Oct 28, 2022
A video posted on social media on Tuesday (Oct. 25) of a train passing through Krakow, Poland revealed at least seven uniquely Czech T-72 main battle tanks being transported towards Ukraine, as well as four BVP-2 infantry fighting vehicles and a number of Tatra military trucks.
Starting in April, the Czech Republic transferred around 40 export-grade T-72M1 tanks from reserve stockpiles to Ukraine in April, in exchange for which Germany is giving the Czechs 15 heavier Leopard 2A4 tanks, plus a Buffel armored recovery vehicle. Prague also bought T-72M1s from Bulgaria and shipped them to Ukraine, and Czech civilians even crowdfunded the refitting and delivery of a unique T-72 Avenger tank named Tomasz (see end of article).
But the new footage from Poland instead shows heavily upgraded T-72M4CZs, a unique model used exclusively by the Czech Republic’s sole active-duty tank unit, the 73rd Tank Battalion based at Přáslavice, roughly 55 miles’ drive from the border with Poland. Hull numbers for all but one of the seven tanks are visible: 004, 005, 007, 008, 009 and 028.
It’s widely thought the vehicles are being donated to Ukraine, though there are opposing rumors alleging the movement could relate to a NATO Baltic exercise.
The Czech Republic has just 30 upgraded T-72M4s each costing $5.2 million, as well as three VT-72M4 armored recovery vehicles. The M4s have new, uprated diesel engines, Italian fire control systems, multiple thermal sights, advanced explosive reactive armor, and a “soft-kill” active protection system to detect and blind incoming missiles.
Unfortunately, the gold-plated T-72s have mostly fallen into disrepair, with reportedly only one-third operationally available by late 2021 while others await refurbishing. That means the at least seven M4CZs seen in Poland may be the only ones in operational condition.
This has forced the 73rd to train using its 20 more primitive T-72M1s, while the Army seeks to procure more parts. Reportedly a lack of spare parts for the TURMS-T fire control system is the chief culprit.
If these M4s are being donated, it may indicate Prague is willing to further hollow out its tank inventory as part of a ringtausche (“ring swap”) for additional Leopard 2s. Berlin views direct export of Leopard 1 and 2 tanks to Ukraine as too provocative, and thus arranges ring swaps in which East European NATO allies give away their old Soviet tanks, which are then replaced by Germany.
An upside to this arrangement is that since 2014 Ukraine has brought hundreds of T-72s into service, an inventory which has expanded with the documented capture of nearly 300 Russian T-72s between February and October 2022, and over 200 T-72M1s received from Poland. That means Ukraine’s military can integrate T-72s much more easily into its training, maintenance and logistics systems than Leopard 1s it has never used before.
Admittedly, the sui generis Czech T-72M4s would be trickier to integrate because of their broadly different Western systems—in this regard, comparable only to the T-72-based PT-91 Twardy tanks Poland has also begun donating to Ukraine. Hopefully, the M4’s upgraded capabilities would make up for added logistical headaches.
Presently, Kyiv needs more armored vehicles to recapture territory seized by Russia, particularly in the open terrain around Kherson and Zaporizhzhya, as well as increasingly exposed Russian positions in northeastern Ukraine. Though the predominance and lethality of artillery supported by drone spotters has prematurely led some observers to proclaim the tank obsolete, Ukrainian forces skillfully used tanks in September and October to reclaim lost territory.
In this regard, the BVP-2 infantry fighting vehicles (Czech-built BMP-2s) armed with 30-millimeter autocannons on the train are useful too. Earlier, the Czech Republic shipped to Ukraine over 60 older BVP-1s and similar Pbv 501As (license-built BMP-1s) armed with low-velocity 73-millimeter guns, which have much lower accuracy, range and firing rate.
The possibility Prague may have donated bespoke T-72s when it has so few tanks left has unsurprisingly drawn criticism in some quarters. However, such donations may rest on the premise that helping Ukraine defeat Russia’s invasion will obviate the risk of subsequent direct conflict with NATO, at least in the short term.
The second half of this article looks at the history and unique capabilities of the T-72M4, as well as the crowdfunded T-72 Avenger.
Origins of the T-72M4CZ
Between 1981 and 1990 Czechoslovakia license-built no less than 1,700 T-72Ms, a downgraded export model of the Soviet T-72A main battle tank. Setting aside those exported, Czechoslovakia’s military counted a whopping 815 T-72s in service by 1991, 550 of which were retained by the Czech Republic when it split from Slovakia.
However, Czechoslovakian chemical defense units that participated in the Gulf War coalition observed the obsolescence of Iraq’s imported T-72s when facing Western armor. That created impetus for Prague’s rapidly downsizing army to improve its remaining T-72s.
Finally, in 1996 and 1997 respectively the state-run Military Repair Plant 25 (VOP-025) assembled two prototypes: the T-72M3 and the similar T-72M4 with a new engine. The latter was approved for service in 2001. But a budget squeeze saw the planned 350 upgraded tanks downsized to 140—and then finally just 30, delivered 2003-2006.
The M4CZ model integrated technologies from over a half-dozen different countries. That first of all involved replacing the T-72’s 780-horsepower engine with the British water-cooled CV12 turbocharged diesel engine (used on the Challenger 2 tank) combined with the Allison XTG 411-6-N automatic transmission.
Compensating for the M4CZ’s increased weight, the new Israeli-devised powerpack also enhances fuel efficiency, improved maximum cross-country (22 miles per hour) and reverse speed (8 mph), and upped acceleration to go from 0 to 20 miles per hour in 8 seconds instead of 25. Mobility was also improved with new rubber treads and reinforced suspension.
The upgrade also installed dozens of “bricks” of Czech DYNA-72 explosive-reactive armor (ERA), which is especially effective at degrading/deflecting shaped-charge HEAT warheads used on portable anti-tank rockets and missiles.
DYNA-72 reportedly boosts the T-72M’s 520-millimeters equivalent front turret and hull armor to 1,100-1,200 millimeters versus HEAT munitions. It’s also claimed to increase protection against kinetic shells by 30%, presumably resulting in a maximum effective 670 millimeters. There are also rubber pads on the hull sides and extensive ERA on the turret roof, a farsighted measure given the startling successes of drone-dropped anti-tank grenades in Ukraine.
For additional missile protection the tank’s Polish-built SSC-1 OBRA laser warning system alerts the crew if they’re being painted by a laser. Four receivers on the turret provide 360-degree warning. This system can even automatically discharge a DGO-1 multi-spectral smoke grenade blocking optical and infrared detection as well as lasers in the direction of a laser to help the tank evade attacks, forming a ‘soft-kill’ active protection system.
The tank’s stealth is enhanced using REDA anti-radar liners and the U2500 camouflage system, designed to mask the tank from thermal sensors and absorb microwave emissions.
To improve survival odds should armor be penetrated, the M4 incorporates a German BUA automatic fire suppression system which triggers within milliseconds of a fire being detected. It’s unclear whether that might reduce the infamous propensity for ammunition in the T-72’s autoloader to detonate when penetrated, causing fatal turret decapitation.
Also protecting the crew is a new German nuclear/biological/chemical defense system, while a Czech Metra-Blansko-SP system detonates magnetic mines before they can threaten the tank. The M4CZs also can be equipped for mine-clearing using dual KTM-72M4 mine-plows based on the Soviet KTM-6.
The T-72’s carousel-style autoloader and 2A46M 125-millimeter gun remains unchanged. However, the Czechs use a domestic Synthesia EPpSv-97 tungsten armor-piercing fin-stabilized discarding sabot (APFSDS) shell, with reported 500 millimeters penetration at a range of 1.24 miles. That’s similar to the 3BM42 ‘Mango’ shell, the best type used by Ukraine, though Russia has employed superior Svinets tungsten shells in the war.
However, being first to detect and hit enemy forces is historically more decisive in armored battles—and in that regards, M4’s systems have been completely revamped
Both the commander and gunner have stabilized, panoramic day/night thermal sights with magnification settings ranging from 2.5x-10x or 5x and 13x, aided by a Nd-YAG solid-state laser rangefinder. The sights can detect targets out to 3.1 miles away or 2.6 miles at night, and classify targets at 1.24 miles. The commander’s sight has hunter-killer capability allowing automated target-tracking, and allows the commander to fire the main gun too. The driver benefits from a TKN-3BP night vision periscope .
An Italian TURMS-T fire control system (same as on the Ariete C1 tank) supposedly increases first shot hit rate by 10%, and while moving, by 80-200%. These improvements are achieved in part thanks to an array of additional systems, including meteorological sensor, gyroscope-based turret position sensors and a powder charge temperature sensor. However, TURMS-T is associated with significant maintenance problems for the T-72M4CZ.
All in all, the T-72M4CZ has good protection against older-generation anti-tank missiles, and has substantially better sights, fire control and mobility than most T-72s. However, the $5 million unit price resulting from the small number procured could have paid for a similar number of heavier M1 Abrams or Leopard 2 tanks.
Prague had plans to spend 1.1 billion Czech crowns (roughly $45 million) extending the service lives of all T-72M4s and VT-72M4s by 2025, including by installing new communications and fire suppression systems, and replacing specific parts of the now out-of-production TURMS-T.
But if the government does turn out to have donated at least 25% of its T-72M4CZ fleet, that calls into question the future of the type in Czech service, let alone modernization. In that case, it remains to be seen if Prague plans to refurbish and field the remaining M4CZs or send those to Ukraine too. Either way would require time and money to restore the tanks to operational condition.
For now, the Czech army will count on older T-72M1s and Leopard 2A4s from Germany (though deemed to have “obviously lower” combat value by one Czech publication) while it procures new, modern Leopard 2A6s or 2A7s with numerous enhancements. If the T-72M4s really have been donated, they’re likely to have an unexpectedly eventful operational career in Ukrainian service.
Czech Avenger: Tomáš the Tank
Independently, 11,000 Czech civilians raised 25 million crowns (about $1 million) to fund the upgrading and delivery of T-72 named “Tomáš” to Ukraine for the “Gift for Putin” campaign organized by Czech businessman Dalibor Dedek in cooperation with the Ukrainian embassy, was called ‘Gift for Putin.”
Another 8 millions crowns were raised to “Feed Tomáš” by procuring ammunition, including EPpSv-97 armor-piercing sabots.
Tomáš is effectively a less expensive T-72M1 upgrade model dubbed the ‘T-72 Avenger’ offered by the company Excalibur Army, seemingly slapped together and delivered at one-fifth the price of the T-72M4CZ.
The Avenger sports 196 reactive armor bricks providing an additional 400mm RHA equivalent protection versus HEAT munitions, installation of Opticstrade passive night-vision systems (4km detection range) for all three crew, an uprated V-84 840 horsepower diesel engine (introduced for the Soviet T-72B), new radios, comm-links and fire control systems, GPS navigation, and digital driver’s displays.
It’s unclear whether additional T-72 Avengers may be delivered to Ukraine. If it proves successful, though, the upgrade may represent a more cost-effective means of enhancing the barebones T-72M1s in Czech, Polish and Ukrainian inventories.