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Tankspotting: How to Identify the T-72B3

May 28, 2015

By Veli-Pekka Kivimäki

Translations: Русский

In the Ukraine conflict, many have scoured the military equipment sightings on social media to find evidence of Russian involvement. One obvious sign to look for is equipment that’s either exclusively used by Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, or has not ever been in manufactured or service in Ukraine. The modernized T-72B3 main battle tank has been an example of military equipment that is out of place in a conflict where Russian government actively denies military involvement.

In this post, we will look at some of the unique characteristics of the T-72B3 which are useful when attempting to identify it from footage posted online. Since the focus here is on visual identification, we will not look at all the minute details and internal differences between various models.

T-72B3 on parade

T-72B3 on parade (Source)

The latest variant in the T-72B family, deliveries of the T-72B3 to Russian armed forces started in 2012, with 270 tanks delivered in 2013, and deliveries continuing to this day. In April 2014, IISS research analyst Jopeph Dempsey noted the presence of T-72B3 tanks near the Ukrainian border.

One of the eye-catching features of the T-72B3 are the sharp wedge-shaped elements on the tank’s turret. These are explosive reactive armor (ERA) elements, which are intended to protect the vehicle from armor-piercing effects of anti-tank munitions. The specific type of ERA used on the T-72B3 is called ‘Kontakt-5‘.

T-72B3 turret with Kontakt-5 ERA

T-72B3 turret with Kontakt-5 ERA (Source)

Update, April 2017: In March 2016, Izvestia reported that a modernization program by Uralvagonzavod for T-72B3’s is underway, featuring a new panoramic commander’s sight and upgrade to newer Relikt ERA. The full modernization bears the name T-72B3M, and one was seen taking part in the 2016 Tank Biathlon at Alabino. A pronounced new identification feature of this variant is the large panoramic commander’s sight installed on top of the turret. However, in March 2017 a Reuters video clip showed newly upgraded T-72B3 tanks without the new commander’s sight, but featuring protection extending further down the side of the tank. The new side protection bears a striking similarity to Relikt ERA that is installed on the T-90MS, another Uralvagonzavod product.

Screen capture of upgraded T-72B3 on Reuters video, March 24th 2017 at Pokrovskoye, Rostov region. (Source)

But now, back to pre-modernized T-72B3. Let’s have a look at two tanks commonly seen in footage from the Ukraine conflict, and how the ERA elements are arranged on them. We’ll also find that Kontakt-5 ERA is not used exclusively on the B3 variant of T-72.

Two tanks commonly seen during the Ukraine conflict.

Two tanks commonly seen during the Ukraine conflict: T-64BV and T-72B obr.1989g.

Both of these tanks have wedged ERA configuration on the turret. The T-64BV has several features that can be used to distinguish it from the T-72B3; for instance, they use a different chassis altogether, and the T-64BV uses ERA element blocks. The T-72B obr.1989g however warrants a closer look, as it also uses Kontakt-5 ERA elements. In the B3 variant, the ERA elements are fitted on both sides of the main gun, while in T-72B variants sporting Kontakt-5 (like obr. 1989g) there’s an infrared searchlight mounted on the left side of the main gun. For an illustration, see item 1) on the picture below.

Main differences on turret between T-72B3 and T-72B obr.1989g.

Main differences on turret between T-72B3 and T-72B obr.1989g: 1) presence of IR searchlight; 2) type of gunner’s sight system; 3) presence of wind sensor.

Other visible differences on the turret are 2) the type and profile of the gunner’s sight, and 3) presence of the wind sensor. The T-72B obr.1989g does not have the wind sensor installed on the turret, but to make things more complicated, the later model T-72BA does. Thus, the wind sensor is a helpful indicator, but again can’t alone be used to make a positive ID. The T-72BA does however retain the IR searchlight. As for the sights, let’s take a closer look.

Comparison of equipment on turret

Comparison of equipment on turret: 1) wind sensor; 2) 1A40-1 primary sight; 3) Sosna-U system sight; 4) 1K13-49 system sight.

For comparison here we’ll use the T-72BA on the right, and the T-72B3 on the left. The Sosna-U sight system, item 3) above, has a profile that’s a fair bit larger than that of the 1K13-49 system, item 4), that is installed on T-72BA. The difference is big enough that the Sosna-U clearly sticks out from the turret, compared to the earlier sight systems. Thus, it’s possible to visually differentiate between the two.

As a final bit, though in practice often tricky, tracks of the tank can also exclude some possibilities. The T-72BA and T-72B3 both share the ‘parallel-hinge’ track design, while the T-72B obr.1989g uses a different pattern. In an interesting development, the T-72B3 upgrade contractor UKBTM demonstrated on a new track design at the MILEX-2014 exhibition, though it’s not know that this design would have been adopted by the armed forces.

Update, June 2017: An article about upgraded T-72B3s delivered to Belarus show the tanks equipped with the new tracks.

Comparison of T-72B variant tracks

Comparison of T-72B variant tracks

Having looked at the T-72B3 in detail, we can also examine two Ukrainian tank variants with some similar elements.

Two Ukrainian tank variants with angled ERA elements on the turret.

Two Ukrainian tank variants with angled ERA elements on the turret.

The T-64B1M’s general shape bears some resemblance to the T-72B3, but that’s where the similarities end. Again, we’re looking at the T-64 chassis, and the turret is not covered with the same wedge elements as the later T-72B variants. The smoke grenade launcher configuration and sights are different, and there is no wind sensor installed. The T-72UMG however looks a bit more like it’s Russian cousin, the T-72B3, but ERA configuration is notably different – the panels are installed on the turret at an angle, but it does not have the protruding Kontakt-5 wedges.

So, in summary: given source material that exposes the key areas of the tank, there are a combination of characteristics visible on the exterior T-72B3, which make it possible to positively identify it, and to exclude other possibilities.

The video above is included as part of the Bellingcat Ukraine Conflict Vehicle Tracking Project, a crowd sourced project aimed at collecting and organizing images of military vehicles involved in the conflict with Ukraine.

Atlantic Council’s “Hiding in Plain Sight” report examines this and other open source evidence of Russia’s military involvement with the war in Ukraine.

Additional reading

Veli-Pekka Kivimäki

Veli-Pekka is a doctoral student at Finnish National Defence University, researching social media and open source intelligence. He has a long background in the technology industry, more recently focusing on defense research.

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92 Comments

    • Milos984

      …or Russian T-72B3. Nice try amateur.
      – tracks are of “new” type
      – blocks of ERA protection on Ukraine T-72 modernizations have diferent angles and sizes – this one is clearly Kontakt-5.
      – number of smoke granade launchers: on russan, there are six (three and three in two row´s) Ukraine tanks have two and two.
      See some Ukr modernizations: http://armor.kiev.ua/Tanks/Modern/T72/t72ag/

      Reply
    • Hopea Kone

      Captured by Ukrainian forces in Ilovaisk and once Ukrainian forces left re-captured by the pro-Russia crowd, they even made a detailed video of this particular tank claiming it as a Ukrainian “T-72M”.

      Reply
      • Robert Johnson

        or a simpler explanarion is it’s just another abandonded Ukrainian tank and was never captured from anyone by Ukraine.

        Reply
  1. Max

    Thanks for information Veli-Pekka. Can you please provide some informations why the T-72 B3 is an example for an assured non Ukrainian MBT?

    Reply
    • Josh

      Nonexistence can’t be proofed.
      How about doing some work on your own in finding and presenting a photo of ukrainian T-72B3s instead and beat Bellingcat with their own weapons? That would easily debunk Bellingcat’s claim. Good luck with it, it won’t be easy 🙂

      Reply
          • It is I

            Need to spend all your hard earned rubles at Internet Research? I understand you got a difficult site to troll.

          • Not Mark

            HAHAHA, It Is I, is completely correct. Guys like “Robert Johnson” must be the cream of the crop at Internet Research in St. Petersburg. I can’t imagine them assigning the rookies to troll this website. There are way too many educated and intelligent individuals here to let the new hires mess up the russian narrative of events in Ukraine. “Experts” like Mr. Johnson surely have their work cut out for them trying to troll the people here. Heck, the trolls, troll themselves just to make their dialog seem more believable. Keep up the good work guys. Keep it interesting! 😉

    • Hopea Kone

      Well you can keep on believing that then, i am not going to waste my time on this topic anymore.

      Reply
        • Not Mark

          Why would you even ask this except for to further your created background story of being “an overly interested citizen of the United Kingdom”?

          Reply
    • It is I

      Typical Russian fallacy – “Our armor is impenetrable to Ukrainian shells so any destroyed tanks must be Ukrainian.”

      Reply
      • Robert Johnson

        is there any proof it’s not Ukrainian other than a Uktrainian fairy story about capturing it?

        Reply
          • Robert Johnson

            well first off, the tank in the bushes and the tank abandoned in Ilovaisk are not the same tank. The white stripes are totally different.

            in general, the ‘captured by ukraine’ story might have some credibility if they filmed the tanks before they painted ukrainian white stripes on them.

            the ukrainians are either the biggest idiots in the world or lying.

    • Babur

      To russians of course) It has belorussian Sosna-U gunner’s sight, and this sight was never EVER installed on any T 72 variant except T 72 B3

      Reply
      • Robert Johnson

        except on some ukrainian T72s of which there is ample video and photo evidence.

        Reply
      • Robert Johnson

        the tank in the video doesnt have a Sosna U sight.

        It has a Thales sight.

        Reply
        • It is I

          Sosna-U includes Thales Catherine FC thermal imager.

          http://rostec.ru/en/investors/partners/100

          The JV produces licensed Catherine FC infrared imaging equipment. The thermal imagery device detects targets in any lightning and zero visibility conditions. Catherine FC is used for ESSA, PLISA and Sosna-U sighting devices made for Russian armour.

          Reply
    • Milos984

      http://forums.airforce.ru/matchast/5887-poteri-aviatehniki-na-donbasse-37/#post120639
      Negramotnyye opolchentsy, raduyas’ trofeynomu ukrainskomu “komandirskomu” tanku, priglasiv rossiyskikh zhurnalistov i ministra oborony DNR khvalilis’ trofeyem, s vidom o opytnykh tankistov, podrobno rasskazyvaya o inostrannoy nachinke tanka. Ne razbirayushchiyesya v tekhnike zhurnalisty “Rossii24” vydali eto kak sensatsiyu…v Genshtabe ot takoy “novosti” obaldeli i kak i v sluchaye s Lentsovym v Debal’tsevo, nachali vso “teret'”, vychishchat’ iz SMI. No retsenzirovat’ sensatsionnyy material uzhe bylo pozdno 🙂

      Reply
  2. Just a A

    Russia. And it proves that you did not really read the other comments careful.

    “Captured by Ukrainian forces in Ilovaisk and once Ukrainian forces left re-captured by the pro-Russia crowd, they even made a detailed video of this particular tank claiming it as a Ukrainian “T-72M”.” (Hopea Kone – May 28th, 2015 )

    Reply
    • Robert Johnson

      yes i hear the claim.

      i dont see any photos or videos establishing the Ukrainians ever captured it.

      Reply
    • Robert Johnson

      yes i read that post. somebeody claims to have captured it. no evidence provided.

      Reply
      • Just a A

        What do yo expect, shots from a helm camera, showing the capture of the tank? In a real combat situation?

        Reply
        • Not Mark

          Just a A, you didn’t hear? Apparently all combatants in a war zone must wear body cameras. The video of which must be uploaded to the internet on a nightly basis. Tsk tsk! 😉

          Reply
  3. Robert Johnson

    yes i expect them to film themselves climbing around the tank and inspecting it like the separatists do.

    that’s what you are able to do do when you win battles and capture vehicles.

    what i particuarly expect is some photos of the tank before the white ukrainian stripes were painted on it. presunably they were not under fire when the white stripes were painted on.

    Reply
    • Just a A

      Just for your information: Ukraine lost this battle, it was the Ilovais’k kettle …

      Reply
      • Robert Johnson

        but they didnt lose the battle when they claim they captured it, did they?

        and they weren’t under fire when they painted the white stripes on it, were they?

        Reply
    • It is I

      Again, check this video:

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RFYMqS1OUhE

      From 9:20 on you can see many photos and a video of 2nd captured T-72B3 without white lines but with white dots that were IFF used on genuine Russian equipment.

      Same dots can be seen on 1st captured T-72B3 and on Russian tanks on Russian side of the border. It’s all explained in the video, just watch it.

      Reply
      • Robert Johnson

        i see Ukrainian writing in yellow and blue on the side of that tank.

        seems to be a Ukie blue and yellow stripe round the gun as well.

        the white dot? Separatist vehicles use green.

        sounds like another type of Ukie IFF. What’s the serial nmber of that tank supposedly being examined by the soldier? and what happened to it?

        Reply
        • It is I

          Writing on the side is oversize marking for russian railways. You won’t see it on a single piece of Ukrainian equipment. Why they used blue and yellow? I guess guys knew where they’re going.

          http://www.railservice.ru/en/service/oversized_cargo.php

          To determine the type of oversize we use five-digit Index of oversize. An Index of oversize has the following form:

          The 1st digit – is always letter “H”;

          2nd digit — the degree of low oversize (1 to 6 degree);

          3rd digit — the degree of side oversize (1 to 6 degree);

          4th digit — the degree of top oversize (from 1st to 3rd degree);

          5th digit — vertical oversize.
          .

          Reply
          • Robert Johnson

            the writing just happens to be in Ukrainian colours?

            er, i don’t think so mate.

            ludicrous.

            where is the tank now? what is its serial number so we can tell its history?

          • It is I

            Full original video

            https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GOixsEtaF2Q

            Writing is not in Ukrainian colors but is actually yellow and green.

            At 2:10 there is a shot of serial number. But without cooperation from factory it probably isn’t useful. T-72B3 were not new machines but upgrades of old T-72 chassis. Enough of those all over Russia.

            They don’t even use the newest and most powerful motor for T-72.

          • Not Mark

            Thanks It is I! I needed your decoding for another conversation on this website! H2200

    • Not Mark

      Unlike the unprofessional contract soldiers fighting for russia, the Ukrainian soldiers are well trained and know what OPSEC is. Russian soldiers better start to hide their tracks better. All Western militaries Know how dangerous putting such pictures and social media posts out for the world to see can be.

      Reply
  4. Robert Johnson

    It is I – May 29th, 2015

    Full original video

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GOixsEtaF2Q

    Writing is not in Ukrainian colors but is actually yellow and green.

    On the other video it’s definitely yellow and blue.

    What’s happening on this video? The soldiers act like they have just found the documents they are holding up to the camera.

    The tank is obviously non functional but is painted in Ukrainian stripes.

    What happened to the Ukrainian tank crew who were manning the tank?

    And what happened to the tank? They fixed it, drove it to this location in the bushes, and now its broken again? How did it get broken?

    Reply
      • It is I

        In interest of completeness I would just add a full video of 2nd captured T-72B3 with English subtitles.

        Reply
        • Robert Johnson

          where and when was this video taken and where is the tank now?

          does ukraine actually expect people to believe the Russians write stuff on the tank to do with weight restrictions on Russian railways?

          tell me more about the other tank with the white ukrainian stripes. i still dont understand the story of that one. why did the ukrainians paint ukrainian stripes on a knocked out enemy tank?

          what was the logic of that?

          Reply

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