Russia Pulling Ancient T-54 and T-55 Tanks from Storage as War Drags On

Alexander KHUDOTEPLY/AFP via Getty Images

Ancient T-54 and T-55 tanks have been removed from storage and may soon be joining the slightly less ancient T-62s that Russia has already dusted off for use in Ukraine.

Imagery of trains loaded up with T-54s, which first entered service when Joseph Stalin still ruled the Soviet empire in the 1940s, and T-55s, which entered service in the late 1950s, have been circulated in media outlets including Forbes, Newsweek, and The Washington Post in recent days.

According to the Georgia-based Conflict Intelligence Team, the footage comes from the Russian Far East, near the 1295th Central Tanks and Repair Storage Base is in Arsenyev, meaning that, like recently reactivated T-62s, the venerable armour has likely — if not certainly — been refurbished for deployment to Ukraine.

Underarmoured, underpowered, and grossly undersized compared to the Western-made Challenger 2, Leopard 2, and M1 Abrams main battle tanks now being transferred to Ukraine, the possible deployment of T-54 and T-55 series tanks has been a source of much mockery among Russia’s detractors, with the likes of Carl Bildt, co-chairman of the European Council on Foreign Relations and a former Swedish prime minister, asserting it underscores how “their stocks of modern arms have been seriously depleted.”

There has been some acknowledgement, however, that it is unlikely that Russia would use the geriatric armour for tank-on-tank combat with modern vehicles — such engagements being relatively rare in Ukraine, in any case — but rather as makeshift mobile artillery, as appears to have been the case with T-62s.

In this context, their reactivation would arguably be a fairly sensible way to tap stores of old ammunition which would otherwise go to waste in what has proved to be a shell-hungry war.

Glen Grant of the Baltic Security Foundation has meanwhile warned Newsweek that T-54/55s should not be too lightly dismissed, observing: “If you are in a built-up area, it is still a tank with a big gun and it still has got to be beaten. The round from that gun will take out the sides of buildings.”

Popular Mechanics, despite a fairly scornful headline — ‘As Losses Mount, Russia Is Reactivating Soviet-Era T-54 Tanks. That Says So Much.’ — has also conceded that “the T-54/55 still poses a deadly threat to infantry, its gun still threatens all armoured vehicles short of a tank like BMP or Bradley fighting vehicles, and its front turret armour should withstand most weapons not designed to bust tanks, including the autocannons on IFVs.”

Notably, Bradleys and similar Western “light tanks”, as French president Emmanuel Macron has branded them, are being sent to Ukraine in far larger numbers than more formidable main battle tanks like the Leopard 2 — with Canada’s commitment of the German-made heavy armour totalling a paltry eight vehicles, for example.

Variants of the T-72 and T-80, which first entered service in 1970s, have been the mainstay of the Russian tank forces operating in Ukraine, with variants of the more modern T-90 present in smaller numbers.

The next generation T-14 Armata, plagued by multiple delays and order cancellations over the years, has been produced in unknown but likely very small quantities, and is not in active service.

Footage has emerged on social media appearing to show T-14s operating at training grounds for mobilised reservists in Russia proper, but there is no evidence it has actually been deployed on operations, or ever will be.

“Production is probably only in the low tens, while commanders are unlikely to trust the vehicle in combat,” a British intelligence update said of the T-14 in January.

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