Saturday 16 February 2019

Can Poland Into Tanks?

Having broken away from its collapsing "big brother", Poland recalled its once serious military and political ambitions. In certain people's minds, Poland would rise to the status of a regional superpower at the very least, which meant it needed an army to match. Polish engineers began working on a new generation of airplanes, helicopters, AA systems. Plenty of attention was directed at armoured vehicles as well.

The Soviet way

The development path of Polish armoured vehicles in the late 80s was simple: production of the T-72M1 would continue until 1991, even though it was clear that it was obsolete. Polish leadership had two solutions to this issue. The first was negotiations to purchase a trial batch of T-72S tanks (export version of the T-72B) and a license for production. Negotiations began in 1987. This option was considered the most likely by both parties.

PT-91 Twardy with ERAWA armour.

The second option was to independently explore ideas for modernization of T-72 tanks based on experience gained with development of the T-55AM Merida tank. The results of this research would be applied to T-72S tanks during their production. Engineers from Bumar-Łabędy and OBRUM (Ośrodek Badawczo-Rozwojowy Urządzeń Mechanicznych, Mechanical Equipment Scientific Research Center) were involved in the project.

The situation changed radically in 1989. Due to the change in Polish government and shifts in Soviet foreign policy, issues arose with obtaining a T-72S license. The USSR hiked up the price and added new conditions: export of Polish tanks was forbidden and any changes made to the design would require participation of Soviet engineers. These conditions were unacceptable for the new Polish government, and negotiations ended.

It was clear that Poland needed to modernize its tanks on its own. Work on the Wilk (Wolf) program to produce a T-72M tank with Polish components began that same year. New features included ERAWA explosive reactive armour, a new fire control system with a laser rangefinder and second generation thermal vision, a new gun stabilizer, and a more powerful engine.

PT-91 Twardy with ERAWA-2 armour.

Work was going well overall, and in 1990 Polish industry decided to accept a more difficult challenge. The new PT-91 Twardy (Hard) was a thorough modernization of the T-72M1 tank. One of the goals of the project was not only to improve Poland's tank fleet, but to lay a foundation for bringing its tanks in line with Western standards, which were Poland's new target. The history of the T-72M2 and PT-91 Twardy falls outside the scope of this article, and interested readers can easily find information on it.

Plans for the future

Despite the work on the PT-91, it was clear that the T-72 will not be a modern tank no matter how much it's modernized. By the mid 1990s, both the Western countries and the USSR, which was now the most likely enemy, had fourth generation MBTs, for which the PT-91 was not a serious opponent. OBRUM began working to solve the army's tank problem in three directions at once.

The first variant was a thorough modernization of the T-72. Poland hoped to receive new technologies from the West that would seriously improve tanks that were already in production. The second was to develop a new domestic third generation MBT that would not be any worse than Western or Russian tanks. The third was to develop a domestic fourth generation MBT. Let us explore these three directions.

Work on modernization of the T-72 began even during the development of the PT-91, in 1991. A modernization plan was drawn up until 2005. Production of the PT-91 was planned to start in 1993, but due to a series of issues with Polish industry the tank went into production with some issues. A new stabilizer was not developed in due time, which created issues with installing a more powerful cannon. Development of the export PT-91M were supposed to start in parallel with mass production of the PT-91. This tank was supposed to use Western components without introducing significant changes into the tank's design. Poland hoped to woo nations who left the Communist bloc and wanted to modernize their armed forces. The issues of the PT-91 design were only solved with the PT-91B, which was planned for production in 1995. By then, the stabilizer, ERAWA-2 armour, and a guided weapons system were supposed to have been completed.

Main components of the PT-94 tank.

The next stage in the development of the T-72 was the PT-94, featuring widespread use of Western electronics. It was supposed to have a digital fire control system with thermal sights for the gunner and commander. Other novelties included a digital communications system, and an on-board computer for ease of maintenance and crew training. The mobility of the tank improved thanks to a new 1000 hp engine, new suspension, and an auxiliary generator that could power the electrical system without starting the main engine. The PT-94 was planned as a platform for testing solutions that would be used in more serious projects.

The PT-97 was planned as the final step in the evolution of the T-72. Work would start in 1997 and production in 2000. The front hull armour was completely redesigned. It was planned to get rid of the weaknesses in the T-72's armour and significantly increase its thickness. The goal was to protect the tank from widespread 125 mm Soviet ammunition. The turret was also changed to a new welded design. Cooperation with German companies to increase protection to the level of the Leopard 2A4 and integration of modern ERA into the design was planned.

PT-97 tank project.

The old Soviet 125 mm gun would either be replaced by a new gun of the same caliber designed in Poland, or a 120 mm gun that fired standard NATO ammunition. A remote controlled 12.7 mm machinegun and 60 mm mortar mount, a new hydraulic suspension, and a new 1200 hp engine were also planned. The PT-97 would be a tank that would be a match for early 90s Soviet designs and a passable second line tank once the fourth generation MBT was ready.

Polish war gorilla

The second direction taken by OBRUM was to begin work on a tank with the unofficial name Goryl (Gorilla). Initially, two variants with a traditional layout were considered: one with a 120 mm smoothbore Rheinmetall Rh-120 gun and a mechanized ammunition rack in the turret bustle, the other with a 125 mm gun and a T-72 style autoloader system. After some additional investigation, priority was given to the first type, as it would improve odds of survival on the battlefield.

The project was laid out in 1992. Despite the disappearance of the Soviet threat, the Polish military still saw the "Gorilla" as a potential tank for both use in the Polish army and for export. The design of the tank was reminiscent of the French Leclerc. The welded hull had a sloped composite front plate, equivalent to about 750 mm of RHA. The driver was placed to the left, just like on the Leclerc, and an auxiliary mechanized ammunition rack was to his right.

A model of the prospective Goryl tank.

The welded turret also consisted of composite armour, about 850 mm RHA equivalent. The turret held two crewmen and a conveyor type autoloader in the bustle. An armoured bulkhead and blowout panels, similar to Western tanks, separated the ammunition from the crew. NERA side armour offered additional protection. A variant with a new generation of ERA in the front was also explored.

The tank would be powered by a 1500 hp Rolls-Royce Condor engine. The hydro-pneumatic suspension would provide for smooth travel at any speed, simplifying the stabilizer's work. The fire control system included a stabilized commander's panoramic sight with night vision and thermal vision integration, and a ballistic computer with a number of external sensors. The main gun of the "Gorilla" was a dual stabilized 120 mm smoothbore gun designed in Poland, but compatible with NATO ammunition and guided missiles.

Approximate internal layout of the Goryl.

An export variant had the option to mount a 125 mm Polish produced gun. Additional armament included a coaxial 7.62 mm machinegun and one or two remote controlled 12.7 mm machineguns on the turret. Variants with a 60 mm mortar or replacement of one of the machineguns with a low caliber autocannon were also explored. The tank would also receive a GPS navigation system and computers for each crewman. An electronic warfare system could also have been explored.

A whole spectrum of fighting vehicles could have been designed on the "Gorilla" chassis. They included rocket artillery, AA missile systems, a command vehicle, a heavy APC, a bridgelayer, an engineering tank, and a recovery tank. By 1994 the project was completed and presented to the Polish army, as well as at a number of trade shows. The military proposed getting rid of the unwieldy name "Gorilla" and naming the tank after Władysław Anders. It is not known whether this suggestion was approved, but the name Anders shows up in later correspondence. It is also worth noting that the "Gorilla"/"Anders" project is often called PT-94 in online discussions, which is incorrect.

Vehicles on the "Gorilla"/"Anders" chassis.

The military approved the project by 195, but it was not developed further. The military's expectation of a larger budget fell through. While in 1990 Poland could hope for significant subsidies from the West in case of war with the USSR, there was no funding after the collapse. This also ruined Poland's export plans. Russia and the Ukraine filled the market segment that Poland was targeting with superior vehicles at a more attractive cost. As a result, the PT-94/97 and "Gorilla"/"Anders" had nowhere to go.

Leopard or "leopardization"?

Interest in new tanks arose once more in 1998, as the final decision on Poland's NATO membership was made. This created some problems for the Polish military, as the unification of its weaponry with NATO standards was insufficient. The issue of tanks was also raised. It was impossible to simply re-arm T-72 tanks with 120 mm guns due to large differences in the ammunition that made Soviet style autoloaders impossible to convert. A decision had to be made: either purchase Leopard tanks from neighbouring Germany or develop a deep modernization project for the T-72M/PT-91.

Poland's army and industry were categorically against the first choice, arguing that Germany was offering obsolete tanks at exorbitant prices. This choice would also deal a serious blow to Poland's defense industry and leave it without important customers. The "Gorilla"/"Anders" project was offered once more under the index PT-2000, and work on a modernization of the PT-91 under the name PT-2001 began. This project would combine all advantages of the Soviet layout, such as small mass and small size, with Western armament and protection.

PT-2001 Gepard, a thorough modernization of the PT-91 tank.

The PT-2001 was developed jointly with French specialists, and traces of GIAT's work on modernizations of the T-72 can be found in it. The old turret would be replaced with a new welded one that had an automated ammunition rack in the bustle. Either the Polish-Ukrainian 120 mm KBM-2 gun or French CN120-26/52 would be used. Auxiliary armament would be the same: a coaxial rifle caliber machinegun and large caliber machinegun on the roof. The fire control system would be French. The turret and hull would be protected with ERA blocks, potentially of Ukrainian or Israeli origin.

On the other hand, OBRUM showed that even a modernized PT-2001 would be inferior to its competitors in the West and East. Instead, they proposed their own PT-2000. The new proposal went far from the old "Gorilla": the turret was reworked to decrease weight, saving the initial levels of protection, the complicated suspension was discarded to reduce cost, going back to Soviet style six road wheels and torsion bars. The tank could also be assembled with converted T-72 hulls, but the amount of changes required made this an unprofitable proposition. Nevertheless, many PT-91 components could be reused.

PT-2001 Gepard, OBRUM's new tank that was more grounded in the PT-91 design.

In 2001 the military studied the T-72 modernization and OBRUM's new tank. The choice was made in favour of the first, as it was cheaper and less risky. However, the final decision was made by the politicians and not the military. It was decided that the modernization of old tanks was senseless, and German Leopard 2A4 tanks would be bought in order to "strengthen our partnership and unification". This decision was harshly criticised by the army, but there was nothing left to do.

The cutting edge of progress

Let's return to the early 90s. Even though work on a fourth generation Polish tank was to start in 1990, no serious progress was made in this direction. The situation changed after a relationship was established with the Ukrainian tank industry. Information on the Molot and Nota projects, as well as information on Objects 640 and 195 in development in Russia pushed Polish engineers into gear.

A fourth generation Polish tank with six road wheels per side designed in 1997.

Based on the analysis of Soviet designs and information about prospective tanks in the West, a two-man tank with an unmanned turret was chosen. The engine would be placed in the front to protect the crew. All ammunition would be stored in the turret bustle and loaded automatically. Similar solutions were proposed for early Leclerc designs. It's hard to say if Polish designers were inspired by them or designed their system on their own.

The ammunition was separated from the crew by an armoured bulkhead and equipped with blowout panels. The armour of the tank was supposed to withstand any 125 mm ammunition. A Polish-Ukrainian ERA and active protection complex would be installed. The main gun would be 125 or 140 mm. Development of the latter would be done in cooperation with the Ukraine or Germany.

Polish fourth generation tank with a seven wheel chassis, designed in 1997.

Both crewmen had all the controls, and could perform the duties of either the driver or the commander/gunner. This would allow the tank to remain in action in case one of the tankers was killed. Observation was performed via cameras in the hull and on extendable poles. The German MTU MT-881 1090 hp diesel powered the tank. Initially, the tank had a six wheel chassis with a hydro-pneumatic suspension. Later it was replaced with a seven wheel chassis for better distribution of weight and a smoother drive. Work on this project continued until 1999, but the assembly of a prototype was not even proposed. This was a period of trial and error for Poland's fourth generation MBT.

The topic of a new tank came up again in mid-2000s. As a result of tighter cooperation with Rheinmetall, the idea of a Polish variant of the Leopard 2A4 for export and domestic use came up. Even a draft project of this tank was prepared, but it was less revolutionary than the tank envisioned in 1997. The crew grew to 3 men, the engine returned to the rear, and the ammunition rack was in the fighting compartment.

Polish new generation tank developed in 2003.

The idea of a carousel autoloader, uncommon for Western tanks, was interesting. An additional ammunition rack was also placed in the bustle of the unmanned turret. There is no other data on this project. It is likely that it never made it out of the idea stage. The idea of working jointly with the Germans also failed. Polish leadership decided to simply purchase the more modern Leopard 2A5 tank.

Retirement home

In addition to unifying armament, the Polish military had another issues in 2000: what to do with more than 800 T-55 and T-55AM tanks that were in storage. Poland wasn't prepared to cut them up for scrap, but unlike the T-72M1 and PT-91 they weren't even viable in local conflicts. Their chassis were proposed for multiple projects, but the most interesting one is the Odyniec (Lone Boar) heavy APC developed in 2001. 

Project of the Odyniec APC on the T-55 tank chassis.

The Odyniec largely repeated solutions of the Israeli Achzarit and Russian BMP-T. The fighting compartment would be replaced with a cabin for eight soldiers. The front of the tank would house the driver to the left and the commander, equipped with a machinegun and a grenade launcher in a cupola, to the right. The Polish army could have received an APC protected from 100 and 105 mm gun fire, but the military did not take interest in the project, largely due to a lack of funding and poorly worked out placement of the infantry.

It's hard to say that the aforementioned projects ended in nothing for the Polish tank industry. Even though grandiose plans of leading the arms market failed, and the purchase of the Leopards was a blow to Polish industry, there is still a fire burning. Poland retains hope for modernization of the PT-91. Two new variants, the PT-16 and PT-17, were recently shown. Polish industry also produces the Rosomak (Wolverine) APC/IFV and is developing a next generation IFV. Only time will tell if Poland will be able to strengthen its position on the arms market.


  1. That two-man '97 concept would presumably have run into the same issue that obliged the Swedes to add a third crewman to the Strv 103 back in the day - two men could "fight" the vehicle just fine but were overworked by the maintenance and other noncombat tasks.

    Also, minor typo: "By the mid 1990s, both the Western countries and the USSR, --" should presumably be "By mid 1990, --" seeing as how the USSR was long gone by the mid Nineties. :P