Infantry fighting vehicle – 764 BMP-1 used, around 580 upgraded
During the Cold War, the two German states, the FDR/Federal Republic of Germany (Bundesrepublik Deutschland) in the west and the GDR/German Democratic Republic (Deutsche Demokratische Republik/DDR) in the east, stood as two foot soldiers of NATO and the Warsaw Pact on the forefront of the Iron Curtain. Being certainly located on a major battlefield of a new all-out European war, both German states were considerably remilitarized when they were allowed to have their own armed forces, from the 1950s onward. As such, the East German NVA (Nationale Volksarmee/National People’s Army) received a total of around 1,133 BMP-1s from 1968 (when two training vehicles were received) to 1988, including a number of BVP-1s produced in neighbouring Czechoslovakia. Outside of a mere 24 BMP-2s, the BMP-1 was the sole infantry fighting vehicle in service with the NVA. With the peaceful conclusion of the Cold War though, these BMP-1s would never be consumed in great battles on the German plains. Instead, the East German BMP-1 fleet was inherited by the West German Bundeswehr, which now had to ponder what to do with this large fleet of infantry fighting vehicles, vastly different from its own Marders.
When first pushed into service in the late 1960s, the BMP-1 was a major addition to the Soviet 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 – at least was for the Eastern Bloc. The vehicle could be used to support armored assault 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 dismounted infantry would be provided by a 73 mm Grom infantry support gun and a Malyutka missile launcher, with four missiles stored in the vehicle, for use against armored vehicles.
In East Germany, the BMP-1 was the only infantry fighting vehicle available in large numbers – only 24 examples of its successor, the BMP-2, were ever delivered. The NVA also received nine BRM-1K recon vehicles and two BREM-CH armored recovery vehicles.
In the last days of the NVA, the BMP-1 outfitted six motorized rifle regiments, the 3rd, 7th, 9th, 16th, 23rd, and 27th. Though it appears a total of 1,133 BMP-1s had been delivered to the NVA, a few had been phased out during the 1980s due to wear and tear, and as such, 1,112 were available. This total included both some baseline BMP-1s and a considerable number of vehicles that had gone through the BMP-1P upgrade, which replaced the Malyutka missile with the more modern Konkurs, a new fire-extinction system to counter napalm, and an array of six Tucha 81 mm smoke grenades located on the rear roof of the turret. In East German service, the vehicles were known as Schützenpanzer BMP-1.
The German reunification
After years of crisis and decline, tensions within East Germany exploded in 1989. First, citizens tried to leave or apply for visas, notably using Hungary to try and cross into neutral Austria and from there into the democratic West Germany. With the opening of the border between the two starting in August 1989, tens of thousands of East Germans moved into Austria and later West Germany going through Hungary, seeking reunion with family and/or better opportunities in a more prosperous economy. Things escalated further in November, with massive protests in East German cities, while the opening of the West German-Czechoslovak border created yet another, even more easily accessible entry into West Germany for East Germans. By 9th of November, travel restrictions between the two Germanies were lifted; the once impenetrable Berlin wall started to be taken down.
In March 1990, in the last elections of East Germany, a branch of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) which supported quick reunification was appointed, with the following, last few months of East Germany’s existence being focused on quickly integrating East Germany into the Federal Republic. On 3rd October 1990, the five states of East Germany, as well as East Berlin, were formally integrated into the Federal Republic. The DDR and its armed branch, the NVA, were no more.
The large quantities of equipment left behind by the NVA were taken over by the Materiel Depot Service Gesellschaft (Material Service Depot Company/MDSG) to be warehoused and maintained. In December of 1990, it was decided the BMP-1 was one of the pieces of equipment of the former NVA that would, for a time, be operated by the Bundeswehr. Some 764 vehicles were to be pressed back into service.
The BMP-1 in Bundeswehr units
The BMP-1s were to outfit six units which were created in April of 1991 from re-forming six East German divisions, two armored and four motorized rifles divisions. These became Heimatschutzbrigade (Eng: Homeland Security Brigade) 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, and 42. Heimatschutzbrigade 37 and 41 were the ones formed from former NVA tank divisions, and also included T-72 tanks, while the other four were the ones formed from motorized rifles divisions.
The issue of Eastern Block standards
When inspecting and evaluating the BMP-1, it was found that the vehicle did not meet many of the standards expected of armored fighting vehicles of the Bundeswehr – more so in ergonomic qualities than in combat elements.
The vehicle’s front and rear lights were not up to the standards of West German vehicles. The lack of wing mirrors was noted. More worryingly, a number of elements which were not up to West German safety or health standards were found in the BMP-1. The fuel tanks embedded in the rear doors were thought to be a hazard. As the vast majority of operators of the type, the Bundeswehr found the interior cramped. Firing the 73 mm Grom’s ammunition was found to release potentially toxic nitroglycerin, while the coaxial 7.62 mm PKT would potentially release mercury. Toxic asbestos was also present in the brake bands, clutch lining, and gaskets.
If the BMP-1 was to remain in Bundeswehr service, these issues had to be fixed. The upgrades were designed by SIVG (System-Instandsetzungsund Verwertungsgesellschaft/System-Repair and Recovery Company) and FUG (Fahrzeug und Umwelttechnik Gesellschaft mbH/Vehicle and Environment Technology Company). SIVG was specialized in the demilitarization of armored fighting vehicles, while FUG was a manufacturer of commercial vehicles. It appears the former was a formerly East German maintenance facility, while the latter was a facility located in the West. The first three vehicles were converted as prototypes at Reparaturwerk Neubrandenburg (Neubrandenburg repair workshop), which was the main maintenance facility for BMP-1s in East Germany. This plant had been set up goind back to 1953 for the maintenance of Soviet and East German vehicles, and had the reputation to be one of the largest of its kind in Europe. It emloyed around 4,700 personnel. These first three conversions happened from January to March 1991. After they proved satisfactory, the upgrade was standardized as the BMP-1A1 ‘Ost’ (East). A further 100 vehicles were converted in Neubrandenburg from May to September of 1991, and another 399 at the same facility from October of 1991 to January of 1993. A further 83 vehicles were modernized by the SIZ 890 repair base located in Doberlug, another town of the Brandenburg province. The vehicles which were selected to be upgraded were the BMP-1 in the best conditions, which usually were BMP-1Ps. The total cost the German Ministry of Defence shared with the Bundestag for these conversions was at this point of 36.6 millions Deutschmarks (DMs). The goal of the upgrade program was to provide a stopgap until the Marder 2 would enter service, which was at this point scheduled for 1996. This never ended up happening, as the Marder 2 was cancelled. There was, however, also a political motivation behind such a refit, as it would showcase the Bundeswehr was actively integrating equipment from East Germany. Converting a vehicle took 250 to 268 working hours, which were usually performed in about 18 days.
Many of the additions brought by the Ost upgrade aimed at making the BMP-1 compliant with West German road regulations, and follow the same standard as West German vehicles. This translated in the vehicle’s headlights being replaced by some identical to those on the the Marder 1A3. In front of those headlights, small orange identification lights were placed. The same horn as on the Marder was also installed.
Externally visible changes included a pair of wing mirrors, located behind the headlights. These could be retracted, with the glass facing against the hull. At the rear, rear lights were added to ease convoy driving. If, for one reason or another, the lights had to be turned off, a Leitkreuz (guiding cross) was added on the left rear door. This was a green rubber sheet on which a white cross was painted. A small 24V lamp was installed at the center of this cross to illuminate it at night, allowing the next vehicle to follow when driving in convoys at night.
The Ost upgrade also included a short metal ladder on the rear of the left fender, in order to ease climbing into or descending from the vehicle. It has often been claimed the vehicle received a set of West German smoke grenades. However, this does not appear to be the case. BMP-1A1 vehicles either do not feature smoke grenades, or feature them in the exact same arrangement as the standard BMP-1P. It appears that, for these vehicles, the original Tucha 81 mm smoke grenades were retained.
The Ost upgraded vehicles were purged of all asbestos, of which the use is entirely banned in Germany. Much more significantly for the capacities of the vehicle, the 5th gear, the last of the gearbox, was locked on the vehicle, which reduced its maximum speed to 40 km/h, likely in a bid to ease maintenance and reduce wear and tear on the vehicle. The vehicles were also prohibited from driving on public roads, likely due to excessive wear and tear brought by their tracks. On private roads, the vehicles were prohibited fromgoing over 20 km/h. Thankfully, the vehicle were based either on or very close to the training facilities they were being used on. The clutch was optimized to allow for a smooth start of the vehicle, and the braking system was modified so that a handbrake was present for both tracks. The upgrade added a heater to keep the crew comfortable in winter conditions. At last, the fuel tanks present in the rear doors were removed and prevented from being filled. It is sometimes reported the fuel tanks were instead filled with styrofoam.
On the inside of the vehicle, efforts were made to make the BMP-1 more comfortable. This was manifested in the addition of a heater as well as elements such as covers protecting the edges of the observation devices used by the dismounts in order to prevent head injuries. An anti-slip coating was also added on a number of points on the exterior of the vehicle’s hull.
What could not be fixed
The BMP-1A1 remained a moderate upgrade in scope, intended only to make the BMP-1 conform to German regulations. Many issues of the vehicle could never be fixed, and in several ways, the BMP-1A1 was inferior to even a baseline BMP-1 when looked solely through the lens of combat capacities. It ought to be noted the vehicle was also made lighter by 90 kg.
The most pressing issue likely was the armament not being up to Bundeswehr regulations. This was never fixed, though it appears some thought was given into researching 73 mm ammunition that would not eject nitrocellulose. On April 15 1991, approval was given for the production of safe pratcice rounds. Numbers to be procured rose to 80,000 73 mm and 3 millions 7.62 mm projectiles, which differed in the propellant used. It is unclear whether this batch of safe practice ammunition was ever completed and fielded*; As a consequence, regulations prohibited the use of armament on the BMP-1A1 Ost in peacetime. The autoloading mechanism was also removed from the vehicle. The BMP-1 can easily be reloaded manually, but this brought further overtasking for the sole crewman in the turret. Furthermore, the Ost upgrade also removed the missile launcher and guidance equipment, may it be for the Malyutka or the Konkurs/Fagot. Because of this, German regulations rated the vehicle as able to combat at ranges of 2,000 to 600 m by day, and below 400 m at night. Firing from the firing ports to any useful effect was found not to be possible, and as a whole the Soviet doctrine of “mounted combat” was considered to be inapplicable.
Additionally, while some efforts were made to make the inside more ergonomic, these were only details, and the limited volume of the BMP-1’s infantry compartment was something that was not fixable without a deep transformation of the vehicle the Bundeswehr was not willing to perform.
The BMP-1A1 Ost were delivered to the Heimatschutzbrigades from late 1991 to early 1993.
They were operated in a transitional period for the Bundeswehr, which was incorporating the former NVA within its rank. The BMP-1A1 Ost was, as such, largely meant as a training vehicle as well as a way for the Bundeswehr to keep the last generation of NVA conscripts in operation, with vehicles, without having to re-train them for vastly different West German APCs or IFVs. The units which operated the BMP-1A1 often had a very mixed kit: the dismounts of the vehicle were typically observed using the West German MG3 machine-gun, but the East German MPi AK-74 rifle. Indeed, it appears that the standard loadout for squads mounted in the vehicle included a machine-gunner with an MG3, while other dismounts used a AK-74N. The driver and gunner were armed with AKS-74N rifles with folding stocks. There were plans to also arm such squads with the Panzerfaust 3 anti-tank weapon, but it was not yet fielded. Similarly, their base uniform is the West German one, but they retain some pieces of East German kit.
Interestingly enough, the Neubrandenburg repair plant even went through the hassle of creating a driver’s training BMP-1A1 Ost by mounting the cabin of a FAP-500U, an East German driver’s training vehicle based on the ZSU-57-2, in place of the turret of a BMP.
A cheap and available off-the-shelf IFV for sale
Considering the BMP-1A1 Ost’s role as a training vehicle as well as a way to maintain East German conscripts in operation for the duration of their service, it is not surprising the vehicle did not remain in service with the Bundeswehr for long. While some may imagine the reunification of Germany would have meant a larger German Army, this was more than offset by the reduction in world tension that followed the end of the Cold War and the following massive reduction in military budget and sizes. The already existing Marder 1 fleet was largely sufficient for German needs, and in the last 1A3 variant, offered a considerably more capable vehicle in comparison to a BMP-1.
The BMP-1A1 Ost were therefore phased out of service in 1993-1994, with the decision to phase the vehicles out of service outright taken as early as January 1993. However, this does not mean they would be scrapped or all placed into museums. While Germany had no interest in a large number of surplus IFVs, some other European countries did. For nations which did not have IFVs, or if so, only in small numbers, a large number of very cheap off-the-shelf vehicles was a very attractive offer. Three European countries ended up purchasing ex East German BMP-1s. For Germany itself, this was found to be an amazing opportunity to recoup the cost undertaken by refitting the vehicles.
Greece bought the bulk of the BMP-1A1 Ost fleet, purchasing one vehicle for trials in 1992 and a batch of 500 ex-Bundeswehr vehicles in 1994, at a low price of just 50,000 Deutschmarks each. Greece also bought the sole BMP-1A1 driver’s training vehicle that had been converted. These would become the only infantry fighting vehicles in Greek service, as the Hellenic Army retired its small fleet of AMX-10Ps at the conclusion of the Cold War. The Greeks further modified their BMP-1 by adding an M2 Browning .50 calibre machine-gun on top of the turret. The vehicle was widely used by Greek mechanized troops, though the fleet has dwindled due to vehicles being sold to Iraq or more recently Egypt, or being used as targets in military exercises. The BMP-3 was considered and even ordered from Russia as a replacement, but the contract was cancelled when the 2008 economic crisis ravaged the Greek economy. From 2014 onward, a portion of the remaining Greek BMP-1A1 fleet was modified, replacing the turret with a ZU-23 dual 23 mm anti-aircraft gun. Around 100 BMP-1A1 Ost, including these conversions, remain in service on the Greek islands of Samos, Chios, Kos, and Lesbos.
All the remaining BMP-1A1 Ost, save for the few which have remained in Germany, were sold to Sweden as part of a sale of 431 BMP-1s, the other being 290 baseline BMP-1 and 60 BMP-1P. The Swedes ran 350 of their BMP-1s through a series of upgrades performed in the Czech Republic, and with similar goals to the German Ost upgrade. These were designated ‘Pbv 501’. The others were kept as spare parts donors. The Pbv 501s were delivered from 1996 to 2001. It was decided to phase them out in 2000, and most of the vehicles were delivered straight into storage. They were eventually sold back to the Czech company which upgraded them in 2008, which proceeded to sell most of them to Iraq from 2015 onward, something Swedish legislation would not have allowed.
Finland was another buyer of former East-German BMP-1s, but did not purchase a single Ost vehicle. Already a user of the BMP-1 prior to the end of the Cold War, Finland purchased 140 German BMP-1s in 1993-1994 and ran them through their own locally-developed upgrades.
Through both Greece, which transferred 100 BMP-1A1 Ost to the New Iraqi Army in 2005-2006, and the Czech company EXCALIBUR, which delivered a considerable number of Pbv 501, perhaps up to 250, through Bulgaria from 2015 onward, Iraq acquired a considerable number of ex-German BMP-1s. These served alongside surviving vehicles from the Hussein regime as well as BMP-1s delivered from other sources, such as Ukraine. The type has been widely engaged in the conflicts which have ravaged Iraq since. The Pbv 501, notably, being delivered from 2015 onward, were heavily engaged in the counter-offensive against ISIS aiming at taking back Mosul. In the 2014-2017 period, out of 85 destroyed Iraqi BMP-1s, 35 were identified to be Pbv 501s.
At least one BMP-1A1 Ost has survived in Germany. It is present at the Munster tank Museum, by the side of an unupgraded NVA BMP-1 and the sole NVA BMP-2 to have remained in Germany. A BMP-1A1 Ost has appeared in demonstrations in Germany, though it is unclear if it is the same vehicle.
The BMP-1A1 Ost was an attempt at making a dated piece of Eastern Block equipment compatible with western standards of operation. The upgrade did not attempt to improve the combat capacities of the BMP-1 in any meaningful way, but instead concentrated on ergonomic elements and potential risks encountered when operating the vehicle.
Through the service of the vehicle was very short in Germany, through its export service, it would see four new users in the shape of Sweden, Greece, Egypt and Iraq. The Ost vehicles were significantly modified further for Sweden and by Greece, and through the eventual sale of Pbv 501 and Greek BMP-1A1s to Iraq, it would eventually see significant combat service in the Middle East. One can only wonder if the Iraqi soldiers operating the vehicle appreciated the quality-of-life improvements of the Ost upgrade, particularly when taking into account the removal of the missile armament in comparison.
BMP-1A1 Ost Specifications
|Dimensions ( L x w x h)||6.735 x 2.940 x 1.881 m|
|Engine||UTD-20 6-cylinders 300 hp diesel engine|
|Forward gears||4 (5th gear locked)|
|Fuel Capacity||330 L (diesel)|
|Maximum speed (road)||40 km/h|
|Maximum speed (water)||7-8 km/h|
|Crew||3 (commander, driver, gunner)|
|Main gun||73 mm 2A28 ‘Grom’ (use prevented by German regulations)|
|Secondary armament||Coaxial 7.62 mm PKT (use prevented by German regulations)|
|Smoke grenades||6 x 81 mm 902V Tucha smoke grenades (formerly BMP-1P), none (formerly BMP-1)|
|Armor||Welded steel, 33 to 6 mm|
Der modifizierte Schützenpanzerwagen BMP-1A1 Ost des DIEHI-Unternehmens SIVG Neubrandenburg, Wielfried Kopenhagen
Unterrichtung durch den Bundesrechnungshof Bemerkungen des Bundesrechnungshofes 1993 zur Haushalts- und Wirtschaftsführung (einschließlich der Feststellungen zur Jahresrechnung des Bundes 1991) (Bundestag Documents, 1993)
SIPRI Arms Transfer Database
BMP-1 field disassembly, Tankograd
BMP of the armed forces of the German Democratic Republic
BMP of the armed forces of the Federal Republic of Germany
BMP-1A1-Ost of the Bundeswehr at the German Tank Museum: https://bmpvsu.ru/frg_museum.php
Pbv-501 in the Swedish army
Pbv-501 in the Iraqi army