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T-72A Ural Tank

A major block improvement program for the T-72 continued in the 1970s by the Uralvagon KB as the Obiekt 172M-1. The T-72's TPD-2 coincidence rangefinder was expensive to produce, complicated to employ, and not particularly accurate in low light conditions. The new TPD-K1 laser rangefinder was developed to replace it, leading to the deletion of the optical port on the right side of the turret. A new gunner's sight, the TPN-3-49, was added at the same time. A new version of laminate steel/ceramic turret armor was introduced as well, boosting the effective protection of the turret from APFSDS attack from about 410 millimeter of steel equivalent to 500 millimeters equivalent. Protection against HEAT shaped charge was less dramatic, from about 500 millimeters equivalent to 560 millimeters equivalent.

The engine was improved, as well as the communications suite, night vision equipment and ammunition stowage. A number of other improvements were also incorporated into the design, including the L-4 infrared searchlight, the 2A46 version of the D-81T tank gun, napalm protection features, turn-signals, greater dynamic travel for the suspension arms and the uprated V-46-6 engine.

Prior to series production of the new design, a final batch of T-72 was produced, incorporating some of these featues; an additional layer of armor was added to the turret front, the right optical port of the coincidence rangefinder was blocked off and the TPD-K1 was substituted. These may have been pre-series production testbeds. On entering production in 1979, the new version was designated as the T-72A.

The T-72A was externally distinguishable from the basic T-72 by the lack of a coincidence rangefinder port in front of the commander's station on the right side of the turret. The T-72 used the T-64-style "gill armor" flip out panels on the hull side to prematurely detonate enemy shaped charge projectiles, rockets and missiles; on the T- 72A, conventional skirts made of a metal-reinforced rubber fabric were used instead.

On the original T-72, the frontal quadrants of the turret sides were inclined at an angle of about 55 to 60 degrees, while on the T-72A, the frontal turret armor was almost vertical at most points. The thickened appearance of the turret frontal armor of the T-72A led to the unofficial US Army nickname "Dolly Parton" for this variant, after the buxom American country singer. For some time, this version was mistakenly called the T-74 based on a mistaken association of it with the Obiekt 174 prototype.

The T-72A continued to evolve. By 1980, the turret had been modified by the addition of twelve 902B Tucha smoke grenade dischargers on the turret front and two tubular containers for OU-2 fire extinguishers. This version was initially misidentified by the US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) as the T-80 tank in its 1983 edition of Soviet Military Power, and later was referred to as Soviet Medium Tank (SMT) 1980/2. The final 1981 production style of the T-72A had a modified turret with a layer of antiradiation cladding on the roof and an additional stowage box in the 7 o'clock position. This version was called SMT 1981/3 by NATO.

Production of the T-72 was first undertaken by the Ural Railcar Plant (Uralvagonzavod) in Nizhni Tagil. Production was later extended to the the Chelyabinsk Machinery Plant once it had ceased producing the T-55 and T-62 for export. The tank plants at Omsk and Kharkov were used to produce the high cost tanks, first the T-64 and later the T-80.

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