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T-55 - Combat Experience

While not encountering the Centurion on European battlefields in a new global conflict, the T-55 collided with its rival in numerous Arab-Israeli conflicts. The Soviet tank proved superior in its road performance but inferior in the effectiveness of its armaments. The British 105-mm L7 cannon afforded the Centurions of the Israeli forces superior sighting range and armor penetration, which proved decisive in the ensuing desert battles. The fighting in the Middle East also revealed shortcomings in the Soviet tank’s structural configuration, which caused the detonation of its ammunition stocks after most penetrations of its armor.

The T-55’s first major clash with the Centurion came in June 1967 during the Six-Day War, which was won by Israel, with 20 Israeli tanks knocking out 32 Egyptian T-54 and T-55 tanks in the Bir Lahfan area. However, conditions favored the Soviet tanks at El-Arish in 1973, when the Egyptians repulsed three attacks by Centurions of Israel’s 7th Brigade, destroying 17 enemy tanks.

Overall, Israel lost 122 tanks of all types on the Egyptian front, while Egypt lost more than 820 of its 935 tanks and self-propelled guns, destroyed and captured, including 82 T-55s. On the Golan Heights, Syria lost 1,116 tanks, including 627 T-54s and T-55s, while Israel lost 250 Centurions and U.S.-built Shermans.

But the Soviet tanks suffered an even greater debacle during the 1973 war when Egyptian forces launched an offensive on October 14 with 1,200 tanks against 750 Israeli Centurion and Patton tanks in the largest armored battle since World War Two. Egyptian tank losses totalled 264 while Israel lost a mere 25 vehicles. The L7 cannon proved devastating against the Egyptian armor at long range, and Israel’s air force dominated the sky over the Sinai desert, leading to more aerial devastation of Cairo’s forces.

By the end of the hostilities, the Israeli tank crews had seen how the L7 tank cannon not only outgunned the 100-mm D-10T2S cannon fitted to the T-55, but also the more advanced 115-mm U5-TC on the Soviet T-62s. The Centurion’s main gun had a greater maximum elevation than its rivals, which often allowed the Israelis to destroy enemy tanks while staying out of reach of return fire.

However, the key to the Israelis’ success was not so much technical superiority as superior military planning and organization of their campaign compared with the Egyptian armed forces.

The Soviets also extensively used the T-55 in the 1979-1989 war in Afghanistan, since the most modern tanks available went to the Western Group of Forces, based in Europe. Meanwhile, army formations on the southern border of the USSR were equipped with already obsolete T-55 and T-62 models. In Afghanistan, these were used in small units to beef up motorized infantry and airborne assault battalions, as well as to secure lines of communication in key areas, functioning as long-range, maneuverable firepower.

While taking plenty of knocks – and knockouts – during its improvement, the T-55 proved itself as a cheap and mechanically simple and robust asset for armies around the globe, seeing service in around 70 countries. Simple to operate compared with Western tanks, it also offered excellent mobility due to a relatively low combat weight of 40 tons, wide tracks (giving lower ground pressure and thus good mobility on soft ground), a reliable good cold-weather start-up system, and a snorkel for river crossings.

As well as in the Middle East, the battlefield stalwart saw action in such far-flung theaters as Angola, Vietnam, the Indo-Pakistan wars, the Balkans, and more recently in Libya. And it is still fighting.

Serbian and Bosnian Armies were covering their T-55 tanks with camouflage netting and a rubber material, determined to be conveyer belt material from local sand and gravel pits. The Serbians and Bosnians were claiming that the material suppressed the thermal signature of their T-55 tanks. This claim, if true, could make them harder than standard tactical vehicles to detect and target with infrared sensors.

The conveyer belt material was successful in reducing the infrared signature cues from the tracks, tires and wheel hubs. This type of camouflage may be even more effective in cold and wet weather conditions. This camouflage is simple to use and easy to install. Its effectiveness is enhanced if the installation crew has a FLIR camera available to verify that the camouflage is hiding all the very hot parts, such as the engine exhaust, engine intake, tracks, road wheels and wheel hubs.

Field expedient camouflage with camouflage netting is only effective if the hot spots can be eliminated. The use of pieces of camouflage netting helps in camouflaging the vehicle. Field expedient and depot level camouflage is within the technological capability of practically any 3rd world country.

When U.S. Marine M1A1 tanks advanced on Basrah International Airport on March 21, 2003, the defending Iraqi T-55 tanks didn’t have a chance. The U.S. tank was built to outrange opposing armor. It is enabled by a high-density, chemical propellant. Each grain is uniform, with measured holes, allowing more surface combustion, and energy release. A 120mm cannon, built for high pressures, focuses this energy, propelling a round down range.

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Page last modified: 29-03-2016 20:06:03 ZULU