Malian armor

Type 62 in Malian Service

Republic of Mali (1981-Present, No Longer in Active Use)
Light Tank – 18 Purchased

The Republic of Mali has been a traditional customer of Soviet hardware ever since its independence in 1960. Over its history, in total, the country has purchased four different types of tanks. Of these, one stands out as somewhat of an anomaly compared to the three others. It is the only non-Soviet tank Mali has ever purchased, as well as the only one where evidence of active use has never been seen. This is the Type 62, from the People’s Republic of China.

China’s First Lightweight Tank, the Type 62

Though very similar to a downscaled Type 59 (a locally-produced Soviet T-54A tank), the Type 62 was actually the result of a complicated development process which includes a number of largely different and sometimes very obscure series of prototypes, such as the 59-16 light tank, the WZ-131, and the WZ-132. The tank which the PLA finally adopted and pressed into service in the 1960s, the Type 62, was a 21-tonne light tank armed with an 85 mm Type 62-85TC main gun, directly based on and firing the same ammunition as the T-34-85’s ZiS-S-53 gun. Smaller and lighter than a medium tank, the Type 62 was mostly meant for use in southern China, which includes numerous regions with mountains as well as poor roads, bridges and infrastructure in general, making heavier tanks hard to operate properly.

A People’s Liberation Army Type 62 during the ill-fated Chinese invasion of Vietnam, 1979. Source: Pinterest

China soon found itself exporting armored fighting vehicles as an additional means of both revenue and diplomacy, and the Type 62 was fairly well-suited for the role. China had somewhat of a “third-worldist” policy, attempting to develop ties with nations that were often decolonized by the West, but not clearly aligned to the Soviet Union. Many of these were located in either Africa or South and South East Asia, areas which at the time had not necessarily been left with high-end infrastructure after decolonization, and therefore lighter vehicles better suited for these country’s roads and bridges were attractive.

Mali Buys the Type 62

The Republic of Mali was a country that maintained good relations with the Soviet Union, its army largely operating on Soviet gear, but it was neither involved enough in the Socialist ideology nor the Eastern Bloc to truly be impacted by the Sino-Soviet Split of the 1960s. Therefore, Mali also had no qualms purchasing armament from China. In 1980, the country placed an order for 18 Type 62s.

These vehicles were, for a very long time, the only Chinese AFVs bought by Mali, with the next purchase, three Tiger armored patrol vehicles, only following in 2017, and another one, for six VN-2C armored personnel carriers, in 2020. This is not to say, however, that Mali did not purchase Chinese equipment during the Cold War. Likely in a similar timeframe to the Type 62, Mali purchased quantities of both Chinese rifles known as the Type 56, one being a copy of the AKM and another of the SKS. With the two original Soviet rifles already in Malian service, operating them was easy, and the price of Chinese-made guns was generally unbeatable outside of armament supplied from the Soviet Union as aid.

An AQIM (Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) militant in Northern Mali armed with a Chinese Type 56 rifle in 2012. Chinese-made rifles are commonplace in Mali, likely both because of direct deliveries but also due to rifles delivered in neighboring countries ending up in Mali due to the country’s often unenforceable desert borders. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Mali’s Most Elusive Tanks

Ever since their delivery, Mali’s Type 62 have barely ever been seen. This is not particularly surprising pre-1991, but even in post-Cold War Mali, while footage of PT-76s and T-54Bs emerged, this was not the case for the Chinese-made tank.

In 2012, in an attempt at establishing the inventory of the Malian Army, French Military historian and terrorism expert Laurent Touchard qualified the Type 62s, alongside T-34-85s, BTR-40s, and BTR-152s, as “swallowed up by the sands or quietly rotting in Malian army barracks”.

The only known photos of Malian Type 62s are more recent. On March 19th 2019, Malian politician Karim Keïta, a parliamentary deputy of Bamako’s 2nd district, posted photos of a visit to Camp Tieba in Sikasso, one of Mali’s largest military bases that has also become the main storage location for Malian tanks. During the visit, the deputy was shown at least three Type 62 light tanks, which appear on two photographs.

Karim Keïta being shown at least three Type 62s at Camp Tieba. This is by far the best picture of Malian Type 62s in existence. Source: Karim Keïta on Facebook & Oryx Blog

These photos are, as of now, the only known view of Type 62s in Mali, and are quite interesting. The vehicles are not in a particularly bad state. Their camouflage has the same four colors, dark green, brown, beige, and black, as seen on other Malian AFVs in recent years. However, their application is slightly different. The vehicles do not feature the somewhat odd lines of one color inside of another. Instead, one color, black, appears to be consistently used to create lines, sometimes used as the edge between two different colors, and sometimes within a large swathe of one color to separate it in smaller sections. Green appears to be the color used the most, with beige also being quite common on the vehicles, and brown being limited to a few smaller swathes, often somewhat fading into the black edges. If anything, this camouflage pattern appears more professional than the one found on Mali’s PT-76 and T-54, where all four colors appear to be used in a fairly similar way.

This other photo does not focus on the Type 62 at all, however they can still be seen in the background. Source: Karim Keïta on Facebook

Other aspects to notice include the turret hatches seemingly being open on the vehicles. This may have been done for the presentation, but if not, it is a very questionable way of storing a vehicle in the open air, as sand may get inside. The photos show a heavy machine gun mount, though no machine gun is mounted, as well as a Malian armed forces registration number, something which even in recent years PT-76s and T-54B seem not to have had. There is comparatively quite little damage to elements such fenders in comparison to what has sometimes been seen on other Malian tanks, which does suggest the vehicles are, as expected, barely or not at all used. However, it does appear that at least a minimal amount of maintenance is carried out on them.

Conclusion – An Exercise in Vanity?

Out of all types of armored fighting vehicles used by Mali, the Type 62s are some of the least known, though they do have some competition in the form of vehicles of whom the service in Mali is also very obscure, such as the Fahd or the BMP-1.

In a way, the recent views of the vehicles raise almost as many questions as they answer. Many would have previously assumed the Type 62 to have been de facto abandoned, not so different from some completely obsolete types that are no longer in service in Mali, such as the T-34-85. Yet the recent photos seem to show the vehicles in a very recent camouflage scheme, and even featuring registration numbers, something not often seen on Malian tanks, but much more often found on Malian wheeled vehicles, and especially technicals, which have seen widespread use in the conflict in Northern Mali.

Despite this, the tanks seem to have never been seen outside of their storage space in Sikasso, and certainly not in use in the Northern Mali conflict, nor even in parades of exercises. It is not surprising not to see the vehicles in use in the war. Although perhaps more suited for Saharan warfare than T-54Bs, which Mali also operates, being about 15 tonnes lighter, they still are likely nowhere near as practical as a technical, and Mali may very well not have any spare parts to keep them running. However, not having seen them in any form of ceremonial or training use is curious. It is possible that the vehicles are not in running order. The fact that they are still being painted in a modern camouflage would be little more than play pretend. It is also possible that the Malian Army, already stretched thin with the conflict in Northern Mali, does not have the resources to crew them, yet still want a modicum of maintenance carried out on them, as if being saved for a rainy day when they may somehow be of use, as unlikely as that sounds.

The camouflage scheme and configuration of Malian Type 62s illustrated based on available photographs. Illustration by Godzilla, based on work by David Bocquelet


Facebook post by Karim Keïta, March 19th 2019

Oryx Blog: Sons of Bamako – Malian Armed Forces Fighting Vehicles

SIPRI Arms Transfer Database

Armée malienne : le difficile inventaire, Jeune Afrique

Malian armor

T-54B in Malian Service

Republic of Mali (Likely 1970s-Present)
Main Battle Tank – 12 Operated

The Republic of Mali is one of a myriad of African states which broke free from France at the turn of the 1950s to 1960s. Soon after independence, it became one of the most Soviet-aligned states in West Africa. This logically led to the Malian Army being largely equipped with Soviet hardware, particularly when it came to heavy equipment, for example, tracked vehicles. The heaviest of these tracked vehicles in Malian service are a small number of T-54Bs, delivered at an unknown date, but in any case, having been in Malian service for decades now. Despite that, they seemingly never saw any action despite Mali being a deeply troubled state for about a decade.

Malian T-54B “Konna” on a tank-transporting trailer in Bamako. Source:

The T-54, Workhorse of the Eastern Bloc

The T-54 is a tank that requires little introduction. Pushed into mass production and service in 1947, it proved a massively successful vehicle. While an evolutionary design from previous Soviet vehicles, its hull directly based on the T-44 and its 100 mm D-10T gun almost identical to the SU-100’s D-10S (though the V-55 12-cylinder 580 hp diesel engine was new), it was an extremely potent vehicle at the time. From its introduction in the late 1940s to arguably the late 1950s, the T-54’s combination of armament, protection and mobility in a mass-producible package can be said to have been unmatched in the West.

Variants and upgrades obviously followed suit. After the three early 1946/47, 1949, and 1951 models, a first major upgrade/new model was introduced in 1955. This was the T-54A, which included a vertical stabilizer for the 100 mm gun, a new radio, infrared driver’s periscope and headlights, new telescopic gun sights, and a new radio, among others.

In 1956, the T-54B was adopted into service, adding a number of new improvements, including a TPN-1-22-11 active infrared imaging sight, the L-2 “Luna” infrared spotlight which could be quite common on late 1950s Soviet AFVs, an infrared commander’s searchlight, and 2-plane stabilization (from 1957 onward). This night fighting equipment was fairly exceptional for the time, more comprehensive than on tanks such as the M48A2/A3, Centurion Mark 3, or the myriad of older tanks, notably M47 Pattons, which formed the backbone of NATO’s tank force in Western Europe.

A Soviet T-54B. The type was a late 1950s/1960s workhorse of the Soviet Army. Source:

Not only were newly manufactured T-54Bs entering service, but the majority of previously in-service Soviet T-54s would be refitted to T-54B standard in the late 1950s, making the type a very common tank. By the late 1960s and especially the 1970s, however, though the T-54B definitely had not become a worthless combattant, the introduction of more modern tanks in the Soviet arsenal, the T-62, T-64, and soon enough, the T-72, as well as more advanced models of the T-55, meant the T-54 was no longer in its prime.

The vehicle was, however, an excellent hand-me-down to Soviet allies, being available in large numbers, and its armor and armament still being very significant in areas of the world where the most common armored fighting vehicles were armored cars. At the same time, its fairly light weight of 36 tonnes, about as light as a modern medium tank/main battle tank was, lighter than pretty much all NATO tanks of the class except the French AMX-30B, also made it a good option for countries with infrastructure not developed for exceedingly heavy vehicles.

The Unclear Export to Mali

Cold War Mali was almost exclusively a customer of Soviet armored fighting vehicles, being an openly Socialist dictatorship from 1960 to 1968 under Modibo Keïta, and a less clearly ideological, but still pro-Soviet military regime under General Moussa Traoré from 1968 to 1991.

There are three known major packages of armored fighting vehicles delivered to Mali. The date when T-54s were delivered, and as such, to which of these packages they belonged to, is not known for certain. The first package, including BTR-40s and T-34-85s, was delivered in 1960-1961, just after the country’s independence, and likely far too early for the USSR to deliver the still fairly new T-54B to an African state that had just become independent. This leaves two other known packages, the one delivered around 1975, which is known to have included BTR-152s, BRDM-2s, and PT-76s, and the one delivered around 1981, which included BTR-60PBs and perhaps some further T-34-85s, though these are sometimes quoted as delivered from another African state.

The 1975 package seems perhaps the most fitting, as it included the widest variety of vehicles and was overall larger in size, but the T-54 having been delivered in the early 1980s cannot be excluded for certain. It is also possible the vehicles were delivered at another date, outside of these major known deliveries. The vehicles are, after all, not the only Soviet AFVs where the exact date of delivery is not known, that also being the case of a number of ZSU-23-4 Shilkas and some extremely elusive BMP-1s the Sahelian country received.

As for the number of vehicles delivered, an attempt at establishing the inventory of the Malian Army by French military historian and terrorism expert Laurent Touchard from 2012 placed the number of T-54s in Malian service at twelve. It should be noted that this inventory was of vehicles still in existence, not of vehicles delivered. The same inventory established Mali had 18 PT-76 operational, while 20 are known to have been delivered, and therefore it cannot be confirmed Mali only ever received 12 T-54s.

However, as the vehicles appear to have seen less intense service than the PT-76s, it is more likely none were ever worn out to the point of being out of service in comparison to the amphibious light tanks, so 12 remains the most probable number of vehicles delivered. It should also be noted that the same report stated Malian T-54s were not in the best state. Their radios were reported to either be used and damaged, or sometimes entirely unoperational.

Operational Service

In December 1985, Mali waged a short 5-day war against its neighbor, Burkina Faso, over the Agacher Strip, but this was a small-scale conflict and it is not known if the T-54s were used as part of it. If so, they would likely have been a force to reckon with, as Burkina Faso did not (and still does not) field tanks. At the time, Burkina Faso’s most heavily armed armored vehicles were AML-90s and the recently delivered EE-9 Cascavels. The Agacher Strip War, however, likely did not see any armor engagements.

As of 2022, footage of Malian T-54Bs is known to have originated from three different places: Sikasso, capital of the eponymous Sikasso province; the capital, Bamako; and the city of Kati, 15 km from Bamako.

Sikasso is the main storage facility of Malian tracked armor. The vehicles are stored in the military Camp Tieba, which also hosts a military school/training facility. The vehicles appear to generally be stored in roofed, but open-air hangars, with no flooring on the sand or dirt ground, protecting the vehicles from some, but not all of the elements. Most Malian tanks appear to be in Sikasso almost all the time. This includes the T-54Bs, but also the PT-76s, and Mali’s most obscure tanks, a fleet of Chinese-made Type 62s that have seemingly never been seen outside of Sikasso’s Camp Tieba.

T-54Bs and PT-76s stored in Camp Tieba, Sikasso. Note that recent photos of T-54s seem to show them with no heavy machine gun mount at all, while photos of the vehicles in the 2010-2012 era show them with an unused heavy machine gun support. Source: Oryx Blog

The T-54s have otherwise been seen a number of times in Bamako, the Malian capital, during occasional military parades, often not moving under their own power but on a tank-transporting truck.

The location where T-54Bs have typically been seen moving under their own power is the city of Kati, 15 km from Bamako, where some Malian T-54s were seen on exercise in 2011.

Camouflage, Commemorative Name, and Their Evolution

The earliest known footage of Malian T-54s, starting in 2010, shows the vehicle in a uniform green camouflage, similar to the Soviet green color which the vehicles would have sported in Soviet service. This camouflage seems to have persisted until at least 2012-2013, and potentially several years later.

A number of commemorative names were seen on T-54Bs spotted in this period. They have been seen referring to a number of things, including settlements and cities, folktales, historical leaders or figures of Mali, and more recently, in reference to Malian Army servicemen killed in the conflict in the North.

On September 22nd 2010, a parade to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Malian Independence was carried out in Bamako. It included three T-54Bs on tank transporters. One was named “Soni Ali Ber”, after a 15th-century leader of the Songhai Empire, a large medieval African state of which the capital was Gao, located in present-day Mali. A BTR-60PB has also been seen sporting the same name.

Another was named “Bakari Dian”, a half-man half-beast creature from a folktale from the Ségou region of Southern Mali, east of Bamako. The last is known from photographs which only allow part of the name to be identified, reading “Monzon Diarra”, a warrior king which ruled the Bambara Empire, an empire centered on the Bambara peoples (the most common group of ethnicities in Mali), at the turn of the 18th to the 19th century.

Two Malian T-54Bs on trailers during the 50th Anniversary of Malian Independence Parade in Bamako. Source: Esoteric Armour
A photo of T-54B “Bakari Dian”. Note the empty machine gun mount. Source: Esoteric Armour
A very similar shot of T-54B “Soni Ali Ber”. Source: Esoteric Armour
The name of this third T-54B present in the 2010 parade is not entirely readable, but “Monzon Diarra” can be identified. Also note the white-painted rims on the vehicle’s road wheels, a classic parade scheme for Eastern Bloc-aligned militaries. Source: Oryx Blog

On January 20th 2011, Malian T-54Bs took part in a military exercise and demonstration, including live firing, in the town of Kati, 15 km from Bamako. Two vehicles were spotted, “Soni Ali Ber” and “Bakari Dian”, still sporting their names seen in the previous parade.

T-54B “Bakari Dian” during the January 20th 2011 exercise/demonstration. Source: Esoteric Armour
T-54B “Soni Ali Ber” during the January 20th 2011 exercise/demonstration. Source: Esoteric Armour

Two additional named T-54Bs were seen at later dates. One was named “Konna”, after a city in central Mali (which would be about the edge of terrorist group Ansar Dine’s advance into central Mali in January 2013, before the Franco-African intervention pushed it back), and another was named “Cne Sekou Traore”. This later name is particularly interesting, as it refers to a much more recent individual than usual. Captain Sekou Traore commanded a company, the 713ème Compagnie Nomade (ENG: 713rd Nomad Company) in the Battle of Aguel’hoc, one of the first major battles during which the Malian Army faced off against the Tuareg MNLA and islamist Ansar Dine and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) during the 2012 Tuareg Insurgency. After their victory in the battle, AQIM insurgents executed 97 Malian prisoners. The Malian state, in the following months, attempted to make the men that fought in Aguel’hoc into heroes and highlight the barbaric executions in an effort to try and bolster the country against the growing insurgency, which would see Mali lose control of the northern half of the country.

T-54B “Cne Sekou Traore” seen on a tank-carrying trailer, likely in 2012 or 2013. Note, this time, the red painted road wheel hub caps. Source: Oryx Blog

In recent years (one photograph being dated from 2018), Malian T-54s have been seen sporting a new camouflage, which has also been observed on PT-76s and Type 62s. This camouflage is a multicolor scheme including dark green, brown, beige, and black. Large swathes of each color are painted on the tanks, and smaller irregular lines are then present inside the larger swathes.

A Malian tank crew poses in front of a T-54B in the new camouflage scheme in Kati, May 4th 2018. Source:

Vehicles painted in this new camouflage scheme have been seen both in Kati as well as in Sikasso. The most recent known view of a Malian T-54 actually seems to be from a location from where no views of the vehicles had emerged previously, a military camp in Sevare, one of the largest cities in Central Mali. Within a number of photos documenting training of Malian crewmen on a 122 mm D-30 howitzer by the European Training Mission in Mali, one sports a T-54 in the background.

In this photo published in March 2021 by the European Training Mission in Mali, part of an article on training Malian crews using a 122 mm D-30 howitzers, a T-54B can be seen in the background. The vehicle appears to not have been moved for a while, and its fenders are noticeably damaged. Source: European Training Mission in Mali digital journal, March 2021 issue

Absence of the T-54s in the Current Malian Conflict and their Role in the Malian Army

Mali’s T-54s have not seen use in the current Malian conflict, despite war in the country having been raging for over a decade at this point. Though the vehicles not being used may be surprising at first, there are actually very reasonable motives for it.

The Malian conflict, outside of the ill-fated attempt by terrorist groups to progress into Central and Southern Mali that triggered foreign intervention in January 2013, has mostly remained confined to Northern Mali, an environment marked by the Sahara Desert, with settlements separated by sometimes hundreds of kilometers of desert with very poor roads. For an army to make proper use of tanks there, it would need a very strong logistical organization and wide availability of spare parts, something the Malian Army does not have. Vehicles such as Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles (MRAPs), and perhaps even more widely technicals (often based not only on the Toyota Land Cruiser, but also the Korean Kia KM450 truck in Mali) make much more sense.

In the modern Malian environment, the technical has proved a much more useful asset than the tank. This example is a Kia KM450 fitted with a 14.5 mm ZPU-1 heavy machine gun. It is here seen on guard duty in Gao on January 13th 2017, during the visit of French President François Hollande to French troops stationed in the city. Source:d Stéphane de Sakutin, AFP.

The vehicles have been retained in some service capacity though, and this can also appear reasonable at first. If Mali came to heads with one of its neighbors in a peer-to-peer military conflict, rather than counter-insurgency warfare, its T-54s would actually not be any worse than their opponents in most cases. Three of Mali’s neighbors, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Senegal, do not field any tanks, though all three have 90 mm-armed armored cars. Three others are in the same state as Mali, with a variant of T-54/T-55 as their heaviest tank. There is of course one exception to this, Algeria, one of the African continent’s military powerhouses. However, the border between Algeria and Mali is located in the middle of the Sahara, an impractical environment for tanks, and the impoverished Mali could never realistically hope to afford equipment to rival the Algerian military.

However, in practice, it is unlikely Mali’s T-54s would account to much in a conventional war. The vehicles themselves may not be worse than their opposition, but it appears they have only seen minimal service and maintenance, meaning they would both be susceptible to breakdowns, and be crewed by inexperienced personnel, who would both struggle to repair the vehicles and to operate them properly. When adding these factors to the small number of vehicles in service, even against other unstable and divided countries, such as Burkina Faso, Malian T-54s likely would only have a minimal impact. The widespread availability of anti-tank armament across West Africa capable of knocking out T-54s further diminishes the tank’s usefulness. This is true more so in the last few decades due to the breakdown of order in Libya and previously massive deliveries of ex-Soviet surplus largely expanding the number of anti-armor weapons being traded around in the region.

T-54B “Konna” likely in Bamako. Ever since 1991, there appears to have been little use for Mali’s T-54s outside of occasional parades in Bamako and exercises in Kati. Source: Oryx Blog

Conclusion – Mali’s Agonizing Giants

To a foreign observer, seeing T-54s in Sub-Saharan Africa may seem like an unnoticeable, common occurrence, and to an extent it is. However, T-54Bs likely brought a significant asset to their army back when the country suffered from less internal instability. Fielding actual tanks is not a given in the Sahel, with three of Mali’s neighbors being content with armored cars, including Burkina Faso, with whom Mali fought a very short war in 1985. In case a conflict like the Agacher Strip War was to escalate, the T-54s, despite their small number, would likely have been a significant help for the Touré regime of Mali to emerge victorious over its adversaries.

However, unfortunately for Mali, since the end of the Touré regime, the conflicts the Malian Army faces are no longer border wars with its neighbors, but rather much bloodier and, as of 2022, seemingly endless internal conflict. Whereas T-54s may have been useful assets fighting in the somewhat better infrastructure of the Niger river basin and the border areas of Southern Mali in general, their superior armament and armor is worthless when the conflict Mali faces takes places in the Sahara, where using tracked main battle tanks without a logistical train Mali cannot afford would be a fool’s errand. As such, Malian T-54s have largely remained in the southern half of the country, far from action, and likely progressively seen less and less as useful assets for the government. In the last few years, it appears the vehicles are appearing less and less in parades, with few photos of them rather showing them in the background, sitting still and likely unused, or in storage. While still notionally in service of the Malian Army, the country’s T-54Bs are likely dying a slow death under poor maintenance as there is, simply put, no use for them anymore.

T-54B “Cne Sekou Traore”
T-54B in the late 2010s camouflage scheme. Both illustrations by Godzilla based on work by David Bocquelet


European Training Mission in Mali digital journal, March 2021 issue

Esoteric Armour – Mali T-54B

Oryx Blog: Sons of Bamako – Malian Armed Forces Fighting Vehicles

Oryx Blog: Commemorative Names On Malian Army Vehicles And Artillery

Armée malienne : le difficile inventaire, Jeune Afrique

AFP, Voa Afrique: Un maire du Nord tué dans “une malheureuse circonstance” par l’armée, Février 04 2019

SIPRI Arms Transfer Database

Malian armor

PT-76 in Malian Service

Republic of Mali (1975-Present)
Amphibious Light Tank – 20 Received

The Republic of Mali, which gained independence from France in 1960, very quickly became a dictatorship closely aligned to the Soviet Union. Its first ruler, Modibo Keïta, aligned with a Socialist ideology, which led to the very first armored vehicles of the Malian Army, T-34-85s and BTR-40s, being received merely months after the country became independent. In the following years, and despite Keïta being overthrown in 1968, and Mali joining the Non-Aligned Movement, the country would retain close ties with the Soviet Union. This would lead to continued Soviet deliveries of arms to Mali, including a contingent of PT-76 light tanks in 1975.

Two Malian PT-76s during exercises. Source: Oryx Blog

The PT-76 Arrives in Mali

By 1975, Mali was under the rule of General Moussa Traoré. Though less ideological than his predecessor Keïta, whom he had overthrown, Traoré remained aligned with the Soviet Union, and in 1975, his country received a shipment of varied Soviet vehicles. These included 10 BRDM-2s, 10 BTR-152s, and 20 PT-76s. It is unknown when Mali received its fleet of T-54s, but these may also have been part of this same shipment.

Mali was, and still is, one of the poorest countries in the world, and indeed this 1975 shipment of Soviet armor is widely believed to have been sent as aid with little to no payment from Mali. All the vehicles appear to have been second-hand, seeing as overall, all were of models already in service in the Soviet Army for years.

The Malian PT-76s are somewhat curious in that they are far from the most common PT-76 variant. The Malian Army vehicles are PT-76 Model 1952. These are the second production model of the vehicle. They are quite easy to differentiate from the more common posterior PT-76s thanks to their elongated muzzle brakes with a large number of vertical slot openings. In comparison, the most commonly exported PT-76 models, the Model 1957 and onward (also known as PT-76B), use a ‘German-Style’ muzzle break.

Operational Service

Little is known of the operational use of the PT-76s in the Traoré years. In December 1985, Mali waged a short 5-day war against its neighbor, Burkina Faso, over the Agacher Strip, but this was a small-scale conflict and it is not known if the PT-76s were engaged.

A Malian Army PT-76 in a unicolor green camouflage, alongside a ZPU-1 14.5 mm AA gun in the streets of Bamako during the 2012 coup. Source: Esoteric Armor Blog
A wider shot of what is very likely the same vehicle, alongside a BTR-60 APC. Source: Esoteric Armor Blog

Since the collapse of the Traoré regime in 1991, further openness from Mali has allowed more views of the PT-76 to emerge. During the March 2012 coup, during which Malian president Amadou Toumani Touré was overthrown, PT-76s were seen in the streets of Bamako, sometimes alongside BTR-60PBs, which may suggest the vehicles were in use in the neighboring Malian Army base of Kati.

Camouflage and Markings

One of the more interesting aspects of the Malian PT-76s is the variety of camouflages the vehicles have been seen in over the years.

During the 2012 coup, the PT-76s seen appeared in a classic plain green camouflage scheme. A similar scheme was also seen in what are likely earlier photos. Though the vehicle seen during the coup does not appear to have had any markings, PT-76s have also been seen with the same plain green camouflage scheme but bearing commemorative names. Interestingly enough, all names seen on Malian PT-76 are historical references to Mali’s medieval era. While historical names have also been seen on other types of Malian vehicles, commemorative names coming from modern Malian officers or geographical areas are also commonly seen on other Malian armored fighting vehicles but have never been seen on the PT-76s.

PT-76 “Askia Mohamed” during a military parade. Askia Mohamed was a ruler of the Songhai Empire in the 15th and 16th centuries. Source: Oryx Blog
PT-76 “Kirina 1235”. This name is a reference to the 1235 Battle of Kirina, fought by the Mandinka people against the Sosso people. The victory of the Mandinka led to them founding the Empire of Mali, which would be a dominant power in West Africa during the following centuries. Source: Oryx Blog
PT-76 “Touramakan Traore” was named after a general of the Mali Empire in the 13th century, and a major figure of the empire’s expansion leading to it becoming the dominant power in West Africa. Source: Oryx Blog
PT-76 “Biton Coulibaly”, named after the founder of one of the later empires which blossomed on territories currently owned by Mali, the Bambara Empire, in the 18th century. Source: Oryx Blog
A PT-76 with a bicolor yellow and green camouflage at a Malian Army base. The turret side of a ZSU-23-4 “Shilka” can be seen to the right. Source: Hammer of War

Another PT-76, most likely the one just in front of the first vehicle, with a more complicated quadricolor camouflage. Source: Hammer of War

More recently, photos of PT-76s in Malian Army bases have shown them with a much wider variety of colors. The vehicle have both been seen in a green and yellow camouflage scheme, or a more multicolor scheme including dark green, brown, beige, and black, itself varying in the way it is applied, sometimes being fairly neatly separated, but sometimes featuring lines of various colors in large spots of others. Most of these vehicles have little to no markings.

Vehicles of Questionable Operability

Though their service is fairly obscure, the Malian PT-76s are dated vehicles, and while they have not been removed from the Malian Armed Forces’ inventory, their present operability is questionable.

The Malian Army’s main adversaries, ever since the last conflict with Burkina Faso, have largely been Tuareg rebels, which typically engage in guerilla operations, including ambushes and harassment over the vast Sahara desert. Tracked armored fighting vehicles generally do poorly in these conditions, having lackluster range to cover the massive expanses of the Sahara Desert. In this environment, the Malian Army has preferred the use of wheeled vehicles over them. This has comprised, to an extent, the BRDM-2 and BTR-60PB, but mostly the use of technicals, which have formed the backbone of the Malian army in the north of the country. As such, it is unlikely any Malian PT-76 has ever been lost in combat.

What appear to be US servicemen, which have been involved as instructors in Mali, on a PT-76. The type appears to be the most operational model of “tank” used by the Malian Army, but this is not saying much. Source: Hammer of War

However, because of the nature of the military operations Mali has recently undertaken its tanks fleet, comprising PT-76s, T-54s, Type 62s, and even T-34-85s, has found itself generally being almost completely out of operational use. What the Malian Army has opted to do broadly is to maintain the vehicles, perhaps in case of tensions with another state in the region, and to keep them stored in military bases, seemingly mostly around Sikasso, in Mali’s southernmost province, but rarely, if ever, use them operationally. In this regard, the PT-76s are actually the most actively used Malian tanks, seeing as the type was seen in the 2012 coup, which may suggest some could be stored in other places aside from Sikasso, which is fairly distant from the capital, Bamako.

A report from 2011-2012 states that Mali still had 18 PT-76s, but suffered from its stocks of 76 mm ammunition mostly being faulty, which would considerably hamper the vehicle’s combat capacities. It has been claimed that some sort of small-scale refurbishment program has been put in place in order to keep some of the fleet operational, which the use of the vehicle in 2012 may corroborate. Nonetheless, some other recent photos show PT-76s abandoned, or at least very lacking maintenance, with graffiti drawn on the sides of the vehicle, and it is likely that considerable work would have to be done in order to bring Mali’s PT-76s to a truly operable state.

PT-76s in what appear to be a poorly-maintained state at a Malian Army base. Source: Hammer of War

Conclusion – Mali’s Ageing Light Tanks

In the second half of 2021, Mali has made steps to shift from France and its Western allies diplomatically, and rather attempt to reinforce its relationships with Russia, which may result in the Wagner Private Military Corporation contractors being deployed in Mali. Though it is a long shot, this mounting relation with Russia may perhaps, if Mali desires so, ease obtaining spare parts and technicians which may help refurbish and maintain operational Mali’s old Soviet armor. Nonetheless, the type remains out of place in the counter-insurgency warfare operations in the vast desert the Malian Army is to undertake in the Sahara. As such, it is just as likely that the vehicles will continue to remain in a state of disrepair.

A Malian Army PT-76 in bicolor camouflage. Whether such vehicles may be better-maintained and see more use in the future or remain in the fringes of Mali’s military equipment, remains unknown. Source: Hammer of War
A Malian PT-76 in a bicolour, tropical camouflage
A Malian PT-76 in a varied multicolour camouflage. Both illustrations created by Pavel “Carpaticus” Alexe based on work by Tank Encyclopedia’s own David Bocquelet.


Esoteric Armour – Mali PT-76

Oryx Blog: Sons of Bamako – Malian Armed Forces Fighting Vehicles

Oryx Blog: Commemorative Names On Malian Army Vehicles And Artillery

Armée malienne : le difficile inventaire, Jeune Afrique

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