Categories
Modern Russian Armor

BMP-1-30

Russia (1997)
Upgraded infantry fighting vehicle – 1 prototype

The Soviet BMP-1 infantry fighting vehicle is a historically very significant vehicle, responsible for popularizing the IFV concept on a massive scale worldwide. The vehicle itself remains to this day the most produced infantry fighting vehicle in history, with about 40,000 produced in total in the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia, not counting various copies which could bring up that number by several thousands.

This ubiquitous status of the BMP-1, as well as the vehicle being long obsolete has led to a number of upgrade packages being studied and offered. Post-Soviet collapse Russia, which inherited thousands of BMP-1s, was the source of several of these. Likely the simplest to undertake, yet a still non-negligible upgrade, was created by mating the BMP-1 hull with a turret from the BMD-2 airborne IFV. The resulting vehicle was the BMP-1-30.

The BMP-1-30 during trials. Source: https://strangernn.livejournal.com/

The IFV of the Soviet World: Brief Summary of the BMP-1

Object 765, which would eventually become the BMP-1. Source: Solyankin, Pavlov, Pavlov, Zheltov. Otechestvennye boevye mashiny vol. 3

Generally considered to be the first modern infantry fighting vehicle, the BMP-1 was designed by the Chelyabinsk Tractor Plant in the early 1960s as the Object 765. It was adopted by the Red Army in 1965. Mass-production began under the name of BMP-1 in 1966.

The BMP-1 was a welded hull, amphibious armored fighting vehicle mounting a central one-man turret armed with the 2A28 Grom 73 mm low-pressure smoothbore gun and fed by an autoloader mechanism. The vehicle also featured a coaxial PKT 7.62 mm machine gun and a 9M14 Malyutka missile launcher mounted on top of the Grom’s barrel. To the rear, a troop compartment allowed the vehicle to transport 8 dismounts.

When first pushed into service in the late 1960s, the BMP-1 was a major addition to the Red Army’s arsenal, and despite the existence of some previous vehicles, such as the West German HS.30, it is often considered to be the first truly modern Infantry Fighting Vehicle (IFV) to be adopted in massive numbers. Nevertheless, it was for the Eastern Bloc at least. The vehicle could be used to support armored assaults in all types of terrains thanks to its amphibious capacities, and was notably able to carry a section of infantry even in heavily contaminated terrain, which would typically be expected after the use of NBC (Nuclear, Biological, Chemical) weapons. Support for accompanying tanks as well as dismounting infantry would be provided by a 73 mm Grom infantry support gun and a Malyutka missile launcher, with four missiles stored inside the vehicle. This was a considerable evolution in comparison to Armored Personnel Carriers (APCs), which typically mounted little more than a heavy machine gun. In the Soviet Union, production of the BMP-1 lasted until 1982, with more than 20,000 vehicles produced. Almost equally large quantities were manufactured in Czechoslovakia as the BVP-1, while India produced a number under license, and a number of countries would produce more or less identical copies (Type 86 in China, Boragh in Iran, Khatim in Sudan). Operated in massive numbers by the Soviet Army and widely exported, the BMP-1 became perhaps the most ubiquitous infantry fighting vehicle in the world, despite a more modern type, the BMP-2, entering service in the early 1980s.

Russians BMP-1s in a Post-Soviet World

After years of a decline that the best efforts of various Soviet leaders could not prevent, the Soviet Union finally collapsed in December 1991, after most of its Warsaw Pact allies had gone their own way in 1989 and various Soviet Republics started declaring their independence from 1991 onward.

Russia, the largest, most populated, and most industrialized Republic of the former union, inherited most of the Red Army’s armament. Although the most significant aspect of this would likely be exclusive control of the USSR’s tremendous nuclear arsenal, it would also manifest in tens of thousands of armored fighting vehicles produced and fielded during the Soviet years. This included massive numbers of BMP-1s, perhaps up to ten thousand. The BMP-1 was at this point already fairly obsolete, with its 73 mm Grom main gun notably proving fairly puny and anemic, with a short effective range and only limited armor-piercing or high-explosive potential provided from its small shells. While some Soviet efforts, such as the BMP-1P upgrade (notably replacing the old Malyutka ATGM by a more modern Konkurs or Fagot ATGM and adding Tucha smoke dischargers), had been applied to part of the fleet, it nonetheless remained obvious that the BMP-1 was antiquated. More modern options were already in existence. The BMP-2 was in large-scale service for around a decade by the time of the collapse of the USSR and was armed with a 30 mm autocannon, far more useful than the Grom. The new BMP-3, a recent addition to the Soviet arsenal when the USSR collapsed, provided both a 30 mm autocannon and a 100 mm gun firing high-explosive shells and ATGMs, overall proving to be a very modern option. As such, it would appear the BMP-1 could perhaps entirely have been relegated to reserve use as these new vehicles entered service.

A BMP-1 alongside a T-72, abandoned by Russian forces and captured by the Chechens in Grozny during the First Chechen War, August 1996. While groundbreaking in its time, the BMP-1 was very unsuitable for the kind of urban warfare which Russia would face against the Chechens. Source: reddit

The 1990s, however, quickly turned into a dreadful decade of economic collapse, widespread corruption, violence, and chaos for Russia, putting potential plans of a quick modernization of the army into disarray. The production of many high-end vehicles designed towards the later years of the Soviet Union, such as the T-72BU, which would be redesignated into the T-90, or the BMP-3, had to be slowed down or prioritized towards exports instead of domestic use, meaning old vehicles such as the BMP-1 proved to be longer-lived in Russian service. In these economically trying times, potential upgrades for Soviet vehicles used abroad could also potentially be a lucrative prospect for Russian design bureaus to try and exploit. At the same time, the Russian Army was desperately cash-strapped, so an affordable upgrade could have had some potential.

The BMP-1-30

The BMP-1-30 appears to date from 1997. It is not associated with any single design bureau, and considering how its creation may have been a very easy affair, it is possible it was simply a creation of the Russian Army.

Replacing the Grom main armament has been the focus of many of the more extensive BMP-1 upgrades which have been created. For this, many different solutions have been studied. For example, in the same period as the BMP-1-30 was created, the city of Tula’s KBP Instrument Design Bureau offered a BMP-1 refitted with a new turret, armed with a powerful 30 mm 2A72 autocannon as well as new Kornet ATGMs. However, one would not necessarily need to create a new turret to improve upon the BMP-1.

A BMD-2. Introduced in the 1980s, the vehicle is still widely used by Russia to this day, and a BMD-2M upgrade program in the same vein as the BMP-2M Berezhok has even been initiated, despite more advanced models of BMDs (BMD-3, BMD-4, and BMD-4M) entering service beforehand. Source: Reddit.
A side view of the BMP-1-30. As can be observed, the hull is identical to a classic BMP-1. Source: topwar.ru

By the 1990s, a number of new IFVs had appeared. Among them was the BMD-2, the second in the BMD line of airborne infantry fighting vehicles. The first BMD, the BMD-1, featured the same turret and armament as the BMP-1. However, when the USSR moved from Grom-armed to 30 mm-armed IFVs, turret commonality could no longer be achieved between the BMP and BMD, as the new BMP-2 introduced a two-man turret with a larger turret ring. Another turret was thus designed for the BMD-2, which used the same 2A42 autocannon and 9P135 ATGM launcher as the BMP-2 but was smaller, retaining only one crewmember and, crucially, the same 1,380 mm turret ring as the turret of the BMP-1 and BMD-1. In the context of the 1990s, this suddenly made the BMD-2’s turret a really suitable turret in order to upgrade BMP-1s, as it featured superior armament while having the same turret ring diameter, greatly simplifying the refit process.

The B-30 Turret

The B-30 turret which outfitted the BMP-1-30 was a small, one-man turret with a 1,380 mm turret ring.

The cylindrical turret has a higher volume than the BMP-1’s, and as such, the gunner could be said to be slightly less cramped. However, internal space is still limited and the turret can be judged to be very uncomfortable by the standards of Western IFVs. The seat of the gunner is slightly offset to the left of the turret, while the main gun is slightly offset to the right. Two periscopes are present in a bulge on the left side of the turret, while two others are to the right of the hatch, mounted on the main turret body. These periscopes are of the TNPO-160 type, which provide a 78° horizontal and 28° vertical field of view. The gun sights are mounted to the front, and include a main day/night sight and a secondary high-elevation sight mostly used to target aircraft. Overall, visibility is considered to be good for the gunner, typically superior to the BMP-1 turret, making the issues of a one-man turret slightly less pronounced.

A view of the inside of a B-30 turret mounted on a BMD-2. Notice the seat slightly skewed towards the left, the sights in front of it, and the control panel right of it.Source: Tankograd

The 30 mm 2A42

The main armament of the B-30 turret is the 30 mm 2A42 autocannon. This is a widely used gun, also used on the BMP-2, but also modern Soviet combat helicopters, such as the Mi-28 and Kamov Ka-50 and Ka-52.

The 30 mm 2A42 autocannon, which became the USSR’s most common 30 mm autocannon in the 1980s.Source: topwar.ru

The 2A42 fires the Soviet 30×165 mm cartridge. It uses a dual-feed system. There is a digital display showing the number of shells still available in the turret, as well as a switch allowing for a quick change in the type of ammunition fired. The weapon features a 2,416 mm barrel, fitted with a double-baffle muzzle brake. The autocannon has two dedicated fire rates, a slow one at 200 rpm and a quicker one at 550 rpm. During sustained fire, the rate of fire can reach higher values. The turret allows for a very high elevation of +60° which, coupled with a dedicated high-elevation sight, makes the 2A42 a more dangerous threat for helicopters than what would be expected from a ground vehicle.

A number of 30×165 mm shells are available for the 2A42. The total number of shells carried inside the BMD-2 turret is 300. If enough work was put into it, it is likely the larger hull of the BMP could allow for higher ammunition stowage.

For use against light fortifications, infantry, soft-skinned vehicles, and other unarmored targets, the 2A42 can fire the 3UOF8 High-Explosive Incendiary (HE-I) shells. This shell has an explosive filling of 49 grams of A-IX-2, the standard Soviet explosive autocannon shell formula since 1943. The overall mass of the projectile is 390 g, and that of the whole cartridge 842 g. In high-explosive belts, it is complemented by the 3UOR6. This shell forsakes most of the explosive charge, with only 11.5 g remaining, to mount a very large tracer. Fired at the same muzzle velocity of 980 m/s, it is used for fire correction purposes, though over large distances, the trajectory of the two shells may begin to differ. With a fuse lasting 9 to 14 seconds, the explosive shells will generally detonate after about 4 km if they have not met a target, though autocannons are typically used effectively at much closer ranges. The rate of tracer to high-explosive rounds in a 30 mm belt tends to be 1:4.

For armor-piercing duties, two types of 30 mm shells exist. The older 3UBR6 is a fairly classic armor-piercing shell with a core of hardened structural steel. This steel core weighs 375 g, with the entire projectile weighing just 25 g more, at 400 g, and the entire shell weighs 856 g. It features a tracer that burns for 3.5 seconds after being fired, and has a muzzle velocity of 970 m/s. Its penetration values against Rolled Homogeneous Armor (RHA) at an angle of 60° are 29 mm at 700 m, 18 mm at 1,000 m, and 14 mm at 1,500 m. These are fairly mediocre performances, able to defeat little more than light armored vehicles in the vast majority of cases.

A more modern armor-piercing shell exists in the form of the 3UBR8, an Armor Piercing Discarding Sabot (APDS) shell with a tracer. It features a lighter 222 g piercing core of tungsten alloy. The projectile as a whole is 304 g, and the cartridge 765 g. Fired at a muzzle velocity of 1,120 m/s, this shell seems to penetrate, against similar RHA armor and at the same angle of 60°, 35 mm at 1,000 m and 25 mm at 1,500 m. It offers much more suitable performances than the older 3UBR6 against modern infantry fighting vehicles.

The 2A42 is supplemented by a coaxial 7.62×54 mmR PKTM machine gun. In this particular regard, the B-30 turret is actually worse than the one of the BMD-1 and BMP-1. Both of these use the same machine gun, however, it is fed from a single 2,000 rounds box, making reloading a non-issue for the gunner in most combat situations, a welcome reduction of tasks in a one-man turret. The B-30 turret uses more moderately sized 250 round belts which need to be reloaded a lot more often.

The 9P135 Launcher

The BMD-2 turret is fitted with a 9P135 missile launcher mounted to the right of the turret, fairly high so as not to interfere with the vision from periscopes or sights.

The 9P135 launcher was designed to fire the 135 mm 9K113 Konkurs but is also compatible with the smaller 120 mm 9K111 Fagot, which eases logistical work and adds versatility. The more powerful Konkurs is typically the preferred missile, but in case it cannot be supplied, the smaller Fagot, widely used by infantry, can be used instead. The 9M113 missile is 1.17 m long and has an average speed of slightly above 200 m/s, though it can peak at around 300 m/s. The original missile is fitted with a single 2.7 kg shaped charge warhead which can grant armor penetration of 750 to 800 mm of Rolled Homogenous Armor on average.

In 1991, before the BMP-1-30 was created, a more modern version of the Konkurs, the 9M113M, was unveiled. It focused on improving performances against ERA by adding a secondary charge triggered by a standoff probe, designed to trigger ERA and reduce its effectiveness against the main shaped charge. Besides improved performance against ERA, the 9M113M’s performances are similar to the 9M113. Both missiles have an effective range of about 4km.

A cutaway view of a 9K113 Konkurs missile.Source: https://www.armedconflicts.com/

The 9M111 missile is smaller (120 mm) and shorter (86.3 cm) with a slower average (186 m/s) and maximum (240 m/s) speed. It features a slightly smaller explosive charge than the 9M113, of 2.5 kg, and is rated only for 400 mm of penetration against RHA, and has a shorter effective range of around 2 km.

By the 1990s, two upgraded Fagot missiles were available. The first, the 9M111-2 was longer (910 mm) and rated for a slightly superior armor penetration (460 mm), and also features a more sustained motor allowing for an improved effective range of up to 2.5 km. The last missile, the 9M111M Faktoriya, highly improved on the armor-piercing performances of the Fagot by adding a tandem warhead. Thanks to this feature, the missile could be expected to defeat ERA and still pierce 600 mm of RHA.

A similar cutaway view of a 9K111 Fagot missile. Its design is essentially similar to the 9K113, but smaller. Source: https://en.missilery.info 
A missile is fired from the 9P135 mounted on the BMP-1-30. As can be seen, firing could only be done with the gunner exposed, putting them at serious risk. The 6 mm thick hatch gave a minimal amount of protection to the front. Source: reddit.

The 9P135 was pintle-mounted on the B-30 turret. The 9P135 sight has a magnification power of 10x, improving on the accuracy of the missile. They are wire-guided semi-automatic command to line of sight (SACLOS) systems, which require the gunner to constantly maintain the target in line-of-sight in order to retain guidance.

One of the main drawbacks of the missile’s mounting into the turret is that it could only be fired by an exposed crew member (the gunner), which would make them much more vulnerable to firearms and shrapnel.

The Malyutka missile first featured in the BMP-1 and BMD-1 could be fired from inside the turret, but the P upgrade, which was applied to both vehicles, replaced these with the 9P135 as well. In this manner, this issue of the B-30 turret was shared by BMP-1Ps with the same armament anyway. There were also some advantages to this mounting. Thanks to being very high, it could fairly easily be made to be the only element of the vehicle reaching over an obstacle when being fired, which would make the BMP-1-30 drastically less vulnerable when firing its missile. This complete external mounting also made the missile easy to remove. Three missiles were stored behind the gunner’s seat in the B-30 turret. It is unknown if more would be stored within the BMP-1 hull.

An Unchanged Hull

While the BMP-1-30 received a new turret, it appears its hull was completely or at least mostly unchanged. This is perhaps not as tragic as for the turret. There are less antiquated features of the BMP-1 hull that can easily be replaced or upgraded. It can still be said that the BMP-1 is a very cramped vehicle, for the crew and even more so for the infantry dismounts it transports. However, solving this issue can only really be achieved by a deep rework of the vehicle, far beyond the scope of most upgrade programs. An example of an attempt at solving this issue is the mid-2010s BMP-1UM offered by Ukraine.

The Capacities of the BMP-1-30

There is little argument that the BMP-1-30 can be considered superior to the average Russian BMP-1. In comparison to the BMP-1P, used by the Russian Army in the 1990s, the BMP-1-30 operated the same ATGM system in the same fashion, and in combat, the real difference would be the 30 mm 2A42 replacing the Grom. There is little argument that the 30 mm is superior. While the Grom technically has higher armor penetration, it is still outdated and highly inferior to the Konkurs in this matter. On the other hand, the anemic system has a far lower effective range than the 2A42, making the 30 mm autocannon generally a far better system against vehicles with moderate armor protection, such as APCs, IFVs, and occasionally, some older tank types. The autocannon is also far better as a weapon to suppress enemy positions.

While the BMP-1-30 is clearly superior to a classic BMP-1, it is also obvious that it was not the most potent BMP-1 modernization offered in the 1990s. Tula’s BMP-1 with a Kliver TKB-799 turret was significantly superior in a number of ways.

A BMP-1 fitted with the TKB-799 Kliver turret. Armed with four Kornet missiles as well as a 30 mm autocannon and a coaxial 7.62 mm machine gun, this was an advanced turret to fit onto the old BMP-1 hull. Source: reddit.com

Though the 2A72 autocannon essentially had the same performance as the 2A42 but with a lower maximum rate of fire (due to issues with the recoil of the 2A42 at the quickest rate of fire, the 2A72 used a lowered one as well as a new long-recoil system), the 9M133 Kornet ATGMs were superior in essentially every way to the Konkurs and Fagot. They were faster, carried more explosives, giving them more armor-piercing power, and crucially, used a more advanced beam-riding laser guidance, which allowed the gunner to fire them while remaining inside of the vehicle. The Kornet launcher could also fire missiles with thermobaric warheads, meaning the vehicle could be configured to be more lethal against infantry and fortified position if no armored opposition is expected.

While, armament-wise, the BMP-1 with Kliver could be argued to be cutting edge by the 1990s, the BMP-1-30 was way more average. The vehicle’s capacities could essentially be described as that of a budget BMP-2. Featuring the exact same weapon systems, but slightly less potent in using them due to having a single crew member in the turret instead of two.

However, while the BMP-1-30 was not cutting edge, it had one decisive advantage. It was still a notable improvement over the BMP-1 while using only readily available components and being an incredibly easy upgrade to undertake. There was no costly development, or introduction of any new system not already in supply chains. Everything used in the BMP-1-30 was introduced in the Soviet Army at the lastest in the early 1980s. In a way, it can even be said to be surprising that the idea emerged as late as 1997, when it could have been thought off more than fifteen years earlier already. The only factor in upgrading BMP-1s to BMP-1-30s would have been to produce more BMD-2 turrets essentially.

Conclusion – A Sensible Upgrade, Which Was Never Applied

The BMP-1AM seen during the ARMY-2018 military exhibition, with its BPPU turret turned to the side. Both the BMP-1 with Kliver turret but also arguably the BMP-1-30 were more potent design, though the BMD-2 turret is out of production by now and so the BMP-1-30 upgrade would be harder of an upgrade to perform now. Source: reddit

Despite its general obsolescence, however, the BMP-1 is yet to entirely disappear from the Russian Army, even those still armed with a Grom. As late as the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, alongside large numbers of BMP-2s and BMD-2s, seemingly forming the workhouse of Russian’s IFV fleet and of combat capacities similar to the BMP-1-30, a number of BMP-1s have appeared. These have not just been seen in sectors where separatists operate, but also in parts of Ukraine, like Chernihiv, where only the Russian Army is active. Both BMP-1AMs and, in larger numbers, BMP-1s still using the 73 mm Grom, have been spotted. These are definitely outdated vehicles and while they may not fare particularly well even with the upgrades of the BMP-1-30, it would still be preferable for them to operate on a vehicle with a more modern autocannon, if not one with outright powerful missiles like the BMP-1 with Kliver TKB-99 turret. In a war where even BMD-2s and BMP-2s are being lost in the dozens, and some more advanced BMP-3s and BMD-4Ms are still fairly often knocked out or captured, an antiquated, Grom-armed BMP-1 hardly has a place at all.

A black and white version of a previous photo of the BMP-1-30. While the upgrade would not suddenly have brought the BMP-1 up to date with modern IFVs, like Tula’s Kliver turret claimed it would do, it would still have been a sensible way to update the fleet of vehicles, becoming more and more obsolete as the use of BMP-1s in Chechnya and Ukraine has shown. Source: russiadefence.net
The BMP-1-30. Illustration by Ardhya ‘Vesp’ Anargha

BMP-1-30 specifications

Dimensions (l-w), m 6.735 – 3.150
Weight ~14 metric tonnes
Road clearance, mm 420
Engine UTD-20S1 6-cylinder 4-stroke V-shaped airless-injection water-cooled diesel (300 hp at 2,600 rpm)
Suspension Torsion bars
Maximum speed, km/h (road) 65
Maximum speed, km/h (water) ~7-8
Operationnal Range ~550 km (road)
Fuel capacity 420 l
Crew 3 (Commander, gunner, driver)
Dismounts 8
Radio R-123M
Main armament 30 mm 2A42 autocannon
9P1235 ATGM launcher (3 missiles at least)
Secondary armament 7.62 mm PKTM (200 rounds)
Armor ~19 mm maximum
Obstacle crossing
– Climb
– Trench
– Wall

– 35 deg
– 2.5 m
– 0.7 m

Sources:

Wydawnictwo Militaria 312 BMP-1(BWP)
Tankograd:

Field Disassembly: BMP-1
30x165mm Cartridges
BMP-2
BMP-3
BMD-2

weaponsystems.net:
9K111 Fagot
9K113 Konkurs

Solyankin, Pavlov, Pavlov, Zheltov. Otechestvennye boevye mashiny vol. 3
73-мм ГЛАДКОСТВОЛЬНОЕ ОРУДИЕ 2A28Техническое описание и инструкция по эксплуатации (73-mm SMOOTHBORE WEAPON 2A28 Technical description and operating instructions)
БОЕВАЯ МАШИНА ПЕХОТЫ БМП-1 ТЕхничЕскоЕ ОПИсаниЕ И ИНСТРУКЦИЯ ПО ЭКСПЛУАТАЦИИ (COMBAT VEHICLE INFANTRY BMP-1 Technical Description AND THE OPERATING INSTRUCTIONS)

Categories
Cold War Soviet Prototypes

Object 911

Soviet Union (1963-1964)
Infantry fighting vehicle – 1 prototype

The evolution of warfare and technologies in the years following the conclusion of the Second World War had a major impact on the way warfare would be conducted in the future. The appearance and proliferation of nuclear weapons led to the need for protection from nuclear fallout and radiation being a major requirement for combat vehicles meant to operate in a battlefield that could likely be saturated with tactical nuclear strikes. The truck-borne infantry of the past was also increasingly sidelined for infantry in armored personnel carriers, which could keep up with armored formations and allow for highly-mobile infantry protected from small arms fire and shell splinters. Following these conclusions, work began on a vehicle in the Soviet Union which would not only transport infantry while keeping up with tanks, but also provide protection from nuclear fallout and combat capabilities needed to supplement tanks and provide support to infantry. One of the prototypes created in the 1960s to fulfill such a task was Volgograd Automotive Plant’s Object 911.

The Object 911 prototype, showing its most unusual feature: the presence of both wheels and tracks. Source: Solyankin, Pavlov, Pavlov, Zheltov. Otechestvennye boevye mashiny vol. 3

The Infantry of a Mechanized, Nuclear Age

After years of development, the United States detonated the first nuclear warheads in 1945, first over the New Mexico desert and later over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Soviet Union had laid a keen eye on the development of this new type of weapon, which promised unprecedented levels of destructive powers achieved by a single bomb. On 29th August 1949, the Soviet Union followed suit by detonating its first atomic warhead in the RDS-1 test, years ahead of American and British expectations.

In the following years, the United States and the Soviet Union, soon followed, to a much lower extent, by the United Kingdom, and later France and the People’s Republic of China would pursue massive buildups of their nuclear arsenals. By 1960, the United States’ stockpile had already exceeded 15,000 weapons. The Soviet buildup was, at the time, much slower, but at more than 1,500 warheads, it would already be enough to cause massive destruction.

The explosion of the RDS-1 test. Source: dissolve.com

With the massive buildup of nuclear stockpiles, the perceived roles of nuclear weapons also evolved. The weapons would be used in strategic strikes against enemy cities, production, and logistical centers, as had been originally intended and tested against Japan in 1945, but new potential targets were soon considered. Value was also found in ‘tactical’ nuclear missiles and bombs, which would be used on a much smaller scale, against enemy troop concentrations, supply depots, or ways of communications on the frontline. This newfound purpose of nuclear weapons, coupled with the increasing realization of the major health effects of nuclear radiation, led to the understanding that many aspects of conventional warfare would find themselves struggling to find any purpose on this new, nuclear battlefield.

This was supplemented by the fact that, in the 1950s, the USSR considered a conflict in mainland Europe was a likely occurrence, as demonstrated by the heavy tensions of the late 1940s and early 1950s. At this point in time, and up to the early 1960s, while the Soviet Union did have nuclear weapons, the means of delivery were far less developed than those of the United States. While the United States had a large fleet of strategic bombers that could realistically become a threat to many Soviet cities, the USSR struggled to establish an equivalent force. The Soviets wanted to rely on a submarine fleet to counter this, but it was only starting to build itself up in the late 1950s, and NATO could rely on extensive naval forces. The only aspect where the Soviet Union had a somewhat reliable nuclear force was in its ground forces. Between the use of tactical nuclear weapons in the Soviet Army and the otherwise nuclear superiority of NATO, the Soviet Army expected to be forced to fight on a heavily irradiated battlefield. Many of the aspects of the post-WW2 Soviet Army could not be expected to operate in such an environment.

One of the prime examples was that of infantry moved by trucks, largely open vehicles that could hardly be protected from nuclear radiation and fallout. Armored vehicles, in comparison, were already often enclosed, and making them able to protect their crews from nuclear radiation, as well as chemical and biological threats, was a viable option. This suddenly highly increased the value of armored personnel carriers. While already vehicles with significant potential and increasing in popularity since the conclusion of the Second World War, they appeared as perhaps the most viable option to continue to make infantry relevant. Not only would they be able to keep up with armored vehicles and, in this way, considerably ease combined arms operations, but they would also protect infantry from small arms fire, and, perhaps even more importantly, from nuclear radiation. Because of this reason, after the rise of power of Khrushchev in the Soviet Union from 1953 onward, considerable emphasis was put on adapting the Soviet Army for nuclear warfare, and outfitting Soviet infantry with better vehicles for this purpose than mere trucks.

In the Soviet Union, the idea would be pushed further though. Rather than design pure troop carriers which would typically be armed with just a machine gun, the idea of a vehicle that could not only keep up with tanks while transporting infantry but also provide valuable combat support to both arose. The main recipients of this envisioned vehicle were to be motor rifle regiments, though it would in general be widespread through the Soviet Army.

The BMP Concept

The concept of this new type of vehicle was popularized in the late 1950s in the Soviet Union, though some similar concepts were being developed in other countries, notably the West German Schützenpanzer Lang HS.30.

The idea of the BMP ( Боевая Машина Пехоты, which translates to Infantry Fighting Vehicle) was to create a vehicle that would provide CBRN (Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear) protection to the troops it carried. This was at first the factor separating the BMP from APCs like the BTR series, which at the same time included a significant amount of non-CBRN protected vehicles, such as open-topped BTR-40s, BTR-152s, and BTR-50s.

Beyond this nuclear protection aspect, the BMP was also meant as a vehicle that would have the mobility and armament necessary to offer support to tanks. This meant it should be able to engage many targets, from tanks to various armored fighting vehicles, to infantry and field fortifications. Another aspect that was desired was superior mobility, with the crossing of water obstacles being a major factor. There are many major rivers in Europe, and bridges could not be relied on in a very destructive major conflict on the continent. It was also hoped that the infantry would be able to fight from the inside of the vehicle itself, not necessarily having to dismount, another concept brought forward by the prospect of an irradiated battlefield.

The first task would be accomplished by the presence of firing ports from which the troops could fire their weapons. The idea of bow machine guns operated by the infantry dismounts (dismounts is a term widely used to refer to the infantry carried inside or on top of Soviet vehicles), rather than the crew of the vehicle itself, was also considered. Because of this firing port requirement, the position of the infantry towards the front and center of the vehicle, rather than the rear, was preferred. Enemy targets would typically be found towards the front and sides of the vehicle, rather than the rear.

Firepower-wise, the main purpose envisioned with the BMP was the ability to defeat enemy anti-tank capabilities as well as provide fire support to dismounts. This would translate into the main armament that could take out infantry positions equipped with recoilless rifles or anti-tank guided missiles as well as lightly armored vehicles. A number of armaments of various calibers were considered for this purpose. This included main guns firing 57, 73, or 76 mm shaped charges projectiles, or 30, 37, or 45 mm autocannons. Eventually, the 73 mm 2A28 Grom low-pressure smoothbore gun would be chosen. This main gun was to be supplemented with one or several 7.62 mm machine guns for anti-infantry duties. Since there was a high risk of encountering enemy tanks, while following friendly tanks, an anti-tank missile launcher, with 4 to 6 missiles, was also required and would have to offer the possibility of being fired from inside the vehicle, with hatches closed.

Protection-wise, the vehicle was to provide protection from heavy machine guns, such as the 12.7 mm/.50 cal Browning M2HB, or possibly even 20 or 23 mm autocannons, on the frontal arc. On the sides and rear, protection levels were to allow the vehicle to withstand 7.62 mm rounds, as well as artillery shell splinters. Heavier armor was impractical due to amphibious and air-transportability needs.

A very significant aspect of the protection was the one from NBC (Nuclear, Biological, Chemical) threats. The vehicle was to provide an enclosed environment in which the crew and dismounts would be able to operate, even on a highly irradiated battlefield. This would translate into high efforts being taken to seal the vehicle and fit it with an air filtering system as well as an anti-radiation lining. These design requirements would translate into the vehicles being the first troop carrier designs taking into account nuclear radiation protection.

By the late 1950s, Volgograd was already producing a tracked, amphibious armored personnel carrier in the form of the BTR-50. As designed, the BTR-50 was an open-topped vehicle, which would entirely prohibit any kind of radiation protection. By the late 1950s, this had been remedied by the BTR-50PK modification, which incorporated an enclosed roof.

BTR-50P APCs at the Red Square on 7th November 1961. Note their open roof; a closed roof version, the BTR-50PK, would later be introduced Source: Topwar.ru
The BTR-60 also started out as an open-topped vehicle. Source: soldat.pro

Interestingly, whilst the Object 750 prototype had 2 firing ports per side for the dismounts, the serial BTR-50P did not.

One of the requirements for the BMP was to allow the whole infantry squad to engage targets from the inside.

However, it was thought that the IFV would provide far better-fighting capabilities, as well as protection for the infantry in an irradiated environment. Also, the BMP would allow for dismounts to engage from inside the vehicle, while a BTR-50 could really only transport the infantry or cargo through the irradiated terrain, but the troopers could not even exit and fight safely.

In terms of mobility, the vehicle’s main objective was to be more mobile than tanks, which meant a relatively high maximum speed but, most importantly, very good off-road capacities. The vehicle was also required to be amphibious to allow the crossing of rivers and marshes even without bridges. These requirements resulted in weight and size constraints inherent in all types of Soviet and Russian APCs and IFVs.

Lastly, the vehicle was to be small and light enough to be air-transportable, though it was not meant to be dropped from a plane as an airborne vehicle. It was also desirable to create a vehicle that would be as simple and easy to produce as possible. It was hoped it could then be produced in large numbers with relative ease, as well as form the base for a large family of vehicles that would use its components.

A formal call for design proposals following these requirements was issued by the GBTU (The General Armored Directorate, the service in charge of armored vehicles procurement) on 22nd October, 1960. The requirements were finalized in September 1961 and eventually sent to a large number of design bureaus. Initially, the Main Artillery Directorate, which issued the requirements, called for an 11-12 tonnes vehicle that would feature a crew of 2 and transport 6 to 8 dismounts.

At that time, three different views existed on how to design the future IFV. One was to create a new, wheeled vehicle, sometimes using some pre-existing technology. The second was to create the vehicle based on a pre-existing chassis. The third was to create an all-new, tracked vehicle. One of the designers which were issued the requirements was VgTZ (Volgorgadskii Traktornii Zavod, Volgograd Tractor Plant, the former STZ/Stalingrad Tractor Plant). Eventually, this relatively large design bureau would offer two different variants. The first would be based on VgTZ’s PT-76 amphibious tank, the Object 914 (VgTZ was attributed numbers in the 900s for the designation of its prototypes). The other would be a completely new vehicle, which used a tracked configuration, though with a number of unique elements; this would be Object 911.

Volgograd’s Object 911

The pilot projects for vehicles from different manufacturers were first presented at a meeting in November 1960. At this point, some of the characteristics of the future BMP were still uncertain. For example, the possibility of using a 14.5 mm machine gun as main armament was still being considered.

The Volgograd design bureau started elaborating various solutions following the November 1960 meeting. Their attempts at creating a BMP would typically, as had been with the Object 914, use a lot of elements from previous projects, in this case the PT-76 and the Object 906B, two light tank designs. The first was adopted and mass-produced, the second stayed on the drawing board.

Configurations studied by Volgograd generally used a rear engine configuration, though there was a draft project with a front engine and rear transmission, as on the PT-76 and related vehicles. An early set of plans for the Object 911 dated 1962 envision a vehicle featuring a two-man turret and a dismount compartment for six dismounts sitting in three rows of two. This configuration would be entirely changed before the vehicle would enter the prototype stage.

The early configuration of the Object 911, with a six-man dismount complement present in three rows of two and a two-man turret. By the time the vehicle reached prototype, this would be replaced by an eight-man compartment and a one-man turret stage. Source: Solyankin, Pavlov, Pavlov, Zheltov. Otechestvennye boevye mashiny vol. 3

The draft project of the Object 911 was developed at VgTZ in 1963, and presented to the State Committee for Defense Technology (GKOT, Russian: ГКОТ, Государственный комитет по оборонной технике), which considered it and allowed for the production of a prototype on August 9th, 1963.

The prototype of the Object 911 was built in the same year under the supervision of the head engineer, I.V. Gavalov. The prototype went to the comparative trials in 1964, alongside several other prototypes of the BMP.

The prototypes tested largely varied in terms of configurations, and included the fully tracked Objects 914 and 765, the wheeled Object 1200, and the convertible Object 911. Usually, convertible designs used the wheels as the main means of motion and lowerable tracks for moving off-road. The Object 911 used the opposite configuration using retractable wheels for traveling on roads, a peculiar feature.

The Object 911’s Design

Hull

The overall design of the Object 911’s hull was a rectangular, welded steel box. Like most Soviet amphibious vehicles of the era, it featured a bow-shaped frontal part for the purpose of improving the vehicle’s hydrodynamic characteristics, further perfected by a retractable trim vane at the front of the hull. The whole upper front/roof plate was angled at a very steep angle, highly improving protection over its frontal arc. The Object 911 had a fairly low profile, with a total height of 2,068 mm, including the turret. According to Domestic Armored vehicles vol 3, at some point, the height of the hull was increased to 1,200 mm.

A ¾ view of the Object 911 prototype on its tracks. Source: Solyankin, Pavlov, Pavlov, Zheltov. Otechestvennye boevye mashiny vol. 3
The eventual configuration of the crew and dismounts on the Object 911. Only the driver, to the center-front of the vehicle, and the gunner/loader/commander, in the turret, are crewmembers. The remaining eight are dismounts. Source: Solyankin, Pavlov, Pavlov, Zheltov. Otechestvennye boevye mashiny vol. 3

Legend: М-В – механик-водитель, driver; Н-О – наводчик-оператор, gunner-operator/vehicle commander; С – стрелок, rifleman, dismount; К – командир, infantry section commander; П – пулеметчик, machine gunner

Apparently the section commander also acted as a second machine gunner, as the Otechestvennye boevye mashiny vol. 3 mention ‘two hatches for the machine gunners’ (page 446)

The Object 911 used a configuration where the crew and dismount compartment were concentrated at the front and center of the vehicle. The vehicle had a crew of two: a driver, who sat in the front center of the hull; and a gunner/commander, who sat behind in the left part of the centrally-mounted turret.

The eight dismounts were present in a symmetric configuration. Two were in front of the turret, one on each of the driver’s sides, and would presumably operate the squad’s machine guns. Six sat just behind the turret. Each dismount had a firing port in the sides of the vehicle, so they could fire their weapons from the inside of the hull. Considering the placement of the firing ports, four on each side of the vehicle, they would be able to create an arc of fire over about the front two thirds of the vehicle.

Each of the dismount positions featured an episcope. The driver’s post appears to have featured three, one to the front and one to each side. The driver would steer the vehicle via a steering wheel. The vehicle featured two headlights, mounted to the front sides of the bow. There was a ventilator just to the rear of the driver’s hatch.

A top view of the Object 911 at Kubinka, showing the front driver’s port as well as the ventilator located right behind it. Source: skylancer7441’s archive
A top front view of the Object 911. Observe the five episcopes present for the dismounts to the sides of the vehicle as well as the two hatches on the front sides of the hull roof. Source: skylancer7441’s archive
A close-up on one of the two dismount’s front-sides hatches. Exiting through these would be highly dangerous when under fire, and the larger hatch located behind the turret would likely be preferred outside of emergency evacuations. Source: skylancer7441’s archive

The vehicle’s engine was mounted at the rear of the vehicle, which would typically make hatch placement harder on an infantry fighting vehicle. The use of a fairly small engine on the Object 911 allowed for a quite peculiar hatch design. The center of the vehicle to the rear of the turret was lowered in comparison to the side ‘flaps’, and a large hatch was located there, opening upward and locking at about a 90° angle. Six of the dismounts were to exit through this hatch. It was hoped that it was wide enough for two dismounts to evacuate at a time. The dismounts would then jump out of the vehicle, which would be a fairly short 0.75 m to 1.10 m drop to the ground. This configuration was far from ideal, as the dismounts would prove very vulnerable if forced to exit when the vehicle was under fire. However, there were not many safer options for a vehicle with a rear engine compartment. Despite these potential considerations, this very configuration would be adopted for the BMD series of vehicles, and eventually even make its way to the BMPs with the BMP-3.

As for the driver and gunner, they each had a dedicated hatch they could exit the vehicle through. Furthermore, there were also two hatches on the front sides of the turret. These would be used for the two front dismounts to exit the vehicle, the squad commander and machine gunner.

The combat weight of the Object 911 was 12.07 tonnes. Length was 6.735 m, width 2.940 m, and height 2.040 m including the turret, presumably at the highest ground clearance. The average ground pressure was 0.46 kg/cm².

The Object 911 had the same level of protection as its main competitor, the Object 765.

A top rear view of the Object 911, with the exit hatch the dismounts would use opened. Source: Solyankin, Pavlov, Pavlov, Zheltov. Otechestvennye boevye mashiny vol. 3
A side view of the Object 911. Four firing ports can be seen towards the front half of the vehicle. Source: Solyankin, Pavlov, Pavlov, Zheltov. Otechestvennye boevye mashiny vol. 3

The vehicle featured an R-123 high/very high frequency radio transceiver, which at the time was a new introduction in Soviet vehicles, which could assure communications at ranges up to 20 km on two bands. It was coupled with an internal R-124 intercom system for communications between the gunner/commander and driver.

The R-123 radio station. Source: pinterest
An R-124 intercom system dismounted from a vehicle. Source: http://pribor.zp.ua/

Engine and Hydrojets

An UTD-20 engine, which was widely used in Soviet infantry fighting vehicles and light tank prototypes from the 1960s onward. Source: https://geek-tips.imtqy.com/

The engine used in the Object 911 was common to all the vehicles presented in the program. This was the UTD-20 diesel engine. It produced 300 hp at 2,600 rpm and reached its maximum torque output of 981 N.m at 1,500 to 1,600 rpm. Without any fuel or oil, the engine weighed 665 kg, and had a consumption of 175 to 178 grams of fuel per hp an hour.

The UTD-20 engine was fairly limited in size, which was a major positive factor for installation in the various BMP prototypes. On the Object 911, this allowed for the engine block to be placed in the rear of the vehicle despite the large central lowered section where the dismounts would exit from. The transmission and drive sprocket were placed at the rear of the vehicle as well. The mechanical transmission had a two-disc main friction clutch and a two-shaft five-gears gearbox which would be actioned by the driver. The gearbox included two clutches and two coaxial planetary gearboxes.

A rear view of the Object 911. The two hydrojets present on the ‘flaps’ of the vehicle can be seen. One can also spot spare track links on the central hatch. Source: Solyankin, Pavlov, Pavlov, Zheltov. Otechestvennye boevye mashiny vol. 3

In addition to this engine and transmission, the Object 911 also featured two hydrojets. These were found in the ‘wings’ or ‘flaps’ at the rear of the vehicle. They were taken straight from a previous design of Volgograd Tractor Plant, the PT-76. These hydrojets were powered via a driveshaft with a reducer, linked to the gearbox, and would allow for far quicker movement on water than vehicles using merely tracks or wheels for amphibious crossings.

A view of the propeller of one of the Object 911’s hydrojets, seen thanks to the open hydrojet cover. Source: skylancer7441’s archive

Modern Wheel-Cum-Track?

By far the most uncommon and distinctive features of the Object 911 were to be found in the vehicle’s suspension and drivetrain.

A schematic of Object 911’s drivetrain, showing the locating of the track’s road wheels, idler and sprocket, as well as the four wheels and the steering wheels that commands the movement of the vehicle. Source: Solyankin, Pavlov, Pavlov, Zheltov. Otechestvennye boevye mashiny vol. 3
A front view of the Object 911 at the maximum and minimum ground clearance allowed by the suspension when running on tracks. Source: Solyankin, Pavlov, Pavlov, Zheltov. Otechestvennye boevye mashiny vol. 3
A suspension arm on one of the Object 911’s roadwheels. Source: skylancer7441’s archive

The engineers of Volgograd Tractor Plant experimented heavily with the suspension on Object 911. They settled on a mainly tracked suspension, which was to be used systematically in operational conditions. The vehicle’s tracked suspension used a rear-drive sprocket and a front idler, with five road wheels. The road wheels appear to have been identical to those found on the PT-76, being stamped steel road wheels with reinforcement ribs, and internally hollow to improve buoyancy. Each road wheel was mounted on a suspension arm of which the movement was assured by a pneumatic suspension. The suspension’s height could be adjusted and considerably lowered, with a maximum ground clearance of 426 mm and minimum ground clearance of 96 mm. The tracks themselves were OMSH tracks, made of cast manganese steel and connected by a steel pin, with three connection points. The Object 911 also featured three return rollers: one located towards the front of the second road wheel; the second, or middle one, towards the front of the fourth road wheels; and the last just in front of the drive sprocket. They appear to have been made out of aluminum.

Three photos of the Object 911 on its wheels. These would heighten the silhouette of the vehicle, but seeing as they were meant to be used out of combat, this was not a major issue. Source: Solyankin, Pavlov, Pavlov, Zheltov. Otechestvennye boevye mashiny vol. 3

The most unusual aspect of the Object 911’s drivetrain was not the pneumatic, adjustable suspension, the same design as on the Object 906B, but rather the dual drive. Indeed, the Object 911 was not just a tracked vehicle, as it had been designed with a set of four wheels mounted on the internal sides of the tracks. They were located at around the same length as the sprockets and idlers. The wheels could be retracted or extended depending on whether the tracks or road wheels were to be used. This could be done from the inside of the vehicle, with no need to exit, and be performed in three minutes. However, even when fully retracted, the bottom of the wheels would still stick out of the hull bottom by a moderate extent.

The wheels were taken from a pre-existing design. This was not a standard road vehicle design, but rather the K 157-300 designated aviation wheels taken from the Ilyushin Il-14 twin-engine transport aircraft. The main advantage was that aviation wheels were lighter than similar-sized ground vehicle ones, though they were also less sturdy. These wheels had a diameter of 840 mm and a width of 300 mm, and used arched tires. The vehicle used a 4×2 configuration, with the front wheels being used to steer the vehicle when on the wheel drive.

The main advantage envisioned behind these retractable wheels was higher maximum speed and reduced fuel consumption when driving on highway, notably for transfers or movement behind frontlines.

A front view of the Object 911 at a high ground clearance, on tracks. As can be seen, the wheels, even when retracted at their highest point, would not entirely be contained within the hull. This would prove a major issue with the cross-country capacities of the Object 911. Source: Solyankin, Pavlov, Pavlov, Zheltov. Otechestvennye boevye mashiny vol. 3
A view of the rear of the Object 911’s suspension. One can see the rearmost return roller, located just in front of the drive sprocket, as well as one of the retractable wheels, located right behind the last road wheel. Source: skylancer7441’s archive
A close-up of one of the Object 911’s retractable wheels, showing the dimensions of the wheel inscribed on the rim. Source: skylancer7441’s archive

Turret and Armament

All the infantry fighting vehicles of the program used a standardized turret design, which was also present in the vehicle which would be adopted as the BMP-1, the Object 765. This standard design had been created by the Tula KBP Design Bureau and had a 1,340 mm turret ring. It used welded construction from rolled homogeneous armor plates. The turret had a frustoconical design. The turret featured a DGN-3 24 V 300 W motor for rotation, which could rotate at speeds from 0.1º to 20° per second. The gun elevation was powered by another electric motor, the DVN-1 24 V producing 65 W. The gun could elevate or depress at any speed from 0.07º to 6° per second, with maximum elevation angles of -4º to +30°.

Two hatches were present on the turret. There was a large top hatch opening frontwards, locking in an upright position, which the gunner could use to reach out of the turret to observe the surroundings, or to exit the vehicle. There was a much smaller hatch, located over the gun breech, which, when the gun was fully elevated, would be used to load a missile into the launching rail featured on top of the gun.

A view of the Object 911. The low profile of the turret is apparent. This was both an advantage, as it reduced the silhouette of the vehicle, but also a drawback, as the turret was quite cramped. Source: Бронетанковая Техника via tech.wikireading.ru

A single crewmember was located in the turret sat in the left half. The turret was typically considered to be quite cramped, even though it did not feature a basket and, as such, the crewmember could extend his legs into the hull when stationary. He sat on an adjustable seat that featured a backrest. He had five vision devices. Towards the front, he could observe the battlefield through the 1PN22 combined day-night sight. This sight had two channels, one for day and one for night, which would be toggled by rotating an internal mirror. The gunner would look through the same eyepiece in any case. Using the day channel, the sight had a magnification of 6x and a field of view of 15°. The night channel had a magnification of 6.7x and a field of view of 6°. It had a three-stage light intensifier system that would amplify light by 50,000 to 75,000 times. It also featured vastly simplified lead and range corrections scales in order to ease night firing. The other vision devices were four TNPO-170 episcopes, two on the flanks of the 1PN22 sight in order to provide vision to its sides, and two others on the side of the main hatch.

General schematics of the 2A28 Grom. Source: Tankograd

The main armament of the turret was a 73 mm 2A28 Grom low-pressure smoothbore gun. This was a fairly short gun, with a 2,117 mm tube and 2,180 mm total length. The design was overall made to be very simple and light. For example, it lacked any bore evacuator, and the gun fumes were instead to be evacuated from the turret, which featured a ventilator for this purpose. The gun overall weighed only 115 kg and had an average barrel life of 1,250 rounds. The recoil mechanism of the Grom was contained in an armored sleeve, wrapped around the base of the barrel. The launching rail for the Malyutka missile was placed on top of this sleeve.

Quantities of PG-15V rounds, here captured by Azerbaijan from Armenia during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War. The round was produced in massive quantities, and despite more modern ammunition to fulfill both anti-armor and anti-personnel roles, having been available since the 1970s, it is still widely used. Source: reddit

There was only a single shell available to the 2A28 Grom in the 1960s. This was the PG-15V. It used the PG-9 HEAT (High Explosive Anti-Tank) anti-tank grenade already used by the SPG-9 73 mm recoilless gun, but swapped the original propellant charge with a more powerful PG-15P, which was meant to ensure a longer effective range. The projectile was fin-stabilized and featured a rocket engine towards the rear, with propellant present towards the middle of the grenade. This allowed it to reach a higher speed than would typically be expected from a gun as short as the Grom, with a maximum velocity of 655 m/s.

The explosive charge of the PG-9 grenade was a 322 g explosive mixture which would be equivalent to 515 g of TNT. An advantage of the PG-9 was that it featured a high standoff distance (i.e distance between the shaped charge and tip of the fuze) of 258 mm. In practice, this meant that, upon hitting a target, the jet of molten metal would have a significant length to take shape into a thin, dense jet. The results were a great armor penetration for the time and small size of the gun. The projectile’s armor penetration was officially rated at 300 mm at all ranges. In practice, this was slightly higher, as the official figure was based on the quantity of armor which would be pierced with the shell then having significant post-penetration effects inside. The maximum penetration achieved could vary between 302 and 346 mm, with an average value of 326 mm. In practice, this meant the Grom could quite reliably penetrate any tank operated by NATO in the 1960s.

The shell was not without issues, however. The downside of HEAT projectiles and a very short barrel were an overall low accuracy and high dispersion. The Grom’s PG-15V projectiles were notably very vulnerable to wind. The nominal maximum range of the Grom was of 800 m, but even at this range, only a 34% hit rate was achieved against a T-55 during trials. Although this tank was quite smaller than most NATO tanks, in practice it can still be said a vehicle wielding a Grom would have to get to close ranges to use this gun effectively against armored targets. Additionally, during the 1960s, the PG-15V was the only available shell for the 2A28 Grom. HEAT shells are not purely anti-tank projectiles, and by nature also have some capacities against other targets. They can notably be effective when used against field fortifications and bunkers. However, due to their design focusing on producing a jet of molten metal in one direction, they offer very limited capacities when attempting to fire at infantry in the open. For the vast majority of vehicles, this would fairly easily be dealt with by simply shifting to a high-explosive fragmentation shell, but no projectile of the type would be available for the Grom until 1973.

The 2A28 Grom was fed by an autoloading mechanism. It used a crescent-shaped conveyor which would occupy the 1 to 7 o’clock perimeter of the turret floor. Because the Grom only fired one shell type when the autoloader was created, its design was simplified, as there was no need to be able to cycle shell type. A total of 40 projectiles would be present within the autoloader. These would be all the projectiles carried within the vehicles of the BMP program. They would be fed into the gun to the right of the gunner. The gun elevation needed to be set to 3° each time it was to be loaded. The loading cycle was 6 seconds long. Though it used an autoloader, the 2A28 Grom could also be shifted to manual loading if need be.

Photos of the 7.62 mm PKT machine gun. Source: weaponsystems.net

This 2A28 Grom was supplemented by a 7.62 mm PKT coaxial machine gun. Mounted to the right of the gun, it would effectively be the only reliable means of dealing with infantry in the open. It fed to the right and ejected to the left. The PKT was fed from 250 rounds ammunition boxes and would fire at a cyclic rate of fire of 700 to 800 rounds per minute, at a muzzle velocity of 855 m/s. It would be able to expend two ammunition boxes in quick succession before the barrel would need to be replaced, or at least the firing interrupted for a bit to prevent overheating.

In addition to these two weapons, the turret featured an ‘ace up its sleeve’ when dealing with armor threats at ranges where the Grom would not be accurate. This was a 9M14 Malyutka missile launcher. The missile was located on a launching rail installed on top of the gun. Inside the turret, the gunner had a control box, which would be kept folded under the seat when not in use and be extended to guide the Malyutka when the need to fire it arose.

A Soviet soldier behind a Malyutka in the field. Source: portal-kultura.ru

The Malyutka was a 860 mm long missile, 125 mm in caliber, and with a ‘wingspan’ of 393 mm with its 4 stabilizing fins. Overall, it weighed 10.9 kg, with a 2.6 kg shaped explosive warhead. The missile had a small rocket engine which would allow for a flight speed of 120 m/s. It was rated for firing ranges of 500 to 3,000 m. Due to the slow speed, the flight time to the longest effective range would reach a particularly long 26 seconds. When impacting a target, the 9M14 could be expected to penetrate 400 mm of armor at a flat angle. Once again, this would typically be sufficient to penetrate all NATO armor of the era with relative ease.

Guidance of the Malyutka was assured by wire, which was common for early missiles but also fairly unreliable. The gunner had a control box that featured a button to launch the missile and then a retractable joystick used to steer it. The missile was manually guided all the way through and, as such, the gunner was supposed to fully concentrate on missile guidance during the whole firing process.

The loading of a 9M14M missile onto the launching rail on a BMP-1. During the trials of the Object 911 and other prototypes in 1964, the missile used would have been the baseline 9M14. By the time the BMP-1, formerly the Object 765, would start entering service from 1966 onward, the missile had been replaced by the upgraded 9M14M. The baseline 9M14 would never be issued with the BMP-1. Source: tech.wikireading.ru

As with the Grom, the Malyutka provided significant armor piercing capacities to the Object 911 if it was to hit, but this was far from a given considering the slow speed and manual guidance of the missile. Hit probability on a static tank-sized target was only 20% to 25%. Two missiles were carried within the turret. The vehicle was not supposed to travel outside of combat zones with a missile mounted, and as such these, alongside potentially missiles stored inside the hull (it is unknown whether the Object 911 would have any) were all the vehicle had to contend with. On the plus size, as with the PG-15V, the explosive nature of the Malyutka’s warhead means it could also be fired with good effects on field fortifications and fixed positions. The process of preparing for the firing of a Malyutka, including taking out the control box and loading the missile onto the firing rail, could take from 40 to 55 seconds depending on the skills of the gunner.

Performances

Trials for the Object 911, alongside Objects 19, 914, 765, and 1200 were held in 1964.

A top-rear view of Object 911 during its trials. Source: Solyankin, Pavlov, Pavlov, Zheltov. Otechestvennye boevye mashiny vol. 3

During these, the Object 911 was able to reach a maximum speed of 57 km/h on road when using tracked drive. This was fairly moderate. On water, top speed reached 10.3 km/h thanks to the hydrojets, which is on the higher end of amphibious vehicles of the era.

The use of wheeled drive would highly improve the maximum speed of the Object 911 on roads though. It was recorded at a maximum speed of 108 km/h on a paved road, and had an average cruise speed of 70 km/h on highways using wheeled drive. In addition to the superior maximum speed, the use of wheeled drive also had another major upside. It highly reduced the fuel consumption of the vehicle, to the point where the crossable distance reached a tremendous 1,350 km. In comparison, when driving on tracks on dry, dirt roads, the range would vary from 350 to 500 km. This maximum range advantage could be very significant if large movements had to be undertaken on roads without transporters.

The Object 911 struggling to overcome a slope during its trials. It would eventually succeed in overcoming it, whereas the Object 19 and the Object 1200 failed. Source: Bronya Rossii (Russia’s Armor) Episode 8
The Object 911 moving cross-country during its trials. The vehicle was generally considered to have better off-road mobility than Object 19 and 1200, but was outclassed by Object 914 and Object 765 in this regard. Source: Bronya Rossii (Russia’s Armor) Episode 8

In terms of cross-country capacities, Object 911 was able to cross a 30° degree slope. In practice, it provided better slope crossing capacities than the mostly or fully wheeled Object 19 or 1200. However, cross-country mobility was overall found to be inferior to the fully tracked Object 765 and Object 914.

The Flip Side of the Coin: an Overly Complex and Damaging Drive

When considering the improved road speed and range, one may find the dual drive with wheels featured on the Object 911 to be a major improvement in comparison to other vehicles. It is true that, in theory, the improvements gained in speed and range were considerable, but in practice, these were more than offset by a large quantity of issues with the wheels.

The first was that the wheels, located under the belly of the tank, were typically hard to reach and remove for maintenance. This issue was exacerbated by the fact the aviation wheels used in the Object 911 were more vulnerable to wear and tear in comparison to standard ground wheels and, as such, would need to be maintained or replaced more often when in active use. The wheels were also found to overly complicate the production of the vehicle and make it longer and more expensive to produce. This was once again a major issue, as the goal behind the program was to provide an easy and quick-to-produce vehicle which could be introduced in massive numbers.

Object 911 during the process of switching from tracked to wheeled drive. Though the wheels provide the vehicle with some significant advantages in range and maximum speed, these were not judged to be worth the sacrifices undertaken in ease of production, maintenance, and cross-country mobility. Source: Bronya Rossii (Russia’s Armor) Episode 8

Likely the most damning point of the wheels over the fate of the Object 911, however, was their impact on cross-country capacities. As stated previously, the wheels of the Object 911, even when retracted to their fullest extent, would not entirely be contained within the hull and would still stick out of the bottom by several centimeters. In practice, this was found to be a major issue when driving on uneven dirt roads or terrain. The wheels could occasionally touch the ground and get caught on it. The result would be that the track would lose tension and the vehicle would prove unable to negotiate the obstacle. Considering the requirements requested for a highly mobile vehicle that could move through all terrains, this was a major issue.

Another issue that likely arose by this point was the crew configuration. When compared to the favorite, the Object 765, which would eventually be chosen, the placement of dismounts to the center and front of the vehicle would prove unfavorable. While, at first, this had been the preferred solution due to the ability of the dismounts to engage with small arms towards the front of the vehicle, in practice, the rear dismounts compartment of the Object 765 allowed for a far easier and safer exit of the vehicle through dual rear doors. In this configuration, the dismounts would not have to exit from the top of the vehicle, which could be incredibly dangerous when under fire. The buoyancy of the Object 911 was also found to be overall lacking, with the vehicle being fairly unstable in water.

Conclusion – An Original Solution, Quickly Ditched

In practice, it appears the Object 911 was one of the first vehicles to no longer be considered for adoption, alongside the other vehicle which used a mixed tracks and wheels drive, the Object 19. One can fairly easily identify the reason behind the rejection of these vehicles. The dual drive would result in increasing complexity in a vehicle which would typically perform worse than a wheeled vehicle in areas generally favorable to wheeled vehicles, and worse than tracked vehicles in areas generally favorable to tracked vehicles.

A modern view of the Object 911 at Kubinka. Image provided by Pavel Alexe.

Despite this rejection, the Volgograd Tractor Plant was not entirely out of the field of infantry fighting development, largely due to the parallel development of the more conventional Object 914. In comparison to the Object 911, the more standard Object 914 had more satisfying results and appeared to have been seriously considered for longer, though, eventually, the vehicle picked would be the more novel Object 765. Volgograd Tractor Plant would still obtain a notable success in the following years in the form of the Object 915, a small and light infantry fighting vehicle which was adopted as the airborne BMD-1.

As for the Object 911, it was not, for the time, an evolutionary dead-end, as alongside the infantry fighting vehicle, a light tank would be designed using the same chassis. This would be the very low Object 911B, which appears to have ditched the wheels drive entirely and featured a small two-man crew entirely present in the turret. As with the Object 911, it would also not be adopted for service. The Object 911 has been preserved in the Kubinka Armor Museum up to this day.

Object 911 on tracks. Illustration by Pavel “Carpaticus” Alexe
Object 911 on wheels. Illustration by Pavel “Carpaticus” Alexe

Object 911 specifications

Dimensions (L-W-H) 6.735 x 2.940 x 2.040 m (maximum ground clearance)
Ground clearance 96 to 456 mm (adjustable)
Combat weight 12.07 tonnes
Engine UTD-20 6-cylinders 300 hp diesel engine
Suspension Adjustable pneumatic springs
Transmission mount rear
Forward gears 5
Road wheels (tracks) 5 per side
Wheels configuration 4×2
Wheels diameter 840 mm
Steering wheels Front
Maximum speed (road) 57 km/h on tracks, 108 km/h on wheels
Cruise speed (road) 70 km/h on wheels
Maximum speed (water) 10.3 km/h
Range 350-500 km (dirt roads, tracked drive)
Up to 1,350 km (highways, wheeled drive)
Crew 2 (driver, commander/gunner)
Dismounts 8
Main gun 73 mm 2A28 ‘Grom’ with 40 rounds
Autoloader Electrically-driven horizontal conveyor belt
Secondary armament Coaxial 7.62 mm PKT with 2,000 rounds
Missile armament 9M14 Malyutka ATGM with at least 2 missiles, possibly more
Effective armor protection Heavy machine gun fire (frontal arc), rifle-caliber projectiles and artillery shells splinters (sides and rear)
Numbers produced 1

Sources

Solyankin, Pavlov, Pavlov, Zheltov. Otechestvennye boevye mashiny vol. 3
73-мм ГЛАДКОСТВОЛЬНОЕ ОРУДИЕ 2A28 Техническое описание и инструкция по эксплуатации (73-mm SMOOTHBORE WEAPON 2A28 Technical description and operating instructions)
БОЕВАЯ МАШИНА ПЕХОТЫ БМП-1 ТЕхничЕскоЕ ОПИсаниЕ И ИНСТРУКЦИЯ ПО ЭКСПЛУАТАЦИИ (COMBAT VEHICLE INFANTRY BMP-1 Technical Description AND THE OPERATING INSTRUCTIONS)
Bronya Rossii (Russia’s Armor) Episode 8
BMP-1 field disassembly, Tankograd
skylancer7441’s archive
Kubinka tank museum website

With special thanks to Alex Tarasov and Pavel Alexe for their help in researching and writing this article

Categories
Modern Algerian Armor

T-62 in Algerian Service and T-62-Berezhok conversion

Flag of Algeria.svgPeople’s Democratic Republic of Algeria (1977-present)
Main battle tank – 330 delivered

Algeria achieved independence from France in 1962 after an 8-year bloody struggle. Since then, the country has built up one of the best equipped militaries on the African continent. The main supplier of military hardware, and particularly armored vehicles, for this regional military power was traditionally the Soviet Union. A supporter of Algerian independence against France, the Soviet Union largely equipped the Algerian Army from the 1960s onward, and some of the hardware delivered in this era has remained in service and seemingly well-appreciated even up to this day, notably the T-55. This does not, however, appear to be the case of its direct successor in Soviet service, the T-62. Delivered to Algeria around 1977, the type has had a troublesome history in the North African country, largely outshadowed by the tanks that came before and after it. However, a recent rebuilding program may give a second life to the T-62 in the largest country of North Africa.

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An ANP T-62 on parade, late 1970s.Source: https://www.forcesdz.com/

An Army Running On Soviet Gear: The Rise of the ANP’s Armored Forces

France’s colonization of the territory of modern day Algeria began in 1830, and despite local opposition, would consolidate later in the century. Generally considered one of the jewels of France’s colonial empire, Algeria was no simple colony. It was the territory where, more than elsewhere, efforts were undertaken to settle Europeans and integrate the territory within the regular French political structures in place. Algeria was, in effect, a part of France.

This did little to prevent the rise of pro-independence feelings in Algeria, which already manifested in a fairly strong popular insurrection that was bloodily repressed by the French Army and Navy in 1945. In October 1954, the FLN (French: Front de Libération Nationale, English: National Liberation Front) was founded as a pro-independence group, which would quickly grow its armed forces, the ALN (French: Armée de Libération Nationale, English: National Liberation Army). This led to the beginning of the Algerian War, a conflict in which the FLN/ALN struggled with the French Army and its local auxiliaries for the independence of Algeria. After years of a long, bloody war, a ceasefire was finally brokered with the Evian Accords of March 1962. In July, Algeria would effectively gain its independence.

France’s colonial war had been widely unpopular, even among Western countries, and while France continued to widely acquire American gear during the Algerian War, there were few countries that openly supported France in the Algerian War. In contrast, the FLN had ample foreign support, both from fellow formerly colonized Arab states and other powers, perhaps most significantly the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc. These equipped the ALN with weapons through a variety of channels during their guerilla struggle against the French.

Once in control of the country, the FLN implemented policies generally somewhat comparable with the USSR. The movement-turned-party was by no means Communist, even outlawing and repressing some communist organizations, but supported a form of Arab Socialism that generally clashed with the West. As such, it is not surprising to see that the Algerian Army, the ANP (French: Armée Nationale Populaire, English: National Popular Army), would receive open large-scale deliveries of arms from the Soviet Union and allied states. In terms of tanks, initially, there were a moderate number (seemingly around 110) of T-34-85s received shortly after independence, around 1963. These were quickly followed by a much larger complement of around 290 T-54 and T-55 tanks between 1964 and 1967. A further 50 T-55s may have arrived in the early 1980s. Significant numbers of armored personnel carriers, at first BTR-40s and BTR-152s, were delivered in the 1960s, and later BTR-60PBs, BTR-50s, and eventually BMP-1s in the 1970s as well.

These deliveries would allow the ANP to morph into a fairly large and well-equipped mechanized and armored force, although the exact composition of its units has typically been fairly poorly documented. This force had one clear potential opponent in the form of the neighboring Kingdom of Morocco. Morocco was more closely aligned with the West and had many historical disputes with Algeria, the most significant of these being over Western Sahara. Spain had held this territory, claimed by Morocco, in 1975, and Algeria openly supported and armed a group advocating for the independence of the region, known as the Polisario Front. This led to a divided Western Sahara stuck in a frozen conflict, a situation that persists to this day.

A recent picture of an Algerian T-55AMV. The T-55 has become a workhorse of the ANP, still widely used alongside mechanized infantry, and considerably modernized. As late as 2018, the vehicles were modified in order to be able to use Ukrainian 100 mm Stugna gun-launched anti-tank guided missiles.Source: topwar.ru

The deployment of Algeria’s Army is informed by its historical rivalry with Morocco. Algeria is divided between six military regions:

  • 1st Military Region: located around the capital, Algiers, and does not include any territories on Algeria’s border.
  • 2nd Military Region: located to the north-west, and concentrated around Oran, comprises the most densely populated area, bordering Morocco, and has traditionally seen the heaviest deployment of the ANP, particularly its most well-equipped units.
  • 3rd Military Region: comprises the western part of the Algerian Sahara, including some significant settlements, such as Béchar, a long border with Morocco, and the border Algeria has with the Polisario Front. This strategic region has also seen significant deployments of the ANP.
  • 4th Military Region: comprises the east of the Algerian Sahara, notably the totality of the border with Libya.
  • 5th Military Region: located around Constantine in the north-east, it comprises Algeria’s border with Tunisia.
  • 6th Military Region: the largest of the regions, it comprises most of the Algerian Sahara, including borders with Sahel/Sub-Saharan states, such as Mali and Niger.
A map of Algeria’s military regions.Source: Wikimedia Commons

These last three regions (4, 5, and 6), typically located further away from direct, potential peer-to-peer opponents of the Algerian Army, have typically seen less deployment of modern, heavy assets.

The T-62

The T-62 tank formally entered service in the Soviet Army in 1961, and new vehicles would be produced until 1975. The vehicle had largely been based on the previous T-55 in terms of armor layout and powerplant. The engine used in the T-62, the V-55V, was identical to the T-55’s V-55 in all but the alternator. It was a 12-cylinder, 4-stroke, liquid-cooled diesel engine, producing 580 hp at the nominal rate of 2,000 rpm.

Where the T-62 differed from the T-55 was in terms of turret and armament. The T-62 had adopted a new cast turret, of a similar overall shape but flatter and wider, and most significantly, a new 115 mm U-5TS smoothbore gun. In comparison to the 100 mm D-10T of the T-55, the U-5TS would prove superior both from a purely larger caliber and shell, and a smoothbore rather than rifled barrel, which was typically a better alternative to use for high-pressure shells, particularly in terms of wear. This made the T-62 better able to deal with new NATO tanks introduced in the 1960s which, for some of them, became better protected than their 1950s predecessors, for example the American M60 and the British Chieftain. There were also minor changes to the hull, which was slightly longer, as was the combat compartment. However, the vehicle gained only one tonne of weight from the T-55, reaching 37 tonnes. The improved T-55A was actually even heavier than the T-62, at 37.5 tonnes.

In many other regards, the T-62 was similar to the previous T-55. In terms of armor protection, the vehicle had the same protection on the hull. The main front glacis was 100 mm thick, angled at 60°, while the lower front plate was 100 mm angled at 55°. The hull sides were mostly flat and 80 mm thick, with a 45 mm armored collar for the turret, and a similar thickness of 45 mm at the vehicle’s rear hull. The cast turret had more differences with the old T-55, being flatter and wider overall. The armor was 242 mm at its thickest, on the very sides of the gun (32 mm thicker than on a T-54/T-55). Most of the frontal arc was 214 mm in comparison to 200 mm on the T-55, though the shapes of the T-62 turret meant that impacts would happen at higher angles. The armor progressively declined over the sides, being thicker towards the front, and going down to about 65 mm towards the rear sides. The roof itself was about 30 mm thick, though the front part, more susceptible to being hit, was 60 mm thick at a high angling of 80° just on top of the gun. Overall, the protection of the T-62 was equal to the T-55s over the hull but quite superior around the turret. At the time Algeria acquired the vehicle, this would have been a very good performance, especially as the Moroccan Army still had many tanks, such as 90 mm-armed M48s, which would have struggled to perforate that type of armor.

The suspension was very similar, though there were some differences. The T-62 notably did away with the front roadwheel having more space between it and the second, whereas all others were equally spaced. All road wheels were evenly spaced on the T-62. The type of suspension used is a classic torsion bar suspension. Crew composition was also similar to the T-54/T-55, with a driver, a loader, a commander, and a gunner. Operation would also be similar, though the heavier 115 mm shell could be said to be more tiring for the loader, despite efforts made to make it as light as possible.

The T-62 in Algeria

As a major customer of Soviet hardware, it is not surprising that Algeria ended up acquiring T-62s. Some 330 vehicles were purchased from the Soviet Union in the 1970s. The most commonly accepted date for the start of deliveries seems to be 1977, although 1975 is sometimes claimed. Deliveries ended in 1979. This fairly large delivery ran pretty swiftly, and seems to have almost doubled the Algerian fleet of main battle tanks. Algerian T-62s seem to have sometimes mounted a pintle DShK 12.7mm heavy machine gun.

Algerian T-62s on the parade during their first decades of service.Source: pinterest
A color photo of Algerian T-62s, with their DShK raised at a vertical angle. The registration number of the first vehicle can be observed on the front left mudguard, while the vehicle’s number is present on the side of the turret.Source: https://www.forcesdz.com/

In service, the T-62 did not at all replace the T-54/T-55, which remained in service. They instead supplemented them. They were seen taking part in a number of parades in the late 1970s. However, it appears that the tanks failed to make a major impression. Algerian tankers seem to have preferred the older T-54/T-55 over the newer vehicle. It seems there were complaints of the vehicle performing poorly mobility-wise due to an increase in weight, though it being noticeable seems fairly odd, as the vehicle only gained a tonne while keeping the same horsepower output. It is also likely the heavier 115 mm shells, harder to handle for loaders, proved less popular for the crews. In Europe, the increase of firepower could generally be said to be well worth it, but one could see how this was lost on an Algerian Army of which the main rival, Morocco, in large part fielded older or lightly armored Western tanks, such as the M48 or SK-105.

Perhaps more significantly though, it would not be long before Algeria acquired new Soviet tanks, which seem to have been a huge jump forward from the T-62. In 1979, Algeria received its first T-72s, a 100 of seemingly the M variant. In comparison to the recently delivered T-62, the new Soviet tank was superior in almost all categories. It was more mobile, better armored, and better armed with a higher-caliber and autoloaded 125 mm gun. When comparing these two tanks, which, while several years apart in development in the USSR, were delivered closely together in Algeria, it is not hard to see why the T-62 failed to make an impression.

The T-62 Throughout the Years: Myths, Modernizations, and Exports

The unpopularity of the T-62 in Algeria appears to have been such that, in past years, there was a persistent rumor that the vast majority of the fleet was exchanged with the Soviet Union for modernized T-55s of the T-55M and T-55AMV type in the early 1980s. These claims have largely been disproven by confirmation that T-62s were still spotted in service in some numbers occasionally up to this day, and instead the appearance of T-55M and T-55AMV in the ANP from the 1980s onward is due to Algeria modernizing its fleet of T-55s with Soviet support. It remains true, however, that the older T-54/T-55 appear to have received much more attention than their theoretical successor.

Further deliveries of T-72s, and later, in the 2000s, T-90SA have relieved the T-55s from serving with armored regiments as combat tanks, to being used for fire-support with mechanized infantry units. However, the vast majority have seemingly been upgraded to the AMV standard, including ERA, a laser rangefinder, a much better fire control system, and the ability to fire gun-launched anti-tank missiles. In comparison, while upgrades were available for the T-62 from the USSR, such as the T-62M and T-62MV, it appears there were never great efforts to apply them in Algeria.

It also appears that small numbers of T-62s were passed onto the Polisario Front at an unclear date. The group’s equipment is overwhelmingly sourced from Algeria. While its most common tank has always been the T-54/T-55, some T-62s have also been spotted in its service. Inside Algeria, the T-62 has generally been fairly elusive. A regiment of up to around 100 tanks operated in Ain Bessam, 98 km south-east of Algiers, deep into the 1st military region and away from the Moroccan border, in the 1990s, before they relocated in 1997.

It is likely there was some limited involvement of T-62s during the Algerian Civil War, which raged on from 1991 to 2002. This was the consequence of a military coup launched to prevent what seemed like the imminent victory of an Islamist Coalition, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), against the ruling FLN party in the presidential elections. However, the war largely had a counter-insurgency nature, as opposed to a peer-to-peer war, and as such mostly involved lighter vehicles, with the most commonly seen tanks rather being the T-55s Algeria typically relies upon for fire support.

A review of Polisario Front tanks. While most appear to be T-54 or T-55s, the tank in the forefront is a T-62, which was almost certainly supplied by Algeria.Source: https://raids.fr/

One place where Algerian T-62s have typically often been seen is in Algeria’s BCL (French: Base Centrale Logistique, English: Central Logistical Base). Founded in 1975 in Béni Mered (in the Blida Province, within the 1st Military Region, and a few dozen kilometers from Algiers), the BCL was placed under the control of the Ministry of National Defense in 1982. It comprises a number of workshops and has become the largest armored fighting vehicles maintenance, upgrade, and, to an extent, even production plant in Algeria, employing around 2,500 people in 2021. The BCL was extensively modernized between 1987 and 1994 and reached its current status as a publicly-owned, industrial, and commercial company in 2009. T-62s have been fairly consistently spotted within the facilities of the BCL, and it appears that over time, a number of upgrades from the T-55AMV ‘trickled down’ onto some T-62s. A limited number of vehicles were spotted fitted with a similar laser rangefinder, likely the same KTD-2 as on the T-55AMV. T-62s have also been seen with a second infrared spotlight. However, it does not appear Algerian T-62s have ever been seen with the Kontakt 1 reactive armor used by the T-55AMV, nor is it likely that their fire control system has been upgraded to the same extent.

Three Algerian T-62s seen in recent years. They feature a number of new components, such as IR searchlights and what appear to be laser rangefinders, but still are far from featuring the amount of modernizations of Algerian T-55s. As suggested by the red oxide primer that two of them sport, these three vehicles may also just have been experimental conversions done at the BCL, and it appears unlikely most T-62s went through such a range of upgrades.Source: Dr.WatsonFDZ on twitter

Conversion to Fire Support Vehicles

By the 2000s, the T-62 appeared to many as the least active and most out-of-date part of Algerian’s tank fleet. They had failed to go on the same updates as the T-55s, while also vastly outdated in comparison to the T-72s and T-90s of Algeria.

Around the same time, Algeria was still a massive customer of Russian gear. Among notable orders, Algeria was an early adopter of the BMP-2M ‘Berezhok’ modernization for the BMP-2, ordering kits to modernize its vehicles as early as 2006. This adoption would be fairly widespread, extending further than the around 300 BMP-2s scheduled for modernization. A number of BMP-1s seemingly received the same turret, which makes them exceedingly hard to differentiate from BMP-2s.

In the 2010s, Algeria noticeably purchased the BMPT ‘Terminator’ T-72-based fire-support vehicle. Algeria bought a fairly high number (120, though up to 300 is sometimes claimed) of these vehicles, which were delivered in 2020.

An Algerian BMP upgraded with the Berezhok turret seen on the move during exercises.Source: military.africa
An Algerian BMPT Terminator. As of 2022, Algeria is the largest operator of this vehicle in the world. Source: KAD-GHANI on twitter

These purchases (among other purchases of Russian gear by Algeria, such as more T-90s), gave Algeria experience with both the Berezhok turret and the concept of a fire-support vehicle based on the hull of a tank. It appears these concepts were combined with Algeria’s remaining T-62s. It is not necessarily hard to see why this thought process was followed. The 115 mm gun of the T-62 had over the decades been unable to make itself as much of a ubiquitous system as the 100 mm of the T-54/55 or the 125 mm of the T-72 and T-90s. It appears that, as a result, the cost for ammunition and continued ammunition production was much less affordable than for more widely used calibers. Considering the T-62s also appeared to have been poorly valued by the Algerian Army, they were a prime candidate to find another use.

Therefore, at some point in the very late 2010s or in 2020, the decision was made to modernize the T-62 fleet by replacing their turrets with Berezhok turrets. The Algerian Army is traditionally somewhat opaque, which is why the start of the process is hard to place. It appears the conversion was first reported in late August 2021. By that point, however, known pictures of the conversion process were already being shared alongside the news, suggesting the project started months prior at least.

There were some changes that needed to be carried out in order to adapt the T-62 hull to mount a Berezhok turret. The most important most likely concerned the turret ring. The T-62 had a 2,245 mm turret ring (largely widened in comparison to the previous T-55 in order to accommodate the 115 mm gun), while the Berezhok is adapted to the 1,740 mm turret ring of the BMP-2. The solution to this problem was to create an armored ‘collar’, of which the reduced diameter would match the one needed. As a consequence though, it would likely make the turret sit higher as well. It is unclear if more changes are meant to be applied to the hull of the T-62s, mainly as, as of April 2022, no pictures of a completed converted vehicle have yet been seen. In order to fulfill a heavy fire-support role similar to a BMPT, some changes, such as the use of Explosive Reactive Armor (with Algeria already using Kontakt 5 fairly widely) would aid in the vehicle being able to adequately perform this role. Some pictures suggest new side skirts are being added to the vehicle, but this is a far cry from a large-scale updating of the tank’s protection, particularly against RPGs, which are likely to be the main threat to an urban fire-support vehicle.

T-62s undergoing the upgrade at the BCL. The forwardmost vehicle can be seen fitted with the armored ‘collar’ for the Berezhok turret. Other red oxide parts, such as what appears to be a basic spaced armor plate around the engine and extended mudguards, indicate new parts being fitted.Source: Dr.WatsonFDZ on twitter
Another picture of the vehicles being worked on in the BCL, showing both the new armored collar as well the extended mudguards and sideskirts.Source: Dr.WatsonFDZ on twitter

The Berezhok Turret

The turret and components used for this modernization were ordered by Algeria from Kurganmashzavod KPB Tula of Russia.

A dismounted Berezhok turret used as a training aid in Algeria, 2018. Source: Algerian television via Dr.WatsonFDZ on twitter

The Berezhok turret is directly based on the BMP-2’s, of which it is intended as a modernization. However, it appears that new turrets are clearly being manufactured, which is not in itself a surprise, as BMP-2s turrets were still being made and used after the fall of the USSR. The Berezhok turret was first unveiled in 2006, and was a private venture. Russian orders to modernize the BMP-2 fleet would indeed take about a decade to come.

The turret can largely be considered a modern IFV turret. As a result of their BMP-2 lineage, it appears they have kept the same modest armor protection, with 20 mm angled at 36° to 43° to the front and front-sides, and 10 mm angled at 20° to 28º to the rear. The ergonomics are likely broadly similar as well. In comparison to previous Soviet vehicles, and particularly the BMP-1, the BMP-2’s turret is generally considered to have been somewhat more comfortable. The commander notably has a rotating cupola, though it is meagerly fitted with original periscopes.

The Berezhok turret highly improved the sensor suite of the BMP-2 turret. It received a much larger rotating commander’s sight, as well as thermal sights, seemingly for both gunner and commander, a significant improvement from previous models.

The main armament of the turret is still the 30 mm 2A42 autocannon.

The 30 mm 2A42 autocannon, which became the USSR’s most common 30 mm autocannon in the 1980s.Source: topwar.ru

The 2A42 fires the Soviet 30×165 mm cartridge. It uses a dual-feed system. There is a digital display showing the number of shells still available in the turret, as well as a switch allowing for a quick change in the type of ammunition fired. The weapon features a 2,416 mm barrel, fitted with a double-baffle muzzle brake. The autocannon has two dedicated fire rates, a slow one at 200 rpm and a quicker one at 550 rpm. During sustained fire, the rate of fire can reach higher values. The turret allows for a very high elevation of +60° which, coupled with a dedicated high-elevation sight, makes the 2A42 a more dangerous threat to helicopters than what would be expected from a ground vehicle.

A number of 30×165 mm shells are available for the 2A42. The total number of shells carried inside the BMD-2 turret is 300. If enough work was put into it, it is likely the larger hull of the BMP could allow for higher ammunition stowage.

For use against light fortifications, infantry, soft-skinned vehicles, and other unarmored targets, the 2A42 can fire the 3UOF8 High-Explosive Incendiary (HE-I) shells. This shell has an explosive filling of 49 grams of A-IX-2, the standard Soviet explosive autocannon shell formula since 1943. The overall mass of the projectile is 390 g, and that of the whole cartridge 842 g. In high-explosive belts, it is complemented by the 3UOR6. This shell forsakes most of the explosive charge, with only 11.5 g remaining, to mount a very large tracer. Fired at the same muzzle velocity of 980 m/s, it is used for fire correction purposes, though over large distances, the trajectory of the two shells may begin to differ. With a fuse lasting 9 to 14 seconds, the explosive shells will generally detonate after about 4 km if they have not met a target, though autocannons are typically used effectively at much closer ranges. The rate of tracer to high-explosive rounds in a 30 mm belt tends to be 1:4.

For armor-piercing duties, two types of 30 mm shells exist. The older 3UBR6 is a fairly classic armor-piercing shell with a core of hardened structural steel. This steel core weighs 375 g, with the entire projectile weighing just 25 g more, at 400 g, and the entire shell weighs 856 g. It features a tracer that burns for 3.5 seconds after being fired, and has a muzzle velocity of 970 m/s. Its penetration values against Rolled Homogeneous Armor (RHA) at an angle of 60° are 29 mm at 700 m, 18 mm at 1,000 m, and 14 mm at 1,500 m. These are fairly mediocre performances, able to defeat little more than light armored vehicles in the vast majority of cases.

A more modern armor-piercing shell exists in the form of the 3UBR8, an Armor Piercing Discarding Sabot (APDS) shell with a tracer. It features a lighter 222 g piercing core of tungsten alloy. The projectile as a whole is 304 g, and the cartridge 765 g. Fired at a muzzle velocity of 1,120 m/s, this shell seems to penetrate, against similar RHA armor and at the same angle of 60°, 35 mm at 1,000 m, and 25 mm at 1,500 m. It offers much more suitable performance than the older 3UBR6 against modern infantry fighting vehicles. The 2A42 is supplemented by a coaxial 7.62×54 mmR PKTM machine gun. It appears it is fed by a single 2,000 round belt, as on the standard BMP-2.

This 2A42 autocannon is fitted with much more comprehensive fire control systems inside the Berezhok. The turret features a ballistic computer and automatic target tracker, making acquisition and precise targeting much easier. It also provides thermal sights and a two-axis stabilizer. The gunner’s sight, in particular, comprises 4 different channels: a classic optical mode, a thermal mode, a laser rangefinding mode, and a fourth integrated missile-control mode for the turret’s Kornet ATGMs. Independent commander and gunner’s sights allow the turret to be used in ‘hunter-killer’ operations.

In addition to the PKTM, another anti-infantry secondary weapon is fitted in the form of the AGS-30M automatic grenade launcher. It is mounted to the rear of the turret, firing over the roof, and is centrally mounted. This automatic grenade launcher is fed by 29-round belts, with the projectiles used being 30×29 mm grenades. A number of projectiles are available. The oldest is the VOG-17A and improved VOG-17M, introduced with the 1970s AGS-17, a simple high-explosive fragmentation grenade. The later VOG-30 and, since 2013, VOG-30D retain the same general role of HE-FRAG, but with enhanced explosive filling and fragmentation potential. The last type of HE projectile available, IO-30, is fitted with a fuze to detonate it after 1,700 m, which is generally considered to be the maximum effective range of the AGS-30. The grenade launcher is automatic, firing rounds at arounds 400 rounds/minute with a muzzle velocity of about 185 m/s. It is a remarkably light system at only 16 kg unloaded, adding some non-negligible firepower to the vehicle at very little additional weight. Additionally, it can also be loaded with VUS-30 smoke projectiles, allowing it to be used to deploy smoke screens.

An ammunition belt of 30 mm VOG-17A high-explosive fragmentation grenades.Source: armedconflicts.com
A rear view of a BMP-2M Berezhok at a Russian military exhibition. This angle is particularly good for viewing the AGS-30M as well as Kornet missile tubes.Source: topwar.ru

The last weapon system of the Berezhok is its complement of 9M113 Kornet missiles. The turret features four launchers, two on each side of the turret. It ought to be noted that while this is not the case on the BMP-2M, considering the large space available for ammunition storage inside the T-62 hull, storage of a reload of these missiles may perhaps be a possibility.

The Kornet uses semi-automatic beam-riding guidance, meaning the missile is aimed using a laser beam aimed at the target from the firing vehicle. The previous 9M113 Konkurs offered by Tula was, in comparison, a wire-guided semi-automatic command to line of sight (S.A.C.L.O.S.) system, which required the firing vehicle to constantly maintain the target in line-of-sight in order to retain guidance. This more modern guidance system, in addition to the higher maximum speed of Kornet ATGMs (going from 250 to 300 m/s, depending on the missile, whereas Konkurs reaches a maximum of around 200 m/s), makes the Kornet a safer and more accurate missile in general.

In addition to its superior guidance system and speed in comparison to older Soviet ATGMs, the Kornet is also of a larger caliber than most being 152 mm, whereas the older Konkurs is 135 mm. This, in addition to more modern shaped charge designs and components, make it much more effective against armored fighting vehicles. The original 9M133-1 missile was rated for around 1,100 to 1,200 mm Rolled Homogenous Armor (RHA) penetration on average, and the use of a tandem HEAT warhead reduced the protection offered by ERA against it. Since then, the newer 9M133-2 (or ‘Kornet-EM’) has a stated armor penetration of 1,100 to 1,300 mm and a longer effective range of up to 8,000 m. The large caliber of the Kornet also allowed for other uses than merely anti-tank. This manifested with the 9M133F-1 missile, which instead of an armor-piercing shaped charge, contains a thermobaric warhead, equivalent to 10 kg of TNT and providing significant incendiary effects. Both the original 9M133-1 and thermobaric 9M133-F missiles have a maximum flight speed of 250 m/s and an effective range of 100 to 5,500 m.

A schematic of the 9M113-1 armor-piercing missile. The first explosive charge is denoted by the ‘1’ and the second by the ‘5’. The fenders (6) and control systems (7) are at the rear, while the fuel (4), rudders (3), and drive with intlets (3) are towards the front-middle.Source: https://en.missilery.info/
The warhead of a 9M133F-1 thermobaric Kornet, which was found by Ukrainian troops in Donbas in 2015.Source: https://informnapalm.org/

Still, in some ways, the turret may be somewhat of an imperfect fit. As previously stated, without an effort to up-armor it, it has much lighter armor protection than the hull, though it could be said that even without additional armor, the base hull of a T-62 is not protected against many modern anti-tank weapons. The vehicle would have a crew reduced to three due to the Berezhok turret only having two crewmembers, which would change aspects of the vehicle’s maintenance.

Conclusion – A Potentially Potent Modernization, Yet to Enter Service

Overall, the reasoning behind the modernization of the T-62 with the Berezhok turret by Algeria is a fairly reasonable process. With somewhat uncommon ammunition, the T-62’s original armament would have been harder to maintain. While the armament on 100 mm-armed tanks was modernized (in 2018, Algerian T-55s received the ability to fire Ukrainian 100 mm Stugna gun-launched anti-tank missiles), it does not appear there were efforts to offer the same capacities to T-62s, despite gun-launched 115 mm-missiles also being available.

The Berezhok modernization does give the vehicle a considerable amount of firepower which can be used for fire-support roles. The 2A42, AGS-30M, and thermobaric warheads for the Kornet are all potent weapon systems for such roles. It is likely Algeria can very easily see use for this type of vehicle. In its history, the country has at times been the victim of heavily-armed terrorists, a consequence of the almost unpatrollable borders in the Sahara, alongside unstable countries. A prominent example in the last decade was the In Amenas hostage crisis of January 2013. Al-Qaeda terrorists took over a gas facility in the Sahara, on Algeria’s border with Libya, taking hundreds of Algerian workers and dozens of foreigners hostage. This forced the Algerian Army to conduct an assault. Historically, fighting in urban areas against terrorists has been a major concern for the ANP. The potency of a vehicle such as the modernized T-62 in such a role is not to be underestimated, particularly if the vehicle is to receive explosive-reactive armor (ERA), although the potential addition of ERA is unknown at this time.

Algerian T-62. Illustration by David Bocquelet.
Algerian T-62, red primer. Illustration by David Bocquelet.
T-62 with Berezhok turret. Illustration by David Bocquelet, modified by Pavel “Carpaticus” Alexe, funded by our Patreon campaign.
T-62 with Berezhok turret, modified parts still in red primer. Illustration by David Bocquelet, modified by Pavel “Carpaticus” Alexe, funded by our Patreon campaign.

Sources

El Moudjahid Nation : Base centrale logistique de Beni Merad à Blida : Renforcer les capacités des unités de combat, 26-01-2021: https://www.elmoudjahid.dz/fr/nation/base-centrale-logistique-de-beni-merad-a-blida-renforcer-les-capacites-des-unites-de-combat-4618
Forcesdz.com: https://www.forcesdz.com/viewtopic.php?f=19&t=1741
T-62 on Tankograd: https://thesovietarmourblog.blogspot.com/2015/12/t-62.html#cannon
30×165 mm cartridges on Tankograd: https://thesovietarmourblog.blogspot.com/p/30x165mm-cartridges.html
BMP-2 on Tankograd: https://thesovietarmourblog.blogspot.com/2016/05/bmp-2.html#mob
30 mm HE Round IO-30 (VOG-17) for Automatic Grenade Launcher AGS-17 on Kintex: https://kintex.bg/product-4-242#tabs-1
“Un Mini-Terminator inédit pour l’Algérie” on Menadefense, August 28 2021: https://www.menadefense.net/algerie/un-mini-terminator-inedit-pour-lalgerie/
Algeria upgrades BMP-2s with Berezhok turret on military.africa: https://www.military.africa/2021/05/algeria-upgrades-bmp-2s-with-berezhok-turret

Categories
WW2 German Armored Cars

Panzerspahwagen 204(f) with 45 mm 20-K gun

Nazi Germany FlagGermany (Between 1941 and 1943)
Armored Car – Very likely unique

Germany’s victories during the early phases of the Second World War gifted the Wehrmacht with a large fleet of captured armored fighting vehicles. The fall of France, in particular, saw Germany get its hands on most of the former vehicle fleet of the French Army, as well as infrastructure to reasonably maintain them. These vehicles would see continued use by German forces all across Europe, mostly in security roles, but also occasionally on the frontlines, all the way to the fall of Germany in 1945. During these years of service, many were modified or converted by their users. An obscure conversion is the Panzerspähwagen (Eng: reconnaissance tank) 204(f), a captured Panhard 178 that was refitted with a Soviet 45 mm 20-K gun.

The Panhard 178

In December 1931, the French Cavalry formulated a request for an AMD (Automitrailleuse de Découverte / ‘Discovery’ armored car), an armored vehicle meant to perform reconnaissance while having enough combat capacities to be able to engage enemy units. This was in contrast to the AMR (Automitrailleuse de Reconnaissance / Reconnaissance Armored Car), which were smaller vehicles with more limited combat capacities meant purely for reconnaissance. Panhard, the leading French armored car producer at the time, designed the Voiture Spéciale 178, more often simply known as Panhard 178, to meet this request. The vehicle was adopted by the French Cavalry as the AMD 35 in 1934. Formal orders were placed in January of 1935, production begian in 1936, and the first operational vehicles were delivered in February 1937.

A crewmember of the 6th Cuirassiers Regiment stands in front of his Panhard 178. With a crew of four, the Panhard 178, though not perfect, still had a much more effective division of tasks than most French AFVs.Source: char-français

The Panhard 178 was an 8 tonnes armored car powered by a 4-cylinder 105 hp engine and was able to reach a maximum speed of 72 km/h. One of its most interesting features, which separated it from the vast majority of other French armored vehicles, was its two-crew APX3 (Atelier de Construction de Puteaux – Eng: Puteaux Construction Workshop) turret, which allowed the commander to concentrate on tactical, spotting, and overall command tasks, leaving the operation of the gun to the gunner/loader. This was a major improvement in comparison to the one-crew turrets which featured on the vast majority of French tanks, where the commander also had to reload and operate the vehicle’s armament. This APX 3 turret featured a 25 mm SA 35 anti-tank gun as well as a coaxial MAC 31 7.5 mm machine gun, with 150 25 mm and 3,750 7.5 mm rounds. This armament was fairly capable for an armored car, being, for example, generally sufficient to deal with early Panzer III and IV models fielded in the campaign for France, as well as the earlier Panzer I and II.

Into the Wehrmacht

With the German invasion of France in May-June 1940, the French saw many of their vehicles abandoned by the side of roads because of lack of fuel or spare parts, or even of time to repair or refuel their vehicles before they would be overrun. These intact vehicles would be ripe for the taking for German forces, and there are indeed occasional reports of captured Panhard 178s, as well as other vehicles, such as the Renault UE, being fielded by German forces during the Campaign of France itself.

More significantly, at the end of the campaign, the French Army surrendered some of its vehicles. Actually, the Panhard 178 was the only vehicle Vichy France was allowed to keep in service in mainland France by the terms of the armistice. A total of 64 vehicles, with the 25 mm gun replaced by another 7.5 mm machine gun, were approved under these conditions. In addition, there were at least 45 uncompleted hulls which were hidden away from the Germans and were later used for the Panhard 178 CDM conversions.

German forces were also able to seize the Panhard facilities with a number of completed or near-completed vehicles. It is thought that about 190 Panhard 178s were pressed into service with German forces. Overall, the vehicle could be said to have been one of the more potent French vehicles, with a two-crew turret, a decent anti-tank gun for the time, and overall good mobility. It is therefore not surprising to see the vehicle was actively pressed into service by German troops. The Panhard 178 was designated Panzerspähwagen 204(f) (“f” standing for French) in the German captured vehicles designation system, and was one of the narrow selection of French vehicles which would not only be used for security roles, but also on the frontlines of Operation Barbarossa, alongside the Somua S35 cavalry tank and B1/B1 Bis converted into flamethrower vehicles.

A P 204(f) operated by SS Panzer-Aufklärungs-Abteilung 2 (Eng: SS tank reconnaissance battalion 2) of the 2. SS Panzer Division “Das Reich” (Eng: The Reich). Notice the SS registration, which significantly differs from the known converted vehicle, indicating it was a Wehrmacht vehicle instead of an SS one. Also, the tactical markings indicate that the vehicle was part of a motorized cavalry reconnaissance battalion equipped with captured French vehicles.Source: Trackstory n°2

The two most significant units operating the P 204(f) were Panzer-Aufklärungs-Abteilung 37, the reconnaissance group of the 7th Panzer-Division which operated 64 vehicles, including 18 of the unarmed, casemate radio version, and Panzer-Aufklärungs-Abteilung 92, the reconnaissance group of the 20th Panzer-Division that operated 54. Smaller number of vehicles were also included in other units which took part in the invasion of the Soviet Union, including the Waffen-SS Totenkopf and Germania (future Das Reich) divisions as well as some lower-echelon security units.

The 45 mm Conversion

Considering the vehicle was very actively employed, the Germans routinely modified some of their Panhard vehicles. For example, in French service, radios were only issued to squadron and platoon leaders, with the squadron leader receiving an ER 26ter radio dedicated to communications with other squadrons and an ER 29 dedicated to internal communications of the unit, while the platoon leaders only received the ER 29. In German service, it was very common for all vehicles to receive FuG 10 or FuG 11 radios, with the importance of radios, particularly for reconnaissance vehicles, being more highly considered by the Germans.

There were also some more in-depth Panhard 178s conversions though. The more well-known ones were found in France, where German forces had significant infrastructure to modify and convert French vehicles. These included at least one P 204(f) armed with a 5 cm KwW L/42 gun, likely made available by re-arming a Panzer III with a 5 cm L/60 gun, and another which received a 5 cm L/60 gun with a muzzle brake, all in vastly modified or perhaps all new turrets. At least one P 204(f) received an aviation turret from a German bomber, armed with a 7.92 mm MG 81 machine gun, believed to be used for security purposes by the Luftwaffe. However, in the early 2020s, a new photo emerged confirming the existence of at least one P 204(f) conversion which was very likely done on the Eastern Front.

The converted, 45 mm-armed P 204(f).Source: Ebay

The photo shows a vehicle, appearing to be painted in the Panzergrau (Eng: Panzer Gray) color, which features what appears to be a new gun and mantlet. Upon closer inspection, it appears this P 204(f) was fitted with a part of the mantlet and the gun from a Soviet T-26 or BT-5/BT-7 tank. Interestingly enough, the turret appears to be almost unmodified outside of this all new mantlet. The addition of this Soviet armament also came with the spotlight that was commonly fitted to these Soviet tanks.

The Practicality of Such a Conversion

One may wonder at first if such a conversion sounds plausible. The Panhard 178’s original 25 mm SA 34 was a smaller caliber L/47.2 gun with a 1,180 mm-long barrel, in comparison to the 45 mm L/46 of the 20-K gun with a 2,070 mm-long barrel. The Soviet 45 mm shells were both larger and longer than the French 25 mm (45 x 310 compared to 25 x 193.5 mm) and could be expected to have significantly more recoil.

However, the APX3 turret of the Panhard 178 turret being able to support a larger gun is not necessarily surprising. In fact, the Panhard 178 and 25 mm anti-tank gun was a late development on the vehicle, as a 20 mm fully automatic armament had been originally envisioned for the Panhard. Delays in the development of such an armament meant it was never mounted on a Panhard, but before France fell, the French Army was already considering re-arming the Panhard 178 with the larger 47 mm SA 35 gun, which could be said to be quite similar to the 45 mm 20-K in size and power.

The APX3 turret was considered to be able to take the larger gun with some modifications, and indeed, another relatively similar riveted turret manufactured by APX, the APX2, used in the AMC 34 and AMC 35, did make the ‘jump’ from 25 mm to 47 mm. This would never happen for the Panhard 178 in French service though, even if the Panhard would be ‘mated’ with the 47 mm SA 35 on three separate instances all with new turrets: the Panhard 178 with Renault turret prototype, the Panhard 178 CDM conversion program, and the post-war Panhard 178B variants

All things considered, it is not so far-fetched to see the APX3 turret of the P 204(f) being able to withstand the recoil of the gun, as well as still offer sufficient space for the two crew members inside to operate it.

An AMC 34 (left) and an AMC 35 (right). Both vehicles used the APX 2 turret, which has some similarities to the APX 3, but the later AMC 35 used the 47 mm SA 35. In fact, the first prototype of the AMC 35 did feature a 25 mm gun, showing switching from one to another was not necessarily as complicated as one may think at first.Source: char-français

 
The 45 mm 20-K on the 1932/1934 mount.Source: valka.cz

There would still be some impact on several aspects of the vehicle. The larger size of the 45 mm rounds would reduce the ammunition stowage of the vehicle (150 rounds of 25 mm originally), and it is not known if the new mantlet interfered or may even have forced the removal of the 7.5 mm MAC 31 machine gun. Unfortunately, these questions cannot easily be solved with a single photo.

As for the reasoning, it could be more complicated than expected at first. Despite its small caliber, the 25 mm gun was still a fairly potent anti-tank gun. The 45 mm 20-K did offer slightly higher performance, but in practice, one would be hard-pressed to find vehicles which one would penetrate whereas the other would fail. Both guns would fairly easily dispose of lightly armored 1930s Soviet tanks, like the T-26 or BTs, and both would struggle or be almost completely useless against a T-34 or a KV. On the logistical side, it is questionable whether the 25 mm would prove enough issue to warrant replacement. Large quantities of ammunition were captured by the Germans during the Fall of France and it appears more were still being produced. Though it is possible that, with lengthening supply lines, obtaining these shells may have ended up harder than captured Soviet 45 mm ammunition, other Panhards remained operating with 25 mm shells all the way to the outskirts of Moscow with seemingly little issue in procuring shells.

One aspect where the 45 mm would unquestionably prove superior to the 25 would be infantry support. Though both guns were originally designed for anti-tank work, the 45 mm was a much more polyvalent gun, benefiting from widely-issued high-explosive shells, whereas none were produced for the anti-tank Hotchkiss 25 mm caliber. The conversion may also have been a consequence of the 25 mm on the vehicle being damaged, either by enemy fire or some form of malfunction.

As for the location and dating of the photo, these are no known details attached to the photo, but some aspects can still suggest a likely time frame. The peak of German activity with P 204(f) vehicles on the Eastern Front was from June to December 1941, where the vehicles were very actively employed, suffering heavy losses. On July 14th 1941, less than a month into the invasion, 34 P 204(f) had already been destroyed and 17 more needed repairs. By the end of 1941, 109 vehicles, more than half of the German P 204(f) fleet, had been reported as lost. The Panhard 178 was mostly retired from frontline units by mid-1942, though some would continue in security units on the Eastern Front all the way into 1943. On the Western Front, the P204(f), with additional vehicles captured during the occupation of Vichy France in November 1942, would remain in service all the way to 1945. The use of the Panzergrau paint, which began to be replaced by early 1943, also suggest the vehicle was used prior to this date.

As for the 45 mm itself, one may theorize on its vehicle of origin. During the push into the Soviet Union, very large quantities of 45 mm-armed tanks ended up abandoned by Soviet forces. A significant number would be pressed back into German service, but this actually was far from the totality of vehicles that were abandoned by Soviet forces.

With the breakneck pace of the German advance, particularly in the early weeks of the campaign, Panzer-Divisions were rarely in a place long enough to repair a significant amount of vehicles, When they could, they would often focus on repairing more advanced T-34 and KV tanks which brought more advantages on the frontline than T-26s or BTs. Other German units were still, for many of them, lacking in terms of motorization, let alone mechanization, and as such, also lacked the means to recover, tow, and repair captured vehicles. Because of this, hundreds to perhaps even a couple thousand of abandoned Soviet tanks were simply left in the field, unattended to, and sometimes with their hatches still open. Others were used as targets for German gunners to maintain their skills, even if they could have been recoverable. It is quite possible that the gun used in this converted P 204(f) was taken from one of these vehicles which German troops did not have the time or means to restore to running condition.

A T-26 and two BT-7s abandoned at a river crossing, with Wehrmacht horse-drawn carts moving on a bridge in the background. While hundreds of these types of tanks would be pressed into service in German security units during the course of the war, even more would remain abandoned, as many German units, massively relying on horses for mobility, as the unit in this photo, did not have the means to repair these vehicles.Source: WW2 photo archive

One may argue that a small number of T-26s and BTs did make their way to German-occupied France, and as such, the vehicle could very well not be an Eastern Front conversion, but this possibility, already made fairly unlikely by the fact these captured vehicles sent to France were rare, is further made implausible by the architecture of the houses behind the P 204(f) on the known photograph, typical of the Soviet Union at the time, while at the same time vastly different from typical French architecture.

The registration plate is hard to read, but it clearly appears to be a Wehrmacht plate, which excludes the possibility of the vehicle being a part of the two Waffen-SS divisions which used the P 204(f) in Operation Barbarossa. The vehicle therefore likely belongs to either one of the two Panzer-Division reconnaissance groups which operated the P 204(f), or a security unit.

Conclusion – One of the Most Obscure Panhards

Oddly enough, the Panhard 178 having obscure variants which feature larger guns than the original 25 mm gun seems to be somewhat of a recurring theme in the vehicle’s history. Two of these vehicles, the Panhard 178 with Renault turret and Panhard 178 CDM, featured new turret designs designed by one engineer, Joseph Restany, and are largely unknown to the general public, despite 45 of the later type having been converted, and even seeing service for the Wehrmacht alongside more regular Panhard 178s. Even the post-war Panhard 178B can prove to be surprisingly poorly documented for a mass-produced vehicle. On the German side of thing, the two existing 50 mm-armed “tank destroyer” versions are both also fairly little known, though there is a fairly extensive collection of photos, as well as pretty extensive details on the service of the L/60-armed vehicle in the hands of French Resistance FFI troops during and after the Liberation of France.

Of all known conversions, though, this particular one, armed with a Soviet 45 mm 20-K, has to be the most obscure yet. It does not appear to be documented in any known literature on German captured vehicles, being known from a singular photo. As of now, no more details are known, and while such a conversion is likely easier than could be imagined at first, many details remain unknown about the vehicle as of now.

Panzerspahwagen 204(f) with 45mm 20-K gun
Panzerspahwagen 204(f) with 45mm 20-K gun.Illustration by Godzilla

Panzerspahwagen 204(f) with 45mm 20-K gun specifications

Dimensions 4.79 x 2.01 x 2.31 m (15ft 7in x 6ft 6in x 7 ft 5in)
Weight 8.2 metric tonnes (17,000 lbs)
Crew 4 (driver, rear driver/radio, commander, gunner)
Engine Panhard 4-cyl SK, gasoline, 105 hp
Speed 72 km/h (46 mph)
Primary Armament 45 mm 20-K
Armor Up to 20 mm (0.79 in)

Sources

Trackstory n°2, Panhard 178, Pascal Danjou, Editions du Barbotin, 2004
Tous les blindés de l’Armée Française 1914-1940, François Vauvillier, Histoire & Collection editions, 2014
Beute-Kraftfahrzeuge und -Panzer der deutschen Wehrmacht, Walter J Spielberger, Motorbuch; 1. Aufl edition, 1989
Panzerkampfwagen T 34- 747 (r) , The Soviet T-34 Tank as Beutepanzer and Panzeraatrappe in German Wehrmacht Service 1941-1945, Jochen Vollert, Tankograd publishing, 2013
With special thanks to Smargd123 who provided the photo of the conversion for this article

Categories
Modern North Korean Armor

Songun-Ho

Flag of North Korea - WikipediaNorth Korea (2009-present)
Main Battle Tank – unknown numbers manufactured (has known serial production, most likely still in production)

North Korea, or officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), stands as one, if not the most isolated major tank manufacturer in the world. Sometimes thought of as a relic of the Cold War desperately clinging onto existence, the country, sometimes known as the Hermit Kingdom, has long wanted to assert its independence from the Soviet Union and China when it comes to its military equipment, long before the Soviet Union even collapsed.

The country’s military industry started becoming increasingly independent in the late 1960s. Since then, it has put out vehicles differing more and more significantly from their Soviet or Chinese ancestors. Despite the harsh interruption of the 1990s crisis and famine, the 2000s have seen a significant renewal for North Korea’s tank industry, with a large variety of new vehicles introduced since the start of the 21st century.

One of the most significant and iconic of these developments is the Songun-Ho main battle tank, unveiled during the 65th anniversary of the Worker’s Party of Korea military parade. When unveiled, it was one of, if not the North Korean MBT that appeared to differ the most from the T-62 on which the Hermit Kingdom based its Chonma-Ho series of main battle tanks.

Roots of a new tank: The quest for a T-72 and upgrades to the Chonma

North Korea started local production of Soviet tanks, first in the form of the PT-76 and T-55, in the second half of the 1960s. These first production runs were not entirely accomplished by North Korea in isolation. A high degree of Soviet involvement was noted, but exactly how deep this was is unclear. It could range anywhere from the North Koreans just assembling vehicles from Soviet-made parts all the way to the Soviet Union delivering just the plans and critical elements. This first North Korean experience in armored vehicles manufacturing proved crucial for the nation, allowing it to be in possession of facilities able to manufacture armored vehicles, in the form of the Sinhung and Kusong tank plants. The Sinhung plant was mainly involved in manufacturing light and amphibious vehicles, whilst the Kusong plant is the producer of North Korea’s MBTs.

In the late 1970s, North Korea started the production of its Chonma-Ho series of main battle tanks, at first a mere slightly modified model of the Soviet T-62. These vehicles would become the mainstay of North Korea’s armored force, despite no large quantities of T-62s ever having been acquired from the Soviet Union. As early as the 1980s, the North Koreans started to upgrade the vehicles, giving them at first laser rangefinders (first observed in 1985) and later explosive reactive armor, welded turrets, and smoke grenades dischargers (M1992 & Chonma-92, first observed in 1992)

North Korean Chonma-Hos equipped with a laser rangefinder and infrared searchlight; the vehicles having received these upgrades are often referred to as ‘Chonma-Ho II’ by Western enthusiasts. However, that designation, as well as the ‘I/II/III/IV/V/VI’, do not actually exist in North Korean nomenclature, and significantly oversimplify the complex series of evolutions of the Chonma series. Source: http://www.massimotessitori.altervista.org/armoursite/nkindigenoustanks/chonma-songun/chonma-ho123.html

However, at the same time as upgrading the existing T-62s, it quickly became evident the technology of the T-62 would not be sufficient forever. The tank was actually superior to the M48 fielded by the South Korean Army (Republic of Korea Army, ROKA) for several years after its introduction in 1978. However, developments in the USA and South Korea, which would result in the M1 and K1, would quickly make the Chonma obsolete. The result was that North Korea was in dire need of more advanced components. With relations having considerably worsened with the Soviet Union ever since the Sino-Soviet split, acquiring highly modern and critical technology from them was not a possibility. North Korea therefore needed to find a way to acquire a tank more modern than its T-62-based Chonma-Ho if it wanted to not be completely superseded technologically.

A solution would appear in the form of the geographically distant but diplomatically close Islamic Republic of Iran. Iran and the DPRK had quite close diplomatic bonds, with the North Koreans having supplied about 150 Chonma-Ho tanks to Iran during the early phases of the Iran-Iraq War beginning in 1980. As a result, when the Iranians managed to capture some T-72s Ural tanks from the Iraqi Army, it is no surprise that a battle-damaged vehicle ended up being shipped to North Korea in the early-to-mid 1980s. The existence of this tank is confirmed by some partial footage from the era.

Whilst the T-72 Ural was far from the most advanced model of T-72, it at least provided North Korea with a 125 mm gun and, to a moderate extent, a more advanced engine, suspension, and armor arrangement to study. Despite rumors of North Korea acquiring T-72Ms from the Soviet Union or even T-90MS from Russia in the 1990s, this T-72 Ural acquired from Iran appears to actually be the only T-72 North Korea ever got its hands on.

A very rare view of Kim-Jong Il, at that point only the son of Supreme Leader Kim-Il Sung, in front of North Korea’s T-72 Ural, very likely the only T-72 North Korea ever got. Source: The Armed Forces of North Korea – On the Path to Songun.

Droplets of T-72 dropped onto T-62s: The later Chonma-Hos

The acquisition of a T-72, even if it was a fairly primitive model, was a major step in the evolution of North Korea’s main battle tanks. It significantly helped North Korean engineers in developing components more advanced than those found on the original T-62 to use in the Chonma-Ho series.

While North Korea appeared on its way to considerably upgrade the Chonma-Ho in the early 1990s, in the form of the M1992 & Chonma-92 notably, the collapse of the Soviet Union and its consequences for North Korea (with a famine) put a tragic halt to these developments. In 1994, as Supreme Leader Kim Il-Sung passed away, a tragic famine that would last until 1998 touched North Korea, resulting in 500,000 to 600,000 excess deaths and stopping new military developments pretty much completely. Only a fairly modest new model of the Chonma made its appearance in the later half of the decade and was known as the Chonma-98. In comparison to the Chonma-92, the Chonma-98 featured little more than a lower ERA coverage and slight modifications to the turret and side-skirts.

The first signs of influence taken from the T-72 and other modern Soviet MBTs would appear in the Chonma-214, first seen in 2001. This tank replaced the ERA with applique armor on the turret and additional bolted-on armor on the upper front plate and steel plates on the hull sides. It also included front rubber flaps covering the lower front plate, in a fashion similar to the much more advanced T-80U. A new front drive wheel inspired by the T-72’s design was also featured. Finally, while the exact nature of these additions is pretty much impossible to assess, seeing as it would require much more direct access to the North Korean vehicles, the Chonma-214 likely features a more advanced fire control system and its predecessors – the influence of the T-72 likely being significant in its design.

A Chonma-214 on parade in 2010; the rubber flaps, applique armor and smoke launchers, as well as the welded turret hidden underneath, already show some considerable evolutions from the original T-62. Source: http://www.massimotessitori.altervista.org/armoursite/nkindigenoustanks/chonma-songun/chonma-ho456.html

The T-72-influenced features of the Chonma-214 would be conserved and expanded upon by two subsequent models of the Chonma; the Chonma-215, of which production started in 2003, and the Chonma-216, of which the production started in 2004. The Chonma-215’s most significant modification was switching the original chassis from five to six road wheels, as on the T-72. The length of the tank had, however, not been significantly lengthened in adding this new wheel. Whilst the wheels retained a ‘starfish’ style similar to the T-62 and earlier Soviet tanks, they had been reduced in size by about 10%, making them somewhat more reminiscent of T-72 wheels in comparison to the original configuration. The vehicle also featured considerable additional applique armor and elements suggest its fire control system was considerably improved – a wind sensor notably appearing to have been added.

The Chonma-215 would be fairly elusive and short-lived though, being very quickly followed up by the Chonma-216. For this vehicle, the North Korean engineers took the six-road wheel base of the 215 and used it to extensively modify the chassis, which was somewhat lengthened; the engine compartment, notably, was considerably redesigned and appeared much more similar to the T-72’s, suggesting a similar engine may have been adopted for the vehicle. The suspension was also redesigned to resemble the one featured on the more modern Soviet tank; the arrangement of the smoke grenade dischargers was altered to resemble the one of more modern Soviet tanks more closely. Lastly, it has occasionally been theorized the vehicle may feature a 125 mm-gun based on the T-72’s 2A46, but it appears more likely the Chonma-216 retained the original 115 mm U-5TS. It would, however, be the last North Korean main battle tank to retain this armament.

A Chonma-216 during the 2010 parade. The side view provides a clear view of the vehicle’s new six-wheel configuration and its shape, now differing significantly from the T-62. The Chonma-215 and 216, and sometimes even the Songun-Ho, are often referred to as ‘Pokpung-ho’ by enthusiasts, although this designation has no basis in reality. Source: http://www.massimotessitori.altervista.org/armoursite/nkindigenoustanks/chonma-songun/pokpung-ho.html

On the path of Songun…-Ho

The various evolutions of the Chonma-Ho in the 2000s show increasing influence from Soviet designs of the late Cold War on North Korean tank designs. This is likely out of an effort to try and at least somewhat compensate for the technological advantage South Korea had acquired in the late 1980s and 1990s thanks to its K1 main battle tank and its subsequent models. Although it appears beyond doubt that vehicles such as the Chonma-214 or Chonma-216 improved the combat values of the Chonma-Ho and were quite significantly superior to the original T-62, they still had no chance of realistically competing with South Korea’s K1. In order to at least try and compensate for the technological gap, a considerable jump would have to be performed from the base of the T-62. This jump would be unveiled to the eyes of the world in 2010, during the 65th anniversary of the Workers’ Party of Korea military parade, in the form of the new Songun-Ho or Songun-915 main battle tank, a type of tank which appears to have entered production in 2009.

As always with North Korean vehicles, the development of the Songun-Ho is more than nebulous and its history is best derived from an analysis of the observable elements of the tank, and attempts to try and find or at least theorize on their origin. The tank was likely designed after the Chonma-216, and serves as a logical conclusion to North Korea’s experience taking inspiration from the T-72 and other late Soviet tank designs: designing a new, or at least mostly new tank on the basis of experience gained by studying those designs.

Songun-Hos in the parade at Kim-Il Sung square, Pyongyang, 2010; the vehicle is, visually, a considerable departure from the previous Chonma-216. Source: http://www.massimotessitori.altervista.org/armoursite/nkindigenoustanks/chonma-songun/songun-ho.html

Design

The New Tank’s Hull

The new Songun-Ho features a vastly modified hull in comparison to the previous Chonma-216. Though it is still based on the Chonma, to an extent, it incorporates more changes than any individual model of the previous series ever has.

The change that is perhaps the most indicative of the considerable structural evolutions the Songun-Ho has undertaken is the driver’s position. On all models of the Chonma-Ho, the driver sat to the front left of the hull, as on the T-62. The Songun-Ho instead uses a central driver’s position, a layout similar to the one of the T-72.

A top view of an upgraded Songun-Ho in 2017; the photo gives a nice view onto the tank’s central driving position, as well as the odd grill present on top of the rear of the right mudguard, the purpose of which is unclear. Source: http://www.massimotessitori.altervista.org/armoursite/nkindigenoustanks/chonma-songun/songun-ho.html

The hull of the Songun-Ho appears to have been widened in comparison to its predecessors, sitting at about 3.50 m in width, in comparison to 3.30 m on the T-62 and likely all Chonma-Ho models. The vehicle, however, appears to retain the same 58 cm-wide OMSh metallic hinge track as found on Chonma-Ho and T-62s. Although those tracks are fairly outdated and somewhat primitive by modern standards, they allow for commonality with older models and allow North Korea’s industry not to have to do a fairly hard and expensive switch to a new set of components. Those tracks can also be fitted with rubber pads in order not to cause damage in urban areas during parades.

In terms of length, the distance between the first and last axles of the road wheels present on the Songun-Ho appears to be of about 4.06 m, a value similar to the T-62, and those road wheels are separated by 30 track links, as on the old Soviet tank. This makes it obvious that the size of the Songun-Ho’s wheels has been reduced, seeing as it maintains the 6 road wheels configuration of the Chonma-216. The vehicle still uses ‘starfish’-type road wheels, as on previous tanks and, just as with track links, this part commonality likely is a significant factor in the decision to maintain old components. The tank uses torsion bar suspension, and photos of the vehicle without side skirts during military exercises have revealed it has 3 return rollers. The vehicle features thick rubber side skirts covering the upper suspension, like previous North Korean tanks; its fenders slope downward, as on the T-62, but feature a rubber covering, as on the T-72.

A Songun-Ho seen without its side skirts during a military exercise, showing the presence of return rollers; this photo also gives a decent view of the turret basket, and also shows that the Igla missile, always present in military parades, does not actually appear to be in use in the field. Source: http://www.massimotessitori.altervista.org/armoursite/nkindigenoustanks/chonma-songun/songun-ho.html

The overall length of the Songun-Ho’s hull is about 6.75 m, with the engine compartment overhanging further than the rear idler wheel by several decimetres. This is only slightly longer than on the old T-62, which was about 6.63 m long. Nonetheless, the engine compartment of the Songun-Ho appears quite different from previous vehicles. Interestingly, it includes grills not only on top of the engine, but also on the rear of the right mudguard. North Korean sources claim the Songun-Ho uses a 1,200 hp engine that propels it at 70 km/h. This claim of the vehicle featuring such a powerful engine is likely an overestimation done for propaganda purposes, but the Songun-Ho does quite likely feature an engine developed from the T-72’s, likely quite more powerful than those used on previous Chonma-Hos. Considering the vehicle has a fairly moderate estimated weight of about 44 tonnes, it may still have a very decent mobility.

A photo of a Songun-Ho fitted with double-stacked turret ERA, also giving a decent view of its hull sides. Source:
http://www.massimotessitori.altervista.org/armoursite/nkindigenoustanks/chonma-songun/songun-ho.html

The Songun-Ho’s upper front plate has always been seen under a cover of explosive reactive armor plates. Two headlamps are present on the front-sides of this ERA covering. The lower front plate is hidden by a thick rubber sheet, as on the T-80U and later models of the Chonma-Ho. Behind the ERA covering, the Songun-Ho is thought to have some form of basic composite armor, though likely simplistic and dated in its composition. Again, the assumption would be that this composite would be derived from the T-72 Ural.

An Odd Return to Cast Turrets

Though it has some new features, the hull of the Songun-Ho differs much less significantly from previous North Korean tanks when it is compared with the tank’s very peculiar turret.

While new North Korean tanks had been using welded turrets ever since the early 1990s, the Songun-Ho saw a return to a cast turret. It is a design somewhat similar to the T-62 in general appearance, but much taller and more bulbous. A number of reasons can be found to justify this increase in size.

Front view of Songun-Hos on parade, showing how massive the cast turret of this vehicle is. Source: Obsidian Entertainement
Top view of Songun-Hos on parade. Source: http://www.massimotessitori.altervista.org/armoursite/nkindigenoustanks/chonma-songun/songun-ho.html

Firstly, the Songun-Ho is the first North Korean tank that is certified to feature a 125 mm gun. The most likely inspiration for this gun came from the 2A26M2 or 2A46 present in the T-72 Ural, however, the external appearance of the gun shows it is not an identical copy. The gun is very likely compatible with most, though not all Soviet and Chinese ammunition, and North Korea very likely produces local shells as well, although how advanced they are is a question to which an answer is unlikely to be forthcoming. It is, however, fairly certain that the North Korean 125 mm gun is not able to fire gun-launched anti-tank missiles. The larger size of this gun is a reason to accomodate a larger turret and the higher roof of the Songun-Ho’s turret may be to allow for more depression as well. Unlike the vast majority of Soviet and Chinese 125 mm-armed tanks, the Songun-Ho has not opted for an autoloader, which may have been too complex to manufacture and fit into a hull still based on the Chonma-Ho. Instead, the tank has a human loader, meaning the turret houses three men, an oddity in modern designs that take their roots in Soviet principles. With the gun included, the vehicle appears to be around 10.40 m long.

Songun-Ho commanders salute outside of their hatches during the 2010 parade. Despite having a 3-men crew in the turret, the Songun-Ho only appears to feature two top hatches. Source: http://www.massimotessitori.altervista.org/armoursite/nkindigenoustanks/chonma-songun/songun-ho.html

The Songun-Ho’s turret features a laser rangefinder (LRF) on top of the gun. It is smaller and likely more modern than previous North Korean LRFs, but remains external, an archaic feature in modern tank design. An infrared spotlight is mounted on the right of the gun, linked to it via braces in order to accomodate elevation. This is a very common feature in North Korean tanks. The loader sits to the right, the gunner to the front left, and the commander to the rear left.

The vehicle has another commonly-found feature in the form of the 14.5 mm KPV machine gun mounted on top of the turret. Its presence on the right side suggests it is operated by the loader. This machine gun very likely is not remotely operated, meaning the loader has to open the hatch and make himself vulnerable to small arms fire in order to operate it. Another secondary weapon that has been present since the first parade of the Songun-Ho is an Igla man-portable anti-aircraft missile, installed to the left of the turret and likely operated by the commander; this is once again a common feature in North Korean vehicles. However, footage of the Songun-Ho during exercises seems to suggest this missile is rarely if ever used in the field. A coaxial 7.62 m machine-gun of unknown model (perhaps a PKT) is very likely present as well.

A view of the Songun-Ho’s turret during an early 2010s parade; this photo shows the turret’s bulbous shape, laser rangefinder, infrared searchlight, smoke dischargers, Igla missile, and 14.5 mm KPV machine-gun in good detail. The hatches appear similar to older North Korean tanks in design. Source: http://www.massimotessitori.altervista.org/armoursite/nkindigenoustanks/chonma-songun/songun-ho.html

Though cast, the Songun-Ho’s turret features a fairly large rectangular turret basket, with two storage rails encompassing its surface. The nature of this basket is not exactly known – it may serve to house ammunition or provide more internal space. The most likely theory is that it actually contains storage boxes that can be accessed from outside the vehicle. The tank’s smoke dischargers are installed on the turret sides, in front of the basket, with a bank of four dischargers on each side. A cross-wind sensor is also installed seemingly on top of the turret basket.

A drawback of cast turrets is that they typically are a lot harder to fit with composite armor. This does not deter North Korean sources from claiming the Songun-Ho’s turret offers “900 mm of protection”, though they do not specify whether this is against APFSDS of HEAT projectiles. In any case, it is very unlikely the turret actually provides this amount of protection. While it is reasonable to expect the Songun-Ho to have some form of composite armor array in the turret, the combination of cast turret and, in general, likely fairly primitive composite armor technology in use by North Korea does not bode well for the turret’s capacity to withstand modern anti-tank ammunition.

Modifications to the Songun-Ho

After it was first unveiled in 2010, the Songun-Ho has been shown in a couple of other configurations which differ from the one first seen in 2010 by the presence of turret ERA as well as secondary armaments.

The first modified version, which may have been seen as early as 2010, differed from the original by the presence of ERA blocks on the turret. These ERA blocks are placed on the turret front and front-top, providing additional protection on the frontal arc of the turret. Curiously, the blocks present on both sides of the mantlet appear to be double-stacked. The ability for ERA to work while double-stacked is one which is far from present in all ERA blocks, typically present only in some more modern blocks, and it is quite surprising North Korea has already developed such a type of ERA blocks (though some sometimes claim the only reason while North Korea uses double-stack ERA is for deception purposes). Vehicles using this double-stack ERA have been seen in both the single-color camouflage used in the 2010 parade as well as a more colorful yellow and green camouflage seen in later parades, particularly in 2017. North Korean sources claim their turret ERA provides an additional protection that would be valued at 500 mm, in addition to the 900 mm that would already be provided to the turret, giving it a protection value of around 1,400 mm. Once again, this is very likely an exaggeration, and the type of ammunition that would be used is not even mentioned.

Songun-Hos with the turret ERA package on parade, perhaps in 2017. The Igla missile also appears to have been moved from the right to the rear of the turret. The vehicle possesses a new camouflage which has notably been seen in 2018 parades. Source: http://www.massimotessitori.altervista.org/armoursite/nkindigenoustanks/chonma-songun/songun-ho.html

Another early configuration of the Songun-Ho, seen in a military exhibition, featured the above mentioned ERA package, as well as two Konkurs Anti-Tank Guided Missiles (ATGM) present on the right front of the turret. The use of external ATGMs on the Songun-Ho, which re-occurred at a later date, is thought of as a proof the North Korean 125 mm is not able to fire any gun-launched missile, and likely indicate the penetration capacities of the gun are limited to an extent, seeing the need for missiles that likely improve the penetration of enemy armor quite significantly. The same configuration also sports two other missiles, which appear to be an unidentified type of man-portable air-defence systems (MANPADS).

The Konkurs-armed Songun-Ho in a military exhibit in the 2010s. The 915 number on its turret side has been the reason why the vehicle is also designated Songun-915 in western sources. This configuration has never been seen outside of this particular example, which may suggest it is not commonly employed. Interestingly enough, this vehicle lacks the Igla missile.

Another form of early configuration the Songun-Ho has been shown in is an amphibious crossing configuration, in which the vehicle is fitted with a snorkel for river crossing operations; the turret-mounted machine-gun is also covered by a protective cover in this form.

A Songun-Ho during river crossing exercises in a frozen river. A national flag is mounted on the snorkel. Source: THE ARMED FORCES OF NORTH KOREA, On The Path Of Songun, Stijn Mitzer, Joost Oliemans

The most visually impressive configuration that the Songun-Ho has been shown in, and which brings far more additional armaments than the previous, is the new weapons package that has been seen on some tanks in 2018.

This was first seen during the parade for the 70th anniversary of the foundation of the DPRK. On the right of the turret, the 14.5 mm KPV machine-gun has been replaced by a dual 30 mm automatic grenade-launcher, a weapon of North Korean design. Instead of a single Igla missile, two were mounted on a tall, mast-like superstructure at the center rear of the turret. Lastly, a new anti-tank missile launcher can be seen on the right hand side. Cleaner than previous launchers in designs, it appears the missiles it launches are North Korea’s Bulsae 3. Claimed to be similar to the powerful Russian 9M133 Kornet in capacities, some other sources indicate than the Bulsae 3 likely is an improved model of the old Fagot ATGM, which North Korea has copied as the Bulsae-2.

The main modification of the Bulsae-3 would be the replacement of wire guidance by laser guidance, based on technology indeed taken from Kornet missiles that North Korea would have received not from Russia but from Syria, with which the Hermit Kingdom maintains some significant military ties. However, recent evidence has mostly ruled out the roots between the Bulsae-3 and the Fagot, and the missile indeed appears some form of local Kornet copy. Their addition to this armament package likely indicates they are thought of as superior to the Konkurs missiles in any case.

A close view of Songun-Hos in parade with the new armament package in 2018. The plethora of secondary armaments make the tank’s turret roof much more crowded. Similar armament packages were also showcased on the Chonma-216. Source: Reddit

The operation of the weapons present in this package is somewhat questionable. The weapons do not appear to be remotely operated, which means their operation in active combat would likely be a considerable risk for the crew. It has been suggested the package may be present purely for show – and would not actually be used in exercises or active operations. It is indeed not that uncommon to see North Korean tanks in exercise footage field none of the missile armament they may have been seen with in parades, although this could be for the far simpler reason of avoiding damage to things not essential during training.

At the same time, it appears that this armament package was only fitted to newly produced vehicles, showing that Songun-Ho production has continued through the 2010s. It is known the Kusong tank factory has known some considerable slow-downs in Chonma-216 and Songun-Ho production at times though, due to the factory also being involved in production of hulls for ballistic missile launchers or self-propelled artillery. How many Songun-Ho have been manufactured is therefore very much unknown, but likely either in the high tens or low hundreds. The vehicles are very likely operated by some of the best equipped and trained North Korean armor regiments operating near the DMZ, the so-called “demilitarized zone”. This is, in practice, the very-much militarized border between the two Koreas, where the most well-trained and equipped troops of both armies tend to be located.

Songun-Hos on parade with the new armor package, with Chonma-216s in the background. This configuration has sometimes been referred to as ‘Songun-Ho II’, but, as always with Roman numeral designation of North Korean vehicles, this does not actually match North Korean nomenclature. Source: pinterest

Meaning of the Name

The “Songun” name of the tank is a reference to the policy of Songun, which roughly translates to “military first”. Though North Korea has been a particularly militarized state ever since the 1960s, this policy has been an official component of the ruling Juche ideology only since the 1990s. It has become a major aspect of it, as North Korea continues to upscale and invest as much as it can into its military – seemingly its only way to obtain some find of leverage and assurance of its survival. The name of what was, in 2010, North Korea’s newest tank and first member of a line of new models ever since the Chonma-Ho introduced in 1978, is therefore “Songun”. As for the -Ho suffix, it is the standard North Korean designation for a tank model.

Conclusion – The future of the Songun-Ho

Overall, the Songun-Ho is a particularly interesting vehicle. A significant jump forward from the previous Chonma-216, it is still likely highly inferior to the newest South Korean tanks, the K1A1, K1A2, and K2 Black Panther. Still, the improvements it brings to North Korean armor are not to be ignored and it should be remembered that the ROKA still operates a considerable number of M48A3K and M48A5K/K1/K2. Against these tanks, the Songun-Ho likely has both a firepower and protection advantage. Against perhaps even the first K1 model, which notably retained a 105 mm gun, the Songun-Ho may very well have a chance, although its fire control system likely is not as advanced. While the tank is certainly not as advanced as contemporary MBTs, the step forward formed by the Songun-Ho should not be underestimated. After all, just 10 years prior to the type being introduced, North Korea fielded nothing better than the Chonma-92 or 98, which were little more than T-62s with laser rangefinders, smoke dischargers, and ERA. As such, the Songun-Ho marks a substantial increase in military capability for North Korea.

A side view of a Songun-Ho with Igla missiles, likely a KPV, and some camouflage nets. Source: http://www.massimotessitori.altervista.org/armoursite/nkindigenoustanks/chonma-songun/songun-ho.html

Recent developments have shown that North Korea likely is very much aware of the Songun-Ho’s inferiority. On October 10th 2020, a new model of main battle tank appeared during the 75th Workers’ Party of Korea anniversary parade. While how many of this tank’s features are real and how many are fake is very much still in debate, the vehicle appears to take the base of the Songun-Ho tank and to considerably expand on it – a manifestation of North Korea’s wishes to try and close the technological gap in particular with South Korean and American tanks. While this new type now enters service, it is very likely the Songun-Ho may still be in production for a while, remaining one of the most modern tanks in the Korean People’s Army’s arsenal.

Lines of ‘M2020’ MBTs parading at Kim-Il Sung square in October 2020. The styling very obviously resembles the contemporary American M1 Abrams. Source: armyrecognition.com
The Songun-Ho in the 2010 configuration, without turret ERA, armed with a KPV and an Igla on the turret
A Songun-Ho in fording configuration
Songun-Ho with double-stacked ERA
Songun-Ho in a recent configuration, camouflaged, fitted with a KPV and Iglas Illustrations by Pavel “Carpaticus” Alexe based on work by Tank Encyclopedia’s own David Bocquelet

Songun-Ho specifications (estimations)

Dimensions (L-W-H) ~6.75 m (hull only) or 10.40m (hull and gun)/3.50 m/unknown (estimations)
Total Weight, Battle Ready ~44 tonnes
Engine 1,200 hp engine (North Korean claim); likely a derivative of the T-72’s V-12 diesel engine
Suspension Torsion bars
Maximum speed (road) 70 km/h (claimed)
Crew 4 (driver, commander, gunner, loader)
Main gun Local 125 mm gun derived from the 2A46M, with laser rangefinder, IR searchlight, crosswind sensor
Secondary armament Likely a 7.62 mm coaxial machine gun (all configurations), 14.5 mm KPV & Igla missile (original configuration), AT-5 Sprandel/Konkurs & unknown MANPADS (first known other configuration), Dual 30 mm AGS, Dual Igla missiles, dual Bulsae-3 launcher (2018 configuration), a single 14.5 mm KPV machine gun (exercise configuration)
Armor Composite array & ERA claimed to be equivalent to 1,400 mm (turret); hull armor unknown
Total Production Unknow, about 500 sometimes mentioned

Sources

THE ARMED FORCES OF NORTH KOREA, On The Path Of Songun, Stijn Mitzer, Joost Oliemans
Oryx Blog – North Korean vehicles
https://21stcenturyasianarmsrace.com/2020/05/03/north-korea-builds-very-powerful-outdated-battle-tanks/

Categories
Cold War Soviet Prototypes

Object 911B

 

USSR (1963-1964)
Light tank – 1 prototype

The evolution of warfare and technologies in the years following the conclusion of the Second World War had a major impact on the way warfare would be conducted in the future. With the proliferation of nuclear armament, radiation protection became a major feature for new vehicles. Operations in the Second World War also showed that river crossing could sometimes prove difficult, as these could form major natural blocking points that most armored vehicles would find impossible to cross outside of a few heavy and sturdy bridges. Amphibious vehicles would prove to be a major asset to cross rivers even outside of these bridges, or in the event that they were destroyed or heavily defended. Many amphibious light tank designs were created in the late 1940s to early 1960s. The Soviet design bureau of the Stalingrad/Volgograd tractor plant was behind several of them. The most famous is without a doubt Object 740, which became the PT-76, the most produced light tank of the Cold War. In the early 1960s, Volgograd would design a prototype infantry fighting vehicle for the program which would lead to the BMP-1. A light tank prototype would also soon follow using the chassis and suspension of this infantry fighting vehicle. The infantry fighting vehicle prototype was designated Object 911, and, as such, the light tank would be Object 911B. Both included some innovative or original features, but none would be adopted by the Soviet military.

A photo of Object 911B during its trials, with the suspension set for higher ground clearance. Source: Solyankin, Pavlov, Pavlov, Zheltov. Otechestvennye boevye mashiny vol. 3

Volgograd’s Object 911 and 906

The idea of a combat vehicle that would combine amphibious capacities, a dismounted infantry complement, and an armament that could provide fire-support to these infantry dismounts and accompanying tanks was developed in the late 1950s Soviet Army. A formal call for prototypes fulfilling this role to be designed was issued by the GBTU (The General Armored Directorate, the service in charge of armored vehicles procurement) on October 22nd 1960. The requirements were sent to a large number of design bureaus, and, at that time, called for an 11-12 tonnes vehicle that would feature a crew of 2 and transport 8 to 10 infantry dismounts.

One of the manufacturers which began work on a design was the Volgograd tractor plant (VgTZ). Volgograd had extensive experience in amphibious vehicles design from the PT-76, which it had been producing since the early 1950s, and of which a number of derivative designs had already been designed.

Soviet naval infantry PT-76B moving through water in front of a Whiskey-class submarine. The PT-76 was without a doubt one of Volgograd’s greatest successes. Source: twitter

Volgograd’s proposals, by 1963, took the shape of two distincts prototypes, the Object 911 and the Object 914. The Object 914 took the clear basis of the PT-76 chassis. The Object 911, however, was more distinct. Though there was still PT-76 inspiration and a number of common parts, such as the hydrojets and road wheels, the vehicle differed massively in other aspects. Likely the most noticeable were the four large, retractable aviation wheels which could give the Object 911 a wheeled drive, intended for use on roads during transfers to increase maximum speed and reduce fuel consumption. Object 911 also used an adjustable suspension which could be used to change the ground clearance of the vehicle.

The Object 906, a vastly improved amphibious light tank design Volgograd was working on from 1960 to 1963. The general layout of its autoloader would be picked up by Object 911B. Source: pinterest

In the same timeframe as it worked on infantry fighting vehicle prototypes, Volgograd had also designed and produced three prototypes of the Object 906. This was a vastly modernized and improved design based on the PT-76. It included a new, more powerful diesel engine, as well as an autoloaded 85 mm gun which significantly improved firepower in comparison to the PT-76’s 76 mm gun, particularly against armored targets and at range.

The Object 911B

By 1963, the Object 906 was at the testing stage with three prototypes, and would eventually be rejected within the year. At the same time, work had concretized on the Object 911, and manufacturing of the prototype took place within this year.

A ¾ view of the Object 911 prototype on its tracks. Source: Solyankin, Pavlov, Pavlov, Zheltov. Otechestvennye boevye mashiny vol. 3

If the Object 911 was to be adopted, it had been made clear by the GBTU’s requirements that the vehicle’s chassis was to be used for a whole family of various derivatives. This could, for example, include a light amphibious tank, something Volgograd had extensive experience with. The other Volgograd prototype from the program, the Object 914, used a more conventional drivetrain which could perhaps be easier to modify into derivatives. But, being very similar to the PT-76, there would be little reason to design a light tank version of the Object 914, seeing as the Object 914 could already be described as an infantry fighting version of a light tank. In comparison, the Object 911 could provide a more interesting base, particularly as the vehicle had an overall low profile enhanced by an adjustable height suspension.

Volgograd had already worked on a very low-profile amphibious light tank in the form of a derivative of the Object 906. This was the Object 906B, which was armed with a 125 mm tube missile launcher and featured two crewmembers in the turret. While work on the Object 906 and the Object 906B was discontinued during 1963, re-using components from them, notably the autoloader from the Object 906 and the general layout of the Object 906B, could prove valuable.

A profile schematic view of the Object 906B. The vehicle was never built, but the Object 911B would take direct inspiration from its layout and profile. Source: Solyankin, Pavlov, Pavlov, Zheltov. Otechestvennye boevye mashiny vol. 3

As such, in 1963, the designing of a light tank version of the Object 911 would be carried out. The resulting vehicle would be named Object 911B. While using the chassis of the Object 911, it introduced a large variety of changes, not all directly linked to its function as a light tank. While keeping the same 73 mm Grom armament, it took inspiration from the Object 906B’s layout and the Object 906’s autoloader. A prototype of the Object 911B would be manufactured and tested in 1964.

The Object 911B’s Hull and Armor Layout

Schematics showing a general view of the Object 911B, as well as comparing its profile to the PT-76. Source: Imgur

The Object 911B was a particularly low vehicle. Its height would vary between 1,265 mm and 1,615 mm depending on the set height of the suspension. This was particularly small. At its lowest, the height of a child, and even at its highest, the height of an average to small man. This would result in increased survivability, as the vehicle would be a hard target to hit at range, though at the same time creating proper crew conditions with such a low profile could be difficult. Length was 7.1 m, and width was 2.8 m. The weight of the Object 911B when loaded with crew, fuel, and ammunition would have been 12.5 tonnes. Thanks to its fairly small dimensions and reduced weight, the Object 911B was air-transportable by the Antonov AN-12.

The Object 911B used a peculiar hull and armor layout in order to increase the survivability of the vehicle and crew. This is typically not an easy task on a light amphibious tank, which has to use light armor protection and cannot afford to have large, thick metal plates in order not to compromise buoyancy and to retain a light weight.

A side cutaway view showing the very peculiar armor layout and arrangement of the Object 911B. Source: Imgur
A front cutaway view showing the side armor protection of the crew compartment. Source: Imgur

To the front of the vehicle was what is typically described as a “cargo compartment”. This section was quite long, and did not contain any vital parts necessary for the vehicle to function. This storage space was reportedly capable of containing two men lying down, which could allow Object 911B to evacuate wounded servicemen. One can also imagine this feature may have been used to evacuate the crew of another knocked out or broken down Object 911B, seeing as the vehicle had a crew of two. The cargo compartment’s possible use to transport personnel in emergencies is further supported by the presence of two access hatches on the roof sides. When empty, the large size but low weight brought by this compartment would likely also help with the Object 911B’s buoyancy. The armor protection of this part of the vehicle can only be described as minimal. The front plate was only 10 mm thick, angled at 45° towards the back, while the roof was 6 mm thick and the floor a mere 4 mm. The sides likely had the same 10 mm thickness as the front, but without the considerable angling of the front plates

Behind this cargo compartment would be the crew compartment. The two were separated by an armored bulkhead. Being 35 mm thick, though mostly vertical with no or minimal angling, this bulkhead was actually intended to be the main frontal armor of the vehicle’s hull. An advantage of its position inside the vehicle was that it covered significantly less space, and as such, was much lighter than a similar armor layout applied to the front of the vehicle. When added to the 10 mm of the front armor and the considerable empty space of air separating it from the 35 mm bulkhead, this armor layout was actually quite considerable for a light infantry tank, and would typically protect the crew from heavy machine-gun fire, and often even autocannons. The front armor of the turret, which would not benefit from the 10 mm of armor of the cargo compartment and spacing separating it from the bulkhead received 40 mm of armor angled backward at 48° frontally, and 40 mm angled backward at 30° on the sides, with the same thickness to the rear. The hull sides were also quite thickly armored, with 45 mm on the upper sides and 20mm on the lower sides. The roof and floor of the crew compartment were also thicker, at 10 mm each. The crew compartment, within the vehicle’s turret, contained the two crewmembers, a driver to the right and a commander/gunner to the left.

The crew compartment was then separated from the rear compartment by another 35 mm bulkhead. The vehicle’s powerplant and transmission were to the rear. This part of the vehicle had the same light armor layout found on the front cargo compartment. The floor was 4 mm thick, while the roof and rear were 6 mm, and the sides likely 10 mm. The lower rear plate was angled at 48°, while angling on other plates was inexistant or minimal. This light armor protection was a necessity to keep weight down, but penetrating hits in this section of the vehicle would obviously be much more damaging than in the cargo compartment, easily leading to the vehicle’s engine being damaged or destroyed.

Engine and Transmission

The Object 911B used the same UTD-20 diesel engine as had been used on the Object 911. This engine had previously been set as part of requirements sent to different manufacturers to produce an infantry fighting vehicle prototype and all competitors to the Object 911 also featured it. It produced 300 hp at 2,600 rpm, and reached its maximum torque output of 981 N.m at 1,500 to 1,600 rpm. Without any fuel or oil, the engine weighed 665 kg, and had a consumption of 175 to 178 grams of fuel per hp and hour. A total of 500 liters of fuel were stowed within the Object 911B.

An UTD-20 engine, which was widely used in Soviet infantry fighting vehicles and light tank prototypes from the 1960s onward. Source: https://geek-tips.imtqy.com/

An advantage of the UTD-20 was its limited size compared to its output, which was a very favorable feature for mounting it in light armored fighting vehicles such as the Object 911 or the Object 911B, allowing for the very low silhouette adopted by the vehicles. The engine was used to drive a rear transmission. The Object 911B’s transmission used a two-disc main friction clutch, composed of dry steel and asbestos, a two-flow non-differential gear and rotation mechanism, and two single-row planetary on-board gearboxes. The Object 911B used a two-shaft, 5-speeds gearbox. It was reversible, meaning the vehicle could drive with the same maximum speed and gear ratios backward. The vehicle was also capable of neutral steering.

In addition to this engine and transmission, the Object 911B also featured two hydrojets. These were found in the rear sides of the vehicle. They were taken straight from the PT-76. These hydrojets were powered via a driveshaft with a reducer, linked to the gearbox, and would allow for far quicker movement on water than vehicles using merely tracks or wheels for amphibious crossings. A trim vane could also be deployed to prevent waves from washing over the vehicle.

The Object 911B on water during its trials. This photo gives a good view of the trim vane deployed, but also of the vehicle’s radio antenna. Source: Source: Solyankin, Pavlov, Pavlov, Zheltov. Otechestvennye boevye mashiny vol. 3

Suspension and Drivetrain

The suspension of the Object 911B was directly based on the one found on the Object 911, but incorporated a number of changes. A standout feature of the Object 911 had been its four retractable aviation wheels, which allowed for wheeled drive. The advantages of such a design were higher maximum speed and reduced fuel consumption when driving on roads, which would prove useful out of combat. However, it led to increased complexity in production, maintenance, crew training, and cross-country mobility. As such, these retractable wheels were removed from the Object 911B’s design.

The Object 911 also included another innovative feature, an adjustable suspension. This was found to be less of a hassle, while at the same time having more uses, including in combat, and as such was retained on the Object 911B.

A front view of Object 911B, with its suspension likely at or close to its highest point. This photo also gives a good view of the headlights, mounted on the turret, as well as the cupola, which is not in fact crewed by the commander but the driver. Source: Solyankin, Pavlov, Pavlov, Zheltov. Otechestvennye boevye mashiny vol. 3
Front schematics of Object 911B at the highest and lowest suspension setting. Source: Solyankin, Pavlov, Pavlov, Zheltov. Otechestvennye boevye mashiny vol. 3

The suspension of the vehicles was not exactly identical. The Object 911B was longer and had a longer track run, and as such used an additional road wheel, bringing the number to six per side. These were stamped steel hollow road wheels, the same type as used on PT-76, or at least a very similar type. Their main advantage was that their hollow construction both saved weight and improved buoyancy. Each road wheel was mounted on a suspension arm of which the movement was assured by a pneumatic suspension. The suspension’s height could be adjusted and considerably lowered. The highest ground clearance the Object 911B could raise itself to was 450 mm, which was more than any other Volgograd amphibious tank design from the era, including the PT-76 and the Object 906. When fully lowered, the ground clearance would be reduced to 100 mm. These changes in ground clearance would result in the Object 911B’s height varying from 1,625 mm to 1,265 mm. The higher ground clearance would be useful when the vehicle was driving over rough or irregular terrain, preventing risks of the lower hull being stuck on an obstacle, which would damage it or result in the vehicle losing track tension and getting bogged down and stuck. The lower ground clearance, on the other hand, would have the obvious advantage of significantly reducing the already tiny silhouette of the Object 911B. The vehicle’s drive sprocket was mounted to the rear, with a front idler. As on the Object 911, three return rollers, made of aluminum, were also present.

The tracks used on the Object 911B reportedly varied from the RMSH type used on the Object 911.

Crew compartment and turret

The crew compartment of the Object 911B was mostly in the vehicle’s turret. Both crewmembers were seated in this turret, with the driver to the right of the gun and the commander/gunner to the left. The turret had a frustoconical shape. It was of a fairly wide but very low design, differing significantly from the standardized turret featured in the Object 911.The turret rotation speed seems to have been of 30 degrees/second.

The low height of the vehicle likely resulted in the turret being quite cramped. Taking the minimum height and ground clearance of the vehicle into account, the vehicle must have been at most 1.15 m from hull floor to turret roof, not even accounting from the spacing which would exist between the floor and the seat’s bottom. This particularly low profile, though it could be commended in a way, necessitated for men of below-average height to operate the vehicle reasonably.

Comprehensive work was invested in making the crew compartment safe against nuclear threats. It was given good insulation, using special materials in addition to the steel. The Object 911B also included a radiation and chemical reconnaissance device, which would be able to measure level of radiation in an area and would be able to automatically shut the hatches if the nuclear elements that precede the shockwave of a nuclear detonation were detected.

Other equipment fitted inside Object 911B included four thermal detectors present in the cargo compartment and a further two in the engine compartment. If excessive heat was detected, these would trigger a fire extinguisher that spat out an extinguishing chemical mixture. A 2 l cylindrical container for this mixture was present in both the cargo and engine compartment.

The crew compartment featured the R-123 high/very high-frequency radio transceiver, by this point a new introduction in Soviet vehicles, which could assure communications at ranges up to 20 km on two bands. The radio antenna was on the left side of the turret. It was coupled with an internal R-124 intercom system for communications between the gunner/commander and driver. It also featured a TNA-2 navigation device and a “Brusok” encryption device for the vehicle’s outside communications. Power for this electrical equipment was provided by a 5 kW VG-7500 generator that powered two 12ST-70 batteries. 10 F1 fragmentation hand grenades, as well as a signal pistol with ten cartridges, were also stored within the crew compartment.

The R-123 radio station. Source: pinterest
An R-124 intercom system dismounted from a vehicle. Source: http://pribor.zp.ua/

Crew Positions

The gunner on the Object 911B was located to the left of the gun. Right on top of his head was a fairly large rectangular hatch he could enter or exit from.

A view of the Object 911B’s turret from the right, with the two crewmembers present inside the turret. Source: Solyankin, Pavlov, Pavlov, Zheltov. Otechestvennye boevye mashiny vol. 3

Vision devices at the gunner’s disposal included a large periscope to the front and three TNPO-170 prismatic periscopes to the side. The gun was automatically loaded, but could also be loaded manually, a task he would handle if the autoloader was no longer working. Sources refer to the vehicle’s main sight as the PKB-62, with a field of view of 15° at day and 6° at night. This appears identical to the 1PN22 combined day-night sight used on the Object 911, and this may simply be two different ways of referring to the same sight. If the 1PN22 was indeed used, this sight had two channels, one for day and one for night, which would be toggled by rotating an internal mirror. The gunner would look through the same eyepiece in any case. Using the day channel, the sight had a magnification of 6x and a field of view of 15°. The night channel had a magnification of 6.7x and a field of view of 6°. It had a three-stage light intensifier system that would amplify light by 50,000 to 75,000 times. It also featured vastly simplified lead and range corrections scales in order to ease night firing.

A close-up of the seat and commands of the driver’s post. This rotating position was one of the more peculiar features of the Object 911B. Source: Solyankin, Pavlov, Pavlov, Zheltov. Otechestvennye boevye mashiny vol. 3

The driver had by far the most peculiar position on Object 911B. His seat, as well as the controls, were placed in a sort of ‘bathtub’. This ‘bathtub’ itself rotated within the turret. It would systematically remain aligned with the front of the tank. This was meant to allow the driver to always look straight in the position he was driving towards, but on vehicles with similar devices, such as the MBT-70, this is known to have made drivers disorientated and sick, and this may have been an issue here as well. Advantages included much better visibility for the driver, as well as, in most vehicles, resulting in less chances of crew casualties from anti-tank mines (mines would usually explode under the first road wheel, which the driver would be further away from thanks to his placement in the turret – the presence of the armored bulkhead would also grant protection against fragments). In the matter of crew survivability, the driver being in the turret could also usually escape the vehicle faster, and there would be no risk of the opening of his hatch being compromised by the gun barrel at an unfortunate time.

When reversing, this crew position was even more peculiar. A mechanism was built within the transmission gear mechanism to allow the vehicle to be driven in reverse. When wanting to reverse, the driver would be able to disconnect the clutch and pedals of his position, which t would then rotate 180°, and the controls would then be reconnected to the gearbox. In this fashion, when reversing, the driver would face towards the rear and could look straight towards where he was driving, making this essentially quite similar to driving towards the front.

A view of the Object 911B’s turret from the left, with the driver’s position shifted slightly towards the right. Source: Solyankin, Pavlov, Pavlov, Zheltov. Otechestvennye boevye mashiny vol. 3
A front view of the Object 911B’s turret, with the reverse driving triggered and the driver facing to the rear. This angle also shows a good view of the vehicle’s mantlet and main gunner periscope. Source: Solyankin, Pavlov, Pavlov, Zheltov. Otechestvennye boevye mashiny vol. 3

When it came to vision, the driver had three TNPO-170 prismatic periscopes as well as a TVN-2B night vision device to enable safer and easier night driving. The position’s periscopes were placed on a cupola which was slaved to the movement of the driver’s position inside the vehicle, so as with the driver’s position, they would always face in the direction the tank was driving, regardless of the turret’s position.

Armament

General schematics of the 2A28 Grom. Source: Tankograd

The main armament of the turret was a 73 mm 2A28 Grom low-pressure smoothbore gun. This was a fairly short gun, with a 2,117 mm tube and 2,180 mm total length. The design was overall made to be very simple and light. For example, it lacked any bore evacuator, and the gun fumes were instead to be evacuated from the turret, which featured a ventilator for this purpose. The gun overall weighed only 115 kg and had an average barrel life of 1,250 rounds. The recoil mechanism of the Grom was contained in an armored sleeve, wrapped around the base of the barrel. Gun elevation angles in the Object 911B extended from +30° to -3°, which was limited even by Soviet standards. The gun could elevate electrically and manually.

A number of PG-15V rounds, here captured by Azerbaijan from Armenia during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War. The round was produced in massive quantities, and despite more modern ammunition to fulfill both anti-armor and anti-personnel roles, having been available since the 1970s, it is still widely used. Source: reddit

There was only a single shell type available to the 2A28 Grom in the 1960s, the PG-15V. It used the PG-9 HEAT anti-tank grenade already used by the SPG-9 73 mm recoilless gun, but swapped the original propellant charge with a more powerful PG-15P, which was meant to ensure a longer effective range. The projectile was fin-stabilized and featured a rocket engine towards the rear, with propellant present towards the middle of the grenade. This allowed it to reach a higher speed than would typically be expected from a gun as short as the Grom, with a maximum velocity of 655 m/s.

The explosive charge of the PG-9 grenade was a 322 g explosive mixture which would be equivalent to 515 g of TNT. An advantage of the PG-9 was that it featured a high standoff distance (i.e distance between the shaped charge and tip of the fuze) of 258 mm. In practice, this meant that, upon hitting a target, the jet of molten metal would have a significant length to take shape into a thin, dense jet. The results were a great armor penetration for the time and small size of the gun. The projectile’s armor penetration was officially rated at 300 mm at all ranges. In practice, this was slightly higher, as the official figure was based on the quantity of armor which would be pierced with the shell then having significant post-penetration effects inside. The maximum penetration achieved could vary between 302 and 346 mm, with an average value of 326 mm. In practice, this meant the Grom could quite reliably penetrate any tank operated by NATO in the 1960s.

The shell was not without issues, however. The downside of HEAT projectiles and a very short barrel were an overall low accuracy and high dispersion. The Grom’s PG-15V projectiles were notably very vulnerable to wind. The nominal maximum range of the Grom was of 800 m, but even at this range, only a 34% hit rate was achieved against a T-55 during trials. Even if this tank was quite smaller than most NATO tanks, in practice it can still be said a vehicle wielding a Grom would have to get to close ranges to use this gun effectively against armored targets. Additionally, during the 1960s, the PG-15V was the only available shell for the 2A28 Grom. HEAT shells are not purely anti-tank projectiles, and by nature also have some capacities against other targets. They can notably be effective when used against field fortifications and bunkers. However, due to their design focusing on producing a jet of molten metal in one direction, they offer very limited capacities when attempting to fire at infantry in the open. For the vast majority of vehicles, this would fairly easily be dealt with by simply shifting to a high-explosive fragmentation shell, but no projectile of the type would be available for the Grom until 1973.

The 2A28 Grom was fed by an autoloading mechanism. This was not the same as the crescent-shape conveyor present on the Object 911’s standardized turret design, which would contain all 40 73 mm Grom projectiles carried inside the vehicle.

While the Object 911B also had a 40 rounds ammunition stowage, its autoloader only held 27 at a time. The commander/gunner could feed more rounds into it once some were expended, or in the unlikely scenario all rounds within the autoloader were expended and no new shells had been placed into it, he could manually reload the gun as well. The autoloader mechanism was a horizontal electrically-driven conveyor belt. It would ensure a rate of fire of 9 rounds per minute. The autoloader could be installed or removed from the vehicle for repair or replacement via a special hatch.

Photos of the 7.62 mm PKT machine gun. Source: weaponsystems.net

The 2A28 Grom was supplemented by a 7.62 mm PKT coaxial machine gun. Mounted to the right of the gun, it would effectively be the only reliable means of dealing with infantry in the open. It fed to the right and ejected to the left. The PKT was fed from 250 rounds ammunition boxes and would fire at a cyclic rate of fire of 700 to 800 rounds per minute, at a muzzle velocity of 855 m/s. It would be able to expend two ammunition boxes in quick succession before the barrel would need to be replaced, or at least the firing interrupted for a bit to prevent overheating. A total of 2,000 7.62 mm rounds were stowed within the Object 911B.

Crucially, the Object 911B did not feature the 9M14 Malyutka missile or control system featured on the Object 911. This technically meant that the light tank was less armed than the infantry fighting vehicle, a considerable disadvantage. The Grom had a limited effective range, and while the Malyutka was not the most accurate or reliable missile, it was still a much better weapon to take out armored targets at longer ranges. Without the Malyutka, the Object 911B could only engage enemy armor within the reduced effective range of the Grom.

Trials and Performances

The Object 911B prototype was completed and trialed in 1964.

The vehicle was able to reach a maximum speed of 72.5 km/h on road. This was a considerable improvement from the Object 911 which would only manage 57 km/h on tracks. The main reason likely was the removal of the extendable wheels and changes to the suspension. On water, the vehicle could reach a similar maximum speed of 10 km/h, which was generally the norm for vehicles equipped with the PT-76’s hydrojet design. The maximum range on road was 500 km, similar to the Object 906 and exceeding the PT-76. Ground pressure was 0.42 kg/cm².

Object 911B at its lowest suspension height next to a PT-76B during its trials. The low profile of the vehicle at the lowest suspension setting was exceptional. Source: Solyankin, Pavlov, Pavlov, Zheltov. Otechestvennye boevye mashiny vol. 3

The vehicle’s armor protection was tested against two different threats. The first was against 76.2 mm projectiles fired at ranges of 2,000 m with a muzzle velocity of 665 m/s. These were likely kinetic projectiles fired from the PT-76’s D-56T (this velocity matches with the BR-350B and BR-354 APBC-HE shells, the latter of which was more common by this point in time). The frontal crew compartment armored bulkhead and turret armor were both found to resist penetration at this range. These were satisfactory performances. While the D-56T was not a very powerful gun and the projectiles were fired at a long range, a light amphibious tank is not a vehicle that is expected to resist armor-piercing weapons at pretty much any range, and indeed many vehicles fulfilling a similar role, such as the PT-76 or M551 Sheridan, would still be fairly easily penetrated even at this range.

More representative of the armament a light tank with good armor protection for the type may be expected to resist, the Object 911’s crew compartment was also tested against the 14.5 mm KPV. The weapon failed to penetrate both the front bulkhead and the hull sides. This was once again quite a considerable feat. The 14.5 mm KPV was one of the most powerful mass-produced heavy machine guns around, and if the Object 911B’s crew compartment was impervious to it, it would certainly resist NATO’s .50 cal Browning M2HB. In certain conditions, such as with some range and with imperfect firing angles, which are to be expected in combat, the crew compartment of the Object 911B may have stood decent chances to resist fire from many NATO autocannons of calibers around 20 mm, which would be an impressive performance for a light amphibious tank.

Conclusion – Interesting Performances with no Niche to Fulfill

Ultimately, the Soviet Army did not adopt the Object 911B, and work on the vehicle was discontinued after the trials ended in 1964.

A number of reasons can be found for the rejection of the vehicle. The most obvious was that the original Object 911 was not picked to become the BMP-1, being ruled out of the candidates due to complications with its drivetrain fairly early on. The other Volgograd prototype, the Object 914, was a more serious candidate but was eventually rejected in favor of the Object 765, which would become the famed BMP-1 that remains widely in use across the world today. There would have been little motivation in adopting a light tank derived from an infantry fighting vehicle which was rejected. Even though the Object 911B had significant parts commonality with vehicles already in service, such as the engine, road wheels, or armament, it would still lead to increased logistical complexity.

However, outside of these external considerations, the Object 911B had faults of its own. Some aspects of the vehicle were genuinely quite impressive, with the exceptionally low profile at the foremost. The armor protection given to the crew was also significant for a vehicle of the type. The crew of an Object 911B would have much more chances to survive enemy fire than the one of another amphibious light tank, such as the previous Soviet PT-76, the American M551 Sheridan, or the British FV 101 Scorpion fitted with a floatation device. Being able to resist heavy machine-gun fire or even light autocannons is significantly better than most vehicles of the type and would protect the Object 911B’s crew from some widely-encountered threats. This level of protection only extended to the crew, with the cargo and crucially engine compartment only being protected against rifle-caliber projectiles, but it was still significant.

The Object 765 prototype, which would be adopted and become the BMP-1 in 1964. With this vehicle already scheduled for production, there was little need for the Object 911B. While one may point to several advantages of the Object 911B in terms of survivability, this was not as strong as an argument in comparison to the eight dismounts and 9M14 Malyutka missile sported by the BMP. Source: Solyankin, Pavlov, Pavlov, Zheltov. Otechestvennye boevye mashiny vol. 3

However, the vehicle’s firepower was far too low to justify its existence. The Object 911B was only armed with the same 73 mm 2A28 Grom as the BMP-1 and a coaxial machine gun, and its lower profile and better armor protection could hardly create the need for it. In comparison, the BMP-1 would not only transport eight dismounts, but also feature a 9M14 Malyutka missile, which means it would be far better equipped to deal with enemy armor at range. Indeed, for all of the Object 911B’s advantages in survivability granted by its low profile and armor protection, these would be in large part negated by the need to be at small ranges for the Grom to have a good chance to hit enemy targets. At those ranges, enemy guns would have far lower difficulty to target the smaller profile of the Object 911B, and the vehicle would likely fall prey to most tanks before it could be at short enough range to target them unless it could be undetected until the moment it fired. While this would be easier for the Object 911B than pretty much any other tank, it is still not something to be relied upon, particularly if the vehicle was to be used offensively. The issues of disorientation that could arise from the driver’s placement in the turret were also not resolved.

In short, while very interesting in several aspects, the Object 911B did not fulfill any niche where a vehicle of its kind was necessary, and as such it is not surprising it was not adopted by the Soviet Army. Unlike the Object 911, the Object 911B does not appear to be preserved at the Kubinka Tank Museum, or at least not in its visitable parts, as no modern photos of the vehicle have emerged. It may have been scrapped, or still be preserved outside of public view.

Object 911B, illustrated by Pavel “Carpaticus” Alexe

Object 911B specifications

Dimensions (L-W-H) 7.100 x 2.800 x 1.625 to 1.265 m
Ground clearance 100 to 450 mm (adjustable)
Combat weight 12.5 tonnes
Engine UTD-20 6-cylinders 300 hp diesel engine
Suspension Adjustable pneumatic springs
Transmission mount rear
Forward gears 5 (reversible)
Road wheels 6
Maximum speed (road) 72.5 km/h
Maximum speed (water) 10 km/h
Range 500 km (road)
Crew 2 (driver, commander/gunner)
Gunner’s vision devices Main periscope
3 x TNPO-170 prismatic periscopes
PKB-62 (1PN22 ?) sight
Driver’s vision devices 3x TNPO-170 prismatic periscopes in a rotating cupola facing towards the direction the vehicle is driving in
TVN-2B night vision device
Main gun 73 mm 2A28 ‘Grom’ with 40 rounds (27 stowed in autoloader)
Autoloader Electrically-driven horizontal conveyor belt
Secondary armament Coaxial 7.62 mm PKT with 2,000 rounds
Hull armor Cargo compartment:
10 mm/45° (front)
4 mm (floor)
6 mm (roof)
Likely 10 mm (sides)Crew compartment:
35 mm (front bulkhead)
45 mm (upper sides)
20 mm (lower sides)
35 mm (rear bulkhead)
10 mm (roof and floor)
Turret:
40 mm /40° (front)
40 mm /30° (sides)
Likely 40 mm (rear)
10 mm (roof)
Engine compartment:
4 mm (floor)
6 mm (roof and rear)
Likely 10 mm (sides)
Effective protection of crew compartment 76.2 mm projectile fired at 665 m/s and a range of 2,000m (front bulkhead and turret)
14.5 mm KPV fire from all angles
Numbers produced 1

Sources

Solyankin, Pavlov, Pavlov, Zheltov. Otechestvennye boevye mashiny vol. 3
73-мм ГЛАДКОСТВОЛЬНОЕ ОРУДИЕ 2A28Техническое описание и инструкция по эксплуатации (73-mm SMOOTHBORE WEAPON 2A28 Technical description and operating instructions)
БОЕВАЯ МАШИНА ПЕХОТЫ БМП-1 ТЕхничЕскоЕ ОПИсаниЕ И ИНСТРУКЦИЯ ПО ЭКСПЛУАТАЦИИ (COMBAT VEHICLE INFANTRY BMP-1 Technical Description AND THE OPERATING INSTRUCTIONS)
BMP-1 field disassembly, Tankograd
skylancer7441’s archive

Categories
WW2 French Char de Bataille

Char B1 Bis №234 “Marseille”

France (1938-1940)
Infantry Tank – 1 Converted

During the 1930s, the French shipyard of FCM (Forges et Chantiers de la Méditerranée) was a fairly important player in the field of tank development and construction. In a field dominated by manufacturers using casting techniques and a few using riveting and bolting (mainly Renault and its cavalry vehicles), FCM was notable in its use of welding. Though this is mainly known via FCM’s only mass-produced design from the late 1930s, the FCM 36, FCM also studied a variety of heavier designs which used welding, such as the FCM F4 or FCM F1. FCM also took part in the studies to provide an improved version of the B1 Bis tank, of which FCM was one of several manufacturers, the B1 Ter. It is in this context that an experimental welded turret was given to a B1 Bis produced by FCM.

The B1 Bis “Marseille” and its Turret

The tank which received this new turret was the B1 Bis №234. It was assembled by FCM in early 1938 and would be delivered to the 510ème RCC (Régiment de Char de Combat – Combat Tank Regiment) in Nancy, Lorraine. There, it was nicknamed “Marseille”, after France’s second-largest city and a large Mediterranean harbor.

This B1 Bis was given a welded turret that had been designed by FCM. This welded turret appears to not have been an entirely new design, but was instead based on a design studied to provide a second, rear turret for FCM’s F4 tank.

The 47 mm-armed turret design for a variant of the FCM F4. It would have featured in the “variante D”. In all known variants, the FCM F4 had a 75 mm main gun in a rotating front turret. Armed with the 47 mm SA 35, this turret would have given some amount of anti-tank coverage to the rear and sides of the vehicle. Source: GBM 109
The only known photo of B1 Bis №234 “Marseille” with its welded turret, likely taken in Nancy. Source: char-français

In comparison to the FCM F4’s turret, the Marseille’s appears to have been merely a slightly simplified version. It remained a welded turret with 7 sides, including the front. The turret was designed to be similar to the APX 4 found on classic B1 Bis tanks in terms of general architecture. It therefore also retained the crew of one, the commander. The turret featured a commander cupola to the rear left, with three vision ports. If this cupola was given the observation devices of the standard B1 Bis, it would have had a PPL RX 160 episcope. However, the turret the Marseille received is known to have been more of a prototype/proof-of-concept, and may have lacked all the advanced features of a standard APX 4.

Vision ports were also found on the sides of the turret. They were more distinctive than on the standard B1 Bis’ APX 4, being more reminiscent of the APX 1 found on the older B1 in this fashion.

The armament of the FCM welded turret was the same as on a standard APX 4, a 47 mm SA 35 main gun to the right, and a coaxial MAC 31 7.5 mm machine gun to the left. The FCM turret featured different mantlets than the APX 4, owing to their use of welding instead of casting. This is particularly distinguishable on the machine gun, which appears to feature some kind of shield protecting it from enemy fire. As for the turret’s armor protection, it was very likely identical in thickness to the APX 4. The welding would have led to less angles and fewer rounded surfaces, but the stronger structural resistance of welded steel in comparison to cast steel would have likely made up for it.

The Point of the FCM Turret

Placing this new welded turret on a production Char B1 Bis which was then issued operationally was obviously a way for FCM to experiment with heavier welded turrets. Several motives can be found behind this.

An obvious one can be found in the form of FCM’s ongoing heavy tanks project. The company was, by 1938, involved in the B1 Ter program, which would later see FCM tasked with manufacturing a serial/pre-production vehicle, which FCM wanted to feature one of their own turrets instead of the APX 4 or even another welded design, the ARL 2. The FCM F4 program was also recent, and in early 1938, had evolved into the FCM F1 – which was also planned to feature a 47 mm-armed turret in addition to a much larger, 90 mm-armed one.

A more discrete but perhaps more realistic or at least short-term motive may also be found in the will to provide some competition to the APX 4 turret which outfitted all B1 Bis produced, including those by FCM. A common issue with French cast turrets (and even the non-cast ones, seeing as this was also an issue with the Panhard 178’s riveted APX 3) was that their production was typically slower than the hull they were to be mounted on, resulting in a backlog of completed hulls with no turret to be outfitted with – not too much of an issue in peacetime, but a much more considerable one in wartime. By proving it could produce its own turret – and likely have it be quicker to produce than the APX 4 for about equal performances – FCM may have hoped to see the army order FCM’s B1 Bis to use an FCM turret instead of those provided by the state manufacturer APX. This would not, however, materialize in any way.

The Fate of B1 Bis “Marseille” and of FCM’s Cast Turret

At the outbreak of the war, in September 1939, the B1 Bis “Marseille” became the tank of the commander of the French 15ème BCC (Bataillon de Char de Combat – Combat Tank Battalion). It was, at this point, retrofitted with the standard APX 4 turret. During the 1940 Campaign, it was passed between the 15th and the 8th battalions, where it again became the battalion commander’s tank in late May 1940. The tank notably took part in the Battle of Abbeville. It broke down on a road on the night of 5th to 6th June 1940. By mid-day on the 7th, it had still not been able to be recovered when it was attacked and captured by German infantry – putting an end to this peculiar B1 Bis’s service within the French Army.

German soldiers in front of the abandoned “Marseille”, north of Beauvais, in Picardy, June 1940. Source: char-français

As for FCM’s welded turret, the B1 Ter, which was to be produced by FCM, very likely had a turret very similar, if not directly based on the design which was found on Marseille. Sadly, no iconographic documents of FCM’s B1 Ter, may it be photos of the assembly process (the tank was being assembled by the time FCM’s facilities fell under Italian occupation) or plans, have survived. Out of the three B1 Ter prototypes, the FL one shares a similar fate, and only a very few photos of the ARL prototype’s hull during the assembly process have survived. The fate of the FCM B1 Ter is also unclear. While the ARL and FL prototypes were sunk during evacuation to North Africa in June of 1940, the FCM was still listed as in existence by an Italian report dated from July 1943. It vanished without a trace after this date, leaving its fate to be a mystery (though the exact nature of its resolution likely lays simply in identifying whether the hands that scrapped it were German during the occupation of Italy and Italy’s French occupation zone, or French, after the liberation of the country in 1944).

The Marseille was the single vehicle that received a special welded turret made by FCM. Illustration by David Bocquelet, modified by Pavel ‘Carpaticus’ Alexe

Sources

Char-français:
https://www.chars-francais.net/2015/index.php/14-classement-individuel/char-b/315-234-marseille
https://www.chars-francais.net/2015/index.php/7-archives/de-1930-1940/2427-1937-fcm-f4
https://www.chars-francais.net/2015/index.php/engins-blindes/chars?task=view&id=110
GBM 109, July-August-September 2014, “Le char B1 Ter”, pp 67-78

Categories
Modern Sri Lanka Armor

Tamil Tigers Light Tank

Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) – 2000s
Makeshift light tank – one produced (converted from pre-existing vehicles)

Makeshift or improvised vehicles are a very common occurrence in modern, asymmetrical conflicts. The origins behind the creation of these vehicles can be very diverse. In some cases, it can be to try and make something which originally was not a fighting vehicle into one, or to bring mobility to a weapon system. One may, for example, mention the numerous Toyota Land Cruiser 70 series-based technicals which have been created by dozens of international and state actors in many different conflicts. In other cases, improvised vehicles take the form of modifying already existing vehicles, often captured or seized from a pre-existing force, to repurpose them, or perhaps reuse components of operational vehicles to create a functional one (for example mating a functioning turret from the hull of a broken down vehicle onto another hull, or creating a new turret for a functional hull which lacks one). In some cases, an improvised vehicle may even best be described as a combination of two already pre-existing types – such is the case of a light tank that was created by the rebel/terrorist group known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), often known simply as the Tamil Tigers, of Sri Lanka. This vehicle combined the turret of a British FV601 Saladin armored car with the modified hull of a Chinese YW531 to create what was now a tracked light tank.

Conflict in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka, formerly known as Ceylon, is a large island located to the south of the Indian subcontinent, with which it has had cultural, trade and diplomatic relationship for a particularly long time. The island was ruled by a number of local kingdoms in its history, the last being the kingdom of Kandy, while Portuguese and later Dutch colonization of coastal areas started in the 16th century. The Kingdom of Great Britain seized control of the island off the Batavian Republic during the Napoleonic Wars, with the last local king expelled in 1815 and the entire island falling into the control of the British East India company and the British crown.

A rough map of Sri Lanka’s linguistic divisions showing the large Sinhala-dominated parts of the country, and the areas with Tamil plurality or majority. Source: medium.com

Sri Lanka’s ethnic situation is fairly particular. The biggest ethnic group is the indigenous Singhalese people, 70% of the island’s total population. They have their own language, Sinhala, and in majority tend to follow the Buddhist faith. However, the country has large minorities of Tamils and Sri Lankan Moors, which differ significantly from the Singhalese majority. Their most common faiths tend to be Hinduism for the Tamils and Islam for the Moors, while both mostly use the Tamil language. These populations are mostly concentrated around the north of the island as well as its eastern coast. They mostly descend from previous peoples, traders for example, which settled in Sri Lanka in past centuries.

From the early 20th century onward, there was a movement for the independence of Sri Lanka, which, uniquely, united both the majority Singhalese population and the large Tamil minority.

Sri Lanka achieved independence in 1948. During the first eight years of its independence, there were several prominent Tamil members in the ruling cabinet. The newly proclaimed Dominion of Ceylon appeared to be somewhat pluralistic at this point. This changed significantly in the 1950s though, with the rise in power of a new Prime Minister in 1956, leading to Sinhala being recognized as the sole official language of Sri Lanka, and pro-Singhalese policies being generally put in place. From the 1960s onward, Sri Lanka also implemented socialist policies and approached China and the Soviet Union to an extent, though relationships with the United Kingdom were not relinquished despite Sri Lanka declaring itself a Republic in 1972.

The early 1970s were generally a time of turmoil. A large Singhalese Marxist uprising led by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (People’s Liberation Front) failed in early 1971. Around the same time, the Sri Lankan government also instaurated policies restricting access to Sri Lanka’s universities to the Tamil population by creating a quota by language.

It is during the 1970s that the first Tamil insurgent movements appeared, opposing the governmental pro-Singhalese policies. One of these, the Tamil New Tigers, was founded in 1972, and would eventually become the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 1976. The group’s goal was the creation of Tamil Eelam – A Tamil state in the north and east of Sri Lanka. Though the first actions against Sri Lankan officials had been undertaken previously, the start of the Sri Lankan Civil War is generally considered to be an LTTE attack on a Sri Lankan Army patrol in July 1983, which would lead to a large pogrom against Tamils on the island, when several hundreds to thousands were killed. At this point, the Tamil insurgency grew in size considerably, and notably, during the first phase of the conflict, would receive Indian support.

The conflict would know four different phases separated by ceasefires – the first, from 1987 to 1990, after which a truce would be upheld by an Indian peacekeeping contingent. 1995 would see a 100-days truce separating the second and third parts of the conflict, with the third phase ending in 2002. By the end of this third phase, the Tamil Tigers had effectively managed to seize large portions of northeast Sri Lanka, where they were effectively able to operate as a de facto state. A ceasefire was brokered in February of 2002 and would last until July of 2006, when the Tamil Tigers closed access to a water reservoir to government-controlled areas, cutting water supplies for thousands of villages, which led to a renewal of large-scale fighting. It is in this last phase of the conflict after the LTTE had held significant ground for years and would reasonably operate in ways more as a standing army than a pure guerilla organization, that armored fighting vehicles would be the most widely used by the rebel group.

LTTE militants stand by the rear of a knocked-out YW531A armored personnel carrier of the Sri Lankan Army in the 1990s. Considering a low number of these vehicles are known to have been delivered to Sri Lanka (though this may be an inaccuracy on the part of the SIPRI logs), this vehicle, if it was not in an advanced state of disrepair, may perhaps have been used for the light tank conversion. Source: yarl.com

Armed Forces of the LTTE & Armored Fighting Vehicles

The Tamil Tigers comprised a number of conventional and unconventional fighting forces. Before going deeper into their operations with armored fighting vehicles, it ought to be noted that these unconventional forces, including a wing which often engaged in suicide operations, the Black Tigers, would often resort to methods typically used by terrorist groups, which would eventually land the LTTE a classification as a terrorist group by the United States, European Union, Canada, India, and others over the years. It also ought to be noted that the ethnic and religious aspects of the conflict naturally resulted in large quantities of war crimes and executions of prisoners or forced relocation being committed both by the LTTE and other rebel groups on one hand and the Sri Lankan military on the other.

The Sri Lankan Army (SLA) sourced its vehicles from several different providers. The island’s former colonial overlord, the United Kingdom, provided a number of wheeled armored fighting vehicles – notably 18 to 27 Saladin armored cars in 1971 and two batches of Saracen armored personnel carriers, one of 32 vehicles in 1971 and one of 35 in 1990. A number of purchases were made from China, including 10 YW 531/Type 63 armored personnel carriers in 1988, 25 Type 59 tanks in 1990, and 40 Type 85 armored fighting vehicles, 20 of the armored personnel carrier and 20 of the infantry fighting vehicle model, in 1991. More recently, in the 2000s, large numbers of WZ-551 wheeled APCs and IFVs were purchased. With the conclusion of the Cold War, the SLA would also acquire large numbers of surplus T-55s from Czechoslovakia and later the Czech Republic. 27 T-55s in 1991, 18 T-55AM-2 in the 1990s and 36 T-55AM-2 in 2000-2001, as well as a small number of BMP-1 and BMP-2s from Ukraine in 1994. This fleet of vehicles would be widely engaged in operations against the LTTE during the course of the Sri Lankan Civil War, particularly as the group appeared to be holding an ever-increasing amount of ground in the 1990s. 47 Buffel mine-resistantant vehicles had also been acquired from South Africa in 1985-1987, as well as perhaps some other mine-protected vehicles from South Africa.

An LTTE T-55, with the flag of the movement draped over its gun, and slat armor added to the side of the turret. Source: yarl.com

With the rising size of the Tamil insurgency, some of these armored fighting vehicles used by the SLA would start falling into the hands of the LTTE, which was able to maintain them in service thanks to its ability to hold territory. The first known armored vehicles to fall into LTTE hands were two T-55s captured during a battle at the military base of Pooneryn in Northern Sri Lanka, in November 1993. Although one of the vehicles would be swiftly knocked out of action by the Sri Lankan Air Force, the other would be in service for good. This would be the first of several T-55 tanks, including some T-55AM-2s, which would fall into the hands of the LTTE and be re-employed by them.

One of the two known LTTE Saladins. A Saracen can be observed in the background. Photo most likely from the late 1990s. Source: yarl.com

Other armored fighting vehicles used by the Sri Lankan military eventually fell into the hands of the LTTE. Notably, two FV601 Saladin armored cars and four FV603 Saracen armored personnel carriers are known to have been captured at the Kanakarayankulam base, likely during the SLA disaster that happened there in December 1997. A BMP-1 was captured during riots in August 1997. A number of Buffel mine-protected vehicles and other MPVs, and at least one YW531, were also captured.

A close-up on the armament of a modified Buffel, seemingly a Bofors L/60 40mm autocannon. Source: yarl.com

Some of these captured vehicles – notably the Buffels – would be subjected to local modifications, with a variety of armaments, including on one example a 40 mm autocannon, likely a Bofors, being installed. At the same time, LTTE workshops would begin creating their own armed and/or armored vehicles by converting existing, mostly civilian chassis, equipping them with armament and armor plates. This included trucks and buses where the cargo or passengers compartment was converted into an armored cabin, some limited number of improvised mine-resistant vehicles, and some more classic technicals mounting armament on the back of pick-up trucks. These field conversions would, for some of them, get more and more complex and advanced over time. Likely one of the very last performed would be a light tank created by combining elements of the FV601 Saladin and YW531 armored personnel carrier.

A Frankenstein of British and Chinese AFVs

The light tank which was created by the LTTE was a combination of the turret of the FV601 Saladin armored car with the hull of the YW531 armored personnel carrier. The use of this type of turret very likely dates the vehicle’s conversion to after 1997, though it may realistically be a lot later than that. Indeed, no footage of the vehicle in Tamil Tigers service has appeared, only of it after it was captured by the SLA. The Sri Lanka Army appears to call the vehicle “BMT armored tank”, the origin of this name being unknown. While there is at least some imagery of the vast majority of armored vehicles known to have been used by the SLA in active LTTE service – including some vehicles being spotted on several occasions in different places over the years, such as the LTTE’s sole known BMP-1.

What information is available on the vehicle merely comes from a few known photos of it, which lend some interesting indications on its design. Nonetheless, no internal views of the vehicle are known, nor any detail on its creation process. A likely possibility is that the LTTE possessed a non-operational FV601 Saladin armored car with a usable turret, which was mounted on the hull of an available YW531 as a light tank armed with a 76 mm gun was viewed as more valuable than an armored personnel carrier. This was not however a rushed job, with both the hull and turret receiving some considerable modifications.

The YW 531 Hull

The hull of the LTTE light tank was taken from a YW531 armored personnel carrier. This original vehicle is a welded steel amphibious armored personnel carrier, armed with China’s Type 54 12.7 mm machine gun on a pintle mount. It has four road wheels with a torsion bar suspension, and moves through water with the movement of its tracks. The vehicle has a crew of two, and an infantry complement of 10, located to the rear of the hull. The engine was located to the right of the vehicle, between the driver and the infantry compartment. Armored protection was 14 mm of armor at its thickest point. It has a length of 5.48 m, a width of 2.98 m, and a height of 2.58 m.

The LTTE light tank after its capture. The hull of the vehicle is obviously significantly lowered in comparison to the YW 531A’s. The slat armor blocking the smoke dischargers can also clearly be seen here. Source: war thunder forums

The length and width of the original YW 531A were likely the same on the hull of the LTTE light tank. The same can not, however, be said for the height. The hull of the light tank was considerably lowered, though by exactly which amount is unknown. This appears to have been performed by cutting off a vertical “slice” of the hull – the need for internal hull space likely being considerably diminished by the infantry carrying function of the vehicle being ditched.

The engine on the converted vehicle appears to have been moved from the front-right to the rear of the vehicle. This is indicated by a view of the rear of the LTTE light tank, where one can observe radiator grills that were installed on what was formerly the infantry’s main door on the rear of the vehicle. This transformation was likely very much necessary, as the turret would otherwise likely have sat partially on top of the engine, an impossible configuration. The vehicle may retain the original engine of the YW531, a Deutz BF8L413F diesel engine of German origin producing 320 hp. However, this cannot be confirmed.

The LTTE light tank in a state of disrepair; it is unclear whether this predates or follows the vehicle being exhibited in the previous photo. This one gives a good view into the rear door which now appears to feature a grill for the engine’s radiator. Source: yarl.com
A side view of the vehicle in the same state of disrepair. Source: www.army.lk
The vehicle in the same dump; despite the considerable hull changes, the suspension remains identical. Source: Al Jazeera

The suspension does not appear to have received any change. It has sometimes been claimed that the LTTE light tank was not based on the YW531/Type 63, but rather on the later Type 85, procured in both APC and IFV models (the IFV model using the same turret as the ZBD-86, itself a copy of the BMP-1). The suspension disproves this claim entirely, as the later Type 85 ran on five road wheels.

The crew configuration of the hull part of the LTTE light tank is not known. Logically, the vehicle would likely retain the ability to mount two crew members in front of the hull. On the YW531, this was the driver to the front left and commander to the front right. In turreted vehicles, as the LTTE light tank is, the commander is traditionally placed in the turret, and an aid-driver may or may not be viewed as unnecessary and disposed of. However, seeing as the vehicle uses a two-man turret, and as the LTTE is an unconventional force, it may be imaginable that the commander may actually sit in the hull on the vehicle, with a gunner and loader in the turret.

Some other changes can be observed on the hull. The original headlights of the YW531 were removed and replaced by some taken from a Saladin. The vehicle otherwise appears to have two spare track links mounted at the rear of the hull, likely on each side.

The FV601 Saladin Turret

The turret installed on the LTTE light tank was taken from a captured FV601 Saladin armored car. This British armored car developed in the post-war era featured a two-man turret of welded construction, armored at 32 mm at its thickest point. The main armament of the turret is a Royal Ordnance L5A1 76 mm gun. This is a fairly low-velocity gun centered around High-Explosive (HE) and High-Explosive Squashed Head (HESH) shells. It can also fire smoke and canister ammunition. Coaxially, the turret features an M1919A4 7.62 mm machine gun. Smoke dischargers are present on both sides of the turret.

A front view of the LTTE light tank, after it was captured by the government forces. This gives a good view of the 12.7 mm DshKM machine gun as well as the headlights taken from a Saladin. Source: flickr
The vehicle’s gun emerges from its canvas cover in the dump it was left in. Source: WarOnline.org

Like the hull, the turret used in the LTTE light tank did receive some considerable modifications. Most notably, the addition of a heavy machine gun on top of the turret in the shape of a 12.7×108 mm DShKM of Soviet origin, seemingly located on the axis of the turret. It would likely be operated by the loader, which may or may not also assume the role of commander of the tank.

Additionally, some form of slat armor appears to have been applied on the turret sides from the mantlet all the way to the rear bustle. Curiously, this slat armor would impede the operation of the smoke grenade dischargers, which have not, however, been removed from the vehicle.

Close-ups of the turret on the LTTE light tank; these photos show a good view of the obstructed smoke launchers on the vehicle. Source: youtube

A Tank of Unknown Capabilities

Sadly, the LTTE light tank only being known through a series of photos means that many aspects of its performances remain uncertain.

First among these is the vehicle’s weight. A large number of factors to take into account make this hard to estimate starting from the original weight of the YW531 (12.6 t). The vehicle being lowered and infantry carrying capacities being removed would likely reduce the weight, but the addition of the turret as well as ammunition stowage would make it rise back up. The number of rounds available for the vehicle’s three weapons is also unknown.

A front view of the vehicle. While the hull retains a bow-shaped front, it is unclear whether or not this is sufficient to retain amphibious capacities. Source: WarOnline.org

Linked to the weight, the amphibious capacities of the vehicle are a mystery as well. The YW531 was fully amphibious and moved through water thanks to the movement of its tracks, not any device such as hydrojets. Cutting down part of the hull and adding a turret would have some impact on the buoyancy. However, it is unknown whether or not it may be enough to make the vehicle incapable of floating or not.

The maximum speed, power-to-weight ratio, etcetera are likewise unknown. Even the crew composition is. The LTTE light tank likely has a crew of either three or four, which cannot be confirmed. If the crew is of four, whether the commander acts as the loader or remains in the hull is also in question.

Conclusion – The Tamil Tigers’ oddity

Whether the LTTE light tank saw any service within the forces of the Tamil Tigers is uncertain. In 2009, the SLA launched a decisive offensive against LTTE holdouts, using its manpower and firepower advantage to its full extent and conducting essentially a large-scale military campaign that was able to decisively defeat the group. It is likely during this offensive that the LTTE light tank was captured by SLA troops, with all known photos of the vehicle dating from after its capture. With the death of the LTTE’s leader and the surrender of most of the group, this offensive also marked the end of the 25-years long Sri Lankan Civil War.

The LTTE light tank was part of a military exhibition in Colombo: this was the celebration of the 60th Anniversary of Sri Lanka Army, held from October 3rd to October 7th 2009. What fate it has been given as of now is unknown. While a very obscure vehicle, it is also an incredibly interesting piece of equipment that has been given little to no attention. The Sri Lankan conflict is often ignored by Western viewers more aware of the Middle East instead – the same which could be said of the Tamil Tiger’s conversions and armored vehicles in comparison to those of militant groups in Syria or Iraq, for example.

The Tamil Tiger light tank, seen first in a green camouflage and then covered in graffiti. Illustration by Andrei ‘Octo10’ Kirushkin

Tamil Tigers light tank specifications

Dimensions (L-W) 5.48 x 2.98 m
Suspension Torsion bars
Road wheels 4
Engine Likely Deutz BF8L413F diesel, 320 hp
Crew Likely 3 to 4
Main gun 76 mm L5A1
Secondary armament 12.7 mm DshKM
7.62 mm M1919A4
Hull armor 14 mm maximum
Turret armor 32 mm maximum

Sources

http://www.military-today.com/apc/yw_531.htm
army-guide.com/eng/product586.html
SIPRI Arms Trade Database
Yarl.com
CISAC Stanford
Sri Lanka Declares Victory, The Wall Street Journal, May 19 2009
Army.lk (official Sri Lanka army website)

With special thanks to Leander Jobse who provided helpful aid in researching this article.

Categories
WW2 French Other Vehicles

Cruiser A10 and A13 in French Service

Nation Flag IconFrance (1940)
Cruiser Tank – 10 used

The Campaign of France, particularly in its later stages, saw the vehicle arsenal of the French Army include some particularly uncommon or unexpected vehicles. These were introduced with a heightened sense of urgency in order to offer a desperate defense against the German advance into France. This included, for example, a number of French armored vehicles which were pressed into service while not entirely completed, such as turretless B1 Bis heavy tanks or Panhard 178 armored cars. Another example of vehicles used in a completely different role as intended were AMR 35 ZT-4 light tanks meant for colonial use, which were sent, often uncompleted as well, in desperate attempts to try and quell the German tide – to no avail, obviously.

One of the even less known vehicle types which ended up in the French Army’s hands when they normally should not have were a number of British Cruiser tanks that were being abandoned by retreating British forces. Combined with French crews which no longer had available vehicles, a number of these tanks, seemingly ten, would be fielded by a French tank company during the last days of the campaign.

Woes of the First and Second BEF

Going into the Second World War, the British Empire sent the famous BEF (British Expeditionary Force) into France to provide troops to support its French ally. This included the 1st Armoured Division, which fielded a number of tanks – notably A9, A10 and A13 (or Cruiser Mark I, II, III and IV) tanks.

The Cruiser tanks were the result of the perceived need for an exploitation vehicle, which could capitalize on the breakthrough provoked by sturdier infantry tanks to move swiftly in the enemy rear. The earliest model of Cruiser tank which is known to have fallen into French hands, the A10, used a coil spring suspension. This resulted in a fairly moderate maximum speed of around 26 km/h, which one may argue was not really suited for an exploitation role.

The later A13, both Mark I and II (also confusingly known as Cruiser Mark III and Mark IV), would introduce the Christie suspension and were, in comparison, much more mobile vehicles, with the A13 Mark II reaching a maximum speed of 48 km/h. This was faster than the closest French equivalent, the S35, albeit, this was quite a different vehicle. Both the A10 and A13 Mark II featured 30 mm thick armor at its thickest point and flat, which was considerably weaker than the 40 mm of the S35 reinforced by the curved and angled shape of the casting. However, both A10 and A13 Mark II crucially featured a turret comprising a three-man crew, a much more viable solution than the one-man turret crew of most other French tanks, while the 40 mm QF-2 Pounder gun proved to be, at this point, a potent anti-tank gun.

All in all, the British Cruisers were very different in design from French cavalry tanks. In their latest form by 1940, the A13 Mark II, they were faster, with an armament fairly similar in anti-tank capacity but operated in far better conditions, but on the other hand, a much weaker armor, even more so on the sides than on the front.

The BEF, as well as much of the mobile elements of the French Army, saw their rear cut off by the German breakthrough at Sedan and the following rush to the sea. The BEF was heavily engaged, for example at Arras, and was eventually pushed to Dunkerque (Eng. Dunkirk) and forced to evacuate – giving up much of its equipment – in a famous episode of the Campaign of France.

What is often forgotten is that some British troops were sent back to France in early June to try and continue supporting their ally, at least politically. This included elements of the 1st Armored Division. However, these troops, landing in Le Havre, Normandy, were very quickly forced to retreat, as the German advance was very swift against an outnumbered and under-equipped French Army. From around the 10th of June onward, British troops started rushing towards French harbors of first Normandy, but soon Brittany and the western coast, in order to escape continental Europe before they were overrun.

British Tanks in French Hands

French servicemen of 342ème CACC along with three of their newly received Cruiser tanks. The card game markings are similar to the ones used by the French, but are actually British. The presence of the diamond indicates a vehicle of an HQ squadron. The Rhino indicates this was a vehicle of the 1st Armoured Division. Source: char-français

At the same time, troops fighting in the Norwegian Campaign had been recalled. For France, this meant that, among others, the 342ème Compagnie Autonome de Chars de Combat (Eng. 342nd Autonomous Tank Company) landed in Brest, Brittany, on 13th June 1940. Their Hotchkiss H39 tanks, however, were actually landed in Britain, and so the company found itself with men, but no tanks. At the same time, elements of the British 1st Armoured Division were re-embarking in the same harbor – with neither time nor equipment to evacuate their tanks. One thing quickly led to another and the French company was handed over a number of Cruiser tanks – ten have sometimes been claimed. Visual evidence has shown French servicemen operating Cruisers A10 (Mk II) and A13 Mk II (Mk IV), though whether A9 (Mk I) and A13 Mk I (Mk III) were or were not operated cannot be confirmed, as the most Cruiser tanks in French service ever spotted together at the same time only amounts to three tanks.

A conflicting source claims the Cruiser tanks were used by the French in the defense of Calais – a coastal city a few dozens of kilometers away from Dunkerque, which was inside the pocket and fell along with it. This, however, appears fairly unlikely, notably as the 342ème CACC, which appears to have been the one operating the tanks, was still in Norway by the time of the fall of Calais.

Conclusion – Unknown French use

An abandoned Cruiser Mark II numbered T5914 (British numbering) at the side of the road, June 1940. The vehicle’s hatches are all open and part of the track guard appears to be missing, but otherwise, the tank seems intact. Source: warspot.net

No details on the use of the Cruisers by the French Army has surfaced beyond the unit operating them. The service of the tanks was, in any case, very short. By 13th June, France was in complete disarray, Paris had already been declared an open city and would fall into German hands the next day. Brest, the city where the tanks were received, would soon follow, falling on 19th June 1940. By this point, French resistance could not amount to much as the French Army was, simply put, getting overrun fighting a desperate fighting retreat.

The vehicles do not appear to have received any form of re-painting. Though the card game markings (the diamonds) may be confused with French markings, these were equally employed by British formations, as were two-tone camouflages. This complete lack of repainting shows the operation of the vehicle was a short affair, done very much in urgency and due to the lack of other options to outfit the French tankers which received them with armored vehicles.

German soldiers stand beside the same T5914 tank. The service of these early Cruisers in France was very short, lasting at most six days. Source: The Modelling News

In any case, the fate of these French Cruisers was very likely the same as the British ones: captured more or less intact by the Germans. This first French use of Cruisers is very anecdotal, but would not be the last. Later in the war, Free French troops would receive some A15 Crusaders, used in 1942-1943 by the Free French Flying Column. However, by their involvement in Europe, French forces had been equipped with American Shermans. As such, while France would operate at least four different Cruiser types (Mk II, Mk IV, Mk VI Crusaders and even a very small number of Mark VII Cavaliers), they would never really be used in large numbers or for a durable period. As for France’s own take on a Cruiser tank, the AMX-40, it would never leave the drawing board.

An A10 Cruiser Mark II as was seen in French service, retaining British camouflage and numbering. Illustration created by Pavel “Carpaticus” Alexe, based on work by David Bocquelet and funded by our Patreon campaign.

Sources

Tout les blindés de l’Armée Française 1914-1940, François Vauvillier, Histoire & Collection editions
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Malian armor

PT-76 in Malian service

Mali (1975-Present)
Amphibious Light Tank – 20 received

The Republic of Mali, which gained independence from France in 1960, very quickly became a dictatorship closely aligned to the Soviet Union. Its first ruler, Modibo Keïta, aligned with a Socialist ideology, which led to the very first armored vehicles of the Malian Army, T-34-85s and BTR-40s, being received merely months after the country became independent. In the following years, and despite Keïta being overthrown in 1968, and Mali joining the Non-Aligned Movement, the country would retain close ties with the Soviet Union. This would lead to continued Soviet deliveries of arms to Mali, including a contingent of PT-76 light tanks in 1975.

Two Malian PT-76s during exercises. Source: Oryx Blog

The PT-76 Arrives in Mali

By 1975, Mali was under the rule of General Moussa Traoré. Though less ideological than his predecessor Keïta, whom he had overthrown, Traoré remained aligned with the Soviet Union, and in 1975, his country received a shipment of varied Soviet vehicles. These included 10 BRDM-2s, 10 BTR-152s, and 20 PT-76s. It is unknown when Mali received its fleet of T-54s, but these may also have been part of this same shipment.

Mali was, and still is, one of the poorest countries in the world, and indeed this 1975 shipment of Soviet armor is widely believed to have been sent as aid with little to no payment from Mali. All the vehicles appear to have been second-hand, seeing as overall, all were of models already in service in the Soviet Army for years.

The Malian PT-76s are somewhat curious in that they are far from the most common PT-76 variant. The Malian Army vehicles are PT-76 Model 1952. These are the second production model of the vehicle. They are quite easy to differentiate from the more common posterior PT-76s thanks to their elongated muzzle brakes with a large number of vertical slot openings. In comparison, the most commonly exported PT-76 models, the Model 1957 and onward (also known as PT-76B), use a ‘German-Style’ muzzle break.

Operational Service

Little is known of the operational use of the PT-76s in the Traoré years. In December 1985, Mali waged a short 5-day war against its neighbor, Burkina Faso, over the Agacher Strip, but this was a small-scale conflict and it is not known if the PT-76s were engaged.

A Malian Army PT-76 in a unicolor green camouflage, alongside a ZPU-1 14.5 mm AA gun in the streets of Bamako during the 2012 coup. Source: Esoteric Armor Blog
A wider shot of what is very likely the same vehicle, alongside a BTR-60 APC. Source: Esoteric Armor Blog

Since the collapse of the Traoré regime in 1991, further openness from Mali has allowed more views of the PT-76 to emerge. During the March 2012 coup, during which Malian president Amadou Toumani Touré was overthrown, PT-76s were seen in the streets of Bamako, sometimes alongside BTR-60PBs, which may suggest the vehicles were in use in the neighboring Malian Army base of Kati.

Camouflage and Markings

One of the more interesting aspects of the Malian PT-76s is the variety of camouflages the vehicles have been seen in over the years.

During the 2012 coup, the PT-76s seen appeared in a classic plain green camouflage scheme. A similar scheme was also seen in what are likely earlier photos. Though the vehicle seen during the coup does not appear to have had any markings, PT-76s have also been seen with the same plain green camouflage scheme but bearing commemorative names. Interestingly enough, all names seen on Malian PT-76 are historical references to Mali’s medieval era. While historical names have also been seen on other types of Malian vehicles, commemorative names coming from modern Malian officers or geographical areas are also commonly seen on other Malian armored fighting vehicles but have never been seen on the PT-76s.

PT-76 “Askia Mohamed” during a military parade. Askia Mohamed was a ruler of the Songhai Empire in the 15th and 16th centuries. Source: Oryx Blog
PT-76 “Kirina 1235”. This name is a reference to the 1235 Battle of Kirina, fought by the Mandinka people against the Sosso people. The victory of the Mandinka led to them founding the Empire of Mali, which would be a dominant power in West Africa during the following centuries. Source: Oryx Blog
PT-76 “Touramakan Traore” was named after a general of the Mali Empire in the 13th century, and a major figure of the empire’s expansion leading to it becoming the dominant power in West Africa. Source: Oryx Blog
PT-76 “Biton Coulibaly”, named after the founder of one of the later empires which blossomed on territories currently owned by Mali, the Bambara Empire, in the 18th century. Source: Oryx Blog
A PT-76 with a bicolor yellow and green camouflage at a Malian Army base. The turret side of a ZSU-23-4 “Shilka” can be seen to the right. Source: Hammer of War

Another PT-76, most likely the one just in front of the first vehicle, with a more complicated quadricolor camouflage. Source: Hammer of War

More recently, photos of PT-76s in Malian Army bases have shown them with a much wider variety of colors. The vehicle have both been seen in a green and yellow camouflage scheme, or a more multicolor scheme including dark green, brown, beige, and black, itself varying in the way it is applied, sometimes being fairly neatly separated, but sometimes featuring lines of various colors in large spots of others. Most of these vehicles have little to no markings.

Vehicles of Questionable Operability

Though their service is fairly obscure, the Malian PT-76s are dated vehicles, and while they have not been removed from the Malian Armed Forces’ inventory, their present operability is questionable.

The Malian Army’s main adversaries, ever since the last conflict with Burkina Faso, have largely been Tuareg rebels, which typically engage in guerilla operations, including ambushes and harassment over the vast Sahara desert. Tracked armored fighting vehicles generally do poorly in these conditions, having lackluster range to cover the massive expanses of the Sahara Desert. In this environment, the Malian Army has preferred the use of wheeled vehicles over them. This has comprised, to an extent, the BRDM-2 and BTR-60PB, but mostly the use of technicals, which have formed the backbone of the Malian army in the north of the country. As such, it is unlikely any Malian PT-76 has ever been lost in combat.

What appear to be US servicemen, which have been involved as instructors in Mali, on a PT-76. The type appears to be the most operational model of “tank” used by the Malian Army, but this is not saying much. Source: Hammer of War

However, because of the nature of the military operations Mali has recently undertaken its tanks fleet, comprising PT-76s, T-54s, Type 62s, and even T-34-85s, has found itself generally being almost completely out of operational use. What the Malian Army has opted to do broadly is to maintain the vehicles, perhaps in case of tensions with another state in the region, and to keep them stored in military bases, seemingly mostly around Sikasso, in Mali’s southernmost province, but rarely, if ever, use them operationally. In this regard, the PT-76s are actually the most actively used Malian tanks, seeing as the type was seen in the 2012 coup, which may suggest some could be stored in other places aside from Sikasso, which is fairly distant from the capital, Bamako.

A report from 2011-2012 states that Mali still had 18 PT-76s, but suffered from its stocks of 76 mm ammunition mostly being faulty, which would considerably hamper the vehicle’s combat capacities. It has been claimed that some sort of small-scale refurbishment program has been put in place in order to keep some of the fleet operational, which the use of the vehicle in 2012 may corroborate. Nonetheless, some other recent photos show PT-76s abandoned, or at least very lacking maintenance, with graffiti drawn on the sides of the vehicle, and it is likely that considerable work would have to be done in order to bring Mali’s PT-76s to a truly operable state.


PT-76s in what appear to be a poorly-maintained state at a Malian Army base. Source: Hammer of War

Conclusion – Mali’s Ageing Light Tanks

In the second half of 2021, Mali has made steps to shift from France and its Western allies diplomatically, and rather attempt to reinforce its relationships with Russia, which may result in the Wagner Private Military Corporation contractors being deployed in Mali. Though it is a long shot, this mounting relation with Russia may perhaps, if Mali desires so, ease obtaining spare parts and technicians which may help refurbish and maintain operational Mali’s old Soviet armor. Nonetheless, the type remains out of place in the counter-insurgency warfare operations in the vast desert the Malian Army is to undertake in the Sahara. As such, it is just as likely that the vehicles will continue to remain in a state of disrepair.

A Malian Army PT-76 in bicolor camouflage. Whether such vehicles may be better-maintained and see more use in the future or remain in the fringes of Mali’s military equipment, remains unknown. Source: Hammer of War
A Malian PT-76 in a bicolour, tropical camouflage
A Malian PT-76 in a varied multicolour camouflage. Both illustrations created by Pavel “Carpaticus” Alexe based on work by Tank Encyclopedia’s own David Bocquelet.

Sources

Esoteric Armour – Mali PT-76

Oryx Blog: Sons of Bamako – Malian Armed Forces Fighting Vehicles

Oryx Blog: Commemorative Names On Malian Army Vehicles And Artillery

Armée malienne : le difficile inventaire, Jeune Afrique

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