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I have found this image on a meme website (9gag). If true, the story is fascinating in multiple ways, but I have not been able to find any reliable sources.

  • Are the two tanks in the two pictures the same tank?
  • Was the tank indeed destroyed in Ukraine, in 2023?

enter image description here

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    I was told that Russia has about 12,000 tanks right now (although the number in battleworthy condition is much lower). They may easily have a few dozen tanks numbered 320.
    – gnasher729
    Commented Feb 10 at 15:13
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    Numbering tanks built in the same year from 1 to some number, or different models from 1 to some number. 320 is a very small number compared to the total number of tanks.
    – gnasher729
    Commented Feb 10 at 21:04
  • Stencilling the "last three" or "last four" of a vehicle's serial number is standard practice. Commented Feb 11 at 13:42
  • 2
    in 2012 Russian Army underwent reorganization and switched from divisional structure to brigade structure. Tank is missing unit symbol but it's likely that 320 means it's company commander's tank, 2nd company, third battalion. Unless it's an artillery battalion, then its commander of 2nd batt, 3rd battalion. each tank brigade should have 4 artillery battalions, though 3rd battalion is usually MLRS, not tube arty.
    – AcePL
    Commented Feb 13 at 0:48
  • It seems that the "Russian tank problem" is a of a completely different nature than the famous "German tank problem" Commented Feb 13 at 15:07

2 Answers 2

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They're rather unlikely to be the same tank. The bottom photo has all those "bumps" on the right-hand side cupola, as you're looking at the photo. (It's the commander's cupola, I think.) Upon inspecting a high-res photo on Wikipedia of a T-55, those bumps are bolts that hold the cupola in place.

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Those are absent in the top photo of the meme. (Below is a slightly higher quality version than in the meme, after I tracked down where the original photo appeared--see end of post for source/link.)

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Possibly those bolts were later replaced with a welded-in-place cupola as in the top photo in the meme, but it seems expensive to do just that modification to a tank and not e.g. install explosive-reactive armor and so forth. So the bottom tank in the meme photo is more likely a later-series tank.

FWTW, the bolted cupola does match tanks from other photos of the Budapest invasion.

Checking out some details in Zaloga's book on the T54/55, it appears (pp. 13-15) that the bolted cupola was present in the original T-55, while the welded version showed up in the T-55A, which had improved nuclear & chemical protection. Cupola detail of the latter below (from the book):

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There's an interesting construction detail on the T-55A: only the vertical lower half of the cupola is actually welded the turret. There are in fact (smaller, visible in hi-res) bolts on that cupola too.

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In a top-view you can see the small bolts more cleary, and the fact that this is only a partial cowling that is hiding... the original big bolts. (The latter photo is also in Zaloga's book.)

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I suppose this would have made conversion from T-55 to T-55A (even) easier turret-wise. I'm not sure if there were conversions between the two models though. The book doesn't explicitly mention that. But it would have made some [more] to sense make that modification to existing tanks, given its purpose was more than replacing the cupola attachment system. So this [physical difference] is less conclusive than I first thought.

But Zaloga mentions (p. 15) somewhat generally that

Capital rebuilding often included an effort to upgrade the tank to a higher production standard with new features that had been developed in the intervening years. These rebuilding programs changed many details on the tanks, and makes it very difficult to identify the specific type of tank. [...] Tanks often underwent several capital rebuildings adding layer on layer of changes and making it even harder to categorize its precise model.

It also mentions though (p. 16) that by 1972 there were still in service T-55 (and T-55A) tanks with both kinds of cupolas (i.e. some had NBC, but some still didn't), enough of each than when the (DShKM) anti-aircraft machine gun was added [in these rebuilding programs], they had to design two kinds of fitting rings for it.

Reactive armor was only added to this series starting in 1985 [p. 34], so it's possible some mothballed and reactivated T-55 would not have it. I checked a few photos and videos claiming to show T-55s being sent to Ukraine, and they seem to be of this variety (no reactive armor, but 55A (NBC) style cupola. So the top photo in the meme at least matches some other recent claims, construction-wise. There's also footage of FPV drones hitting T-55 tanks that have that top screen as in the photo. So it seems plausible/authentic enough in that regard. Although there's no footage of its moment of demise (only aftermath photo), the "320" marked tank was reportedly photographed like that in August 2023, in case somebody wonders about the surrounding foliage.

I also found larger photo of the "320" tank used in the invasion of Budapest, on alamy. So that too is very likely a genuine photo. (Not gonna inline it here because stock photo companies love to sue.)

There's one more detail in the Budapest photo: the dome shaped fume extractor on the left side of the turret, in front of the gunner's hatch. That detail points to a T-54 model, rather than a T-55.

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Alas, that part of the tank is not terribly visible in the Ukraine "320" tank. But on a museum T-54 that's photographed from the left side, at ground level, so in rather similar circumstances to the Ukraine 320, you can see (albeit just a wee bit) the dome ventilator, protruding over the turret. (There's unfortunately a radar in the background too, which somewhat confuses this picture.)

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A photo from a somewhat similar angle of a T-54 being transported by rail somewhere in Russia (apparently in 2023), with annotations for identification, incl. one for the dome-covered turret fan, which is less visible though due to the extra elevation of the railcar.

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This one has a bore evacuator (also seen in T-55s) which [in theory] makes the turret-roof-fan redundant, but the latter (or at least the cover thereof) is preserved nonetheless. Interestingly, they also have a photo of a "T-54B modernized from a T-54 M1951" (from the same transport), which does not spot the bore evacuator, but has a simple/shorter muzzle counterweight in its place. The angle of this latter photo, from behind the turret doesn't allows us to see the turret fan cover though--it's entirely obscured by the commander's cupola in that photo. The identification appears to have been made based on the lack of bore evacuator.

Also, in the (aforementioned) footage posted by Russian troops of their training with T-55s in/for Ukraine, we can see their tanks from that (left) side too. And they lack the dome-shaped fume extractor.

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So all that suggests the "320" from Ukraine probably lacks the dome ventilator too, unlike the one from Hungary. (The FPV-hit T-55 is shot from its left-side too, but the video is very blurry to make much detail.)

I've been trying to find if any modifications of the T-54 managed to get rid of that little ventilator dome, but apparently no. Even Vietnam's highly modernized T-54s, which have a lot western optics, ERA, etc., still have that ventilator dome visible.

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Wikipedia does mention that there was a "T-55LD - Polish T-54 tanks rebuilt to T-55A standard. 200 T-54 tanks have been rebuilt in 1975." But there's not much indication the USSR would have done something similar or that those would have been imported to the USSR. There are some mentions of those being exported to various African countries. I've yet to find a hi-res photo of this fabled T-55LD turret-wise. There's a small, blurry one on Wikipeidia.

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    In case someone is curious what was under that vent dome: it's a roof-mounted fan youtube.com/watch?v=SCaBLjg6No0&t=338s Commented Feb 10 at 19:24
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    The 2023 tank has been identified as a T-55A (see my answer), an upgrade of the T-54. One of the upgrades is NBC (Nuclear, Biological, Chemical) protection. That might require changing, for example, how things like the copula are bolted down to avoid leaks. The idea that one would upgrade the copula but not add reactive armor assumes the upgrades were done recently. However, the upgrade from T-54 to T-55A would have been done in the late 1960s long before ERA was popular.
    – Schwern
    Commented Feb 11 at 3:25
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  1. The number on the side of Soviet tanks in 1956 did not have a consistent meaning. It varied unit by unit, but it was never a unique identifier for the tank and certainly not over 70 years. That these two tanks are of similar types and have the same tank number is likely a coincidence.

  2. Oryx has identified the 2023 tank as a damaged T-55A, while the Budapest tank is a T-54. However, the T-55A is a 1960s upgrade of the T-54.

  3. Over 60,000 T-54 variants were built and only 3 have been confirmed damaged or destroyed in Ukraine.

There's nothing which says they're not the same tank, but it's slim odds they are.

Soviet/Russian vehicle numbers

...are a mess.

In 1956, "320" could mean it's tank 20 in the 3rd brigade within its corps. Note that this information is all relative; the corps had three tank brigades and this was the 3rd one within the corps, not necessarily the 3rd Tank Brigade. But even that was not uniform. The number was used to identify individual tanks within the unit, not universally.

While the Russian military has inherited much from the Soviet military, the organization of their tank units has changed considerably since 1954. This could mean it's the 20th tank of the 3rd tank company of its tank battalion.

If tank 320 was knocked out, another tank could replace it and become the new tank 320. Here is an example of two different tanks of the same type which, at different times, were the 2nd tank (a company command tank) of the 3rd battalion of the 1st tank brigade (not the 1st Tank Brigade) of the 5th Guards Tank Corps.

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Additional unit identification, such as the tank corps, could be a symbol or more numbers or omitted entirely. They are not visible from the angle in the 1956 photo, and barely visible in the 2023 photo.

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Identifying those unit markings could prove useful.

Upgraded T-54?

The tank in the 2023 photo has been identified by Oryx as a T-55A.

The T-55 was accepted into service in 1958, and the T-55A came even later; the tank in the 1954 picture certainly is not a T-55, but a T-54.

However, the T-55 is essentially an upgraded T-54. They're so close they often get lumped together as the T-54/55. According to Tank Encyclopedia Archives...

Many T-54s were indeed retro-fitted to the T-55 standard, which included full NBC protection, the new V-55 diesel rated for 581 hp, increased range and ammunition (T-54M and AMs).

The upgrade would have been done in the 1960s explaining the lack of modern features such as ERA (Explosive Reactive Armor). The T-54/55 continued to be upgraded; if it were upgraded later it would be an upgraded model. ERA was introduced in the 1990s with the T-55AMV.

Looking at museum photos of T-54M and T-54AM, T-54s upgraded to T-55 standards, we see they retain features not present on the 2023 tank. That would seem to rule out the 2023 tank being an upgraded T-54. However, these are museum pieces with a focus on preservation. We're talking about a tank that's been in Soviet/Russian service for almost 70 years and two governments. It's difficult to say what additional modifications have been done in that time, so I can't say this rules it out.

On the third hand, over 60,000 T-54 variants were made, and only 3 have been confirmed damaged or destroyed in Ukraine. That's long odds.

Conclusion

There's nothing which definitively disqualifies these as photos of the same tank...

  1. If the 2023 tank is a T-54 upgraded to T-55A, the upgrade would have happened in the 1960s explaining the lack of modern features.

...but neither is there any evidence they are.

  1. 320 is not a unique identifier.
  2. 60,000+ T-54 variants were built, and only 3 have been confirmed as destroyed in Ukraine. Slim odds.

Identification of the unit markings on the 2023 tank could prove useful.

Sources

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