Chieftain. M1 Abrams. Leopard 2. Leclerc. Challenger. To anyone with a passing familiarity in the world of modern armored warfare, these names are well known, and rightly feared, should one come up in opposition to them. These vehicles all occupy the top tier of main battle tanks in the world of 2022.
However, even given the impressive combat record of all the vehicles listed above, none of them – combined – match the battle history, breadth of deployment nor numbers produced of the most numerous battle tank in history: the near-immortal T54/55.
As of this writing (September, 2022), an estimated 100,000 units – or more – are in current service, around the world, counting variants made in China.
The first prototype rolled out of the assembly bays at Nizhny Tagil, in the Sverdlovsk Oblast, near the end of 1945. Design work had begun in 1943, at the Morozov Design Bureau, in the desperate days of the Soviet Union’s battle against the juggernaut of Nazi Germany. With the end of the war, immediate pressure to crank out a new tank lessened, and the Soviets took their time to get the vehicle right.
The result was a vehicle that rivaled the legendary T-34 tank, as it had almost the same cross country performance as its predecessor, but had far better armor, running gear and much more powerful D10-T 100mm main gun. Going into production in 1948, a small initial batch of just under 1,500 vehicles were built, and – as usual with new designs – issues began to show up. Over time, enough of these corrections and redirections (including a focus on surviving nearby nuclear detonations) accumulated to give birth to the T55.
By then, the T54 had seen some of its first real combat actions, in both the Soviet Union’s invasion of Hungary in 1956, and in some of the very early stages of the Second Indochina War. But that was only the beginning.
As the production lines ramped up, and more units rolled off the lines, users around the world suddenly discovered that they had a relatively cheap, yet very effective, battle tank. While the T54/55 was quickly surpassed by newer and more advanced designs, in both its home country and in the West, it continued in production. The reason was simple: while the T54/55’s replacements (such as the T-62 and T-72, among others) might have been technically more capable and effective, the T54/55 was more effective than all of them, when it was the only tank on the field, and its enemies had either inferior tanks (or no tanks at all) to face it.
As it was simple to service in the field, and comparatively cheap (at c.US$200,000 in 1972), it became a favorite of Third World armies, in many cases, being the first battle tank of any sort that those countries had ever deployed. The D10-T main gun turned the tank – with certain limitations – into an effective mobile artillery piece. The platform also quickly proved highly adaptable, with multiple variants quickly appearing on the horizon, variants that further expanded the tank parks of many small countries. For many nations, the T54/55 became a pillar of their armed forces. Many firms around the world offer various types of upgrade packages for the design, as of this writing.
Of course, as with all poorly handled equipment, if an operator just bought tanks for show, and then tried to use them for real, the results were…less than spectacular. Although suffering repeated drubbings at the hands of top-tier armies like the Israeli IDF and the US military (and, embarrassingly, the Chadians), many other armies – like India, Vietnam, Tanzania and Sri Lanka – showed that when properly handled, the tank designed at the end of World War 2, was a highly dangerous combatant on the battlefield.
This remains the case. Around the world of 2022, this guttural steel monster continues to fight. There are better tanks, now, but that doesn’t matter, unless those tanks show up to oppose the ancient beast…and even then, it might surprise its younger cousin’s, depending on who is crewing it.