A Blog by Jonathan Low


Apr 5, 2024

Is A Russian Paratroop Division Still Elite When It Deploys 70-Yr Old T-55 Tanks?

Putin knows time is not on his side. His industry cannot replace lost armored vehicles at anywhere near the rate they are being destroyed in Ukraine. His trained troops are now dead or in hospitals and his untrained troops are being slaughtered.

Rather than slowing down and rebuilding, he is continuing to attack in hopes of forcing an advantageous ceasefire. But with drones and growing ammunition supplies from European allies, the Ukrainians are thwarting his plan. JL 

David Axe reports in Forbes:

It’s apparent that Russia can’t produce enough to replace the 400 tanks, fighting vehicles and howitzers it’s been losing every month this year. Ukrainian forces are defeating large Russian assault groups every few days all along the 600-mile front despite the Ukrainians struggling with ammunition supplies. The Russian 76th Air Assault Guards, among the best in the Russian armed forces, now deploys tanks that were obsolete 50 years ago. Their March 30 attack in Zaporizhzhia ended in disaster. “Russian forces are compelled to conduct infantry assaults against defenses due to a lack of armored vehicles. Armored losses are being replaced by civilian vehicles.” For the Russians, it's now or never.

Ukrainian drone operators surely couldn’t believe their eyes when they focused their cameras on a Russian assault group rolling toward Ukrainian lines outside Novopokrovka in southern Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia Oblast on March 30.

It seemed the assault force included troops and vehicles from the Russian airborne corps’ 76th Guards Air Assault Division, a once-elite formation with better training and equipment than most Russian divisions.

But something was off. The tank leading the assault wasn’t a modern T-72 or T-90, previously the standard tanks of the 76th GAAD. No, it was a 1950s-vintage T-55 fitted with crude anti-drone armor.

The assault ended in disaster for the Russians as the Ukrainian 118th Mechanized Brigade opened fire with artillery, anti-tank missiles and explosive first-person-view drones, destroying at least 11 Russian vehicles, including that 40-ton, four-person T-55 with its crude optics, 100-millimeter main gun and 200-millimeter-thick armor.

But that’s not what really matters as Russia’s wider war on Ukraine grinds into its third year. After all, Ukrainian forces are defeating large Russian assault groups every few days all along the 600-mile front line of the wider war—this despite the Ukrainians struggling with ammunition supplies ever since Russia-friendly Republicans in the U.S. Congress blocked further U.S. aid starting in October.

No, the real story is that a unit that was among the best in the Russian armed forces now deploys tanks that were obsolete 50 years ago—and which had been sitting in open storage for decades before the Russians began reactivating them last year in order to compensate for staggering losses of modern vehicles in Ukraine.

It’s more apparent than ever that Russian industry can’t produce enough modern vehicles to replace the roughly 400 tanks, fighting vehicles and howitzers it’s been losing every month this year. That’s a monthly rate of loss that’s a third higher than the loss-rate from September.


So, the Kremlin is pulling more and older vehicles out of long-term storage and assigning them to more units that once operated the best new equipment in the Russian inventory.

To be clear, that’s not the only option. The Kremlin could pause front-line attacks and gradually rebuild combat units with modern equipment operated by well-trained troops. It’s choosing, instead, to keep attacking—and send those units whatever hardware and people it can scrounge.

“Russia is constantly rebuilding its forces and trying to replace losses, including recruiting new personnel and creating new units and military districts,” Ukrainian analysis group Frontelligence Insight explained on Thursday. But that doesn’t mean the rebuilding brings forces back to their previous strength.

“We documented evidence of the replacement of T-72 tanks of various modifications with [1960s-vintage] T-62 and T-55s in at least one tank unit,” the group noted. “While we don't know the situation across all units, occasional videos of T-55 and T-62 in different areas suggest that this is not an isolated case.”


In a sense, the regiments, brigades and divisions getting 60-year-old T-62 and 70-year-old T-55s are the lucky ones.

According to open-source intelligence collective Oryx, Russian vehicle losses since the start of the wider invasion in February 2022 exceed 15,000, including nearly 2,900 tanks. That’s as many tanks as the Russian armed forces had in active service two years ago.

“Russia cannot replace such numbers within two years,” Frontelligence asserted. Russian factories build maybe 600 new tanks annually while also restoring a somewhat greater number of older tanks.

These replacements are too few, which explains why more Russian assaults involve totally unarmored civilian vehicles including, shockingly, Chinese-made Desertcross golf carts. “Armored losses are being replaced by civilian vehicles,” Frontelligence explained.

And even that is better than the alternative. The worst case for Russian units that they simply do without vehicles, as recently has happened around one eastern battleground city. “Russian forces are compelled to conduct infantry assaults against defense forces positions on the Bakhmut direction due to a lack of armored vehicles,” the Ukrainian Center for Defense Strategies noted on Thursday.

All that is to say, it should be apparent by now that Russia is expending military resources much faster than it can replenish them. And it’s not hard to figure out why.

“Once military aid has been significantly limited such that Ukrainian munition stocks become depleted, Russia intends to initiate further offensive operations to make significant—if slow—gains on the battlefield,” Jack Watling and Nick Reynolds, analysts with the Royal United Services Institute in London, predicted in a Feb. 13 report. “These gains are then intended to be used as leverage against Kyiv to force capitulation on Russian terms.”

That’s exactly what’s happening, seven weeks later. With Ukraine’s ammunition stocks desperately low—the inevitable consequence of the suspension of American aid—Russian leaders sense an opportunity to advance. Even if advancing is so costly that they must replace many of the modern vehicles they lose with much older vehicles or, worse, civilian vehicles.

Or much worse, simply not replace them at all.

In other words, for the Russians in Ukraine, it’s now or never. If the current offensive fails, the Americans finally vote for aid and the Ukrainians re-arm, the Russians might discover they’ve spent their army—and no longer have any speedy way to restore it as the Ukrainians regain the initiative.


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