Aug 30, 2023
In April 2022, just two months after Russia widened its war on Ukraine, Poland pledged to the Ukrainian war effort a huge consignment of upgraded, Soviet-designed T-72 tanks.
As these three-person, 46-ton T-72M1 and T-72M1R tanks began arriving in Ukraine, defense ministry planners assigned some of them to the newly-forming 3rd Assault Brigade. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
There’s one 3rd Assault Brigade T-72M1R crew whose members rides into battle around Bakhmut, in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region, with tiny digital cameras attached to their helmets and the inside and outside of the tank’s turret. The crew’s videos, depicting dangerous close-range combat, usually end with the bearded commander shouting some battle-cry directly into a camera.
The tankers’ videos are propaganda. But they’re not only propaganda. The most recent montage, which the 3rd Assault Brigade posted on social media on Wednesday, depicts the T-72MR1 fighting at night. That’s important.
Both the Ukrainian and Russian armed forces are capable of fighting at night. But how well they fight at night depends in large part on their night-vision capabilities. Broadly speaking, Russian night-vision is inferior to Western night-vision. It’s telling that the Russian army’s best thermal tank sight, the Sosna-U, has French-made optics.
There are lots of examples of Russian forces attacking under the cover of darkness. Russian regiments tend to organize small-scale nighttime tank raids in order to disrupt Ukrainian brigades as they’re rotating onto or off of the front line. “The aim is to rapidly approach the target sector, fire as many rounds as possible within a short space of time and withdraw,” analysts Jack Watling and Nick Reynolds wrote for the Royal United Services Institute in London.
But these raids require the best tanks with the best night sights. According to Watling and Reynolds, the Russians tend to assign nighttime tank raids to units with speedy T-80BVM tanks, which have the Sosna-U sights with the French optics.
Major night attacks are another matter. It’s worth noting that the Ukrainian armed forces began organizing frequent, large-scale nighttime attacks only after they had deployed hundreds of German-made Leopard 2 tanks and American-made M-2 fighting vehicles. These and other Western-made vehicles come equipped with world-class night-vision systems.
But the Polish-upgraded T-72MR1s are capable of serious night-fighting, too—and the 3rd Assault Brigade’s latest video underscores why. Note the commander frequently glancing down at the digital display bolted to his position inside the tank’s turret.
That’s the display for the KLW-1 Asteria, a Polish thermal camera whose various generations equip most of Poland’s current armored vehicles, including Leopard 2PL and PT-91 tanks and Rosomak fighting vehicles.
The T-72M1R is an update of an update of a Polish-licensed early-model T-72A from the 1980s. To transform an up-armored T-72M1 into an M1R, Polish industry installed the KLW-1.
It’s a solid night-vision system. An operator using the camera’s narrow-field mode should be able to detect a target more than six miles away and identify it at three miles. A T-72’s 125-millimeter main gun shoots as far as 2.5 miles, meaning the M1R’s optics fully take advantage of the gun’s max range.
To be clear, the 3rd Assault Brigade isn’t exactly known for careful, long-range fires. It’s an assault brigade for a reason: its battalions are adept at fast, close and brutally-violent attacks. Even at night. But the KLW-1 seems to work just fine under these conditions, too.
The Polish thermal camera quickly is becoming one of the most important night-vision systems in Ukraine. It equips hundreds of ex-Polish T-72MR1s, PT-91s and Rosomaks in Ukrainian service. And Ukraine’s own Kharkiv Tank Plant also has installed the KLW-1 in the uniquely Ukrainian T-64BV, Kyiv’s main tank.
The KLW-1 gives Ukrainian tankers the freedom to be as aggressive during the nighttime as they are during the daytime. The results speak for themselves. The 3rd Assault Brigade steadily has been chipping away at Russian fortifications outside Bakhmut.