Iran’s military bulks up with new Russian tanks

by Abbas Qaidaar. He is an Iranian international security and defense policy analyst. This article was first published on al-Monitor and re-published here by Qaidaar’s permission — thank you!

A Russian T-90 tank fires in the Urals city of Nizhny Tagil, Russia, Sept. 25, 2013 (Photo: Sergei Karpukhin).

A Russian T-90 tank fires in the Urals city of Nizhny Tagil, Russia, Sept. 25, 2013 (Photo: Sergei Karpukhin).

The commander of the Iranian army’s ground forces, Brigadier General Ahmad Reza Pourdastan, announced that the Islamic Republic’s “ties with Russia in the field of equipment supply are established. Our first contract was for the S-300 missile system and now we have on our agenda the purchase of T-90 tanks. God willing, our experts will go on a trip to Russia to sign the related contracts with the Russians. However, no such contract has been signed yet.”

Following the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in Vienna earlier this year, Iran’s military became hopeful that its might would increase. This was mainly because the P5+1 group of countries (Russia, China, France, Britain and the United States plus Germany) had pledged under the JCPOA to lift the UN heavy arms embargo against Iran within the next five years, in return for Tehran showing goodwill and abiding by its commitments.

The first branch of Iran’s military to pursue the idea of expansion through the purchase of heavy equipment was the air force, which has already held negotiations with the Russians and the Chinese.

Indeed, the widespread attrition and deterioration of air force equipment has prompted the Iranian public to view the air force as antiquated. However, in reality, the country’s ground forces are suffering from more complex and deeper problems in terms of hardware.

Prior to the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iranian armor was considered to possess a higher operational capacity compared to those of the country’s regional rivals. Following the Islamic Revolution and the ensuing 1980-1988 war with Iraq, a great portion of this armor was lost. The international restrictions placed on Iran after the eight-year war with Iraq worsened the situation, making it difficult for the country to quickly upgrade its military technology to an acceptable level.

In recent years, Iran has made numerous attempts to become self-sufficient in the production of armored equipment — none of which have been very successful. This is while countries such as Turkey, Israel, Egypt and Pakistan have succeeded in designing and producing a large part of their modern armored capabilities.

Pakistani military personnel ride Pakistani-made Al-Khalid tanks during the Pakistan Day military parade in Islamabad on March 23, 2015 (Photo: Aamir Qureshi).

Pakistani military personnel ride Pakistani-made Al-Khalid tanks during the Pakistan Day military parade in Islamabad on March 23, 2015 (Photo: Aamir Qureshi).

Over the years, Iran has adopted several approaches in order to expand its armored capabilities.

The first approach was to purchase weapons. During and after its war with Iraq, Iran tried to supply some of its armor needs from abroad. Turning to China and Russia, it bought a number of T-59 and T-72Z tanks, respectively. However, the T-59 is in no way suitable for today’s battlefields, while its Iranian upgrade, the T-72Z, is very similar to the T-72 seen in the army of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Upon careful consideration of these models’ specifications, it is apparent that the weakest and most inefficient versions of this tank are those produced in Russia.

The second approach was to assemble existing tanks. After making the purchases mentioned above, Iran sought to assemble T-55 and T-72 tanks on its own. The quality of these tanks is not clear, nor are there any reports available on their performance in the battlefield during the war with Iraq. However, these tanks are inferior compared to those found in Israel, Turkey and the Arab armies.

The third approach was to upgrade older tanks. Iran has many old tanks in its arsenal, including the M-48, the M-60, the Scorpion and the Chieftain. Over the years, it has tried to upgrade a number of these vehicles and reintroduce them into its service under new names. Some of these tanks are from the post-World War II era, while the newest ones are from the 1970s. In fact, many are reminiscent of the arsenals employed during the Arab-Israeli wars, the Vietnam War or the Korean War. Other armies, such as those of Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel, have also attempted to upgrade tanks such as the M-60. However, the upgrades Iran made to these tanks are nowhere close to as significant as the upgrades carried out by the Islamic Republic’s regional rivals.

The fourth approach was to produce domestically made tanks. Iran has heavily invested in the production of Zulfiqar tanks. Local arms factories have been engaged in this project for more than two decades. Yet it was only last year that Iranian state television aired footage of the tank firing a shell (see video below). The Zulfiqar is the result of a combination of somewhat old Russian, Chinese and Brazilian technology. Its specifications and efficiency are not clear. Moreover, Iran has not been able to achieve the level of mass production necessary to replace existing models.

Having experienced these disappointments, Iran’s armed forces is now seriously seeking to purchase tanks suitable for today’s battlefields. In this vein, there are three reasons in particular behind why it has decided to buy T-90 tanks. First, they are cheaper compared to today’s more modern tanks. Second, they have greater capabilities compared to the tanks that are already present in the Iranian military. Third, Western countries are reluctant to sell more advanced models to Iran.

Compared to the existing tanks in Iran’s arsenal, the T-90 is more advanced in terms of its penetration capacity, fire power, navigation technology, fire control and guidance system, maneuverability, and sophisticated electronics. However, we have to keep in mind that any type of weaponry is bought or produced with the intention of being prepared for a time of war. Today, the armies of Iran’s regional rivals are in possession of much more advanced and efficient tanks. Israel, for instance, has the Merkava IV, Turkey has the Leopard and Altay, the United Arab Emirates has Leclerc and Saudi Arabia has the Abrams and will have Leopard 2A7 in the near future. Moreover, Egypt also has Abrams, while Jordan and Oman have the Challenger 2. In terms of technical specifications, such as armor penetration, firing precision, engine technology, armor technology, protection level, heating systems, infrared and navigation, these tanks are all significantly more advanced than the T-90. Furthermore, in terms of anti-tank weapons, there are the TOW, Javelin, MILAN and other Western-made anti-armor weapon systems that can easily target T-90 tanks. In fact, the T-90 is an upgraded version of the T-72 — and has thus inherited all of its weak, and strong, points. T-72 tanks were easily blown to pieces during the first 1990-91 Persian Gulf War, in the face of Abrams tanks operated by the US military.

The weak state of Iran’s heavy armor justifies the need to add more modernized tanks. Indeed, this is the first impression upon hearing news of Iran’s planned arms purchases. However, these purchases will be intensively questioned in face of the increasing daily power and advancement of other regional armies and the possible scenarios of conflict. Iran is likely to allocate $3-$5 billion to the purchase of tanks. In a hypothetical conflict situation, these tanks could have to face off against 800 Saudi Leopards along with thousands of Abrams, Challengers, Leclercs and Merkava tanks from Israel and Arab countries. If this occurs, the outcome can easily be predicted.

Hence, some figures inside Iran are looking at the arms purchases of regional countries and comparing the technical specifications of those countries’ current and future artillery with the options available to Iran. Given the current situation, these individuals believe that purchases of T-90 tanks will only result in the destruction of the country’s national wealth — as evidenced in the case of Saddam and his huge army.

This entry was posted in Abbas Qaidaar, English, International, Iran, Security Policy.

2 Responses to Iran’s military bulks up with new Russian tanks

  1. Kevin-Andrew Cvitanušić (Facebook) says:

    Today, the armies of Iran’s regional rivals are in possession of much more advanced and efficient tanks […]

    More advanced than Iran’s current Tank inventory sure, hard pressed to argue that they’re vastly superior to the T-90 though.

    In terms of technical specifications, such as armor penetration, firing precision, engine technology, armor technology, protection level, heating systems, infrared and navigation, these tanks are all significantly more advanced than the T-90.

    Are they? Armour penetration isn’t a tank thing, it’s ammunition thing. There’s not much a 120mm will do that a 125mm won’t.. In fact, given that the T-90 can fire ATGM’s from the cannon (something none of the other tanks listed can do as far as I’m aware) it has the range advantage.

    “Firing precision”: No, the Russians went abroad and bought the Catherine sighting and targeting system from the French, I’d say the T-90 is just as good, if not better than the export level Abrams and Leopards.

    “Protection level” doesn’t mean what the author thinks it means. All tanks listed can be penetrated by each others cannons and all use composite armour. The Merkava has the best crew survivability in case of penetration, but they abandon the tank through the rear, ergo it’s no longer in the fight.

    “[…] anti-armor weapon systems that can easily target T-90 tanks”: I can Target a tank with a rifle. Doesn’t necessarily mean I can penetrate it. ESPECIALLY with active protection systems.

    T-72 tanks were easily blown to pieces during the first 1990-91 Persian Gulf War […]

    No, the “Lion of Babylon” (the Iraqy verison of the T-72) was easily blown up. Because it was made domestically in Iraq with far inferior metallurgy and “Monkey Model” soviet export technology. Big difference. The training of the Iraqi crews was also a joke.

    The weak state of Iran’s heavy armor justifies the need to add more modernized tanks.

    Depends if they plan on fighting a tank on tank war. Far cheaper and better to use ATGM’s mounted on their “Safir jeeps” as tank destroyers. Iran has always planned to fight a defensive war, ergo, they really don’t need heavy armour with the exception of counter attacks.

    In a hypothetical conflict situation, these tanks could have to face off against 800 Saudi Leopards along with thousands of Abrams, Challengers, Leclercs and Merkava tanks from Israel and Arab countries. If this occurs, the outcome can easily be predicted.

    Nothing is certain in war, it’s doubtful all those countries would fight on the same side, Are they Israeli tanks going to drive through Syria and Iraq?

    Are the Saudi tanks going to swim the Persian Gulf? How are Egyptian tanks going to get into the theatre? Perhaps drive through Israel?

    I urge the author to look at a regional map, and perhaps investigate how difficult it is to move large quantities of heavy armour and their ancillaries into a theatre. This is why during the Cold War the US pre-staged their armour in Europe.

    With a heavy airlift of C-17’s, and presuming somewhere to land them, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel ect. could perhaps bring tanks into the Iranian theatre. But in very small quantity.

    The only tanks Iran needs to worry about are the Turkish ones, due to the two countries sharing a border. However, given the mountainous terrain in the region, whether tanks are even suited for that area is very debatable.

  2. Not only Iran is eager to buy T-90 from the Russian. According to Defence Blog, a Thai delegation visited the Uralvagonzavod (see image below), and seemed to do an assessment of the type of T-90 MBT, because the latest T-14 MBT Armata not be exported in the near future. The T-90 seems to be a suitable candidate for the replacement of Thailand’s aging fleet of M48A5 Patton tanks. The Chinese-made VT-4/MBT-3000 could be regarded as another possible candidate. Both Russian and Chinese models are based on the Soviet-era T-72 tank design and armed with a 125-mm smoothbore gun as their main weapon system.

    Russia_05

    In 2011, Thailand placed a $240 million order for the purchase of 49 Ukrainian-made T-84 Oplot-M MBTs plus a number of support vehicles with Ukrspetsexport. But by the end of 2015, only ten tanks had been delivered and five additional tanks are slated for delivery in early 2016, causing concern over future delays among high-ranking officers in the Royal Thai Army. The T-84 Oplot is a derivative of the Soviet T-80 and also sports a 125-mm smoothbore cannon.

    Overall, Thailand plans to purchase around 200 new MBTs in the coming years for its armored cavalry battalions.

    Source: Franz-Stefan Gady, “Will Thailand Buy Russian T-90 Tanks?“, The Diplomat, 04.01.2016.

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