Signs Point To Russia Sending Ancient T-54 Series Of Tanks To Ukraine

The seemingly endless carousel of Soviet-era equipment being drawn out of storage for Russia’s war in Ukraine might be poised to add its most unlikely item yet — the T-54/55 tank, the first prototype of which was completed in 1945. While we don’t yet know whether these ancient tanks will end up on the front line in Ukraine, or be otherwise utilized in that conflict, examples do at least appear to be being brought back into service in some capacity. This itself may well also point to the alarming losses that Russia’s fighting vehicles have sustained so far in the conflict.

Photos and video of a train carrying T-54/55 series tanks appeared recently and the probable origin of these fighting vehicles has been identified by the Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT) on Telegram, which specializes in open-source intelligence. According to this Russian-language source, the tanks in question were being transported from Arsenyev, in Primorsky Krai, in the Russian Far East. Arsenyev is to the 1295th Central Tank Reserve and Storage Base, which is the likely source.

Following the end of the Cold War and the subsequent drawdown of conventional forces in Russia, significant quantities of T-54/55s were placed in storage, mainly in the Far East, since they had already been displaced by more modern tanks in the military districts closer to NATO’s own tank forces.

It’s not entirely clear whether the tanks comprise T-54s and T-55s, with CIT positively identifying T-54s, while other tanks accompanying them could either be late-model T-54s or T-55s. The two tanks are generally considered part of the same broad series anyway, with the T-55 differing chiefly in introducing more protection against radiation, for fighting on the anticipated nuclear battlefield of the Cold War.

Either way, these are truly vintage fighting vehicles, with the T-54 having first entered low-rate production in the Soviet Union in 1946, before being superseded by the improved T-55 that entered production in 1958. While the T-54/55 series provided the backbone of the Soviet and Warsaw Pact tank forces for the early part of the Cold War, the superior T-62 became available as early as 1962, followed by successively more modern designs, primarily the T-64, T-72, and T-80. Those last three types have been widely used in the war in Ukraine, on both sides but, more surprisingly, the T-62 has also made an appearance in Russian hands.

Superficially, the T-54/55 and T-62 are broadly similar in appearance, although distinguishing features of the two earlier tanks include a characteristic gap between the first and second wheels. Other key recognition features of the T-54/55 are the muzzle compensator at the end of the main gun barrel and a dome-like radiator cover on the turret roof.

An annotated photo of a T-54B, transported by rail, showing the muzzle compensator at the end of the main gun. CIT
Another view of a T-54B, showing the muzzle compensator and the convex radiator cover on the turret roof. CIT

In fact, at least some of the T-62s that were brought out of storage and returned to service by Russia also originated from Arsenyev’s 1295th Central Tank Reserve and Storage Base, according to CIT. The group says it previously tracked the movement of a train carrying a batch of T-62M(B) tanks from the Far East, as it passed through Yekaterinburg, thousands of miles to the west.

Indeed, as early as last summer, Russia began to reintroduce T-62 tanks to its armed forces and deploy them in Ukraine, something that we covered at the time. T-62s have since become an increasing presence on the battlefield. Russia is now working to refurbish and upgrade hundreds of them with more modern systems, an initiative that points to its increasingly precarious supply of heavy armor that you can read all about here.

Now, however, we have the first indications that T-54/55s are also being removed from storage and they could also ultimately end up in Ukraine to backfill Russian-based units in the absence of more modern equipment.

Ukrainian servicemen walk next to destroyed Russian tanks and armored personnel carriers in Dmytrivka village, west of Kyiv, on April 2, 2022. Photo by GENYA SAVILOV/AFP via Getty Images

Among other things, Ukraine has claimed that Russian tank resupply efforts are being particularly hard hit by sanctions. Ukraine’s Defense Intelligence Agency has stated that Uralvagonzavod, which makes T-72s, among others, “is facing rising interest rates on loans, rising prices on materials and components (including armored steel),” according to the Institute for the Study of War.

Under these circumstances, the 1295th Central Tank Reserve and Storage Base would appear to be a key part of Russia’s ability to regenerate tank forces, albeit ones that are now receiving much older equipment. According to analysis from CIT, the depot holds “a significant number of T-62M(B) tanks” in addition to T-55/54s and more modern T-72B and T-80BV types.

Furthermore, satellite images of the facility that have been analyzed by CIT reportedly show that at least 191 tanks were left there between June and November 2022, most of these assessed as being T-62s, although that can’t be confirmed. “In reality, this number could be much higher, since most of the combat-ready vehicles are usually in buildings and it is impossible to record their departure,” CIT adds.

While T-54/55s would be the oldest types of Russian tank to be brought out of storage since the start of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, by now there have been several other examples of antiquated fighting vehicles returned to action, at least in some capacity. As well as the aforementioned T-62s, evidence of the Soviet-era BTR-50 tracked armored personnel carrier being deployed in Ukraine began to emerge more recently. The BTR-50 first entered Soviet service in 1954 and a photo of a BTR-50PU command vehicle, a variant adopted in 1958, apparently in Ukraine, appeared earlier this month. Since the BTR-50PU is unarmed, it’s likely that the vehicle was being used in some kind of supporting role or was perhaps a candidate to be fitted with an ad-hoc weapon installation.

Examples of the latter have also begun to appear more frequently in Russian hands in the Ukraine war. These have included examples of the MT-LB tracked armored fighting vehicle — also dating from the Soviet era — crudely fitted with various kinds of shipborne anti-aircraft guns.

Taken together, all these developments underline the deepening trouble Russia is facing when it comes to providing its armed forces with modern armored fighting vehicles.

It’s also worth noting that if the T-54/55s do make it as far as Ukraine, and find themselves being used in their original combat role, they would be at a huge disadvantage in virtually every way, from armor to sensors. Especially if they are expected to face the plethora of modern anti-tank weapons, not to mention advanced Western main battle tanks that are now starting to be delivered to Ukraine.

Western armored fighting vehicles are also a big threat to these tanks. The Bradley, which Ukraine is getting, among other types, gained a reputation for being killers of early Soviet-era tanks during Operation Desert Storm, for instance.

A T-54 knocked out during streetfighting in Budapest, during the Soviet-led invasion of Hungary in 1956. Fortepan/Nagy Gyula/Wikimedia Commons

It could be the case that the T-54/55s are headed to another depot in Russia where they can receive one or more upgrades before being deployed to the front. Such additions could potentially include a modernized fire control system to replace their primitive daytime-only optical sights and address the crippling lack of rangefinders and ballistic computers. Some T-62s are receiving similar modifications, although they also feature decades-old thermal sights in terms of technology. Another option could involve additional protective measures, such as modular armor or even explosive reactive armor (ERA). Altogether more makeshift armor protection is also something that Russia has made extensive use of, including on T-62s.

Even if these changes were to happen, the levels of firepower, protection, and mobility offered by even an upgraded T-54/55 would fall well short of those found in a more modern Soviet-era or Russian tank, let alone an advanced Western one. The basic armor in the T-54/55 was designed to offer protection against early Cold War NATO adversaries like the U.S. M48 Patton and the British Centurion, both long since gone from frontline service. Similarly, the D-10T 100mm rifled gun used on the T-54/55 was superior to those found on the M48 and Centurion but became obsolescent once the U.S. M60 tank arrived in Europe in 1960, with its new 105mm gun.

Another possibility, raised by the Ukrainian Military Center, is that the T-54/55s will be refurbished and delivered to Syria, where the type remains in widespread use including in that country’s civil war. It’s even possible that the tanks might be provided to Syria in exchange for more modern military equipment that Russia could use in the war in Ukraine. For example, the S-300 air defense system deployed by Russia to Syria, in 2018, appears to have been shipped back to support Russia’s war in Ukraine. 

While even an obsolete tank can play some limited role in modern combat, even if only as mobile artillery or protecting rear areas, the T-54/55 is clearly no match for the high-end anti-tank weapons, let alone new tanks and armored vehicles that are being fielded by Ukraine. But whatever the eventual destination of these tanks, they help paint a picture of Russian Armed Forces facing some desperate equipment shortages.

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Thomas Newdick

Staff Writer

Thomas is a defense writer and editor with over 20 years of experience covering military aerospace topics and conflicts. He’s written a number of books, edited many more, and has contributed to many of the world’s leading aviation publications. Before joining The War Zone in 2020, he was the editor of AirForces Monthly.