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Assessing the T-54A

The T-54A was first seen close-up by Western intelligence in 1956 when a Soviet tank was driven into the grounds of the British embassy in Budapest during the Hungarian Uprising. The thickness of the armor on the T-54A was a shock to NATO and prompted the adoption of the new British L7 105mm gun on later US, UK and German tanks. Compared with NATO tanks of the period, the T-54A was impressive in many respects. It was much smaller than NATO tanks of the period like the US M48 Patton or the British Centurion, but was comparably armored. Its 100mm gun was similar in performance to the 90mm gun on the US M48 (though actual antiarmor penetration was heavily dependent on the type of ammunition fired not just on the gun design). Smaller size meant lighter weight, and lower overall cost; it also meant that more T-54s were produced than all other NATO tanks of the period combined.

The T-54A had mobility comparable to that of the M48 Patton tank, although the ride was a bit harder. Soviet tanks of the period were more apt to have infrared night fighting equipment than NATO tanks, and more thought had been given to river crossing requirements with the provision of OPVT equipment. The Soviet choice of a mature diesel engine also gave the T-54A excellent range without refueling, and the Soviets were not plagued to the range restraints that constrained gasoline-powered NATO tanks like the M48 Patton and Centurion at the time.

On the debit side, the T-54A had mediocre fire controls by NATO standards. It was a good tank in close terrain where engagements would take place at ranges of under 1,000 meters. At greater ranges, it was outclassed by NATO tanks which could take advantage of better fire controls and optics, better gunlaying and gun stabilization equipment.

The Soviets had opted for a tank fire control system optimized for shorter range engagements. Soviet studies of central European terrain as well as actual combat experience from 1944 to 1945 had shown that much of the terrain was fine grained, and that long-range engagements were likely to be the exception, rather than the rule. For example, a later West German study of the inter-German border region found that only 6 percent of the terrain offered sighting ranges over 2.5 kilometers, only 10 percent over 2 kilometers, 17 percent over 1.5 kilometers and 45 percent over 0.5 kilometers. In fact, over 55 percent of the terrain surveyed had sighting ranges under 500 meters. For this reason, the Soviets favored simpler stadia rangefinders instead of the coincidence rangefinders used on US tanks of the period.

Although stadia rangefinders were less accurate at longer ranges, they offered comparable accuracy at 1,000 meters when used with APDS ammunition, compared with US tanks using coincidence rangefinders, but firing HEAT ammunition. The US Army and the German Bundeswehr preferred to use HEAT ammunition at the time because of its very high anti-armor penetration. HEAT rounds have a pronounced ballistic arc which requires good rangefinding for proper elevation correction, while APDS rounds have a very flat ballistic arc at ranges of 1,000 meters and are therefore not as dependent on accurate rangefinding. The Soviets did use HEAT ammunition but favored APDS for tank fighting, even if its armor penetration characteristics were inferior to HEAT during this period.

In close-range tank melees, the T-54A suffered from a very cramped interior which meant less ammunition carried, poorer layout of ready ammunition, and slower and more difficult reloading. The T-54A was not as maintainable as NATO tanks. For example, to replace the engine or transmission, the turret had to be removed first. Soviet tank regiments of the time did not have equipment to do this in the field. NATO tanks of the period were designed to facilitate repairs at as low a level as practical.

The T-54 tank was in production in the Soviet Union from 1946 to 1958. Total production of the T-54 in the USSR is believed to have been about 35,000 tanks. In the period from 1957 through 1958, T-54 production was initiated at one plant in Czechoslovakia and Poland, and at two plants in China. Total Czechoslovak production is believed to have been about 2,500 tanks, and total Polish production about 3,000 tanks. The Chinese manufactured the T-54A as the Type 59, and modified it later as the Type 69. Production was believed to have reached 16,000 tanks by 1985.

The T-54 tank and its later derivatives, the T-55 and the T-62, are the most significant tanks of the post-World War II period in terms of numbers manufactured and extent of combat service. They are the most widely manufactured tanks of all times. First entering production in 1946, this family remains in production today in foreign derivatives such as the Romanian TR-85 and the Chinese Type 69. In total, production of External ammo stowage the T-54, T-55 and foreign derivates exceeds 100,000 tanks, with an additional 20,000 of the closely related T-62 tank. Not only have they been produced in enormous numbers, but they have also seen widespread combat use. The largest tank battles of the post-war yearsthe 1967, 1973 and 1982 Middle East Wars, the Indian-Pakistan Wars, the Vietnam Warsthe Gulf Wars, all saw the extensive use of tanks of these types.



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