Key point: As a predominantly land power, Moscow has always had to invest in its Army and in good tanks. However, not every tank turned out as Soviet or Russian leaders had hoped.
Russia inherited a formidable and highly varied inventory of tanks after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The arc of Soviet tank design has prized simplicity of manufacture, to help mass production, and ease of operation, to partially negate tank crew’s lack of training. Compact design and lightweight are also staples of Soviet/Russian tank engineering. Here are the deadliest tanks that Russia ever designed— some of which are still in active use around the world today.
This first appeared and is being republished due to reader interest.
No discussion about tanks is complete without mentioning the Soviet T-34. The iconic T-34 debuted in 1940 and was designed to address the shortcomings of the BT series of cavalry tanks, which were light, fast, lightly armed, and thinly armored.
By contrast, the T-34 was more heavily armored. Its hull front was 45–47mm thick and steeply angled, reducing the effectiveness of German anti-tank guns, particularly the German Pak 36, whose 37mm round reportedly bounced off T-34 hulls.
Early production models were relatively light at twenty-six tons and had wider tracks, giving it a higher degree of off-road mobility— a decisive advantage when traversing soupy Russian terrain during spring weather conditions.
The initial T-34s were equipped with a 76.2mm gun that was effective against early-war German armor. Late-war German armor necessitated the introduction of an upgraded 85mm gun.
Despite the superior overall design of the T-34, combat effectiveness was hampered by highly variable manufacture quality. Testing of the T-34 by the United States at the Aberdeen Proving Ground showed that hulls were made of several types of steel which was not always properly hardened and often too soft or too brittle.
Tank tracks often snapped, and low-quality turret drives plagued the T-34, as did the very cramped interior, which fatigued the crew and further reduced combat effectiveness.
Still, the T-34 and its variants are thought to be the second most-produced tank in history—and holds the sad distinction of having suffered the most losses of any tank ever, although this is likely due in large part to poorly-trained tank crews.
The T-54 family of tanks was designed after the Second World War to address deficiencies inherent in the late-war T-34 design, namely an upgraded, but still underpowered 85mm gun and thin armor. The T-54 and T-55 family are visually very similar. Frequent minor upgrades to the T-54 during routine maintenance make it visually very similar to the T-55, hence the 54/55 designation.
In keeping with typical Soviet design, the T-54/55 was mechanically uncomplex and relatively easy to operate. A very compact design with a good power-to-weight ratio and wide tracks helped make it a very mobile platform, but it's squat stature necessitated height restrictions for Soviet tank crews. The T-54/55 platform had a 100mm rifled gun that was adequate when introduced, but are by today's standards underpowered.
The T-54/55 family was widely exported to Warsaw Pact countries, in the Middle East, throughout Asia and to many African countries. It relative simplicity has allowed it to be incrementally upgraded with appliqué armor, more powerful main guns, and upgraded engines, exponentially increasing the platform’s service life into the present and presumably the future. The T-54/55 family has recently seen combat in the Syrian Civil War, in Libya, Yemen and Iraq, making it possibly one of the most combat-experienced tanks ever manufactured.
The T-90 design is of late-Soviet origin, intended to replace the aging T-64, T-72 and T-80 families of tanks. It is reportedly the most numerous 3rd generation/3rd generation advanced Main Battle Tank in the Russian inventory.
The T-90 is a bit like Frankenstein’s monster: essentially a greatly upgraded T-72 hull with better armor, and the turret of the unsuccessful T-80 with the same 125mm smoothbore main gun. It has an active protection system, and isn’t very heavy at only fifty tons— but its initial 1,000 hp diesel engine gave it a meager power-to-weight ratio.
The T-90 family has seen combat in Dagestan, in the Syrian Civil War, and in eastern Ukraine, where they were used to identify Russian ground forces, and in the Syrian Civil War, where a T-90 was filmed taking a direct hit from a U.S. TOW missile.
As a number of T-90 and variants have been hit and destroyed in Syria, Russian T-90As will be upgraded with better active protection systems and a more powerful gun. Still, a tank is only as good as its crew.
Despite shortcomings with the powerplant, the T-90 and variants could give the American M1 a run for their money, especially with potentially superior armor.
Perhaps Russia’s deadliest tank, the T-95 actually only exists as a single prototype tank.
Design started in 1988, with the goal of outclassing NATO Main Battle Tanks in both armor and firepower. The crew was whittled down to three, made possible by an autoloading main gun and unmanned turret.
The main gun was to be massive—152mm smoothbore. A nod to artillery, the 152mm main gun would have been able to fire artillery shells, allowing for a wider range of munitions and theoretically allowing beyond-horizon targeting.
The T-95 broke with traditional Soviet tank doctrine with its turret, which was unusually high for Soviet designs. This would have given the T-95 greater gun elevation and depression, essential if it were to lob artillery rounds.
It was also outfitted with early versions of explosive-reactive armor, now standard for all MBTs. Why the project was canceled is unclear, but most likely had to do with costs, which would have been prodigious.
The T-14 Armata tank is the premier next-generation Russian Main Battle Tank. Although not battle-tested, the T-14 platform utilizes several innovative design features that make it potentially the deadliest tank in the world.
In keeping with legacy Soviet design, the T-14 is very light for a main battle tank at just forty-eight tons (some M1 Abrams variants tip the scales in excess of sixty-nine tons). Combined with an unmanned turret equipped with an autoloader and a crew of just three, it is also quite compact.
Under normal operating conditions, the powerful 1,500 diesel engine gives the T-14 an incredible power/weight ratio of 31 hp/ton (for reference, the M1 has a power/weight ratio of 23–27 hp/ton, depending on the variant). Short bursts of higher performance at 2,000 hp output bring this ratio to nearly 42 hp/ton, making the T-14 incredibly nimble, but this boost in performance drastically shortens engine service life.
The T-14 sports three layers of defense. The crew compartment is surrounded by an armored capsule that is reportedly equivalent to over 900mm of rolled homogeneous armor. Both the turret and tank body are covered with Russia’s newest 4th generation Malachit explosive-reactive armor specifically designed to reduce penetration by armor-piercing sabot rounds.
Lastly, the T-14 also employs the Afghanit active protection system, which uses Doppler radar to detect and intercept or deflect incoming projectiles with an explosive charge, although efficacy against depleted-uranium sabot rounds is questionable.
The Soviet Union probably produced more battle-tested tanks than any other country, although their designs were hardly perfect. Still, simplicity and ease of use resulted in exports being delivered all over the world, some of which are still used today. The T-14 Armata probably won’t be seen in huge numbers anytime soon— but that doesn’t make it any less deadly.
Caleb Larson holds a Master of Public Policy degree from the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy. He lives in Berlin and writes on U.S. and Russian foreign and defense policy, German politics, and culture. This first appeared and is being republished due to reader interest.