Syria's Steel Beasts: The T-55

Discussion in 'Land Forces' started by Kunal Biswas, Dec 4, 2014.

  1. Kunal Biswas

    Kunal Biswas Member of the Year 2011 Moderator

    May 26, 2010
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    The now almost four-year long Civil War continues to impact Syria's tank fleet and the way it operates. It is now scattered across Syria, providing fire-support to many factions in the conflict. In this new series Syria's steel beasts will be put in the spotlight.

    Who actually operates Assad's tanks in Syria remains somewhat unclear: although many believe the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) remains responsible for all combat tasks within Syria, the SAA saw much of its manpower and equipment transferred to the National Defence Force (NDF) and other militias. However, the Syrian Arab Army still remains responsible for a number of brigades and for the many garrisons dotted around Syria. Any tanks found there remain under the command of the Syrian Arab Army.

    The tank fleet can be divided into three major types: the T-55, the T-62 and the T-72. Two additional types, the T-54 and the PT-76, were also once in Syrian service, but most of the surviving T-54s were donated to Lebanon and others stored. It is only now that a number are being brought back into service. The PT-76 fleet is believed to have been scrapped at the end of the last decade.

    It is commonly believed Syria was in the possession of nearly 5000 tanks, roughly divided between 2000 T-54/55s, 1000 T-62s and 1500 T-72s, before the Civil War began. However, these figures are largely distorted, and the actual number of tanks operated by Syria at the start of this decade lays closer to 2500, divided between around 1200 T-55s, 500 T-62s and 700 T-72s. Not all 2500 tanks were active at the same time, with large portions of the T-55 and T-62 fleet in reserve and stored.

    Of these 2500 tanks, over 1000 have been lost over the course of the Civil War. While the majority of these have been T-55s, the large size of that fleet makes up for these losses. An estimated 700 T-55s maintain their operational capabilities as of late 2014. Many groups fighting for control over Syria also continue to operate various T-55s. A notable operator is the Islamic State, which became a major user after capturing dozens at Brigade 93. Much of the Brigade 93's inventory was later fielded in the Islamic State's offensive on Kobanê.

    The T-55s can be divided into four variants: the standard T-55A, the North Korean upgraded T-55, the T-55AM and the T-55MV. Of these, the T-55A is most numerous type in service, followed by the North Korean upgraded examples, the T-55MV and the T-55AM. The T-55A and the North Korean upgraded T-55s are mostly found with the NDF, while the remaining T-55AMs and T-55MVs continue to soldier on with the SAA.

    The North Korean variants feature a North Korean designed laser rangefinder (LRF) and some even smoke grenade launchers and a 14.5mm KPV heavy machine gun. At least two North Korean produced LRFs are known to be installed on Syrian T-54/55s. The upgrade for these tanks, based on lessons learned in the 1973 war, was carried out in the early seventies and eighties as a cheaper alternative to the Soviet T-55 upgrade, which brought a part of Syria's fleet up to T-55AM standard. This upgrade included the KTD-2 laser-range finder, side skirts and smoke grenade launchers. The addition of BDD appliqué armour for the turret and front of the hull was ommited due budget constrictions however. A T-55AM operated by the rebel Ghurabaa' Houran Battalion operating in the Dara'a Governorate can be seen below.


    The T-55MV is by far the most modern T-55 variant in service within Syria, one could argue their combat effectiveness would even surpass that of Syria's T-72s. 200 T-55s were upgraded to MV standard in Ukraine in 1997.[1] Opposed to Syria's T-55AMs, the T-55MVs were fully upgraded, including a new engine and explosive reactive armour (ERA) blocks for increased armour protection against rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs).

    Syrian T-55MVs are also equipped with the 9M117M Bastion anti-tank missile fired through the T-55's 100mm main gun. Although the 9M117M was previously unknown to be in Syrian service, rebels captured around a dozen of them near Tel Ahmar, Quneitra Governorate. Quneitra has traditionally been home to the T-55MV fleet, and these missiles would have been a nasty suprise for Israeli armour in case of war. Due to the cost of these missiles, each tank only carries a few. Most of the missiles remain stockpiled in ammunition depots, like Tel Ahmar, along the Golan Heights for possible future use against Israeli armour.


    Some T-55MVs also received a mysterious device mounted over the laser-range finder. This device most likely functions as a sort of camera. A similar looking device was also spotted on an BMP-1 upgrade offered by the Ukraine. Only footage showing the interior of the tank can provide definitive proof.


    Similar to what has already been seen on the Republican Guard's T-72s, the T-55 fleet is now gradually receiving cage armour reinforced by sandbags to improve protection against RPGs. A T-55 with such cage armour can be seen below. Most upgraded T-55s only received cage armour around the turret however.

    While the NDF continues to operate its T-55s in an offensive role engaging rebel strongholds from a safe distance, the Syrian Arab Army uses most of its T-55s as static pillboxes, making them an easy prey for the rebels' anti-tank missiles. A large part of the tank losses in Syria are a direct result of this often fruitless attempt at strenghtening local garrisons and checkpoints.

    Due to the large size of the T-55 fleet, there's no immediate threat to the Syrian Arab Army and the National Defence Force of running out of tanks to provide fire-support to its soldiers. The biggest threat to the Syrian tank fleet is the harrowing lack of fuel. Most of the available fuel goes to units like the Republican Guard or Suqur al-Sahara (Desert Falcons).

    The lack of fuel already forced the widespread use of tank trailers, as there simply isn't enough fuel for the tanks to drive to their deployment zone by themself. A situation that likely isn't going to improve unless the oilfields around Deir ez-Zor are recaptured.


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