T-72 tanks and the Czech Republic

 04. 12. 2019      category: Army of the Czech Republic
Přidat na Seznam.cz

Having a look at present situation of the Czech tank force, it seems to be quite absurd to know that not long time ago was Czech, or rather Czechoslovak tank force one of the strongest in the world. Former ČSLA, the army of former Czechoslovakia had at its disposal approx. 4500 tanks! In ratio of number of tanks to number of soldiers but also to number of state citizens we used to belong to the world top, we used to be at the second place right after Israel. And even though that later, in pursuance of European disarmament contracts numbers were reduced, despite that remained the Czechoslovak tank army extraordinarily numerous. However, it must be said that sustaining of such large army was one of causes for economic troubles of the socialistic Czechoslovakia at that time.

A considerable part of this army consisted of T-72 tanks. They were to be a backbone and gradually the only tank type - in the same way as in other Warsaw pact states.

Picture: T-72 tank | army.cz

It is significant that T-72 tanks were in former Czechoslovakia not only in service, but also manufactured under Soviet license - namely in Slovak company ZŤS Martin. Moreover, it was not only this company in Martin, a lot of subcontractor companies from the whole Czechoslovakia participated in T-72 tanks license production. It is also important to say that former Czechoslovakia had extensively exported T-72 tanks into other Warsaw pact armies as well as into various allied, mainly Arab countries etc. T-72 tanks acquisition and license production was one of the most important armament acts of former Czechoslovakia.

The following story of T-72 tanks was significantly affected by November 1989, by the fall of communist regime, and namely by common state division and in relation with that also T-72 tanks production capability loss.

T-72 tanks became a fundamental tank type also in new Army of Czech Republic which took from former ČSLA in total 540 T-72 tanks over. It is good to bring to mind that Czech Army those days expected only to remove worn-out T-54/55 tanks from service and operate T-72 tanks in their full amount. However, in consideration of Persian-Gulf war experience it was decided to upgrade some amount of T72 tanks.

Picture: T-72 tank | army.cz

Unfortunately, T-72 tanks upgrade project was born into a bit unlucky times when the Army substituted one concept with another. This concerned also the tank forces. The design of upgraded T-72 tank was progressively changed - namely up to final version T-72M4CZ which was compared to the first versions considerably more perfect, but also more expensive. Nevertheless, much worse was permanently changing or rather decreasing number of tanks to be upgraded. The original assumption calculated with upgrade of 300-400 tanks. This unrealistic number was reduced to 180 or 140 tanks which stopped at the end at amount of only 30 upgraded tanks. The reduction in number of ordered pieces only partly decreased the total sum for upgrade. The unit price of an upgraded tank was therefore unusually high.

Right because of these reasons was the project of T-72 tanks upgrade to T-72M4CZ version often criticized. Sometimes there is even pointed out that such upgraded T-72M4CZ tank was in fact the same price as a new western tank. Yet, these critiques forget a bit the fact that only a new tank price is only a part of costs that would be necessary for such acquisition.

Picture: T-72M4CZ tank | CC BY-SA 4.0

n the other hand, it is necessary to note that upgraded T-72M4CZ tanks do well in Czech Army. However, the problem is in zero further investment into these tanks since their upgrade, which is in contrary to practice of many advanced armies that upgrade their armoured hardware almost every ten years. The consequence of that is present situation when the Army has only a smaller part of upgraded T-72M4 tanks and has to rely on non-upgraded T-72. It is necessary to remark that this situation is not the result of some lack of conception in Czech Army (Czech Army progress conception includes tanks) but rather of low interest of political representation, that disinclined for a long time to allocate sufficient funds to  armed forces development and kept defence expenditures at 1 % of GDP, hardly enough to primary survival. Thanks God, the situation is changing these days. Therefore, there is a possible question of Czech tank force future and what to do with T-72 tanks?

What to do next? Does it make sense to upgrade T-72 tank?

Chiefly, it must be said that there are not many other options. Even if Czech Army decided to buy some new tanks (and earmarked appropriate funds for that), such acquisition is not a matter of day to day accomplishment. Production of new tanks, training of their crews, establishment of technical and logistic supportive environment would also take some time. This process may even take several years!

Should the Czech Army decide to lease the tanks it would be similarly complicated. Even though it would be necessary to establish technical supportive environment, logistics etc.

Under such conditions it is necessary to prolong T-72 tanks viability. However, it is a bit pointless for Czech Army to operate the tanks in their present design for which is, moreover, missing necessary components. Therefore, at least a minimum upgrade is almost essential. It means that the question is not whether to upgrade T-72 tanks, but in which way.

Exactly the answer to way of T-72 tanks upgrade is the fundamental one. That is the only way to avoid mistakes linked with T-72M4CZ upgrade.

Picture: T-72M4CZ tanks | CC BY-SA 4.0

Should Czech Army decide to buy some new tanks - either Leopard 2 tanks or some other type - and T-72 tanks would be in service only as some kind of reserve, additional tanks (used for example only by Active reserves), only very limited and less demanding, which means also cheap upgrade would be enough. There is, of course, a question whether to upgrade only T-72M4CZ tanks or also original, non-upgraded T-72.

Yet, should the Czech Army decide not to buy new tanks and T-72 tank should further represent its main and only type of tank, it would be necessary to execute some more fundamental and more extensive upgrade. There are also upgrade projects like that available at the market, Polish PT16 and PT17 may be mentioned as an example. However, it must be said that these upgrade projects are relatively expensive and even polish Army itself resigned from them. Should the Czech Army decide upon some of these projects, it would bear the risk of the first and possibly the only customer.

How long should such upgraded tanks be in service is the same key question. Should T-72 tanks be in service only for a short time, any fundamental upgrade would make no sense and only some minimum upgrade would be enough. In contrary to that, should T-72 tanks be in service yet for a long time - either as main or as additional tanks - their more extensive upgrade would be reasonable.

Certainly, there may be found much more questions like these. This also shows that T-72 tank upgrade issues are much more complicated than it may firstly look like. Therefore, any potential upgrade should be a well-considered combination of measures that would bring the T-72 tank the performance and capabilities The Czech Army really needs.

Nevertheless, it is clear that Czech Republic should realize some upgrade of T-72 tanks. At least because Czech Republic, or rather Czech Army can do that by itself. Even today Czech Republic features important know-how and production capabilities linked with T-72 tank. There are right two companies specialized in these issues.

The first company is VOP CZ in Nový Jičín. In fact, it is a state-owned company belonging under Defence department.
VOP CZ has wide experience with T-72 tanks as it had done tank repairs already in socialistic Czechoslovakia. VOP Nový Jičín also carried out the above-mentioned T-72 tanks upgrade to T-72M4CZ. Even though this upgrade may be considered strongly debatable, it was the key one for VOP Nový Jičín.  Thanks to this upgrade the company not only gained unique experience, but was also able to hold many first-rate experts. Exactly this is extraordinarily valuable know-how, from which may be followed on. Therefore, VOP Nový Jičín still has got wide capacities for repairs as well as T-72 tanks upgrade.

This was also the reason for recent assignment of task to VOP Nový Jičín to revitalize existing T-72M4 tanks of the Czech Army. The upgrade will only be of a limited range, for sure not equal to the Russian T-72B3 upgrade. Still it is very important. It will enable the Czech Army to get over a complicated period - until final decision on a form of the Czech tank force. However, the question is whether it might be convenient to follow the T-72 upgrade with another, much wider project, that would further enhance T-72 tank capabilities and prolong its viability. VOP Nový Jičín is obviously capable to do that.

Picture: T-72 M4 CZ, the Czech Army main combat tank | army.cz

Excalibur army company, or rather its plant in Šternberk is number two at the Czech arms market. Also, this company owns know-how and technologies related to T-72 tank.

Great advantage of the Excalibur company lies in its successful export of certain number of T-72 tanks to Iraq and Nigeria in previous years. Frankly, those were not any upgraded tanks, they only went through. general repair and examination. Yet the Excalibur Group gained thanks to that wide experience and developed its capabilities.

The Excalibur army company followed this success with lately presented T-72 Scarab tank. T-72 Scarab tank is rather non-exacting but very pragmatic construction. T-72 tank was at that equipped with ancillary armour, that is becoming almost a standard with T-72 tanks. There were mounted new surveillance and locating devices, however, the new fire control system was not used (may be equipped). In fact, this is only very spare but rational and mainly costs-modest upgrade. Nevertheless, the experience of the Czech Republic as well as of other states show such upgrades as more viable than fundamental but too complicated and costs-demanding upgrades.

T-72 Scarab _01
Picture: T-72 Scarab | EA

T-72 Scarab primarily represents an export type. It may be interesting even for the Czech Army though. Alternatively, it may be followed by some further similar version - namely completely up to the Czech Army requirements. 
It is extraordinarily important that within the Czech Republic borders are right two companies with necessary know-how and technologies related to T-72 tanks. And it may be much more important than T-72 tanks as such.

It is necessary to be aware of that such project of possible tanks upgrade would mean for the performing company a huge progress - technological, mental. This upgrade might be followed by further projects, another upgrades, or even development of similar military hardware. It would be progress even for Czech Republic. It is highly improbable that Czech Republic would ever be again capable of tanks production, which would anyway be not purposeful. Still, there is a point in increase of Czech Republic capabilities in tank-hardware area.

There is becoming evident lack of tank manufacturers in Europe already today, in peace time. Only France and Germany are still capable of tank manufacturing - and even them are rather collaborating on development of new European tank.

Yet we can ask what impact would this European shortage of capabilities have in case of some more relevant, even though only local-limited conflict. How would be processed deliveries of a hypothetical new "European tank", deliveries of spare parts but also of technical supportive environment. How would be processed deliveries of other armoured hardware, for example of often mentioned AFV. The experience from conflicts in Syria and Ukraine show that even obsolete tank can at least partly compensate for lack of modern weapon systems with its attack power. The fact that Czech Republic has available tank-hardware technologies and know-how is, therefore, much more important than may be visible - even though it is concerning the obsolete tank.

 Author: David Khol