Russia’s T-90A Tank Is An Endangered Species

As the ballyhooed T-14 remains the tank equivalent of vaporware—an ambitious product that’s more hype than reality—the 1990s-vintage T-90 still is Russia’s best tank.

But there are a lot of different T-90 variants, some quite rare—and there are huge differences between them. The longer Russia’s wider war on Ukraine grinds on, the more of the rarest T-90s roll out of storage and into battle.

They might not last long, however.

Which brings us to the rare T-90A Obr. 2005. A photo of a T-90A Obr. 2005 with the nickname “Taxi,” apparently belonging to the 27th Separate Guards Motorized Rifle Brigade deployed to eastern Ukraine’s Luhansk Oblast, circulated online this week.

The T-90A Obr. 2005 is a modest upgrade of the more common T-90A Obr. 2004, which itself is the second major T-90 variant after the original T-90 Obr. 1992.

Back in April, some befuddled Americans photographed an ex-Russian T-90A Obr. 2004 on a flatbed truck in Louisiana. It’s clear the tank, nicknamed “Maestro” and reportedly captured near Kharkiv during Ukraine’s 2022 counteroffensive, was bound for a U.S. Army test site in Maryland.

The 51-ton, three-person T-90 basically is a late-1980s upgrade of the T-72B with better fire-controls, a new welded turret and superior mobility. The original 1992 variant has a Buran-PA gunner’s sight with imagine-amplification for night vision.

The Buran-PA is not a thermal sight—that is, it doesn’t see in infrared. Instead, it amplifies moonlight and starlight. That limits its useful range to around 1,800 yards.

The 2004 upgrade of the original T-90 improved the hull, turret and engine—and also upgraded the Buran-PA to a slightly better Buran-M. But the T-90A Obr. 2004 still doesn’t have thermal vision. Neither does the T-90A Obr. 2005, whose own Buran-M sits in a slightly modified housing.

Perhaps the biggest difference between the Obr. 2004 and the Obr. 2005 is the latter’s 2A45M-5 125-millimeter smoothbore gun, which is compatible with better ammunition types compared to the older 2A45M-4 and previous 2A45M models.

Russian tank-maker Uralvagonzavod had produced just 150 or so T-90 Obr. 1992s when Russia’s deep economic crisis essentially ended production of new tanks in the country. A frantic effort to sell T-90s to India in 1999 paid off: the injection of capital kept Uralvagonzavod in business. Deliveries of new T-90s to the Russian army resumed after a nearly decade-long break.

The first few dozen were Obr. 2004s and Obr. 2005s. Then, in 2006, Uralvagonzavod achieved a major breakthrough. It sourced, from Belarus, Essa thermal sights with French optics. The T-90A finally had a modern infrared sight, one with a useful range out to 3,300 yards.

This upgrade resulted in a new designation: T-90A Obr. 2006. Uralvagonzavod built 300 of them before production switched to the T-90M, with improved French optics, in 2017.

The T-90M still is the best tank in active production in Russia, albeit in a new, slightly-downgraded version that replaces embargoed French optics with inferior Russian optics.

Mass-production of hundreds of T-90Ms rendered the T-90As mostly redundant. Then Russia’s wider war on Ukraine, and the loss of thousands of Russian tanks including scores of T-90Ms, restored the T-90As’ worth. Any Russian tanker would take a 20-year-old T-90, even one lacking a thermal sight, over a 70-year-old T-54.

But there are so few T-90A Obr. 2004s and 2005s in existence that their days might be numbered. The Russians already have lost three dozen of them. At this rate of loss, Taxi’s recent appearance along the front line might be one of the last for its type.

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