Can Russia’s Old T-62 find a way to be useful in Ukriane? Defense expert Sébastien Roblin gives us his analysis: As fighting rages on in eastern and southern Ukraine, with new offensives and counteroffensives kicking off weekly, Russia’s military is facing a growing tank deficit as it reinforces or reconstitutes decimated units to feed back into the fight. Imagery confirms Russia has lost at least 760 main battle tanks in combat in Ukraine by June 7, the majority relatively modern T-72B3 and T-80 tanks, though the true total is surely higher.
A video in May revealed Moscow has begun tapping its inventory of retired T-62 tanks—a type introduced into service in 1961—delivering a trainload into the occupied city of Melitopol in southern Ukraine.
The T-62Ms and reactive-armor equipped T-62MVs were later spotted in the adjacent Kherson Oblast, where Russian troops are on the defensive against Ukrainian forces attempting to liberate a substantial swathe of their country.
Another video shows an immobilized T-62 broken down outside of combat. None so far have been confirmed destroyed in action.
This photo is doing the rounds as the first Russian T-62M(V) lost in Ukraine.
We believe it suffered an engine breakdown in Russian-held territory and thus see no reason to add it to the list. pic.twitter.com/YMtgyA2uBQ
— Oryx (@oryxspioenkop) June 5, 2022
Soviet Smoothbore Sensation
The T-62 is something of the middle-child of Soviet-era tanks, entering service in between the more successful and ubiquitous T-54 and T-72.
Indeed, the design’s ‘lumpy’ turret makes it strongly resemble the preceding T-54, but the longer T-62 can be distinguished by the wider spacing between its five road wheels.
Modestly better armored than the T-54, the T-62’s key innovation was the introduction of a smoothbore U-5TS 115-millimeter gun intended to keep up with improving armor on the M48 and M60 Patton-series tanks.
At that time, tanks used guns with rifled barrels which could deliver chemical-energy shells (known as HEAT rounds) onto targets more accurately. However, new types of fin-stabilized discarding sabot shells (APFSDS) allowed smoothbore guns to achieve greater velocity, accuracy, and penetration—and became more desirable over time as new composite materials rendered cutting-edge tanks far more resistant to HEAT munitions.
The T-62 was still a formidable design in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, where Syrian and Egyptian T-62s with their powerful though slow-firing guns could reliably penetrate Israeli Patton, Centurion and Super Sherman tanks.
However, superior Israeli long-distance gunnery and operational acumen resulted in heavy T-62 losses. At the Battle of Chinese Farm, Egypt’s 25th Armor Brigade was boxed in on three sides by Centurion Sh’ot tanks. By the end of the day the Brigade had only 10 of its 96 T-62s remaining, having knocked out only four Israeli tanks.
Syria deployed five T-62 brigades for its attack on the Golan Heights but promptly lost 36 tanks to fire from an Israeli tank company, which lost only three Centurions. When Israeli forces counterattacked, Syria’s T-62-equipped 47th Brigade was overrun by a like-sized force of M51 Sherman tanks, though two T-62 brigades did help Syria stabilize a defensive line south of Damascus.
Post-war, Israel refurbished and reequipped many captured T-62s for use under the designation Tiran-6. They concluded the T-62 had better side armor than Western tanks, and its smoothbore gun had superior penetration out to a range of 2.5 kilometers. However, they criticized the T-62’s smaller ammunition supply 40 rounds, limited gun depression to 6 degrees, and cramped turret, which not only exhausted crews rapidly but made them more likely to be killed by a penetrating hit.
Upgrading the T-62
The Soviet Union built more than 22,000 T-62s through 1975, 5,000 of which were exported abroad and used in several more wars (Israel-Syria-Lebanon 1982, Libya-Chad, Iran-Iraq, 1991 Gulf War, civil wars in Angola, Ethiopia, Libya, and Syria). However, the T-62 was soon displaced by T-72 and T-80 tanks using auto-loading 125-millimeter guns that removed the need for a human loader, allowing a reduced crew of three.
Moscow nonetheless primarily used T-62s for its war in Afghanistan, where officially nearly 400 tanks were lost to Taliban guerillas armed with mines, rocket-propelled grenades and recoilless guns—a total that increases to 1,340 T-62s when including ‘non-combat’ losses.
That attrition led to the T-62M upgrade model reinforced with BDD laminated spaced armor on the turret front (30mm frontal plate backed up by four angled 5-millimeter plates) rubber skirts to protect the tracks, and anti-mine belly armor. Dubbed ‘Illyich’s Eyebrows” the protruding BDD flanges provided protection against HEAT munitions equivalent to 450-millimeters RHA, up from 240-millimeters.
Other upgrades included:
- Replacement of 581hp V-55 engine with more powerful V-55U (620 hp) engine, or the V46-5M (690hp) diesel engine used on the T-72
- Capability to fire 115-millimeter 9K116-2 laser-guided missiles (NATO codename AT-10 Stabber), which can accurately engage armored vehicles and helicopters out to 2.5 miles. (This was omitted from T-62M1 subvariants.)
- Volna fire-control system, including a BM-62 ballistics computers, KTD-2 laser range finder, and M1 stabilizer
- Additional modernized smoke grenade launchers, radios and tracks
There was also the T-62MV subvariant girded with bricks of Kontakt-1 explosive reactive armor instead of BDD. The bricks the penetration of HEAT-type munitions.
Russia still used T-62Ms extensively in the 2008 Russo-Georgia War, before finally retiring the type in 2013, though hundreds of T-62Ms were subsequently refurbished and sold to Syria for use in its civil war.
Do T-62Ms stand a chance in Ukraine?
It’s undoubtedly a bad sign for Russia that it’s compelled to dip into inventory of retired tanks rather than use better armored T-72s and T-80s. Moreover the requirement for a fourth crew member (loader) doesn’t fit with Russia’s existing training and manning structures.
That said, Russia is estimated to have around 10,000 tanks in storage, including 2,500 T-62s, suggesting there are undoubtedly thousands more T-72s and T-80s that can yet be reactivated. Likely, though, many were in too poor of a condition to be refurbished and deployed as quickly as the T-62Ms dispatched to Ukraine, which seem likely to be shunted to second-rate pro-Russian separatist forces.
In a head-to-head fight against Ukrainian tanks (primarily T-64s, but also T-72s and T-80s), T-62Ms will be at a grave disadvantage due to inferior sensors, fire control, armor and armor-penetration. But tank-on-tank battles remain relatively rare in Ukraine, and T-62s remains perfectly capable of lobbing 115-millimeter shells downrange to blast infantry, fortifications and lighter armored vehicles.
In a support role, the armor upgrades may give T-62Ms a chance of surviving frontal armor hits from lighter and/or older anti-tank weapons used by Ukrainian infantry, including M72A2 LAW, RPG-7, AT4 and Carl Gustaf anti-tank weapons; and dated but still widespread SPG-9 recoilless guns and MT-12 Rapira anti-tank guns.
T-62Ms dispatched to Ukraine have also been spotted with improvised cage armor over the turret, derisively dubbed ‘cope cages’ on social media as they are unlikely to protect against powerful anti-tank weapons like the Javelin or Stugna-P missiles. However, cage armor should help against anti-tank grenades dropped by civilian-style drones—a popular Ukrainian tactic which has had surprising success—and possibly degrade lighter anti-tank weapons.
#Ukraine: New Cope Cage™️ just dropped!
Ancient Russian T-62M tanks recently delivered in the South seem to have them fitted- we aren't quite sure why, given they don't work- but perhaps they are a good sunshade. pic.twitter.com/9DDC5DXAyG
— ?? Ukraine Weapons Tracker (@UAWeapons) June 5, 2022
However, an interviewed Russian T-72 commander stated his unit removed the improvised cages, noting they inhibited the functionality of the turret machine gun and radio antennas, and prevented crew from escaping a burning vehicle.
Lacking adequate personnel to simultaneously attack and defend territory in Ukraine, Russia is trying to lean on its deep inventory as a substitute. The T-62 delivery thus shows Moscow is compelled to dig deeper as it exhausts its most modern weapon system in combat, even though the T-62 is even more vulnerable than the hundreds of Russian T-72s and T-80s knocked out or abandoned in combat.
That said, even an old tank is nearly immune to all but specialized anti-armor munitions and heavy artillery, and can deliver lethal direct fire at a distance. If not employed recklessly—given Russia’s inadequate use of infantry to screen tanks—a T-62 unit could still pose a troublesome obstacle to Ukrainian light and mechanized infantry on the attack.
Sébastien Roblin writes on the technical, historical, and political aspects of international security and conflict for publications including The National Interest, NBC News, Forbes.com, War is Boring and 19FortyFive, where he is Defense-in-Depth editor. He holds a Master’s degree from Georgetown University and served with the Peace Corps in China. You can follow his articles on Twitter.