A tracked Kalashnikov
The T-54 is a legend. It was used more extensively than any other Cold War or modern MBT to date. It was supplied to or produced by Warsaw Pact countries, forming the bulk of their forces during the 1960s-70s. Then it served with the allies in the Middle East (Egypt, Syria, Jordan) and numerous nations among the non-aligned and third world countries. A staggering 83,500 were produced, alongside the Polish and Czech versions (21,000 more). It was largely associated with colonial or independence wars all around the globe and is still one of the most common pieces of equipment of any armored force today. China copied the T-54 under the Type 59 designation and it was also largely distributed among Asiatic nations, notably North Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and North Korea.
Several factors contributed to this success, which has some obvious similarities to the infamous Kalashnikov. First, mass-production made it not only largely available but also the cheapest proposition for a modern MBT. Production spanned fifteen years, but modernization and upgrades were constant, up to the 1990s. Spare parts were also made largely available, for the same reason. Second, it was a good-all-around MBT, achieving the same balance in this respect as the famous T-34. Third, it was simple to operate, with a straightforward internal ergonomy.
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Fourth, it was very sturdy, dependable and easily adaptable. Now there are perhaps more than two hundred local variants, some of which are still in use today, not only the local conversions, upgrades and spin-offs. The T-54 already reached fifty years of service, and will probably still be used in the 2020s.
A successor for the T-44
Conceived, named and classed a medium tank for a long time, the T-54’s original design fully integrated the experience of the last world war. After encountering the heavily armored German tanks of the end of the war, Soviet designers came to the conclusion that the only way forward was to raise firepower. In October 1944, the OKB-520 design bureau, of the Stalin Ural tank factory No.183 (Uralvagonzavod) in Nizhny Tagil, developed the self-propelled gun SU-100. It had a very high-velocity D-10C and performed well as tank-hunter.
The experience was used by placing this gun on the T-34/85, giving birth to the T-34/100. But field tests exposed a major issue: the transmission could not endure the recoil. This led to the birth of the T-44/100, the forebear of the T-54. The first prototype of the latter was assembled in February 1945 and still largely resembled the T-44. The glacis frontal section was raised to 120 mm (4.72 in) (upper part) and 90 mm (3.54 in) (lower part) and the turret rested on a 1800 mm (5.9 ft) turret ring. The new V-54 12-cylinder 38.88-liter water-cooled diesel gave better performance, but the overall weight decreased maneuverability and speed compared to the T-44.
The first prototype was found insufficient and work started in June 1945 on a second prototype, Obyekt 137. It had a redesigned, roomier turret equipped with the 100 mm (3.94 in) LB-1 main gun, coupled with a 7.62 mm (0.3 in) SG coaxial machine-gun and completed by two 7.62 mm (0.3 in) SG-43 medium MGs mounted inside fixed boxes on the fenders, fired by the driver. The turret armor was thickened (200 mm/7.87 in front, 125-160 mm/4.92-6.3 in sides).
The T-54-1 with the first cast turret, still reminiscent of the T-44.
Design of the T-54 model 1946
The first prototype required modifications to the T-44 body, starting with a reinforced frontal glacis by removing the observation slit for the driver, replaced by two hatch periscopes MK-1K. The large turret was shifted even more to the center to improve internal arrangement, and its frontal part reached 200 mm (7.87 in). Vertical aiming of the main gun called for an articulated telescopic sight TSH-20 with electric traverse, driven by the commander and gunner. Air attacks were recognized as a major threat, fitting an anti-aircraft DShK heavy machine-gun, although a lighter one could be installed in an armored shelve with remote control. The T-44 engine and transmission scheme were kept unchanged, but the engine was upgraded to the diesel V-54. The new medium tank was heavier than the T-44, but the wheeltrain and track system were completely overhauled, with new pin engagement and better cleats, track rollers strengthened to parry angular fluctuations and new hydraulic torsion-arm suspension fitted. As built, the T-54s were among the best medium tanks worldwide in 1947, only surpassed in 1958 when the 105 mm (4.13 in) armed British Centurion was put into service.
Early production: The T-54-1, 2 & 3
The model 1948 was the first production series, also called T-54-1, and was substantially different from the previous prototypes, with increased protection (80 mm/3.15 in sides, 30 mm/1.18 in roof and 20 mm/0.79 in bottom) and better ammunition (BR-412 series full-caliber APHE). About 1490 were made, all fitted with the early turret type, an improved version of the T-44 turret, but soon quality problems emerged. In 1949 the first modernization phase came with the T-54-2. According to statistics stating that 90% of hits were taken a meter from the ground, the thick frontal upper plate was decreased to 100 mm (3.94 in). The turret design and AA mount were also modified. The new turret was inspired by the one fielded on the heavy IS-3, but with a characteristic overhang at the rear and shorter bustle.
An advanced powertrain comprised a multi-oil bath air cleaner and dust ejector, and a nozzle oil preheater reduced the warming time of the engine in cold weather.
The tracks were expanded to 480 mm (18.9 in), reducing ground pressure. The fender machine-guns were removed in favor of a more conventional bow-mounted model. Only 423 were delivered by the Stalin Ural Tank Factory No. 183 (Uralvagonzavod) in 1950, followed by 800 more in 1951. The same year, the second phase of modernization took place, later known as the T-54-3, but in production only called “T-54”. The turret was reshaped without the overhang, fitted with a new TSh-2-22 telescopic gunner sight, improved seal rubbing parts, bearings, and electrical appliances protected from dust, as well as a TDA smoke generating system. A command version, the T-54K with a second R-113 radio was also delivered. Total production for this model was quite large and spanned from 1952 to 1955, followed by an upgraded production.
The T-54A (1955-1957)
By 1953, the OKB-520 design bureau saw the rise of a new team, under the direction of Leonid N. Kartsev. Their T-54A came equipped with the new STP-1 “Gorizont” gun stabilizer in a vertical plane with better guidance, an automated electric ejection device to purge the barrel, and the initial small muzzle counter-weight was replaced with a massive fume extractor. This new gun was called D-10TG. Now it was possible to conduct true aimed fire on the move.
The engine received an air cleaner with controlled blinds, multi-stage air filter and radiator control to maintain optimum performance and a new OPVT wading snorkel. The driver received a night vision periscope, as the TVN-1 and related IR driving searchlight. A new R-113 radio was also made available. The gunner received an upgraded TSh-2A-22 telescopic sight. Other modifications included an electrical oil pump, bilge pump and automatic fire extinguisher. The most distinctive change in appearance, outside the gun’s fume extractor, were the rear massive extra fuel tanks. This T-54A was scheduled for mid-1954 but not produced until the end of 1955 as an upgrade, which lasted until 1957. Some 2102 T-10TG guns were completed by the Sverdlovsk and Perm arsenals for 1955 alone, 1854 in 1956 and 840 in 1957.
Polish T-54As were locally manufactured at the Bumar-Labedy plant as the AM, characterized by “L”-shaped fuel cells on either side of the turret ring and additional ZIP stowage bins on the turret. 2855 of these were assembled from 1956 to 1967, replacing the aging T-34/85s. In Czechoslovakia, similar endeavors started at ZTM Martin, delivering 2490 T-54As and 120 T-54AKs (command versions) from 1958 to 1966. These command versions were separated between the AK-1 and AK-2, the former having an extra R-113 radio while the latter had a telescopic long-range antenna mast HTM-10.
The T-54B (1957-1959)
In 1955, another major modernization (Objekt 137G2) was traduced into production as the T-54B. It was equipped with the D-10T2S rifled gun coupled with an STP-2 “Tsyklon” 2-plane stabilizer (“Cyclone”) on vertical and horizontal planes, developed at the TsNII-173 plant. This increased target hit probability from 30 to 60%. Fuel tanks were fitted with sets of self-sealing systems. With them, the tank could not overcome a fording depth of 5 m (16.4 ft). Production started in early 1957, replacing the T-54A. In April 1959, new infra-red vision and night sights were added at the end of the production, just before the introduction of the T-55. This included the L-2 “Luna” infrared searchlight, TPN-1-22-11 infra-red gunner\’s sight, and the new OU-3 IR searchlight, mounted over the commander cupola.
This was the first-Soviet built complete set of night fighting equipment. This version was produced until April 1958. The T-54B was sold massively to East Germany. Polish-built T-54Bs were characterized by two locally-designed “L” shaped fuel cells on the left fender, a modified right rear air intake as well as a different tool box storage, rotating turret floor and the drive\’s controls were hydraulically assisted. Command versions T-54BK were also produced, with the same sub-variants as the AK.
The T-54M (1954)
The very last set of modifications came with the Obyekt 139. This model first tested the D-54TS 100 mm (3.94 in) smoothbore gun with a new Raduga stabilization system, first developed in 1952. The prototype was delivered at Nizhni Tagil in October 1954 and also sported an increase to 50 rounds storage, a 14.5 mm (0.57 in) AA machine-gun and an uprated V-54-6 engine. Many problems were detected with the gun, preventing its adoption on the T-55, but this development was continued with the Obyekt 165, forerunner of the T-62.
Further modernizations campaigns (1965-1990)
In a sense, the upgraded T-55 was the first phase of modernization. Many T-54s were indeed retro-fitted to the T-55 standard, which included full NBC protection, the new V-55 diesel rated for 581 hp, increased range and ammunition (T-54M and AMs). Although there was no revolution in terms of armor, advances in armor-piercing and HEAT ammunition guaranteed these vehicles to stay first-line until 1990, not counting all the local modifications performed by various builder/customers all around the world. After the fall of the USSR, surplus T-54/55s were supplied with lucrative modernization programs which allowed them to remain first-line to this day. Among these improbable derivatives, there were up to recently the US-modified Jaguar or the Egyptian Ramses II, both extremely interesting MBT options for low-end budgets.
Drawbacks of the T-54
The small size and low silhouette of these tanks did not come without a price to pay. Indeed, the cramped and small fighting compartment had no comfort and severely limited the average height for recruits. It was customary along with newer models like the T-62 and T-64 and never discovered before Israeli crews dealt with hundreds of captured machines, modified and pressed into service as the Tiran-4s. Another issue was the turret shape, which prevented to depress the gun less than 5°, a fault fully exploited on the battlefield by Israelis tankers and forbade the “hull-down” firing position. Another problem was the gun stabilization system which was crude and ineffective, preventing any chances of scoring a hit when firing on the move. In practice, firing was reasonably accurate when rested, and at relatively short range (less than 1000 m) for better chances of success.
The lack of modern armor was another issue. The T-54 was conceived with traditional warfare and ammunition in mind, with a really thick armor. All this thickness was rendered obsolete by the time shaped charge were massively adopted, and T-54/T-55s paid a heavy price to LAW rockets, TOW missiles, even 76 mm shells from the M41 Walker Bulldog in Vietnam. More recent upgrades, often by foreign companies, added appliqué or spaced armor and ERA blocks. However, all this additional weight took a toll on the original engine which had often to be also replaced. The rebuilding of such modernized models makes them still a valuable proposition for a 21st-century battlefield.
In 1952 this version swapped its coaxial machine gun for a flamethrower set ATO-1 (an automatic powder flamethrower). In the bow was installed a 460 l additional reserve. The ATO-1 could throw a jet of flame to a 160 meters (525 ft) range.
The commander version T-54K (1954) was fitted with two long range radio sets, a new power unit and special navigation equipment.
This sub-variant had a shorter hull with four roadwheels per side, a thinner armor and a twin QF 57 mm automatic cannons in a revolving turret. Perhaps 3000 were built by the USSR, North Korea and the Chinese PRC, with a long list of operators.
The SU-122 SPG was based on the T-54A. Also known as the SU-122-54 or IT-122, it was first developed in 1949, as long range tank destroyer. Between 1955 and 1957, 77, then 23 were built with minor details between series. The SU-122-54 had a modified wheeltrain with small spaces between the two first and fourth pair of wheels but a large opening between the third and others like on the next T-62. Its superstructure housed a 122 mm (4.8 in) D-49 gun supplied with 35 rounds, and two secondary KPVT heavy MGs (one AA was manned from the commander’s hatch) and 600 rounds in reserve. There was a fume extractor right behind the muzzle brake. The commander’s cupola was modified before the end of the series. A rare appearance, these 100 vehicles served briefly and were mostly seen by the west during Red Square parades in the 1970s as ARVs.
A modified tractor, which was fitted with a boom crane, counterweight, rear arrestor pods and a single DSHK machine-gun for defense.
A specially modified crane equipped salvage vehicle, with even more lifting power. It was well capable of towing any tanks ranging from the T-54 to the IS-10. They were used well into the 1990s.
This includes the Czech-built T-54A, AK (command), AR “Rieka”, AM & AMK, AMB, AM1 and sub-variants, and variants; the East-German Z/AZ/AMZ (modernized) and variants, Israeli Tiran-4 & Tiran 4Sh, and variants like the Achzarit APC, and the Polish T-54AD and AMs. Much more modifications were done to the more modern T-55 in this matter.
Successor: The T-55
The T-54 was replaced by the all-improved T-55, developed from 1955 onwards at the same plant. It was basically the sum of upgrades performed on the former T-54s, but with full NBC protection called PAZ (Protivoatomnaya Zashchita), studied by the KB-60 design bureau in Kharkov. The range of modifications was then sent to Uralvagonzavod. The T-54M (Obyekt 139) tested these technologies but was fitted also with the new V-55 diesel engine (581 bhp) to cope with the additional weight. The starter, charger and heating systems were revamped, and an MC-1 diesel fuel filter was introduced. At the same time, engine ventilation hatches were modified, operational range and fuel capacity were increased. The numbers of rounds carried shifted from 34 to 45. New ammunition had been developed, like the BK5M HEAT rounds which could penetrate 390 mm (15.35 in) of armor. Overall, 27,500 T-55s were built until 1981 as many upgrades followed along the sixties and seventies. Most T-54s were upgraded along the same lines as the T-55, ended as hybrid series collectively known in NATO as the T-54/55. With combined production, this series remained the bulk of the Soviet conventional force until the fall of USSR, and was largely exported.
Short Russian documentary
T-54 and variants gallery
T-54 related links
|Dimensions (L-W-H)||9m (6.45m without gun) x 3.27m x 2.4m
(29’5″ (21’2″) x 10’7″ x 7’9″ ft.in)
|Total weight, battle ready||36 tons – 36.4 long tonnes (72,000 lbs)|
|Crew||4 (commander, driver, gunner, loader)|
|Propulsion||8-cyl V-54 (B-54), 520 bhp (388 kW), p/w ratio 14.4 hp/t|
|Top speed||55 km/h (34 mph)|
|Suspensions||Torsion bars with hydraulic arms|
|Range (road/off road)||330 to 440 km (205/273 mi)|
|Armament||Main: 1 x 100 mm DT10 (3.94 in)
Sec: 1 x 12.7 mm DSHK AA (0.5 in) machine gun
Sec: 3 x SG-43 or SGMT 7.62 mm (0.3 in) machine gun
|Armor||Frontal glacis 120 mm (4.7 in), sides 80 mm (3.15 in), rear 45 mm (1.77 in), turret front 200 mm (7.87 in), roof 30 mm (1.18), bottom 20 mm (0.79 in)|
|Total production (T-54 alone)||Approx. 35,000|
T-44, forebear of the T-54 family, equipped with the same turret and main gun as the T-34/85.
T-54-1 early type (1948), with the transitional turret and many T-44 chassis features.
Egyptian T-54-1, war of 1967.
T-54-2, second early type (1949).
Upgraded T-54-2 of the Soviet Army, fall 1950.
Syrian T-54-2, Six-Day War, 1967.
T-54-3 (Object 137), third pre-production type (1951), with the definitive turret. Notice the spoked wheels.
T-54, early mass-production type (1951). Notice the early spoked wheels.
Soviet naval infantry T-54, 1960s.
T-54A of a Red Guards unit, 1955.
Egyptian T-54A with spoked wheels, war of 1967.
East German T-54A.
Polish-built T-54AM, recognizable by the turret extra storage bins.
Afghan T-54A, stripped of almost all its storage and mudguards, Panshir Valley, 2002.
T-54B with winter camouflage, 1958.
Polish T-54B, 1970s. Notice the mix of old spoked wheels and modern ones.
North Vietnamese T-54B during the Têt offensive in 1968. 900 are still operational today, forming the bulk of the Vietnamese force.
Egyptian T-54B with spoked wheels, war of 1967.
Egyptian T-54B in 1973, Yom Kippur war, upgraded with a new rangefinder.
Czech T-54B, 1976.
Soviet T-54B, presumably of a Red Guards unit, on display today.
Cambodian T-54B, 1980s.
Serbian T-54B, Kosovo 1992. There are unmistakably recognizable due to their improvised protection made of extra rubber panels.
Lebanese Militias T-54B, Beirut, 1980s.