What’s the Democratic Republic of Congo Doing With These Ukrainian Tanks?
T-64BV-1s ship to the DRC during the worst crisis in years
Three years ago, Ukraine announced it would sell 50 of its T-64BV-1 tanks to an unspecified foreign customer, rumored to be the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This became official in 2016 with the delivery of 25 of the tanks to the country, according to information just released by Ukraine to the U.N. Register of Conventional Arms.
It’s noteworthy not just because of the buyer and seller, but the specific type of tank as well. The T-64 has never served outside the former Soviet Union until now. Ukraine, which has hundreds of T-64s in storage, opted to refurbish and sell them abroad, as arms exports are an important source of funding for its military and national economy.
The T-64BV-1 is an upgrade of the Cold War-era machine specifically designed for export to third world armies. Upgrades include a 125-millimeter KBA3 cannon — shared with the T-80 and Ukrainian-developed T-84 — and explosive-reactive armor for added protection from incoming rounds and anti-tank weapons.
The tank has two machine guns, a commander-operated 12.7-millimeter NSVT and a coaxial 7.62-millimeter PKT. Smoke grenade launchers sit mounted on the turret’s left side.
Unlike many modern tanks, the T-64BV-1 does include a guided missile launcher, lowering costs and training requirements. For a buyer like the DRC, which faces few threats from tanks, a missile launcher saves on costs and brings the tank in at around $250,000 per vehicle, according to Ukrainian Defense Review. A single U.S. M-1 Abrams costs $4.3 million.
The DRC’s army is large for the region, with some 103,000 personnel responsible for a country the size of the United States east of the Mississippi River and populated with more than 82 million people.
Its army includes a sizable armored force, including 12-17 Type-59s of Chinese origin, 32 T-55s and 100 better-equipped T-72AVs delivered from Ukraine, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
The DRC army possesses dozens of armored reconnaissance vehicles of French origin, 20 BMP-1 fighting vehicles and 144 armored personnel carriers. But these numbers may not be precise given the difficulty of reliably tracking the DRC’s equipment.
The DRC’s tanks have seen extensive use in the country’s numerous — and ongoing — conflicts, including against the M23 rebel group which was defeated in 2013.
Ukraine’s tank shipment comes during a major political crisis in the DRC.
Thousands of people have died and more than 1.4 million people have fled their homes because of fighting in the Kasai, a southern region characterized by grasslands. Soldiers and allied militias are likely responsible for filling dozens of mass graves with rebel fighters and civilians killed in extrajudicial executions.
While the United Nations lifted an arms embargo targeting the government in 2016, but kept the ban in place for “armed groups,” the DRC military nevertheless relies on such groups to bolster its numbers.
Pres. Joseph Kabila, a former guerrilla who assumed office in 2001 after his father was assassinated by his own bodyguard, is also clinging onto power following the expiration of his term in office and delay of elections. Soldiers have repeatedly fired on protesters and arrested activists in snatch-and-grab raids.
And now with the arms embargo lifted, Kabila has upgraded T-64 tanks — made in Ukraine.