There has been a general chortling in the commentariat over news that the Russians are now apparently transporting obsolete tanks to the Ukraine war zone. Following on from them sending 60 year-old T-62 tanks to the theatre of operations a couple of months ago, we now learn that even older T-54/T-55 models are on their way too. These were designed at the end of the Second World War and are the most numerous tanks ever produced globally, with over 100,000 having been churned out over the years. They were exported all over the world and most people will be familiar with them from images from conflicts past in the Middle East and Africa.
Just to put a bit of a dampener on the mirth and put this all in context, we should also note that the British army is still equipped with the FV 432 Bulldog, first in service in 1963, the CVR(T) recce vehicle, ditto in 1970, and the 105 mm Light Gun, first fielded by the Royal Artillery in 1974. Not so funny now, is it?
There is no doubt, of course, that these Soviet era legacy tanks are hugely inferior to the western Challenger 2s, Leopard 2s, and M1A1 Abrams now on their way, albeit agonisingly slowly, to equip the UkrAF. In a straight one-on-one contest they would be overwhelmed by the superior armour, optics, and guns of the NATO vehicles.
But what are tanks for anyway? When I went through Sandhurst we were told that “the best anti-tank weapon is another tank”, a statement which with hindsight is clearly ludicrous. There are far better and more economical weapons to take out a tank; mines, anti-tank missiles, and drones, for example, to name but three. Why use a £10 million tank when a £100,000 missile will do the same job, and maybe more efficiently?
No, the primary purpose of a tank is to apply what we like to call “shock action” to the enemy. That shock can be physical, moral, or psychological, but the end result is the same. The enemy ceases to resist. And a tank does so by virtue of is firepower, protection, and mobility, enabling its crew to operate and survive in the threat environment that is the modern battlefield.
As is happens, a tank’s main utility in combat is not to take on and destroy other tanks, although that is certainly part of it, but to support other arms like the infantry and engineers to secure their objectives. A relatively smaller part of their time will be spent seeking out and destroying the enemy’s tanks.
Which brings us back to Russia’s obsolete tanks now being deployed to Ukraine. The T-54/T-55/T-62 models may be way out of their depth against western opponents, but they still have their uses against infantry and other softer targets. Plus it’s likely that the Russians will seek to upgrade them with additional armour packs and better optics and sighting systems, so they’re not to be sneezed at.
But their biggest advantage will be their numbers. If this current war has taught us anything it’s that mass matters. This is hardly a new lesson. In the Second World War the Germans had tanks which were generally better overall than those of the Allies, but were over-complicated, over-engineered, and unreliable.
The Allies, on the other hand, had tanks like the American Sherman and the Russian T-34 which, although arguably technologically inferior, were deployed in large quantities. The Germans were quite simply overwhelmed.
If you subscribe to the axiom that – and I paraphrase inter-war British military thinker Captain Basil Liddell Hart here – a tank is, like a ship or a shell, merely a munition of war to be expended at a profit, then the commitment of older vehicles by the Russians begins to make some sense. That “profit” can be measured in damage done, economics, or balance of casualties inflicted, or all three.
So, taking the economic case for example, a Leopard 2 costs roughly £9 million, whereas a T-55 is closer to £165,000, so you could get approximately 50 Russian tanks for one German one (the figures are best information available and purely illustrative). Would 50 T-55s be able to defeat one Leopard 2? You bet they would. This is, of course, simplistic in the extreme, and many other factors would have to be taken into account to predict a more accurate outcome.
But the point I am making is this; quantity has a quality all of its own. Don’t just dismiss the Russian obsolete tanks as being ineffective. They still have a place on the battlefields of Ukraine.
Lt Col Stuart Crawford is a defence analyst and former army officer. Sign up for his newsletters at www.DefenceReview.uk
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