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Post Ukraine's Tank Arsenal
Created by John Eipper on 01/22/23 4:14 AM

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Ukraine's Tank Arsenal (Anthony J Candil, USA, 01/22/23 4:14 am)

John E asked about the tanks presently in use by the Ukrainian side. I'm not fully updated on this, but I assume that most of the original Ukrainian tank arsenal is now depleted.

Yes, Ukraine's tank fleet originally was of Russian-Soviet origin: T-72, T-64 and likely even some older tanks such as T-62s. Probably some more modern T-80s too, some of them improved with additional Western features.

We've heard that they have been provided with surplus ex-Warsaw Pact tanks since the war started, mostly T-72s from Poland, the Czech Republic, and even Croatia. These tanks are modified Soviet tanks adding Western capabilities such as better range finders and communications, but in the end they are Soviet tanks with a facelift.

On the other hand the Ukrainian Army is presently using some M-2 Bradley American IFVs (Infantry Fighting Vehicles) that are very capable of taking out Russian T-72s with the anti-tank TOW missile they carry. (During the First Gulf War many Iraqi T-72s we're destroyed by Bradleys.) I don't know about any other armored equipment, other than Russian equipment such as BMPs.

However, it seems the Ukrainians have also captured many Russian T-72s and maybe even T-90s and are now fielding them against their original owners.

And all that reminds me of the Spanish Civil War, where the Nationalists captured many Soviet T-26 and BT-5 tanks and used them against the Republicans. In 1939 the Soviet T-26B tank was not only the most numerous tank in Franco's arsenal but the best one and with more firepower. German and Italian tanks have machine guns only while the T-26s --and BT-5s too--carry a real 45 mm gun.

Most of the Republican tanks were simply abandoned in the field after running out of fuel and this is perfectly documented in Soviet archives now at Yale University.

The same thing is happening now in Ukraine.

It is an irony of history that Stalin became the main purveyor of Franco's armor. They kept using those tanks until 1954 when the Spanish Army started receiving US tanks. (Those interested could find more details on my book published in 2021, Tank Combat in Spain, Casemate Publishers.)

Regarding the need for tanks, yes, if offensive operations to recover lost territories are to be undertaken, tanks would be very useful. But, wouldn't this be risking then Putin's use of nuclear weapons?

War is a complicated business.  It's easy to start one but nobody will know when and how it will end.

JE comments:  I've added a new title to my reading list, Anthony Candil's Tank Combat in Spain.  Click below to get your copy.  The moral of Tony's study is that the Spanish Civil War was a "proving ground" for tank warfare, as it was for aerial operations.  Lessons the world didn't need--how would WWII have looked different had there been no SCW?

Amazon.com: Tank Combat in Spain: Armored Warfare During the Spanish Civil War 1936–1939: 9781612009704: Candil, Anthony J: Libros

Tony, a curiosity:  what is your appraisal of Russia's T-14 Armata "wondertank"?  As I understand it, none or almost none have been sent to Ukraine.  Is it simply unproven technology, do the Russians fear its capture, or both?

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  • Russia's T-14 Armata Tank: Not Ready for Prime Time? (Anthony J Candil, USA 01/22/23 1:08 PM)
    John E asked for my views on Russia's T-14 Armata tank. Nobody knows much about it, but from what I do know I don't like it.

    What I have seen so far is a big "box" on tracks, too high, with vertical walls inviting all kind of rounds to get in. Apparently the big turret is unmanned. Obviously, with a lot of electronics, active defense measures and so on.  Allow me to say that I don't trust Russian electronics. Have we ever heard of Russian-made computers, laptops, etc? Maybe they will count on Chinese help?

    I don't know the answer but I think this T-14 Armata is probably experimental and that's why it hasn't been fielded in Ukraine. It won't be a match for the 120 mm gun of either the Abrams or the Leopard 2 A6. By the way, do you know that the armor-piercing rounds used by the Abrams are made with DU (depleted uranium)? (This is a reason why the US doesn't want to supply the Abrams to Ukraine). Nothing will stop these rounds.

    JE comments:  Russian armaments have succeeded when they're robust, cheap, and made in massive quantities.  Think the T-34 tank, or the AK-47 machine gun.  The T-14 Armata is none of these things.  If it worked, one assumes, swarms of them would presently be "in theater."

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    • Philosophy of Russia's Armaments; on the T-14 Tank (Cameron Sawyer, USA 01/23/23 3:22 AM)
      JE commented on Anthony Candil's post of January 22nd: "Russian armaments have succeeded when they're robust, cheap, and made in massive quantities. Think the T-34 tank, or the AK-47 machine gun. The T-14 Armata is none of these things. If it worked, one assumes, swarms of them would presently be ‘in theater.'"

      The idea that all good Russian weapons are simple, cheap, and mass produced is a bit of a stereotype.

      Simple and efficient to produce is only one stream of Russian, or rather, Soviet thought about weapons. And the seed of this stream of thought is actually foreign.  The Soviets were immensely impressed with American manufacturing, particularly Henry Ford's auto plants, and hired armies of American consultants and architects and engineers to design gigantic industrial plants for the wave of industrialization they carried out during the first two five-year plans in the 1930s. Henry Ford's revolutionary approach to manufacturing put down deep roots in the Soviet Union, with profound influence on the outcome of the war, as Soviet military production outperformed Germany's.

      But that is only one stream. The other stream is audacious, often eccentric high technology. That is the stream which gave us the Soviet space program, sometimes bizarrely combined with the Henry Ford approach to yield systems like the Soyuz space launcher, the most reliable and successful space launcher in history. This stream also gave technological breakthroughs for military aircraft far ahead of the US, such as the eye-tracking gunsights of the MiG-29 and later Soviet fighters. Soviet military aircraft in general are anything but simple and cheap, and that applies to a number of other Soviet weapons systems as well.

      Including post-war Soviet tanks, which are not much like the T-34. The T-80 is altogether a very complex tank, no less so than the Abrams, and even the Volkswagen-like mass produced T-72 has many complex features. For example, all Soviet tanks since the T-64 have auto-loaders for their main guns, which increases the rate of fire and eliminates one crew member, whereas the main guns of all of our tanks are loaded by hand by a dedicated crew member.

      Connected with that, however, post-war Soviet tanks all have at least one terrible deficiency--the auto-loaded ammunition is stored inside the crew space. In the T-72 and T-90, it is in a carousel around the base of the turret. This means that if the turret is penetrated by a top-attack weapon like the N-LAW, the stored ammunition goes off, blowing the turret off and killing everyone inside. The Abrams stores the ammunition in a separate compartment with a blow-out panel--a huge advantage.

      The T-14 Armata avoids this problem with an unmanned turret, allowing the crew to sit in a separate armored capsule, which could be a huge advantage--if it all works. T-14s have not been seen so far in combat in Ukraine, but that is not surprising.  The tank was only designed in 2014 and is not yet in series production. Eight years is not a long time for development of such devices. That's about how long it took to get the much less complex Abrams into production, and less than it took to get the Bradley into production.

      As to the guns of the Abrams vs. that of the T-14--I will have to politely disagree with Anthony that there is any advantage in the Abrams gun or its ammunition, compared to Russian ones. The Armata has a somewhat heavier 125mm smoothbore gun, compared to the Abrams' old 120mm Rheinmetall gun, and the Russian gun fires advanced armor-penetrating rounds including the new "Vacuum-1" depleted uranium sabot round, specially developed for the T-14, which is reportedly capable of penetrating a meter (!) of armor at 2000 meters. This is better than the US-made M829A1 round we used in Iraq, which the crews nicknamed the "Silver Bullet," probably what Anthony had in mind. But in practice there is no practical difference.  Both of these kinetic rounds can penetrate almost any part of the armor of any tank made, and explosive reactive armor like what the Russian tanks have, which is quite effective against high explosive rounds, doesn't slow down kinetic rounds much.

      The 125mm guns of the T-72 and T-90 are also provided with depleted uranium and tungsten sabot rounds which are comparable to the American M829A1, at least in Russian service (don't know what the Ukrainians have). As far as I know, at no point did we have a significant advantage over the Soviets or Russians in tank ammunition.

      Since the T-14 is not even in production yet, it would be better to compare the Abrams with the deeply modernized T90M, which is indeed in full production and which is being deployed in Ukraine now in large numbers (200 brand-new T90Ms were delivered to the front just in December; see: https://military-wiki.com/russian-t-90m-deployed-in-ukraine-in-extremely-large-numbers-the-war-heats-up/ ). The T90M is significantly modernized compared to the T90, and has much of the technology of the T-14, and has capabilities comparable to that of the latest M1A2 SEP V3 Abrams tank, including an advanced fire control system, third-generation thermal sights, etc. An unusual feature of the T90M, not yet achieved on any Western tanks, is the ability to launch anti-tank missiles through the barrel of its main gun. See: https://military-wiki.com/t-90m-vs-abrams-m1a2-sep-v3-who-wins/

      The Abrams has one significant advantage in its hydraulic turret drive, which is smoother and more accurate than the electric drives of other tanks, making it easier and quicker to aim the gun--a really big advantage (keeping in mind the crucial importance in a tank battle of getting off the first accurate shot). But this is also at the same time a disadvantage, in that the hydraulics are troublesome, resulting in a lot of down time.

      But as I said, I don't think nuances of the hardware are very important. There is not a tank made which can withstand a top attack from a man-carried ATGM like an NLAW, Javelin or Russian Kornet, or a direct hit from a depleted uranium kinetic round such as the ones used by both Americans and Russians. Anyway there are few tank-on-tank battles in Ukraine. When there is one, the most important factor by far is not the hardware, but the efficiency of the crews.

      As was well said in one Czech military journal:

      "Comparing the parameters of two vehicles [Leopard 2 vs. T90M] is naturally always distorting and misleading from the point of view of possible situations of sharp conflict. Modern weapons are inevitably part of a system that includes assets capable of responding to different situations, providing situational awareness, locating and identifying primary targets, providing fire support, whether ground or air, and only in the context of the whole system can a weapon be effective or ineffective [emphasis added], while its detailed technical parameters may not play a decisive role at the given moment. At the same time, it is necessary to realize that on today's battlefield the adversaries have so many varied anti-tank weapons that direct battles between main battle tanks will be only a fraction of the situations in which losses will occur."


      The Ukrainian tank crews will perform far better using hardware they have trained on and are familiar with, which are already well integrated into their systems and practices, and they still have enough of that. It will take them a long time, as Anthony wrote, to get up to speed on the Leopard or Abrams, and even then, they will not see a huge advantage, or any at all, over the Russian hardware they are fighting against.

      JE comments:  Besides cheap, I stressed robust, but you've set me straight, Cameron.  Could you now weigh in on the armaments question of the present war:  are tanks still relevant in conventional "symmetrical" warfare, or largely obsolete?  From what you describe above, I would argue the latter.  At least I can confidently say that with uranium rounds and anti-tank rockets flying around, I wouldn't want to be sitting inside a tank.

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      • More on Tanks: Russian vs Western (Anthony J Candil, USA 01/24/23 8:10 AM)
        As usual my compliments to Cameron Sawyer for his comments on Russian armaments. Well written and well said. Cameron belongs to our Cavalry brotherhood.

        One clarification on tank ammunition. I didn't want to give all the technical denominations of tank rounds, as I did not think it would interest most WAISers.

        The difference in caliber regarding Western and Soviet/Russian tank guns is irrelevant (125 mm vs 120 mm), and it has been always a trend in Russian gun developments to seek the bigger gun: Russian 45 mm vs Western 37 mm, 100 mm vs 90 mm, 115 mm vs 105 mm, and now 125 mm vs 120 mm. But it doesn't make much difference in effectiveness.

        Nevertheless, on the autoloader issue I have to disagree a little bit with Cameron, based on my own experience. I have seen and used the autoloader of both the T-62 (the first Soviet tank that used it) and T-72, and they are very unreliable and prone to create accidents within the turret, even severing the arm of a crewman once. The reason we don't use autoloaders in the West is precisely the size and weight of the rounds that require a system with no failures at all, and perfect alignment, especially while in motion and cross-country, something very difficult to achieve. I imagine the autoloaders on the T-80 and T-90 are now much better, but I still wouldn't trust them too much.

        In Iraq, our crews performed much better than the Iraqi T-72s, whose autoloaders were constantly jammed. In our Abrams, we manage to shoot 8 rounds per minute. I haven't heard of such a rate of fire on any Russian tank especially with autoloading.

        The so-called Russian innovations and originality are in doubt when we scrutinize them. Even the Russian T-34 owed the idea of tracks and suspension to the American engineer Walter Christie, who designed this system in the 1930s. The initial T-26 tanks were a British design from Vickers. On the other hand the Soviets learned much from the Germans on the joint tank school they set up in the mid 1920s in Kazan. Marshal Tukhachevsky's ideas were in reality based on Liddell Hart and Fuller's thoughts of the 1930s.

        On the issue of the tanks being obsolete, you know my view. Not at all. They are simply becoming more sophisticated, better and more lethal. John won't like to be seating inside a tank, and I understand, but believe me you won't like to be outside on your own either.

        On the nonsense of Ukraine being provided with Western tanks: they will do much better with Russian tanks than with Western tanks. Now we hear that France is also considering providing Ukraine with the Leclerc.  It is the worst tank the West and not even the French soldiers like it.

        JE comments:  Anthony, your expertise here is certainly of interest to one WAISer (me).  I always wanted to have a turn at the controls of a tank, but only in a peaceful, controlled environment.  I just fear I'd look silly, and people would compare me to Michael Dukakis.

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        • Target Practice in Mongolia (from Edward Mears) (John Eipper, USA 01/25/23 2:50 AM)
          Edward Mears writes:

          In 2008, during my second year on the JET Program in Saga, Japan, one of the perks of the program was that we had lengthy holidays around the New Year and over the summer.

          I had been in touch with one of my friends from high school who was teaching English in Mongolia, and we had talked about meeting up. Just before my winter holiday that year I checked the flights to Ulaanbaatar from Fukuoka and was surprised at the very low rates--I think it was around 400 dollars US round trip. Transiting through Seoul, I quickly found out why the tickets were so cheap.  No one goes to visit Mongolia in the dead of winter, when temperatures can reach -40 Celsius or lower.

          Ulaanbaatar in the winter is rather bleak--thanks to the frigid temperatures and limited daylight hours, the streets were mostly desolate and many of the businesses that catered to the summer crowds coming to see the naadam and eagle festivals close up shop for winter. This left us with little to do during my stay other than explore the few museums in UB that were open, eat fried lamb and drink lots of vodka. On one of the days I ventured out alone, I remember queuing in a small convenience store to purchase some water or whatever the Gatorade equivalent was in Mongolia, to keep in my backpack as I darted in and out of some shops and museums. This must have been around 7am or so and I was struck by the line in front of me at the register: six or seven Mongolian men who each had bottles of vodka in their baskets and nothing else. I recall thinking this was a rather sad sight until later that day when I reached into my backpack to grab my water and found it was frozen solid. My friend later explained that among the many "benefits" of vodka, the fact that it will not freeze solid during the harsh Mongolian winters is of critical importance.

          Anyway, we both became bored with UB fairly quickly, and while out one night with one of my friend's colleagues from the English school he worked at, one of them suggested that we take a trip out to one of the Ger camps on the Mongolian steppe far from UB to experience "authentic" Mongolian culture. My friend knew a tour guide who arranged an early morning car ride out somewhere northeast of Mongolia. The car ride took three hours and I was struck by how there was absolutely nothing once outside of UB--just the road and the flat grey mass of the Mongolian steppe.  There were no trees or other wildlife and certainly no signs of civilization save for a few Ger camps we spotted along the way. After one of the most boring car rides I can recall, we arrived at our destination and were served tea inside a traditional Mongolian Ger--a circular tent that the nomadic Mongolians can pack up easily and move from place to place. I remember stepping out of the car upon arrival and feeling the water on my eyeballs start to freeze over--the temperature there was even colder than in UB--an incredibly strange sensation that I will never forget (the key to keeping your eyes moist and not frozen was to blink faster than usual). Thankfully Mongolian Gers are incredibly well-insulated and once inside we warmed up rather quickly--the tea and vodka that our hosts shared with us also helped. After a quick history lesson on the Ger tents and the nomadic lifestyle, our hosts asked us if we were interested in shooting some weapons.

          Our eyes lit up as they brought us to a separate "facility" behind the main tent where they had an entire cache of old Soviet weaponry, including numerous AK-47s, pistols, sniper rifles, hand grenades, land mines and even a Gatling gun that was mounted on a wagon. For a fee, all of these weapons could be fired on their "range," which was just the expanse of the Mongolian steppe behind the Ger tent. They had a collection of old beat-up cars that one could shoot at, though they motioned to us to please not fire towards any of the free-roaming horses that were milling about in the distance. We chose to shoot the AK-47 and an RPG. I had fired a few small arms at camps growing up in Michigan (mostly .22 rifles), but was not ready for the serious upgrade in firepower of an AK-47, which nearly dislocated my shoulder when I began firing it for the first time. I recall it being very, very loud--almost painful to my ears. By the end of the magazine I became a bit more comfortable with it and was able to steady my aim on the targets that had been set up. Next was the RPG, which our hosts instructed us to aim at the ground just in front of some of the old beat-up cars that littered around the range. Not knowing how old these rockets were and how they were maintained, I encouraged my friend to be the first to shoot. There was no instruction--just point and shoot, as our guide pantomimed to us (these guys did not speak English). My friend ended up missing the car and the rocket exploded on the ground harmlessly about 100 meters in front of us. Conditioned by a lifetime of Hollywood films, I was expecting a big fireball explosion and was surprised when the "explosion" was relatively small and devoid of fire--just a big cloud of dirt and ice being kicked up from the frozen ground. I shot second, and after getting on one knee and having the rocket loaded on the launcher, I braced for what I thought would be tremendous kickback based on my earlier experience with the AK-47. I did not realize, however, that unlike the AK-47 bullets, the rocket was self-propelled and there was hardly any kickback--just the loud scream of the rocket and a trail of smoke that obscured my target. Having braced too hard and surprised by the lack of pushback, I fell forward after the rocket launched so I did not see the actual impact but heard the cheers of our hosts nearby.  I looked back at the range and saw that my rocket had hit and blown the door off a rusted Honda Civic.

          After we finished with the RPG, our hosts brought us to another part of the range where they had a fully functional T-72 tank. For a fee, we could get in and actually drive the tank around a small course they had built. They said they did not have any of the ammunition on hand so we were unable to ascertain the firing rate of the auto loader. I'll report back next time I come across Soviet tanks in the wild and settle this WAIS controversy once and for all. Unfortunately our hosts could not get the T-72 started--perhaps due to the frigid temperature but I am not quite sure.  So we had to be contented with just hopping in the tank and having our pictures taken in the cockpit, which was still a thrill. We drove back to UB later that night and I returned to Japan shortly thereafter. Unfortunately my camera was either lost or stolen during my last few hours in the country and I do not have any of the pictures from that excursion.

          I am still quite sad that I don't have those photos or the video of my RPG success.

          JE comments:  Eddie, your post is definitely the most bizarre travelogue of the New Year!  What a fascinating adventure, despite the ungodly cold.  Regarding tanks, one of the most useful features of the T-34 was its compressed-air starter, which enabled it to fire up in the dead of a Russian winter.  Does the T-72 have the same feature?  Apparently it does; listen to the whistling air in the following video.  Your Mongolian hosts must have neglected the maintenance of their "pet" T-72.

          T-72 V12 Diesel Engine start after 10 years SOUND PANZER FARM - YouTube

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        • Germany to Send Leopards to Ukraine (Consoly Leon Arias, Spain / Canary 01/26/23 4:55 AM)
          One of the reasons given by the Ukrainian President for demanding the German Leopard tanks is the alleged counter-offensive that Ukraine is preparing for the spring, as well as to maintain resistance in the siege of Bakhmut.

          After the pressure received by other allied members, Germany has decided to supply Ukraine with Leopard 2 battle tanks, which the armies of countries such as Spain, the Scandinavian countries and the Germans themselves operate.

          This decision was made in exchange for the Biden administration also sending its Abrams armored vehicles, in addition to the Challenger 2, which the British Prime Minister has promised.

          In addition to these two initiatives, Morocco will also send some twenty T-72Bs to Ukraine. This gesture is tantamount to a public condemnation of the invasion of Ukraine, after eleven months of silence. The delay was no doubt motivated by a desire not to damage relations with Moscow.

          Morocco, the main US ally in North Africa, has also been forced to make this decision after being subjected to "pressure" from the US government. In return for sending its Soviet-era T-72Bs, the US will reward the Moroccan gesture, probably with Abrams tanks.

          Naturally, this does not mean that they will be the same armored vehicles the US Armored Weapon currently operates.

          NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg recently encouraged partner countries to train Ukrainian soldiers in the handling of the armored vehicles, stressing their importance either to repel Russian attacks or to enable Ukraine to regain its previous status quo.

          Naturally, and although the purpose is what we would all wish, the reality of the moment seems to indicate that this is a far-fetched idea, since according to our colleague Tony Candil, an expert in these matters, it is impossible to train in a few days the crew of any tank, regardless of whether they are Leopard, Leclerc, Abrams or Challenger.

          Thus, the doubts shown by Germany has highlighted the existing discrepancies between the different allied countries, and Germany's mistrust when observing how the Russians continue to advance in Ukraine.

          Yet Germany is probably the country that best knows Russia's foreign strategies, and therefore fears its retaliation, if Europe and NATO finally confront each other with their respective battle tanks in a hypothetical confrontation on Ukrainian soil.

          These days in Germany, there is uncertainty about the final destination of the weapons sent to Ukraine, as many are suspicious about claims that the war has transformed Ukraine, a country marked by corruption, into a de facto democracy.

          Also, during the war, the capture by the Russians of certain arms could prove harmful to European defense.

          For these reasons, the United States has probably not sent its M1 Abrams to the Ukrainian front.

          The Germans, for their part, look with suspicion at the rest of Europe and their demands to send the Leopards in the same direction that took them to the Soviet Union during the Second World War.

          Unfortunately, the war in the heart of Europe is moving towards an increasingly imminent confrontation between NATO and Russia. This is what Sergei Lavrov, Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, indicated last Monday, pointing out that the confrontation between Russia and the West over Ukraine is already closer to a "real war" than to a "hybrid war," due to the massive shipment of weapons to Ukraine.

          Therefore, if the European countries get even more involved in this war by supplying tanks and missiles, we will all be entering a dead end in which Putin, isolated by the West but armed to the teeth, should not be underestimated.

          JE comments:  A dribble of three or four different Western tanks (such as 14 Leopards) will be a logistical and maintenance nightmare, not to mention the problem of training the crews.  And Consoly León Arias brings up another risk--that these state-of-the-art tanks will fall into enemy hands.

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