Russia appears to be using old T-54/55 tanks as vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices in a new development.

Russia appears to be loading explosives into T-54/55 tanks and aiming them at Ukrainian positions on the battlefield before detonating them by remote control in an attempt to break through. A recent video appears to provide the first confirmation of a T-54/55 tank equipped for this purpose as a Vehicle-Borried Improvised Explosive Device (VBIED). However, the exact effectiveness of this effort is open to debate.

In a post on its Telegram channel over the weekend, the Russian Defense Ministry claimed that an unmanned tank had been used successfully to destroy a Ukrainian stronghold. The Ministry stated that the tank had been filled with “some 3.5 tons of TNT and five FAB-100 bombs” that were detonated by remote control. The FAB-100 is an air-dropped bomb that weighs about 220 pounds (100 kg).

The same Telegram message included quotes from a Russian tank commander callsign “Bernaul,” who was said to have been responsible for carrying out the attack.

“About 300 meters [980 feet] from the enemy, the tank operator put the vehicle on manual throttle, steering it [towards the enemy]. He jumped up and headed for the rear. I stayed behind to observe, and after the vehicle approached the enemy positions, I detonated it by radio control,” Bernaul said.

“The explosion was very serious; there were a lot of explosives (…) as a result, according to radio interception data, the enemy suffered significant losses,” the commander added.

The accompanying video, taken from a drone, shows the tank – either a T-54 or a T-55 – rolling over the ground riddled with shell holes, presumably towards the Ukrainian position. Before reaching the Ukrainian lines, the tank is stopped by an explosion. Multiple reports – including from pro-Russian bloggers – have claimed that mine likely caused it.

Finally, the tank explodes in a huge fireball, leaving a smoke cloud rising over the battlefield. Moments before the detonation, a characteristic flash is heard from the Ukrainian positions in front of the tank; it has been suggested that it was an anti-tank missile or a rocket-propelled grenade, but we cannot be certain. 

In any case, it was clearly an attempt to shoot down the IED, but it is not certain whether that shot caused the huge explosion or whether it had actually been set off by the previous mine or detonated by remote control. However, based on the timing and what is seen on the video, it was most likely a fatal shot from the Ukrainians that caused the detonation of the tank.

A prominent Russian military blogger by the name of Voennyi Osvedomitel provided the following account of the incident: “Unmanned kamikaze tank loaded with six tons of TNT dispatched to Ukrainian positions in Mariinka. Unfortunately, it didn’t make it, a mine blew it up».

Although we cannot confirm that the improvised explosive device was used in the Mariinka area, this part of the Donetsk region in south-eastern Ukraine has been the scene of heavy fighting since and before the start of the counter-offensive.

However, based on what the video appears to show and various accounts of the incident, it seems unlikely that the IED was as successful as the Russian Defense Ministry originally claimed.

On the other hand, using a tank-based improvised explosive device is a noteworthy fact.

Using armored vehicles of any type as VBIEDs, offers a much higher degree of survivability compared to civilian armored vehicles, increasing the likelihood that they will hit their target. At the same time, the power reserves and mobility of these types of vehicles allow them to carry large payloads of explosives and traverse difficult terrain.

It is highly possible that pro-Ukrainian elements used an improvised explosive device of a very different type to carry out the Kerch bridge bombing in October last year, and much evidence suggests that an improvised explosive device transported on a truck was most likely responsible. However, it remains unclear if the driver was unaware of the lethal cargo or if he was actually at the controls of what was a vehicle-borne suicide improvised explosive device (SVBIED), the type used widely by ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

On the Russian side, there has been at least one other official report of a VBIED based on an armored fighting vehicle recently used against Ukrainian forces.

This weekend, the Russian Defense Ministry claimed that its soldiers had adapted an MT-LB-tracked armored fighting vehicle as a VBIED. Loaded with FAB-100 bombs and UR-77 demining charges, the Ministry claims that the MT-LB was used against a Ukrainian position. A video provided by the ministry does not show the results of the attack, so it is unclear whether it was effective or not.

However, the Russian use of VBIEDs could be a new emerging tactic, especially as Ukrainian forces continue to gain ground in their counter-offensive.

While any type of older armored vehicle would potentially be a suitable candidate for adaptation as a VBIED, the fact that the T-54/55 series of tanks are being used in this way is certainly interesting.

In March this year, The War Zone reviewed some of the earliest evidence that examples of the T-54/55 tank – the first prototype of which was completed in 1945 – were headed for Ukraine. At the time, it was unclear whether these tanks would actually end up on the Ukrainian front, though it certainly seemed to point to the increasingly desperate measures being taken by Moscow to deal with its alarming combat vehicle losses in the conflict.

Thomas Newdick