3 July 2012

A rough guide to Syria's tanks

main battle tank T-55 T-62 T-72. Infantry fighting vehicle BMP-1 BMP-2 Syria. Syrian Arab Army (SAA) plus maybe T-80 and T-90. Russian. (re-written February 18, 2013, plead added and some editing june 3, 2014)

Please notice: this is a layman's post. If you read it please don't skip the notes during and at the bottom of the post. Also before you decide what to think of my writings: please read through my latest post (plead added 03/06/2014).

(and) This is a very primitive guide to help identifying the three tank series known to be used in the Syrian conflict. I focus on a few characteristics, that usually are clearly distinguishable - even in blurred and shaky videos.

It is important to mention, that this is based mainly on what I have been able to find from image material and descriptions from open on-line sources. And since this guide is aimed only at being a tool for studying material from Syria, a main basis for this guide is, that other models are believed to be possible to exclude (meaning: this guide can not be used as a general tool for tank identification). (see also note 2 at the bottom of this post).

T-54/55 main battle tank:
Photo of a T-55 main battle tank. Before the conflict Syria was supposed to have about 2250 of this model, but an unknown number are in storage or in fixed positions (wiki/ISW). Image source: Wallpapers Free.

Produced from 1946 - 1981 in Russia and a few more years in Chechoslovakia. This is the oldest of the three series, but often hard to tell apart from the later T-62. The clearest details I have noticed are:

A: The thicker part of the barrel is at the front.

B: Five road-wheels with a larger gap between the first and second.

Wikipedia - some photos, the history and specifications of the tank.
Military factory - even more photos and also descriptions.

Video-report from the Deir Ez-Zour region (I believe) showing a T-55 with added reactive armour.

* note: in Wikipedia the T-55 is treated as being part of the same series as T-54. This section is meant in the same way. For some details see Wikipedia's description. Notably early models of the T-54 did not have a fume extractor ("the thicker part") at the front of the barrel - something I have seen no examples of in video footage.
- also please notice that this guide relates to Syria, and does not attempt to differentiate between the many variants in the series.
- some information regarding the T-54 series have been added by readers in comments. I am not able to say if it's correct.

T-62 main battle tank:
Photo from Baba Amr of a T-62 main battle tank. Before the conflict Syria was thought to have about 1000 of these (Wiki). Image source: engshan546.

Produced from 1961 - 1975 in Russia and to 1980 in North Korea. Compared to the T-55 this model - according to Wikipedia - is more of a quality product. T-62 models have been seen a lot in the videos and my guess is that these in general have been kept operational while the T-55 to a higher degree have been phased out.
As mentioned in the previous section these can be quite hard to tell apart from the T-55s in videos, but in the photo above I have marked two details that clearly differ:

A: The thicker part of the barrel is not at the front, but about 1/3 down.

B: Five road-wheels with larger gaps between wheels no. 3, 4 and 5.

Wikipedia - some photos, the history and specifications.
ArmyRecognition - photos, a set of drawing and more descriptions.

Video-report from Idlib (according to title) with a close look at a T-62.

* note: like the T-55, also the T-62 series include quite a number of variants, which this post does not try to differentiate between.

T-72 main battle tank:
Photo of a T-72 main battle tank in the M1 version. Before the conflict Syria was thought to have about 1600 of these in either the T-72 or T-72M variants (Global security). Image source: Prime Portal.

Produced since 1971 and according to Wikipedia still in production. Tanks of this series are seemingly the most modern tanks of the Syrian army. The T-72 exists in several upgraded versions which make some of them look very modern while others look a lot like the T-55 and T-62s. The one, in the photo posted above, is somewhere in the middle of that spectrum, and without reactive armour, which have been added to some of the Syrian T-72s.

To tell older or burned out versions apart from the other models I suggest looking for these details:

A: The thicker part of the barrel is in about the same position as on the T-62, but:

B: The T-72 has six road-wheels (T-55 and T-62 have only five). Also the wheels are evenly distributed and they have either six or eight "spokes" (the wheels on T-55 and T-62 have five).
Photo of the front of a T-72 main battle tank. Notice the V-shaped arrangement on the front. Image source: Wikimedia commons.

C: Another detail, that sets the T-72 apart from the two other series, is the V-shaped arrangement on the upper side of the front (see photo above).
This detail will usually not be visible if reactive armour have been added.

Wikipedia - some photos and the history and specs.
ArmyRecognition - photos, a set of drawing and more descriptions.
Video-report from Darayya (according to title): two T-72 tanks in the street below the reporter. 

* note: as mentioned in the intro, this guide is based on series, other than the T-55, T-62 and T-72, being excluded as candidates. However other series, that share the general shape of the T-72, do exist, and two of these - the T-80 and the T-90 - are not unthinkable to have been bought by Syria. For more about this, please read "note 1" at the end of this post as well as my answer to the comment of February 3, 2013. There are also some comments on this in the description of the list of videos linked to in the BMP-2 section.
- with regards to variants of the T-72, then, as with the previous sections, this post does not attempt to distinguish. But there are many.
- about the V-shaped glacis plate ("the V-shaped arrangement on the upper side of the front"), then a similar detail can be seen on another tank-series as well. It's the T-64 series, and this series also shares the general shape of the T-72.
At a distance in a low-resolution video I would think models from these two series could be hard to tell apart, but so far I have come across no mentioning of the T-64 being used by Syria, and I do not expect it to become relevant. However from the image material I've seen, it seems a few things, that will be not too difficult to notice, differs. These are the horizontal grill positioned at the top of the rear of the T-64, and the design of the road-wheels (the T-64 has narrow "flat" road-wheels compared to those on the T-72).

BMP-1 and BMP-2
if you - in a video from Syria - have seen something, that you think is a tank, but which looks different from the three series listed in this post, then there is a good chance it's a BMP-1.

the reason I did not include this series here, to begin with, is that it is classed as an infantry fighting vehicle. This means, that even if it has both a turret with a cannon and tracks, it is designed to play a different role, compared to battle tanks. This difference is expressed in a smaller gun, thinner armour, tracks that are more narrow and an over all weight of around a third of that of the battle tanks mentioned here. It also have relatively large hatches in the back for the 8 passengers it can carry.

BMP-1 in Wikipedia

Video-report from Homs with a BMP-1 in a street battle. 

There is also a BMP-2. It is considered as a variant of the BMP-1, and the only clear difference to the BMP-1 is the 30 mm auto cannon, which have replaced the 73 mm short-recoil smoothbore gun of the earlier model.
The images in the link are from Damascus, and they show that Syria have the model in use. But I haven't seen it filmed outside Damascus, which to me indicate that there are fewer of these than of the BMP-1, and that they are considered more valuable. Global Security has a 2005 figure for Syria of 100 BMP-2s while the number for BMP-1 is 2100.
BMP-2 in Wikipedia

Video-report from Darayya (acc2 title + Google Translate) showing two BMP-2s followed by what looks like a T-72. (link added 30/12/20014)

* note (to BMP section): the basic design of the BMP-1 have been used for a huge number of other variants.

* note 1: there have been some mentioning of Syria receiving a number of tanks of the T-80 series, and at a time (July 2012) a list in Wikipedia titled "List of modern equipment of the Syrian army" had 320 of these as within the Syrian weaponry. This listing was disputed and it didn't correspond with any of the other open source information I had (and have) come across. Since then the list have been redirected to the list "Equipment of the Syrian Army", which does not list any T-80 series tanks, but the issue does not seem to be entirely closed.
- if T-80 series tanks should turn up they will be looking much like the most modern versions of the T-72s, but the six road-wheels could look as if they have a generally "irregular" distribution, and the design of the wheels appears to be different: where the road-wheels of the T-72 series have a "spoked" design, then the road-wheels of the T-80 series look more like deep smooth bowls.
- about the T-90, then I have seen no mentioning of Syria having tanks of this series. If some were to turn up they too would look a lot like the most upgraded models of the T-72 series. They would have a wheel-design similar to that of the T-72, but from what I've read reactive armour would be integrated in the design instead of being added later in small bricks. (part of my answer to the comment of February 3, 2013 have been integrated in this note).
* note 2: when I wrote this post back in early July 2012, it was from a wish to share observations, I had made, with other on-line Syria observers. Since then I have come to know more, and by re-writing the post (February 18, 2013) I hope on the one hand to have preserved the simplicity of the guide, but also to have pointed to the general complexity of identifying weapons systems.

Related posts on this blog:
- Hama
- Rastan
For information on the weaponry of the Syrian opposition forces; look for the relevant posts on Brown Moses Blog.

The tweeter @Mitzerr has made a detailed list of Syrian fighting vehicles (incl tanks) in this blog post.

- any improvements, corrections and additions are welcome, either as post-comments or @bjoernen_hj.

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Noha307 said...

I would like to note that "the thicker part of the barrel" you mention on the tanks is called a "fume extractor" or "bore evacuator". It is designed to prevent the gasses that result from the firing of a shell from entering the turret/crew compartment of the vehicle and incapacitating the crew and causing other problems.

Also, your tank identification guide is quite timely for me, seeing as I was just thinking of creating one for the Russian T-xx tank series myself as a result of the war in Libya. Russian tanks appear very similar and I had trouble differentiating them.

Here are some of the other recognition features I have come up with. I would not take everything in this list as absolutely correct, but they seem to be trends I have noticed.

The T-72 has a more "squat" or lower profile turret than the T-62 and much more so than the T-54. (The general rule for Russian tank turret designs seems to be that they become lower the newer they are.)

The other difference I would like to draw your attention to is the positioning of the [infrared?] searchlight on the front of the turret of the tanks. Not all of them have this piece of equipment - but for the tanks that do, it seems that the T-54s and T-62s will have it mounted up higher off the turret while the T-72s will have it mounted directly to the turret itself.

(I was going to note the "v" shape on the glacis plate of the T-72, but then I noticed that you already had.)

Anonymous said...

thanks, I've been searching for this kind of information for a long time, how about T-80 ? there have been reports of the syrian army using these in the conflict, how can we tell them apart from the rest?

Bjoern Holst Jespersen said...

you're welcome.
About the T-80: I haven't included that model in the post, because I don't expect Syria to have it, but there are a few links in the note at the end of the post - just in case.

About telling the T-80 apart from the other models, then the challenge (if it turns up) will be to distinguish it from the T-72.
I'm sure specialists have no trouble telling them apart, but on my part, then it have been a bit of a struggle to find easy tells to look for...and I haven't really found any. According to some of the material I have found, the six wheels of the T-80 are unevenly distributed (unlike the T-72), but from photos it seems this is often impossible to see.
What does seem to be a distinctive difference, is the design of the wheels themselves. The wheels of the T-72 have a design with openings between spoke-like parts, whereas the wheels of the T-80 appears like a smooth deep bowl. This might be possible to notice in at least some videos.

...and yes there have been reports of T-80, but so fare I have seen no documentation, and more often than T-80s the reports have been of T-82s, which as fare as I can google does not exist. This (along with other things) makes me think, that those reports are inaccurate. And an explanation could in some cases be, that T-72 tanks upgraded with added reactive armour have been taken for something more modern. (in some of the videos linked to under BMP-2, I believe some examples of upgraded T-72s can be seen, though I can't say for sure if they aren't in fact T-80s).

Anonymous said...

Best way to see the difference between an T72 and T80 is that the driver in T80 has three vison blocks, in the T72 there is only one. The Cupola is different and the roadwheels are a different kind aswell as Bjørn descripes it. Syria does not have T80's. I have seen some old T54's on the FSA side, they must have looted a tank museum somewhere.. The difference between the T54 and T55 is the Fume extractor which you only find on the T55.

Best Regards from Denmark..

Morten M.

Unknown said...

The T-54 lacks a fume extractor entirely, but not all T-55's were fitted with fume extractors. So if you see a T-54/55 with a fume extractor its a T-55, but if i doesnt have one it can be either a T-55 or T-54

Bjoern Holst Jespersen said...

Tak, Morten.

Bjoern Holst Jespersen said...

Thanks, Sammy.

Anonymous said...

This actually isn't accurate. The T-54-3 does not have a fume extractor, but later T-53 models such as the T-54A and T-54M do have a fume extractor at the end of the barrel. T-54 and T-55 are very difficult to tell apart, the only certain way that i can find, is that all T-54 models have a small dome infront of the cupola that would mount the machine gun. T-55 models lack this.

Anonymous said...

Didn't mean that to sound rude by the way guys

Bjoern Holst Jespersen said...