The USSR recognized the importance of mechanization of its armed forces and in November 1929 established the Office of Mechanization and Motorization Red Army (UMM RKKA by its Russian acronym) which was charged with the development of combat vehicles, and establishing their nomenclature. The Red Army's vehicle designation system was undoubtedly the simplest and most logical among the major tank armies, consisting solely in a functional prefix followed by a sequential number separated by a dash. The functional designators were acronyms of the type of vehicle involved, such as the T-34 (Tank) or BA-27 (Broneavtomobil). By the late 1930s, the number of new vehicle designs entering service caused the system to have a considerable number of exceptions to the basic rules. For example, new families of tanks were named after Soviet leaders such as the KV series of heavy tanks named after defense commissar Kliment Voroshilov and later the IS series named after Joseph (Iosif in Russian) Stalin himself. Each of these had their own sequence separate from T-series tanks. Numbers were also skipped, such as the T-50/T-60/T-70 light tanks jumping the sequence in tens. Well-known vehicles were often used as the basis of these skips, such as the successor to the iconic T-34 being the T-44 and later, the postwar T-54. A special case for designations were self-propelled guns, which typically made reference to the gun caliber such as the SU-76 (76-mm gun) and ISU-152 (152-mm gun), though this was also used sporadically in tanks such as the KV-85 (85-mm gun). Postwar self-propelled anti-aircraft guns also had a unique designation which included the caliber as well as the number of guns, in the case of the ZSU-23-4 this meant four 23-mm autocannon.
This system largely remained intact in the postwar period, though there was a considerable number of new vehicle types that entered service. Again, it was not uncommon for numerical sequences to be arbitrary. For example, the BMP series of infantry fighting vehicles were numbered from BMP-1 to BMP-3 whereas the BTR series of armored personnel carriers were largely numbered in tens, with a further oddity being the BTR-152 which succeeded the BTR-40 but whose number likely made reference to the vehicle it shared components with (ZIS-151). Some vehicles did not have a numerical designator, such as the MT-LB tracked APC but these were rare. With respect to the T-series of tanks, it is often believed that the number is a reference to its year of development but this is unlikely as tanks like the T-54 and T-80 entered service well before their numbers would suggest. Rather, it is more likely that both the T-54 and T-64 were seen as successors of the wartime T-34, not unlike how each new Boeing airliner makes reference to the 707. In contrast, the T-62 and T-72 were seen as incremental developments rather than true new generation designs. Continued references to the venerable T-34 were probably seen as no longer fashionable by the 1970s which prompted a return to designating each new tank by a multiple of ten starting with the T-80. Nevertheless, it does appear that there is at least some intentional reference to the year of design, at least loosely, given that the numbering scheme reset in the 21st century as evidenced by the T-14 (which first appeared in 2015).
With regard to names, many of Russia's newest combat vehicles appear to be designated entirely by name such as the Kurganetz-25 IFV/APC or the Typhoon series of MRAPs. Previous to this, Soviet and Russian vehicles were almost never named with the most notable exception being self-propelled artillery which, somewhat sinisterly, were named after flowers.
Self-propelled artillery was developed relatively late into the Cold War and by that time it became common to refer to them by their GRAU index number (explained below). An exception was rocket artillery which retained their BM designation, whose number made reference to the model number of the rocket it used. This number often, but not always, made reference to the caliber, for example, the BM-14, BM-24, and BM-30 carried 140-mm, 240-mm, and 300-mm rockets respectively. Towed artillery, unlike combat vehicles, were designated on the basis of the factory (which usually had their own design bureaus) that developed them. For example, the D that was widely used in many wartime and postwar guns referred to Factory No. 9. However, they also retained a longer form designation which made reference to the gun caliber and year, such as the D-20 being also known as the 152-mm gun-howitzer M1955.
Variants of World War II-era vehicles were designated in various ways, such as the use of an M (Modifitsirovannyy) suffix to denote a modernization or upgrade, such as the SU-76M. For vehicles with long production runs, it was also common to refer to the year of the modernization, such as the KV-1 Model 1939 or simply M1939. The T-34 was notable for its 85-mm gun uprade which resulted in the T-34-85 while the earlier 76-mm models were referred to as the T-34-76 retroactively. The postwar period gradually moved away from the yearly model numbers in favor of sequential or functional suffixes, or in some cases (confusingly) both. As such, the base T-72 tank was followed by the T-72A, which in turn was followed by the T-72M. Then came the T-72B which has been the base of most current variants in service. Subvariants are typically designated by a number, such as the T-72M1. A further suffix can also be added when needed, as is the case of the T-72B3M which is the most current version of this tank. It was common for Soviet (and Russian) vehicles to incorporate incremental improvements that did not warrant a new designation. In these cases, these new versions are distinguished by their obrazets ('model') number which reflects their year of initial production. For example, the T-72B obr. 1989 (or 1989g) refers to a later version of the T-72B with Kontakt-5 reactive armor that was introduced in 1989. It is common in Western sources to follow NATO conventions and simply refer to this as a model number, as in T-72B M1989, which is the way these are designated in this site.
During development, many Soviet combat vehicles and components were given an Ob'yekt ('Object') Number, this being something akin to an ordinance designation. These were often (but not always) standardized by batches being assigned to the different design bureaus and factories. The T-55 tank, for example, was designated Ob'yekt 155 during development. Variants were often carried over from the Ob'yekt number to the production designation, thus Ob'yekt 155AM would become the T-55AM. This was not always the case, for example, Ob'yekt 172M-1 would become the T-72A and in some cases an entirely new Ob'yekt number was assigned, such as Ob'yekt 184 becoming the T-72B.
The following tables lists the most well known functional prefixes used since 1929. A list of Ob'yekt numbers can be found here.
|ASU||Aviadesantnaya Samokhodnaya Ustanovka||Airborne self-propelled gun|
|BM||Boyevaya Mashina||Fighting vehicle (used on MRLs)|
|BMD||Boyevaya Mashina Desanta||Airborne fighting vehicle|
|BMP||Boyevaya Mashina Pekhoty||Infantry fighting vehicle|
|BPM||Boyevaya Pogranichnaya Mashina||Border guard fighting vehicle|
|BRDM||Bronirovannaya Razvedyvatelnaya Dozornaya Mashina||Armored reconnaissance and patrol vehicle|
|BT||Bystrokhodnyy Tank||Fast moving (cavalry) tank|
|GAZ||Gorkovsky Avtomobilny Zavod||Gorky automobile factory|
|IS||Iosif Stalin||Joseph Stalin heavy tank|
|ISU||Istrebitelnaja Samokhodnaya Ustanovka||IS-based self-propelled gun|
|KAZ||Kutaissky Avtomobilny Zavod||Kutaisi automobile factory|
|KhPZ||Kharkovskiy Parovozostroitelnyy Zavod||Kharkov locomotive factory|
|KhT||Khimicheskiy Tank||Chemical (flamethrowing) tank|
|KV||Kliment Voroshilov||Kliment Voroshilov heavy tank|
|MAZ||Minsky Avtomobilny Zavod||Minsk automobile factory|
|MT-LB||Mnogotselevoy Tyagach Legky Bronirovanny||Multipurpose towing vehicle - light armored|
|PT||Plavayushchiy Tank||Floating (amphibious) tank|
|SAU||Samokhodnaya Artilleriyskaya Ustanovka||Self-propelled artillery mount|
|STZ||Stalingradskiy Traktornyy Zavod||Stalingrad tractor factory|
|SU||Samokhodnaya Ustanovka||Self-propelled mount|
|TOS||Tyazhëlaya Ognemëtnaya Sistema||Heavy flamethrower (thermobaric) system|
|ZiF||Zavod imeni Frunze||Factory named after Frunze|
|ZiL||Zavod imeni Likhachev||Factory named after Likhachev (ex-ZiS)|
|ZiS||Zavod imeni Stalina||Factory named after Stalin|
|ZSU||Zenitnaya Samokhodnaya Ustanovka||Self-propelled anti-aircraft gun|
The Main Artillery Directorate (GAU) has been in charge of administering Russia's artillery and munitions arsenals since the 19th century, and in 1956 was renamed the Main Missile and Artillery Directorate (GRAU). The GRAU runs an index that covers virtually all of Soviet and Russian munitions, firearms, artillery and rocket systems (both tactical and strategic including space), and has been used exclusively for the designation of these systems since the 1950s. The GRAU index begins with a number which refers to the broad category of the system in question, with 2 being the number for artillery and 9 being the number for army missiles and rockets (including multiple rocket launchers or MRLs). This is then followed by a letter which indicates the subtype of system in question followed by a number that indicates model. Thus, the 2A range includes towed artillery like the 2A36 Giatsint-B, the 2S range includes all self-propelled guns such as the 2S19 Msta-S. Confusingly, MLRs fall in the 9A, 9K, and 9P ranges, although unlike gun-based artillery, they retain the traditional BM designation: the Uragan MRL, for example, has the GRAU index 9P140 but is also known as the BM-27. Some notable vehicles, like the TOS-1 thermobaric rocket launcher, do not have GRAU index numbers although this is likely because they are not formally assigned to army units. Perhaps because GRAU index numbers were more complex than traditional designations, artillery systems were almost always named unlike other combat vehicles.
There was some overlap between the increasing use of GRAU index numbers in the 1960s and the traditional functional designations, particularly for towed artillery. For example, the 2A18 122-mm howitzer was still given the D-30 designation. Many self-propelled guns were also named, receiving the rather un-warlike names of flowers.
A list of the most common GRAU index ranges can be found here.