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Op-Ed: 75-year-old T54s and T55s being sent to Ukraine – This could get messy

Either they’ll be used well, or suicidally.   

Rheinmetall makes key parts for the Leopard tanks promised to Ukraine
Rheinmetall makes key parts for the Leopard tanks promised to Ukraine - Copyright AFP FOCKE STRANGMANN
Rheinmetall makes key parts for the Leopard tanks promised to Ukraine - Copyright AFP FOCKE STRANGMANN

Rumors and stories about the old Russian T54s going to Ukraine aren’t going away. This bizarre situation is similar to the T62s from last year, but with several twists.

The T54 dates from 1947 the T55 is an upgrade that happened a few years later. It’s a completely different beast from modern tanks. It is definitely NOT a Main Battle Tank. It’s more like a medium tank. It’s slow, at about 31mph. The armor is old-style, not layered.

There are also logistic problems. The gun is 100mm, which may cause ammo problems if old ammo is used or there’s not enough shells. The story with Russian duds is already well known. It’s anyone’s guess what condition these shells are in.

These tanks were obsolete in the late 60s, and totally outmatched in the 1970s. They may not even be able to penetrate modern armor.  They don’t have modern targeting systems and can’t fire modern armor-piercing munitions.

All of which leads to a natural question; what use are they? There are some surprisingly grim, but in character for the Russians, answers:

  1. The Russians know Western tanks are coming. None of the Russian tanks can fight them. The more modern Russian tanks are likely to be equally useless.
  2. It doesn’t really matter if these older tanks are knocked out. These are “fire and forget” tanks.
  3. The T54s and T55s can be used as “mobile pillboxes” in urban environments, close cover, or anywhere they don’t have to face Western tanks or things like Javelins at range.
  4. They can knock out lighter armored vehicles and soft transport, which can be highly disruptive in mobile warfare.
  5. They can fire high explosive rounds over a reasonable range and make pests of themselves.
  6. Their heavy machine guns are lethal despite their age, and a problem for infantry in any environment. Those MGs can also be dismounted and used against drones.
  7. In siege warfare like Bakhmut, they can deliver direct fire. That is a genuine problem for those on the receiving end, because they also have a rapid rate of fire and can be more useful locally with more accurate fire than indirect fire.
  8. They can damage modern tanks and immobilize them, if not knock them out.  

The likely condition of these tanks, however, is highly suspect. Parts and gearboxes are probably in iffy condition. Given the horrendous state of the much younger T72s, they could be worse. Breakdowns are likely in epic numbers. Troops may have difficulty training on tanks that were obsolete before they were even born. The systems will be unfamiliar to those used to digital technologies. Just about any modern AP round, RPG, or similar vintage could destroy them.

If they ever get into a fight with modern tanks, it could be the equivalent of charging Panzers with sabers. Either they’ll be used well, or suicidally.   

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Written By

Editor-at-Large based in Sydney, Australia.

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