We already knew that the Russian army—in a desperate effort to make good its losses in Ukraine—was pulling old T-72 tanks out of storage, adding 1970s-style optics and shipping them toward the front. Probably to get blown up.
Now it seems the Russians are giving their slightly-better T-80 tanks the same treatment. T-80s are starting to show up with the same outdated 1PN96MT-02 thermal gunner’s sights that could put “war-emergency” T-72s at a disadvantage in Ukraine.
Russia’s nearly yearlong wider war on Ukraine hasn’t been kind to the Russian armor corps. The Kremlin has lost around 1,600 tanks in Ukraine, including more than 500 that Russian troops abandoned—and which the Ukrainians then captured.
That’s three times as many tanks as the Ukrainian army has lost.
While it’s true that Russia has in storage some 10,000 old tanks—T-62s, T-72s and T-80s—many have been sitting outside, exposed to the elements and looters, for decades. Their rubber seals are brittle. Their electronics have corroded. Their optics are cloudy.
It’s not clear how many of the stored tanks are recoverable. It is clear that, when the Kremlin first dipped into its tank reserves last spring, it initially favored 1970s-vintage T-62s, which lack delicate subsystems and thus may have required less reconditioning than, say, a T-72 or T-80 from the late 1980s.
Which is not to say the 40-ton, four-person T-62 with its simple steel armor and 115-millimeter gun is a good tank. It’s not. There’s no evidence of any of the scores of T-62s that the Russian army shipped to southern Ukraine making any difference in last year’s brutal campaign in that region. And the Ukrainians captured enough T-62s to form their own battalion with the aging tanks.
The best thing anyone can say about the war-emergency T-62s is that they bought time for the Kremlin to restore surplus T-72s and T-80s. The latter tanks have better armor than the T-62 has, plus they’ve got 125-millimeter main guns and autoloaders that shrink their crews to three.
Clearly the optics were a problem with the stored T-72s and T-80s. After decades, the gunner’s sights needed replacing. But it’s evident that Russia is struggling to source modern optics.
Many of the emergency T-62s rolled into battle with analog 1PN96MT-02 thermal sights in the gunner’s position. To spot a 1PN96MT-02, look for a small, square window nearly flush with the top left of a tank’s turret.
The 1PN96MT-02 would’ve been state-of-the-art … in the 1970s. It allows a skilled gunner to engage a target as far as two miles away. That’s just over the half the maximum range of the newer, digital Sonsa-U sight that equips the latest T-90 tanks, as well as a few upgraded T-80s and T-72s.
The problem with the Sosna-U is that it includes high-quality French components that Russian industry can’t seem to duplicate, and which Russia can’t legally import owing to sanctions France imposed after Russian troops invaded Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014.
The Russian army seems to be saving most of its precious Sosna-Us for its best new T-90s. Yes, a few reconditioned, war-emergency T-80s and T-72s are getting the digital optics, too—but it seems many, perhaps most, of the long-stored tanks are getting much-less-capable 1PN96MT-02 optics, instead.
That’s a problem for Russian tankers. They’re trapped in a technological time-warp, traveling backward to the 1970s at the same time their foes—Ukrainian tankers—are re-equipping with Western tank models including the British Challenger 2, the German Leopard 2 and the American M-1.
All three of the Western tanks have excellent day and night optics that see farther, with greater precision, than the 1PN96MT-02 can do—and should at least match the specifications of the Sosna-U. A Ukrainian Challenger 2 should be able to shoot at a Russian war-reserve T-80 before the T-80’s crew even sees the Challenger 2.