The Kremlin’s plan to supply 50 T-72s — upgraded ones, at that — to Managua is bizarre
by ROBERT BECKHUSEN
Russia will soon ship the first 20 of 50 T-72B1 tanks destined for the Nicaraguan army, according to media reports from both countries earlier in May. The T-72B1 is an upgrade of the 1970s-era main battle tank and features explosive reactive armor and thermal weapon sights, among other improvements.
“For several years now, we’ve been carrying out activities aimed at the renewal of equipment that has outlived its usefulness,” Nicaraguan Col. Manuel Guevara Rocha said.
A battalion-sized element of modernized T-72s is a lot. For Nicaragua, it’s extraordinary.
Nicaragua only has 31 older T-55 tanks for its armored force, according to Latin America military website InfoDefensa. Nicaragua already has the largest tank force in Central America, and T-72s will make it one of only three Latin American countries to field the type, along with Venezuela and Cuba.
Nicaragua is one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, faces no conventional military threats and has fewer than 20,000 troops in its military. And although the T-72s will cost roughly $80 million all told, the Nicaraguan government has not disclosed how it is paying for them.
Nicaragua is interested in more than just tanks. MiG-29 fighters and Yak-130 armed trainers are up for consideration. Its northern neighbor Honduras has a small military focused more on internal matters than foreign threats. Costa Rica, to the south, has no military aside from specialized police units.
Analysts and opposition lawmakers are perplexed. Security expert Roberto Cajina told the newspaper Confidencial that the tanks are “toys for the military” and “an irresponsible waste” and “will never leave [their bases] except for military parades.”
The $80 million price tag is also likely understated … way understated. Tanks alone do not make a tank battalion. To be effective, tanks need ammunition, spare parts, crews and mechanics with specialized training — and fuel trucks and engineering vehicles to travel with them.
“That is, it’s a lot more expensive,” Carina added. “We could be talking about $250 million.”
The Kremlin has several obvious reasons for going forward with the deal. Arms exports are an important source of revenue for Russia’s arms industry, and Venezuela — for years one of the top foreign recipients of Russian hardware — is undergoing an economic meltdown.
The shipment bolsters ties with a Central American country near the United States, which Russia is keen to challenge, and Nicaragua is reciprocating. On May 4, the Nicaraguan legislature approved a law allowing Russian warships and aircraft to visit the country for training exercises and humanitarian missions.
“It does not appear to be domestic politics, or some ambitious plan of the Nicaraguan government; rather, it is more likely driven by Putin’s desire to create mischief in America’s sphere of influence at a low cost, while providing some direct benefit to Russia’s ailing economy,” retired U.S. Navy Cmdr. Daniel Dolan wrote at USNI News.
Mario Overall, a military journalist based in Panama, said the acquisition will aid Russian efforts to train and operate in Nicaragua. “It is a ‘legal’ maneuver to place modern combat equipment in the area, which could be used by the Russians in case of conflict with the U.S., or at least as a deterrent,” Overall said.
“In addition, these tanks could be very useful in case of a conflict with Costa Rica.”
Border disputes between Nicaragua and Costa Rica led to mobilizations on both sides in 2010. “Whatever is the case,” Overall said, “the militaries in the region are really worried about this, and the Hondurans, who also have border disputes with Nicaragua, are clamoring for a modernization of their own armed forces before it is too late.”
These are more credible theories than the official reasons given by Nicaraguan officials. Several explanations for the purchase from Nicaragua’s ruling Sandinista Front are nonsensical — even downright laughable.
Sandinista Rep. Edwin Castro said the “tanks will be used to combat drug trafficking,” according to IHS Jane’s. Last year, the Nicaraguan ambassador to Russia, Juan Ernesto Vasquez Araya, said that Managua became interested in acquiring T-72s after seeing them perform in a Russian tank biathlon — like an Olympic Games … but for tanks.
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