A Russian-made T-90 main battle tank is put through its paces in the desert. Photo: Russian MoD
This month Iraq signed “a significant contract for a large batch” of Russian T-90 main battle tanks for its armoured forces. The manufacturer of the tank said 73 are going to be delivered to Iraq: which would give Baghdad a large number of formidable tanks to bolster its already sizable fleet of American-made M1 Abrams and T-72s, the T-90's older brother.
Michael Knights, an Iraq analyst and the Lafer Fellow at the Washington Institute, is skeptical at this early stage about whether this deal will actually see the light of day.
“The veteran journalist reaction to any Russian arms deal announcement is to note that many deals in the past have taken a long time, if ever, to become reality, especially in large numbers of new-build items,” Knights told Rudaw English. “So I would say that such a deal will only be a reality when tanks are delivered and money changes hands.”
“Iraq will need to negotiate generous financing to afford this many tanks,” he added.
Nevertheless, the deal is yet another indication that Iraq is favouring Russian equipment for its armed forces in recent years.
“Interestingly, successive Iraqi government after the fall of Saddam Hussein said they would use Western tanks, but conflict in Syria and Iraq showed combat effectiveness of the Russian machines,” Timur Akhmetov, a Middle East analyst at the Russian International Affairs Council, told Rudaw English.
“This deal is regarded in Russia as a huge success,” he added. “For sure this may be explained by successful deployment of Russian T-90s in Syria and the operation of anti-TOW missile systems which successfully protected them.”
Iraq's neighbour Iran had plans to purchase an enormous fleet of T-90s for its own armed forces but never went through with it for a variety of domestic reasons. Instead the country's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) paramilitary purchased 24 of these tanks and sent them all to forces fighting for President Bashar al-Assad in Syria back in late 2015. There the tanks saw combat and in one case a T-90 withstood a hit from a US-made BGM-71 TOW missile, the incident Akhmetov referred to.
Akhmetov believes Iraq is favouring Russian equipment given the fact it's usually cheaper and easier to operate than the American equipment. Furthermore, Moscow seldom has strings attached to their deals regarding how their arms are used by their buyers.
“Iraq may want to use old repair and maintenance facilities left from the Soviet times,” Akhmetov pointed out.
“Some people also pay attention to technical details,” he added. “Russian arms are easy to use, repair and change. Spare parts are cheap, low-educated people can easily apprehend how to use them and so forth.”
“This might also explain why actually Iraq decided to buy armoured vehicles from Ukraine,” Akhmetov concluded. “Same story, they're easy to drive, repair and maintain. But the quality turned out to be not so high in that case.”
Knights also alluded to this point: “Iraqi soldiers like the T-series Russian tanks because they are familiar to them, they are easier to maintain and can easily be loaded on tank-transporting trucks and are light enough for most Iraqi bridges.”
Iraq has a long history of operating the T-72, and the even older Soviet-made T-55s. In the late 1980s, shortly after Iraq's war with Iran and just before the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Baghdad even sought to build its own domestically produced T-72, the Lion of Babylon tank.
While, as Akhmetov pointed out, post-2003 Iraq did seek American military hardware, the US supplied them with 140 of the aforementioned M1 Abrams tanks throughout 2010-12, they have shown a much greater interest in Russian equipment in recent years. Another apt example of this is Baghdad's choice of helicopter gunships.
Iraq initially was going to buy 24 Boeing AH-64 Apache attack helicopters, along with spare parts and equipment, from the United States for $4.8 billion. That deal fell through. Either way, it would have taken the Iraqis years to properly integrate these helicopters into its military.
Baghdad did buy a sizable fleet of Mi-28 Nighthunter and Mi-35 Hind attack helicopters from Russia, which subsequently saw action against Islamic State in the battles of Ramadi and Fallujah.
The Iraqi Air Force also received Su-25 Frogfoot attack planes from Iran and Russia in the summer of 2014, planes which the Iraqis had previously operated in Saddam's time.
Baghdad has, however, successfully purchased and started taking delivery of American-made F-16 Fighting Falcon jet fighter-bombers, which also saw combat in the war against ISIS.
Knights concludes that the T-90 deal is little more than “a political announcement.”
“Iraq doesn't need tanks.”