By Sankalan Chattopadhyay
As the 2022 Russo-Ukrainian conflict enters the 90th day, rumour of Soviet era T-62 tanks arriving in the battlefield took the internet in storm. Since then several defence journalists and analysts are trying to dig out the possible reasons behind such deployment of a cold war era relic which can’t face any modern anti-armour threat.
All began when the General Stuff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine claimed that Russia was forced to call the T-62 fleet from storage to make up the excessive loss. Later an independent analyst “Ukraine Weapons Tracker” further cemented the assumption by posting photos of T-62 tanks on railway carriage in Melitopol (currently under occupation of the Russian forces) of Zaporizhzhia Oblast of Ukraine. Zaporizhzhia lies on the coast of the Sea of Azov and adjacent to Kherson and Donetsk. Donetsk, Luhansk and Kherson are facing the most heat of the Russian offensive. While a boost in offensive with modern platforms was feared, the unexpected news of T-62 has raised eyebrows.
The development of the T-62 started following T-55 in 50s of the last century eying increased firepower and enhanced protection. The West also ramped up projects for newer equipment. The quest for a better platform ultimately gave birth to T-62 and more sophisticated T-64. The T-62 is equipped with a 115 mm smoothbore gun and powered by a 580 hp engine. Though T-62 has several drawbacks, it has earned a well reputation in the combat. Iraq used this platform successfully against not just Iranian M-47 or M-48 but against M-60 and Chieftain as well!
During the Yom Kippur War, Israel was impressed with the T-62 so much that after the war it started using captured platforms. Russia has used this platform in combat against China in the 1969 (though only a single platform was used in the brief border conflict), Afghanistan in 80s, Chechen forces in 90s and Georgia in the last decade. Recently these platforms were noticed in Zapad 2021 exercise with China. However, T-62 has showcased much lacklustre performance against modern adversaries. Obviously, it is no match for newer technology which are overwhelmingly superior to it, but in 60s and 70s it was a formidable platform.
In this war against Ukraine, Russia has deployed the cream-the T-80BVM and T-72B3M. Besides, the war has witnessed T-90A, T-80BV, T-80U, T-72B3, T-72B and even older tanks like T-72A/AV and T-64BV as well. The loss of a single T-90M and T-80UM2 can be discarded as exact reason behind their destruction is unknown though the doom of T-90M led a tremendously negative campaign against Russian platforms. This is possibly the only modern war where both the best and the worst of the inventory, T-90M and T-62, are participating together! So, what went bad?
According to the independent research group and analyst Oryx, till May 29, Russia has lost more than 700 tanks! Bulk of it consists of T-72, 80 and 90. According to reports, lack of several critical components and deteriorating financial capability has stripped Russia from the capacity to manufacture new platforms quickly. Many experts believe, this will lead towards a quick depletion of the armoured fleet jeopardising further offensive operations. So, Russia comes with the only solution possible in the short notice – recalling T-62 in the services from the storage. Russia has a fleet of around 10,000 tanks in storage of which around one fourth is reported to be T-62! Thus, Russia can throw a significant number of tanks for continuation of the operation.
There might be another aspect of such decision. Ukraine currently doesn’t have any significantly large armoured fleet with credible counter offensive capability. So even older T-62 tanks are unlikely to face any serious challenge from the adversary fleet. But Ukrainian resistance is raining havoc with the man portable anti-tank guided missiles (ATGM). This will lead towards catastrophe for such old platform. When the best can’t do much against a top attack missile like Javelin or NLAW, there should be little doubt on survivability of a T-62 against such attack. But such loss will be the least valuable which Russia can afford. These T-62 tanks are relic and do not have much importance for a modern conflict. So instead of valuable T-72/80/90, T-62 will face the wrath of the resistance.
Besides, the firepower might not do even a scratch against a modern platform but is powerful enough to send a non armoured fortified position into smoke! Thus, such deployment will bring two advantages to Russia. First, it will wash away a good strength of the opposition and second, will deplete the inventory of highly sophisticated weapons drying the Ukrainian capability. It must not be forgotten that Ukrainian resistance is solely dependent on foreign aids for fire power. And though the U.S. and the other Western European nations have continuously supplied a large stockpile, everything has its own limit. In fact, many nations had to empty own arsenal to support. So, these nations have own demand as well. The danger of a sudden fall in further support looming large upon Ukraine. So, with the help of least valuable equipment in large number Russia can overcome many challenges rather quickly.
However, many are not convinced with such logic. Instead, they believe such equipment is for the pro-Russian separatists’ forces of Donetsk and Luhansk. The militia forces in these two Oblast are dependent on Russian aid. Though they have some captured Ukrainian equipment but majority of the arsenal is supplied by Russia. But their equipment is not as modern as the standard Russian soldiers operate. These T-62 are believed to be for the militia forces instead. And there is a good reason. In any war it is difficult to capture the enemy land, but it is more difficult to keep those under total domination resisting enemy counter attacks. Russia’s progress against Ukraine is evidently slow. And continuous counter offensive by Ukrainian forces is gradually devastating supply lines further deteriorating the situation for Russia. It’s possible that Russia wants the pro-Russian forces take the responsibility of securing the area with the newly supplied T-62. Thus, Russia will not only be free of unnecessary burden but also will be in better position for further offensive operation.
But there’s a catch! Russia might have 2,500 T-62 in storage, but experts and analysts are not convinced with their availability. Only a small part of the fleet has been modernised and used in exercises. The large chunk is not preserved well. For decades they have been left to rust in open air. They have faced the scorching heat and blistering cold for a long time. So, it is highly possible majority of these are in unsustainable condition. Many of them were upgraded in the past with add-on armour or explosive reactive armour (ERA), new fire control system (FCS) and enhancing night fighting capability. But these can’t save T-62 from obsolescence in modern times. Thus, actual feasibility of the decision to recall old comrades to duty always will be in question.
In a nutshell, the actual reason behind such decision is still a matter of debate. But, one thing cannot be discarded that Russian losses are high and they are trying everything to overcome the challenges. And the possible best solution they came with to throw things in number. There’s a famous quote, often misattributed to the former Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin, “Quantity has a quality all its own”. It’s evident that Russia has historically tried to dominate the battlefield with the overwhelming numerical superiority. But while number definitely matters, it will find the feasibility only if there is a minimum quality as well. Otherwise, it might turn into a drawback instead! At the end, only one thing can be said that though the T-62 can not bring the situation overnight into Russia’s favour but will definitely provide some relief amid catastrophe.
Sankalan Chattopadhyay is a defence and strategic affairs analyst. The views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of https://strategicaffairsindia.in