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Ukraine: Weapons Industry Takes Aim At Mid-Level Market

Kyiv, 24 June 1998 (RFE/RL) -- No military man in the world would confuse a Ukrainian-made T-80UD tank with a high-tech U.S. or German tank. The T-80UD lacks modern armor, computerized fire control, and thermal optics that enable gunners to see in the dark.

Yet there are foreign armies eager to buy the T-80UD. Even as Ukraine's industrial sector continues to decline, the tanks are steadily rolling off the line at the Malyshev plant in Kharkiv.

Developing countries seek the T-80UD because it costs far less than a Western tank, and very often is better than any tank in their arsenal. The same marketing principles of low price and middle-range quality apply to a host of other Ukrainian weapons that are ideally suited for the armed forces of Third World countries.

Ukraine is attracting even Western attention as a source of low-cost weaponry. Germany has expressed interest in acquiring a new Ukrainian-Russian small military transport aircraft for NATO. One day soon, Ukrainian pistols and bullet-proof vests may be standard issue for soldiers and policemen not only in the developing world, but in the West as well.

The military publisher Jane's says that, with more than $1 billion worth of foreign weapons contracts, Ukraine ranked in 1997 as the world's 20th largest arms seller in 1997.

Ukraine's weapons industry is a powerful remnant of the Soviet era, when countless factories belonged to the enormous industrial complex that kept the Red Army in the field and the Red Navy deployed at sea. The T-80UD is a direct descendant of the Soviet T-80 tank, which in turn is a descendant of the famous T-34. It was the T-34 -- built according to Soviet principles of lost-cost and technical simplicity -- that in large numbers overwhelmed technically superior German Panzer and Tiger tanks during World War II.

Although better armed against cannon shells than its Soviet-era predecessors, it remains vulnerable to shaped charge explosives on missile tips.

But those problems are of little concern to the classic T-80UD customer: a developing country. For many of them, the T-80UD represents a cost-effective upgrade which can destroy Soviet or NATO tanks built in the 1970s and 1980s.

Pakistan was the first customer, paying $650 million for 320 tanks. Next comes Turkey, which wants to overhaul its tank fleet. Malyshev salesmen are pitching for a sale of 1,000 tanks for $2 billion. Turkey's American tank alternative is the M1A1, manufactured by the Chrysler corporation and selling for $5.5 million a unit, about double the cost of a T-80UD.

The list of potential customers includes Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic, all scheduled to join NATO next year. Armed with NATO funding, the three countries may opt for low-cost T-80UDs similar in design to the 1,600 Soviet-era tanks they currently field.

Across Ukraine, many other Soviet-era institutes have found salvation in arms innovation. At the I.N. Frantseevich Institute of Problems of Material Science outside of Kyiv, technicians consider their Frantseevich bullet-proof vest a top-of-the-line 21st century product.

Ukrainian policeman are to receive a new sidearm, manufactured at the Vinnytsya-based Fort weapons factory. Fort was once one of several factories across the USSR cranking out the Tokarev and Makarov 9mm pistols. The new automatic pistol uses only Ukrainian parts, and is said to be better than the Soviet-era guns it replaces.