The T-55 Still Going Strong

More Volkswagen Beetles have been built than any other car in history and all over the world millions of them are still reliably puttering away. It’s an old design now and it shows, but it’s simpler to maintain than a modern car and we can expect them to be around for a while yet. Whether it’s an enthusiast’s lovingly restored runabout or a beat-up Mexico City taxi, the little VW is still a functional and effective vehicle.

Pretty much the same goes for the T-55, which is basically the tank equivalent of the VW. Old, but simple and reliable, it’s been produced in larger numbers than any other tank; although it’s obsolete now, there are tens of thousands operational around the world, and if you find yourself facing an enemy tank then (unless we end up at war with Russia) it’s probably going to be a T-55 or one of its lookalikes.

During WWII the Soviets, like most armies, had an array of different tank designs. They ranged from the fast, light BT-7 to the heavy Josef Stalin series, but the most common was the T-34 medium tank. By the end of the war, many Soviet generals had decided that in the future it would be best to concentrate on a single design; a good medium tank would have the firepower and armor to take on the heavies, but be mobile enough to do the jobs usually assigned to light tanks. Late in 1944, they started producing the T-44. This was based on the T-34, with the same road speed and improved cross-country mobility, but weighed six tons more and carried nearly as much armor as the IS-2 heavy tank.

The T-44’s weak point was its 85mm gun. By the time the prototypes were completed, the T-34 had already been upgraded to carry the same weapon, so the new design didn’t have a firepower advantage. That was a problem, because while the 85mm was a big step up from the 76mm fitted to early T-34s, it still struggled to defeat the best German tanks beyond 500 yards. Meanwhile, the German Panthers and Tigers, with their high-velocity guns, could kill the T-34 from over three times as far.

t-55Even as the T-44 went into production, attempts were being made to fit a larger gun – first the 122mm of the Stalin tanks, then as a compromise a 100mm. Both were much too large for the turret, and the rate of fire was terrible. Something had to be done though, so the designers started reworking the whole tank. They enlarged the hull, upgraded the engine, designed a new wide, domed turret with a high-velocity 100mm gun, and increased the armor again. The result was the 36-ton T-54.

When the T-54 entered service, it was, theoretically, the best tank in the world. In practice it was a bit different. The design had been rushed into production and it was unreliable, underpowered, awkward for the crew and didn’t offer much protection from nuclear weapons – the tank could survive a 15 kiloton blast at a distance of just 980 feet, but the crew had no chance at less than 2,300 feet. The army started asking for improvements. None of them involved major changes, but when the list of upgrades passed 1,500 items it was clear that this was basically a new tank. At that point it was renamed the T-55.

The T-55 is a conventional design with the 500hp diesel engine at the back, the driver at the front and the commander, loader and gunner in the turret. Its main armament is a 100mm gun capable of anti-tank or HE fire, backed up by a coax machinegun and often a 12.7mm AA gun at the commander’s hatch. By 1950s standards it’s reasonably well armored, it can hit 30mph on a road and its relatively light weight gives it excellent cross-country mobility. The USSR built at least 50,000 of them, and licensed production in the Warsaw Pact, China and elsewhere brings the total closer to 100,000. They’ve been exported all over the world and, this century, western forces have fought them in Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Chad, Libya and Syria.

In a direct fight with an Abrams, a T-55 isn’t much of a threat, although if it can pull off an ambush it can still penetrate the side or rear armor. Against light armor or infantry, however, any tank is a serious problem. The 100mm gun can still destroy anything short of a tank, and some countries have up-armed their T-55s anyway; options range from the British 105mm L7 gun to variants of the Russian 125mm. The T-55’s own armor has a reasonable chance of stopping light anti-tank rockets, and several countries sell upgrade kits to fit it with composite or even reactive armor. Fire control upgrades are also common, but the baseline tank’s simplicity might be the biggest issue.

Practically any group can keep a handful of T-55s running with ordinary tools; it has no computers and few electronics. Anyone who can maintain a truck will do pretty well on a T-55. It doesn’t need expensive support from the manufacturer or base workshops – and over the years rebel groups have captured hundreds of them. Even an obsolete tank is no laughing matter when you only have a rifle and a pouch full of grenades, so this old beast still deserves some respect.

Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.

Fergus Mason

Fergus Mason

Fergus Mason grew up in the west of Scotland. After attending university he spent 14 years in the British Army and served in Bosnia, Northern Ireland, Kosovo and Iraq. Afterwards, he went to Afghanistan as a contractor, where he worked in Kabul, Mazar-e-Sharif and Camp Leatherneck. He now writes on a variety of topics including current affairs and military matters.
Fergus Mason

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