The T-72 tank in World War III
The Soviet T-72 was one of the most widely used tanks in the Third World War, being built not only in the Soviet Union, but under license in both Poland and Czechoslovakia. Intended to replace the T-54/55 series as the workhorse of the Soviet armor force, as the “low” in the High-Low mix, with the T-64 and then the T-80 as the “High” end, the T-72 saw action in all theaters, and on both sides, with U.S., British, and Canadian forces making use of captured specimens. The tank naturally saw extensive service during the Second Russian Civil War, in conflicts in the Caucasus and Central Asia, and in the fall of the Rump USSR. This work will cover those versions of the T-72 that saw service during the war.
T-72 “Ural” Initial production version first seen in 1973. 125-mm D-81TM gun, coincidence rangefinder.
T-72K: Command version of T-72. Versions produced for company, battalion, and regimental commanders. Radio fit depended on specific commander's version.
T-72 Export: Export version sold to Iraq and Syria, also license-built in Poland.
T-72 Ural-M: Modernized version of T-72. New 2A46 125-mm gun, coincidence rangefinder removed and replaced with laser rangefinder, and smoke grenade launchers. .
T-72A: Further modernization of “Ural.” 2A46 gun, laser rangefinder, provision for reactive armor as available (though many in North America never had it installed), additional composite armor added to turret top and front-given the nickname of “Dolly Parton” by U.S. Army tankers.
T-72AK: Command versions of T-72A.
T-72M: Downgraded export version of T-72A. Produced under license in both Poland and Czechoslovakia. Main “monkey model” meant for wartime production in Soviet factories converted to manufacturing tanks.
T-72MK: Command version of T-72M.
T-72M1: Export version with thicker armor than T-72M.
T-72B: Most advanced T-72 version to see combat in North America. Much improved version over T-72A. 1A-40 fire control system, thicker armor with additional composite armor on turret front and top; codenamed “Super Dolly Parton” by U.S. Army; 2A46M main gun, AT-11 Sniper missile capability, and new engine.
BREM-1: Armored Recovery Vehicle based on T-72 chassis.
IMR-2: Combat Engineer Vehicle with telescoping crane, dozer blade, and mine-clearing system.
MTU-72: Bridgelayer based on T-72 Chassis.
Soviet Army: Standard tank used in Soviet Motor-Rifle Divisions and independent MR Brigades or Regiments. Also used in Cat 2 Tank Divisions.
Cuban Army: Main tank used by Cuban Motor-Rifle Divisions and by Independent Tank Brigades. Many of which had to revert to T-62s due to war losses.
East German Army: Standard MBT in first-line Panzer and Panzergrenadier divisions. Encountered both in North America and in the campaign in East Germany in 1989.
Czech Army: Standard MBT of Czech Tank divisions and in tank regiment of MR divisons. Encountered in both North America and Eastern Europe.
Polish Army: Used in first-line Tank and MR Divisions. Also seen in North America and in Europe.
Libyan Army: Libyan T-72s encountered in Colorado during reduction of Pueblo Pocket, 1987, and by ROK Expeditionary Force in Texas, 1988.
Several captured T-72s of varying types were captured by both U.S and British forces, and sent to various centers for evaluation in both the U.S and Britain. A number were captured by guerillas in Arkansas and Oklahoma in 1986-7 and saw combat during the liberation of both states during Operation PRAIRIE FIRE. The 83rd Mechanized Infantry Division (the “Rag-Tag Circus” of WW II fame) captured enough T-72s to form at least one battalion entirely equipped with the vehicle, and tried to ensure that enemy supply and parts depots in their line of advance were not attacked by artillery or air strikes. Many of the division's T-72s were manned by female soldiers due to their small stature and being able to fit more comfortably inside the tank than many male soldiers. Canadian and British forces using captured T-72s followed suit. Due to the unpredictability of acquiring 125-mm ammunition during the war, samples of captured 125-mm rounds were provided to Egypt, where a production line for 125-mm HE-FRAG and HEAT rounds was set up.