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The Evolution Of Modern Russian Tanks

November 26, 2015

Soviet T-55 column Warsaw Pact 02

As the world’s dominant land power the Soviet Union understood the value of mechanized forces. This is why the Red Army possessed between 22,000 to 25,000 armored vehicles, including at least several hundred KV-1 and 2 heavy tanks, at the onset of the Great Patriotic War.

By the time the almost indestructible Joseph Stalins arrived at the Reichstag the total number of Soviet tanks had swelled to more than 60,000. The lesson learned from defeating the Axis powers would resonate for generations to come: Tanks will decide the outcome of any great war over Eurasia.

In the ensuing decades the Cold War arms race inspired the continuous production of new and ever deadlier tanks. Even when derided as crude and unsophisticated the Red Army’s armor always leapfrogged the West in terms of cost-effective mass-production, ruggedness, and firepower.

The Soviet Union’s relentless military-industrial development also left today’s Russian Federation with a peculiar conundrum: What to do with so many leftover weapons? It’s believed the Russian Army is stuck with an estimated 23,000 Soviet-era tanks. (Of that number just 2,800 are assumed to be “modern.”)

As its relationship with the West deteriorates Russia is now rearming and building tanks. It’s an un-gentle reminder that whoever seeks dominion over the Earth must first contend with the Bear.

Soviet IS-3 tank

Joseph Stalin 3

The third iteration of the feared Stalin tanks arrived too late for any decisive battles in the European theater. But it did see combat in the Far East against Japan and production continued during the first years of the Cold War. A total of 2,311 Stalin 3’s were built.

The Stalin 3 marked the beginning of the new Soviet template for tank design, i.e. a circular turret, low profile, and a large main gun. It was also ahead of its time with armor that was impervious to anti-tank guns and a 500 horsepower diesel engine.

The Stalin tanks averaged 50 tons and as the Soviets developed succeeding variants they eventually created the most advanced and powerful tanks in the world. An example is the IS-7, or the seventh Stalin tank. Weighing 68 tons–heavier than current generation MBTs–and armed with a 130mm naval gun fed by an autoloader, it ran on a 1,050 hp engine and had a top speed of 60 km/h.

But the concept of the heavy tank died. Until the arrival of the T-64 the Soviets believed in mass-producing overwhelming numbers of smaller medium tanks like the T-54 and T-55.

Russian T-10 heavy tank

T-10

The IS-7 never entered production and as the Cold War’s chill spread over the civilized world the Soviet Union’s tank factories toyed with various experimental designs. All these featured large main guns and impressive armor protection.

The T-10 was a successful product of this ferment but its exact origins are ambiguous. The first prototypes were tested between 1950 and 1952. It’s believed production commenced in 1956 and its designation was meant to discredit Stalin’s name with the vehicle.

But it was still a worrisome 50-ton tank that combined old familiarity with modern touches. The pointed glacis was a design feature to maximize armor protection. Storage bins, headlights, the familiar DShK turret machine gun, and a night vision searchlight were features that indicated its advanced state. Its final variant the T-10M had NBC protection installed, making it ready for atomic warfare, and two 14.5mm KPVT machine guns–one coaxial, another turret-mounted.

With a 720 hp engine, seven road wheels, and a 122mm gun few tanks in the 1950s could match the T-10. But when production ceased in 1966, with thousands already built, the T-10 was supplanted by even newer models of the so-called “medium” tanks and its combat debut didn’t materialize until the Warsaw Pact invaded Czechoslovakia. It was withdrawn from service shortly after.

In hindsight, the T-10 was a genuine modern tank that didn’t have any wars to fight.

Soviet T-55 column Warsaw Pact

T-54/55

The most prolific tank of the 20th century is also the most destroyed one in modern warfare. Dispassionate analysis reveal the T-54’s interior is unfriendly to crews and its 100mm main gun suffers from poor functionality. Even its armor is vulnerable to every type of modern anti-tank weapon be they land mines, rockets, or missiles.

But the Soviet Union loved the crude T-54 and went on to improve it with the T-55 in 1958 that featured a new main gun, additional ammunition storage, a better turret, and a larger engine. Exact numbers of T-55’s manufactured are unknown, with the modest estimate at 24,000 and a high estimate at 53,000. The Soviet Union mass-produced it from 1947 until 1981 and the technology to build local T-55’s was shared with several Warsaw Pact countries and China.

The prevailing consensus is the T-54 and T-55 didn’t fare well against other tanks. But numerous wars in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia proved the opposite as well–recall Vietnam, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Angola, and Yemen.

The Soviets developed at least 11 variants of the T-55  medium tank along with anti-aircaft, engineering, and support vehicles based on its chassis. At least 68 countries have either deployed or modified it to some degree.

Russian PT-76 amphibious tank 02PT-76

It’s probably the most unique tank ever produced by the former USSR. The Red Army’s experience in the Great Patriotic War revealed that armored formations had to move, fight, and swim in bodies of water.

Both Japan and the US had their own approach to tracked amphibious vehicles. But the Soviets wanted a floating tank so during the early 1950s the project’s engineers borrowed from the chassis of the BTR-50 APC and settled on a proven 76mm gun.

The resulting Plavayushchiy Tank 76 was completely atypical compared to its peers when it entered service in 1952. It featured an elongated welded steel hull that housed a 240 hp diesel engine. Its turret was small and it swam across rivers and shores by two waterjets installed at the rear of the vehicle.

With a three-man crew and a top speed of 44 km/h the PT-76 was ideal for leading armored formations in challenging terrain. But its thin armor was a liability and the main gun would be hard pressed defeating other tanks. An estimated 12,000 PT-76’s were built until 1967 and China copied the design for its own Type 63 light tank.

At least 2,000 PT-76’s were exported to 30 different countries. Many are still in use today.

Russian T-62 tankT-62

Even with T-55 production in full swing the Soviet Union managed to develop a new tank that gave NATO a headache in the 1960s. The T-62 was another Red Army classic–albeit an interim model–built in awe-inspiring numbers. Estimates range from 15,000 to 20,000.

The T-62 represented a huge improvement over the T-55, having the benefit of a 700 hp engine and a 115mm smoothbore gun considered the largest in the world during the early 1960s. But its adherence to Soviet design principles meant a cramped interior and questionable armor protection. Aside from the discomfort its crew had to endure the T-62’s suspension, accuracy, and poor internal storage further lessened its effectiveness on the battlefield.

These limitations didn’t hinder the T-62 as an export success. Willing customers and Soviet allies in the Middle East and Asia fielded thousands. In the Western hemisphere Cuba received hundreds to boost its ground forces. Meanwhile, North Korea fully embraced the T-62 and used it as the basis for its own indigenous tanks. The T-62 was a mainstay during the Red Army’s arduous sojourn in Afghanistan.

The Soviet Union created seven variants of the T-62 before discontinuing its production and the tank is still seeing combat today.

Soviet T-64 MBTT-64

Equal amounts of fear and derision were heaped on Soviet tanks during the Cold War. On one hand, their design and performance were deemed questionable. On the other hand, they possessed weaponry that could annihilate other tanks with ease. The vast multitude of them was also unnerving for NATO’s leadership.

The T-64 marked a huge leap forward for Soviet tank development. It was a complete departure from the medium tank concept that created the T-55 and T-62. The T-64 ran on a 700 hp engine and managed a top speed of 80 km/h.

It was armed with a 125mm smoothbore gun fed by an autoloader, reducing the crew to three, and its steel mixed with ceramic armor improved its survivability by a significant margin. The T-64, like the T-62, could fire on the move,  swim across bodies of water, and it was equipped for fighting on a nuclear battlefield. All these traits combined formed a template for Russian MBTs that endure till the present.

Historians now consider the T-64 the most advanced tank of its time. (It entered service in 1967.) But the Soviets only built it in limited quantities and settled on an affordable alternative tank for the long-term–the T-72.

Never exported, an estimated 9,700 T-64’s remained idle until the fall of the Iron Curtain, and 50 years after its introduction it saw combat for the first time in Ukraine’s Donbass–against other Russian tanks. Ukraine is once again building the T-64B and rumor has it the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is its first international customer.

Indian T-72 03T-72

It’s another enduring icon of the Cold War and could just be the most battle tested MBT in the world. The T-72 was developed as an alternative to the T-64. Over time it surpassed its predecessor in many ways and remains popular today.

The T-72 established the current template of Soviet tanks until the 1990s. It combined a low profile with a large 125mm 2A46M main gun fed by an autoloader. Recognizable for its six road wheels and distinctive turret, the technology for manufacturing T-72’s was shared with Poland, Romania, the former Yugoslavia, the former Czechoslovakia, India, and Iran.

A Russian Army T-72B3 during exercises in 2015. Via Russian Ministry of Defense.

A Russian Army T-72B3 during exercises in 2015. Via Russian Ministry of Defense.

The T-72 also inspired the modernization of China’s own tanks and strong demand persists for surplus T-72’s. This despite the T-72’s vulnerable autoloader: a direct hit on or underneath the turret could blow the whole tank to smithereens.

The Soviet Red Army fielded 17 variants of the T-72, including a recovery vehicle and a bridge layer. The Russian army today hasn’t abandoned the T-72 either and it served as the basis for the BMPT-72 fire support vehicle and the BMO-T heavy APC.

The exact number of T-72’s built has never been ascertained but estimates range from 20,000 to 30,000. The Russian Army today still fields at least 1,000 and among this number are the new T-72B3‘s that feature extensive armor upgrades on its hull and turret.

Russian T-80U MBT 02T-80

The last MBT produced by the Soviet Union before it collapsed was fast, rugged, and a certified menace to any NATO tanks if the Warsaw Pact ever decided on subjugating the rest of Europe. The T-80’s form and function was originally derived from the T-64A but it carried superior sighting and visibility equipment.

The T-80 is believed to have entered service between 1976 and 1978. The original T-80’s featured an advanced fire control system and a powerful 1,100 hp gas turbine engine that howled like a jet during take off. Several variants emerged in the ensuing 20 years but the T-80 wasn’t used in combat until the First Chechen War (1994-1996) where an unspecified number were destroyed during battles in the streets of Grozny.

At least 550 T-80U’s are in service with the Russian Army today. More are believed kept in storage since Russia’s Omsk tank factory is no longer operational. The only remaining T-80 production facility is in Kharkiv, Ukraine, where it’s being sold to foreign customers as the heavily upgraded T-84 Oplot-M.

The T-80’s legacy is similar to the T-10 and the T-64; it was a tank that never had its day. Like the armies of Russia and Ukraine its few export customers (Pakistan, Cyprus, South Korea) don’t have much use for it.

Indian T-90ST-90

With the Russian Army going broke in the 1990s the pressure to field a new MBT forced an interim solution. The T-90 used the hull and suspension of the T-72 but had the internal subsytems and armaments of the T-80U. The T-90 that arrived in 1993 is recognizable for its side skirts that have three distinctive square panels near the front of the hull. Its saucer shaped turret and elongated gun are also giveaways.

Even without a combat record Russia managed selling a thousand T-90’s to India (the bulk are license-built) and hundreds more to Algeria. Further sales of the T-90 have been made to Azerbaijan, Venezuela, Uganda, and Turkmenistan–the last customer could only afford 30 tanks in a 2012 deal.

The T-90’s variants begin with the original T-90A, then the T-90S for export, followed by at least three command versions, and the T-90AM for the Russian Army. In 2011, 17 years since its debut, Uralvagonzavod publicized the T-90S “Moderna,” also known as the T-90MS, which is the latest variant featuring extensive 360-degree armor protection that completely altered its appearance.

The T-90 is Russia’s most advanced exportable tank to date and is an attractive investment for its price (from $3,000,000 to $5,o00,000 depending on bilateral ties with Russia), powerful main gun, and compatibility with Soviet tanks. At least 10 T-90’s were deployed in Syria since September 2015 to protect the Hmeymin airbase where Russian Air Force jets are based.

Russia’s ground forces only have 702 T-90’s in service aside from an estimated 1,550 T-72’s and T-80’s. The T-90’s career might not last much longer and Russian officials have speculated about converting it into an unmanned tank.

Russian Sprut SD light tank

Sprut-SD

It qualifies as the foremost light tracked fighting vehicle in the world with no clear analog in the West. (The upgraded CV90 APC with a tank turret comes close.) The 2S25 Sprut-SD was introduced in 2005 and is an airborne tank destroyer weighing less than 20 tons and capable of amphibious crossings. The Sprut has space for three crew members who can be dropped from a plane while buttoned up inside their vehicle.

These are impressive features that compensate for the Sprut’s questionable armor protection. Given its weight–lighter than most current APCs–and its welded aluminum hull, the Sprut’s survivability against projectiles is not guaranteed. Some sources do claim its frontal armor is resistant to large caliber small arms and shrapnel. This is unproven since the Sprut has yet to see combat. Its current form may even disappear if its latest variant becomes operational.

According to Russian media the BMD-4M, the current IFV of Russia’s paratroopers, will be upgraded to mount the Sprut-SD’s turret along with a new fire control system. This could result in a heftier vehicle with extra armor. Since its use is confined to airborne forces just 24 Sprut-SD’s are in service today.

Russian T-14 Armata 06T-14

The existence of the T-14 was first revealed by the Russian Ministry of Defence in 2011. As part of the Armata program the new MBT would utilize a chassis that was applicable to several other vehicles. This wasn’t too extraordinary since the Soviets applied the same principle to the T-55 and the T-72.

The world’s newest MBT was ready by 2015 and seven were driven across Red Square during the May 9 Victory Day parade in Moscow.  A week prior to this low-res footage of the T-14 leaked online via Russian news outlets. Both occasions showed how much of a departure the T-14 was from its predecessors, emphasizing protection and size.

The T-14 in its current variant features extensive armoring, side skirts, slat panels, a radar assisted active protection system, and a crew ensconced in a hull who operate most of the tank via remote control. Its turret is currently armed with a 125mm gun but work is underway to develop a 152mm main armament for it. There exists the possibility the T-14 might be 100% unmanned in the near future.

But the T-14 won’t enter service for a number of years and subsequent exports are speculative and not certain. It’s also an expensive vehicle and whether the Russian Army adopts thousands of Armatas remains to be seen. Fate has yet to lay down its judgement on the T-14 whose very existence foreshadows the coming age of mechatronic tanks.

Since 1945 between 100,000 to a 120,000 tanks were produced in the former Soviet Union and then Russia. This figure is far beyond the total number of tanks built everywhere else. They form part of a martial heritage that will be remembered whenever history is determined by force.

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