Russia hauls 1950s-era tanks out of storage to join battlefield
Russia appears to have pulled 1950s-era tanks out of storage in the latest sign of a serious armour shortage in its army.
Pictures and video have emerged of what experts say are T-54 and T-55 tanks being transported by rail from a military depot for mothballed equipment in Russia’s far east.
If sent into Ukraine the vehicles would likely become the oldest main battle tanks used in the conflict.
The images were obtained by the Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT), an independent Russian intelligence group. It did not reveal how it had obtained the pictures or where they were taken. Other social media channels later released video footage of what appeared to be the same train.
CIT said used transport databases showed the train had departed from Arsenyev, the town in the far eastern Primorsky region.
Arsenyev is the location of the 1295th Central Tank Repair and Storage Base, a large facility for mothballed military equipment.
It is not clear what the tanks’ destination is, or whether they will ever see combat. But the fact they have been taken out of storage was taken by experts as further confirmation of a high level of attrition of more modern vehicles.
“What this tells us is that all the remaining modern tanks are in or around Ukraine. So there are no more modern tanks left in stockpiles. It suggests they’ve used up all the T-62s they have in service so they are down to T-55s,” said Ben Barry, an armoured warfare expert at the think tank, referring to another obsolete tank Russia has used to plug gaps in its arsenal.
“It suggests the Ukrainians are continuing to knock out their modern tanks and the proportion of modern tanks being used against Ukraine begins to decline - at a time when the West is supplying modern tanks.”
Exactly how many tanks Russia has lost in Ukraine is disputed.
The Ukrainian Armed Forces’ rolling tally of claimed Russian tank losses stood at 3,557 on Wednesday. Oryx, an open-source intelligence agency, says it has counted around 1,700 confirmed Russian tank losses.
Experts at the International Institute of Strategic Studies, a British military think tank, said in February that it had confirmed the same number as Oryx but that the true figure could be between 2,000 and 2,300.
That means Russia has lost about half of the modern T-72s and T-72s and two thirds of its T-80s that made up its active modern tank fleet when the war began (IISS estimated Russia had 2,927 modern tanks in total and 1,200 tanks in storage, most of which were T-72s and T-80s, when the war began).
Russia appears to have begun dusting off mothballed tanks to replace losses to its T-72 and T-80 fleet shortly after the defeat of its attempt to take Kyiv early in the war.
As early as May last year, obsolete T-62 tanks were showing up on the frontlines, particularly on the southern front around Kherson.
In October a train also originating from Arsenyev and carrying T-62s was photographed in Yekaterinburg, and there is video and photo evidence of the Ukrainians destroying and capturing several such tanks during the offensive that eventually liberated Kherson in November.
The T-62 was adopted in the early 1960s and was considered retired. At least one of those that was captured is known to have been repaired and pressed into Ukrainian service.
In February this year, another train was seen carrying BTR-50 armoured personnel carriers, which were introduced in the 1950s and ceased production in the 1970s.
How many of the elderly vehicles have reached the battlefield, or what proportion of Russia’s currently deployed forces they account for, is something of a mystery. It is possible many are used for training or are being cannibalised for spare parts.
The British ministry of defence said in an intelligence update in early March that Russia had withdrawn 800 T-62s from storage since summer and upgraded at least some of them, but did not say how many of them had been deployed to Ukraine.
It claimed the 1st Guards Tank Army, Russia’s premier armoured formation, might be among those re-equipped with T-62s but provided no evidence for the claim.
The Red Army adopted the T-54 in the late 1940s to replace the Second World War era T-34. The T-55, its successor, came into service from 1958 and is thought to be the first tank specifically designed to operate in a nuclear war.
Exported to Soviet allies around the world, they became the most produced tank in history.
Both tanks are recognised throughout the British Army by its distinctive set of five road wheels, which support the tracks. With a prominent gap between the first and second wheels, the very obvious recognition feature was referred to as “one gap four”.
Any Western tank crew that saw an armoured vehicle with this configuration, regardless how much camouflage or additional armour was placed on the turret and hull, would immediately know it was the ageing Soviet, and later Russian, T54/55.
Russia was thought to have exported or scrapped the rest of its fleet, said Kirril Mikhailov, an independent Kyiv-based military researcher, so seeing them on a train coming out of storage is both “significant and surprising”.
“It is the next level up from the T-34 in World of Tanks, which is a game basically about World War Two tanks. And it’s a reasonable rule of thumb that if a tank is in a game about World War Two, it shouldn’t be on a modern battlefield,” he said when asked to describe how they would perform in combat.
But he cautioned that it does not mean Russia has run out of T-72s and T-80s, even if it is short of them, and any tank with armour and a cannon is better than none.
“Many newly mobilised and volunteer troops have been put in motor rifle brigades, which are meant to have a tank echelon. And there are units trained to use sophisticated weaponry like artillery or tanks who are sent to the front and find there are no tanks or cannons, so they are sent to die as infantry - mostly around Avdiivka,” he said, referring to a key Donbas town.
“So these may be intended for those units,” he said.
Mr Barry added that even if vulnerable, adding T-55’s to provide extra mass to an offensive would complicate the work of Ukrainian anti-tank gunners and help overwhelm their defences.
“The T55 is not completely useless on the battlefield. A dismounted infantry battalion attacking on its own would find a company of T55s providing fire support quite useful, provided the defenders did not have modern anti armour weapons,“ said Mr Barry. “But it has far less firepower than a modern tank like a T-72 and by modern standards very thin armour, so it is vulnerable.”
Russia is not alone in relying on old Soviet gear.
Despite promises of small numbers of Western main battle tanks, Ukraine’s own tank fleet is made up mostly of T-72s and T-64s. The latter is marginally more advanced than the T-62s Russia has used to plug gaps.
In December, Slovenia sent Ukraine 28 of its M55-S tanks - a heavily upgraded version of the T-55.