Putin is sending tanks to Ukraine that were developed just after World War II. They cannot compete against modern main battle tanks in mobile combat. But in other roles they can be useful.

T-55 tanks were seen on a train bound for Ukraine. Not for the first time. Last summer, T-55s were observed among the troops of the self-proclaimed separatist republics.

Now it is not new that old equipment is used in Ukraine. But the T-54/55 stands out as a Methuselah among the other oldies. The tank is a post-war development. To put it in terms of time: One can say of the German Leopard 2 that, despite a lot of modernization make-up, it is still an elderly lady. The Leopard 2 has been in production since 1978. Its predecessor, the Leopard 1, was built in 1965. The T-55 was introduced in 1958, but it is an evolution of the T-54 and it rolled off the assembly line in 1947. And not only the date of birth is decisive. The point at which modernization stopped was also important. And here, too, there are worlds between the T-55 and the German Leopard 1.

Developed after World War II

At 36 tons, the T-55 would be considered a “light” battle tank today, but since the engine only delivers 560 hp, it doesn’t have an overly sporty engine. Its 100 millimeter caliber cannon can hardly pose a threat to a modern main battle tank in open combat. It cannot penetrate modern front-line composite armor. The crew consists of four people. The T-55 does not yet have an autoloader like the later T-models. At least his chariot gun is fully stabilized.

The advantages of the oldtimer include reliable technology, most of what makes a modern battle tank the T-55 does not have on board. So it can’t break either. The speed off-road (25 km/h) and on the road (50 km/h) is not outstanding, but not bad either. The T-55’s steel armor offers little to no protection against modern armored car guns or guided missiles. But it protects the crew from splinters, machine or assault rifle fire.

Unsuitable as a dueling tank

That all sounds extremely bad, so what’s the point of a tank like this? As a dueling tank against modern types, the T-55 can hardly be used, but there are other roles for it. In fact, there have not yet been any real battles between tank groups in Ukraine. A lurking tank can be seen firing at enemy armored vehicles on the march. But mostly tanks support the infantry. Either directly or in the role as short-range wheeled artillery. And a T-55 can still perform the function of a simple assault gun today. Its protection may be inadequate, but soldiers operating towed howitzers like the M777 or a mortar work in the open and have no protection at all. Incidentally, all light infantry mortars in use today are based on the design of the Stokes mortar. And it even dates back to 1915. Ukraine also uses ancient armored personnel carriers and transporters. For example the boxy M-113 from the USA. The tracked vehicle has a certain cross-country mobility, but it offers practically no protection. Even a heavy rifle penetrates the armor.

Role as an assault gun

Using the T-55 can make sense. It is typical of fighting in urban areas that enemy positions in buildings and skyscrapers are fired upon with heavy weapons, for example when a sniper has been spotted. Old anti-aircraft tanks with their twin machine guns are used for this. The T-55 can perform these tasks just as well as any other tank. You can also often see tanks giving troops indirect fire support. Again, the T-55 would not be inferior to a modern model. With mounted soldiers it can be used to transport infantry. If the tank is dug in in a covered position, the insufficient armor will have less of an impact.

Threats to all tanks

In addition, modern war, as seen in Ukraine, has become a great leveller. Many threats are so deadly to tanks that the huge difference in quality between each tank type isn’t as significant as one might expect. If a tank is spotted by a drone and then targeted, it has little chance. It doesn’t matter if it’s being fired upon with conventional artillery, or if it’s taking a direct hit from smart ammo or a kamikaze drone on its weakly protected topside. If a tank hits a heavy anti-tank mine, it will stop. Whether it’s a T-90, a Challenger or an ancient tank. In the age of drones, he’s an easy target. Even modern guided missiles are dangerous for any tank. With the newest tanks, the gunners just shouldn’t try to penetrate the front line.

Huge losses

Of course, Moscow is reacting to the losses of the war by using the oldtimers. Russia is said to have lost over 1,800 main battle tanks so far. Without these losses, nobody would use these old tanks. But that doesn’t mean that Moscow doesn’t have better models. It is more likely that these old tanks will bear the further wear and tear in the largely static combat events and that the better models should be spared.

The western tanks to be delivered to Ukraine are all vastly superior to the T-54/55. However, this does not mean that they are invulnerable in battles such as those seen in Donbass. And even without knowing how many T-54/55s can be floated, the number will be gigantic. The USSR built over 60,000 of these.