by Paul Iddon.
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?
Russian government-controlled news agency Sputnik recently argued that the Iraqi Army’s 9th Division’s 35th Brigade replaced its M1A1Ms with T-90S/SK not just because of the unreliability of maintaining the Abrams compared to the T-90S/SK but overall because the T-90S/SK is a better tank and much better suited to Iraq’s needs. While the latter is likely true in many respects analysts consulted by offiziere.ch argue that the M1A1M Abrams remains in a different league than the T-90S/SK and is a superior tank in many ways.
“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!”
The video above shows dock workers loading the first batch of T-90S’ for Iraq onto a ship in February 2018.
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.”
Roblin also noted that one selling point the “Russians often talk up” about is the fact that the T-90 can engage enemy targets from a longer range than the M1 since its cannon can fire guided anti-tank missiles, something the M1 is incapable of doing. “While a cannon is generally a better anti-tank weapon — since it has a faster rate of fire and it is generally harder to defend against kinetic shells — the missiles are potentially useful for very, very long range shots and also hitting helicopters,” he went on to note. “However, I cannot think of a single account of a main battle tank firing a missile in combat –- which doesn’t mean it hasn’t ever happened, but if so, only very rarely -– so I think the ability is pretty niche if nobody is actually using it in the conflicts that have occurred so far.”
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.”
One other factor important to evaluate is the difference between the versions of the M1 and T-90s serving in the US and Russian armies compared to the export variants – since exported military hardware and equipment often have less capabilities than the ones supplied to the militaries of their respective countries of origin. Trevithick says “information is limited” when it comes to the precise capabilities of Iraq’s M1s and T-90s. What is for sure is that the T-90s “definitely don’t have the Shtora passive active protection systems and do not appear to have a hard-kill active protection system either.” They do, on the other hand, “appear to have the side skirts and rear slat armor associated with Russia’s own T-90MS, as well as extensive ERA [explosive reactive armor] suite. So its hard to tell exactly how this configuration stacks up even against other T-90s.” He went on to point out that the US Army’s own M1s “don’t yet have hard kill active protection systems either and it’s hard to see how Iraq’s Abrams would have a more limited passive armor package than at least the base variants, which is more robust than that on the T-90. Iraqi Abrams of course don’t have the depleted uranium armor package,” he concluded. “It is almost certain that they have less capable sensors and network connectivity than their American counterparts.”
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.”