A Blog by Jonathan Low


Mar 23, 2023

Back To the Future: Russia Now Sending WWII- Era Tanks To Ukraine

Given the choice between sending them to a museum and sending them to Ukraine, the Russian army fighting for its life in Ukraine appears to have 'won.' 

Fun fact: to save space, T-54 shells are "wet stored" inside fuel tanks, which, given the Russian tank propensity to explode when hit should make for even more spectacular results than usual. JL 

Mark Sumner reports in Daily Kos:

At the outset of the fight, most tanks sent into Ukraine were variants of the T-72. (But) out of 1,871 documented losses, 1,025 were T-72s. The second largest group of tanks lost by Russia are more modern T-80s. T-64 tanks, first rolled out in 1963, turned up just two weeks into the war. Now Russia is trying to fill the gap—with T-54 tanks that started rolling off the lines in 1946. To make room for extra shells, the T-54 stores them in “wet tanks” inside the fuel tank. And to make room for extra fuel, some T-54s have fuel tanks right behind the front armor - that can obliterated by any modern shell. Also, the floor of the tank is just 20mm thick so welcome to the wonderful world of mines.

In Russia, a train loaded with more than a dozen tanks appears to be rolling toward Ukraine. That’s certainly not unusual. Since the start of the invasion, Oryx has documented 1871 Russian tanks destroyed or captured by Ukrainian forces. The Ukrainian general staff sets the total number of Russian tanks lost at 3,557. Depending on which number you take, that’s a required input of five to nine tanks a day, just to keep even. Spoiler: Russia is not keeping even.

But it’s not just the number of Russian tanks in Ukraine declining. At the outset of the fight, most tanks sent into Ukraine were variants of the T-72. However, out of the 1,871 documented losses, an astonishing 1,025 were T-72s of one sort or another. If the Ukrainian military numbers are correct, Russia has likely lost right at 2,000 T-72 tanks in Ukraine. 

The second largest group of tanks lost by Russia are somewhat more modern T-80s. Right now, documented losses of this tank stand at 448. That’s 850 when adjusted for the difference between documented losses and Ukraine’s projection of Russian losses. 

Now Russia is trying to fill the gap—with T-54 tanks that started rolling off the lines in 1946.

Russia, or more accurately, the Soviet Union, certainly built a good number of tanks: more than 5,000 for the T-80, roughly 25,000 when it comes to all the different forms of T-72. However, many of these tanks were exported and are in service elsewhere. At the outset of the war, it was estimated that Russia had around 2,000 “active” T-72 tanks and about 450 active T-80 tanks.

Yesterday, the Ukrainian army (UA) reported the destruction of 36 armored vehicles, including six tanks. Over the last week, that number has topped 370 vehicles and 40 tanks. Those are, amazingly enough, pretty average numbers for a week in Ukraine. 

Russia has almost certainly lost more than the documented losses at Oryx. Those numbers, which are only hardware identified from images clearly enough that they can’t be confused with any previously reported loss, are a bare minimum. Real values are likely between the Oryx number and the UA numbers. 

But wherever you draw the line, the best estimate at this point is that Russia has lost more T-72 and T-80 tanks than it had active, anywhere in its military, at the start of the war. The tanks of these designs that are now rolling around Ukraine are the scraps of that original stock supplemented by others pulled from the pile of reserve tanks.

Russia was thought to have something like 10,000 reserve tanks between the T-72 and T-80 models, but many, if not most, of these have proven to have been poorly stored, inadequately maintained, and subject to decades of being picked apart by corrupt soldiers and officers out to net a quick buck by selling off everything from ammo to engines. Reports from inside Russia suggest that getting these tanks back together from the various bits found rusting in fields and moldering in warehouses is resulting in a trickle of about a dozen tanks a month—far less than what Russia needs to fill the thinning ranks. So where does it turn?

From the outset of the invasion, there have been a few other tanks involved. Russia has brought in various versions of the newer T-90 tank, but it has lost at least 57—probably something more like 100—and it never had many of these tanks to begin with. Russia has also threatened to bring in the T-14 Armata, its newest tank design, but no more than a few dozen prototypes of this tank exist, all of which are said to have issues. None of them has yet appeared in Ukraine.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the T-90 models that have been destroyed in Ukraine are that at least 6 were of the T-90S design. This is an export build. Russia is dipping into tanks that it already sold to some other country to find a few more modern tanks to send to Ukraine—that’s not a great signal that they’re doing great when it comes to hardware.

Everything seems to indicate that Russia has likely exhausted its supply of T-90s. The T-80s that it’s able to add to the fray are those that are being slowly refitted from its mistreated reserves. The same applies to the thin stream of T-72s still coming in. There are no actual T-14s to bring.

Russia can’t go newer. So it has to go older.

There have been T-64 tanks, first rolled out in 1963, involved in the invasion from the outset. Most of these were tanks that Russia had gifted to the DPR and LPR militias. The first dead T-64 turned up just two weeks into the war. At this point, 53 of these old tanks have been destroyed.

Then last June, Ukrainian forces knocked off a T-62 tank—first produced in 1961—in Zaporizhzhia oblast.

Since that day, 73 more T-62 tanks, at various levels of modernization, have been destroyed. At the beginning of March, another trainload of these old tanks was spotted being rolled into Ukraine. Wagner Group owner Yevgeny Prigozhin took time away from complaining about other things to complain about being sent T-62s to replace the T-72s and T-80s his mercenaries had turned to scrap around Bakhmut. 

But wait. It gets better. Or worse, if you’re supporting Russia. Because the train that everyone seems to be watching this morning is this one.

The train in the image actually has its turret facing the rear. See that little gap between the first drive wheel and the rest? That’s the mark of a T-54/T-55 tank, first produced in 1946. Just how surprising is it to see these tanks preparing to roll into conflict? About this surprising.

Honestly, these aren’t the first of these old tanks to appear in this conflict. That’s because Slovenia sent Ukraine 28 heavily upgraded M-55S tanks last fall that started life as Soviet T-55s. At the time, tankies thought this was hilarious. The M-55S wasn’t “a real tank” and was seen as proof NATO was scraping the bottom of the barrel.  Since December, when these tanks were reportedly in service on the front lines, Ukraine has actually lost none of these tanks, which is pretty remarkable. Either Ukraine is being very careful with this kit, or the upgrades to the M-55S (which include a new gun, new armor, new turret, new electronics, new scope, etc.) are making this a more potent weapon than was expected.

Maybe the Russian tanks have been similarly upgraded. Let’s take a peek.

Errr … no. These are old tanks, in old configurations, with old guns, old armor, old turrets, and presumably old equipment. Hey Prigozhin, you didn’t like those T-62s? Fine, have a few of these.

There are also some very significant logistical differences between this tank and even a T-64. If the guns have not been upgraded, that means this is a 100mm rifled barrel rather than the 125mm smoothbore on the T-64 and newer. Naturally the engine, as well as every other component, is considerably different. So prepare to get another lesson in Russian logistics. 

Also, this is the first tank Russia has fielded which does not have an autoloader. Rather than a three-person crew, it requires a four-person crew with one person acting as the loader. Manual loading is commonplace on Western tanks, but just how much experience does Russia have with loaded tanks manually? Is there anyone in their military today who knows how to handle this task?

Fun side notes: To make room for extra shells, the T-54 stores them in “wet tanks” inside the fuel tank. And to make room for extra fuel, some T-54s have fuel tanks right behind the front armor—armor that can absolutely obliterated by just about any modern shell. Also, the floor of the tank is just 20mm thick so … welcome to the wonderful world of mines.

Maybe Russia will keep the T-54s well back from the front and use them to fill some other role. On the other hand, maybe they’ll put them at the head of the next charge on Vuhledar. After all, why not?

A quick run around the battlefields. Please refer to the maps from Saturday for these locations. (And let me know if this new strategy of just reposting the maps once or twice a week while doing a review of action all along the front works for you).

  • Kupyansk—Russia apparently made a small assault on a Ukrainian garrison at  Masyutivka, which was repulsed. Not much more to report as this area seemed pretty inactive on Tuesday.
  • Savatove—Continued back and forth exchange between neighboring forces at Novoselivske and Kuzemivka. It’s incredible that neither side has been able to dislodge the other from this location. No other significant action along the line in this area.
  • Kreminna—Russia reportedly tried again to push Ukrainian forces out of the woods south of Kreminna and away from the town of Dibrova. Both attacks were unsuccessful. Russia also reportedly staged another run at Bilohorivka—though exactly what route they took to get there is unclear. In any case, that also failed.
  • Bakhmut—The biggest news out of Bakhmut is how big the news isn’t. Not only did Russia reportedly fail in attempts to move west toward Orihovo-Vasylivka and in multiple moves toward that road through Khromove, things were actually calm enough in Bakhmut today that this happened. Again.

That’s President Zelenskyy once again appearing in Bakhmut to give his thanks to the troops stationed there and reassure them of the importance of their continued presence. He handed out some awards, shook a lot of hands, and toured some locations near the front.

In addition to the Russian attacks on the north, Ukraine continued to hold Russia back from the highway south of Ivaniske. The Ukrainian military also reports fights at Klishchiivka and Mayorsk. Both of those locations seem to indicate potential Ukrainian advances.

  • Donetsk—The Ukrainian army reported a long, long list of shelled locations and repulsed attacks. This includes at least 13 towns and villages attacked and another dozen shelled. It certainly seems like this was the core of Russian efforts on Tuesday, but it’s not clear anything actually moved. I’ll try to get a new map of this later in the day to show the level of activity.

To the south, it looks like only shelling merited a mention.


Post a Comment