T-90 “Bhishma” Tanks in Ladakh – A Comprehensive Look

anil chopra, air power asia, T-90 Bhishma Tank

The T-90 is a third-generation Russian battle-tank that entered service in 1993. The tank is a modern variation of the T-72B and incorporates many features found on the T-80U. Originally called the T-72BU, but later renamed to T-90, it is an advanced tank in service with Russian Ground Forces and the Naval infantry.  The T-90 uses a 125 mm 2A46 smoothbore main gun, the 1A45T fire-control system, an upgraded engine, and gunner’s thermal sight. Standard protective measures include a blend of steel and composite armour, smoke grenade dischargers, Kontakt-5 explosive-reactive armour and the Shtora infrared ATGM jamming system. It was designed and built by Uralvagonzavod, in Nizhny Tagi, in Sverdlosk Oblast, Russia, located 25 kilometers east of the virtual border between Europe and Asia.

Sverdlosk Oblast, Russia. Image Source: Wikipedia

T-90 Evolves

          The T-90 has its origins in a Soviet-era program aimed at developing a single replacement for the T-64, T-72 and T-80 series of main battle tanks. The T-72 platform was selected as the basis for the new generation of tank owing to its cost-effectiveness, simplicity and automotive qualities. The Kartsev-Venediktov Design Bureau was responsible for the design work and prepared two parallel proposals—the “Object 188”, which was a relatively simple upgrade of the existing T-72B tank (Object 184), and the far more advanced Object 187, which was only vaguely related to the T-72 series and incorporating major improvements to the hull and turret design, armor, power-plant and armament. Development work was approved in 1986 and the first prototypes were completed by 1988. The vehicles resulting from the Object 187 program have not been declassified to this date, but it was the lower risk Object 188 upgrade that would be approved for series production as the T-72BU.

Russian T-90. Picture Source: militaryfactory.com

Initial Production and Impact of Soviet Break Up

          The T-72BU was officially accepted into Russian service on 5 October 1992 and simultaneously renamed as the T-90 for marketing and propaganda purposes aimed at distancing the new type from existing T-72 variants. The principal upgrade in the T-90 is the incorporation of a slightly modified form of the T-80U more sophisticated 1A45T Irtysh fire control system and an upgraded V-84MS multi-fuel engine developing 830 hp (620 kW). The T-90 was manufactured with low-level production being carried out since 1993 and virtually ceasing towards the end of the 1990s for the native market. Less than 200 T-90 tanks were delivered to the Russian Ground Forces before production was resumed in 2005 of an upgraded version. By September 1995, some 107 T-90 tanks had been produced. Facing tapering domestic orders and with the permanent closure of the last turret casting line in the former USSR, at Ukraine, the designers at Uralvagonzavod together with experts from NII Stali (Scientific Research Institute of Steel) using trials data obtained from the Soviet-era, created a new, welded turret to offer further improvement and attract foreign buyers for the T-90.

An early series T-90 with cast turret during a military exercise in Russia, demonstrating deep fording. picture Source: Wikipedia

India Chooses T-90

          India signaled interest in the T-90 in response to Pakistan’s acquisition of 320 Ukrainian T-84 tanks, which was an intuitive decision considering India held rights to fully manufacture the T-72M1 in Avadi plant in Tamil Nadu, with production being easily adapted to assemble the T-90. The first 42 complete Indian tanks were delivered in 2001 and were designated T-90S (Object 188S), still equipped with the older cast turrets of the early series (this exhausted the remaining stocks of cast turrets warehoused at Nizhny Tagil) and powered by the V-84 engine making 840 hp (618 kW). This was followed up next year with delivery of 82 vehicles, now equipped with the new welded turrets and the V-92S2 engine, generating 1,000 hp (735 kW). The initial contract stipulated the following batch of 186 tanks—now officially called the “Bhishma”, to be completed in India from Russian-supplied kits, and then gradually replaced with domestically manufactured parts, but the low rate of domestic Indian production compelled the Indian authorities to place an additional order for 124 complete vehicles in 2007 from Uralvagonzavod.

A Russian specification T-90A. The new welded turret with its angular geometry is clearly visible. Picture Source: Wikipedia

Russian Army Decision Influenced By Indian Order

          In 2005 the Russian army resumed delivery of the T-90, requesting the “original” specification for the vehicle with a cast turret. But with the new order numbering a paltry 14 tanks, and the large capital investment required to set up production of new cast turrets, the Russian Ministry of Defence agreed on a new configuration very close to the Indian T-90S, which was expeditiously accepted into service without any trials as the Object 188A1 or T-90A. That same year saw delivery of an additional 18 new tanks – enough to equip approximately five tank platoons. These new Russian tanks were powered by the V-92S2 engine, carried a T01-K05 Buran-M gunner’s sight (passive-active night-vision channel with an EPM-59G Mirage-K matrix and a maximum observation distance of 1,800 m) and were protected by the most recent Kontakt-5 reactive armor with 4S22 explosive tiles.

V-92S2 engine. Image Source: ofb.gov.in

Further Improvements Joint Venture Route

          The years 2006-2007 saw the delivery of 31 T-90A tanks each, now fitted with entirely passive ESSA main gunner’s sights supplied by Peleng (Belarus) and using the 2nd-generation thermal camera Catherine-FC from Thales, as well as improved 4S23 ERA tiles. The joint venture established on the basis of JSC Volzhsky Optical and Mechanical Plant” (VOMZ) and Thales Optronics, produced Catherine-FC thermal imaging devices, which were further used to develop “ESSA”, “PLISA” and “SOSNA-U” sighting systems produced for the Russian armoured vehicles, including T-72B3 tanks and export versions of T-90S (exported to India, Algeria and Azerbaijan). Since 2012, Russia was able to produce 3rd-generation Catherine-XP cameras based on QWIP matrix technology.

New Russian Tank through a Thermal Imager. Image Source: tapatalk.com

Improved Russian Sighting System

          In 2012, the Russian-made commander combined sample supervisory-sighting system T01-K04DT/Agat-MDT was announced. Agat-MDT was based on the newly developed domestic UPF format 640×512 by 15 microns, which made possible in the future to extend the range of target identification at night to 3.5 – 4.0 km without modifications to the sight. In 2016, the Krasnogorsk plant finished testing the Irbis-K night-vision sighting system for the T-80U and T-90, with first deliveries planned for 2017. Completion of the Irbis-K, the first Russian-produced mercury-cadmium-telluride (MCT) matrix thermal sight, addressed a disadvantage of Russian tanks relative to their Western counterparts. The Irbis-K is capable of identifying targets at ranges up to 3,240 meters during both day and night.   The Russian-made thermal imaging device not only meant that Russian tanks would no longer need to be equipped with foreign parts, but it also meant that complete tank modernization was cheaper.

T 90 Sensors seen from Outside. Picture Source: thaimilitaryandasianregion.wordpress.com

T-90 Production Increases

          In 2007, there were about 334 T-90 tanks of various types serving in the Russian Ground Forces’ and seven T-90 tanks assigned to the marines. Since 2008, the Russian army has received 62 tanks annually.

“Armata” Universal Combat Platform

          Russia is developing the new “Armata” Universal Combat Platform (also known as the T-14 Armata) that was to be ready for use by 2016. It is expected to employ a more powerful engine, improved armor, main gun and autoloader, with ammunition storage separated from the crew. In December 2019, Russian Deputy Minister of Defense Alexei Krivoruchko reported delays with the development and production, with the first batch of five vehicles available for state-conducted testing expected “in the next month or two”.

“Armata” Universal Combat Platform. Picture Source: Wikipedia

Upgraded T-90M

          Deliveries of upgraded T-90M tanks started in April 2020 to the Guards Tank Army. The T-90M ‘Proryv’ has received a principally new turret, the 2A82 gun, and a more powerful engine. The Proryv is outfitted with a new multi-channel sighting system that allows employing weapons at any time of day or night and it can exchange data with other vehicles in real time.

T-90M Proryv-3 tank. Picture Source: rbth.com/science-and-tech

Limited Combat History

          An early variant of the export-oriented T-90S reportedly saw combat action during the 1999 Chechen invasion of Dagestan instead of being delivered to India. During the Donbass War in Ukraine in the summer of 2014, elements of the Russian Guards equipped with T-90A tanks were reportedly conducting operations in Luhansk Oblast of Ukraine. The T-90A was deployed to Syria in 2015 to support the Russian involvement in the Syrian Civil war. In early February 2016, Syrian Army began using T-90As in combat. In late February, a video was leaked on the internet which showed a T-90 survive a direct frontal turret hit by a TOW-2A missile in Aleppo. In November 2017, it was reported a T-90 had been destroyed by ISI terrorists in Syria.

T-90 survive a direct frontal turret hit by a TOW-2A missile in Aleppo. Picture Source: nationalinterest.org

Induction In India

          In 2001, India purchased 310 T-90S tanks from Russia, of which 124 were delivered complete (42 featured the early cast turrets seen on Russian tanks) and 186 were to be assembled from kits delivered in various stages of completion with an emphasis on shifting production to domestic means. The T-90 was selected because it is a direct development of the T-72 that India already manufactures with 60% parts commonality with T-90, simplifying training and maintenance. India opted to acquire the T-90 in response to numerous delays in the production of its own domestically developed Arjun main battle tank, and to counter Pakistani deployment of the Ukrainian-made T-80 tanks in 1995–97.

Ukrainian T-80 With new cast Turret with Pakistan Army. Picture Source: reddit.com

T-90S “Bhishma” MBT

          The Indian tanks don’t have the Shtora-1 passive electronic countermeasure system which was deemed obsolete. A follow-on contract, worth $800 million, was signed on October 26, 2006, for another 330 T-90S “Bhishma” MBTs that were to be manufactured in India by Heavy Vehicles Factory at Avadi, Tamil Nadu. India’s T-90S Bhishma (named after the guardian warrior in the Mahabharata) is a vehicle tailored for Indian service, improving upon the T-90S, and developed with assistance from Russia and France. The tanks are equipped with the French Thales-built Catherine-FC thermal sights, and use Russian Kontakt-5 K-5 explosive reactive armoured plates. It also uses Kontakt-5 ERA in addition to the primary armor which consists of laminated plates and ceramic layers with high tensile properties. The new welded turrets first developed for the Indian T-90S Bhishma have more advanced armour protection than the early cast turrets.

T-90M Bhishma. Picture Source: defenceupdate.in

T-90S Bhishma’s Active Protection System

          In April 2008, the Indian Army sent a request for proposal to many companies for an active protection system for the T-90S Bhishma. The US$270 million contract was won by Saab’s LEDS-150 in January 2009. In 2016, Saab and Indian company Tata Power Strategic Engineering Division (Tata Power SED) have started the process of manufacturing Self-Protection Systems for Land-based Platforms, for the Indian market and for export to Saab’s global market.

Active Protection Systems for Saab. Picture Source: defense-update.com

Upgraded T-90Ms

          A third contract, worth $1.23 billion, was signed in December 2007 for 347 upgraded T-90Ms, the bulk of which will be license-assembled by HVF. The Army hopes to field a force of over 21 regiments of T-90 tanks and 40 regiments of modified T-72s. The T-90M features the ‘Kaktus K-6’ bolted explosive reactive armour (ERA) package on its frontal hull and turret-top (the T-90S has ‘Kontakt-5’ ERA), is fitted with an enhanced environmental control system supplied by Israel’s Kinetics Ltd for providing cooled air to the fighting compartment, has additional internal volume for housing the cryogenic cooling systems for new-generation thermal imagers like the THALES-built Catherine-FC thermal imager (operating in the 8–12 micrometre bandwidth). In all, India had plans to have 1,640 T-90 tanks in service by 2020. The first batch of 10 license built T-90M was inducted into the Indian army on August 24, 2009. These vehicles were built at the HVF Avadi.

T-90MS. Picture Source: sputniknews.com

Heavy Armament

          The T-90’s main armament is the 2A46M 125mm smoothbore tank gun, and is the same gun used in T-80-series tanks. It can be replaced without dismantling the inner turret and is capable of firing armour-piercing fin stablised discarding sabot (APFSDS), high-explosive anti-tank (HEAT-FS), and high-explosive fragmentation (HE-FRAG) ammunition, as well as 9M119M Refleks anti-tank guided missiles. The Refleks missile has semi-automatic laser beam-riding guidance and a tandem hollow-charge HEAT warhead. It has an effective range of 100 m to 6 km, and takes 17.5 seconds to reach maximum range. Refleks can penetrate about 950 millimeters (37 in) of steel armour and can also engage low-flying air targets such as helicopters.

The T-90 tank’s main tank gun, the 2A46M 125 mm smoothbore tank gun. Picture Source Wikipedia

          Like other modern Russian tanks the 2A46M in the T-90 is fed by an automatic loader, which reduces the crew to 3 (commander, gunner, and driver). The autoloader can carry 22 ready-to-fire rounds in its carousel and can load a round in 5–8 seconds. It is reported that the automatic loaders on modern T-90 tanks have been modified to take advantage of newer ammunition such as the 3BM-44M APFSDS, which penetrates armour better than the previous shorter rounds. Additionally the T-90 features the Ainet fuse setting system which allows the tank to detonate the HE-FRAG rounds at a specific distance from the tank as determined by the gunners laser rangefinder, improving its performance against helicopters and infantry.

Three 125mm antiarmor projectiles.From left to right. 3BK18M projectile HEAT round, the 3OF36 projectile high explosive round and the 3BM42 projectile “Mango” APFSDS round. Image Source: docplayer.net

Heavy Machine Gun

          The NSV 12.7mm (12.7X108) remotely controlled anti-aircraft heavy machine gun (with 300 rounds) can be operated from within the tank by the commander and has a range of 2 km and a cyclic rate of fire of 700–800 rounds per minute. The NSV was replaced by the Kord heavy machine gun in the late 1990s. The PKMT 7.62mm (7.62X54mmR) coaxial machine gun weighs about 10.5 kg while the ammunition box carries 250 rounds (7,000 rounds carried) and weighs an additional 9.5 kg.

NSV 12.7mm (12.7X108) remotely controlled anti-aircraft heavy machine gun. Picture Source: thaimilitaryandasianregion.wordpress.com

Fire Control System (FCS)

          FCS on the T-90 includes the PNK-4S/SR AGAT day and night sighting system mounted at the commanders station which allows for night time detection of a tank sized target at ranges between 700 and 1100 meters depending on the version of the sight. Early models of the T-90 were equipped with the TO1-KO1 BURAN sight but later models (T-90S) were upgraded to use the ESSA thermal imaging sight, which allows for accurate firing to a range of 5,000–8,000m using the CATHERINE-FC thermal camera produced by Thales Optronique. The gunner is also provided with the 1G46 day sighting system which includes a laser range finder, missile guidance channel and allows tank-sized targets to be detected and engaged at 5 to 8 kilometers (3.1 to 5.0 mi). The driver uses a TVN-5 day and night sight. In 2010, Russia started licensed production of Thales-developed Catherine FC cameras for T-90M tanks. These thermal imagers are also present on T-90M “Bhishma” built in India under license.

          The FCS of the T-90 demonstrated that heavily armoured targets, up to 5 km away, were hit on the move (up to 30 km/h), with a high probability of hit with the first shot. During Russian state testing by inexperienced operators, all 24 missiles fired at ranges of 4–5 km hit the target. An experienced gunner at speeds of 25 km/h hit 7 real armoured targets located at ranges of 1,500–2,500 m in 54sec.

T-90 Firing. Picture source: indiatoday.in

T-90 Tank Mobility

          The prime mover is the B-92C (V-92S) diesel engine. Different models of the T-90 tank are powered by various motors in its initial models. The Т-90S with 1,000 hp (750 kW) engine can attain a top speed of 60 km/h on the road and up to 45 km/h on rough terrain. T-90 tank has typical drive train arrangement, with rear placed engine and transmission. The 1,000 hp (750 kW) engines are V-92 four stroke, 12 cylinder, multi-fuel diesel while 1,250 hp (930 kW) engine is V-96. The T-90 export version i.e. modified T-90S is fitted with increased power multi-fuel 1,000-h.p. diesel engine with turbochargers. The tank is also fitted with an air-conditioning system for operations in high temperature zones.

Indian Army Bhishma tank Cross Country. Picture Source: dailymailindia.com

Armour Self Protection

          The T-90 is fitted with a “three-tiered” protection system. The first tier is the composite armour in the turret, consisting of basic armour shell with an insert of alternating layers of aluminum and plastics and a controlled deformation section. The second tier is third generation Kontakt-5 ERA (explosive reactive armour), which significantly degrades the penetrating power (kinetic-energy) of APFSDS ammunition. These ERA blocks give the turret its distinctive angled “clam shell” appearance. ERA bricks are also located on the turret roof and provide protection from top-attack weapons. The turret’s forward armour package, in addition to the ERA and steel plating, contains a composite filler of Russian composite armour sandwiched between upper and lower steel plates. The composite armour results in a lower weight and improved protection when compared with steel-only armour.

ERA bricks are also located on the turret roof. Picture Source: military.wikia.org

Countermeasures Protection Shtora-1

          The third tier is a Shtora-1 (“curtain” in English) counter measure suite produced by Elektromashina of Russia. This system includes two electro-optical/IR “dazzlers” (i.e. active infrared jammer) on the front of the turret (which gives the distinctive “Red Eyes”), four laser warning receivers, two 3D6 ‘smoke’ grenade discharging systems and a computerized control system. The Shtora-1 warns the tank’s crew when the tank has been ‘painted’ by a weapon guidance laser and allows the crew to slew the turret to face the threat. The infrared jammer, the TShU1-7 EOCMDAS, jams the semiautomatic command to line of sight (SACLOS) guidance system used by some anti-tank guided missiles. The smoke grenades are automatically launched after Shtora detects that it has been painted. The smoke grenades are used to mask the tank from laser rangefinders and designators as well as the optics of other weapons systems.

SHTORA-1 Active Defense System distinctive “Red Eyes”. Picture source: foxtrotalpha.jalopnik.com

LEDS-150 Land Electronic Defence System on Indian Tanks

          Indian T-90S tanks are not equipped with the Shtora-1, but with the Saab LEDS-150 Land Electronic Defence System.  The system is able to counter most known threats against armoured vehicles with soft and hard kill methods. LEDS-150 consists of laser warning sensors, an ADC-150 Active Defence Controller, a number of MCTS Munition Confirmation and Tracking Sensors, and High Speed Directed Launchers, HSDL, which allows the combination of soft- and hard-kill countermeasure deployment capability to the platform, optional displays, and interconnecting harnesses. This system uses the Denel Dynamics Mongoose-1 missile to destroy the incoming threat in 5 to 15 meters distance from the protected vehicle. LEDS-150 covers all 360 degrees azimuth; its elevation coverage is from -15 to +65 degrees.

NBC Protection and Signature Reduction

          In addition to the passive and active protection systems, the T-90 is also fitted with nuclear, biological and chemical (NBC) protection equipment, KMT mine sweeps and an automatic fire suppression system. The EMT-7 electromagnetic-counter mine system can also be installed on the T-90. EMT-7 emits an electromagnetic pulse to disable magnetic mines and disrupt electronics before the tank reaches them. The Nakidka signature reduction suite is also available for the T-90. Nakidka is designed to reduce the probabilities of an object to be detected by infrared thermal, Radar-Thermal, and radar bands.

Protection System Effectiveness Trials

          During tests reportedly conducted by the Russian military in 1999 the T-90 was exposed to a variety of munitions. When equipped with Kontakt-5 ERA the T-90 could not be penetrated by any of the APFSDS or ATGM used during the trial and outperformed a T-80U which also took part. During combat operations in Dagestan, there were witness accounts of one T-90 sustaining seven hits from RPGs, and remaining in action.

T-90 Variants

          T-90 was the first production version produced in 1992, T-90K, the  Commander’s version of the T-90, with additional communications and navigation equipment. T-90A is the Russian army version with welded turret, V-92S2 engine and ESSA thermal viewer. T-90AM is the current new version of the T-90A. This features modernisation of the old turret design, and equipped with the new advanced FCS “Kalina”, a new automatic loader and a new upgraded gun 2A46M-5, as well as a remote-controlled anti-aircraft gun “UDP T05BV-1”. It includes the Relikt ERA bricks instead of the Kontakt-5 bricks. It has the new 1130 hp engine, an enhanced environmental control system, and satellite navigation systems. Т-90M is the version still under modernization. The program includes 400 tanks currently in Russian service. Tanks will receive 2А82-1М gun and Kalina FCS. They will be upgraded with Afghanit APS and Relikt ERA. The upgrades are also aimed at improving network-centric warfare capabilities and coordination with Armata project vehicles. Serial production started in 2018. State tests were completed as of early 2020.

          T-90S is the export version of the T-90, later adopted by the Russian Armed Forces as the T-90A. These tanks have 1,000 hp (750 kW) engines,. carry a leaner version of the Shtora-1 passive/active protection system which lacks the infra-red dazzlers carried on the turret. Initially they had cast turrets of the early T-90, and when stocks were depleted, new, welded turrets were fabricated. T-90SK is the Commander’s version of the T-90S. T-90S “Bhishma” is the modified T-90S in Indian service. India announced that they’ll be made in India until 2028. T-90MS is the is an updated version of the T-90S. It is equipped with a 1,130 hp engine, a PNM Sosna-U gunner view, a UDP T05BV-1 RWS with a 7.62 mm machine gun, GLONASS inertial navigation systems, new Relikt  (ERA) that covers more of the tank, and a steering wheel. A new removable turret bustle is included, which provides storage for eight additional rounds. The T-90MS is ready for serial production. 4 video cameras provide a 360° view of the environment, while the tank is more connected to command. The T-90MS has an upgraded thermal imager that can detect tanks over 3300 meters away.

T-90S Views. Sketch Source: armyrecognition.com

Vehicles Based on T-90

          These include BREM-1M Armoured recovery vehicle; IMR-3M Combat engineer vehicle; MTU-90 Bridge layer tank with MLC50 bridge; BMR-3M Mine clearing vehicle; MTU-2020 Bridge layer tank based on the T-90A whose chassis has been extended, along with the addition of a road wheel; and UBIM (Universal Armored Engineering Vehicle) unveiled at the Army-2018 international arms show.

MTU-90 Bridge layer tank with MLC50 bridge. Picture Source: commons.wikimedia.org

India World’s Third Largest Tank Operator

          A ₹10,000 Crore (US$1.4 billion) purchase of 354 new T-90MS tanks for six tank regiments for the China border was approved in 2012 which would take the total number of T-90 tanks in the Indian Army’s inventory to 2011 and with a total of nearly 4500 tanks (T-90 and variants, T-72 and Arjun MBT) in active service, the world’s third largest operator of tanks. The Indian Army has announced plans to procure driver’s night sights based on uncooled thermal imaging technology for 1,400 of its T-90S tanks in order to permit full night operations. India plans to have 21 tank regiments of T-90s by 2020, with 45 combat tanks and 17 training and replacement tanks per regiment, for 62 total each. On 17 September 2013, India’s Defence Ministry approved the production of 235 T-90M tanks under Russian license for $1 billion. On 11 November 2019, India announced that Heavy Vehicles Factory will produce 464 T-90S MBTs.

India’s T-90 Bhishma. Picture Source: swarajyamag.com

Current T-90 operators

          Algeria operates a total of 572 tanks T-90SA. Azerbaijan has 100 T-90S tanks in service. Iraq currently has around 75 T-90S/SK tanks. Russia operates 369 T-90A, 120 Т-90 and 30 Т-90М tanks. Additional T-90M orders are in place. The Syrian Army‘s 4th Mechanized Division deployed several T-90 tanks (both early and late models have been observed in theater) given by Russia in November  2015. Turkmenistan ordered 10 T-90S tanks in 2010 for approximately $30 million. A follow-up order for an additional 30 tanks was later placed. Uganda has 44 T-90S, Vietnam operates 64 T-90S/SK as of March 2019. Immediate future contenders are Egypt looking for 400–500 T-90MS tanks under a deal that would include local assembly and manufacture; Kuwait looking to acquire 146 T-90MS tanks as replacement for M-84; and Pakistan plans to acquire 600 battle tanks including T-90 tanks.

Chinese Tanks 

          The Type 99 MBT or ZTZ-99 is a Chinese third generation main battle tank. The vehicle was a replacement for the aging Type 88 introduced in the late 1980s. Type 88 was inherited a combine of Soviet style chassis and turret with Western technology. The Type 99 MBT was China’s first mass-produced third generation main battle tank. Combining modular composite armour and tandem-charge defeating ERA, 125 mm smoothbore gun with ATGM-capability, high mobility, digital systems and optics, the Type 99 represents a shift towards rapid modernisation by the People’s Liberation Army Ground Force (PLAGF). The tank entered service in 2001, China is the sole operator of the Type 99. The Type 99’s deployment has been lessened due to its high cost, with the Type 96 tank (final variant of Type 88) seeing service as the primary main battle tank of the PLA. China has built around 900 Type 99 and 300 Type 88 tanks. Pakistan operates around 275 Type 85 Chinese tanks.

Chinese Type 99 MBT or ZTZ-99. Picture Source: nationalinterest.org

          The PLAGF fielded the largest active force of main battle tanks in the world, comprising roughly 3,390 third-generation, 400-500 second-generation, and 2,850 first-generation tanks. First-generation tanks are ZTZ-59-I/II/D license-built variants of the T-54, remaining in service with a significant proportion of the PLA despite even the latest version (upgraded in the 1980s) being obsolete. Second-generation tanks consist of the ZTZ-79 (though sometimes considered first-gen) and ZTZ-88/B; both had limited production runs in the 1980s and 1990s respectively and are now only in the inventory of units in northern and western China, with ZTZ-79s largely being exported. The bulk of China’s third-generation tank force is made up of some 2,500 ZTZ-96/A/B tanks, as well as more than 600 ZTZ-99/A tanks, though due to high cost they were produced in relatively small numbers and issued to strategic-reserve units near Beijing. China also has designed the new ZTQ-15 light tank for service in high-altitude regions such as Tibet.

ZTQ-15 light tank for service in high-altitude regions such as Tibet. Picture Source: Wikipedia

Pakistan’s Al-Khalid MBT 2000

          The Al-Khalid is Pakistan’s MBT jointly developed by Pakistan and China during the 1990s, based on the Chinese Type 90-IIM tank. The original prototype was developed by china’s North Industries Corporation (Norinco) under the name MBT-2000, and Norinco also offered the tank for export. Around 350 Al Khalid MBTs had been produced by 2014. Operated by a crew of three and armed with a 125 mm smooth-bore tank gun that is reloaded automatically, the tank uses a FCS and night-fighting equipment. The current production variant of the Al-Khalid uses a diesel engine and transmission supplied by the KMDB design bureau of Ukraine. The first production models entered service with the Pakistan Army in 2001. Pakistan has around 320 Ukrainian T-80UD tanks, 500 Al-Zarar made jointly with China,  and they have another 1,000 comprising older Chinese Type 85-IIAP, Type 69-IIMP, and Type 59. Pakistan has around 2,200 tanks in all.

Pakistan’s Al-Khalid MBT 2000. Picture Source: southfront.org

Indigenous Arjun MBT

          The Arjun is a third generation MBT developed by India’s DRDO for the Indian Army. The tank features a 120 mm main rifled gun with indigenously developed armour-piercing fin-stablised discarding-sabot ammunition, one PKT 7.62 mm coaxial machine gun, and a NSVT 12.7 mm machine gun. It is powered by a single MTU multi-fuel diesel engine rated at 1,400 hp, and can achieve a maximum speed of 67 km/h and a cross-country speed of 40 km/h. It has a four-man crew: commander, gunner, loader and driver.  Automatic fire detection and suppression and NBC protection systems are included. All-round anti-tank warhead protection by the indigenously-developed Kanchan armour is claimed to be much higher than available in comparable third generation tanks. Delays and other problems in its development from the 1990s to the 2000s prompted the Indian Army to order T-90S tanks from Russia to meet requirements that the Arjun had been expected to fulfill. In March 2010, the Arjun was pitted against the T-90 in comparative trials for assessing its maneuverability and reportedly performed well. On 9 August 2010 The Army showed interest to place an order for 124 Arjun Mk.2 Tanks in addition to 124 Mk.1 ordered earlier. However, in 2012 and 2016 the Indian Army has chosen instead to order 464 new T-90MS tanks for eight tank regiments, increasing the total number of T-90s in Indian service to over 2000 and undermining further procurement of the Arjun. The Arjun entered service with the Indian Army in 2004. The tanks were first inducted into the 43rd Armoured Regiment, while the latest induction has been into the 75th Armoured Regiment on 12 March 2011. 124 Mk.1 tanks and 118 Mk.1A tanks are known to be in service. A 2016 CAG report said that Arjun tanks have not been operational since 2013 due to a lack of spares. In 2017 it was reported that the DRDO had received the necessary imported spares to repair the faults that had grounded 75% of the fleet. The Arjun Mark II is an advanced third generation tank. In August 2014, The apex Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) renewed a Rs 6,600 Crore clearance for 118 Arjun Mark II tanks. In an interview emerged in January 2020, Army Chief MM Naravane told that the tank meets operational requirements and induction is scheduled for 2026–27.

Arjun MBT. Picture Source: armyrecognition.com

To Summarise

          Undoubtedly the T-90 is one of the top Main Battle Tanks of the world. India is the main operator. As per independent European agencies assessment, The Chinese have 7,760 tanks in all, compared to India’s 4,426 tanks. If it takes place, Ladakh maybe its first battle action for T-90 in India. Its predecessor the T-72 has had a very successful run with nearly 2,100 tanks operated by Indian Army, and still going strong. The T-72 can be carried in an IL-76 aircraft of the IAF. Similarly the T-90 can be carried in C-17 aircraft. There are 65 armoured regiments in the Indian Army. For various technical reasons India’s indigenous Arjun tank has still been struggling and very few have been inducted into Indian army. There is a need for concentrated national effort to get the Arjun Mk II and the Future MBT.  

Picture Credit: ukdefencejournal.org.uk

Published by Anil Chopra

I am the founder of Air Power Asia and a retired Air Marshal from the Indian Air Force.

One thought on “T-90 “Bhishma” Tanks in Ladakh – A Comprehensive Look

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