At 70 tons one-on-one Abrams obviously has the edge over a 45 ton T-90, but the Russian tank is cheaper, easier to maintain and keep operational, and better protected against the kind of infantry missiles Iraqi tanks are likely to face
- Not to mention the US uses supplies of spare parts as a political weapon against Baghdad
Iraq has recently began taking delivery of 73 Russian T-90S/SK main battle tanks (MBTs), the most sophisticated tank to enter the Iraqi arsenal since the United States supplied Baghdad with 140 refurbished M1A1M Abrams MBTs (without depleted uranium layers in armor) a decade ago. To date, Iraq has received 39 T-90S tanks, all of which are now in the army’s 35th Brigade.
The delivery began amid a dispute between the Abrams’ manufacturer General Dynamics and the Iraqi Government. Late last year it was revealed at least nine Abrams tanks were being used by the country’s Shiite-majority Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) paramilitary in Iraq in violation of the terms under which the tanks were supplied to Iraq (Lead Inspector General for Overseas Contingency Operations, “Operation Inherent Resolve Operation Pacific Eagle–Philippines“, Report to the United States Congress, 31.12.2017, p. 51).
An Abrams tank in the PMFs possession was also involved in a clash with the Kurdish Peshmerga last October and subsequently destroyed by an anti-tank missile. General Dynamics has threatened to withhold its services until the Iraqi Government recovered the tanks, which it since has, briefly demonstrating how dependent Iraq is on the US for spare parts and maintenance for its M1 fleet.
M1A1M Abrams vs T-90S/SK: Which is the better tank?
“In general, I think the T-90A or T-90S model tank would be badly outgunned by the M1 in a head to head fight,” Sébastien Roblin, a freelance journalist who specializes in international affairs and military history, told offiziere.ch. “Russia has built better versions (T-90AM, and T-90MS), and is developing a much improved T-90M model. Generally the M1 has way better optics and thermal imagers than the T-90, and historically the side which spots, shoots and hits first wins in tank battles,” he elaborated. “The M1’s human loader is also qualitatively better than autoloaders, and its ammunition is stowed much more safely in separate compartments, rather than a carousel in the center of the tank – in which crew members are literally surrounded by shells!”
Joseph Trevithick, a writer on military-related matters for The War Zone, argued that “whatever the Russians might say” their “46-ton T-90 is simply not in the same class as the 70-ton M1. They never really intended it to be either. Different design philosophies influenced by different doctrines. The Russians are still building ‘command tank’ sub-variants with more radios and navigation aids than they’re willing to give the average conscript tank crew that ‘tethers’ even small units together in a way that has gone in many ways unchanged since World War II.”
Which tank is better suited to Iraq’s needs?
Of course none of this necessarily means that the T-90S/SK is not overall better suited for Iraq’s requirements. Trevithick reckons the Russians are “not necessarily wrong” when they argue that the T-90S/SK may “be better suited to the Iraqi Army’s own capacity to operate and maintain equipment. At the same time, their ability to do things on their own is a much more pressing issue if they lost access or were having a harder time getting US-funded or facilitated contractor assistance,” he elaborated. “If the Iraqis were to completely break with the United States for whatever reason, their M1s would become unsupportable very quickly.”
Timur Akhmetov, a Middle East analyst at the Russian International Affairs Council think tank, told offiziere.ch that the T-90’s “show good performance in Iraqi conditions” since its “easy to change spare parts” and the tanks engine parts are less sensitive to dust and other grit common across Iraq’s harsh landscape. T-90s are also good for the conflicts the Iraqi army fights in since it has good protections against old and modern ATMs [anti-tank missiles] and can fire missiles through its standard tank barrel, which is perfect for desert skirmishes where the tank has to be far away from its targets,” he added, referring to the capability Roblin mentioned. Another crucial point is that T-90s are cheap if bought in large quantities,” he added. “Russia is ready to provide further services, help improving active and passive protection systems, and provide other kinds of weapons that can work together with T-90, like BMPTs Terminator.”
Tank and maintenance crews with 1st Battalion, 66th Armor Regiment, 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, install M1A2SepV2 Abrams reactive armor tiles (ARAT) at the 7th Army Training Command’s Grafenwoehr Training Area, Germany, Feb. 28, 2017. The installation of the ARAT will enhance the tank’s defensive capabilities, providing a greater deterrent against aggression as the 3rd ABCT maintains a persistent presence in central and eastern Europe as the rotational ABCT for Atlantic Resolve. The Iraqi M1A1s do not seem to have any active protection systems by default. (Photo: Ch. (Capt.) Malcolm Rios).
Roblin also points out that while the M1 would likely prove a much more advantageous tank on a battlefield against enemy armor that isn’t necessarily Iraq’s priority. In the post-2003 era Iraq’s major fights have been with non-state actors which have had a limited capability to capture and field modern armor (the best the likes of Islamic State have usually managed to deploy on the battlefield have been some antiquated T-55 and T-62s). This coupled with the fact Iraq historically has more familiarity and experience working with Russian tech, which is invariably cheaper to purchase and easier to maintain, makes the T-90 a logical choice. He also pointed out that the T-90s “potentially better defenses against missiles and RPGs, thanks to its reactive armor and soft-kill active protection systems” also weights into the equation. More importantly, the T-90 is cheaper, cheaper to maintain, and weighs a lot less at just under 50 tons than the M1’s 70 tons, and there are a lot of bridges that can’t take that weight,” Roblin added. “The M1 also uses a gas-guzzling turbine engine, while the T-90 uses diesel – though T-90A/T-90S model are slower. From Iraq’s perspective, the sticker price, operating costs, and political tensions are probably the biggest issue, in any event.”