The 61-Year-Old 'AK-47' of Tanks: Russia's T-54s and T-55s Keep Fighting

The Buzz

Like the AK-47 but for tanks, T-54 and T-55s endure on battlefields around the world. Simple to operate and maintain, these decades-old Soviet armored beasts are still popular in small nations and with non-state irregular forces — a true “people’s tank.”

If a coup or fratricidal civil war breaks out in one of Moscow’s current or former beneficiaries, there’s good chances T-54 or T-55s are taking part.

When Afghanistan collapsed in the 1990s, the Taliban and Northern Alliance coalition both inherited T-55s formerly belonging to the communist government. The tanks served in Yugoslavia’s multi-sided civil war during the same decade.

Today, captured Iraqi and Syrian T-55s serve under the black flag of Islamic State and other rebel groups fighting in the region. For these insurgent armies, the 60-year old tanks are just as useful as far more modern designs such as the M1 Abrams.

Because most of the time, tanks don’t need to be complicated. Cheap, uncomplicated and deadly enough is sufficient for most 21st century wars.


At the end of World War II, the Soviet Union’s tank arsenal consisted largely of T-34/85 medium tanks, along with smaller numbers of IS-2 and IS-3 heavy tanks. While the T-34 series had performed outstandingly in the war against Nazi Germany, the Soviets considered its leaf spring suspension and 85-millimeter gun to be outdated.

The later IS-series tanks — standing for Iosif (Joseph) Stalin — had proven themselves more than a match for Germany’s best Panzers. Unfortunately, the crews had to load huge 122-millimeter shells and propellant charges separately into the cannon, giving the vehicle a low rate of fire and ammunition reserve.

The Soviets built the more obscure T-44 — which did not see combat action — in an attempt to reduce the T-34/85’s profile with a squat turret and a sunken hull structure. However, the small size made it impractical for engineers to fit a 100- or 122-millimeter weapon.

The desire for a fresh design led Kremlin weaponeers to create the T-54 and improved T-55 medium tank. Today, these steel monsters remain the most common tanks in the world.

For nearly a decade prior to the more recognizable T-54A’s appearance in 1954, the Soviets had already built predecessor models known as the T-54–1, -2 and -3 in modest numbers. These versions usually had a counterweight on the main gun muzzle rather than the distinctive bore evacuator — a device that keeps noxious fumes from blowing back into the turret.

It’s hard to tell the difference between the different models, but looking for these features is the easiest way. The pre-production turrets had cutaways on their front and rear undersides, but the Soviets gradually eliminated these design quirks, as they could inadvertently deflect incoming rounds into the hull.

In addition to the evacuator on the barrel, the T-54A was the first of the series to have a vertical stabilizer for the main gun. The T-54B went a step further with both horizontal and vertical gun stabilization.

The T-54’s diminutive turret kept the overall height to a mere 2.39 meters, making the tank shorter and harder to hit than the contemporary American M-48 Patton. The curve of the turret also helped to deflect incoming rounds.

Cold War Combat:

T-54s first saw action in 1956 in Hungarian capital of Budapest, when the Soviets used them to crush rebels who had overthrown the local pro-Soviet regime. But the debut took a humiliating turn when Hungarian rebels drove a captured T-54 into the British embassy, giving Western experts an up-close look at its strengths and weaknesses.

In 1972, North Vietnam launched a major invasion of its southern neighbor — eventually leading to South Vietnam’s capitulation. In a tank-on-tank confrontation at the besieged firebase at Dak To II in Kontum, two South Vietnamese M-41 light tanks fired three 76-millimeter rounds each into a single T-54.

The T-54 took some damage, but easily destroyed the lighter U.S.-made vehicles. After the shooting stopped, the NVA crew calmly exited their T-54 and walked away.

Still, it exposed one vulnerability. The hostile turret conditions reduced the T-54’s practical rate of fire to just four rounds a minute. A competent Western tank crew could shoot off the same number of shells in the first 15 seconds of an engagement.

Even before these outings, Soviet designers had already started working on an improved variant — the T-55.

Obviously, from the outside it’s hard to tell it apart from T-54A and B. Externally, the only reliable clue is the absence of a mushroom shaped ventilation fan on the T-55’s roof.

Most of the new tank’s improvements were internal. The T-55’s PAZ overpressure system helped seal tankers inside and could keep out radioactive dust from a nuclear strike. The Soviets stuffed in another nine rounds for the main gun, too.

Engineers replaced the World War II-era SGM machine gun next to the main cannon with the new PKT. In 1961, the further upgraded T-55A received anti-radiation lining, an air filtration system to scrub out chemical and biological agents and it dispensed with the hull-mounted machine gun.

Another reason why it’s so difficult to tell these tanks apart is because older versions were often rebuilt to the same standards as later ones. For instance, the T-55 originally did not feature an external DShKM heavy machine gun on the loader’s hatch, like the T-54. Soviet commanders found the weapon to be useless against jet fighters.

But these massive automatic weapons returned when the tanks underwent depot refurbishment. Unlike fast-moving jets, new attack helicopters were more likely to engage the tanks at closer ranges and at lower speeds.

Still Fighting:

While the T-54/55 has become ubiquitous, the tank has typically been on the losing side when fighting comparable or more advanced Western designs. The T-54/55 suffers from abysmal crew conditions, shoots miserably slow, rides bouncily and has a tendency to throw its tracks.

But lackluster training, tactics and leadership — and the superior standards of their Western-backed enemies in the same skills — were more responsible than design faults for the vehicle’s wartime defeats.

North Vietnamese tank crews were often poorly trained, leading to weak cooperation with infantry — and resulting in unnecessary casualties from South Vietnamese tank-hunters armed with portable M-72 rockets.

Likewise, Syrian T-55s in the 1973 Yom Kippur War greatly outnumbered Israeli tanks — but the Israelis shot the Syrians down in droves from the Golan Heights. As for the liberation of Kuwait in 1991, Iraq left its tanks in stationary, dug-in positions in the desert.

Iraq’s tactical blunder turned its tanks into sitting ducks for coalition air strikes and advanced Abrams tanks equipped with thermal sights.

Still, the T-55’s major selling points continue to be simplicity and availability. Factories in the USSR built an estimated 50,000 vehicles and that’s a conservative estimate. Poland and Czechoslovakia assembled thousands more locally. Chinese Type-59 clones only add to the tally.

Specialist T-55 variants with mine-clearing rollers, bridges, flamethrowers and recovery cranes were produced alongside the gun tanks, too. The Soviets used the same chassis for its ZSU-57–2 self-propelled anti-aircraft gun and the newer BTR-T heavy personnel carrier.

In successive wars with its Arab neighbors during the 1960s and 70s, Israel captured hundreds of T-55s. Israeli troops turned the tank — nicknamed Tiran or “dictator” in Hebrew — against its former owners. Engineers eventually swapped out the Soviet main guns with the superior British-designed 105-millimeter L7. With the replacement cannon, the vehicles could use the same ammunition as any other Israeli tank of the day.

When Israel retired its Tirans, some of the hulls became the basis for the Achzarit — literally meaning “cruel” — heavy armored personnel carriers. Other countries added their own indigenously-manufactured components for both domestic and export use. Some of these local variants, such as the Romanian TR-85M, have little resemblance to the Kremlin’s original design.

And Russia has also produced upgraded T-55M and T-55AM tanks incorporating BDD composite armored “eye brows” on the front of the turret and spaced laminate plates to the glacis. The vehicles’ features include updated laser range finders, ballistic computers and sights.

These refurbished T-55s can launch long-range 9M117 Bastion laser-guided missiles on top of their regular anti-tank shells — giving them extra range and punch. Moscow sent these upgraded tanks to fight in the Second Chechen War alongside similarly improved T-62Ms. Russian commanders felt they were more “expendable” in the brutal guerrilla war than more expensive T-72 and T-80s.

So despite the T-54/55’s combat shortcomings, these tanks promise to remain popular for many decades more. The design’s adaptability and a stable market for upgrades contribute to its longevity.

This piece first appeared in WarIsBoring here

Image: Creative Commons 3.0.


The Foreign Costs of Domestic Political Craziness

Paul Pillar

The U.S. political class and political system in effect grant a lot of leeway and a lot of tolerance to excesses of American politicians, including excesses exhibited during election campaigns. There is little consistency and almost no principle in determining which comments by candidates come to be considered as campaign-crippling gaffes and which do not. Much gets said that does not cripple a campaign but which a majority of decent Americans, if they carefully thought about it, would probably agree is unreasonable, untrue, mean, inflammatory, bigoted, or extreme.

The tolerance comes partly from an acceptance that, oh well, politicians will be politicians, and that especially during a race for a party's nomination extreme things will be said to appeal to the angriest and most active part of a party's base and will not necessarily endure during a general election campaign let alone once the winner takes office. It comes partly from a quest for even-handedness, especially among the press, involving a supposed need to give equal respect to every position expressed merely because it is expressed, regardless of the unreasonableness of its content. And it comes partly from how much all of us who are political junkies (which includes to varying degrees a large proportion of the U.S. population) are entertained by the spectacle. This last factor has been especially at work this year with the phenomenon that is Donald Trump, who first came to be known to most Americans primarily as an entertainer. What is extreme and unreasonable gets treated as harmless fun.

Essays can and should be written on how the fun isn't really harmless even when confining our perspective to the United States—about how this sort of crude followership rather than the exercise of true leadership by contenders in political races is a race to the bottom when it comes to reason and decency, and how it encourages a further lowering of political and moral standards among the America public as a whole and not just in the portions of the electorate that are the main targets of the crude appeals. But what may be even more likely to be overlooked is the effect such discourse has on perceptions overseas.

American politics unfortunately has not been stopping at the water's edge, in at least a couple of respects. One, which we saw recently with opposition to the nuclear agreement with Iran, involves how much domestic politics complicates and impedes the making and implementation of U.S. foreign policy. Another involves foreign governments and publics forming impressions about the United States and about Americans based on what they see and hear going on in American politics, including the crazy and disgusting aspects of it. Globalization and modern mass communications have made this second factor more important and more inescapable than ever.

Every indication of dysfunction in U.S. politics diminishes in foreign eyes the reliability and trustworthiness of the United States as a partner and leader in world affairs. Foreigners just got another such indication with the resignation of the speaker of the House of Representatives because members of his own party considered him insufficiently obdurate and too willing to work cooperatively with others.

Beyond the general picture of dysfunction are more specific hateful or prejudicial positions that some politicians get away with taking, which leads foreigners to conclude reasonably that such views must be shared by much and even most of the American public. This greatly harms the image of America as an open and tolerant land and the substantial soft power that has flowed from it.

The problem has been most acute in recent years, though by no means limited to, the frequent indications of Islamophobia. It is bad enough when impressions are conveyed to foreigners by the words and actions of Koran-burning pastors or religiously biased army generals. It has become even worse with leading (according to opinion polls) candidates for the presidential nomination of one of the two major U.S. political parties appearing to go along with statements that “We have a problem in this country—it's called Muslims” or stating themselves (notwithstanding Article VI of the U.S. Constitution) that a Muslim should never be president of the United States.

The deleterious effects in majority Muslim countries of such postures taken by U.S. politicians are multiple. The belief that the United States as a whole is out to persecute or subjugate Muslims gets entrenched, making it that much harder for the United States to win trust and get accomplished what it wants to accomplish in those parts of the world. Foreign governments, sensitive to their own public opinion, find it politically harder to cooperate with the United States. The motivations for anti-U.S. extremist violence grow stronger, and thus the probability of such violence increases.

Politicians who like to appeal to the baser sentiments of a political base ought to think hard about such consequences. If they nonetheless continue such appeals, they ought to be condemned for doing so and voters ought to reject them, decisively.                      

TopicsDomestic Politics RegionsUnited States

Now the Hard Part: Protecting the Iran Nuclear Agreement

The Buzz

Following a successful effort by 42 Democratic senators to block a resolution of disapproval, the nuclear agreement between Iran, the United States, and its international negotiating partners, was not derailed during the congressional review period. Winning this hard-fought victory required the Obama administration to learn lessons from its previous efforts to pass major legislation through Congress; protecting and effectively implementing the Iran nuclear agreement will require more of the same. 

For the Iran agreement, the administration put on a full-court coordinated campaign.  The energetic and peripatetic Secretary of State, John Kerry, was at the forefront and Department of Energy Secretary, Dr. Ernest Moniz, proved to be a secret weapon, both in negotiating the agreement's technical aspects and in explaining it in layman's terms. President Obama and Vice President Biden were fully engaged—and so were their key staff members.

But as we learned, with so many other wins in these hyper-partisan times, the fight is never over. A stark example is the experience with the Affordable Care Act (ACA) or “Obamacare.” The GOP-controlled House had voted to repeal the ACA fifty times when I lost count.  Every GOP 2016 presidential candidate has pledged to "repeal and replace" the ACA without offering any plan for replacement or to so amend it as to make it unrecognizable. Attempts are being made to administer death by a thousand cuts: eliminate the medical devices tax or the 2018 Cadillac tax on employer provided health insurance or whatever will keep up the attack—and always in pursuit of litigation in lieu of legislation.

The same future seems to be in store for the Iranian nuclear agreement. Most GOP presidential candidates seem to only disagree whether they will strike it down from the Inaugural podium or wait until they get to the Oval Office. Not content to wait, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has threatened to deny the funding that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) needs to implement the agreement unless the IAEA violates a confidentiality agreement with Iran. Indeed, some in Congress falsely claim that until these confidential agreements to which the U.S. is not a party are sent to Congress, the 60 day review clock has not even started.  And an organization called "United Against Nuclear Iran" has developed model legislation for individual States to sanction Iran in hopes of derailing the agreement. And, of course, in the absence of the ability to legislate, House members are threatening to file lawsuits. 

It would be more than ironic to have those who expressed concern with verification to cut funding needed for that task—it would be cynically hypocritical. But based on the ACA experience, we are in "no holds barred" territory and the administration has to be prepared to actively respond to the coming attempts to unravel the Iran nuclear agreement. It also will be critical that they don’t allow this to in any way detract from the proper implementation of the agreement to ensure that there is no Iranian nuclear weapons program for the foreseeable future.

Col. Richard Klass, USAF-Ret., is a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy and the National War College, a Rhodes Scholar and a combat veteran. He is vice chairman of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. 

Image: Creative Commons/Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsMiddle East

America's F-35 Stealth Fighter vs. China's New J-31: Who Wins?

The Buzz

Recently revealed details concerning China’s Shenyang J-31 fighter suggest that the aircraft not only looks like the Pentagon’s Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), but it also offers comparable aerodynamic performance. But the real question is how far along Beijing has come in the development of subsystems like radars and engines. Moreover, there is the question of how well Chinese industry can integrate all of those disparate technologies into an operational aircraft.

On the surface, the J-31 looks very much like a twin-engine F-35 clone—and there are plenty of reasons to believe that the Chinese jet was based on stolen JSF technology—and could eventually be more or less a match for the American jet. “I think they’ll eventually be on par with our fifth-gen jets—as they should be, because industrial espionage is alive and well,” a senior U.S. military aviator told me last year.

But the Chinese don’t have to match the F-35 one-for-one. The Chinese just have to do enough damage to the U.S. military to make it too expensive to fight. Hypothetically, the air superiority oriented F-22 might be able to generate a kill ratio of thirty-to-one today against the Chinese J-11 Flanker, but the U.S. Air Force has only 120 combat coded Raptors. The Raptor might only generate a three-to-one kill ratio against the J-31 or J-20, which means attrition will take a serious toll on U.S. forces.   “When the J-20 and J-31 come around, even a three to one kill ratio advantage becomes costly,” a senior U.S. Air Force official told me late last year.

Where the J-31 is likely to fall short is on avionics—the aircraft’s radar, infrared search and track, data-links and especially sensor fusion. It’s comparatively simple perfecting individual pieces of hardware, but fusing all of the data from a multitude of sensors and off-board platforms is extremely difficult. Even the F-22 didn’t fuse Link-16 data with the rest of its onboard sensors until its Increment 3.2A software upgrade. It’s one of the reasons Lockheed has fallen behind on developing the F-35—and why Air Force and Joint Program Office officials continuous state their concerns about the jet’s software.

Then there is the question of if Chinese industry is up to the task of manufacturing the J-31. Stealth aircraft are built to very tight tolerances—one ten-thousandth of an inch was the standard for the F-22 and the F-35 has tighter requirements still. The Chinese have never demonstrated the ability to build to those kinds of tolerances. Nor have they been able to produce a reliable jet engine to date—so it will some time before China catches up to U.S. fifth-generation machines.

Even if the J-31 doesn’t quite match the F-35 technologically, one area the Chinese are currently investing in is a new long-range missile called the PL-15. It appears to be very similar to the European Meteor beyond visual range missile. Like the Meteor, the Chinese weapon is a ramjet powered missile, which should give it very long range and much better terminal phase performance than the venerable AIM-120 AMRAAM. The AMRAAM’s rocket motor burns for a few seconds and it coasts the rest of the way to the target—like most air-to-air weapons. Further, the AMRAAM is highly vulnerable to digital radio frequency memory jamming and needs to be replaced.

Air Combat Command (ACC) seems to finally be taking the threat seriously—since Air Force officials have been privately complaining about the problem for a while. “The PL-15 and the range of that missile, we’ve got to be able to out-stick that missile,” ACC commander Gen. Carlisle told Flightglobal.

Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar.

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia

Could a Chinese Submarine Really Sink a U.S. Aircraft Carrier?

The Buzz

In 1995 and 1996, Taiwanese politicians signaled greater support for declaring their island country officially independent of China. Beijing’s response was swift, forceful … and ultimately an embarrassment to China. The Chinese fired several missiles toward small, Taiwanese-held islands.

That’s when the United States intervened in a big way, sending two entire aircraft carrier battle groups into the waters around Taiwan — and even sailing one carrier through the Taiwan Strait.

The Chinese military was powerless against this show of force. Beijing couldn’t even reliably track the American warships, and had no forces of its own capable of threatening the powerful U.S. vessels.

The Chinese backed down.

Nineteen years later, the situation has changed. According to the California think tank RAND, if the same crises occurred today, Chinese submarines could target a U.S. flattop several times during a weeklong campaign. “China has rapidly improved its ability to reliably locate and to attack U.S. carrier strike groups at distances of up to 2,000 kilometers from its coast,” RAND warned.

Beijing’s ability to target carriers from below the sea depends on two related capabilities. First, China needs modern and reliable submarines. Second, these subs need some way of finding the flattops.

As far as its sub fleet goes, China has made great progress in the two decades since the 1996 crisis. “In 1996, China had taken delivery of only two submarines that could be described, by any reasonable definition, as modern,” RAND explained. “The remainder of its fleet consisted of legacy boats based on 1950s technology, lacking teardrop shaped hulls and armed only with torpedoes.”

By 2017, China will possess a smaller but more capable undersea fleet with 49 modern subs. “China’s recent submarine classes are armed with both sophisticated cruise missiles and torpedoes, greatly increasing the range from which they can attack,” according to the think tank. “Although most Chinese boats are diesel-powered and none is not up to U.S. standards, they could nevertheless threaten U.S. surface ships.”

Just how much Beijing’s subs could attack a single American carrier during a seven-day campaign depends on what RAND called “cueing.” In other words, the ability of Chinese satellites, drones, spy planes, land-based radars and other so-called “intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance” systems, or ISR, to detect the carrier and pass along the flattop’s location to the subs.

“Improvements to Chinese ISR have improved the chances that Chinese submarines will receive such information,” RAND reported.

In 1996, Chinese subs had basically zero chances to take a shot at a U.S. carrier, with or without cueing. By 2010 that was no longer the case. Without cueing, Beijing’s subs were still pretty much blind, but with help from ISR the undersea vessels would have gotten two or three chances to attack a carrier with missiles or torpedoes.

RAND projected that, in 2017, Chinese subs with no cueing probably still won’t be able to attack a carrier. But with cueing in the same timeframe, the undersea warships could get three, four or even five chances to attack.

Of course, a chance to attack doesn’t guarantee a successful attack. And the U.S. Navy isn’t exactly standing still as Chinese forces improve, RAND pointed out. “The United States will look to counter this growing threat by developing ways to degrade Chinese intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities and by improving its own anti-missile, anti-submarine and defensive counterair capabilities.”

This piece first appeared in WarIsBoring here

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia