Monday 14 June 2021

Welcome To The Jungle: Ukrainian T-64B1M Tanks In DR Congo

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
Ukrainian-delivered armament is prevalent in the inventories of numerous militaries across the world, and the country remains a go-to source for nations that seek to revitalise their militaries on a budget. Having inherited vast numbers of surplus armoured fighting vehicles (AFVs), aircraft and naval vessels, and equally important, a military industry to support this equipment with overhauls and upgrades, Ukrainian weaponry has proved especially popular with nations in Africa and Asia. For these reasons, the Ukrainian military-industrial complex has concentrated much of its efforts on catering specifically to this export market.
But as Ukraine was to quickly find out, much of the foreign interest was in overhauled second-hand equipment rather than in newly-produced weaponry and elaborate upgrade projects for equipment such as tanks. Apparently still seeing enough of a market for its products, numerous upgrade projects for AFVs were launched in the slim hope of finding an export customer, most of which in vain. One of the rare success stories entailed a deal concluded with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo) for the delivery of 50 T-64 tanks in 2013. Before their delivery, the tanks were to undergo a major overhaul and upgrade to T-64B1M standard.
The T-64B1M is an upgrade of the T-64B1 that mainly focuses on increasing the protection of the tank through the installation of Nozh explosive reactive armour (ERA) on the turret, with additional ERA tiles fitted to the side skirts and the top of the turret to protect the tank against the threat of top-down ATGMs. Additionally, a turret bustle added to the rear of the turret makes for increased stowage area. Otherwise little improvements are apparent, and the 1970s-era fire-control system remains unchanged. The resulting specifications makes the T-64B1M broadly similar to the T-64BM Bulat in use with the Ukrainian Army but with a more rudimentary fire-control system and lacking the capability to launch gun-launched anti-tank guided missiles (GLATGMs).
The reason why the DR Congo decided on acquiring the mechanically complex T-64 rather than additional T-72(AVs) that were already in service with the country's military is unknown, and it is in fact an outright curious choice for a country with a military that isn't known exactly known for its technical prowess. The introduction of an entirely new type of MBT with a different engine design and incompatible parts does much to complicate the already fragile logistical system of the country and its military, especially in harsh jungle conditions where attrition is high and sufficient spare parts might not always be available.

However, their logistical drawbacks were to be compensated by an acquisition price that seemed almost too good to be true. Indeed, DR Congo paid just 200.000 USD for each upgraded tank – thereby paying a meagre 10 million USD for the total order of 50 tanks. [1] By comparison, when the Japanese Self-Defence Force placed an order for thirteen (brand-new) Type 10 tanks in 2010, it paid a whopping 8.7 million USD for each tank. [2] Unfortunately for the DR Congo, the outbreak of armed conflict in Eastern Ukraine prompted the Ukrainian military to requisition the first batch of upgraded tanks and transfer them to the National Guard of Ukraine. At a price of 10 million USD for zero tanks, the Ukrainian deal must all of a sudden have seemed like much less of a bargain. [1]

When the first 25 T-64B1Ms were finally ready to be shipped to DR Congo in 2016, their supply was not without its controversies. The Estonian company TransLogistic Group OU in charge of the shipment was found to have done so illegally. [3] The problems back in Ukraine weren't less significant, and already in October of the same year, the Office of the Prosecutor General of Ukraine opened an investigation regarding the underestimation of the cost of T-64 tanks taken from the inventory of the Ministry of Defence of Ukraine as surplus military property. [3] According to investigators, the sale led to budget damages in excess of USD 2.7 million. [3] Given these complications, it is no surprise that there is some uncertainty about whether the full order of 50 tanks was eventually honoured, or if Ukraine simply kept the remaining 25 vehicles.

A DRC Republican Guard soldier poses next to a 107mm Type-63 MRL with two T-64B1Ms in the background. Also visible are T-72AVs and Yugoslav 105mm M-56A1 howitzers

Meanwhile in the DR Congo it is likely that the military was simply relieved that some tanks finally arrived three years after it placed the order for them. After their arrival to the country, the T-64B1Ms entered service with the Republican Guard (Garde Républicaine), as does most of the modern equipment acquired by the country. This includes weaponry such as the T-72AV and the EE-9 AFV, but also 2S1 SPGs and RM-70 MRLs. Older equipment such as T-55Ms (also acquired from Ukraine) and Chinese Type-62 light tanks are in use with the regular army. As with most Sub-Saharan militaries, the DR Congo's army is largely lacking in any type of guided weaponry, with large numbers of MRLs and AA guns filling in the gaps.

A Republican Guard T-72AV on parade in Kinshasa. Note the non-standard 12.7mm DShK HMG and the lack of side skirts

The Congolese crews for the T-64B1Ms underwent training in Ukraine in 2014, only to later return to the DRC without the tanks they had trained on. After these finally arrived in 2016, the T-64B1Ms were quickly deployed to the Kasaï region in Central Congo to quell the Kamwina Nsapu rebellion, which is still ongoing as of the writing of this article. This deployment marked the fourth time the T-64 was used in combat after earlier seeing action in Transnistria, during the Angolan Civil War and in Eastern Ukraine.

Although it is currently the 11th biggest country in the world, by virtue of its vast jungles and large areas inaccessible by means other than aircraft, the actual inhabitable area of DR Congo is significantly smaller. Naturally, this poses a problem for the use of armoured fighting vehicles as well, with most parts of the country completely unsuitable for the deployment of heavy weaponry. To at least enable the deployment of armour in the few places suitable for tank warfare, the Republican Guard operates a fleet of Ukrainian KrAZ tank transporters while the DR Congo's rail network can transport AFVs to the few places it links up with.

The Congolese T-64B1Ms represent an interesting exception to the type of materiel Ukraine usually delivers to its clients in Africa and Asia. Nevertheless, Ukraine's exports are anything if not diverse. Offering a range of vehicles from overhauled T-55s to upgraded T-64s and T-72s as well as brand-new designs such as the T-84 Oplot, it is certain that nations in the market for a new tank fleet have plenty to choose from. Closer to home, increasing numbers of overhauled tanks are joining the ranks of the Ukrainian military, with other projects such the Strazh BMPT perhaps one day finding their way into service as well.

[1] Экспорт танков Т-64: Конголезский контракт.
[3] Некоторые финансовые аспекты несостоявшейся продажи украинских Т-64 в ДРК
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