Iraq’s key battle tanks, ranging from the T-90S, a third-generation Russian main battle tank, to the M1A1M Abrams, an American tank that revolutionized US armoured forces with its advanced technologies, reflect the country’s strategic alliances and turbulent past. The Asad Babil, also known as the Lion of Babylon, symbolizes Iraq’s endeavour to establish its tank production capabilities, while the T-72M and T-55 tanks, iconic relics of the Cold War era, continue to serve on the frontlines worldwide. This article delves into the origins, specifications, and circumstances surrounding the acquisition of Iraq’s top 5 tanks.
Iraq’s Key Battle Tanks
The T-90S is a modern Russian main battle tank that was specifically designed to replace the older T-72 model. It boasts several impressive features, including a 125 mm 2A46 smoothbore main gun, the 1A45T fire-control system, an upgraded engine, and a gunner’s thermal sight. Additionally, the tank is equipped with steel-composite-reactive armour, smoke grenade dischargers, Kontakt-5 ERA, and the Shtora ATGM jamming system. As an advanced version of the T-series tanks, the T-90S offers enhanced firepower, mobility, and protection. In 2016, Iraq recognized the need to bolster its tank fleet during its conflict with ISIS and consequently placed an order for 73 T-90S/SK tanks. It is believed that another order was made in 2017. The total value of the contract for these tanks is estimated to exceed one billion U.S. dollars, as confirmed by Russian presidential aide Vladimir Kozhin. The first batch of T-90S tanks was delivered to Iraq in February 2018. This significant agreement between Moscow and Baghdad aimed to provide the Iraqi military with a substantial number of advanced Russian-made tanks, which would serve to reinforce their existing M1A1 Abrams fleet that had suffered damage during the fight against Islamist forces.
The M1A1M Abrams, an American main battle tank, was developed by Chrysler Defence (now General Dynamics Land Systems) and named after General Creighton Abrams. The US armoured forces saw a wave of revolutionary technologies thanks to its introduction, including a versatile multifuel turbine engine, advanced Chobham composite armour, an exceptional computer fire control system, blowout compartments for separate ammunition storage, and NBC protection designed to ensure the safety of the crew. Following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the newly established Iraqi government, supported by the Americans, agreed to purchase 140 re-manufactured M1A1s. The Abrams tanks were gradually exported to the Iraqi army starting from 2010 and the delivery was completed in 2012. The Iraqi variant of the Abrams, known as the M1A1M, featured reduced armour and excluded certain technologies that were considered sensitive or potentially hazardous for export due to the influence of Iran in Iraq. The final batch of these tanks was delivered in late 2011.
The Lion of Babylon, also known as the Asad Babil, was a derivative of the Soviet T-72 main battle tank that was built in Iraq during the 1980s. The tank was assembled at a factory near Taji, which is located north of Baghdad. It was not only an assembly of a foreign tank, but also a mixed assembly of parts sold from abroad and parts built locally. According to Russian sources, an informal agreement was in place between the Iraqi government and a Polish company as early as 1982, which comprised the assembly of 250 T-72Ms from imported hulls to avoid the embargo. Iraq had purchased a hundred T-72s from the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 80s, which were utilized during the Iran-Iraq War. However, the exports of T-72s to Iraq were temporarily halted during the war. In January 1982, Poland commenced the delivery of T-72s, while in September of that very year, Soviet exports also recommenced. After the fall of Saddam Hussein, the new Iraqi Government acquired dozens of refitted T-72M1s from Hungary to equip an armoured brigade. The Taji region serves as the base for the headquarters of this newly established Iraqi Army unit, where Iraq had made efforts to locally manufacture T-72s during the late 1980s.
The T-72M, an export variant of the T-72 Ural, was the main tank for Warsaw Pact countries in the 1980s. It lacked advanced features and composite armour. Iraq imported T-72 tanks from the Soviet Union and Poland during the Iran-Iraq War and used them in subsequent conflicts. Iraq established a factory to retrofit and repair T-72s and assembled them locally. They received around 1,038 T-72 tanks, mostly from Poland. Some were destroyed or captured by Iran. By 1996, Iraq had 776 T-72 tanks in service. After Saddam Hussein’s regime fell, Iraq acquired refurbished T-72M1s from Hungary. Some surviving T-72s are used for training, and the familiarity of Iraqi Army personnel with the T-72 influenced the decision to acquire Hungarian T-72M1s.
The T-55, a main battle tank of Soviet origin, emerged during the early Cold War era. It is an enhanced version of the T-54 and was manufactured in significant quantities for the Soviet forces. Renowned as an iconic vehicle of the Cold War era, the T-55 continues to serve on active frontlines worldwide, albeit often as a secondary option. In 1973, Iraq procured 300 T-55 tanks following their losses in the Yom Kippur war. Unfortunately, these tanks suffered considerable damage during the conflict. Additionally, Iraq acquired approximately 1500 tanks of the same model from Poland, the Soviet Union, and other smaller sources in the 1980s. They also obtained 1500 Chinese Type 59 and Type 69 tanks. Iraq employed the T-55 tanks during both the Iran-Iraq War and the Gulf War. Some of these tanks were destroyed in the Iran-Iraq War, while others were captured by the Iranians. By 1996, Iraq had 776 T-55 tanks in active service.