The Vietnamese government is believed to have ordered an undisclosed number of T-90S tanks from Uralvagonzavod. This recently came to light after years of speculation whether the Southeast Asian country is once again boosting its ground forces.
News of the buy hasn’t been corroborated by enough sources, or even Vietnamese media, but an investor report from the Russian armored vehicle manufacturer is cited as proof that 64 T-90S tanks were scheduled for delivery to an Asian client. This was first revealed by the press agency Tass citing a document where separate orders of T-90S and T-90SK tanks were assigned to country codes for Vietnam and Iraq.
For Vietnam to choose the T-90S isn’t out of the ordinary. Checking open sources reveals its army maintains anywhere between several hundred to a thousand aging T-54/55 medium tanks and PT-76 amphibious tanks. The T-90S is attractive for its powerful armament and smaller tonnage compared to its NATO rivals, whose variants scale in excess of 60 tons–by comparison the T-90S manages 46.5 tons for combat weight.
Choosing the T-90S gives Vietnamese ground forces a leg up compared to their neighbors. Main battle tanks aren’t too prolific in Southeast Asia but a handful of countries have bought heavy armor. Singapore, for example, has 94 modified Leopard 2SG’s while Indonesia purchased 101 surplus Leopard 2’s with fewer bells and whistles.
Malaysia operates a small collection of Polish Twardy tanks, which are based on the T-72M. Meanwhile, Thailand is waiting for separate orders of Ukrainian T-84 Oplot-M’s and the Chinese MBT 3000.
The T-90S is a sound investment when it comes to its protective features. The Relikt armor panels on its glacis and turret, combined with Shtora active protection to foil incoming missiles, make it very survivable. Its firepower is a superior gun/missile system, the 2A46M-5, complemented by a coaxial PK machine gun and a 12.7mm machine gun above the commander’s hatch.
But like its predecessors, the T-90S does have weak spots. Its rubber side skirts are prone to falling apart, putting the hull at risk from shaped charges. Recent T-90S static displays by Uralvagonzavod includes slat armor over the back of the turret and engine compartment. Even when covered in ERA plates the dangers posed by modern anti-tank weapons are worrisome. In 2016 a stationary T-90S used by pro-Assad forces in Syria survived a direct hit from an American-made TOW missile but was left immobilized.
The appeal of the T-90S is felt strongest by armies familiar with Soviet T-series tanks. Outside the Russian Federation countries like Azerbaijan (100-200), Turkmenistan (40), and India (500-1,250) have paid for them as replacements for older T-72’s.
It’s probable discussions for the T-90S originated in 2015 after Vietnam and Russia signed a free trade agreement that allowed the ASEAN state to cultivate a dependable ally at a time of worsening relations with China. Negotiations may have begun in earnest by 2016 when Russian media began speculating about the coming deal for 200 tanks.
While the exact number of T-90S tanks for Vietnam can’t be verified at the moment, it could take another year before they reach their end user.