After eight years of constant warfare, the Syrian Army is now entering a period of rebuilding. The campaigns against ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and other rebels are coming to an end. The Syrian armored force has gone through a lot of changes since 2011 and the post-war force will be a lot different than the pre-2011 version. The vast majority of military equipment used by the Syrian army is Russian, most of it Cold War era models. However, the organization and military doctrine of the Syrian forces follows a mix of French and other Western influences. In part, this is because Cold War Russia (the Soviet Union) closely guarded its operational principles and never shared them with client states. Russia shared basic operational techniques but encouraged export customers to develop doctrine best suited for their situation. Despite, or because of this, the Syrian army defied all critics and achieved significant success on the battlefield after 2011. This success was achieved through the use of carefully planned infantry assaults supported by both armor and mechanized infantry units along with support from fixed-wing and rotary wing aircraft. The most significant battlefield equipment that the Syrian army has successfully deployed is the tank.
Prior to 2011 revolution the Syrian Army operated over 5,000 tanks, including 2,250 T-55s, 1,000 T-62s, 1,620 T-72s, and 800 older T-54s. Due to the large numbers of T-55/54 tanks in their inventory, this tank was selected to create the majority of the Syrian armored units. Years of heavy combat and heavier losses meant that by early 2019, the Syrian tank inventory consisted of some new models of Russian vehicles. These included the T-55A, T-55AMV, T-62, T-72, T-72AV, T-72B, T-72M1, and T-90 A/AM tanks. The Syrian army now has extensive operational experience with upgraded T-55 tanks, some of which are equipped with explosive reactive armor (ERA) tiles. The most lethal version of the T-55 the Syrian Army uses is the T-55MV. This version is fully modernized and is equipped with Kontakt-1 ERA. Development of the T-55MV evolved from experience with the earlier T-55M update. Additions to the T-55M included a gun stabilizer, increased ammunition load, new 580-hp engine, and redesigned turret.
The T-55MV uses a 620-hp V-55U diesel engine, weighs 37 tons, max speed of 50 kilometers an hour, range (without refueling) of 450 kilometers and crew of four. The tank is armed with a D-10T2S 100mm main gun with an ammunition load of 43 rounds. There is one 12.7 mm roof-mounted machine gun with 300 rounds and a 7.62 mm coaxial machine gun with 3,000 rounds. The tank is also fitted with the 9K116 Bastion anti-tank guided missile (ATGM) system and a Cyclon-M1 main gun stabilizer. The tank’s fire control system (FCS) comprises a BV-55 ballistic calculator, laser rangefinder, and other subsystems. Armor protection has been reinforced by ERA tiles and an additional underbelly armor plate. Unlike the standard T-55, the T-55MV is equipped with eight 902B smoke dischargers. The upgraded variants of the T-55MV that utilize a 690-hp V-46-5M diesel engine are designated as T-55MV-1 tanks.
During operations against irregulars (rebels armed only with small arms), the Syrians upgraded some T-55Mvs in the field. These modernized tanks have received the Viper thermal imaging cameras and side-mounted armor skirts that increase the vehicle’s resistance to RPG anti-tank (HEAT) rockets. Several T-55s are currently using the Syrian-originated Sarab jamming subsystem. Three modifications of the Sarab were developed, including a specific modification for the T-72 tank. At least 200 Syrian T-55s have been destroyed, damaged, salvaged for parts or captured by rebels since 2011.
The Syrians also used T-62M tanks in combat. The T-62M is an upgraded T-62 and is equipped with an additional armor on its turret (two additional curved plates in the front), hull (a glacis armor plate and rubber side skirts) and underbelly. In order to increase commonality with other Syrian tanks, the original tracks have been replaced by those of the T-72. The T-62M tank weighs 42 tons, has and maxi speed of 50 kilometers an hour, max range of 450 km and a crew of four.
The T-62M did not receive any additional army or ERA. Upgraded T-62 tanks are armed with a 115mm gun and 42 rounds and equipped to handle the AT-12 ATGM (anti-tank guided missiles) system that is launched via the 115mm gun. There is also a 12.7 mm roof-mounted machine gun and a 7.62mm coaxial machine gun. The turret of the tank features eight smoke dischargers. The tank is also equipped with a gun stabilizer. The chassis of the T-62M was additionally used to develop the T-62M-1. The T-62M-1 is powered by a more powerful engine and cannot use the AT-12 ATGM.
Due to the large number of T-62 modifications recognition of some T-62 tanks currently being operated by the Syrian army is sometimes difficult to confirm. The Syrians also use standard T-62s and simply upgrades their defensive protection by applying armor plates. At least 150 Syrian Army T-62s have been destroyed, damaged, salvaged for parts or captured by rebels 2011. Additional T-62M vehicles have been delivered by Russia as replacements.
The Syrians use several T-72 models. This includes T-72AVs, T-72Bs, and T-72M1s. Before 2011 Syria had more than 1,600 T-72s in various configurations. Many of the T-72s were upgraded locally by Syrians with assistance from Russia and at least 122 were updated by Italy before the war. At least 305 T-72s have been destroyed, damaged, salvaged for parts or captured by rebels since 2011. Approximately 300 additional T-72s were obtained from multiple sources in 2014. Multiple T-72Bs equipped with ERA were delivered by Russia in 2015-2016.
These T-72s received Kontakt-5 second-generation ERA developed during the Cold War. It is the first type of ERA that is effectively able to defeat modern armor-piercing (APFSDS) rounds. Introduced on the T-80U tank in 1985, Kontakt-5 is made up of "bricks" of explosives placed between two metal plates. The plates are arranged in such a way as to move sideways rapidly when the explosive detonates. This will force an incoming penetrator or shaped charge jet to cut through more armor than the thickness of the plating itself since "new" plating is constantly fed into the penetrating body. A penetrator will also be subjected to powerful sideways forces, which might be large enough to cut the rod into two or more pieces. This will significantly reduce the penetrating capabilities of the penetrator since the penetrating force will be dissipated over a larger volume of armor. This capability has greatly assisted in increasing the survivability of Syrian Army T-72 tanks against rebels using captured tanks.
By late 2015 Russian had supplied some T-90 and T-90A tanks for a few elite Syrian Armor units. In early 2016, some regular army tank units began using T-90As. Multiple Syrian Army T-90s have been reported to survive a direct frontal turret hit by a TOW-2A ATGM while fighting ISIL forces in Aleppo but in late 2017 a T-90 was confirmed as destroyed by ISIL forces in Syria.
The T-90 is a third-generation Russian tank that entered service in 1993. The tank is a modern variation of the T-72B and incorporates many features found on the T-80U. Originally called the T-72BU, but later renamed to T-90, it is the most modern tank in service with the Syrian army. The T-90 uses a 125 mm main gun, a modern fire-control system, an upgraded engine, and a thermal sight. Standard protective measures include a blend of steel and composite armor, smoke grenade dischargers, ERA and the Shtora infrared ATGM jamming system. These tanks are proving to be essential in ensuring the final defeat of ISIL and other rebel groups.
Since 2011 at least 2,322 Syrian armored vehicles (tanks, armored personnel carriers, other types) have been destroyed. The current number of operational Syrian tanks is difficult to determine as hundreds of damaged tanks and other vehicles are now in repair or storage (for spare parts). The Syrians intend to repair and upgrade the remaining operational tanks. Future tank purchases from Russia include additional T-90 and T-90A tanks. Russia is also providing Syria free replacements of multiple types of older tanks. Syria appears to have 10-15 percent of the pre-war force operational and if the Russians continue to supply technical assistance (especially key replacement parts) Syria could end up with 20-30 percent of the pre-war tank force (1,000-1,500) operational. Most of these would be more modern vehicles, either T-90s or T-72s sent as replacements plus pre-war tanks that have been rebuilt or updated. More importantly, the army now has thousands of troops with experience operating tanks in combat. In addition, there are many more tank repair troops (and civilians) with recent practical experience.
In theory, the Syrian tank force was equipped and trained to fight Israel to take back the Golan Heights. This territory had been lost to Israel during the 1967 war. During the 1973 war Syria sent over a thousand tanks against heavily outnumbered Israeli forces in the Golan Heights. The Israelis used their smaller tank force to destroy or disable about half the Syrian tanks and enable the Israelis to take areas of the Golan Heights they had not captured in 1967. The Syrian tank force after 1973 was modernized and enlarged but never used again to go after the Golan Heights. The 1973 defeat is still remembered as is the fact that Israel now has more tanks, and more modern ones, than Syria. As happened after 1973 the current Syrian tank force will more likely be used to keep rebellious Syrians in check. – Ryan Schinault