Crazy Fact: South Korea Still Uses Russian Tanks

Charlie Gao

Key Point: The T-80U might be a relic, but it's served the South Korean army reliably. 

One of the great ironies of the military balance in the Koreas is the fact that South Korea operates more advanced Russian tanks than North Korea. This situation came about in the 1990s after Russia inherited a $1.5 billion debt to South Korea. A deal was made: Russia would give many items of then top-of-the-line military equipment, in exchange for South Korea canceling 50 percent of Russia’s debt. Interestingly, this included the T-80U Main Battle Tank. Nowadays, South Korea fields three “modern” main battle tanks, the T-80U and the indigenous K1 and K2. But how do Korean tankers think the T-80U stacks up against the Korean tanks, which were designed with a more Western philosophy?

In a pure technical comparison, the T-80U lags behind the K1A1 and K1A2. The T-80U has been kept in a relatively stock configuration, while the K1A1 and K2 have been receiving upgrades from the Korean defense industry. While the T-80U has a Day/Night panoramic commander’s sight in the PNK-4S, the K1A1 and K2 both have thermal commander sights. The Korean defense industry puts out the modern M279 APFSDS round for the 120-millimeter cannons of the K1A1 and the K2, but the T-80U is still using imported Russian ammunition. The K2 also has many features that the T-80U doesn’t have, being one of the newest MBTs in the world.

The reliability of the T-80U also doesn’t gain it favors in South Korean service. Reports state that the T-80U’s reliability isn’t the best, although it is better than the BMP-3. Although some T-80U parts, such as the tracks, are produced in South Korea, the majority of parts must be ordered from abroad. The cost of ordering replacement parts from Russia has been steadily increasing over the years (with the cost of some parts doubling or tripling from 1996 to 2006), so many in the South Korean government are considering getting rid of the T-80U to cut maintenance costs.

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