Tank Museum In U.K. Playing Big Role In Keeping Ukraine’s Armor On Track

If someone asked you to describe the role of military history museums, you’d probably say something about their function in preserving the history of how past conflicts and wars were fought, rather than their importance in contributing to wars in the present. However, experts and archivists at The Tank Museum in the U.K. have been busy putting their knowledge and historical materials to work for the benefit of Ukraine, in order to reverse-engineer a number of Soviet-era armored vehicle and tank tracks to send to the country as it continues to fight against Russian invaders.

The Tank Museum (TTM) is located in the garrison town of Bovington, Dorset on England’s southwest coast. It was approached by the County Durham-based company Cook Defense Systems — which also produces tracks for the British-made Challenger 2 main battle tank — late last year for information on the caterpillar tracks and drive sprockets of Ukrainian BMP infantry fighting vehicles, MT-LB armored fighting vehicles, and T-72 tanks, which date to the Cold War period. As TTM’s website indicates, it currently houses one ex-East German Army T72M1 as part of its 300-strong tank inventory, but does not feature BMP and MT-LB vehicles.

Vehicle Conservation Centre at TTM. Morio via Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-4.0

You can learn more about TTM’s T-72, and the history of the type more broadly, in a video produced by the museum linked below, presented by its curator David Willey. 

The request for help from the museum preceded the signing of a “multi-million pound series of contracts” between the U.K. Ministry of Defense’s procurement arm, Defense Equipment & Support (DE&S) and Cook in late February. These were signed in order to provide spare tracks for up to 500 Ukrainian tanks and armored vehicles, inclusive of both Soviet-era and more modern systems.

Ukraine’s need for supplemental tank and vehicle tracks comes in response to the high volume of damaged tracked armor sustained by the country as well as major wear and tear from two years straight of high-intensity conflict. Alongside the delivery of Western types, Ukraine has accepted delivery of older Soviet-era tanks and armored vehicles from its neighbors like Poland and the Czech Republic, and has had to outsource some tank repairs to those countries in order to maintain supply. Ukraine has also sought to repair captured Soviet-era Russian systems and re-introduce them to the fight during the conflict.

“When we were asked to help [by Cook] we immediately went and looked for anything that might be of assistance,” David Willey told The Telegraph newspaper. “U.K. defense companies are very keen to assist but in some cases the people from the Cold War era are no longer around and knowledge has been lost.”

David Willey pictured outside The Tank Museum. The Tank Museum

As Willey highlights, specific archival material was quickly provided to Cook by experts at the museum for reference. “We have hundreds of thousands of reference documents, diagrams, and drawings. Lots of material is squirreled away, but it didn’t take us too long to find what we were asked for.”

“It is all fascinating, and the irony is that the need for these historical documents comes round again and are of contemporary relevance,” he told The Telegraph.

“Details such as the angles, pitch, and tension required for the new tracks were sought and our archive was able to provide them [Cook] with old manuals and blueprints. We also found examples of the actual items required such as T-72 tracks and pins from one of the vehicles in the collection… The company took a link from the track off our T-72 [for reference].”

T-72 track diagram from The Tank Museum’s archives. The Tank Museum

Given the significant resources and level of expertise at the museum, it’s understandable why Cook approached TTM for its help. It was at Bovington that the Royal Tank Corps, the world’s first tank corps, made its home in 1916. TTM was later founded in 1923, initially serving as a military teaching collection. Today, while the museum attracts a few hundred thousand visitors a year, its reach has grown exponentially thanks to the creation of a dedicated and highly popular YouTube channel.

Altogether, TTM notes, Cook combined analyses of incomplete Soviet-era drawings, contemporary manuals, and its own inspection of relevant vehicles at the museum, alongside studying specimen track links from TTM and examples used in Ukraine, in order to reverse-engineer the necessary track links. 

While Cook “has a long history of supplying tracks for all the armored vehicles of the British Army and many allied militaries” dating back to World War II, the company’s Defense Systems Manager William Cook highlights that manufacturing replacement parts for some of the platforms specified “has been a very different challenge.”

“Although some of the vehicles supported by Cook Defense Systems are Soviet-designed, the manufacturing techniques used by the company are anything but. They include laser scanning and digital X-ray inspection, with much of the physical production work performed by robots,” Cook said, the U.K. Defense Journal reports. According to the company’s website, it currently producing legacy track systems for Soviet-era BMP-1 and BMP2 infantry fighting vehicles as well as ZSU-23-4 Shilka self-propelled anti-aircraft guns.

Yet the prospect of manufacturing spare parts for other platforms, notably T-72 tanks, has been difficult. “We have had to reverse-engineer Soviet-era equipment using limited reference material and a lot of our own know-how, while working with the manufacturing processes and materials available to us rather than the original Russian ones,” Cook separately told the U.K. Defense Journal. “We know there are Ukrainian soldiers on the front line whose lives depend on what we do.”

TTM’s T72M1 in action. The Tank Museum

Even with the aid of TTM’s resources and its own in-house expertise, the manufacturing process proved difficult for the company. “Major challenges to the project included the development of new steel alloys to match the original Russian specifications, and re-designing forged and welded components as castings to suit the new manufacturing process,” TTM indicated.

With that said, however, Cook managed to overcome these challenges. A sample of the company’s British-made T-72 track gifted to the museum can be seen in the top shot of this article and close-up below. According to Willey, Cook’s tracks are now starting to arrive in Ukraine.

The Tank Museum

“What Cook Defense has achieved is a perfect example of British manufacturing excellence and ingenuity combined with a ‘can do’ approach to problem solving,” Maj. Gen. Anna-Lee Reilly, director of the Operations Directorate at DE&S, said. “The company has applied their proven manufacturing expertise and combined it with creativity to find a solution which delivers a huge benefit to Ukraine.”

And on his, and TTM’s, role in helping Cook Defense Systems achieve this, Wiley said:

“It has been an honor to play a small part in helping our allies in their war against an aggressor. We are duty-bound to support them. Common sense says that we should help allies in trouble. If we don’t stand up to this dictator and Ukraine falls, other countries will be next. We have to do our best.”

Contact the author: oliver@thewarzone.com

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Oliver Parken

Associate Editor

Oli’s background is in the cultural and military history of twentieth-century Britain. Before joining The War Zone team in early in 2022, he was Assistant Lecturer at the University of Kent’s Center for the History of War, Media and Society in the U.K., where he completed his PhD in 2021. Alongside his contributions to The War Zone‘s military history catalog, he also covers contemporary topics and breaking news.