Ukraine’s Tank: How the T-64 Tank Became An Icon Of Resistance to Putin.
The T-64 tank was developed and built in Ukraine’s second city of Kharkiv during the 1960s. It was a Soviet super tank pioneering a variety of unprecedented technologies, including an autoloading 125mm main gun, a smaller three man-crew, sophisticated composite armor, and the capability to fire anti-tank missiles from its main gun.
The secrecy-shrouded T-64 outmatched most NATO tanks In the 1960s and 70s. However, the costly design was never exported outside the Soviet Union, which instead incorporated its innovations into the cheaper T-72 tank. You can read more about its Soviet origins and technical innovations in this companion piece. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Kyiv inherited 2,300 T-64s. It decided to keep only its latest T-64B tanks in service, and it put T-72 and T-80s into storage for eventual sale abroad.
Though hampered by inefficiency and corruption, Ukraine’s still considerable arms industry worked at developing domestic upgrades for the T-64 fleet to replace Russian-built technologies. This resulted in the new Kombat gun-launched laser-guided missile, which could penetrate 750 millimeters to a range of 3.1 miles, and the Nozh explosive reactive armor, which was designed to degrade even kinetic shells and survive longer when sustaining multiple hits. You can see how Nozh works below.
Ukrainian firms also developed more sophisticated Duplet reactive armor and the Zaslon active-protection system to shoot down incoming anti-tank missiles. However, these systems were mostly exported, and it’s unclear whether either is currently operational on Ukrainian tanks. However, Nozh reactive armor, Kombat missiles and indigenous analogs of the T-64’s armament (the KBA-3 gun and KT machine guns) were incorporated into the modernized T-64BM Bulat (formerly the T-64U) and a successor design called the T-84 Oplot, detailed in this older article.
The Bulat’s improvements included:
– Greater accuracy while moving thanks to stabilizers decreasing average error by 33-50%;
– Faster accurate firing thanks to a 1A45 fire control system with automatic target tracking that decreases computation time by 2-3 seconds per shot;
– Night-fighting capability thanks to a 1G46M sight and TNP-4E Buran-E night vision imager that can detect tanks up to a mile away;
– Fast-rotating turret capable of 180-degree rotation in five seconds, compared to 16-24 seconds needed for Russia’s T-90 tank;850 horsepower 5TDFM diesel engine compared to the 700 horsepower 5TDF on all prior T-64s. This was important considering the Bulat weighed 10 tons more than the original T-64.
Ukraine’s military also received a dozen similar but cheaper T-64BM2s built by the Kharkiv Design Bureau and retaining the older 700-hp engine. Ukraine’s arms industry also tinkered with schemes to convert T-64s into heavy troop carriers, and with a T-64E tank carrying a twin-barrel 23 mm autocannon to supplement the main gun, but none of these novelties entered production.
Defending Ukraine, 2014-2015
When Russia invaded the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, Ukraine’s military retained around 900 T-64s in storage and 786 T-64Bs in operational units. These included the 1st and 17th Tank Brigades — each with 93 tanks divided among three tank battalions — as well as supporting battalions of 40 tanks in its eight mechanized infantry brigades. Ukraine’s Marine Corps also had 41 T-64BV tanks in Crimea that were seized by Russia, only to be returned in June.
As Russian-backed separatists began seizing cities in the eastern Donbas region of Ukraine, T-64s led Kyiv’s counteroffensive, though their effectiveness was reduced by a tendency to spread out the tanks to individually defend checkpoints and escort convoys. Meanwhile, separatists managed to field around 20 T-64s furnished by Russia or captured from Ukraine. Two were disabled by Ukrainian Hind helicopters on June 12 in the Savur-Mogila region. Four more struck at Ukrainian forces northwest of Slovyansk on June 26, knocking out four APCs for one lost tank, while others saw action in a failed assault on Bakhmut.
By August, Ukrainian troops were close to defeating the separatists when eight Russian Ground Forces battalion tactical groups rolled into Ukraine. Kyiv’s mechanized forces were defeated in a succession of battles at Ilovaisk, Debaltseve and Donetsk airport, losing over 300 T-64 tanks in the process, the majority abandoned outside of combat during retreats. City combat saw T-64s destroyed by infantry who ambushed from an angle to hit weaker side, top, and rear armor. But reportedly 75-80% of T-64 combat losses came from artillery (howitzers, mortars and Grad rockets), not from direct fire by enemy tanks or anti-tank missiles.
Still, the T-64 proved it could do its job — at least when in mechanically reliable condition. Malfunctioning guns rendered ineffectual all but one Ukrainian T-64 in a failed counterattack at Kominternovo that nonetheless staved off a Russian offensive on Mariupol. But in an engagement at Logvinova on Feb. 12, 2015, three Bulat tanks from the 1st Tank Brigade covering an attack by the 30th Mechanized dispatched a like number of Russian T-72s in a 20-minute engagement, while withstanding several hits in return.
The 2014-2015 ωɑɾ highlighted the T-64’s strengths and its flaws. Nozh armor proved effective, with some T-64s requiring eight hits to knock out using portable anti-tank ωεɑρσռs. However, the individual armor tiles weren’t designed to be repaired or replaced in the field, thus requiring factory refitting or improvised welding on the frontline. The use of unstable, expired shells made T-64s more prone to explode when penetrated, and their light undercarriage proved vulnerable to mines and rough terrain. The BM2 and to a lesser extent the Bulat proved underpowered and prone to overheating.
Building a Better T-64, Take Two
Kyiv began rebuilding and expanding its armored forces, withdrawing from storage retired T-72 and T-80 tanks as well as more T-64s. Ukraine could upgrade multiple T-64BVs for the price of a single new T-84 or Bulat, so it focused almost exclusively on upgrading the former, while exporting the latter to Thailand to generate income.
Thus Kyiv instead focused on the more affordable T-64BV model. Its 2017 modernization was implemented at the Kharkiv and Lviv armor plants, replacing the tank’s Luna spotlight in favor of a modern second-generation TPN-1MSW thermal sight. It also featured a SN-4215 GPS navigation system designed to network with friendly forces, and encrypted jam-resistant K-2RB radios with a range of 43 miles. Nozh reactive armor elements were also stuffed into the BV model’s Kontakt-1 bricks.
This was followed by a heavily modernized command model, the T-64BVK model 2021, which featured a trio of digital radios with a combined range of 310 miles, an auxiliary power unit, modern day/night thermal imagers, a rearward-looking camera, and armor reinforcements to fuel tanks and sides. A few weeks prior to Putin’s 2022 invasion, the Kharkiv plant began testing the T-64BV model 2022. This incorporated most of the command model’s enhancements, as well as a new shielded, higher-velocity Laska K-2 12.7 mm machinegun, a third-generation infrared sensor, and NATO-compatible radios.
Another program, the T-64 Crab, sought to merge technologies form the Bulat, T-64BV model 2017, and T-84, but the project progressed too slowly. Instead in 2021, Kharkiv’s armored plant refitted the twelve underpowered T-64BM2s with 1,000-hp MTD-1 engines. They also received modern thermal sights, GPS, extra Nozh armor bricks on the side hull, fuel tank protection, a digital navigation system, and a U.S.-supplied Harris encrypted radio, making it compatible with NATO forces.