The T-72 was the most common tank used by the Warsaw Pact from the 1970s to the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was also exported to other countries, such as Finland, India, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Yugoslavia, as well as being copied elsewhere, both with and without licenses.
Licenced versions of the T-72 were made in Poland and Czechoslovakia, for Warsaw Pact consumers. These tanks had better and more consistent quality of make but with inferior armour, lacking the resin-embedded ceramics layer inside the turret front and glacis armour, replaced with all steel. The Polish-made T-72G tanks also had thinner armour compared to Soviet Army standard (410 mm for turret). Before 1990, Soviet-made T-72 export versions were similarly downgraded for non-Warsaw Pact customers (mostly the Arab countries). Many parts and tools are not interchangeable between the Russian, Polish and Czechoslovakian versions, which caused logistical problems.
Yugoslavia developed the T-72 into the more advanced M-84, and sold hundreds of them around the world during the 1980s. The Iraqis called their T-72 copies the "Lion of Babylon" (Asad Babil). These Iraqi tanks were assembled from "spare parts" sold to them by Russia as a means of evading the UN-imposed weapons embargo. More modern derivatives include the Polish PT-91 Twardy. Several countries, including Russia and Ukraine, also offer modernization packages for older T-72s.
Various versions of the T-72 have been in production for decades, and the specifications for its armour have changed considerably. Original T-72 tanks had homogeneous cast steel armour incorporating spaced armour technology and were moderately well protected by the standards of the early 1970s. In 1979, the Soviets began building T-72 modification with composite armour similar to the T-64 composite armour, in the front of the turret and the front of the hull. Late in the 1980s, T-72 tanks in Soviet inventory (and many of those elsewhere in the world as well) were fitted with reactive armour tiles.
Laser rangefinders appear in T-72 tanks since 1978; earlier examples were equipped with parallax optical rangefinders, which could not be used for distances under 1,000 metres (1,100 yd). Some export versions of the T-72 lacked the laser rangefinder until 1985 or only the squadron and platoon commander tanks (version K) received them. After 1985, all newly made T-72s came with reactive armour as standard, the more powerful 840 bhp (630 kW) V-84 engine and an upgraded design main gun, which can fire guided anti-tank missiles from the barrel. With these developments the T-72 eventually became almost as powerful as the more expensive T-80 tank, but few of these late variants reached the economically ailing Warsaw Pact allies and foreign customers before the Soviet bloc fell apart in 1990.
Since 2000, export vehicles have been offered with thermal imaging night-vision gear of French manufacture as well (though it may be more likely that they might simply use the locally manufactured 'Buran-Catherine' system, which incorporates a French thermal imager). Depleted uranium armour-piercing ammunition for the 125 mm (4.9 in) gun has been manufactured in Russia in the form of the BM-32 projectile since around 1978, though it has never been deployed, and is less penetrating than the later tungsten BM-42 and the newer BM-42M.