The T-54M3 is a joint Vietnamese-Israeli project which began in 2009 that led to the development of two distinct prototypes with similar characteristics but produced with different budgets. The two vehicles have the same teams behind them. However, in this article, the Israeli T-54M3 and the Vietnamese T-54M3 will be treated as two separate projects.
A total of 3 prototypes were produced, one by Elbit Systems, and 2 by the Z153 Vietnamese industrial plant.
After the development phase was finished, 3 pre-series examples were built, which were practically identical to the finalized serial version. The People’s Army of VietNam (PAVN) has requested the upgrade of 305 T-54s and T-55s that are still (as of June 2021) being delivered. Delays have occurred due to the Covid-19 pandemic and bureaucratic problems.
People’s Army of Vietnam
After the Vietnam War (1964-1975), Vietnam operated a fleet of 70 T-62s, a few thousand T-54s and T-55s, hundreds more Type 59s and a large number of T-34-85s and SU-100s. These were accompanied by a small group of M41 and M48 Patton tanks captured from the US Army and the Army of the Republic of VietNam (ARVN) and returned to service after overhauls.
During the Sino-Vietnamese War (1979) and the occupation of Cambodia (1978-1989), the PAVN realized that most of its equipment was no longer able to face a war against other comparable or larger nations.
In the following years, due to the high cost of maintaining such a fleet of armored vehicles, the number of tanks was reduced to 850 T-54s or T-55s, 300 PT-76s, 50 T-34-85s (used for training) and a small number of ASU-85s. The numbers of T-62s and Type 59s remained unchanged. The other vehicles were put in reserve.
During the late 1990s, it was decided to try to upgrade the fleet of T-54s and T-55s. Around 2015, purchase negotiations began with Russia for the acquisition of a total of 64 first-hand T-90S and T-90SK, all delivered by February 2019. In 2020, the People’s Army of Vietnam announced its intention to buy several T-72B1MS. It is unclear if, given the Covid-19 pandemic, negotiations are moving forward or if the funding has been canceled to prioritize medical research and prevention.
Vietnam did not have any local options for the development of upgrades for its outdated fleet of T-54, T-55 and Type-59. Thus, it turned to foreign countries.
In the early 90s, the Slovenska Vojska (Slovenian Army) started an upgrade program of its T-55s with the support of the Israeli Elbit Systems. This led to a new version called T-55S1, equipped with Explosive Reactive Armor (ERA), a 105 mm gun, a new engine, a new Fire Control System (FCS) and other modifications.
After several attempts with other nations, Vietnam turned to Israel. At an unknown date and an unspecified location in Israel, Vietnamese representatives were presented with an example of the Tiran-5Sh.
The Tiran series were updated Israeli versions of the T-54, T-55 and T-62 captured from the Arab armies during the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli wars. The Tiran-1 to Tiran-5 were modified T-54s or T-55s, while the Tiran-6 were modified T-62s.
However, Israel was not satisfied with the 100 mm D-10T rifled guns of the T-54/T-55, so it developed the “Sh” version. This version, applied to the Tiran-4, Tiran-5 and Tiran-6, the tanks were deprived of their old Soviet 100 mm or 115 mm guns and re-equipped with surplus British Royal Ordnance L7 or US M68 105 mm guns that fit very well in the small interior space thanks to the rounded breech.
Israel hoped to sell its Tirans, which were slowly being removed from service, to Vietnam. However, Vietnam already had a large number of such vehicles and was not interested in buying new vehicles except for some spare parts.
The Vietnamese were impressed by the Tiran-5Sh and immediately showed interest in asking Israel to produce an updated T-54 prototype. Bureaucratic delays and probably some internal resistance from the People’s Army of Vietnam slowed down the request.
There is also a possibility that a Tiran-5Sh was sent to Vietnam at some point in the 1990s for testing and evaluation. This hypothesis is supported by a photo with a Vietnamese caption of a Tiran-5Sh in Vietnam, probably the same one that was analyzed by Vietnamese officials in Israel.
Despite the existence of the picture, there is no concrete evidence to prove this hypothesis. The IDF has never claimed to have sent a Tiran to Vietnam and Vietnam has never claimed to have a Tiran.
Another fact that supports this thesis is the signing in the 1990s of a contract between Israeli firms, such as Elbit and NIMDA, and the Vietnamese army for the development of a package of updates for the now obsolete M113 Armored Personnel Carriers of the PAVN.
The Israeli prototype: the T-54M3
In 2009, Vietnam finally requested a prototype upgrade of the T-54 from Elbit System. With the help of NIMDA, Elbit started to develop the design starting from the previous Slovenian T-55S1. In 2010, images began circulating of the Israeli-produced prototype that had been presented to Vietnam a few months earlier.
The new T-54M3 significantly improved the T-54 and T-55 vehicles. In addition to a number of modifications and a different camouflage scheme, the Elbit Systems prototype can be distinguished by the serial number 153 on the sides of the turret.
As on the Tiran Sh, the Israelis removed the Soviet D-10T2S and the tank was rearmed with a 105 mm cannon. The origin of the gun, however, is very uncertain. Some sources mention the use of the British Royal Ordnance L7 or its US version, the M68. However, a decision from Elbit to use a foreign 105 mm gun would be odd, as the Israeli Military Industries (of which Elbit is a subsidiary) produces the M64 L71A L.52, also a copy of the Royal Ordnance L7. This was the main armament of the Merkava Siman I and II tanks. It is probable that some journalists were unaware or ignored the existence of the Israeli-produced cannon.
Whatever 105 mm cannon the T-54M3 employs, it can fire any type of 105 mm ammunition developed by NATO. The gun is equipped with a thermal jacket to prevent the thermal distortion of the barrel.
The anti-aircraft machine gun was replaced with a more modern 12.7 mm NSV of Soviet origin. The coaxial machine gun remained the original 7.26 mm PKT.
On the left side of the turret, a 60 mm C07 Commando mortar was mounted externally, as on the Tiran, Magach, M-51, and the Merkava Siman I. The mortar can be used to fire fragmentation ammunition against infantry, illuminants for night actions, and smoke to create smoke screens at up to 1,800 m in order to support the actions of other units or to indicate a target to artillery.
The smoke launcher system mounted on the rear side of the turret is the IMI CL-3030 IS-6 Self-Screen Laying System. This fires 12 smoke grenades (six per side) with a charge of 850 grams of Red Phosphorus (non-toxic), creating a smokescreen lasting 1 to 2 minutes at 50 meters from the tank, 4 to 8 meters high and about 60 meters long (obviously, all these values depend on the wind speed).
This system is connected to a Laser Warning Receiver (LWR) that automatically activates the smokescreen in case the vehicle is illuminated by a laser beam or through the control panel of the tank commander, who can activate the system manually.
On the roof of the turret is the MAWS6056B (Military Automatic Weather Sensor) Idram-SA anemometer of Swiss origin (the same one mounted on the Leclerc MBT). This can be lowered and raised in order to measure the wind speed, the wind direction, the ambient temperature, and the atmospheric pressure. The data it captures is used to automatically adjust the cannon fire and can be sent to other armored vehicles in the area of operations to increase the accuracy of all vehicles.
At the back, there is slat armor meant to defuse HEAT (High-Explosive Anti-Tank) warheads with piezo-electric fuzing, usually fired from the RPG family of anti-tank rocket systems
Attached on the lower side of the slat armor are the Venus Hair Ferns, steel chains with steel balls at the end. These chains were also used on the Merkava MBTs and are also meant to protect against RPG rounds.
At the front, both the hull and the turret are probably protected by Self-Limiting Explosive Reactive Armor (SLERA) of the latest generation, very similar to that mounted on the Israeli Merkava Siman IV.
The protective qualities of the SLERA are not known. Being derived from the armor of the Merkava, it can be assumed that it is capable of resisting ATGMs (Anti-Tank Guided Missiles) such as 9K111 Fagot or 9M113 Konkurs. Composite material skirts were mounted on the sides of the hull to protect the running gear and lower the amount of dust kicked up by the vehicle.
Some surfaces of the vehicle, such as the front of the hull and the turret, are covered with Anti-Reflection Coating aesthetically similar to sand on the surface of the tank. This lowers the amount of light reflecting off the surfaces and offers a good grip for the crew climbing into the tank. The vehicle is then painted with low IR paint to decrease the thermal signature.
The radio system was replaced with a new one of Russian origin, the compact RF2050 multi-band system with increased resistance against radio-electronic warfare.
Due to the increase in weight, now estimated at 40-42 tonnes, the engine was replaced with a German one. Information is lacking except for the power output, which is 1,000 hp.
This is probably an MTU 881 8-cylinder diesel engine of 1,000 hp at 2,700 rpm, guaranteeing a higher speed than a standard T-55 thanks to the 200 hp more.
The new engine is connected to a transmission and gearbox of Ukrainian origin, although the data and models are unknown.
A driving computer system is also installed, allowing the vehicle to calculate the tilt and the speed of the vehicle. That computer is installed on the driver’s position, with a hydraulic power steering system allowing the steering column, brakes, and clutch to be much easier to operate.
For the safety of the crew, the fire suppression system was replaced with a new automatic system capable of self-diagnosis, also of Russian origin.
New powerful Fire Control System
The Fire Control System is the TIFCS-3BU, stabilized on two axes, produced by the Spanish Indra Sistemas. The system includes a TSGS-54BU laser rangefinder, also stabilized on two axes, and a thermal camera for day and night vision in the 3-5 um or 8-12 um range. The commander has the possibility to see the view from the gunner’s optics and, in case the gunner is out of action, to aim and shoot. Finally, a complex update of the servomechanisms for faster movement was undertaken.
The old TDP-K or T-S optical sights (depending on the tank version) are retained in the remote event that the FCS gets incapacitated.
All of these upgrades significantly increase the chances of hitting a target at any range, day or night and in any weather, even on the move. According to VietDefense, this new FCS has similar characteristics to that of the more modern T-72B3. Indra Sistemas has specially developed the FCS to take up little space and to be mounted without having to modify the turret structure of several Soviet T-series tanks.
Unfortunately, Indra Sistemas did not give any information about the possibility of the new FCS to fire ATGMs of the 3UBK10-1 and 3UBK23-1 series, as on the T-55M.
The vehicle was tested with excellent results in late 2011, when it proved to be able to sustain high speeds and to be able to fire even on the move with high accuracy.
The Vietnamese T-54M3
The Israeli project was too ambitious for the People’s Army of Vietnam, as the price was estimated at between US$3 and almost US$4 million per unit. This price was slightly lower than the cost of the T-90S and T-90KS that the PAVN has in service for some years now.
Israel and Vietnam decided to ‘simplify’ the project by canceling the adoption of the Royal Ordnance L7 gun, partly because Vietnam still has significant stocks of Soviet 100 mm ammunition. The adoption of the new gun would have meant the purchase of new ammunition stocks. The thermal sleeve was retained.
The side skirts and Self-Limiting Explosive Reactive Armor also cost too much. It was therefore decided to replace the modern Israeli SLERA with a less expensive version of ERA produced by the Vietnamese Institute of Propellants & Explosives (IPE), developed after 2009.
The development phase of the Vietnamese ERA ended in 2015-2016, but the ‘first generation’ weighed too much and barely protected the armored vehicles from RPG-7s. Thus, Senior Lieutenant Hoang Trung Kien along with Major Nguyen Vu Hung’s team (which had developed the first generation) developed the Second Generation ERA allegedly capable of resisting 9M14 Malyutka ATGMs.
The ERA is divided into 30-cm explosive bricks weighing 3.5 kilograms, with a 550-gram RDX explosive charge. According to the IPE, this new ERA is capable of nullifying the penetrating effect of an anti-tank projectile or ATGM with a maximum penetration of 500 mm. The second-generation ERA is also much lighter than its predecessor. The IPE estimate is that the additional weight on the tank is just over 1,000 kilograms.
The decision to retain the 100 mm cannon and use a less expensive ERA resulted in a decrease in vehicle weight and consequently a modest increase in top speed. To decrease the price even more, the PAVN removed all the equipment considered superfluous, such as the CL-3030 IS-6 smoke launchers, the C07 Commando external mortar and the 12.7 mm NSV, keeping the old DShKM.
Before the start of production, the new Vietnamese-made ERA had to be completed, which required significant effort and caused delays. Once the development and testing phase was over, the Z153 plant, controlled by the Vietnamese government, produced two prototypes of the Vietnamese version of the T-54M3 and T-55M3. Once these passed tests, three pre-series examples were produced in 2016. The People’s Army of Vietnam has allocated funds for the conversion of 305 T-54s and T-55s, the equivalent of 10 armored battalions.
Delivery to PAVN
It is not known at what exact time the vehicles finished assembly, but the first examples were delivered to training schools. Around April-May 2019, the official delivery to the first armored units took place.
On June 26th, 2019, the first official firing test took place. This was captured by Vietnamese National Defense Television cameras. During these show tests, the vehicle demonstrated excellent maneuverability and increased engagement power compared to the standard T-54 or T-55 models.
The delivery rate was slowed down in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic and due to bureaucratic issues. Vietnam had only ordered 105 FCS from Indra Sistemas to equip the Vietnamese prototypes and 3 pre-series vehicles, while the other 100 were for production vehicles. As the PAVN order was for 310 units, Vietnam has had to order another 205 FCS in different batches from the Spanish company with the relevant spare parts and production time.
In late 2020, production resumed at a steady pace. Despite the lack of FCS, the Z153 plant continued to convert T-54s and T-55s and some are still awaiting FCS before they can be delivered to the Army. Dozens of photos of updated T-54s and T-55s flooded the web in early 2021. The conversion of all the 310 vehicles will probably be finished in early 2023.
The units that received the new vehicles immediately began an intense cycle of training to learn how to use the new Fire Control System. This is many generations ahead of that used on the standard T-54 and T-55 and very different from that of the T-90S.
One factor that is often overlooked is the use the PAVN intends for these armored vehicles. Detractors of vehicles such as the T-54M3 and T-55M3 or the Korean Chonma often do not consider their role within the Army.
The People’s Army of Vietnam, in case of war with a neighboring nation, plans to use its updated T-54s and T-55s in an infantry support role. They are also intended to support the actions of the more modern T-90S (and, in the future, perhaps also to the T-72B1MS). It is not expected that they will face other tanks. If they do, the new FCS will allow them a much-improved chance of hitting the target first, even on the move.
Camouflage and markings
The Israeli prototype had an interesting and unusual three-tone camouflage scheme, dark green base with black and orange stripes. This pattern has never been used by the IDF or the PAVN.
The Vietnamese prototypes and production examples are painted in a three-tone camouflage scheme quite common on Vietnamese vehicles: light green, dark green and black spots, very suitable for the rainy environments of Vietnam.
As mentioned earlier the tanks were covered with Anti-Reflection Coating and painted with special paint to decrease the thermal signature.
On the turret, the symbol of the PAVN, a yellow star in a red circle with yellow border with the identification number, in white, are painted on the side.
On the Israeli prototype, the PAVN symbol was replaced by a prominent yellow star.
The Israeli T-54M3 is a very expensive upgrade to the T-54 and T-55 that makes the vehicle capable of dealing with Armored Fighting Vehicles much more modern than venerable Soviet tanks. The Vietnamese T-54M3 and T-55M3, on the other hand, are cheaper versions of the Israeli T-54M3. While not nearly as powerful, they mitigate some of the obsolescence of the ‘T’ series tanks within the budget of Vietnam and will keep these vehicles in service.
|Dimensions (L-W-H)||9.00 x 3.37 x 2.40 m|
|Total Weight, Battle Ready||~40 tonnes|
|Crew||4 (driver, commander, gunner and loader)|
|Propulsion||Unknown, German origin, 1000 hp|
|Armament||100 mm D-10T2S rifled cannon, 1x 7.62 mm PKT 1x 12.7 mm DShKM|
|Armor||Explosive Reactive Armor front and turret sides|
|Total Production||310 planned, including 2 prototypes and 3 pre-series vehicles|