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When the enemy tank (T-80) came to Sweden 

This article is based on the book “Svenskt pansar. 90 år av svenskt stridsfordonsutveckling” (Swedish armor. 90 years of Swedish combat vehicle development). 

Intro – the early Post-Cold War period 

This story might sound absurd concerning Sweden’s military and political development during the Cold War period from 1948 to 1991. As the Cold War ended, The Swedish Armed Forces needed new tanks, and one of the proposals was to buy Soviet-made T-80 tanks. Sweden never purchased the T-80, but “the enemy tank” came to be evaluated and tested by the Swedish military.

T-80 tank with ERA-style reactive armor during an exercise in 1989, just two years before the collapse of the Soviet Union. Source: Wikimedia Commons 

It is 1991, and the Cold War is over. The Soviet Union has collapsed as a polity, and its former largest republic Russia is now recognized as a sovereign state. The end of the Cold War is affecting almost all military organizations in Europe in intensive and comprehensive ways. It is a period of reductions in military spending and budgets, as well as reduction or even abolishment of military conscription. Such development occurred from 1991-to 2000 in NATO nations like Germany, former Warsaw Pact nations such as Hungary, and neutral nations such as Sweden. 

Tank 101 Centurion and 103 S-tank. Waiting to be replaced. The S-tank was, by many contemporary military experts, not regarded as a tank. One of the main reasons for such views was that the S-tank is without a turret. From the book “Svenskt pansar. 90 år av svenskt stridsfordonsutveckling”  ( Swedish armor. 90 years of Swedish combat vehicle development)

At the beginning of the 1990s, Swedish Armed Forces (SAF) created new plans for its tanks as the older models Tank 101 (British-made Centurion) and Tank 103 (S-tank) came to be considered as obsolete in comparison to newer, more contemporary tanks. SAF personnel came to analyze the American Abrams, German Leopard, and French Leclerc. History ended with SAF and the Swedish government deciding to buy the German-made Leopard 2, later called Stridsvagn 122 (tank 122).

“Tanks Got Talent”.  The German-made Leopard 2 won the prize. From the book   “Svenskt pansar. 90 år av svenskt stridsfordonsutveckling” (Swedish armor. 90 years of Swedish combat vehicle development)

A less known story is that SAF personnel with expertise and knowledge concerning armored vehicles also analyzed the Soviet-made T-80 tank. One of the contemporary ideas was that Sweden would buy the T-80 in order to use them for the army’s mechanized brigades equipped with armored fighting vehicles, while the Leopard 2 would be used for the armored brigades.

The Cold War ended and a British soldier was able to take this photo, something unimaginable only a few years before. Source:  @TankMuseum via Twitter

The history of the T-80 tank as a “candidate tank” for SAF is partly based on contemporary assumptions among SAF personnel that purchasing the T-80 would be economically beneficial. Another ambition was to gather more information about Soviet-made military equipment.

As soon as the Cold War ended in 1991, SAF bought Soviet military equipment also in order to test it in Sweden. One aspect was that the SAF personnel wanted to know was how Soviet-made armored vehicles such as tanks would function in the Sweden terrain, especially in the Norrland (Northland) region during wintertime. 

The T-80’s gas-turbine engine made the tank unique and different from other Soviet and NATO armies’ tanks. However, this function also made the tank more resource-demanding concerning oil. Source: Andrei_bt via Twitter 

Sweden buying and testing Soviet-made equipment used in former East Germany

The following context is important to understand how SAF personnel thought about the T-80. In November 1990, the “Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe” (CFE-treaty) between 22 member-states of NATO and the former Warsaw Pact. CFE-treaty meant, among other things, that the signing states would destroy around 10 000 tanks, other armored vehicles, artillery pieces and other heavier equipment until 1995. During the same year, former West Germany and East Germany were integrated into today’s Germany. The new German state wanted to “get rid of” the Soviet-made military equipment that previously belonged to the East German armed forces. 

Since Sweden was not a part of the CFE agreement that prevented trade between the signatory states, the Swedish government was offered to buy military equipment from former Eastern Germany (DDR). Interestingly, the information via the Swedish embassy in Bonn (West German capital) came to The Swedish Defence Material Administration (FMV) in December 1990 and was received by Lieutenant-colonel C-G Svantesson, the commander of FMV:s technique and study section.

Lieutenant-colonel Svantesson was familiar with the Soviet material because he studied it during his time as the intelligence chief in a divisional headquarters. Among Svantesson’s first thoughts was that SAF should use the offer from Germany in order to learn more about the Soviet armor, also because it was a way to “increase knowledge about our threat level”. Among the first vehicles considered interesting for analyses were the T-72 main battle tank and MT-LB multi-role armored vehicle. 

“Enemy’s armor” during test trials and analysis in Norrland, the northern region of Sweden, 1991. From the book   “Svenskt pansar. 90 år av svenskt stridsfordonsutveckling”  (Swedish armor. 90 years of Swedish combat vehicle development) 

At the beginning of 1991, FMV proposed proposed to the government to purchase Soviet military vehicles for studies and analysis during the spring. One aspect that interested the German government and NATO was vehicles’ passability in Northland. Another interesting thing is that the Swedish state offered a lower price for buying the vehicles than the German state initially demanded. Price negotiations led to a compromise that Sweden would receive the vehicles for the price being offered while Germany would receive reports from the test trials with the Soviet armor in Norrland. 

During the test trials with the Soviet vehicles in 1991, the following was written about experiences: 

  • Passability of T-72 and MTLB in Norrland was considered to be beyond expectations and thereby “concern”.
  • Passability tests with T-72 (M) had shown the tank’s capability to move in deep snow, and the soft ground has been underrated in the earlier analysis.
  • The ballistic protection on the T-72 turret and chassis had been rated too thinly – 480 mm instead of 550 mm armor.
  • Assessment of what was “a hindering terrain” for Soviet armor and armored fighting vehicles needed a reassessment.
  • MT-LB was considered to be able to protect infantry units from shrapnel and explosions
  • MT-LB is considered the type of vehicle that many in the Swedish army have been asking for for a long time.

During the Cold War, many in the SAF thought that it would be problematic for the Soviet military vehicles to operate in Norrland terrain, especially during winter time. The mentioned tests in 1991 proved that it was not the case and that earlier assumptions were wrong. Conclusions from the tests led to Sweden purchasing MT-LB that received the name “Armored Tracked Vehicle 401”. 

MT-LB became a SAF military vehicle during the 1990s. It was renamed PBV-401 and was used during UN- and NATO-led peacekeeping missions as in Kosovo. From the book “Svenskt Pansar. 90 år av svensk fordonsutveckling”. (Swedish armor. 90 years of Swedish combat vehicle development) 

In autumn 1992, the Swedish government decided to buy 800 ATV-401. All vehicles were to be renovated and reshaped in order to fulfill SAF’s security and maintenance demands. Another vehicle that was bought was the BMP-1 and hundred of thousands of Swedish conscripts and officers have, since the 1960s, read about during their education concerning  “opponents’ equipment”. BMP-1 was renamed PBV-501. In total, 350 BMP-1 were bought and became renovated and modernized as in the case of MT-LB. 

PBV-501 was only used during three years of training of conscripts. From the book  “Svenskt Pansar. 90 år av svensk fordonsutveckling”.  (Swedish armor. 90 years of Swedish combat vehicle development)

“Tank trip” to Russia – Swedish military delegation in Moscow and Omsk

At the same time, while Sweden was signing military agreements with Germany regarding the Soviet military vehicles, additional interest in Soviet material came up. This time it was about a need for a new tank. From the political side, it was proposed that during the spring of 1992, SAF would conduct trials and tests with the Soviet tank T-80. 

Analysis of the T-80 tank was to be conducted by a delegation composed of both military and civilian personnel. The Swedish Material Defence Administration (FMV)  led the work by contacting the Russian state organization for military and weapon products Oboroneexport (oborona means defense in Russian). The delegation was later composed by: 

  • From Army’s Armour School : Karl Skaremyr, Ove Jansson, Peder Borg, Jan Svensson, K-G Bartoll, Lars-Erik Svensson
  • From FMV:  Per Hallin, Hans Fridén, Jerry Viskary, Anders Sandmark, Håkan Hallgren, Mats Juhlin, Rolf Enblom
  • Others: Rune Gustafsson, the representative for Sweden at Oboroneexport, John O  Dahlstein from Trade Council, Karl-Evert Englund, military attaché at the Swedish embassy in Moscow.

“The tank delegation” in Moscow, summer 1994. In the background, one can see a Renault FT-17 tank, the only tank from World War One to be used in World War Two. FT-17 was also known for being the first “real” turret tank compared to other WWI tanks. Also, FT-17s were used during the Russian civil war 1917-1921 by Allied forces, and the Red Army also captured a number of them. (Swedish armor. 90 years of Swedish combat vehicle development)

When the Swedish military delegation arrived in Moscow in 1993, they were welcomed by a grand ceremony with a uniformed orchestra and VIP reception. At the same time, there were also some problems with the trip in general because 1993 was a year of political and social disorders in Russia, including the “Black October” military coup attempt prevented by the Russian government under President Boris Yeltsin.

Interestingly enough, the T-80 tanks were used by Russian armed forces during the bombardment of the White House building and the Russian federal parliament. Therefore, it was not always easy for the Swedish embassy and government staff to get in touch with the Russian government and receive the necessary information and approvals before the visit. 

Screenshots via Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

The day after the arrival in Moscow the delegation visited an armored division in Kubinka and had a meeting with the divisional commander Zuralov. During the visit, the delegation inspected and analyzed a T-80U tank, the version of T-80 with a gas turbine engine produced in the city of Omsk. 

The delegation experienced its situation and meetings with “Russian colleagues” as very open and welcoming. For example, the delegation’s members could take photos of all the details of the T-80 tank and receive all the information they requested. Thereby, their experience was that nothing around T-80 was secret or hidden since they, for example, took photos of gunner sight and the screen for AGAVA system with night vision. 

During the shooting demonstration, the delegation members were able to see a T-80U perform shooting with all ammunition types, including the shooting with the Korda robot. The robot shooting was seen as interesting because it was a function not being used by NATO armies. With the Korda robot, the tank crew could hit a target at a four-kilometer distance. The delegation perceived this kind of openness regarding military equipment as “unique” compared to other tank candidates as in the French, British and American military cases. 

Shooting with the Korda robot was perceived as especially impressive.  ( Swedish armor. 90 years of Swedish combat vehicle development)

The delegation also experienced its trip as very intensive and full of surprises. The day after the visit to Kubinka, the delegation was informed that they would travel to Omsk, Siberia. The trip was performed in a Russian state airplane having tables, sofas and armchairs. At the Omsk airport, the delegation was welcomed by the vice-CEO of the company. 

When the delegation came to Omsk, the city had recently become “open for visitors”. This was the case because Omsk, during the Soviet Union’s time, was due to its military industry mostly a closed city with strict controls regarding who could enter or exit the city. Besides the tank production, the city was also famous for producing the space rockets. There were only a few hotels in the city so the delegation was housed in an abandoned sanitarium where they were welcomed with a fancy dinner and other surprises. 

One interesting thing with Omsk was that the delegation experienced some historical connections to Sweden because Swedish prisoners were used to build the city during The Great Nordic War (1700-1721). One of the city’s founders was actually an artillery lieutenant called Kallander who ended up in captivity by tsar Peter the Great after the battle of Poltava in 1709. Kallander sketched the cavalier (military fortification) where the city started developing from. Also, one coincidence was that the city theater performed the play “The night of the tribades” by August Strindberg.

Espionage, training, and experimentation. ( Swedish armor. 90 years of Swedish combat vehicle development)

During the Omsk visit, the delegation was able to participate in technical assessments. During such occasions, the delegation members experienced that the Russian officers were, during lectures about technical presentations, using a lot of  “patriotic wordings”. This led even to the situation where the interpreter trained at GRU, the Russian military intelligence, translated everything professionally but also stated that he disliked the jargon among the Russian officers. Regardless, the delegation members experienced the presentations being made at a qualitative technical level. 

At the same time, during the visit, the Russian officers thought it was strange that the Swedish delegation did not have their own test driver because the delegation members wanted to test-drive the tank themselves. Also, the tank course lane in Omsk was considered difficult, but the Russian military allowed delegation members to test-drive on their own, but only up to a maximum of 60 km/h speed. After the test drive, members of the Swedish delegation considered the T-80 tank to be easily driven and with good acceleration. Ergonomics were considered to be very good, while other spaces, in general, were considered to be tight compared to Western tanks. 

After the test driving tour, it was time for the delegation members to check out the factory. One of the first things they discovered was that the production of tanks had ceased. The factories were not operating and the Russian military made a fake presentation. Despite that, the situation was that the factories were still fully manned and that every section that the delegation visited had one Russian officer making a salute to the delegation members and informing them about the section’s activity. According to the delegation, the case was that “all workers were dressed in clean outfits, everything was cleaned and polished but it was quite as in a grave.”

After the visit to the factory, the Swedish delegation had a meeting with the factory management and the management wondered how many tanks Sweden wanted to purchase. During that meeting, the delegation had to explain that the material policy of the Swedish Armed Forces was that the material has to be tested in Sweden by SAF:s personnel before eventual purchases and procurements. Later in Moscow, the delegation had talks with personnel from the Obroneexport and tech company GUSK where, besides discussions about T-80, also had conversations about other products and technology for development cooperation, for example, active protection for armored vehicles. 

Buying T-80 depended on that SAF and the Swedish government would consider that SAF:s armored brigades would receive “the best that could be found on the market”. At the same time, a tank model with lower capabilities could be accepted for the mechanized brigades. One of the alternatives was that the mechanized brigades would receive Leopard 2A4, the version before Leopard 2A5 that had a different turret and better protection. 

Test trials with T-80

A cold surprise took place in Northern Bothnia (Norrland). The T-80U proved to be efficient even in terrain with deep snow. ( Swedish armor. 90 years of Swedish combat vehicle development)

During the spring of 1993, additional trips were made to Russia which led to an agreement between FMV and the Russian state that T-80 could be borrowed from Sweden for testing. Ironically enough, the decision meant that “our sharpest threat tank” came to Sweden to be tested, which was also seen as a bizarre experience. Thereby, tests were performed with T-80 from October 1993 to January 1994, mainly at the Army’s Armour Center in Skoevde (Skövde). 

In January 1994, the government decided that Leopard 2A5 would be chosen as the primary battle tank for the armored brigades. This also meant that Leopard 2A4 would be selected for the mechanized brigades. Thereby, it meant that the T-80 would not be chosen. 

Haokan Hallgren, one of the delegation members, even tried to delay the decision to prevent the test with T-80 from being canceled. In the end, General Major Percurt Green had to tell Hallgren that “Haokan, there are occasions when one just says “Yes, General!”, and explained to Hallgren that it was the case because the decision was taken at a higher level. 

After the decision in February 1994, the tests with T-80U were canceled and the tanks were sent back to Russia in March. Before the tests were canceled, Swedish military personnel were among other things able to perform: 

  • Test-firing against T-80s ballistic protection
  • Sharp-shooting with T-80s main armament
  • Logistical and maintenance  analysis

At the same time, it was considered that several experiences were important and interesting, such as:

  • T-80 was superior to SAF:s  contemporary tanks regarding mobility, besides reverse driving 
  • T-80 was superior regarding survivability, especially regarding ballistical protection and ERA reactive armor
  • T-80s 125 mm canon and its ammunition was not
    considered to have a much better performance compared to the Centurion’s 105 mm gun
  • The ability to fight in the dark was considered insufficient in relation to the requirements for tanks in the mechanized brigades, both concerning active IR and the broader IRV camera
  • The ability to shoot the robot through the barrel was something that the T-80 could thus hit a target at a distance of 5 km, which was considered particularly impressive
  • The Russian military technology regarding sensor-activated countermeasures was considered to be ahead, with the active protection system ARENA for combating incoming robots that were on the T-80U
  • The operational reliability of the two tested wagons also proved good and was considered well adapted to Swedish conditions.

Absurd but true

In relation to the current war in Ukraine, many mentions have been made about destroyed Russian T-80 tanks. For example, on different Telegram channels, there are a lot of photos of T-80s destroyed by different anti-armor weapons such as Javelin, Panzerfaust, and Carl-Gustaf. The T-80 is still one of the most used tanks in the Russian military and has been upgraded since the 1990s. In the case of Sweden, its armed forces are today only using the Leopard 2 model with local modifications and named Strv 122 (Stridsvagn = tank).

It is around 30 years since the end of the Cold War and many perceive the current Russian aggression against Ukraine as a new Cold War period. This makes the story of the attempt by Sweden to buy Soviet-made tanks extra interesting. Thereby, the “Threat Tank 7” case constitutes a more unique and paradoxical event in modern military history. 

For more information, I recommend the following links.

Rickard O. Lindström – “När fienden kom till Sverige” (in Swedish) 

Test with T-80 – Video  

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