Red Steel: Soviet Tanks I

The Cold War does not have a definitive start and end. It is defined as the period from the end of the Second World War (known in the Soviet Union as the Great Patriotic War) to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 with some relevant to the “New Cold War”.

The Soviet military had a deeply ingrained culture of secrecy, to the point that soldiers were not told the designations of the vehicles that they used. Whereas most Western armies believe that crews should be familiar with their own vehicle, the Soviet army believed that once a soldier had been taught to drive a tank or fire a gun, he would be able to drive any tank or fire any gun. It was common for a subset of a unit’s vehicles to be used for training, allowing the remaining vehicles to be kept in better condition. If a vehicle was particularly secret, the soldiers would be trained on a different vehicle, while the secret vehicle was kept in storage. In time of war, the soldiers would be given a short time for familiarisation.

Soviet weapon systems tended to be simpler and less expensive than their Western counterparts. This was partly due to the experience of the Second World War, when the German advance meant that factories were overrun or had to be moved. During that war, simple weapons that did not require complex industrial processes, and which could be produced in great quantities, were highly valued. Western planners generally assumed that a third world war in Europe would be over quickly, but Soviet planners wanted to be able to continue production even after extensive damage had been inflicted on the country. User comfort was a much lower priority for Soviet designers than their Western counterparts, although ease of use was of the utmost importance. The Soviet army consisted primarily of short-term conscripts, many of whom spoke and read little to no Russian. Thus, it was important that the weapon systems should be rugged, simple to use, and easy to maintain.

In a similar vein, Soviet tactics tended to be much simpler than those in the West. Although it is easy to dismiss such simple tactics, it should be borne in mind that they were based on the experience gained defeating a smaller, but technically superior, German army during the Second World War. In the event of another war in Europe, the large Soviet army would have faced a smaller, technically superior NATO army.

Soviet armoured vehicle designers used sloped armour to great effect for many years. Design of the T-34, which used sloped armour, started in 1937. Sloping armour increases the horizontal thickness, but provides an increase in effectiveness that goes beyond this. The effectiveness of sloping can be calculated using the formula Teff=T/Cos(x), where T is the thickness of the armour plate, x is the angle from vertical, and Teff is the effective thickness. The increase in effectiveness for various angles is given below:

10°: 1.02

20°: 1.06

30°: 1.15

40°: 1.31

50°: 1.56

60°: 2.00

70°: 2.92

80°: 5.76

Armour angles are given in degrees from the vertical, so 0° is vertical and 90° is horizontal. To illustrate the dramatic effect that increasing the angle can have, consider the frontal hull armour of the T-62 tank. The armour is 102mm thick. The upper part is at an angle of 60° from vertical, the lower part 54° from vertical. The effective thickness of the upper part is 204mm, twice the actual thickness of the steel. The effective thickness of the lower part is 173.53mm – still significantly more than vertical armour, but much less so than the upper, because of a 6° difference in angle.

Combat experience in Afghanistan highlighted some shortcomings in vehicle designs. The Soviet army was organised and equipped for a large-scale war in Western Europe or China, and was ill-equipped for fighting a counter-insurgency war in a mountainous region like Afghanistan. Vehicle crews often had difficulty engaging targets high above them due to their weapons having limited elevation. This experience led to armament on future vehicles having higher maximum elevation, to allow engagement of targets on high ground. This had the secondary effect of allowing some limited use against helicopters and ground-attack aircraft.


The wartime T-34/85 was considered by many to be one of the best, if not the best, tank design of the Second World War. Despite development of new tanks with larger, more powerful guns, the T-34/85 was kept in service with the Soviet army until the 1960s, with some Soviet client states keeping it in service for many more years. The T-44 was accepted into service in late 1944 as an improvement on the T-34. This had some teething problems, and was only produced in limited numbers, but formed the basis for the later T-54.

In the late 1950s, Khrushchev, a proponent of missiles over guns, ordered designers to investigate the possibility of tanks armed with missiles instead of guns. Despite widespread opposition to the idea, work continued and eventually led to the deployment of gun-launched anti-tank missiles such as the AT-8 Songster.

The Soviet Union exported many tanks during the Cold War, to Warsaw Pact nations as well as other countries. The T-54 and T-55 in particular were widely exported. Care should be taken when comparing the effectiveness of exported tanks against Western tanks. Export models, especially those exported to non-communist countries, were not always of an equivalent standard to domestic tanks, and the operating country would sometimes choose to use cheaper, locally-produced ammunition rather than buying ammunition from the Soviet Union. During the First Gulf War, Western tanks were virtually immune to Iraqi T-72s (using locally-produced shells), even at close range. It has been estimated that Soviet ammunition would have been able to penetrate at a distance of 1-2km. In addition, the armour on export models of the T-72 is less effective than that fitted to domestic models.

It is interesting to note that by the mid-1970s the Soviet army had three largely similar tanks in production: the T-64, T-72, and T-80. Despite the communist system of government, there were three major competing tank design bureaus, and each used political influence to get their own design into service with the Soviet army.

Western analysts predicted that the use of composite armour would change the shape of Soviet tank turrets from the curved shape previously used to an angular shape similar to the British Challenger or US M1 Abrams. Turret shapes did become less curved with the introduction of composite armour on the T-64, but they remained far less angular than those of Western tanks fitted with composite armour.


The first T-54 prototype was built in 1946, with low-rate production starting in 1947. Full production started in 1953. Initially, the T-54 did not have NBC protection, though this was added to later models and retro-fitted to existing vehicles.

Main armament is an unstabilised 100mm D-10T gun, with a 7.62mm SGMT machine gun mounted co-axially with the main armament. A second 7.62mm SGMT machine gun is mounted in a fixed mount in the centre of the glacis plate, and is operated by the driver. A 12.7mm DShKM anti-aircraft machine gun is mounted at the loader’s hatch. The TO-54 variant mounts a flamethrower in place of the co-axial machine gun, with a maximum range of around 160m.

In 1955, the T-54A replaced the unstabilised D-10T with the 100mm D-10TG, stabilised in the vertical plane. This model also introduced a snorkel for deep wading. The T-54B, introduced in 1957, added an infra-red searchlight and driving lights. This model is fitted with the 100mm D-10T2S gun, stabilised in both vertical and horizontal planes. All of these improvements were retro-fitted to earlier models.

The T-54AK is a command variant of the T-54A. This has extra communications equipment, but a reduced ammunition load.


The T-55, introduced in 1958, is a development of the T-54 with a new turret mounting the 100mm D-10T2S gun, stabilised in both vertical and horizontal planes. The 12.7mm anti-aircraft machine gun is removed, 100mm ammunition stowage is increased, and an improved engine is fitted. In 1961, the T-55A added radiation shielding and protection from nuclear fallout. The 7.62mm SGMT was replaced with the 7.62mm PKT, and the bow-mounted MG was removed. This was the first Soviet tank to be able to create smoke by injecting fuel into the exhaust, a common feature in later tanks. During the 1970s, a 12.7mm DShKM anti-aircraft machine gun was fitted to the loader’s hatch on new and existing T-55s.

During the early 1980s, three new models of T-55 were introduced: the T-55M, T-55AD, and T-55MV. The T-55AD was fitted with the Drozd missile-defence system, the T-55MV had explosive reactive armour (ERA). The T-55AD and T-55M also had laminated appliqué armour added to the hull glacis plate.

All three new models had a range of other improvements:

Thermal sleeve for the main gun barrel

AT-10 Stabber gun-launched ATGM

Improved fire-control system with ballistic computer and laser rangefinder

Laminated appliqué armour on the turret

Side skirts of steel-reinforced rubber

Extra belly armour for protection against mines

Improved NBC protection, adding protection from chemical and biological agents

Smoke grenade launchers

Improved engine and suspension

Improved radio

Command variants of most T-55 models were produced, these having a “K” suffix (T-55K, T-55MK etc.). Command variants have extra communications equipment and an on-board generator. To make space for this extra equipment, fewer rounds for the main gun are carried.


The T-62 was developed from the T-55. Some components, such as the NBC protection and the fording and fire-detection/suppression systems, are carried over from the T-55. The engine and transmission are also the same, although the T-62 improves the engine cooling. The T-62 does, however, have a wider turret and longer, wider hull. The main armament is a 115mm 2A20 smoothbore gun, stabilised on two axes and fitted with a stadiametric rangefinder. After firing, the gun moves to an elevation of +3°30′ and automatically ejects the spent case through an ejection port in the turret rear. Unlike later tanks, this is not a full autoloader. The next round still has to be loaded manually. At the time of the T-62’s introduction in 1962, the smoothbore gun was a radical new concept. The gun is relatively cheap to manufacture, and the APFSDS ammunition gives greater armour penetration, but is more expensive than traditional APDS.

Early production T-62s had protection against nuclear fallout, but not chemical or biological agents. Later T-62s added a chemical filter to provide protection against these threats.

The T-62 was not used as a basis for specialised engineering and recovery vehicles. Instead, the cheaper T-55 chassis continued to be used. During its time in service, a number of improvements were introduced. In 1972, the T-62 Model 1972 added a 12.7mm DShKM anti-aircraft machine gun over the loader’s position. In 1975, the T-62 Model 1975 added a laser rangefinder over the 115mm gun.

In 1983, Model 1975 vehicles were fitted with a new engine and the Drozd missile-defence system. Appliqué armour was added to the glacis plate. These vehicles were designated T-62D.

Also in 1983, the T-62M was introduced. This had appliqué armour on the glacis plate and distinctive horseshoe-shaped armour added to the turret front. Belly armour was added to the hull floor to provide improved protection against mines, and side skirts were fitted to provide some protection against HEAT warheads. In addition, the fire-control system was improved and the AT-10 Stabber ATGM was fitted. Eight smoke grenade launchers were fitted to the right of the turret.

The TO-62 is a flamethrower variant of the T-62. The flamethrower was mounted co-axially with the 115mm main gun, and had an effective range of around 100 metres.

The T-62K is a command variant, which first appeared in 1973. This has an improved navigation system and an electric charging system. It carries four fewer rounds of 115mm ammunition. A command variant of the T-62M was also produced, designated the T-62MK.

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