Saturday 7 August 2021

Esoteric Armour: Ukrainian T-72UMG Tanks In Turkmenistan

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
Like many Central Asian countries, Turkmenistan operates an exotic fleet of armoured fighting vehicles (AFVs) it inherited from the Soviet Union or purchased from other nations in the past decades. The latter acquisitions manifested themselves in the sourcing of modern AFVs like the T-90S, BMP-3 and BTR-80A from Russia, and large numbers of infantry mobility vehicles (IMVs) from countries such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Israel, the UAE and China. Other sources of AFVs include the United States, Austria and Belarus, together culminating in a highly diverse arsenal of military vehicles.

In addition to these newly-acquired AFVs, Turkmenistan has launched a number of upgrade programmes for several of its Soviet-era types of AFVs. Today, many Turkmen BTR-80 APCs sport Ukrainian and Turkish designed remote weapon stations (RWS) that significantly enchance their effectiveness on the battlefield. These developments were preceded by Turkmenistan contracting Ukraine to modernise a number of its T-72 tanks and BMP-1 infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs) to T-72UMG and BMP-1U 'Shkval' standards in the 2000s.
The upgrade of Turkmenistan's T-72s to UMG standard would be one of the few succesful tank upgrade contracts concluded by Ukraine during this period. This certainly wasn't for the lack of projects however, with Ukraine's arms industry churning out one upgrade programme after the other in the hopes of finding an export customer. However, most countries showed significantly more interest in second-hand T-55s and T-72AVs rather than elaborate upgrade schemes for these same types, likely (correctly) estimating the cost/benefit ratio to be more favourable, not to speak of the difficulties Ukraine faced actually mass producing fancy upgrades.
The Turkmen Ground Forces currently operates a diverse fleet of T-72 variants, consisting of both early and late versions of the T-72 'Ural' and T-72A as well as a limited number of T-72AVs. Unlike neigbouring Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan had to make do with an older assortment of tanks stationed on its territory and is thus lacking in more advanced types such as the T-72B or even the T-80. That said, Turkmenistan is the only country in the region to have purchased more modern MBTs since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and currently is the only operator of the T-90S in this part of Asia.

Turkmen T-90S' (front) and T-72UMGs (rear) driving through Ashgabat during the 20th year of independence parade in 2011

Sometime before acquiring the T-90S, Turkmenistan was already looking to boost the capabilities of its tank forces through the deep modernisation of a number of its T-72s. At the same time, Ukraine was offering a number of upgrade programmes for the T-72, of which the T-72UMG is possibly the least well known. [1] Nonetheless, the UMG upgrade sought to significantly expand on nearly all of the T-72's capabilities through the installation of new armour, new day and night sighting devices, smoke grenade launchers, a remote-controlled 12.7mm NSV HMG and a new V-84 engine. The most notable feature of the T-72UMG is arguably the installation of Kontakt-5 ERA on its turret. It is thought that the UMG upgrade was initially aimed at North African and Middle Eastern clients. A deal with any countries in these regions however failed to materialise, and Turkmenistan was to become the only nation to buy the upgrade package.
In Turkmenistan, the UMG upgrade appears to have been performed on T-72As (seen in the header image) as well as on a number of earlier T-72 'Urals' (as seen below). Although it may be assumed that Ukraine eyed a far larger upgrade contract, perhaps including most of the Turkmen Ground Forces' inventory of T-72s, it appears that the ultimate number of upgraded tanks was limited to as much as a few dozen. When Turkmenistan began acquiring T-90s from Russia around 2010, the upgrade of more T-72s was essentially ruled out for the time being.

To the average armour fanatic, Turkmenistan perhaps won't soon come to mind when looking for esoteric types. The T-72UMG along with a host of other AFVs are a testament to the fact that this preconception is mistaken. Though the numbers involved were unimpressive, a future requirement to upgrade Turkmenistan's T-72s as a cheaper alternative to replacing Turkmen's fleet of T-72s with a new type altogether might once again see the involvement of Ukrainian companies in the bidding process. Nowadays however they will be facing stiff competition from companies from Turkey, Israel, Serbia and Russia, all of which are eager to take their share of this corner of the arms market. No matter the outcome of such a programme though, when another round of modernisation is pursued the resulting AFV will only add to the list of exotic armour already in use – a testament to the diversity of designs found precisely in those places where you least expect them.