David Porter on military history’s doomed inventions
By the early 1960s, Soviet T-54/55 tanks were finding themselves outclassed by the British 105mm gun that was fitted to most new NATO main battle tanks. The T-62 was entering service, but would do little more than achieve parity with the 105mm-armed Centurion and M60.
Soviet military intelligence was also becoming increasingly concerned about the development of the British Chieftain, whose thick armour and 120mm gun threatened to make the T-62 obsolescent.
It was clear that an entirely new type was needed to match the new generation of Western tanks, and the Soviets decided to back the futuristic design proposed by Alexander Morozov, who had been responsible for the development of the T-34/85 and the T-54/55.
Although its ‘high-tech’ features, such as an auto-loader for the main armament and its ultra-compact multi-fuel engine, were superficially impressive, they proved to be complex to maintain and were highly unreliable.
One Soviet engineer assessed the tank’s controls as being more complex than those of a jet fighter. But whereas jets were piloted by officers who underwent several years of training, the T-64 was usually commanded by a poorly educated conscript NCO who would only serve for two years
A step too far
The Soviet defector Viktor Suvorov, whose regiment was one of the first to be issued with the T-64 in 1967, recalled that ‘the engine itself was not only bad, it was disgusting. Several teams of workers and engineers, and a gang of designers, were sent along simply to maintain our one tank regiment. But they could not hope to solve problems arising from the engine’s design, try as they might.’
The prototypes’ engines had a life of barely 90 hours’ running time, and even when the tank entered service they had a 35% failure rate. Few lasted much more than 200 hours. One of the main culprits was the air-cleaner system, which had to be repeatedly redesigned.
Suvorov was equally scathing in his assessment of the sighting system for the smooth-bore main armament (initially a 115mm gun, soon replaced by a 125mm version). He called it ‘an all-powerful gun, which always missed its target.’
However, probably the worst aspect of the armament was the auto-loader, which gave a theoretical rate of fire of one round every 13 seconds. In practice, it too broke down with monotonous regularity, forcing the gunner to awkwardly reach around it to manually load the gun, reducing the rate of fire to barely one round per minute.
Even when it did work as intended, early models posed a significant risk to the turret crew, as there were no safety features and it was all too easy for clothing or equipment to be caught in the mechanism, jamming the auto-loader and seriously injuring the victim.
The fundamental problem was that the tank was ‘a step too far’ for the Soviet technology of the 1960s. It took years of work before the design was finally transformed into a reliable combat vehicle.
This article was published in the April 2020 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.