Kenya’s tanks suddenly look very vulnerable
No one is quite sure how many functional tanks the Kenyan Defence Forces have. Not even the KDF themselves. What is certain, though, is that what they do have, especially the Russian-made T72s, now look very vulnerable indeed after the armoured vehicle’s latest trial by combat in Ukraine.
Firepower, Mobility & Protection
The T72 is a design that is roughly 50 years old. The trick is in the title – the former Soviet Union assigned numbers to its tanks based on the year they were introduced (so there are T55s, T62s, T64s, T80s etc). In the world of tanks there is always a balance between three main competing elements: firepower, speed and protection (which generally means armour but can also mean size or defensive measures). Heavy armour, for example will inevitably mean less speed (or a simply enormous engine, which means an increase in size and a bigger target for the other side to shoot at).
The main armament has to be capable of defeating other tanks (and, increasingly, helicopters). Tanks seldom operate alone, so that means large quantities of ammunition need to be carried, and often there has to be a variety of types of ammunition (rounds designed to defeat other tanks, different rounds to defeat infantry, smoke, illumination rounds and so on).
Along with all that ammunition, there also has to be lots of fuel: and both are highly volatile. With the addition of powerful sights that can see for miles during the day and at night (via advanced thermal vision technology) and radios to communicate with other tanks and also up to higher headquarters, it is sometimes surprising that there is any room left for the crew. (And what there is always very tight.) The crew have an enormous task on their hands just maintaining the tank, ever before they go into battle, and there is a very long logistical tail behind every tank, of vehicle mechanics, truck drivers bringing forward more fuel and more ammunition and highly skilled techie-types who fix the sights and the radios when they go wrong.
The T72 is typical Russian/Soviet tank: relatively simple to maintain and operate, with an emphasis on speed, frontal armour and a decent enough main gun that can fire normal rounds and a barrel-launched anti-tank missile. The T72’s turret, where the gun lives, only swivels between 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock if the front of the tank is 12 o’clock: it is not designed for a fighting retreat like most western tanks are (their turrets rotate all the way around). That is why the armour is only thick at the front as well.
To reduce size, the T72 also has an automated loading device to shuffle the heavy, 10kg rounds up to the gun: western tanks have a man doing that, meaning another pair of hands to help with the maintenance of the armoured beast, and obviating the risk of a mechanical failure that would mean the tank can no longer fire (and is, therefore, little more than a mobile bunker).
What the war in Ukraine tells us is the big problem with the T72
The biggest problem, which has been recognised since the Gulf War of 1991, and which has now been reemphasised in Ukraine, is where the T72’s ammunition is stored: in a circle, right beneath the turret. You may have seen images of tanks with a huge hole where the turret used to be and the turret lying upside somewhere down in the distance.
Western tanks have large turrets that stretch back to the rear: that is because their ammunition is stored there, behind a blast-proof barrier, meaning that if the ammunition is hit and detonates, the back of the turret is blown off but the tank survives (although the crew might have a bit of a headache, they will nonetheless still be alive). Not so with the T72: a successful hit on the bottom centre of the tank, especially through the thinly armoured sides, will set off all the ammunition, blowing the turret off and vaporising the crew.
In the 1991 Gulf War it was other tanks like the US M1 Abrams or the British Challenger that did this to the T72: now in Ukraine it is small, shoulder-launched anti-tank missiles such as the Javelin and the N-LAW.
What to do?
Kenya might do well to think again about its fleet of T72s, however many of them there are (or where they came from – but that’s another story). Enemies like Al-Shabaab do read the news (they may even read Kenya Forum) and they are masters in the construction of mines, either under or off to the side of roads.
That doesn’t mean Kenya should simply shove its T72s into the sea. But, while Kenya is unlikely to fight a force equipped with tanks, and especially not one with tanks older than the T72, it might, instead, wish to re-purpose its fleet of T72s. They could become incredibly well-armoured carriers for headquarters, surveillance equipment, medics or engineer and vehicle recovery elements.
Mounting offensive weapons systems like anti-tank guns, missile launchers, automatic cannons, machine guns and rocket pods on wheeled vehicles with large, tractor-style tyres instead might be more suited to Kenya’s terrain, be it dry and arid or wet and muddy, depending on the time of year. Kenya’s hilly areas are equally unfavourable to tracked vehicles but is traversable by light, large-wheeled vehicles.
As for the turrets? Maybe deploy them along the border as pillboxes, where their long range guns, their powerful sights and their armour could all be useful in protecting Kenya’s often porous northern border. It will be reassuring for the KDF personnel inside, not having to worry that they are sitting on top of a powder keg anymore.