In June 2014, in the early weeks of the war between Russia and Ukraine, separatists in eastern Ukraine were desperate for heavy weaponry.
Rebels in Kostiantynivka, a city in Donetsk Oblast, eyed a 68-year-old Soviet-made IS-3 heavy tank resting atop a concrete slab. The tank was part of a monument commemorating the liberation of Kostiantynivka from German occupiers in 1943.
They popped open the hood, tinkered with the engine, fueled up the thing and turned the ignition. Incredibly, the 51-ton vehicle actually worked. What’s more, it apparently worked in combat. “Good Soviet engineering is still able to serve today, and will serve in fight against [the] Kiev junta,” a separatist videographer crowed.
To be clear, the Donetsk IS-3’s 122-millimeter cannon didn’t work. But the tank still could move, its 200-millimeter-thick armor still could deflect enemy fire and it still could mount machine guns.
That the IS-3 functioned at all after more than six decades prompted James Warford, a retired U.S. Army major and former tanker, to celebrate the IS-3’s design. “Performance assessments of the tank incorrectly judged it as a failure,” Warford wrote in the winter 2019 edition of Armor, the U.S. Army’s official tank magazine.
The IS-3 appeared too late in World War II to participate in the fighting. When it finally did see major combat, the results were unspectacular. Soviet IS-3s took part in the 1956 invasion of Hungary. Local forces lobbing Molotov cocktails managed to destroy several of the tanks.
Those few losses tarnished the IS-3’s reputation. “For many observers, the dramatic photos of destroyed IS-3s, including a well-known photo published in Life magazine showing a number of coffins in the street alongside a destroyed IS-3 after a battle, provide all the information needed,” Warford wrote.
In the eyes of critics, the IS-3 fared no better in its next war.
The Soviet Union provided scores of IS-3s to Egypt. During the 1967 Six-Day War, the lumbering Egyptian tanks rolled into battle against Israel’s nimbler M-48s. In fighting around Rafah, the Israeli tanks destroyed several IS-3s with 90-millimeter cannon fire. Inexperienced Egyptian crews abandoned some other IS-3s.
The ‘67 debacle worsened the IS-3’s reputation. But that’s unfair, according to Warford. After all, the IS-3s at Rafah destroyed several M-48s. And it’s not the fault of the tanks that some frightened crews abandoned them at the first sound of gunfire.
“This desperate action had nothing to do with the capabilities of their tanks,” Warford wrote. “It was in fact all about poor training, low skill-level and lack of motivation in those Egyptian tank units.”
After the war, the Israelis tested their own weaponry on some of the IS-3s they captured. “During this testing, captured Egyptian IS-3Ms were repeatedly fired on and hit by 105-millimeter armor-piercing discarding sabot ammunition without the tank’s frontal armor being penetrated,” Warford wrote.
The tests underscored the basic soundness of the IS-3 design. So what if the IS-3’s purported failure actually was the result of bad press and panicky crews? It’s important to accurately assess the enemy’s technology—and project how well it might work in the hands of skilled and confident operators, Warford stressed.
“Eliminating confusion like that surrounding the IS-3 must be a priority in today’s military environment,” he wrote. “As the world situation changes and continues to remind us of the Cold War years, success on the battlefield may depend on getting it right.”
As for the Donetsk IS-3, it fought only briefly on June 30, 2014, Warford explained. The Ukrainian army captured the tank intact, demilitarized it and put it on display near the National Military History Museum in Kiev.