An AK-47 on tracks: Why Russia built an astounding 83,500 T-54 tanks

US soldiers in a T-54 tank
US soldiers playing the role of Soviet forces in a T-54 at Ft. Carson in Colorado, July 8, 1977.

  • After World War II, the Soviets were looking for a main battle tank to replace the heroic T-34 tank.
  • By 1946, they had devised the T-54, which entered production a year later and soon became legendary.
  • Over the next 15 years, the Soviets built 83,500 T-54s, and some are still in service in other countries.

Russia’s T-54 Tank Was a Cold War Beast: After World War II, the Soviets were looking for a main battle tank to replace the heroic T-34 tank that helped win the great patriotic war against the Nazis.

The Soviets needed a new, more powerful main gun. The Army also wanted a better hull, turret, and suspension. So Russian engineers nodded grimly and went to work. Their efforts were well spent, and by 1946, they had devised the T-54.

The T-54 soon became a legend when it entered production a year later and it is amazingly still in service with some smaller armies in the developing world.

T-54 tank: Have faith in the numbers

Soviet T-54 tanks in Prague
Soviet T-54 tanks in a suburb of Prague after the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968.

Over the next 15 years, the Soviets produced a staggering 83,500 tanks. The Poles and Czechs made 21,000 more. China cloned it and made sure North Korea, North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia had as many as they needed.

Then the T-54 spread to the Middle East. Egypt, Syria, and Jordan had ample numbers of the venerable tank. Dozens of other countries operated it.

Why the T-54 was popular

It was a sturdy platform, easy to operate, with plenty of spare parts, and a straightforward means to upgrade the tank.

This resulted in dozens of variants – engineering improvements that were made until the 1990s.

The key was the new gun

T-54 tank in Aleppo Syria
A T-54 at a Syrian pro-government forces position in Aleppo’s Sheikh Saeed district, November 30, 2016.

In designing the T-54, the Soviets had learned from World War II that maximum firepower was the ultimate decider on the battlefield.

So they built the tank around the 100 mm (3.94 inch) D-10 series main gun. This had a range of 3,000 feet. The tube did not have a muzzle-brake, and this could have kept the recoil and muzzle rise down to a minimum. But it could fire many different types of ammunition, including high-explosive, fragmentation, penetration, and tracer rounds.

The T-54 could hold 34 shells and usually came with two 7.62 mm machine guns. Some models had a 12.7 mm anti-aircraft gun.

The engine may have been underpowered

The engine the T-54 used was a V-54 series 12-cylinder water-cooled diesel engine that put out 520 horsepower.

This was underpowered compared to the subsequent Russian T-72B3 that had 1,100 horsepower. Nonetheless, the maximum speed of the T-54 was 32 mph.

The thick armor had disadvantages

T-54 tank in Ukraine
Pro-Russian militants lift a Soviet-era T-54 from the World War II museum in Donetsk for use against Ukrainian forces, July 7, 2014.

The turret was bigger with thicker armor. In fact, the original engineers did not scrimp on armor because, at the time, traditional high-explosive rounds were used by enemy tanks.

This thick armor made the tank heavier and less maneuverable, plus it was susceptible later to the shaped explosive charges from anti-tank missiles. The heavy, thick armor also required an improved engine in later variants.

The T-54 had its problems

The T-54 was far from perfect.

The main gun could not stabilize and firing on the move accurately was not possible. The gun was rifled instead of a smoothbore. Rounds fired from a rifled barrel have more friction and less force.

The T-54 also had limited downward traverse which resulted in preventing the “hull down” firing technique. Hull down refers to when the lower body of the tank is not visible, which is a position that is preferred in combat.

But what a versatile tank it was. Look at all the countries that used the T-54. It was popular for a reason and fairly straightforward to modernize with many types of upgrade kits. This is why some historians called it a Kalashnikov AK-47 rifle with tracks.

Read the original article on Business Insider