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T-72 Medium Tank - Origins

In 1967, the Soviet army adopted the T-64 as its next new main battle tank. At the time, two other tanks were in production, the T-55 and T-62. The production of the T-55 was intended mainly for export as, until that point, the T-62 had never been exported. The year 1967 was an important one for Soviet military industrial policy. The war between Israel and its Arab neighbors and the ensuing Arab defeat led to an arms race in the region that has not entirely abated to this day. The Soviet Union played the willing role of arms merchant to the Arab side, and a significant fraction of total Soviet tank production in the ensuing 25 years would be earmarked for the Middle East. For example, from 1972 to 1983, the Soviet Union exported the equivalent of 44 percent of its tank production to the developing world, the vast majority to the Mideast.

Aside from the geostrategic implications of these sales, they also had important effects on Soviet industrial policy as weapons sales became the second largest hard currency export item (after raw materials). The Soviet tank industry began to broaden its production to accommodate these export requirements beyond its traditional role of supplying the Soviet army.

The decision to produce the T-64 did not sit well with the tank design bureau at the Vagonka (Uralvagonzavod) in Nizhni Tagil. From 1951 to 1967, Nizhni Tagil had been the primary center for the further development of Soviet medium tanks; with the demise of the heavy tanks in 1960 it had become the most significant design bureau in terms of actual product. The rival Morozov design bureau in Kharkov still held enormous prestige, having originated the T-34, T-44, and T-54 designs. Aleksandr Morozov was still held in great esteem by the Main Armored Directorate (GBTU), and it is not altogether surprising that his bureau was assigned the task of the developing the second post-war generation of Soviet medium tanks.

Nevertheless, the selection of the Kharkov T-64 design in 1967 was not greeted with universal acclaim in the Soviet army. The army had become used to the evolutionary developments of the T-54/T- 55/T-62 series. The conscript base of the Soviet army made the leadership inherently conservative in the adoption of any radical new technology. The greater the change, the greater the burden in assimiliating the new technology by the conscript force of young short-term tankers. While there was also a long tradition of pride in Soviet superiority in tank design among the tank force, the T-64 was a mixed blessing. To the average tank officer, its 115mm gun offered no more firepower than the T-62, as its higher rate of fire and greater accuracy were not particularly evident due to the stingy peacetime allotments of training ammunition.

Its armor was still so secret that the average tank officer had no appreciation for its advance over the T-62. Its mobility, while potentially superior to the T-62's, was in fact significantly inferior due to the teething problems with the new powerplant and the higher maintenance demands of the engine, tracks and suspension. It is not altogether surprising that the commander of Soviet Ground Forces, Marshal Chuikov, had favored the evolutionary Obiekt 167 over the revolutionary T-64. On the industrial side, the selection of the T-64 left the experienced Vagonka design bureau out of work. While there was still the need for the design team to continue evolutionary improvements on the T-55 and T-62 while they remained in production, this would not absorb the full attention of a bureau of this size.

It is often supposed that there was little room for initiative in the Soviet system, but this often was not the case. In 1965, after news of the Council of Ministers' resolution approving T-64 production, the Vagonka design bureau in Nizhni Tagil began to work on adapting an automatic loader to the T-62. The design bureau chief, Leonid Kartsev, was not happy with the "korzhina" autoloader, feeling that it was a mistake to cut off the loader from the rest of the crew.9 He instructed the Kovalev and Bystritskiy design bureau to develop an alternative autoloader. In the meantime, the Council of Ministers decided to shift production at Nizhni Tagil from their own T-62 tank to Kharkov's new T-64 tank. Production was slated to begin after the Morozov bureau in Khakov had adapted the T-64 to accept the new 125mm gun. Kartsev was convinced that this would take some time, so he directed his bureau to begin to adapt the 125mm gun with the new Kovalev/Bystritskiy autoloader into a T-62 chassis. To provide some cover for this unauthorized activity, the design was tied to the upcoming 50th anniversary of the October Revolution in October 1967.

In November 1967, Sergei A. Zverev, the minister for transportation machinery, visited the Nizhni Tagil plant as part of the anniversary festivities. While being given a tour of the experimental workshop, he was shown the upgunned T-62 tank. Zverev exploded and accused Kartsev of "intriguing against Kharkov again." Kartsev placated the minister by pointing out that the United States and Germany had an active program for modernizing their series production tanks. He slyly asked the minister why they were forbidden from doing so. This calmed down the argument, and Zverev was given a demonstration of the new autoloader. After having heard of the difficulties with the T-64 autoloader, Zverev was impressed with the smooth performance and speed of the Vagonka system, as well as the fact that it was already adapted to the new 125mm gun. Zverev suggested that the new system be incorporated into the Kharkov T-64. Kartsev agreed but suggested that the modification include the addition of a new diesel engine from Trashutin's team at Chelyabinsk, yet another evolutionary development of the long-serving V-2 diesel of 1939.

At a meeting with the plant manager, I. V. Okunev, on 6 November 1967, Zverev agreed to permit the Nizhni Tagil design bureau to build six prototypes of a T-64 variant with the new autoloader and new diesel. This agreement was reached without the participation of the army, or even of the GBTU tank administration. Kartsev in his biography mentions that the separation of the loader would make it difficult to assist him should the tank be damaged in combat. It is also likely that he was concerned that the korzhina loader made access to additional ammunition in the tank nearly inaccessible.

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