Russia’s growing tank shortage.
The Russians Aren’t Just Running Out of Tanks—They’re Running Out of Tank Crews, too. And It’s Going to Get Worse.
By David Axe
Having lost at least 2,000 tanks in its 14-month wider war on Ukraine, and struggling to source the high-tech components its needs to build new tanks, Russia has been pulling out of long-term storage hundreds of 60-year-old T-62s and 70-year-old T-55s. Tanks that were obsolete decades ago.
A 41-ton T-62 with its 115-millimetre smoothbore gun, or a 40-ton T-55 with its 100-millimetre rifled gun, isn’t just easier for Russian industry to restore than a newer T-90 or T-72 is—after all, the T-62 or T-55 requires fewer ball bearings and electronic components. The older tank also is easier for its crew to operate.
That has training implications. “The crews prepare for them [the T-55s and T-62s] in a shorter timeframe,” Ukrainian commentator Oleksandr Kovalenko said.
The T-55 and T-62 are from a generation of Soviet tanks before the introduction of automatic gun loaders, sophisticated fire controls and crew layouts that allow a gunner and commander independently to search for targets.
The upside is that a four-person crew could learn to operate its old tank quickly after just a few weeks of training. The downside, of course, is that the crew still is riding in an obsolete tank. A T-55 or T-62 is easier to use because it’s old, crude tech.
The old, crude tech that might not last long in combat—and which might end up getting new tankers killed faster.
Still, the Russians seem to appreciate the old tanks’ less demanding training requirement. After all, many of those 2,000 tanks they’ve lost in Ukraine took their crews with them when they blew up. It’s possible thousands of experienced Russian tankers have died in the wider war; replacing them might be as difficult as replacing their tanks is.
Kovalenko noted Russia’s growing shortage of good tank crews when he tracked a batch of a dozen restored T-72s, T-80s and T-90s reaching a Russian army motorized unit near Svatove in eastern Ukraine. “The most interesting thing is that there are no crews in the unit who can operate these tanks,” Kovalenko said.
Assigning new crews to old tanks might seem like a solution to this problem. In reality, it’s a short-term expedient—and a self-defeating one, at that.
It’s possible to upgrade the optics in a T-55 or T-62 by swapping out the 70-year-old TSh 2-22 gunner’s sight for a 1PN96MT-02 analogue sight that, while not as sophisticated as the state-of-the-art Sosna-U digital sight is, at least is new and reliable. It also is possible to boost an older tank’s protection by bolting reactive armour blocks onto the hull and turret.
But there’s very little Russian industry can do to improve a T-55 or T-62’s main gun, internal layout or turret-hull integration. And all are problematic.
“The T-62’s most significant weakness is its slow rate of fire,” the U.S. Army explained in a 1979 bulletin. Where the crew of a Ukrainian T-64, Leopard 2 or M-1 can fire 10 or even 12 rounds a minute, a T-55 or T-62 crew might manage three or four rounds a minute.
The reasons are myriad. “The ammunition is inconveniently stored for rapid loading,” according to the U.S. Army bulletin. “Under certain conditions, the gun must be elevated before the loader can place a new round in the breech. The automatic ejection system requires six seconds to complete a cycle.”
While the T-55 and T-62 suffer other limitations—slow turret-traverse mechanisms, for instance—the lethargic rate of fire is one constraint that’s bound to get a lot of Russian tankers killed in direct clashes with the Ukrainians.
During the pivotal battle around Chernihiv in north-central Ukraine in the spring of 2022, the Ukrainian 1st Tank Brigade hid its T-64s in the forests around the city. When Russian tanks rolled past, the T-64 crews opened fire.
“Better crew training combined with short-ranged engagements where their armament was competitive, and the faster autoloader on the T-64, allowed Ukrainian tank crews to achieve significant damage against surprised Russian units,” analysts Mykhaylo Zabrodskyi, Jack Watling, Oleksandr Danylyuk and Nick Reynolds explained in a study for the Royal United Services Institute in London.
As T-55s and T-62s replace T-72s in Russian formations, the Ukrainians’ gunnery advantage only will grow.
But comparing an old Russian tank to a newer Ukrainian tank really is missing the point. The Kremlin’s tank-crew crisis is a reminder that, in warfare, people matter more than machines do. Rushing new tankers through a short training course in order to squeeze them into old T-55s and T-62s and speed those tanks to the front line might create an impression of Russian strength. But it won’t win battles.
Because those crews—tank commanders, or TCs, especially—will lack experience. “It is … important that deciders in crews and platoons (TCs and platoon leaders) have the necessary experience to allow them to react to rapidly changing future battlefields,” Billy Burnside noted in a 1979 study for the U.S. Army.
In ‘solving’ their tank shortage by equipping crews with obsolete tanks, the Russians might end up creating an even deeper tank shortage—by getting a bunch of four-man T-55 and T-62 crews killed in lopsided fights with better-equipped, better-trained Ukrainian forces.