Medium tank Al Faw / Enigma. Simple modernization of the T-55 in Iraqi style

Iraqi T-55 tank, abandoned during retreat, February 1, 1991. Photo by US Army

Soviet T-55 medium tanks were supplied to many foreign countries, and some of them over time developed their own options for modernizing such equipment. A very interesting project was created in Iraq in the late eighties, its task was to increase the level of protection. This version of the T-55 became known under the names Al Faw and Enigma.

Forced measures

Unfortunately, the exact history of Project Enigma is still unknown. Iraq during the reign of Saddam Hussein was a closed state and was in no hurry to disclose all the data on its military equipment. However, different sources of information are known to provide a general picture.

The emergence of the Al Faw project (the alleged Iraqi name) can be considered one of the consequences of the Iran-Iraq war. During the conflict, it became clear that the existing medium tanks could not effectively withstand modern anti-tank weapons. A radical update of the fleet of armored vehicles was required.

Medium tank Al Faw / Enigma.  Simple modernization of the T-55 in Iraqi style
First demonstration of the Type 69 tank with the Al Faw kit. Photo Tanks-encyclopedia.com

Own production of tanks was absent, and its launch was not possible. The purchase of new tanks abroad was ruled out due to the weakened economy. The only way out was to upgrade the cash machines on our own. Using certain solutions, it was possible to improve some of the characteristics of armored vehicles and thereby improve its combat capabilities.

The backbone of the Iraqi armored forces was the T-55 medium tank and its variants produced by several countries. Initially, such equipment was purchased from the ATS states, then the supply of Chinese copies began. By the end of the eighties, the army had a mixed fleet of 2.5-3 thousand tanks of different models. It was the T-55 and its derivatives that had to undergo modernization.

Features of the project

Probably, design work began at the final stage of the Iran-Iraq war. The project immediately ran into serious difficulties: the T-55 was morally obsolete and needed to be replaced or updated of all major systems. However, replacing weapons or fire control systems was impossible, and updating the power unit was extremely difficult. As a result, it was decided to do only by strengthening the armor of the frontal and side projections.


Full face of the serial “Enigma”. Figure Tanks-encyclopedia.com

The regular homogeneous armor of the hull and turret was supplemented with patch units for combined protection. Each such block was a box made of 5 mm steel with a special filling. The block contained 5-6 bags of 15 mm aluminum sheet, 4 mm steel sheet and 5 mm rubber sheet. Voids with a width of 20-25 mm remained between the bags. The blocks could have different shapes, corresponding to the installation site.

Larger overhead blocks were installed on the upper frontal part of the hull; they were distinguished by the presence of rectangular cutouts for towing hooks. A couple of smaller blocks were placed on the fenders. Eight blocks of different shapes and sizes were assembled into a screen covering the front half of the side and the chassis. The rest of the sides and stern had no additional protection.

The forehead and cheekbones of the turret received eight overhead blocks, four each to the right and left of the gun. The tower blocks had a beveled shape and formed a kind of skirt that increased the projection of the dome. The installation of additional armor on the front of the turret led to a change in balancing and threatened to jam the shoulder strap. For this reason, brackets with a rectangular counterweight block appeared at the stern.


Captured Enigma tank at the Bovingtom Tank Museum. Elements of strengthening the frontal projection are clearly visible. Photo Wikimedia Commons

It is believed that the set of additional armor was supposed to protect tanks from old and modern weapons. Combined armor on top of the standard homogeneous armor made it possible to count on protection against cumulative or sub-caliber armor-piercing shells of tank guns. Also, some sources mention that the Al Faw tank was able to withstand the hit of an unidentified MILAN missile. Early versions of this ATGM could penetrate 350-800 mm of homogeneous armor.

The protection of the tank was improved at the cost of a noticeable increase in combat mass. A set of blocks for the hull and turret weighed more than 4 tons. As a result, the combat weight of the modernized T-55 tank increased to 41 tons, and the power density dropped from 16.1 to 14.1 hp, which led to a slight decrease in mobility and patency.

Production mysteries

In 1989, at a military exhibition in Baghdad, a tank with an Al Faw kit was shown for the first time. It is curious that not the T-55 was used as a prototype, but its Chinese modernization “Type 69-II”. The show tank received additional armor blocks, but did not have a counterweight on the turret. This unit appeared a little later, probably based on test results.


The same car, rear view. A counterweight is installed on the tower. Photo Wikimedia Commons

According to the widespread version, the serial modernization of cash tanks started in the late eighties and lasted just a couple of years – in fact, between the two wars. Production volumes are unknown. According to various estimates, Iraq managed to modify at least five tanks. The upper limit of their number is estimated from eight to several dozen.

Subsequently, the study of destroyed or captured tanks showed that the modernization was carried out at a low technological level. Production standardization was minimal. The overhead blocks were different from each other and, probably, in each case, they were adjusted to the installation site. Interchangeability and maintainability left much to be desired.


The frontal block of the tower is raised, its internal structure is visible. Photo Wikimedia Commons

There is a version according to which a few tanks with improved protection were distributed between different units and used as commanders. This explains the fact that Al Faw subsequently worked in the same battle formations with other tanks of the T-55 family.

Tanks in battle

Al Faw first took part in hostilities at the end of January 1991 during the Battle of Khafji. In the attack on the territory of Saudi Arabia, approx. 100 Iraqi tanks, incl. a certain number of cars with enhanced booking. The military of the UN International Coalition had not previously met with such equipment, which is why they gave it the nickname Enigma (“Riddle” or “Mystery”). It is under this name that Iraqi tanks are widely known in the world.

During the fighting at Khafji, the Iraqi army lost 30 tanks of various types. The coalition was able to study several of the damaged Enigmas and draw conclusions. It turned out that overhead armor can protect a tank from being hit by one or another anti-tank weapon. However, a missile hit could lead to the disruption of the block from its place. In addition, one of the modernized tanks had a hole in the area of ​​the gun – an enemy shell hit the gap between the additional protection blocks.


Destroyed Iraqi tanks after the Battle of Khafji – T-55 and Al Faw. Photo Tanks-encyclopedia.com

Subsequently, Al Faw / Enigma tanks were repeatedly used in new battles of the Gulf War, but their operation was not massive due to the limited number. The technical and organizational superiority of the enemy led to certain results. The T-55 and Enigma suffered constant losses; some of the equipment in one state or another became trophies.

Limited successes

In general, the Iraqi project, known as Al Faw or Enigma, cannot be considered the best option for upgrading the T-55 medium tank. Due to a number of objective limitations, the project affected only one aspect of the combat vehicle, and its practical results were far from ideal.

As the events of the Gulf War showed, the tank with the Enigma armor really differed from the basic T-55, Type 59 or Type 69 for the better in terms of resistance to anti-tank weapons. Otherwise, it was almost the same vehicle with the same firepower and deteriorated mobility. In terms of the sum of its characteristics, the modernized T-55 was inferior to almost all enemy tanks.


T-55 Enigma at the Aberdeen Museum, USA. Photo Tanks-encyclopedia.com

From the point of view of the coalition troops, the tanks of the basic configuration and the modernized Enigma did not differ much from each other, and their defeat was “a matter of technique.” All this led to well-known results for both tanks and their operators.

According to known data, at least 4-5 T-55 and Type 59/69 tanks with additional booking packages have survived. Now they are in museums in the USA, Great Britain and other countries. All these machines were taken as trophies during the events of 1991. In 2003, there were no such trophies, which may indicate the termination of production in the early nineties.

Much of the information about the Enigma / Al Faw project is still a mystery and may never become known again. However, even the available information allows us to draw important conclusions. The Iraqi project has once again confirmed that the T-55 can be upgraded in different ways and get very interesting results. However, it was also shown that the modernization of equipment should be comprehensive. Strengthening armor minimally helped the “Enigms” in battles and actually did not affect the course of hostilities in any way.

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