Tuesday, July 26, 2011

US-Built Tanks in Foreign Service - Iran

This piece is actually relatively old. I wrote it a fair bit ago for another website; however, seeing as how this summer has been relatively unproductive so far, I figured I'd share it here as well:

US-Built Tanks in Foreign Service - Iran

Imperial Iran
Imperial Iran, ruled since 1941 by Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, emerged in the first days of the cold war as a Western-ally with larger regional ambitions than its military could then support. This, combined with the Eisenhower doctrine which encouraged direct assistance to nations in order to help sway them away from communism, led Iran to turn towards America to mechanize their Army.

Before this the Imperial Iranian Army (IIA) relied primarily on light infantry and pack animals to move their forces. Procurements following WWII included 15 M-4 Sherman tanks ordered in 1950 and 100 M-24 light tanks in 1953. These would be supplemented by an unknown number of M-36B1's purchased at an equally unknown time. The M-4s would later go on figure prominently in the 1953 coup against then-prime-minister Mohammad Mosaddeq (fig. 1). Despite these modest advances, the IIA still largely lacked mechanization.
Fig. 1: M-4s in front of the National Police HQ following the coup against Mossadeq (MSNBC/AP)

After 1953 Iran would grow closer to the United States and, considering both the Shah's ambitions and his growing oil revenue, it should have been no surprise that the newest generations of Patton tanks were on the top of the Shah's shopping list. This included 400 ex-US M-47s in 1957 and 260 M-48A1s in 1960. In fact, rapid mechanization of the IIA was of such importance to the Shah that all through 1964 US state department papers touched on the issue numerous times, saying in June: “We understand that the Shah's greatest area of concern at present is in the replacement of tanks.” and during a visit by the Shah to the US, Robert Komer of the National security council staff wrote to President Johnson that: “Though we've kept telling the Shah that his real problems are internal not external, and that reform is first on the agenda, he keeps reverting to the military toys he loves. We've convinced him there isn't much chance of Soviet attack, so now he's talking up an Arab threat as his excuse. His main interest just now is replacing his aging M-47 tanks. M-48A3s like the Israelis want would be cheaper and more than ample, but he wants our new M-60s.” Iran would later go on to order 460 brand-new M-60A1's, the first of which began arriving in March of 1965. The IIA also operated a number, thought to be around a hundred, of M-41 light tanks during the 1960's-1970's.

To support these tanks the IIA also attempted to maintain parallel infrastructure. In 1970 Bowen-McLaughlin-York Inc. built a production plant in the Khuzestan province in south-western Iran for the purpose of upgrading Iran's M-47s and M-48s. Once this plant was online, all M-47s were upgraded to the M-47M standard which was only used by Iran and it's neighbor, Pakistan. The upgrade involved replacing the assistant driver who sat in the bow next to the driver, with additional main-gun ammunition, as well as importing several features from the M-60A1 such as the fire-control elements and the AVDS-1790 diesel engine, the latter giving the rear of the tank a distinct ‘oversized’ look compared to early model M-47s. Iranian M-47's have both cylindrical and ‘T’ shaped muzzle breaks. The M-48A1's were meanwhile upgraded, to M-48A5 status which involved replacing the 90 mm gun with the 105 mm M68 from the M-60A1 as well as the associated fire-control elements. It is unclear as to when and in what order these tanks were upgraded.

Near the tail end of its lifespan, Imperial Iran began to heavily shift toward the UK for its armor needs, ordering 707 Chieftain MBTs in 1971, and 1000 Scorpion light tanks in 1976. They also provided funding for the “Shir 2” program which was intended for Iran and later evolved into the Challenger tank.

The Islamic Revolution
When the Islamic Revolution of 1979 expelled the monarchy and replaced it with a theocracy hostile toward the west, it was estimated that 240 M-47Ms, 160 M-48A5s and all of the M-60A1s remained in service, although many of the remaining early-model Pattons remained in storage. However, in the summer of 1980, with the war with Iraq still unforeseen, the newly overhauled Islamic Republic of Iran Army (IRIA) was suffering from all the ills of an army caught in revolution; purges, desertion and simple negligence had reduced the once mighty army to only around 50% fighting strength.

The War with Iraq
In September of 1980, on the eve of war with Iraq, the IRIA was still in poor shape, suffering from an acute lack of organization. When Iraqi tanks crossed the border on September 22nd, US-made tanks, along with Chieftains were some of the first sent to repulse the attack. Specifically, the 16th armored division based out of Qazvin, were equipped with three brigades of M-60A1 MBTs, while 1 brigade of the 77th mechanized infantry division, located near the border of Turkmenistan and Afghanistan, were equipped with M-47M medium tank. Later, the 88th armored brigade, headquartered in the Sistan-Baluchistan province on the border with Pakistan, would be expanded to a full division and equipped with Patton tanks, though at the beginning of the war it was only equipped with Chieftains. The 37th armored brigade in Shiraz in south-eastern Iran was also equipped with Patton tanks, mostly M-60A1's, but with a number of M-47's as well. A number of M-36B1 and M-24 tanks were also deployed with the 151st infantry battalion under the 92nd armored division, though in a purely secondary capacity. The older tanks, around 80 in total, were positioned at border forts around the Khorramshahr area, sometimes buried right up to the turret in order to act as pillboxes. It is possible other forts along the border had the same type of set-up as well.
Fig. 2: M-47M. Note the enlarged engine compartment which carries the AVDS-1790 as well as the T-muzzle break and the sand bags being used as appliqué armor. (Unknown)

Unfortunately outside of Iran, the war, despite spanning 8 years, having a death-count in the millions, and with intervention from large portions of the world, remains relatively unknown. To make this worse, the few works in English that have been written about the war are often blatantly false! Furthermore, what is available from the Iranian side is almost exclusively from the IRGC perspective, which, while interesting, doesn't really touch on the performance of US-made armor which was operated by the regular army.

In the first years of the war, Iran's Pattons saw the most use of the entire war, often playing instrumental roles in counterattacks and defensive operations. For instance, the first major counterattack by the Iranians was the Battle for Dezful, alternately called Operation Nasr, was launched on January 5th 1981 by the 1st and 3rd brigades from the 16th armored division, equipped with M-60A1 tanks. The 16th armored division, supported by contingents from the 92nd armored division (based out of the south-western province of Khuzestan), spearheaded a push aimed at breaking the siege of Abadan near the border. Facing the Iranians were the 9th Iraqi armored division, 5th mechanized infantry division, and the 31st independent infantry brigade. But perhaps most importantly, unbeknownst to the Iranians, this force had been reinforced by the Iraqi 12th armored division which had been shifted from elsewhere in order to recover from previous fighting. Following promising progress on the first day of the operation when the 1st and 3rd brigade from the 16th made significant headway, they were soon beset on 3 sides by the numerically superior Iraqi armored divisions who made quick work of the two brigades. The 16th armored division was decimated by the counter-attack, losing upward of 100 M-60 and Chieftain tanks to enemy fire while being forced to abandon many more. Though it should be noted that initial Iraqi claims of capturing more then 214 tanks are probably false.
Fig. 3: M-36B1 originally captured by Iraq during the 1980s only to be recaptured by US forces in 2003. Talk about having an adventurous life! (Geoff Walden)

At any rate, information about Patton performance during the war is scare. However, on a whole, performance seems to have been a mixed bag. The M-60A1 was a favored tank by Iranian tank commanders who valued its high mobility compared to the Chieftain whose engine was notoriously underpowered and temperamental in the desert heat. However, the main flaw of the M-60A1, and in fact, most of the tanks used in the war, was their vulnerability to anti-armor weapons. Iran's solution to this was to increase the amount of infantry support for armor maneuvers. However, the shift to a light-infantry dominated force by Iran was also a function of sheer lack of any armor to field.

This brings us to one the most enduring myths of armored combat during the Iran-Iraq war – that neither side could effectively use armor for maneuvers. While Iran undoubtedly was hampered by its lack of a coherent command and control organization, competing factions and political purges, the first days of the war saw large contributions by armored forces.

However as the war progressed and Iran begin to lose more and more tanks without a way to replace them, armored formations became a rare sight. Iran's stock of US-built tanks were hit no less hard then their main MBT, the Chieftain. Retired M-47's and M-48A5's that had been sitting in storage were quickly entered into service. Iran also sent out their procurement agents across the world with orders to buy up spare parts and anything at all related to their stocks of M-47's, M-48's and M-60's. While it is unsubstantiated, it is rumored that Iran purchased 80 M-48A3's from Greece, another 80 M-48A3s Vietnam and possibly more from elsewhere.
Fig. 4: One of the few available pictures of an IRIAA M-48A5. (Saff Magazine)

Iran emerged from the Iran-Iraq war with a shell of a military, in addition to the loss of hundreds of thousands of young men, their economy had been crippled, and combined with international isolation, the farthest possible option for the IRIA was to completely overhaul their army with brand new armor. Despite a modest procurement of T-72M1 and T-72S tanks from ex-Soviet states, the IRIA remained largely dependent on its pre-revolutionary stock of Western armor.

Post-war reorganization saw the 16th armored division with Chieftains, while the M-60A1s are most likely assigned to the 81st armored division in Kermanshah, as well as with an unknown mechanized infantry division. Meanwhile, the 77th mechanized infantry division on the border with Afghanistan still use the M-47M. The 88th armored, now a full division, use M-47M and M-48A5 tanks, favoring the latter.
Fig. 5: M-60A1 on manoeuvre during the Tondar-5 wargames in 2004. (FNA)

Surprisingly, Iran’s Pattons aren’t the only US-built tanks that are still in service. A number of “Korean-War era vintage” tanks are rumored to be deployed on Persian Gulf islands. This could a number of tanks including the M-4, or even the M-47. One possible location, as indicated by Google Earth imagery, is on the south west tip of Abu Musa Island. The island is located approximately halfway between Iran and the UAE and is a source of dispute between the two countries. While this is undoubtedly a strange role for a tank, they could be intended to repulse an amphibious attack to reclaim the island.

The Future
Though Iran's Patton tanks are undoubtedly obsolete, even by regional standards, they will continue to serve in the IRIA if only because there are no other replacements; this is in turn is due to a stagnant domestic industry and a reluctance to seek foreign assistance.

Almost no information is available about the current status of either the M-47M or the M-48A5. One of the few pictures of the M-47M shows it equipped with a pitifully small number of Kontakt-1 ERA bricks (~10 along either fender) along with a commercial security camera mounted on the turret with a length of metal pipe. This ad hoc ‘upgrade’ is most likely a local modification.
Fig. 6: M-47M in Mashhad (Jamjam)

On a more promising note, Iran has developed an upgrade for their M-60A1s called the “Samsam” which was first seen during Armed Forces Day 2010. Observable features of the upgrade includes roughly 54 Kontakt-1 type ERA bricks on the turret sides, two banks of four smoke-dischargers on either side of the turret and the addition of an EFCS-3 fire control system (the gunners sight is visible directly in front of commander’s cupola). At the left-rear of the turret is a mast-mounted laser warning receiver paired with dazzler/jammers on either side of the gun mantlet.

A different variant was shown at Sacred Defense Week 2010 and Armed Forces Day 2011 that featured ERA twice as thick as the normal K-1. While the ERA placement varies with each parade, it’s often sloppy with large areas across the frontal arc uncovered.
Fig. 7: Samsam - note the ERA brick thickness (M-ATF)

It is very likely that the Samsam is a development of their older M-60 upgrade program offered for export. While it lacks the ERA bricks and laser-warning system of the Samsam, Iran’s Ministry of Defense Export Catalogue does offer some insight on what other features exist, but are not readily apparent to the naked eye.

Specifically, this includes the replacement of the driver’s M-24 IR periscope which necessitated an IR searchlight fitted above the main gun, with a new night-driving system, probably belonging to the 2nd generation passive “Shabaviz-1/2” series manufactured by the Iran Electronics Industry (IEI). The 105 mm main gun is gyroscopically stabilized in both axis and is attached to the EFCS-3 fire-control system mentioned above. This system, manufactured by Fotona in Slovenia during the 1990s, while not ultra-modern, is a generational leap compared to anything else in Iran’s inventory. Because of this, the system has found itself being used not just in M-60A1 upgrades, but also with T-54/55, T-72, and Chieftain MBTs. It is manufactured, without a license, by IEI under the name “KAT-72”; a result of Fotona cutting relations with Iran following international sanctions. The EFCS-3 features a digital ballistic computer, 2nd generation night-sights, and a laser range-finder.

Widespread adoption of these upgrades is desperately needed if Iran’s M-60s are to remain at all relevant in the years to come. The United States demonstrated that modern M-60A3s with new fire-control-systems, gun stabilization and ammunition could still keep up with early-generation M1s during Operation Desert Storm. Unfortunately for Iran it is more then likely that projects like the Samsam are limited to technology demonstrators or prototypes and have not yet been applied on a wide scale. However, since any image of IRIA armor is rare, let alone images of upgraded ones, definitive conclusions cannot be made one way or another.
Fig. 8: Iran's 105 mm APFSDS used with the M68 gun (IIPA)

The basic Patton design also serves as the basis for Iran’s indigenous tank design, the Zulfiqar. (see separate entry on this blog) The first incarnation, the Zulfiqar-1 is heavily based on the M-48A5, with the hull being almost a direct copy, the only difference being a thicker M-60A1 style glacis plate. Internally, the configuration is also similar, with many of the controls, including the turret traversing handle and backup manual ballistic data calculator taken directly from the M-48A5. The later Zulfiqar-2/3, though a radical departure from the first model, still can’t completely hide its heritage. The hull has been lengthened (with one additional road-wheel) and now features side-skirts, but is still fundamentally based on the Patton design.

Iran has also shown an affinity for the AVDS-1790 series engine which has been reported to have been upgraded to 1,000 hp and can be found in the Zulfiqar prototypes as well as possibly in the Mobarez upgrade program for Chieftain tanks.

Global Security
Military Photos Forums
Iran Defense Forum
ACIG Database
SIPRI Arms Database
Immortal: A Military History of Iran and It's Armed Forces
Shahyad - “Armor in the Imperial Iranian Army”
State Department Archive
Military History Magazine
Osprey Books
The AFV Database
Google Earth


  1. Great read Galen . BTW I thought this might interest you :


  2. Very enlightening article on American made MBT's during Iran-Iraq war. I want to comment on the case of "...Iran purchased 80 M-48A3's from Greece...". I am from Greece and as i know the American made weapons who are/were in service in the Greek Army, can be sold or donated by Greece, only after authorization from the U.S. So I think that after 1979, and after the invasion of terrorists and hostage taking of the U.S. embassy in Tehran, such authorization from the U.S. government could not be afforded.

  3. Since the above subject was written we have seen the M-47m upgraded to Sabalan standard with a new shape and apparently a 105mm main gun, leaving aside the merits of the up-grade for a moment there are 2 observations about the vehicle I would like to make, 1. the drivers hatch seems to be rather constricted by the turret and it would be interesting to see if the drivers hatch can be opened when the turret is in the 10 o clock position and 2 given the existence of ERA tiles on other vehicles I'm surprised that the Sabalan dosent appear to be issued with retraining bolts on the vehicle for ERA ?

    1. Greetings "a green voter"

      1. Yup, that does appear to be the case. I've heard this complaint about some other tanks as well (e.g. the M1). Although, to be fair, I don't know to what degree this is or is not a real world problem. Thinking about the videos I've seen from Syria where crews have had to bail, I'd imagine it might be a decent concern, but just cant say for sure.

      2. Your guess is as good as mine. We've never seen them on the Zulfiqar, but they got stuck on the Samsam, so clearly the NEZAJA's Research-and-Self-Sufficiency-Jihad have no problem doing so if they want to.