Back in May, Ukraine’s defense minister Oleksii Reznikov donned the heavily padded TSh-4 cap of a Soviet tanker and was seen riding in the driver’s seat of one of Ukraine’s very few T-84U Oplot (“Bulwark”) tanks—a uniquely Ukrainian diesel-engine evolution of the speedy Soviet T-80U tank. Ukraine’s army has only five or six in service.
But Reznikov’s intent wasn’t just to celebrate the Army’s mechanical oddities, but to announce their triumphant, planned return.
“There must be an armored fist at the front…” Reznikov said. “I love the cuisine and music of different world nations, but in industry, I remain a Ukrainian industrial advocate. That is why it was decided that the Ministry of Defense will order Oplot for the Ukrainian army.”
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Reznikov was not referring to the T-84U he had ridden, but the more sophisticated Oplot-M (AKA BM-Oplot) model—a variant Ukraine built for Thailand, rather than for its own use even after being invaded by Russia in 2014-2015.
Reznikov, therefore, believes in resuming Oplot-BM production—and reviving Ukraine’s once huge tank-producing industry—so it doesn’t remain entirely dependent on foreign tank donations and Soviet-era tanks, either in storage or recently captured from Russia.
In theory, that implies a remarkable comeback for the Oplot-M which, as a point of national pride, became the subject of a postage stamp (and by mistake, a commemorative coin issued by Russia’s central bank!) despite never entering Ukrainian Army service. However, resurrecting the super tank could prove challenging.
Origins of Ukraine’s “Bulwark”
By the 1970s, the Soviet Union’s massive tank industry had settled into two streams. There’s the more cost-efficient T-72 “mobilization” tank designed by Uralvagonzavod for mass production and export. And there’s the costlier premium tanks by design bureaus in Kharkiv and Leningrad—the T-64 and gas-turbine powered T-80. These tanks shared essentially the same 125-millimeter gun and three-man crew configuration, but were lighter than their U.S. contemporaries and differed in armor protection, propulsion, fire control and self-defense systems.
However, the Red Army harbored misgivings regarding the speedy T-80’s gas turbine engine. So, in the mid-1980s, the Kharkiv Morozov Design Bureau (KMDB) developed a T-80U variant with a 6TD-1 1,000-horsepower diesel engine. Initially designated the T-84, it entered production as the T-80UD because it was considered a bad look to officially build a fourth tank type. This model, nicknamed Bereza (“Birch”), was significantly cheaper and—though slower—was much more fuel-efficient, with range increased from 205 miles to 360.
In the 1990s, after Ukrainian independence separated KMDB from Russia’s tank industry, Ukraine began developing ‘Ukrain-ized’ T-80UDs. This began in 1993 with the plain-old T-84 with a new all-welded (instead of cast) turret and more powerful engine. It was followed by the T-84U Oplot, which added passive thermal night sights and an auxiliary power unit.
The uprated 1,200-horsepower 6TD-2 diesel engine allowed the 46-ton T-84U to achieve speeds of 43 miles per hour, 16% faster than Soviet-era T-72s despite not using a gas-turbine. It could also reverse many times faster than Soviet tanks at around 20 miles per hour. Some ammunition in the turret was moved to rear storage compartments to improve crew survivability.
In the 1990s and 2000s, however, Ukraine was strapped for cash, sitting on a huge pile of retired Soviet tanks in storage, and didn’t expect to be invaded by Russia. Thus Ukraine procured just 10 T-84Us in 1999, likely hoping the micro-order would encourage exports. These were delivered by 2003 and initially entered service with Ukraine’s 92nd Mechanized Brigade. However, financial problems led to resale of four Oplots to the United States for study and training purposes.
In 2009, the Kharkiv factory unveiled a major modernization called the Oplot-M (detailed below). This attracted an export order from Thailand, which sought to replace M41A3 Bulldog light tanks in four cavalry battalions.
Though Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014-2015, Ukraine decided not to commandeer the advanced tanks because, at $5 million (1.5 billion UAH) each, money to build one new Oplot-M could instead reactivate and heavily upgrade six older tanks. Thus, it was reasoned the factory was better off fulfilling its contract and focusing domestically on churning out modernized T-64, T-72 and T-80 tanks.
The delivery of the 49 Oplot-Ts (Oplot-Ms with tropical-grade air conditioning and Western comms) to Thailand finally concluded in 2018, many years behind schedule and leaving Ukraine with just one demonstrator model. But despite claims in 2015 and 2017 that the tanks would be produced for Ukraine’s military, or that an order from Pakistan was imminent, funding to build new Oplot-Ms didn’t materialize. One obstacle, cited by the Defense Ministry in 2019 in an implicit cancelation, was need to substitute components originally sourced from Russia.
The remaining five or six less-advanced T-84Us lingered in Ukrainian service in the 14th Mechanized Brigade, and were occasionally dispatched to participate in European tank competitions. Starting in 2022, the T-84s apparently saw combat defending against Russia’s full-scale invasion that began in February, mostly in Eastern Ukraine and not far from their factory of origin. None have been confirmed lost so far.
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The 14th Brigade played an active role in the liberation of Makariv near Kyiv early in the war and, later, the fast-moving Kharkiv counter-offensive. Recent media shows at least one T-84Us is seeing action with the 3rd (Reserve) “Iron” Tank Brigade—a primarily T-72-equipped unit which fought defensive actions in Kyiv, Kharkiv and Izium.
Since Ukraine began its counteroffensive in June, there has been further footage of T-84Us in the field in northeastern Ukraine, where Ukrainian forces recently repelled a spoiling attack by Russian paratroopers. A Russian video released early in 2023 shows a Lancet kamikaze drone hitting a possible T-84—likely without causing major damage due to the tank’s front reactive armor.
Overall, the Oplot looked like a promising but failed modernization, deemed too expensive and time-consuming to build at a time that Ukraine needed to refurbish and upgrade as many tanks as possible in the most cost-effective manner.
Putting the ‘Super’ in ‘Super Tank’
The 51-ton Oplot-M introduces digital displays for the drivers, and maneuvers more smoothly due to a computer-aided automatic transmission (allowing use of a steering wheel instead of levers). It also features a less-smoky 6TD-2E engine, an uprated auxiliary power unit to power systems even when the engine’s off, and can use two different types of rubber tracks optimized for either pavement or all-terrain mobility.
However, the Oplot’s greatest improvements were to survivability, starting with composite rubber/plastic armor subjected to electro-slag melting to remove impurities.
Layered on top is reactive armor. The T-84 and T-84U used Soviet Kontakt-5 bricks and then Ukrainian Nozh (“Knife”) explosive reactive armor (ERA) panels designed for greater resilience to multiple hits. The Oplot-M introduced new-generation double-layered Duplet ERA formulated to survive tandem-charge anti-tank warheads. ERA is usually most effective against the shaped-charge warheads in missiles, but Nozh and Duplet supposedly help degrade kinetic armor-piercing attacks substantially as well.
The conventional and reactive armor by themselves supposedly give a T-84 equivalent protection of 600-millimeters RHA versus kinetic attacks—roughly on par with the hull of a German Leopard 2A4 tank—and the armor is difficult for 125-millimeter guns to penetrate at medium range, except when using more modern shells. Against shaped-charge warheads, there’s a max equivalent protection of 1,100-millimeter RHA on the front turret and 800mm on the front hull.
All T-84 models also benefit from the Varta soft-kill active protection system based on the Soviet Shtora system. It includes a Laser Warning receiver that can reactively trigger laser-jamming lights and special smoke grenades to obscure the tank.
Furthermore, the Oplot-M boasts a Zaslin (“Screen”) active protection system, which uses a radar to detect incoming missiles it can shoots down. Each Zaslin element covers a 150 degree arc, carries eight shots, can react within .05-.1 seconds of detecting an incoming projectile, and supposedly can help against supersonic tank shells. The Zaslin, however, relied on Russian technology, which had to be substituted with American components after Russia invaded in 2014.
The Oplot-M model introduced an additional PNK-6 commander’s independent panoramic day/night sight, including the French Catherine FC thermal camera also used on Russian T-90s. This especially large stabilized sight has up to 12x magnification, includes a laser rangefinder, and allows the commander to detect tanks up to 3.4 miles away in addition to the gunner. As passive night-fighting capability is far from universal in Russia’s tank fleet, and being first to detect and shoot often determines the outcome of tank battles, the sights are particularly important.
In firepower, however, T-84s don’t differ much from other late-Soviet tanks—using a Ukrainian substitute of the Soviet 2A46 125-millimeter gun—though it can specially fire Ukrainian Kombat gun-launched laser-guided anti-tank missiles effective out to 3 miles. Backup armament comes in the form of a coaxial 7.62-millimeter machine-gun and a remote-control 12.7-millimeter anti-aircraft machine gun.
Overall, the Oplot-M is in a similar weight class to Russia’s T-90A/T-90M tanks, and possesses many analogous systems—though it edges out the T-90A tanks in terms of speed/propulsion, ammunition storage, inclusions of an APU, and unique Duplet armor. But while Oplot-M is well-armored and has good sensors, Ukraine lacks access to modern 125-millimeter armor-piercing sabot rounds needed to penetrate frontal armor on the latest Russian tanks.
Since 2022, video footage suggests Ukraine retains two Oplot-Ms, neither of which appear to have been risked in combat.
T-84 Yatagan, Yet Again?
In 1999, the Kharkiv factory also developed the curious T-84-120 ‘Yatagan’ prototype, a NATO-standard T-84 armed with a Western-style 120-millimeter gun using one-piece ammunition, in hopes of winning export orders from Turkey. It also sported French radios, a Belgian machine gun and a safer cassette-based autoloader similar to that on the French Leclerc tank. (Explosion of ammunition clustered in the carousel-shaped autoloaders in Soviet tanks is deemed a major cause of ‘turret-popping’.) New blow-out panels designed to vent the lethal energy of a penetrating hit have improved crew survival odds.
Turkey ended up buying Leopard 2A4 tanks instead. But as Ukraine’s armed forces transition to an ecosystem of Western weapons—Russia and its allies lacking appeal as suppliers—it might consider future production of a tank using some Western sub-components. Particularly, it may consider more accurate Western 120-millimeter guns that allow Ukraine to source more powerful APFSDS rounds from the U.S., France, and Germany specifically designed to penetrate modern Russian tank armor.
However, the Yatagan’s experience also held warning: the lengthened aft turret to accommodate the 120-millimeter gun overhung the powertrain in the rear hull, reportedly causing overheating and other problems.
All Tank and No Money
It’s understandable Kyiv would want to resume domestic tank production so as to not become fully dependent on foreign imports. But since independence, Ukraine’s industry has struggled to deliver new armored fighting vehicles on time and in volume—and that’s before it was hit by massive Russian bombing.
One issue is that the Malyshev tank factory is in Kharkiv—extremely close to the border with Russia—and it’s indeed been exposed to heavy shelling, as well as bombing and missile attacks. That may leave the factory too vulnerable to set up a major new assembly line for mass production.
Indeed, due to the factory’s exposure, Reznikov’s adviser Yurii Sak told Defense News in June that tank production “could first resume outside of Ukraine” which seems rather complicated arrangement. Meanwhile in Kharkiv, resuming production of the successful BTR-4 Bucephalus infantry fighting vehicle might offer a better value proposition.
Reznikov’s intention and hopes to resume Oplot-M production may be real, but the means and funding may remain lacking, as implied by an imploring shout out to the Ministry of Finance in Reznikov’s recent speech.
Mykhailo Zhirokov, a long-time public chronicler of Ukraine’s military and defense industry, dryly writes “Against the background of all [these factors], Oleksiy Reznikov’s statements look too rosy and hardly correspond to reality.”
And while Yatagan exemplifies the potential of the T-84 to reinvent itself with NATO-standard systems, it’s also a potential warning that the base Soviet T-80U hull may not be ideal. It may instead be better to adopt new hull built from the ground up to accommodate post-Soviet systems.
Perhaps Ukraine could borrow a page from Poland by arranging to license-build domestically a customized version of South Korea’s K2 Black Panther or Rheinmetall’s conceptual KF51 Panther tank. These have autoloading guns, three-person crews, and lie in between Soviet and other Western tanks in weight. They could be tailored with Oplot-M systems such as the Zaslin APS, Duplet reactive armor, and the PNK-6 sight. Kyiv is indeed in talks with Rheinmetall to potentially open KF51 manufacturing on Ukrainian soil, post-war.
Time will tell what will come of the T-84’s curious legacy as Ukraine’s unique super tank.
Sébastien Roblin has written on the technical, historical, and political aspects of international security and conflict for publications including 19FortyFive, The National Interest, MSNBC, Forbes.com, Inside Unmanned Systems and War is Boring. He holds a Master’s degree from Georgetown University and served with the Peace Corps in China. You can follow his articles on Twitter.