Since the onset of its invasion more than fourteen months ago, Moscow has lost many main battle tanks (MBTs). In the early months of the war, Russia was sending its more modern and advanced armored vehicles to the front lines in Ukraine to support its offensive war efforts.
However, these tanks did not fare well. Many were destroyed, captured or even left behind by ill-equipped Russian troops.
The London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies estimated that Moscow may have lost half of its modern tank fleet, including the T-72B3 and T-72B3M variants. Additionally, its stockpile of T-80BV/U MBTs has likely been depleted by nearly two-thirds.
In order to grapple with its dwindling tank fleet, Russian forces began sending out antiquated weapons from storage. Perhaps the most surprising vintage MBTs to make it to the front lines are the Soviet-era T-54/T-55 variants.
When did T-54/T-55s make it to Ukraine?
The open-source defense group Oryx first released footage depicting Russia’s T-54/T-55 MBTs being loaded onto a train car back in March. Reportedly, the Conflict Intelligence Team obtained these photos originally, outlining that “Deployment and use of T-62 tanks by the Russian Armed Forces during the current invasion has been documented since the summer of 2022, but it is the first recorded instance of T-54/55 tanks withdrawal from storage.”
The Kremlin did not do much to push against this report and in some cases even justified the use of these old MBTs in Kyiv. A retired Russian lieutenant general who once commanded a battalion told a state-run media outlet that the antiquated tanks were “in demand to continue the special operation, because they have a significant ammunition load.”
A brief history of the T-54/T-55s
In the 1940’s, the former Soviet Union relied on the T-34 medium tank to lead its armored corps. While this MBT was considered to be a formidable powerhouse in the time period, the country desired a successor that could be fitted easily with technological advancements. Around this time period, the Morozov Design Bureau resurrected an earlier tank development project which culminated in the T-44. In 1948, the T-54 was derived from the T-44 and became the “Beast From the East” during the Cold War.
Specs and Capabilities
Notably, the T-54/T-55 is the most produced tank in history. Since its introduction, over 100,000 MBTs have been built and advanced variants continue to be produced today in China for export.
In addition to more lethal smoothbore guns and modern fire controls, the enhanced T-54/T-55 variants feature a much larger 125mm gun.
According to Military Watch Magazine, the models that underwent facelifts over the years could even be considered to be more capable than some of Russia’s newer MBTs in service today. “The most ambitious upgrade package for the design implemented in Russia was the T-55MV-1 which was developed in the 1980s for the Soviet Naval Infantry and included integration of Kontakt-1 explosive reactive armour, access to new guided rounds, and integration of new engines and fire controls. “
While some T-54/T-55 variants sport significant advancements, the variants Russia uses today appear to be older models that have been stuck in storage for decades.
Maya Carlin, a Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, is an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel. You can follow her on Twitter: @MayaCarlin.