Antique T-54 Series Tank Appears With Russian Forces In Ukraine

Trainloads of T-54/T-55 tanks, a design dating back to the end of World War II, had previously been seen on the move in Russia.

byJoseph Trevithick|
Russia photo
via Telegram/HealerTacMed


Russian forces may have actually started deploying antique T-54/T-55 series tanks on the battlefield in Ukraine. The sighting of one of these tanks, reportedly in southeastern Ukraine, comes around a month after trainloads of them were spotted on the move in Russia, prompting speculation that they would soon be taking part in the conflict.

Pictures and videos with a T-54/T-55 type tank in the background, said to have been taken recently in Zaporizhzhia, first emerged online earlier this week.

The earliest imagery looks to have come from a channel on the Telegram social media network belonging to a pro-Russian volunteer medic who goes by Dr. Healer. His posts before and after the ones showing the tank indicate that he was in the area providing medical training to Russian units and distributing donated supplies, something average citizens in the country have been encouraged to do since last year.

"The work in the Kherson direction has been completed, I held training camps in medicine with everyone with whom I had time and as much as I had the strength," Dr. Healer wrote in a post on April 11 that included a picture, seen at the top of this story, of him in front of the tank. "I consider the work fruitful, many have been trained, both doctors and fighters, including support, many detachments, divisions, brigades, etc., who received group backpacks, pharmacies and boxes with medicine."

Another video showing what looks to be the same tank in the same location subsequently appeared on another pro-Russian Telegram channel. That post referred back to Dr. Hearler's channel, among others.

It is unclear what specific model of T-54/T-55 series tank is seen in the imagery that is available so far. The Soviet Union built the first T-54 prototype in 1945 and the first example of the T-55 was completed in 1956. Most variants of both types are extremely similar visually and today the two designs are generally considered part of a single family, as you can read more about here.

A picture of a T-54 tank now on display in Russia. Vitaly Kuzmin
An early T-55 variant now in a museum in Poland. Radomil via Wikimedia

At this time, we can't say for sure what the exact origins of this tank might be. Ukraine, which was part of the Soviet Union until 1991, was also an operator of T-54/T-55s. However, its examples have been out of active service for years now and there have been no clear indications to date of any of them being reactivated either by Ukrainian Forces or Russian units in the country.

Ukraine's military has received M-55S tanks from Slovenia, which are T-55 variants. However, these tanks are visually distinct from the original T-54/T-55 design and are heavily modernized, featuring NATO-standard 105mm main guns and other upgrades. Ukrainian forces have also added additional explosive reactive armor (ERA) arrays and other applique armor to at least some of these tanks.

From what we can see, the T-54/T-55 that now appears to be with Russian forces in Zaporizhzhia is in stock condition. Its configuration and condition are very much in line with what was seen in pictures and videos of trains in Russia carrying T-54/T-55 tanks that first appeared online in March. This includes the markings on the front of the hull that are very reminiscent of those applied to Russian armored vehicles in storage, as can be seen in the video below.

Video thumbnail

There are no indications of any major work being done on the tank now reportedly in Zaporizhzhia as part of any reactivation process. It notably does not have any add-on explosive reactive armor (ERA) arrays or other applique armor that Russian forces, as well as their Ukrainian opponents, have been observed adding to a wide assortment of armored and unarmored vehicles.

All of this can only raise questions, whatever the tank's origin, about its actual utility on the battlefield. The conflict has already shown that much more modern and better-protected Russian tanks are far from invulnerable to Ukrainian forces.

At the same time, T-54/T-55 tanks do provide at least a measure of added protection to their crews, particularly against shrapnel from artillery shells and similar threats that are very pronounced on battlefields in Ukraine. Though unsuitable for direct tank-on-tank combat, these vehicles with their 100mm main guns could still be useful for engaging lighter enemy vehicles and fortified strong points, as well as just opposing troops caught in the open.

T-54/T-55 tanks could potentially be used as part of Russia's own static fortified lines. Just this week, commercial satellite imagery provider Maxar released shots that show the Russian military is actively building up fortifications and other obstacles in the Zaporizhzhia region ahead of expected Ukrainian offensives.

A satellite image from commercial provider Maxar showing Russian fortified lines in Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia region. Satellite image ©2023 Maxar Technologies

Russian and Ukrainian forces have also been observed using tanks as impromptu indirect-fire weapons in lieu of traditional artillery, a role that T-54/T-55s could be suited to, as well.

It is important to stress that the appearance of one T-54/T-55 doesn't automatically point to a mass deployment of these tanks. At the same time, there was equal skepticism in the past that Russia would resort to fielding large numbers of outdated T-62 series tanks and other older armored vehicle types, things that have now come to pass.

If Russia has indeed begun to deploy any significant number of T-54/T-55 tanks to Ukraine, this would seem to further reflect its massive losses in terms of both personnel and material since the start of its all-out invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. To date, independent open-source analysis group Oryx has visually documented the loss of at least 1,908 Russian tanks of all types in the fighting in Ukraine. The actual number is likely significantly higher.

The situation has been exacerbated by crippling Western sanctions on Russia and other second-order impacts on its overall economy from the ongoing conflict.

In October 2022, a Russian politician publicly called attention to new plans to field hundreds of modernized T-62s in the coming years.

Examples of T-62s with the addition of late Cold War-era 1PN96MT-02 thermal sights, part of a proposed modernization package for these tanks that dates back to at least 2021, have already been spotted in Ukraine.

A member of Ukraine's armed forces stands in front of a knocked-out or otherwise abandoned Russian T-62M tank fitted with a 1PN96MT-02 thermal sight. 57th Kish Otaman Kost Hordiienko Motorized Brigade via Wikimedia 57th Kish Otaman Kost Hordiienko Motorized Brigade/wikicommons

This has all further pointed to the current limitations of Russia's defense industrial enterprises to produce sufficient numbers of new, more advanced tanks to meet the country's demands. There is also the question of sustaining existing stocks of newer types. More modern versions of Russia's T-90 tank series, for example, are known to make use of Western electronics that are no longer readily accessible. T-54/T-55 series tanks would be much easier to operate and maintain in the field compared to newer designs.

How exactly Russia might employ its Soviet-era T-54/T-55s in Ukraine and how they will acquit themselves, or if they will be used in large numbers at all, very much remains to be seen. Whatever the case, the sighting of one of these tanks reportedly in Zaporizhzhia would only seem to add to the existing evidence of Russia's armored forces facing major operational and logistical challenges.

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