Iraq Learned Tank Lessons in the War With Islamic State
The Iraqi army sees value in upgrading older T-55s
Following its success against the Islamic State (ISIS) on the battlefield Iraq is looking into the future needs of its armored forces. Baghdad has plans to purchase T-90 main battle tanks on the table and is simultaneously evaluating the feasibility of fundamentally revamping its fleet of vintage T-55 tanks and transform them into much more modern weapon platforms.
This is according to a report in the Al Sura news agency which says that Iraq will transform its T-55/Type 69s in its arsenal, following a series of extensive upgrades, into new domestically-produced Khafil-1 tanks. “Khafil” is Arabic for “Guarantor.”
The Iraqis plan to achieve this feat by adding locally-manufactured armor and imported European-made reactive armor to their units of the world’s most common tank. On top of this the Khafil will get a ballistic computer, enabling it to track other moving targets while on the move itself, a separate ammunition compartment, to lessen any harm done to the crew if the tank takes a direct hit, and a remotely-operated machine gun.
These upgrades will make the Khafil a formidable foe.
The 140 or so refurbished M-1 Abrams tanks in the Iraqi arsenal proved their mettle in the battle against ISIS with very few being permanently taken out of action by the militant’s anti-tank missiles. While Iraq’s Abrams fleet performed well in the war, the Iraqi presently lacks the budget to buy more of these tanks. As of 2016, Iraq possessed some 100 M-1 tanks, 120 T-72s and 50 T-55s, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Above — an Iraqi M-1 tank breaches an obstacle in 2015. U.S. Army photo. At top — an Iraqi T-55. U.S. Army photo
Additionally, according to the Al Sura report, another reason the Iraqi army believes transforming their T-55s into a modern tank is its best option because large, main battle tanks offered by European suppliers are “not in line with Iraqi combat experience.”
Rather, Iraq requires more, “nimble and well equipped tanks” which “have been designated this role with the Russian T-90 and American Abrams taking the role of main battle tanks for the Iraqi army.”
Much of this has to do with cost. Buying new, bulky British Challenger or German Leopard tanks, and then trying to adapt them for Iraqi service, will cost considerably more than upgrading existing tanks. Iraqi tank crews are also experienced with Russian and American tanks – likely options for future purchases.
The new T-90s Iraq plans to get are, of course, basically modern versions of the iconic Soviet-era T-72 tank, of which the Iraqis also possess a substantial number. Iraq’s neighbor Iran floated the idea, in late 2016, of buying up to 300 T-90 tanks but instead only bought a mere 24 and gave them to regime loyalists in Syria.
Shortly thereafter Tehran announced the introduction of the Karrar or “Striker” tank, which resembles the T-90. Iran boasts that the tank can take on any other modern tank in the world. However, the Karrar has not been battle-tested, as the T-90s in Syria have, and Tehran has not yet demonstrated any capability to mass-produce them.
Also of note is the fact the Karrar resembles the characteristics of several other tanks the Iranians have long had in their arsenal.
The Karrar “is based on the T-72 platform, but it also has something from the American Abrams and M-60 tanks,” retired Russian army Maj. Gen. Vladimir Bogatyrev told Sputnik, the Kremlin-owned media outlet. “Some elements are borrowed from the M-48 and the British Chieftain tank. They took all these elements and tried to design their own tank.”
Tehran has, of course, yet to prove if the Karrar will live up to its own hype.
The road the Iraqis are pursuing with their T-55s is realistic. Reactive armor, improved protection and weapons suites could make the Khafil a suitable tank for future battlefields in Iraq given the fact that Baghdad is much more likely to face irregular and non-conventional adversaries such as ISIS rather than modern armies with their own armored forces. The catch is that – given the the proliferation of advanced technology globally — irregular combatants in the 21st century are much more likely to have better weapons such as anti-tank guided missiles, requiring even older tanks go into battle with appropriate countermeasures.
Extensive upgrades can also give new life to an otherwise old and seemingly obsolete tank. Israel, for example, helped Turkey extensively modify its fleet of American-made M-60 Patton tanks, turning nearly 200 of them into a more modern variant called the Sabra. These upgrades included explosive reactive armor, remotely-operated machine guns and a 120-millimeter cannon which is much improved over the M-60’s original 105-millimeter gun.
The Israelis themselves demonstrated in the October 1973 Yom Kippur War that American-built Sherman tanks left over from World War II could – with upgrades — hold their own against much newer Soviet-made T-55s and T-62s.
In conclusion, if Baghdad properly evaluates their existent tanks’ performance in the war against ISIS and can produce and purchase the equipment they need to make the Khafil-1 a reality, which is already very likely, it might just well prove to be the most cost effective weapon system for Baghdad’s future ground wars.