The Syrian Arab Army has been involved in a long-standing conflict in the Middle East, where their armoured divisions have played a crucial role. The T-55, T-62, and T-72B are three of Syria’s battle tanks that have been extensively used and have had a significant impact on the battlefield. These Soviet-made tanks have become a symbol of Syria’s armoured power, each with its unique features and historical importance. This article provides a brief analysis of these popular battle tanks, including their origins, design, capabilities, and their contribution to the Syrian war theatre.
Syria’s Battle Tanks
The T-72B, a Soviet main battle tank, was put into production in 1969 as a more cost-effective and technologically advanced alternative to the T-64. It is renowned for its thick turret armour and improved engine and has been exported to 40 countries and used in various conflicts. The T-72B has enhanced upper plate hull armour, providing effective protection of 500 mm to 900 mm. It is an upgraded version of the T-72A, featuring a new 2A46M5 125-millimeter smoothbore gun, a new sighting system called the Sosna-U, and a 1A40-4 fire-control system. The T-72B3M is the latest modernized version, equipped with a ballistic computer, thermal weapon sights, and new-generation communications equipment. Syria received 700 T-72s in four batches, with the first two batches coming from the USSR in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The country also imported T-72M1 tanks from the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia in the late ‘70s through the early ‘90s, which were used in the 1982 Lebanon War with moderate effectiveness.
The T-62, a Soviet medium tank, was introduced in 1961 as an advancement of the T-55 series. It retained many design elements from its predecessor, such as a low profile and thick turret armour. What set the T-62 apart was its smoothbore tank gun, the first of its kind in production tanks, capable of firing APFSDS rounds at higher velocities. While it became the standard tank in the Soviet arsenal, it didn’t fully replace the T-55 in export markets due to higher manufacturing costs and maintenance requirements. Manufactured at Factory No. 183 in Nizhniy Tagil, also known as Uralvagonzavod, the T-62 was developed in response to the new American M60 tank. Its most notable feature was the 115mm smoothbore gun. The T-62’s design incorporated various experimental concepts. In the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Syrian T-62s performed well against Israeli Defence Forces’ Patton and Centurion tanks. However, they suffered significant losses, both in terms of destroyed and captured tanks. During an Israeli counterattack, the T-62-equipped 47th Brigade of Syria was overwhelmed by a similarly sized force of M51 Sherman tanks.
The T-55, a Soviet-made main battle tank, was developed as an improved version of the T-54B and was adopted by the Russian armed forces in 1956. It was specifically designed to counter the American M60 tank. The T-55 featured a new turret and provided Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical (NBC) protection for the crew. Similar to its predecessor, the T-54, the T-55 was a cost-effective and relatively simple design, drawing inspiration from the iconic T-34 tank of World War II. The T-55 entered service in 1959 or 1960 and boasted enhancements such as a more powerful V-12 diesel engine (580 horsepower), a rotating turret floor, the removal of the loader’s cupola, and an improved transmission. It was optimized for nuclear warfare with the inclusion of an NBC system and included various minor upgrades. Visually, the T-55 closely resembled its predecessor. Syria began acquiring T-55 tanks in 1957, with many of the tanks currently in service being replacements sent from the USSR after the losses suffered during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. It is possible that this particular tank survived that conflict and potentially others. Syria purchased the T-55 to combat NATO forces in desert mechanized warfare against Israel and it was subsequently utilized by the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) as a tool of violence against fellow Syrians. At least once, it was captured by one of the rebel factions.