Zsu 23 4 Shilka Soviet Air Defense Gun Vehicle
US Army tanks face off against Soviet tanks, Berlin 1961
The successor tank to the T-54/T-55 was the follow-on T-62 of 1961, which remained in first-line Soviet service for two decades. Similar in layout and appearance to the T-55, the T-62 introduced a number of improvements. It also mounted the new, larger 115mm smoothbore main gun, the first smoothbore tank gun in the world. Its gun enabled the T-62 to fire armor-piercing, fin-stabilized discarding sabot rounds that could destroy any tank at ranges of under 1,500 meters. Nonetheless, the gun could only fire four rounds a minute, and its automatic spent-case ejection system was a danger to the crew.
The Soviets built some 20,000 T-62s, and it was the principal Soviet MBT of the 1960s and much of the 1970s. It constituted 24 percent of Soviet tank strength at the end of the Cold War. T-62s were also built in large numbers by the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Czechoslovakia, and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, North Korea). The T-62 had a checkered combat record. Many were exported to the Middle East, where they proved vulnerable to hostile fire.
While the T-62 was simply an improvement of the T-55, the next Soviet MBT, the T-64, was a new design and a significant advance in firepower, armor protection, and speed. It entered production in 1966 and was designed to replace both the T-54/T-55 series and the T-62. Initially it was armed with a 115mm gun, but Soviet designers decided that the tank was under-gunned against the U.S. M60A1, so they upgraded the definitive version T-62A to a more powerful 125mm smoothbore. The T-62B version could fire the 4,000- meter-range Songster antitank guided missile. The new tank experienced numerous reliability problems and was never exported.
The T-72 of 1971 proved to be both more reliable and far cheaper to produce. Similar in appearance to the T-64, it utilized the same gun, suspension, and track. Although its enormous 125mm smoothbore main gun allows the T-72 to fire projectiles with great destructive capability, ammunition flaws mean that the gun has a reputation for inaccuracy beyond about 1,500 meters. The gun is stabilized, allowing it to fire on the move, but is only truly effective at short ranges, and most crews halt the tank before firing. This put the T-72 at an enormous disadvantage against Western tanks with far superior gun-stabilization systems.
A large number of T-72 variants have appeared, offering an improved diesel engine, improved armor, and better sights. The T-72 currently equips not only the Russian Army and the armies of the former Warsaw Pact states but is also widely employed in the Middle East and Africa. It has been produced under license in Czechoslovakia, India, Iran, Iraq, Poland, and the former Yugoslavia. It is in fact the world’s most widely deployed tank. Despite its many sales, the T-72 has not fared well in battle.
Both Iran and Iraq employed T-72s during their eight-year war in the 1980s, but there is little information about their effectiveness. Iraq counted some 1,000 T-72s in its inventory during the Persian Gulf War, but they were easily defeated by the U.S. M1A1 Abrams, which was able to take on the T-72 and destroy it at twice the effective range of the T-72’s main gun. No M1A1s were destroyed by Iraqi tank fire. Despite these failings, it should be remembered that the T-72 was not designed to defeat Western armor—that was to be left to the T-64 and T-80. Rather, it was intended as a relatively inexpensive MBT that would be reliable and easy to maintain and could be widely exported. It met these criteria well.
The T-80 was the MBT designed to take on and destroy U.S. and other Western tanks. The last Soviet Union MBT, it appeared in prototype in 1976 but did not enter production until 1980. It was basically the follow-on to the T-64 with the flaws corrected, including a new engine and suspension system. It is armed with the 125mm smoothbore gun and two machine guns and is protected by composite explosive-reactive armor. The T-80 continues in production in both Russia and Ukraine. It has gone through upgrades and has been sold to China, Pakistan, and South Korea.
References Foss, Christopher F., ed. The Encyclopedia of Tanks and Armored Fighting Vehicles: The Comprehensive Guide to Over 900 Armored Fighting Vehicles from 1915 to the Present Day. San Diego, CA: Thunder Bay Press, 2002. Hogg, Ian V. The Greenhill Armoured Fighting Vehicles Data Book. London: Greenhill, 2000. Miller, David. The Great Book of Tanks: The World’s Most Important Tanks from World War I to the Present Day. St. Paul, MN: MBI Publishing, 2002. Tucker, Spencer C. Tanks: An Illustrated History of Their Impact. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2004.