The T-80B Was A Great Tank—In 1978. Now It’s The Latest Obsolete Vehicle To Join The Russian War Effort.

In 1978, Soviet tank-maker Omsktransmash took the basic T-80 tank, which had appeared just two years earlier, and added a new turret with a better autoloader and fire-controls plus tougher composite armor.

The Soviets called this tank the T-80B. And for seven years until the T-80BV appeared, it was the Soviet army’s best tank. A few years later, it began disappearing from front-line service.

Now the T-80B is back. Desperate to make good some of the 1,800 tanks it has lost in the first year of its wider war on Ukraine, Russia has been pulling 40-year-old T-80Bs from long-term storage.

While there is some evidence of Russian T-80Bs in Ukraine in 2022, they’ve been rare enough that the Ukrainians apparently haven’t destroyed or captured any of them. That could change as more of the aged tanks deploy in the war zone.

Photos dated late February that circulated online on Monday depict a pair of heavy trucks with T-80Bs on their trailers, parked on the side of the E105 road near Zaporizhzhia Oblast in southern Ukraine. It seems the unimproved T-80Bs are joining even older T-62s that the Kremlin began reactivating last year and shipping to southern Ukraine in a failed effort to stiffen Russian defenses.

The 60-year-old T-62s did nothing to slow a Ukrainian counteroffensive that liberated northern Kherson Oblast, just west of Zaporizhzhia, last fall. Don’t expect the T-80Bs to perform much better if Ukraine launches a fresh counteroffensive in Zaporizhzhia this year, as many observers expect.

The T-80 isn’t necessarily a bad tank. Hundreds of the 45-ton, three-person tanks with their 125-millimeter smoothbore guns have seen service in Ukraine on both sides of the current war. But the most common models are upgraded gas-turbine T-80BVs and diesel T-80Us.

The T-80B lacks many of the features that today’s tankers take for granted. No explosive reactive armor, for one.

And where the latest T-80BVM in Russian service might have a modern Sosna-U gunner’s sight for day and night operations, the T-80B comes with an obsolete TPNZ-49 night sight that works best with a turret-mounted infrared spotlight. A method of night vision that requires the crew basically to announce its presence on the battlefield.

Don’t count on the Russian army to swap out the outdated gunner’s sight on its war-reserve T-80Bs. Squeezed by foreign sanctions, Russian industry is struggling to produce the digital Sosna-U sight and instead has begun installing an older sight, the analogue 1PN96MT-02, on some war-reserve T-62s, T-80BVs and T-72s.

But even the 1PN96MT-02 is in short supply. Not all war-reserve tanks are getting new sights before the army ships them to the front. Without new optics, a T-80B crew is at a serious disadvantage in a direct fight with a Ukrainian tank crew in an upgraded T-64BV.

The mismatch could get worse as Ukraine’s Western-made Challenger 2, Leopard 2 and M-1 tanks begin deploying in the coming weeks and months.

A T-80B sighting in Ukraine is the umpteenth data point indicating a deepening equipment crisis in the Russian army. It’s losing tanks and fighting vehicles much faster than it can acquire new ones. Increasingly, the army’s only option is to equip its newly-mobilized forces with tanks from the middle 0f the Cold War.

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