Thursday, 27 November 2014

Syria's Steel Beasts: The T-55

The now almost four-year long Civil War continues to impact Syria's tank fleet and the way it operates. It is now scattered across Syria, providing fire-support to many factions in the conflict. In this new series Syria's steel beasts will be put in the spotlight.

Who actually operates Assad's tanks in Syria remains somewhat unclear: although many believe the Syrian Arab Army (SyAA) remains responsible for all combat tasks within Syria, the SyAA saw much of its manpower and equipment transferred to the National Defence Force (NDF) and other militias. However, the Syrian Arab Army still remains responsible for a number of brigades and for the many garrisons dotted around Syria. Any tanks found there remain under the command of the Syrian Arab Army.

The tank fleet can be divided into three major types: the T-55, the T-62 and the T-72. Two additional types, the T-54 and the PT-76, were also once in Syrian service, but most of the surviving T-54s were donated to Lebanon and others stored. It is only now that a number are being brought back into service. The PT-76 fleet is believed to have been scrapped at the end of the last decade.

It is commonly believed Syria was in the possession of nearly 5000 tanks, roughly divided between 2000 T-54/55s, 1000 T-62s and 1500 T-72s, before the Civil War began. However, these figures are largely distorted, and the actual number of tanks operated by Syria at the start of this decade lays closer to 2500, divided between around 1200 T-55s, 500 T-62s and 700 T-72s. Not all 2500 tanks were active at the same time, with large portions of the T-55 and T-62 fleet in reserve and stored.

Of these 2500 tanks, over 1000 have been lost over the course of the Civil War. While the majority of these have been T-55s, the large size of that fleet makes up for these losses. An estimated 700 T-55s maintain their operational capabilities as of late 2014.  Many groups fighting for control over Syria also continue to operate various T-55s. A notable operator is the Islamic State, which became a major user after capturing dozens at Brigade 93. Much of the Brigade 93's inventory was later fielded in the Islamic State's offensive on Kobanê.

The T-55s can be divided into four variants: the standard T-55A, the North Korean upgraded T-55, the T-55AM and the T-55MV. Of these, the T-55A is most numerous type in service, followed by the North Korean upgraded examples, the T-55MV and the T-55AM. The T-55A and the North Korean upgraded T-55s are mostly found with the NDF, while the remaining T-55AMs and T-55MVs continue to soldier on with the SyAA.

The North Korean variants feature a North Korean designed laser rangefinder (LRF) and some even smoke grenade launchers and a 14.5mm KPV heavy machine gun. At least two North Korean produced LRFs are known to be installed on Syrian T-54/55s. The upgrade for these tanks, based on lessons learned in the 1973 war, was carried out in the early seventies and eighties as a cheaper alternative to the Soviet T-55 upgrade, which brought a part of Syria's fleet up to T-55AM standard. This upgrade included the KTD-2 laser-range finder, side skirts and smoke grenade launchers. The addition of BDD appliqué armour for the turret and front of the hull was ommited due budget constrictions however. A T-55AM operated by the rebel Ghurabaa' Houran Battalion operating in the Dara'a Governorate can be seen below.

The T-55MV is by far the most modern T-55 variant in service within Syria, one could argue their combat effectiveness would even surpass that of Syria's T-72s. 200 T-55s were upgraded to MV standard in Ukraine in 1997.[1] Opposed to Syria's T-55AMs, the T-55MVs were fully upgraded, including a new engine and explosive reactive armour (ERA) blocks for increased armour protection against rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs).

Syrian T-55MVs are also equipped with the 9M117M Bastion anti-tank missile fired through the T-55's 100mm main gun. Although the 9M117M was previously unknown to be in Syrian service, rebels captured around a dozen of them near Tel Ahmar, Quneitra Governorate. Quneitra has traditionally been home to the T-55MV fleet, and these missiles would have been a nasty suprise for Israeli armour in case of war. Due to the cost of these missiles, each tank only carries a few. Most of the missiles remain stockpiled in ammunition depots, like Tel Ahmar, along the Golan Heights for possible future use against Israeli armour.




Some T-55MVs also received a mysterious device mounted over the laser-range finder. This device most likely functions as a sort of camera. A similar looking device was also spotted on an BMP-1 upgrade offered by the Ukraine. Only footage showing the interior of the tank can provide definitive proof.






Similar to what has already been seen on the Republican Guard's T-72s, the T-55 fleet is now gradually receiving cage armour reinforced by sandbags to improve protection against RPGs. A T-55 with such cage armour can be seen below. Most upgraded T-55s only received cage armour around the turret however.

While the NDF continues to operate its T-55s in an offensive role engaging rebel strongholds from a safe distance, the Syrian Arab Army uses most of its T-55s as static pillboxes, making them an easy prey for the rebels' anti-tank missiles. A large part of the tank losses in Syria are a direct result of this often fruitless attempt at strenghtening local garrisons and checkpoints.

Due to the large size of the T-55 fleet, there's no immediate threat to the Syrian Arab Army and the National Defence Force of running out of tanks to provide fire-support to its soldiers. The biggest threat to the Syrian tank fleet is the harrowing lack of fuel. Most of the available fuel goes to units like the Republican Guard or Suqur al-Sahara (Desert Falcons).

The lack of fuel already forced the widespread use of tank trailers, as there simply isn't enough fuel for the tanks to drive to their deployment zone by themself. A situation that likely isn't going to improve unless the oilfields around Deir ez-Zor are recaptured.




















Recommended Articles

Syria's Steel Beasts: The T-62
Syria's Steel Beasts: The T-72

25 comments:

  1. Well written and objective article for a change. No "regime" name calling or cheering for ISIS. Cheers.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Glad you liked it, expect more of such articles in the future.

      Just to make myself clear; the 'Pro-Assadists' term is only used because it's easier and more correct than for example, just the 'Syrian Arab Army'.

      Articles covering the Islamic State shouldn't be seen as cheering for the Islamic State. As most of their battles involve capturing huge weapon arsenals, it's attractive to write about their offensives. Most offensives undertaken by the NDF and other forces show just your regular T-55 or T-62 being used in addition to the destruction of several technicals, all in all not really interesting to write about.

      Do expect an article covering the Republican Guard's operations in Deir ez-Zor in the near future.

      Oryx

      Delete
    2. You have already a strong fan waiting for your article ont the republican guard's operations in Deir-Ez-Zor. Really.
      – A second anonymous

      Delete
  2. excellent, thanks

    ReplyDelete
  3. great article. how far is the regime from regaining the oil field by deir ezzor?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. As of now, quite far. They're very busy dealing with the Islamic State in the city itself. More about the operations here in a future article.

      Delete
    2. I think the forces will take Aleppo first to break the morale of the FSA and then consolidate their rule in Damascus and retake the surrounding area
      Deir-ez-zor is too defended and the best way to retake the oil fields will be recruit the local tribemes too the NDF as soon as they launch the offensive
      but even to launch an offensive the highways and supply lines must be secured and SAA is currently doing that

      Delete
  4. its seesm like SAA has been gaining around the city and making small gains in the city itself???

    ReplyDelete
  5. Glad you stopped calling Syrian governemnt forces "assadists"
    That word confuses SAA which is government army and the Pro-Assad militias
    the Syrian forces are not loyal to Assad but the Syrian Government majority of the soldiers are sunnis

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. 'SAA' confuses, Pro-Assadists on the other hand doesn't. Syrian forces are loyal to Assad, as he is the commander-in-chief.

      Delete
  6. Didn't Syria send that Druze general with a convoy of armored vehicles to deiz-ez-zor?
    Was he sent to capture the oil fields or just protect the regime territory?

    ReplyDelete
  7. Why do you say that the syrian Army has only 2500 tanks, while ALL other sources say the number is 4800-5000?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. With 'ALL' sources you mean this?

      http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/syria/army-equipment.htm

      Delete
    2. why the pentagon estimates are also 5000 tanks and if your source is from the inside you gotta know syria more and know that even the army officers dont know the exact number

      Delete
  8. Well yes for example! There is also jane's and many others.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. All these sources got their information from globalsecurity or SIPRI, neither of which are to be trusted.

      Delete
    2. if they cant be trusted then who should be? I dont believe janes gets their info from global security or sipri. Janes pre-dates both by decades.

      Delete
  9. Seems that many beasts will still have something to do—in one way or another, with oil companies. :D

    ReplyDelete
  10. Good article. A few questions:

    1. Regarding pre-war tank inventory, isn't the 2500 figure just the number of operational tanks, i.e., approximately 50% of the 5000 tank force on paper? If not, and you are saying that the SAA's total (operational and in storage) was 2500, I would be interested in hearing more about the source.

    2. Regarding the statement that 700 T-55s remain operational today: Is that 700 operational within the SAA or 700 operational in all of the various factions?

    3. I have been looking around, but I could not find, any figures on Syria's stockpiles of tank shells and artillery shells. I understand that it may simply be impossible for anyone other than an SAA insider to know what these stockpiles contain. But it is an interesting subject, given that we are coming up on 4 years of war, in which there has been prolonged, heavy shelling of major cities.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. 1. Absolutely not, 5000 is nothing more than just a myth. Own research and sources within the army and republican guard revealed a number much lower than 5000.

      2. SAA.

      3. Impossible, even for an SAA insider. Both Russia and Iran still deliver arms, munitions and spare parts on a regular basis, so stocks can be refilled.

      Delete
  11. A few questions. What are the Desert Falcons? I read up on them on Wikipedia, but from what I was getting it seemed like it was an irregular group that would not operate tanks, much less be given priority for fuel. Could you clarify? Secondly, do you know any additional details about the 4th Armored Division's "cleaning" operations in Damascus? I know that they have isolated the "rebels" to areas SW and S of Mezze Airbase, and that they are currently fighting in Jobar at the Zamalka bridge area. You know anything else about that?

    Thanks.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The Desert Falcons are along with the Republican Guard, the elite of the Syrian military. I might write an article on them at some point in the near future.

      What do you want to know about the Republican Guard's operations in and near Damascus?

      Delete
    2. I was curious to know how long it would be until the city was cleared. From Wikipedia maps that are fairly recent, and YT videos, it seemed like they were winning.

      Damascus seems like a good place to do a similar article to this one. Mezze, Palace, Republican Guard bases, ETC. Not trying to tell you how to write your blog. Would be interesting to see though. ;)

      Delete
    3. No worries, I might do that in the future.

      Delete
  12. The level of expertise, and the absence of partisan 'flaming' on this blog makes it superb reading. Thanks to everyone who contributes - especially Oryx.

    ReplyDelete