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T-55 Series Tanks

The T-54/55 were developed in the 1940s as a replacement for the aging T-34. Development began in the Kharkiv design department under A.A. Morozova in 1943, when work began on an improved version of the T-34. Along with the T-34, the T-55 is close to being the archetypal Soviet tank because of its mass production and broad deployment over the past 60 years. While it was outgunned by its NATO rivals in the desert encounters of the Arab-Israeli wars, in the hands of skilled commanders the T-55 became the workhorse of local conflicts in the second half of the 20th century, making its mark far and wide. Over the course of its lifetime, 24,000 T-55 tanks were to roll off the conveyor in total.

The T-55 was introduced in 1958 and incorporates all the refinements and improvements of the fully developed T-54 series without being radically different in design or appearance. The T-54 and T-55 so very similar as to be at first glance indistinguishable. Many of the T-54s were rebuilt on the T-55 design. The T-55A appeared in the early 1960s. Production continued in the Soviet Union through 1981 and was also undertaken in China (as the Type 59), Czechoslovakia and Poland.

The death of Stalin in 1953 opened a new period of development, a period characterized by recognition of the importance of nuclear weapons and therefore the increased importance of the opening stages of any future war. Tactical missiles replaced heavy artillery at army level, and early surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) entered the arms inventory as did the T-55 tank.

The main improvement over the T-54 was the successors comprehensive anti-nuclear defense system, insulating the crew against the effects of radiation. The armor thickness remained the same, as did the weaponry, although the main gun and coaxial machine gun was now stabilized in two planes.

The hostile turret conditions reduced the T-54s practical rate of fire to just four rounds a minute. A competent Western tank crew could shoot off the same number of shells in the first 15 seconds of an engagement. Soviet designers soon afterward started working on the T-55. It looked almost no different from the other tanks but the inside showed a large number of improvements.

The T-55s PAZ overpressure system helped seal tankers inside and could keep out radioactive dust from a nuclear strike. The Soviets fixed in another nine rounds for the main gun, as well. In 1961, the further upgraded T-55A received anti-radiation lining, an air filtration system to clean out the chemical and biological agents and it also had a hull-mounted machine gun.

Initial radiation consists principally of neutrons and gamma rays that travel from the burst point to the vehicle. Because initial radiation is more directional in nature than residual radiation and because armor thickness is not uniform over the entire vehicle, initial radiation varies somewhat with the orientation of the vehicle relative to tha burst: in other words, they depend on whether the vehicle is head-on, rear-on, or side-on to the detonation. The T-55 and M6OA1 had roughly equal protection against initial radiation; whereas the US M60A2 provided twice the protection of the Soviet T-62.

Except for the first echelon of Soviet troops and the East Germans, by the late 1980s the Arabs were regularly the first to receive the latest in Soviet weaponry. For example, the second and third echelon units in the Soviet Union (mainly reserves) were still to a large extent equipped with T-54 and T-55 tanks, as were most East European countries (Poland and Czechoslovakia both produce the T-54 and the T-55). These were not good enough for the Syrians, who relied primarily on the T-62 and the T-72.

The T-55s major selling points continue to be simplicity and availability. Factories in the USSR constructed an estimated 50,000 vehicles, and thats only an estimate. Poland and Czechoslovakia assembled thousands more locally. Chinese Type-59 clones only add to the count.

Large numbers are still in service, although by the 1980s the T-54/55 had been replaced by the T-62, T-64, T-72, and T-80 as the primary main battle tank in first-line Soviet tank and motorized rifle units. Used in the invasion of Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, and Syria in 1970, it was the main Arab tank in the 1967 and 1973 wars with Israel. During the 1970s, the T-55 saw combat in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Uganda.

The Israelis have been particularly successful in modifying and upgrading captured Soviet tanks. Hundreds of Soviet T-54 and T-55 tanks captured during the 1967 war have been converted into totally new vehicles, improved sufficiently enough that one military analyst bluntly wrote, "No doubt, given the opportunity, both Soviet and Arab tank crews would gladly exchange their original tanks for the Israeli model." Among the improvements are enhanced firepower, upgraded powerpack, and greater regard for human engineering.

Although not incorporating the cutting-edge of tank technology, these tanks still have been very successful designs. The T-55 MBT, for example, was in production from 1958 to 1979 for a total Soviet production run of approximately 27,500 tanks. T-55 MBTs are still widely used today, with approximately 1500 T-55s and its variants originally available to the Iraqi Army during Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm in 1990/1991.



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