Military 101: Malaysia’s PT-91M Pendekar MBT against Powerful German Leopard 2A7 MBT

Merkava IDF main battle tank MBT Israel

(Frankly speaking and in my personal opinion, the best main battle tank or MBT out there is Israel’s Merkava MBT which came into service in the late 1970s and has gone through substantial improvement over the years. It has a very low profile and is armed with a locally built 120 mm smoothbore gun that is also capable of firing laser-guided anti-tank guided missiles similar to the Russian tanks. Image source: Wikipedia)

Read these first:-

(SIBMAS 6×6 is our best wheel based armoured personal carrier to date but it is getting very old. Interestingly the Malaysian Armed Forces bought 186 units in the 1980s based on a prototype and without any battle-proven records. Image source: Wikipedia)

Emerging MBT Threats

Frankly speaking, before 2006, Malaysia did not have any armoured vehicles that can be classified as main battle tanks.

We had something very close though. One was the ageing Belgian made Sibmas IFV which had 90mm Cockerill Mk.III gun and the other is the under-utilised British made Scorpion light tank with another variant 90mm gun. The rest of armoured vehicles are mainly comprised of armoured personal carriers. A thick jungle where the battle action is in is better suited for wheel-based lighter armoured vehicles.

But then, the neighbouring countries except Brunei is arming themselves with the latest main battle tanks which the current armoured inventory of the Royal Malaysian Army is not capable of defeating. Singapore has the latest 4 crew German-made Leopard 2A7 MBTs and a large number of the older 2A6 versions. It has a 120 mm smoothbore gun which is also capable of firing anti-tank guided missiles. It has a maximum speed of 70 km/h and has a cross country operational range of 240 km.

Indonesia is also operating a large number of Leopard 2A4 MBTs in addition to indigenous built armoured vehicles.

Thailand has gone the other way by purchasing a large number of 3 manned Chinese VT4 MBTs which has 125 mm smoothbore gun and with a top speed of 70 km/h. It has a 500 km range. It also operates 3 manned Ukraine made T-84 Oplot which was developed from Russian’s T-80UD MBT which also has a 125 mm smoothbore gun and with a top speed of 70 km/h. It also has a 500 km range. T-84 Oplot is also reputed to be one of the best-protected tanks in the world.

Of course, no one will be made to do a face-off with any MBTs but instead, it will be from a hidden, fortified place. Coupled with a good number of mobile infantrymen with portable anti-tank missiles such as the latest Swedish made Carl-Gustaf M4, Russian made Metmis-M and a large number Chinese made ATMs will be a better defence against MBTs.

(One can consider that the PT-91 version sold to Malaysia is an improvement over Polish’s standard PT-91 Twardy MBT mainly due to the differences of equipment installed. The overall contract for the MBTs and the supporting equipment was reported to be more than USD300 million. Image source: Facebook)

Malaysia’s PT-91M Pendekar MBT

It was rather a surprise when Malaysia decided on PT-91 derived MBT called PT-91M as its first MBT.

The Polish-made PT-91 Twardy is derived from Russian made T-72M1 and entered service in the 1990s. It suppose to be an improvement over T-72 with dual-axis stabilized fire-control system, better reactive armour, a more powerful engine, transmission and a new automatic loader.

For the Malaysian version, there were other changes made to suit the Malaysian battle environment and other requirements. It has Slovakian made 125 mm smoothbore gun (6-8 rounds per minute) and a top speed of 70 km/h. It is said that it has a range of 500 km. It is also using a French fire control system which is also used in British’s Challenger 2E MBT & French’s Leclerc MBT, Thales communication system and hydropneumatic transmission. It is also said that its track link is similar to the one being used by the German Leopard 2

(The problem with T-72 is well documented considering its performance in various conflicts in the Middle East. Despite the shortcomings, more than 25,000 units of T-72 have been sold and to 40 countries since 1969 so it is still a major force to reckon with)

T-72 / PT-91 Discouraging Factors

Firstly let’s look at the disadvantages of T-72 from of which PT-91 was developed:-

  • Ammo carousel means your first stage rounds all are centred below the turret, can be easily detonated through a hit to the hull
  • Very slow reverse speed and traverse speed, a problem in situations where you cannot back away from an attacking enemy
  • 3-man crew makes tank able to be knocked out easier, once one crew member is knocked out, you have to be very careful not to get hit again
  • Gun depression is inadequate for most hull-down situations, e.g. sniping from a hill or down a valley
  • Driver’s port is still a weakness
  • Poor top speed
  • Inferior optics with only one 8x zoom level
  • 1st APFSDS modification is inferior to most contemporary rounds and 3BM22 is a Rank IV modification
  • Its 2A46 125 mm gun is an early type; the stock ammunition is lacklustre and it cannot fire ATGMs like the T-64B, T-80B, and T-80U
  • Glacis armour is not reliable until the add-on armour plate is unlocked (a tier IV modification)

(Source: War Thunder)

Then there is this write-up that I saw in the LowYat forum which gives some idea why Malaysia decided to go the opposite way to equip the army with Polish-made PT-91. There were plenty of arguments against PT-91 as it is just another deviation from the ageing T-72:-

The PT91 is admittedly not the best MBT in the world. It is considered a 3rd-generation tank in which the level of technology is comparable to that of the Leopard 2A4 (operated by Singapore), Merkava MKIII or M1 Abrams. MBT or Main Battle Tank are currently classified into 3 generations. 4th-generation vehicles are currently being developed such as the K2 (South Korea) and T-95 (Russia).

The wreckages of Russian T-72 strewn across the battlefield in Chechnya between 1994-2000 was a depressing sight, some of them even having their turrets blown clear off the hulls. Once again, the world witnessed how Iraqi T-72’s were mauled by American M1 Abrahms’ during Desert Storm.

History has never been on the side of the T-72. Prior to the Chechen conflict, Syrian T-72s fared poorly in action with Israel, falling victim to the Merkava. We also know, that despite the modernization efforts, the PT91 is still no match for any other 3rd-generation tanks in service.

With a large army, the loss of personnel and destruction of tanks were not considered a problem for the Soviet Union. With that in mind, the T-72 was designed from the start as a low-cost alternative to the T-60 of the ’60s. Armour and crew comfort being low on the list of priorities.

Another problem is that the PT91 Pendekar uses an autoloader system to service the main gun. The autoloader reduces the number of crew required. This system was known to be problematic with a potential of malfunction or jamming during the heat of combat. Even the M1 Abrahms, considered to be the best tank in the world, uses manual loading to service its main gun (4 crew, compared to 3 in the PT-91).

The author has personally been inside the crew compartment of the PT-91 and it is extremely cramped and uncomfortable to remain inside for extended periods of time.

(Source: Low Yat)

Even the Polish Army who was the original user of PT-91 MBT had now taken PT-91 from its main inventory and moved on to the German-made Leopard 2A4 MBTs. So it may be a concern to Malaysia who is still using PT-91 as the main battle tank. A comparison was made between PT-91 and Leopard 2A4 MBTs and the conclusion is not positive:-

A comparison test was made in Poland in order to compare the reliability of the Polish PT-91 and Leopard 2A4 tanks. It appeared that tanks with similar mileage (19 000 km) showed different results. Distance between failures of the PT-91 was only 25 km and it took on average 3.2 days to repair the tank.

On the other hand distance between failures of the Leopard 2A4 tank was 174 km and it took on average 1.3 days to repair the tank. Most failures of the PT-91 Twardy were related to its engine, electrical installation, armament, fire control system, and communication systems.

So the ageing PT-91 tanks can be seen as rather unreliable combat vehicles, that are troublesome to keep in operational order.

(Source: Military Today)

(Just because T-72 has its negative points, it does not mean other MBTs are perfect as history has shown that it is not possible to have the balance of mobility, armour and firepower. Even the German-made excellent Leopard 2 tanks have their share of problems that are yet to be resolved even in their latest variant. Improvements on the basic variant will add more weight to the structure which only adds strain on the engine and transmission. Germans during World War 2 had the same problem)

T-72 / PT-91 Encouraging Factors

At the outset, it seems like PT-91 is not the good choice for Malaysia to opt as their first choice for their first MBT in their inventory. However further analysis, there are some plus points:-

  • Mounts the same powerful 125 mm 2A46 gun as on the T-64 and T-80
  • Low profile, small target compared to other countries’ main battle tanks
  • Early unlocked laser rangefinder makes sniping long distances easier
  • Has both smoke grenade launchers and ESS
  • Due to thick frontal armour and correct angling, able to deflect most rounds from counterpart tanks of other countries
  • Very accurate gun due to the high muzzle velocity of the APFSDS rounds, very effective long-range sniper
  • Autoloader continues working even if fighting a fire or replacing a crew member, ready to use upon the fire being extinguished or the gunner having been replaced

(Source: War Thunder)

Further analysis also indicates why Malaysia in the end decided on PT-91:-

The number of tanks purchased by the Malaysian government is relatively little, just 48 vehicles, but is supported by a large number of anti-tank missiles acquired from France and Pakistan. Military planners do not foresee a likelihood of tank vs tank combat especially in the heavily forested areas of Malaysia.

Before the arrival of the Leopard in Singapore’s inventory, the PT-91 was considered the best tank in the region. The obsolete AMX light tanks would be no real match for the PT-91. The French-built AMX tanks had no capability of shooting on the move.

One on one, the PT-91 is capable of defeating any tanks operated by Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia dan Brunei including Singapore-operated Tempest dan AMX (***NOTE: this is no longer true in 2014. Singapore and Indonesia both now operate the Leopard 2A4***)

Our ground forces employ ambush tactics in the face of any enemy armoured assault. Our geography allows us a great advantage when it comes to such tactics.

The author will not digress into the topics of climate and terrain as this had been previously discussed in a separate article introducing the Leopard MBT in Singapore’s armed forces inventory.

There are several stories whereby a skilled tank commander can defeat a better-equipped enemy. The author recalled from the web an incident whereby an Abrahms commander failed to detect an Iraqi T-72 that was firing at his tank. The encounter took place at night at an engagement range of several kilometres. A column of US army tanks was attacked by an enemy which remain undetected.

(Source: Low Yat)

(Having the best battle tank in the world is meaningless if nothing is done to integrate other assets and develop valid tank tactics. Tank tactics will need to be developed based on the battle terrain & potential opponents. This also needs to be done in parallel with continuous tank crew training so that they can sustain the pressure and speed to outwith the opposing tanks)

Missing Component – Tank Tactics

Whilst things may look different on paper and theory, one needs to see tactics and strategies that will make a lot of differences in the real battlefield. For this, one needs to look at Israel as they had several wars involving main battle tanks and were faced with a far superior number of forces and better modern tanks.

Israel Tal was an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) general known for his knowledge of tank warfare and for leading the development of Israel’s Merkava tank.

Tal was the creator of the Israeli armored doctrine that led to the Israeli successes in the Sinai surprise attack of the Six-Day War. In 1964, General Tal took over the Israeli armored corps and organized it into the leading element of the Israeli Defense Forces, characterized by high mobility and relentless assault. He re-trained all Israeli gunners to hit targets beyond 1.5 kilometres (0.93 mi).

In open terrain, such long distance gunnery proved vital to the survival of the Israeli armored corps in subsequent wars. Israel’s Arab opponents, especially Egypt and Syria, normally fired their Soviet-made tank guns from a distance of between 200 to 500 metres (220 to 550 yd), and quite often tank units advanced to within 100 metres (110 yd) of their targets before firing their main guns. This gave the Israelis an opportunity to exploit this weakness in Arab military doctrine.

Its mobility is considered comparable to the German Blitzkrieg and many hold it to be an evolution of that tactic. Tal’s transformation and success in 1967 led the IDF to expand the role of armor. However, this resulted in reduced attention to other less glamorous, but essential aspects of the army, such as the infantry.

Following the 1973 surprise attack, this excessive focus on fast striking offensive armor left the IDF temporarily without adequate defensive capability. Only in latter stages of the war (with the aid of a US $1.1 billion airlift, Operation Nickel Grass) did the armor break out and show its potential; General Avraham Adan’s armor broke through the Egyptian lines, crossed the Suez Canal and enveloped the Egyptian 3rd Army near Suez.

While the IDF has become a more balanced force since 1973, Tal’s development of armored doctrine has been very important to the IDF and has influenced armored doctrines in other parts of the world.

(Source: Wikipedia)

(Malaysian ATM should look at partnering with the Indian Army for tank warfare tactics and spare parts considering that they are using their own built Arjun MBTs along with a large number of Russian designed MBTs namely T-90S. It is said they have about 6,000 main battle tanks in their inventory. Another factor is Indian Air Force is also using Sukhoi Su-30MKI which is comparable with the Malaysian Sukhoi Su-30MKM. Image source: Wikipedia )

Personal Analysis

Despite the statistics, one can say Malaysia has indeed made the right choice of picking the nimble PT-91 which is itself based on a battle-hardened T-72. There are several factors that went into the final consideration.

Weight

PT-91 weighs 46 tonnes whilst Leopard 2 weighs 62 tonnes. We needed a light tank that can travel within the jungle, muddy terrain without compromising its firepower. This is one main reason why Malaysia did not consider any MBTs until recently when it is clear that SIBMAS cannot continue to play a key role in armoured defences against neighbouring countries’ heavier main battle tanks.

Now the obsolete SIBMAS has been replaced by the modern, 30 tonnes DefTech AV8 Gempita armoured combat vehicle which is capable of launching anti-tank missiles while carrying 11 troops. Gempita also has a longer ranger and speed compared to PT-91M. This will fill any weaknesses gap that PT-91 poses in the jungle and urban warfares.

Price

On average the T-72 is about 3 times cheaper than a Leopard 2 MBT and this does not take into consideration the overall cost of maintenance and training. No thanks to uncontrolled expense leakages and the involvement of middlemen in Malaysia, we do not allocate a large portion of the budget to our defence. We had to see what we can get for the budget that we have.

At the present, the threat to national security is coming from the sea compared to land, so a larger portion is allocated to the Navy to upgrade and acquire new navy vessels. Maritime patrol assets also need to be beefed up considering the intrusions from the Chinese military and also Rohingyas. We do not want to spend too much on something that is not necessary at the present moment.

Experience

This is the first complete tracked MBT that Malaysia had bought so we need to start small to gain experience and plan out our tank tactics and formation of the supporting military assets around these MBTs. We need to see what works and what does not work and how these MBTs can be integrated into defensive and offensive warfare.

Tank Design

One of the key features of T-72 which is carried forward in PT-91 is its low profile which makes it an excellent design for a defensive position. PT-71’s height is only 2.19 meters compared to Leopard 2A7’s height at 3 meters. And this fits the Malaysian doctrine of warfare which will focus more on the defensive role of MBTs. It is not meant to take up any offensive head to head with the opposing MBTs.

Final Say

There are some discussions in the forums/internet on how Malaysian MBTs will not be able to withstand Singaporean and Indonesian Leopard 2 MBTs face to face. However, they are missing the point and one needs to remember that MBTs in this part of the world is mainly for defensive and within the country offensive missions (like the Lahad Datu intrusion).

Further, we have been using Russian derived weapons as our military inventory for a very long time starting with the famous MiG-29 air superiority fighter. The design of MBTs is always evolving with the manufacturers always trying to outdo the defensive mechanism against the latest anti-tank missiles and other MBTs.

PT-91M that the Malaysian Army is using is indeed above the quality of the older T-72 as it is in the same way as Sukhoi Su 30MKM, using a mix of Polish, French, German and US equipment. So it may not be fair to do a direct comparison between the older T-72 that is in use in the Middle East and the latest Leopard 2A7 variant used by Singapore.

For Malaysia, the priority of asset will need to be balanced between the 3 divisions of the armed forces with the highest priority needs to be for the Royal Malaysian Navy for procurement of more Littoral Mission Ships (which unfortunately Malaysia is sourcing from China) and the more capable Maharajalela class type stealth ships (the program have delayed due to overrun of cost).

Next will be for the Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) as it is grossly under-equipped with just 18 Sukhoi Su-30MKM and 8 Boeing F/A-18 to establish air superiority over Malaysia. Comparatively, Singapore has 40 F-15E Strike Eagles and 60 F-16 Fighting Falcon in active service. It is also procuring F-35 stealth fighters.

RMAF is also in dire need of proper AWACS and Maritime Patrol aircraft for early warning and surveillance as the current CASA CN-235 is not capable to cover the vast waters around Malaysia. At least for now, RMAF has already upgraded its strategic transport capability with Airbus A400M.

When it comes to its armoured warfare doctrine, the Malaysian Army did not emphasize MBTs to play any major roles but rather it emphasizes is on armoured personal carriers and infantry fighting vehicles that can dish out firepower but at the same time, able to carry troops into the battle.

Just look at the inventory to see this – with 267 units of Turkish made ACV-300 Adnan (able to carry 8 troops), 111 units of Korean made K-200 KIFV (able to carry 9 troops) and 257 units of Turkish/Malaysian made AV8 Gempita (able to carry 11 troops). We still have a large number of Belgium made SIBMAS APCs(able to carry 11 troops) and Germany made Condor APCs (able to carry 12 troops) that can be upgraded with newer weapons, electronics and armour.

So the procurement of PT-91M MBT is a good start to put a more capable, lighter armoured fighting machine that can dish out more powerful firepower compared to IFVs.

Once we had revised the armoured warfare doctrine, gained enough experience on how to integrate MBTs with other units of the armed forces and established the armoured protocols, we can look at PT-91M replacement, perhaps with Korean made K2 Black Panther MBT or may even German-made Leopard 2A7MBT.

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