Monday 26 December 2022

Know Thy Enemy: Türkiye’s T-55A MBT

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
On display at the Etimesgut Tank Müzesi near Ankara are a great number of exotic AFVs. This includes the country's first true tank, the T-26, which was acquired from the Soviet Union in the 1930s, and even German Panzer III and IV tanks received in 1943. These are generally maintained in a moderately fine condition, though they all have lost their original camouflage patterns and some overzealous museum director has installed massive fake gun barrels on all tanks he must have deemed underwhelming. Between AFVs such as the R-35, the Cemal Tural APC and M48 stands another AFV that although anything but rare, is still a surprising find in a Turkish Army tank collection: A Czechoslovak-made T-55A MBT. [1]

While it has generally been accepted that this particular tank was received as a gift from the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan during the 2000s, when Turkish troops deployed to the country as part of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the T-55A was in actual fact received from Germany in 1991. Eager to rid itself of the massive quantities of armament inherited from the East German Army in 1990, unified Germany began donating or selling these at bottom prices to a number of countries in Europe. Even though most of these weapons systems were not exactly modern, countries like Finland and Sweden eagerly acquired them for their extremely low acquisition price.

Greece and Türkiye would go on to acquire large quantities of weaponry (for free) under the 'Materialhilfe' programme. While Greece used the opportunity to significantly strengthen its conventional forces through the acquisition of 500 BMP-1 IFVs, 12 9K33 Osa SAM systems, 158 RM-70 MRLs, 306 ZU-23 AA guns, 11.500 9M111 Fagot ATGMs and more than 20.000 RPG-18s, Türkiye, which was in the midst of the war against the PKK at the time, requested the delivery of weaponry to arm Village Guards in war-torn Southeastern Türkiye. [2] Germany happily obliged, delivering some 300 BTR-60 APCs, more than 300.000 MPi-KM(S)-72 assault rifles, some 5000 RPG-7s and 2500 PK machine guns. [2]

Also requested (and delivered) was a single T-55A MBT, which the Turkish Army intended to use for familiarisation purposes and OPFOR (Opposing Forces) training. Even though the fall of the Soviet Union had admittedly greatly decreased the threat of conventional war with countries of the now former Warsaw Pact, all but one of Türkiye's neighbours at that time were still operating large quantities of T-55s at that time (these being: Bulgaria, Syria, Georgia, Armenia, Iran, Azerbaijan and Iraq). In particular, Syria openly supported the PKK during the 1980s and 1990s and had territorial claims on Türkiye's Hatay Province, which Syria still claims as its own even to this day.

A former NVA T-55A on display at the Deutsches Panzermuseum Munster. The cut in the mud guards shows that this tank (and the one received by Türkiye was once fitted with the KMT-5M mine roller.

Türkiye's Czechoslovak-made T-55A MBT. Note that the original tracks have been replaced by those of the M48 Patton.

Despite its open support for the PKK, going as far as sheltering the organisation's leader Abdullah Öcalan, Syria appears not to have feared any serious Turkish retribution and committed little of its forces to Northern Syria. Having large parts of Lebanon under occupation and with its best units stationed close to the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, units stationed in Northern Syria were mostly second-rate. These nonetheless operated a great number of T-55As (some upgraded with North Korean laser-rangefinders and other equipment), of which some were in service with the 93rd Armoured Brigade.

The 93rd Armoured Brigade, or Brigade 93, was based near Ayn Issa, Raqqa Governorate until it was overrun by Islamic State on the 7th of August 2014. Encountered at the base were at least 32 T-55s, four BRDM-2s and ten 122mm D-30 howitzers, making the capture of Brigade 93 the largest heavy-arms haul of the Syrian Civil War. [3] A month before, IS overran Regiment 121 (which together with Brigade 93 made up a large part of Division 17 that was stationed in Northeastern Syria), capturing eight more T-55As, ten 122mm BM-21 MRLs and fifteen 130mm M-46 field-guns. [4]

With the de-facto end of the Syrian Arab Army as a conventional fighting force as a result of the Syrian Civil War, the days when the T-55's design still warranted study and familiarisation because of potential large-scale battles with Syria are arguably long gone. Still, the Turkish Army would ultimately encounter T-55s (and T-62s and T-72s) on the Syrian battlefield used by Islamic State and the YPG/SDF in 2016 and 2017, and later during Operation Spring Shield in February 2020. [5] [6] While the decades-old German acquisition thus might have had some practical use in the end, the tanks in question were all struck from afar by UCAVs that required little detailed knowledge of their function to reduce them to piles of debris.

Scores of T-55As (some with North Korean LRFs) captured by Islamic State at Brigade 93, August 2014.

Study of and familiarisation with the ex-German T-55A likely showed the Turkish Army had little to fear from its dated design, but signified a military that was increasingly evolving to deal with threats away from its traditional nemesis of Greece. Since then Türkiye's OPFOR efforts have expanded a lot. These days believed to include systems such as the Tor, Buk and Pantsir-S1 SAM systems, it's become an indispensible tool in ensuring the Turkish Armed Forces remain one step ahead of its adversaries.

One of the some 300 BTR-60PBs Türkiye received from Germany in the 1990s.

[1] Forgotten Designs: The Turkish Cemal Tural APC
[2] BMP-1A1 Ost in Greek Service
[3] Islamic State Captures Brigade 93 In Largest Heavy-Arms Haul Of Syrian Civil War
[4] Islamic State Captures Large Swathes Of Heavy Armament At Division 17 And Regiment 121
[5] Armour In The Islamic State - The Story Of ’The Workshop’
[6] The Idlib Turkey Shoot: The Destruction and Capture of Vehicles and Equipment by Turkish and Rebel Forces 

Header image by Alper Akkurt. 
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