As the Russo-Ukrainian War nears the close of its second year, more reports have emerged regarding the equipment being used by Russian troops. Russia has seen a large portion of its stores either destroyed or severely damaged by Ukrainian strikes, on top of foreign sanctions, leading the country’s military to deploy an unexpected relic from history: the T-55 tank.
Zaporizhia Oblast, a Ukrainian FPV munition flies into a Russian T-55 operating near the front. pic.twitter.com/hxAHVID538
— OSINTtechnical (@Osinttechnical) February 4, 2024
On February 4, 2024, footage was shared to X (formerly Twitter) that shows a Russian-operated T-55 being struck by an FPV drone between the turret and hull, a particularly vulnerable part of the tank. At the time, the armored vehicle was attacking the bridgehead along the west bank of Dnipro, held by the Ukrainians.
The T-54 was introduced in 1948, just a few years after the close of the Second World War, while the T-55 became operational in 1958. Historian John Delaney with the Imperial War Museums told CNN, “This was the first main battle tank used by the Soviet Union in the Cold War era.” It wasn’t long before it became the most-produced tank in the world, with more than 100,000 units manufactured.
By the 1980s, the Soviet Union was decommissioning its fleet of T-55s, with many either being put on display in museums or placed in storage. However, in March 2023, posts to social media showed several of the tanks being moved via rail from their storage location in Arsenyev, in Russia’s Far East.
When the news first broke, the Institute for the Study of War released an assessment, which stated, “Russian armored vehicle losses are currently constraining the Russian military’s ability to conduct effective mechanized maneuver warfare. Russian forces may be deploying T-54/55 tanks from storage to Ukraine to augment these offensive operations and prepare for anticipated mechanized Ukrainian counteroffensives.”
According to Forbes, the primary operator of the T-55 in South Kherson is the Russian Marine Corps’ 810th Brigade, which uses the tank as a howitzer. It’s since started to see use more as an assault vehicle, which is where its already prominent shortcomings have become even more apparent.
Along with its guns not having the necessary firepower (its barrel struggles to hold up against frequent firing), the T-55’s thin armor isn’t enough to protect its occupants from modern enemy fire – in particular, Ukrainian drones. On top of this, the old structure and technology mean it can’t operate as stealthily as newer military vehicles.
This has led some to speculate that Russia is using the tanks as either support for ground troops or as kamikaze weapons. In June 2023, footage circulated showing a remotely-operated T-55, containing five FAB-100 bombs and 3.5 tons of TNT, heading toward a Ukrainian position, before being hit by a grenade and exploding.
According to Bulgarian Military, if used in this way, the T-55s have the possibility of inflicting severe damage. Anyone within the blast radius would likely perish, while structures would be damaged. The subsequent shockwave and shrapnel could inflict more injuries outside of this radius.
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Новый эшелон с Т-54/55 в Воронежской области. pic.twitter.com/Fnv1Fx9pog
— Andrei_bt (@AndreiBtvt) July 4, 2023
“The Ukrainians, with the infusion of Western aid, have improved the quality of their tanks and other vehicles,” Retired Australian Army Gen. Mick Ryan wrote in the March 25, 2023 edition of his newsletter. “The Russians, having lost much of their best kit in the first year of the war, are turning to much older tanks and armored vehicles drawn from Cold War stores.”
This isn’t the first noted use of Cold War-era equipment by Russia. In 2022, the country’s military was documented using the T-62, which was introduced into service in 1961. According to many experts, this shows the Kremlin is determined to keep the war going, no matter the costs.