Ukraine’s Tanks Are So Good, Its Own Army Can’t Afford Them
14 September, 2017

Ukrainian officials want the country’s defense industry to produce top-of-the-line tanks for the army. But that might prove a tad pricey...

Ukraine does not yet produce Oplots for its own usage. Instead, the tanks are exported abroad. Photo credit: Volodymyr Strymkovskiy/UNIAN

File this under “Only in Ukraine.” By any measure, the country produces great tanks. Other countries pay larges sums of money to buy these tanks. But Ukraine can’t afford to provide these same tanks to its own army.

The Oplot is the top Ukrainian-produced tank, according to Ukroboronprom, the state-owned defense industry conglomerate. A single Oplot costs $4.7 million. Around 100 Ukrainian enterprises are involved in the production of these fighting vehicles. However, at the present moment, the Ukrainian army doesn’t have a single Oplot.

Now, the Ukrainian government is planning to introduce these top-shelf tanks into the army. But experts are unsure whether such an expensive move is workable, let alone necessary.

Unrealized Plans

The Oplot tank was first introduced in 2009. The Ministry of Defense planned to order ten units for the army. Then, reality struck: the authorities couldn’t find any money in the budget. Instead, the Malyshev plant, located in Kharkiv, has been producing these tanks for export to Thailand for the last six years.

In June, Oleksandr Turchynov, Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council, visited the Malyshev plant. “We are already planning on fully equipping a squadron with ten Oplot tanks next year,” he stated after the visit. 

Oplot offers a clear advantage over other models. Its powerful engine gives it more speed than other tanks. It also has better armor and a modern weapons management system. This makes Oplot preferable to other modernized tanks that Ukraine inherited from the Soviet Union. But it also makes Oplot very expensive. 

For this reason, officials only returned to the question of equipping the Ukrainian Army with Oplot tanks in 2014, after Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula and war erupted in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region.

Oplot construction at Kharkiv's "Malyshev Plant," a state enterprise. Photo credit: Anastasia Kanareva

Since then, military and political leaders have argued over the benefits of using these tanks in the the Donbas war. However, as of early 2017, President Petro Poroshenko believed that it would be irrational to produce such expensive and complex tanks when the existing T-64 tanks could be modernised into the improved “Bulat” model for the same price.  

“It’s either one Oplot or 10 highly modernised and completely refurbished T-64s and T-80s,” Poroshenko said in January, referring to two similar Ukrainian-manufactured Soviet tank models. “First and foremost, we have to equip the tank units in an extremely short period of time.” 

Mystery Bulats

The last batch of Soviet T-64s modernised into Bulats was given to the military back in March 2013. Since then, the Malyshev plant has not been producing any new tanks of this model, and just repairing the damaged ones.  

“We don’t have any ‘Bulats.’ We haven’t even heard of them,” says Pavlo Mishchenko, commander of the tank unit of the Ukrainian Army’s 93rd brigade. “Even I, the unit commander, have never seen this tank. Everyone just says that they are supposedly somewhere else.”  

The brigade has recently returned from the war zone with its old T-64s. Using this old tanks poses serious problems for Mishchenko’s unit.

“If, for example, we had to quickly retreat from battle and travel a great distance, it’s not certain that the old engines would withstand it,” he says. “The vehicles are overheating. Not a single vehicle has undergone any proper technical maintenance or complete overhaul since the start of the war.” 

However, the Ukrainian Ground Forces’ command assured Hromadske that there are indeed “Bulats” in use, but information on their exact numbers is confidential. In accordance with the Minsk peace agreements, no heavy artillery is taking part in the hostilities. Therefore, the tanks are in the withdrawal zone.  

Hromadske traveled to this area of the Donetsk region to see what equipment the Ukrainian tank operatives have at their disposal. The 92nd brigade showed us a T-64 which is almost 40 years old. The brigade’s soldiers can only dream of Bulats and Oplots. 

Necessary Upgrade or Pointless Expenditure?   

This June, the President signed an order allocating an additional $11.8 million for the Armed Forces’ first ten Oplots. But there is little hope that the tanks will be ready for the army by next year.  

“The Oplot tanks for Thailand and the Oplot tanks for Ukraine are two different projects,” says Serhiy Zgurets, a military expert and director of the Defense Express consulting firm. “The Malyshev factory will begin production during the year and this will go on throughout 2018. So, in fact, we’ll have one tank unit worth $47.1 million in two years’ time.”  

One Oplot tank cost the state as much as ten extensively modernized and repaired T-64 and T-80 tanks (in the photo, a T-64) Photo credit: Bohdan Kinaschuk

For the same money, they could provide seven tank units with modernized Bulat tanks.  

“There is no need to invest a lot of time and money in Oplots. Even if Ukraine had them, the situation on the ground would not change significantly,” says Michael Kofman, a military expert at the Wilson Center. “In the worst case scenario — that is, full-scale hostilities with Russia and the full use of its conventional weapons — Russia could simply crush the Ukrainian tanks, because of its significant numerical advantage alone. In your situation, it’s better to have a lot of basic tanks, rather than a few very expensive ones.” 

Even producing Oplots for other countries increasingly appears pointless. In 2011, Ukraine signed the contract to provide 49 tanks to Thailand. The deal was worth $7.9 million. According to state-owned arms trading company Ukrspetsexport, the Malyshev plant has received the payment in full. That money was supposed to fund Ukraine’s tank industry. 

However, after several failures to meet production deadlines, the order is still ongoing, and experts think that it is no longer financially beneficial to Ukraine. 

“It’s a matter of image. Otherwise, Russians and any other competitor countries on the market would say that Ukraine is incapable of building tanks,” Zgurets says.

Hromadske was unable to find out exactly where the money from the Thai contracts went and how much equipment was modernised or produced for the Ukrainian Army using this money. That information is a commercial and government secret, the state enterprise claims.

/By Anastasia Kanareva and Bohdan Kinaschuk