tank crisis

MOSCOW. (Yury Zaitsev for RIA Novosti) - Although warfare featuring tank armadas over vast territories is already a thing of the past, armor still remains the main striking force of modern armies.

Requirements for any new tank are protection, mobility, and fire power. Historically, Russia has always tackled these problems by developing new models and continuing to exploit existing ones. For that reason its armed forces today are an amazing mix of all types of tanks, something not seen anywhere else in the world. Their maintenance costs are enormous.

General of the Army Nikolai Makarov, chief of armaments, looks forward to a breakthrough in tank building soon. In 2009, the Russian Army will get a new tank - the T-95 - far superior to existing models. This is an entirely new battle tank, with new running gear, power plant, armaments, fire control, reconnaissance and target identification facilities. The tank is currently undergoing tests, expected to be completed this year. Its adoption for service will, hopefully, bring the long-awaited unification to this sphere.

Russia's is the only army in the world using two types of main battle tank: the gas turbine T-80 (T-80U) and the diesel-powered tank T-90 (T-90S). Both have the same weight, size and identical combat characteristics. Other types in service include the T-62, T-64, T-72 and their versions, and even the T-55.

This range of types creates many problems for providing fuel, lubricants, spare parts, tools, equipment and maintenance. It is also economically wasteful to maintain such diverse models. Large numbers of tanks and their ammunition require annual utilization, the funds for which have never been fully available.

In a global perspective, tank building policy has remained unchanged since the 1960s and 1980s when the T-64, T-72 and T-80 were designed. A comparison of tank characteristics (including the T-80M1 Bars and advanced Black Eagle, which never reached the mass production stage) shows the hallmarks of "creeping" modernization.

But since tanks have remained the main offensive factor for ground forces, many countries have been proactive in developing and manufacturing cutting edge anti-tank missiles. Equipped with non-contact fuses, they effectively penetrate all types of explosive reactive armor (ERA). Also under development are devices that disable the engine fuel system, rendering tanks immobile. Moreover, despite its high fire power, the modern tank is unable to deal with air attacks.

The fitting of Russian tanks with anti-tank missiles fired through the gun barrel has greatly increased the effectiveness of tank armament. Its kill radius is now over five kilometers. But this advantage is offset by the absence of up-to-date reconnaissance and observation systems (aerial, let alone space-based ones). The line of sight and fire are set so low that it is practically impossible to see and, moreover, aim at a target from the tank. Nor are there high-quality communications available, affecting control over tank units.

So we can say that the "tank crisis" that has hit the Russian Army has been largely provoked by the diversity of its tank fleet.

According to Commander-in-Chief of the Ground Forces General of the Army Alexei Maslov, the ultimate solution is only possible in the long-term. He also does not conceal that Russian tanks are behind in using modern electronics. He said, "although work to develop a tank battlefield information management system (BIMS) is already underway, its installation on outdated models is too costly and therefore not recommended. The new equipment is planned to be mounted on newly designed armored vehicles."

The general said that even the T-90 (which is considered a modern unit and with which only the elite Kantemirovskaya and Tamanskaya tank divisions will be equipped by 2010) is outdated and no BIMS will be installed on it. That is to say, in battlefield conditions Russian tanks will still be shooting in the dark. Maybe the adoption of the T-95 will lighten the skies?

Rumors of the new tank have been circulating for over 15 years. It was reportedly to have been adopted for service as early as 1994. There is also a hypothetical description of the tank. It is supposed to have an engine of no less than 1,500 hp, most likely multi-fueled and diesel-powered; a cannon 135 mm in caliber; active protection; and a control system that can be incorporated into the "digital battlefield" system. Its hull and turret are made of composite armor. A distinctive feature of the T-95 is its new layout with an uninhabited turret and a crew accommodation in an armored capsule. It is still difficult to judge whether the new battle vehicle will have all these features.

Russian bureaucrats have created many myths and legends about the survival of the nucleus of Russia's defense sector. Actually, its present condition is critical, and the reasons are well known. One is the aging of highly qualified production personnel, many of whom are approaching retirement age. Engineering school graduates are unwilling to take jobs in the defense sector because of low wages. No worker replacements are trained anywhere in the country either. Earlier, it was taboo to draft workers from defense factories into the army. Now this privilege is abandoned, and graduates of the few surviving vocational schools seek employment elsewhere, but not in the defense sector where receiving a foreign travel passport is a problem.

Another problem is the aging of the equipment in the defense industry: its production lines and machine tools have long passed the 30-year limit. Many key technologies have been lost as have co-production links. The uncontrolled growth of energy costs is outstripping inflation and is well above the deflators provided by the Economic Development and Trade Ministry. It is obvious that the 2006-2015 government defense order will fall short in both the range and quality of products ordered.

Perhaps a factor contributing to the preservation of large-scale mass tank production in Russia will be the establishment of an armor holding, which began last fall. As a first step, it will embrace all incorporated plants headed by the research and production corporation Uralvagonzavod, which is 100% federally-owned. As the second step, the holding will include private enterprises, among them ChTZ-Uraltrak, which develops and manufactures diesel tank engines.

But nearly all plants being incorporated into the holding call for massive economic rehabilitation and retooling. A lot here will depend on how active the state will be in this process. And still the situation is unlikely to be radically improved. Too many problems exist in the defense sector and in tank building specifically. There is little confidence, therefore, that plans for the new tank and its mass production will be translated into reality, at least not in the timeline announced.

Yury Zaitsev is an adviser at the Russian Academy of Engineering Sciences

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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