Heidelberg, West Germany — If Soviet tanks again roll in Eastern Europe, this time to crush a new revolt in Poland, some of them are likely to be equipped with what was, until recently, a top-secret body armor possessed only by Britain and the United States.
The newest operational Soviet main battle tank, the T-72, now wears an exact copy of Britain's highly resistant, mesh-like Chobman armor.
T-72 tanks used by Polish, Bulgarian, and other Warsaw Pact forces are believed to be outfitted with at least a front Chobham glacis armor, as are about 200 T-72s recently delivered to Syria for use in any new Arab-Israeli war.
How this came about goes back to the former shah of Iran's insatiable appetite for the latest sophisticated Western military hardware.
According to US intelligence sources, the Shah learned that the Chobham armor , which the US Army acquired under agreements with Britain and which covers the new US Chrysler XM-1 Abrams main battle tank, was to be standard on Britain's Chieftain heavy tank.
The Shah resolved that the Chieftain, which Iran renamed the Shir Irin, would not only be the backbone of Iran's land-fighting forces, but also the centerpiece of a new domestic defense industry. Britain and the Shah made a deal for local co-production of the Shir Irin.
Meanwhile, Iran bought and paid for more than 1,000 Chieftains. About 875 were delivered before the Shah's fall. British, US, and other NATO staff officers, learning of the impending deal, urged that the secret Chobham armor not be included in the Shir Irin package.
According to the US sources, the Shah was so annoyed by the refusal of the US to supply Iran with topsecret US cryptographic and electronic gear that he chose the issue of the Chobham armor for a successful showdown with the West. The Shah won out.
Most of the Chieftains delivered to the Iranian Army carried the new armor.
Like other sophisticated items, including US Grumman F-14 jets armed with AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles, the tanks stayed in Iran after the revolution.