Key point: The design's adaptability and endurance mean it isn't going anywhere anytime soon.
Like the AK-47 but for tanks, T-54 and T-55s endure on battlefields around the world. Simple to operate and maintain, these decades-old Soviet armored beasts are still popular in small nations and with non-state irregular forces — a true “people’s tank.”
If a coup or fratricidal civil war breaks out in one of Moscow’s current or former beneficiaries, there’s good chances T-54 or T-55s are taking part.
When Afghanistan collapsed in the 1990s, the Taliban and Northern Alliance coalition both inherited T-55s formerly belonging to the communist government. The tanks served in Yugoslavia’s multi-sided civil war during the same decade.
Today, captured Iraqi and Syrian T-55s serve under the black flag of Islamic State and other rebel groups fighting in the region. For these insurgent armies, the 60-year old tanks are just as useful as far more modern designs such as the M1 Abrams.
Because most of the time, tanks don’t need to be complicated. Cheap, uncomplicated and deadly enough is sufficient for most 21st century wars.
At the end of World War II, the Soviet Union’s tank arsenal consisted largely of T-34/85 medium tanks, along with smaller numbers of IS-2 and IS-3 heavy tanks. While the T-34 series had performed outstandingly in the war against Nazi Germany, the Soviets considered its leaf spring suspension and 85-millimeter gun to be outdated.
The later IS-series tanks — standing for Iosif (Joseph) Stalin — had proven themselves more than a match for Germany’s best Panzers. Unfortunately, the crews had to load huge 122-millimeter shells and propellant charges separately into the cannon, giving the vehicle a low rate of fire and ammunition reserve.
The Soviets built the more obscure T-44 — which did not see combat action — in an attempt to reduce the T-34/85’s profile with a squat turret and a sunken hull structure. However, the small size made it impractical for engineers to fit a 100- or 122-millimeter weapon.