Russia’s Ancient T-55 Tanks Could Double As Artillery. But Not Very Good Artillery.
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Those 70-year-old T-54 and T-55 tanks that the Russian army is pulling out of long-term storage, possibly in order to recondition them for front-line use in Ukraine, wouldn’t last long in a direct fight with the Ukrainian army’s own tanks.

But tank-on-tank combat might not be what the Russians have in mind for the 40-ton T-54/55s with their four crew, up to 800-horsepower engines and 100-millimeter rifled main guns.

The Russian army could deploy the ancient tanks not as tanks, per se—but as artillery. Angle their guns high and fire 35-pound high-explosive shells as far as 10 miles.

A T-55 is a poor substitute for a purpose-built howitzer, which might fire twice as far as the tank can do, more accurately, faster and for longer. But in a war where both sides are desperately short of artillery and artillery ammunition, an obsolete 70-year-old tank lobbing less-in-demand ammunition a modest distance might be somewhat better than nothing.

Emphasis on somewhat.

There’s ample precedent for tanks-as-artillery in the Ukraine war and other conflicts. The Ukrainian army has compensated for a dearth of howitzers by drilling indirect-fire techniques into the three-person crews of its locally-made T-64 tanks. The Russian army lately has done the same—even with its best T-90s.

And in the bloody, monthlong territorial war between Armenia and Azerbaijan back in 2020, the Azeris deployed at least a company with a dozen T-55 tanks, apparently near the disputed district of Aghdam—and apparently as howitzers. Newer T-72s handled direct assaults on Armenian positions.

The Russians could borrow from the Azeris’ experience.

It’s important to remember that a tank in essence is a big gun on a rotating mount wrapped in armor and traveling on a tracked chassis. In the T-54/55’s case, the gun is a D-10T, a derivative of the D-10 anti-tank gun that entered service with the Soviet army in 1944.

The 54-caliber gun has a muzzle velocity of 3,300 feet per second—pretty good by World War II standards. On a typical vehicle mount, the gun can elevate as high as 18 degrees. That’s low compared to a purpose-built howitzer. The Soviet 2S1, for instance, elevates as high as 70 degrees.

The low elevation obviously limits the D-10T’s range while firing indirectly at targets beyond visual range. Another limitation is that a D-10T’s ammunition, like all modern tank ammo, is “fixed.” That is, it includes the warhead and charge in a single pre-made unit. In contrast to an artillery crew, a tank crew can’t add powder bags to the charge to boost its firing range.

When fitted to a tank, the D-10T pairs with a tank gunner’s sight—a TSh 2-22 on many T-54s and T-55s. The sight’s range reticle only goes as high as 6,000 meters or so—that’s 6,600 yards—for the farthest-firing high-explosive shells. So a T-54/55 crew fighting as artillery gunners would need outside help while aiming at targets near the D-10T’s theoretical maximum range of more than 17,000 yards. Accuracy could suffer.

Finally, tank ammunition and tank guns aren’t designed for the fast, repetitive combat tempo—load, fire, load, fire for hours on end—that’s typical for howitzers. True artillery barrels are built to last. Tank gun barrels on the other hand tend to overheat, droop and lose accuracy with hard use.

So the T-54/55 can double as artillery, but only as an expedient. As improvised howitzers, the tanks’ D-10T guns lack range, accuracy and durability.

But assigning the obsolete tanks with their antiquated guns to an indirect-fire role is the healthier choice for their crews. Sending them into direct combat—especially against Ukrainian tanks—would only get the T-54/55s destroyed, and their crews potentially captured, hurt or killed.

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