The Surprising Technological Short Holding Up Russia’s Tanks

By David Axe,

A shortage of modern optics is throttling Russia’s ability to manufacture new T-72BM3 and T-90M tanks, and restore older T-72s, T-80s and T-90s, to make good the thousands of tanks it’s lost its wider war on Ukraine.

But optics aren’t the only thing in short supply in the Russian armored vehicle industry. The Russians also are desperately short of ball bearings, which they used to get from the United States and Europe before the United States and Europe tightened their sanctions on Russian industry.

A new study from the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. confirmed what independent analysts have been saying for months. Tanks and other modern armored vehicles need a lot of ball bearings. And Russia doesn’t have enough bearings to maintain steady production of new vehicles.

Especially considering that the Russian war effort—indeed, the whole Russian economy—utterly depends on trains for transportation. And trains also need a lot of ball bearings. The Russians have a choice. Build more tanks and let the rail system fall apart. Or keep the trains moving, and slow tank production.

“Historically, Russia has imported most of its high-quality bearings from Western manufacturers,” CSIS analysts Max Bergmann, Maria Snegovaya, Tina Dolbaia, Nick Fenton and Samuel Bendett noted. “In 2020, for instance, Russia imported over $419 million worth of ball bearings, around 55 percent of which originated in Europe and North America; Germany was Russia’s largest trading partner, taking up 17 percent of its total imports that year.”

That changed after Russian forces rolled into northern, eastern and southern Ukraine in February 2022, triggering a wider war that has killed tens of thousands of people on both sides. Kyiv’s foreign allies escalated their sanctions on Moscow’s strategic industries.

Ball-bearing imports were a top target. “Following the start of the invasion, major Western producers of bearings exited Russia and ended their sales there,” the CSIS analysts wrote.

The implications quickly were apparent. After just a few weeks, Russia’s main factories for building new tanks and restoring old tanks—respectively, Uralvagonzavod in Sverdlovsk Oblast and Omsktransmash in Siberia—temporarily froze production.

While work soon resumed, the tank industry’s longer-term prospects were dire. A new T-72BM3 or T-90M tank requires modern optics, and those optics normally come from France. When Paris tightened its sanctions, it deprived the Russian industry of the components it needs for the new tanks’ Sosna-U digital sights.

The Kremlin has compensated for a shortage of Sosna-Us by swapping in locally-made analog 1PN96MT-02 sights that, while not as precise as Sosna-Us, at least give a Russian tank crew a fighting chance in a direct fight with Ukrainian crews.

The ball-bearing problem might be even harder for Moscow to solve. Even after trading Sosna-Us for 1PN96MT-02s, Uralvagonzavod and Omsktransmash still were at an impasse. Workers were building or restoring most of a tank, then running out of parts.

It’s for that reason that Russia has struggled to make good the 2,000 or more tanks it has lost in 14 months of hard fighting in Ukraine. Russian forces need at least 150 new or restored tanks a month just to maintain their front-line strength.

Yes, there were small stockpiles of ball bearings in Russia when the wider war kicked off. But Russian rail operators needed those bearings, too. If anything, the railways’ hunger for bearings grew as their 13,000 locomotives moved more and more replacement men and equipment to the Ukraine front.

Given a choice between building fewer tanks or freezing transport across Russia, Moscow did the smart thing—and chose the former.

Careful analysis of activity at Uralvagonzavod and Omsktransmash strongly hints the factories every month are shipping out just a few dozen modern-ish tanks: either new-build T-72BM3s or T-90Ms or reconditioned T-72s, T-80s and T-90s that technicians have pulled out of long-term storage.

This is why the Russians are traveling back in time, technologically speaking, and reactivating 1960s-vintage T-62s and 1950s-vintage T-55s that have been moldering in storage since the 1980s.

The older tanks require fewer modern components and fewer ball-bearings. They’re hopelessly outmatched in a stand-up fight with better-equipped Ukrainian forces, but they at least slow down the Ukrainians. “The T-55 in this sense is a resource-saver and an opportunity to buy time,” a Kremlin source told Volya Media.

With hundreds of T-62s and T-55s temporarily plugging the hole in the Russian army’s force structure, Russian industry has scrambled to find alternative sources of ball bearings—and resume building modern tanks.

The obvious alternatives are China and Malaysia. But Chinese and Malaysian bearings generally are inferior to American or European bearings. And that lower quality comes at a cost, the CSIS team explained.

“While Moscow might be able to substitute the import of Western bearings and thus maintain the level of defense-sector production needed to continue its war effort, these bearings will most likely be of a lower quality, which could impact reliability.”

So maybe Russia eventually ramps up tank production by swapping good bearings for bad bearings. Having also traded modern digital optics for inferior analog optics, these tanks no longer are state-of-the-art.

Sure, they might look like T-72BM3s or T-90Ms. But on the inside, where it really counts, they’re less capable and less durable.