T-54/T-55 Series
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modified: Nov 10, 2012
The T-54/T-55 series is the AK-47 of tanks. It is the most-produced and most famous tank in history. Its development began before the end of the Second World War. However, it did not enter full production until 1947. The series was the main tank of the Soviet Red Army before it was replaced with the T-64, T-72, and T-80. It is still operated by about fifty countries around the world.

Although the 85mm gun of the T-34 was successful in combat, Soviet designers were experimenting with more powerful 100mm and 122mm guns. These guns were larger and created cramped conditions in the T-44 turret. A new design program, called Obiekt 137, was initiated by the Morozov Bureau at Kharkov in 1945 with a larger turret to accommodate the 100mm gun. The frontal armor was thickened to 200mm. This project was later designated the T-54 (T-54-1 or T-54 Model 1946) and was powered by the new V-54 engine. It had a two-stage reduction box to improve steering. The first prototype was completed at Nizhni Tagil by the end of 1945. It was approved for service in April 1946 and entered mass production in 1947. Production was expanded to Kharkov in 1948.

The T-54-1 was first deployed to units in the Byelorussian Military Districts for trials. However, production was stopped after several drawbacks were realized. In the mid-1960s, many of the T-54-1 variants were demobilized and their turrets were used as armored pillboxes along the Chinese border.

The T-54-1 turret had a wide and vulnerable gun mantlet with short-traps on either side of the turret front. A second turret was designed with a narrow, "pig-snout" mantlet and a simpler round frontal shape. The SG-43 machine gun bins on the fenders were replaced by a single internally-mounted machine gun which fired through a small hole in the glacis plate. This design was accepted for mass production in 1949 as the T-54-2 or T-54 Model 1949. In addition to Plant No. 183 in Nizhni Tagil and No. 75 in Kharkov, the Politburo authorized the conversion of Plant No. 13 in Omsk for T-54 production.

A new 580mm track was adopted shortly after production began. In addition, a multi-stage centrifugal oil-bath air filter was introduced. Production of the T-54-2 lasted through 1951.

A third turret design was undertaken in 1950-51. This design deleted the turret overhang which resulted a bisected egg-shaped turret with the narrow portion pointing forward. Other improvements included the new TSh-2-22 telescopic sight. The T-54-3 or T-54 Model 1951 was produced from 1952 to 1954. The 1951-55 five-year plan had authorized the production of 11,700 T-54s.

The T-54 driver is seated in the front of the all-welded steel armor hull. He is provided with a single-piece hatch cover that swings to the left. There are two day periscopes provided forward of this hatch. One of these can be replaced by an IR periscope for use in conjunction with the IR light mounted on the right side of the glacis. The driver's IR system is designated TVN-2. A hull escape hatch is provided behind the driver. To the right of the driver is space for 100mm ammunition stowage, batteries, and a small fuel tank.

The turret is a one-piece casting with two D-shaped pieces that make up the top welded into position. The commander and gunner are seated on the left side while the the loader is on the right. The commander has a cupola that can be traversed through 360°, with a single-piece hatch cover that opens forwards. A TPK-1 sight with a single periscope on either side is mounted in the forward part of the cupola top. The gunner has a TSh 2-22 sight. The loader is provided with a periscope and a single-piece hatch cover that opens to the rear.

The T-54 turret does not have a rotating floor. The turret traversing and gun elevating system was manual on early versions but later models have automatic traverse and elevation with manual controls for emergency cases.

The T-54 primarily uses an electrical start-up system for the engine with a compressed air system for back-up in cold weather. The torsion bar suspension consists of five single rubber-tyred roadwheels on either side with a distinct gap between the first and second roadwheels. The drive sprocket is located at the rear and the idler at the front. There are no track-return rollers. The first and fifth roadwheel stations have hydraulic shock-absorbers.

The T-54 can be fitted with a snorkel for deep fording. A thin snorkel for operational use is mounted over the loader's periscope. When not in use, it is disassembled and carried at the rear of the turret or hull. A thick snorkel for training is mounted over the loader's hatch cover. It takes between fifteen and thirty minutes to fit the snorkels which are blown off after crossing. The tank normally uses first gear when fording and navigates with the help of an onboard gyrocompass.

The T-54 can lay its own smoke screen by injecting diesel fuel into the exhaust. This produces a 300m long cloud lasting for about two minutes.

There are four flat light steel tanks on the right running board. The first, second, and fourth tanks contain 93 liters of fuel each. The third tank contains lubricating oil. The driver is able to select the order in which the fuel tanks are used. There are three stowage boxes on the left running board. The first one contains tools and other maintenance equipment. The second one stores gun-cleaning equipment. The third one holds IR equipment. An unditching beam is mounted at the rear of the hull.

Further development of the T-54 was undertaken by a new team under L.N. Kartsev at the Nizhni Tagil UVZ tank plant. The Soviets studied the use of gun stabilization systems by examining M4 Sherman tanks provided as part of the Lend-Lease program. The first stabilization system to enter production was the vertical axis STP-1 Gorizont ("Horizon") developed by I.V. Pogozhev's TsNII-173 in 1951. Obiekt 137G was used to study the incorporation of the Gorizont system to the T-54.

During the Korean War, some U.S. M26 and M46 tanks captured by the Chinese were passed on to the Soviets for evaluation. The use of a bore evacuator was one of the innovations that came from the examination of the U.S. tanks. A bore evacuator was adapted to the D-10TG gun. Several other improvements were incorporated into Obiekt 137G. OPVT snorkel equipment was introduced allowing deep fording of rivers up to 5 meters deep and 700m wide with waterproofing. The TSh-2A-22 telescopic sight was upgraded, and a new TVN-1 IR driver's periscope and IR driving headlights were introduced. A new R-113 radio, multi-stage air cleaner, and automatic fire extinguishing system were introduced. Radiator controls were used for improved engine performance.

Obiekt 137G was accepted for service in 1955 as the T-54A. Mass production was approved in the autumn of 1954. In addition to the Soviet Union, the Bumar-Łabędy plant in Poland built about 2,855 T-54A tanks from 1956 to 1964. The ZTS Martin plant in Czechoslovakia produced 2,490 T-54A and 120 T-54AK command tanks from 1958 to 1966. China began manufacturing the T-54A under the designation Type 59.

In order to increase hit probability, development of gun stabilization systems continued at TsNII-173. The two-axis STP-2 Tsyklon ("Cyclone") system was developed and integrated into three Obiekt-137G2 prototypes completed in June 1955. After undergoing trials, the tank was accepted for service in 1956 as the T-54B. It replaced the T-54A at factories in early 1957. The new Luna L-2 IR searchlight and TPN-1-22-11 IR night sight were added in April 1959. An OU-3 IR searchlight was also added on the commander's cupola. The T-54B was armed with the improved 100mm D-10T2S gun.

The Polish version of the T-54B was designated locally T-54AM. This version was sold to other Warsaw Pact countries. The Polish T-54A and T-54B versions differed from their Soviet counterparts including the addition of two locally designed fuel cells on the left fender and the rearrangement of the right rear air intake and of the tool box stowage. Other changes included a rotating turret floor and hydraulic assist for the driver controls. The Czech versions shared some of the Polish modifications.

T-54 Commander versions
Commander tank variants were built in parallel with the basic tank versions. These included the T-54K, T-54AK, and the T-54BK. The T-54AK-1 was for company commanders and included a second R-113 radio. The T-54AK-2 was assigned for battalion commanders, regimental commanders, and regimental chiefs of staff. It was fitted with the HTM-10 telescoping antenna mast for extended broadcast range. The Polish T-54AD (dowodca, "command") had a slight extension on the turret rear to provide space for command radios. The T-54AD was intended for use by regimental commanders and chiefs of staff.

Obiekt 139 or the T-54M was the last major version of the T-54 series. This variant was used for testing the new 100mm D-54T smoothbore gun that had entered development in 1952. Other improvements included the Raduga stabilization system, an increased ammunition load of 50 rounds, a 14.5mm anti-aircraft machine gun, a new wheel design, and the uprated V-54-6 engine. The prototype was completed at Nizhni Tagil in October 1954. Trials uncovered problems with the Raduga stabilization system and led to Obiekt 140. This version used the new Molniya stabilization system and the associated D-54TS gun. The new T-55 tank would still use the D-10 series gun due to problems with the D-54T. However, continued development of the D-54T would lead to Obiekt 165 which became the T-62 tank.

Total T-54 production, not accounting specialized armored vehicles built on T-54 chassis, was 24,750 in the Soviet Union, 5,465 in other Warsaw Pact countries, and more than 9,000 in China (Type 59).

In the mid-1950s, the Soviets were studying the survivability of tanks near the detonation of a tactical nuclear warhead. They concluded that the tank crew would be killed by the blast overpressure even inside the tank. A proposal was made in October 1955 for modernizing the T-54B. This modernization program and efforts to seal off the tank interior from blast effects resulted Obiekt 155 which was developed by the Kartsev Bureau at Nizhnyi Tagil.

Obiekt 155 included a first-generation PAZ protective suite (Protivo-atomnaya Zashchita) to seal off the hull and use atmospheric overpressure to keep out radioactive dust or chemical agents. Changes were made to the hull and turret in order to accommodate the PAZ system.

The new V-55 engine and 155.08sbB transmission were incorporated increasing the top speed to 50km/h. The T-55 has an AK-150 air compressor to refill the air pressure cylinders. Therefore, the tank primarily uses a compressed air engine start-up system with an electrical back-up. Fuel capacity was increased to 960 liters by adding two external 200-liter drums. The front ammunition bin was redesigned so that the rounds sat within the front fuel cell increasing ammunition stowage to 43 rounds.

A new TDA smoke generation system which operated by spraying oil on hot engine surfaces was added. The "spider" road-wheels were replaced by new "starfish" wheels. The external DShK anti-aircraft machine gun was removed.

Obiekt 155 was accepted for service in May 1958 as the T-55. Mass production took place from June 1958 to July 1962.

The PAZ protective suite did not include protection against the radiation from a nuclear blast. A special protective lining called POV, was being developed by the Morozov team in Kharkov in cooperation with NII Stali (Scientific Research Institute for Steel). This research led the Vagonka bureau in Nizhni Tagil to begin Obiekt 155A in 1961. The interior of the crew areas was lined with the lead-impregnated plastic. Some of the POV was mounted on the outside of hatches and hatch combings, protected by a thin steel cover. In addition, the protective suite included an air filtration system to provide better protection against chemical agents.

Other changes include improved deep fording capability, improved shock-absorbers, and an improved fire detection and suppression system.

Obiekt 155A was accepted for service as the T-55A and production began in August 1963. The decision to shift to the T-62 tank led to the reduction of T-55 production. The Kharkov plant completely stopped T-55 production in 1967 in favor of the T-64. The Nizhni Tagil plant followed suit in 1971 in favor of the T-72. Only the Omsk plant continued T-55A production until 1977 outlasting T-62 production. Most of the T-55 tanks produced in the later years were intended for the export market. Some of the T-55 built for exporting lacked anti-radiation lining.

Further modification work was undertaken on the T-55A. In 1970, the loader's hatch was modified to re-introduce a DShK-M anti-aircraft machine gun necessitated by the advent of NATO anti-tank helicopters. In 1971, the KTD-1 (kvantoviy tankoviy dalnomer) laser rangefinder was mounted above the gun mantlet in an armored box for improved accuracy at longer ranges. A total of about thirty thousand T-55 tanks were produced from 1959 to 1977.

T-55AD is a T-55A variant with the Drozd active protection system.

T-55 Commander versions
Command tank variants carried five rounds less of ammunition in order to accommodate additional radio equipment. The T-55K1 and T-55K2 variants both carried two R-123 or R-123M and an R-124 radio. The T-55K3 was equipped with an R-130M, an R-123M, an R-124, and a 10m antenna. Other command variants included the T-55AK and the T-55MK.

Polish command variants were given the local designation T-55AD1 for the version with an additional R-130 radio, and T-55AD2 for the one with the added R-123 radio. All command tanks have their 100mm ammunition reduced to 37 or 38 rounds. T-55AD1M and T-55AD2M refer to the command variants of the Polish T-55M/T-55AM.

The T-55AM2K1 and K2 are fitted with R-173 and R-173P radios. The T-55AM2K3 is equipped with one R-173 and one R-143T2 radio as well as a 2.2kW generator set type NS1250B.

T-55M is a T-55 variant with the Bastion laser beam-riding missile system and R-173 radio. Additional armor consisting of phenopolyurethane sandwiched between armor plates is fitted to the glacis and turret sides. The armored side skirts are made of 10mm thick steel-reinforced rubber sections.

The T-55M has the Volna fire-control system which includes the KTD-2 laser rangefinder, BV-55 ballistic computer, TShSM 32PV vertically stabilized sight and the Tsiklon M1 stabilizer system. The commander has the PNK sight.

The crew is provided with IPZh-1 anti-radiation protection vests. Moreover, additional shielding against the effects of nuclear weapons is provided inside the hull and turret.

The underside of the tank is provided with additional armor to protect against mines. The driver's emergency hatch cover has been strengthened and provided with an armored cover. Pillars have been installed between the floor and roof to the right of the driver.

The 81mm 902B smoke grenade launcher system is installed on the T-55M.

The T-55M is powered by a 620hp V-55U engine with inertial supercharging. The torsion bars are made of electroslag refined steel. The tracks have a new pattern, and new rubber and steel bushings.

The T-55M has a combat weight of 40.5 tonnes and an operational range of 450km.

T-55AM refers to variants upgraded from T-55A.

Czechoslovak T-55M/T-55AM versions have the Kladivo ("Hammer") fire-control system with a new laser rangefinder mounted over the main gun and a new wind-sensor. Polish counterparts have the Merida fire-control system, Bobrawa laser warning system, and Erb and Tellur smoke grenades.

T-55MV and T-55AMV are ERA fitted variants of the T-55M and T-55AM respectively.

Some T-55 variants comparison
Bastion missile yes yes yes
Volna fire-control yes yes yes
12.7mm machine gun yes yes yes
Thermal sleeve yes yes yes
Appliqué armor
     hull yes yes no
     turret yes yes yes
     belly yes yes yes
ERA no no yes
Side skirts yes yes yes
Active protection no yes no
Napalm protection yes yes yes
Smoke dischargers yes yes yes
V-55U engine* yes yes yes
Improved suspension yes yes yes
R-173 radio yes yes yes
*variants with V-46-5M engine are called T-55M-1, T-55AD-1, and T-55MV-1 respectively

Foreign T-55 production
Poland began T-55 production in 1958 at the Bumar-Łabędy Plant switching to the T-55A in 1964. About seven thousand were built when production ended in 1979. Polish tanks were exported to Warsaw Pact countries and other customers such as Iraq.

The Czech tank plant ZTS Martin also produced T-55 tanks from 1958 to 1982. This included 3,377 T-55, 3,820 T-55A, and 1,280 T-55AK1 tanks. Romania manufactured modified versions of the T-55 under the designations TR-580 and TR-85.

Further Modifications
The T-54 and T-55 series of tanks underwent numerous modernizations programs. Many older tanks were fitted with technologies found on the newer variants making it difficult to distinguish between variants. Some of the significant improvements include missile-launching variants, cellular armor for the tank belly to deflect mines, the Drozd ("thrush") active tank defense system, and explosive reactive armor. Besides the Soviet Union, Warsaw Pact countries and other owners of the T-54 and T-55 series also developed their own modernization programs.

Several flamethrower tanks, self-propelled guns, mine-clearing vehicles, bridgelayers, and armored recovery vehicles based on the T-54 and T-55 were built by the Soviet Union, Poland, and Czechoslovakia.

In addition to military vehicles, the T-54/T-55 series has been converted for civilian applications. These include firefighting vehicles, telescopic hoist vehicles, and mobile power stations.

References: JAA5, MSCT, TTMBT