Back in December 2020 I wrote about how Saudi-led forces in Yemen were using ancient T-34 tanks in combat. In that I pointed out that tanks, even ones as old as the World War Two T-34, could be useful in combat still…if they could be made to operate and didn’t actually face anything more formidable than a rifle.
But all in all, it was a remarkable situation…and now we seem to have surpassed it.
Footage has been doing the rounds on social media of T-55 tanks being drawn from Russian reserves, where they must have been sitting for decades, and being shipped to unconfirmed destinations.
#Russian forces may be deploying significantly outdated T-54 and T-55 tanks from long-term storage to #Ukraine to compensate for significant armored vehicle losses. (1/4) https://t.co/MAFuNkXAjg https://t.co/Pst6m2rvq8
— ISW (@TheStudyofWar) March 23, 2023
But the speculation is, understandably, that they are headed for Ukraine.
The Conflict Intelligence Team website state they have identified the tanks departing from the town of Arsenyev which hosts a major tank storage and repair facility, where reserves of T-72 and T-62 tanks have been reconditioned before being sent to fight in Ukraine.
I’ll be honest, this is a situation I’ve joked about since it became apparent that the Russians had bogged down and were losing tanks at a horrific rate, but wasn’t honestly sure would ever happen.
The T-54/55 series were essentially the successors to the T-34, with the first models of the T-54 entering service in 1948 and the improved T-55 coming into service a decade later.
This tank series formed the backbone of the Warsaw Pact’s armor fleets throughout the Cold War and were built in vast numbers, with it thought that perhaps as many as a 100,000 manufactured by the time its production ended in the 1980s. Because of this the T-54/55 still provides service in large quantities all around the world today, with many users choosing to undertake thorough upgrades to their fleets to keep them viable.
This is also a tank with which I am familiar with, having seen them in action on multiple occasions. They can still have a use on a particular type of battlefield, where the anti-tank threat is not too great and where their ability to act as mobile direct fire support can be extremely valuable. The T-55s are simple to operate, easy for maintenance (though they do need a lot of it) and there is no shortage of ammunition for them.
But they are very, very vulnerable.
The T-54/55 was built as an essentially disposable item, a product of Soviet experience from the Second World War where numbers mattered and losses just had to be sucked up. Even in its heyday of the 1950s, when it gave NATO planners nightmares, it was recognized that the tank would be lost in huge numbers.
Little concern was given to crew safety or ammunition storage, meaning that, as has been shown countless times on countless battlegrounds, the T-54/55s are deathtraps for crew who are engaged by even the lightest of anti-tank weapons from the 1960s onwards.
Nowadays, some sixty years later, it’s prospects in a high threat battleground are suicidal.
In the lower threat warzones where it stills sees action, smart operators don’t use it as a tank in the conventional sense, using it more as an assault gun or harassing vehicle, where it can be kept out of the main combat zone or rapidly disengage after firing a few shells. And even countries that have undertaken extensive upgrading of the vehicle, such as Vietnam, recognize that it has a supplementary role supporting infantry and not as a front line Main Battle Tank.
But the T-55s filmed don’t even seem to have any form of updated equipment. The models seen include some of the very first T-54s, which don’t even have the distinctive fume extractor of later models.
In Russia, trains with ancient T-54/55 were seen, which were withdrawn from storage bases. It is said to be the first recorded instance of T-54/55 withdrawal from storage.
More details by link – https://t.co/Un6aVmXkk2 https://t.co/paPEphI0H2 pic.twitter.com/PsvI1bdbHz
— Special Kherson Cat 🐈🇺🇦 (@bayraktar_1love) March 22, 2023
Other tanks seen have old active-infra red night sights, the use of which in somewhere like Ukraine, were passive night vision and thermal sights are common, would be just unthinkable.
Speculation is that the T-55s filmed, if indeed they are going to Ukraine, will be handed over to forces of the Luhansk and Donetsk Republics, who tend to get second rate equipment from their Russian sponsors. But I am not sure that this will be doing them any favors.
Because the Ukraine War is a place where the very latest, high end battle tanks have died in huge numbers, including, thanks to massive use of drones, even behind the front lines. Even if they receive extensive modification before being thrown into action, the T-54/55s will be hideously vulnerable in such a high-threat environment.
We also must wonder just how bad things are for the Russians if they do deploy these, to be frank, relics. If losses are so heavy that they have to resort to this, then the disparity in equipment as new model western tanks start to come into service with the Ukrainian military is going to be even more marked and means that Russian forces and their allies are going to take even greater casualties than they already are.