The Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (PMR), better known as Transnistria, is a breakaway state located in the internationally-recognized borders of the Republic of Moldova, on the Eastern side of the Dniester River and along the border with Ukraine. It seceded from Moldova during the dissolution of the Soviet Union in large part due to its ethnic makeup including large numbers of Ukrainians and Russians, which did not want to be integrated in a Moldovan state. The unrecognized state’s army has relied on leftover Soviet equipment from the dissolved 14th Guards Army, which was based at Transnistria’s capital, Tiraspol, to equip its formations. Because of this Army’s location near an important river, it had a large quantity of various engineering vehicles, which Transnistria has had to find use for and re-purpose for the defence of its territories. An example is the GMZ-3 minelayer vehicle, which has been converted to serve as an armored personnel carrier designated as the “BTRG-127 ‘Bumblebee’” in the PMR.
The GMZ-3 Minelayer
The GMZ-3 is a fairly large tracked minelaying vehicle based on the chassis of the SU-100P self-propelled gun, which has been used for a large variety of different vehicles since the 1950s. Introduced in 1984, the GMZ-3 is a fairly large vehicle, with a length of 9.3 m, a width of 3.25 m and a height of 2.7 m. The vehicle is entirely protected from small arms fire.
The vehicle weighs 28.5 tonnes and is powered by a B-59U 382 hp V12 liquid-cooled diesel engine located to the front of the vehicle. The GMZ-3 is able to reach a maximum speed of 60 km/h on roads. It uses 7 ‘starfish-style’ road wheels, with a front drive sprocket and a rear idler. The vehicle has a crew of three, with a driver, commander, and engineer/mine specialist.
The vehicle has considerable internal space which allows enough space for the three crew members to operate and to carry 208 anti-tank mines. The vehicle is meant to lay anti-tank minefields in a swift and mechanized fashion.
The GMZ-3 in Transnistria
The GMZ-3 was one of a number of highly specialized vehicles which were operated by the 14th Guards Army in Transnistria at the end of the Soviet era. The breakdown of order with the dissolution of the USSR saw large quantities of 14th Guards Army equipment and even personnel join the armed forces of the breakaway state of Transnistria, located in a part of Moldova which had most of the Republic’s Russian and Ukrainian populations and heavy industry.
The GMZ-3 was used as an improvised armored personnel carrier during the 1990-1992 conflict in Transnistria, with at least one vehicle used in this fashion by the Transnistrian armed forces destroyed by Moldovan troops. However, considerable numbers of GMZ-3s remained in Transnistria after the war.
The BTRG-127 Conversion
For some other engineering vehicles, the Transnistrian Army, which had no need for such specialized vehicles, could easily find other uses without deeply transforming the vehicle. The small and multi-purpose GT-MU could lend itself to being a decent prime mover without any modifications, for example.
The same could not be said of the much bigger GMZ-3, which had been designed with the sole task of mine-laying. With at least 8 of these vehicles, but possibly more, in Transnistrian service, finding use for them was a priority for the Transnistrian Ministry of Defence. Considering Transnistria’s unrecognized status, it is unable to import armored vehicles from abroad, and as such, cannot afford to waste any of the vehicles it has. In the case of the GMZ-3, it was found that, due to the large mine compartment, the vehicle could likely be repurposed as a large armored personnel carrier. This could be done by modifying the mine compartment to instead carry infantry, while fitting a larger machine gun instead of the simple 7.62 mm PKT in order to improve defensive capacities.
The vehicles being presented on Transnistrian television. Source: You Tube
The vehicles were modified by teams of Transnistria’s Ministry of Defence, and received the designation of BTRG-127 ‘Bumblebee’. They were unveiled in 2015, in presence of Transnistria’s President at the time, Yevgeny Shevchuk, and his Minister of Defence.
In the BTRG-127, the mine-containing bay, comprising much of the rear of the vehicle, was entirely emptied of all mine-laying equipment and cleaned. It then appears to have been widened to an extent. On the GMZ-3, it did not extend to the same width as the tracks, while it does in the BTRG-127. On the sides of this hull, three large firing ports for the weapons of the infantry dismounts were fitted.
The large mine-laying arm at the rear and other mine-laying equipment present on the vehicle were removed. A rear door that opens to the right was installed on the vehicle. Whilst the door appears fairly decently sized for an armored personnel carrier door, it only allows for one soldier to exit at a time, and its opening position, which rests against the rear hull of the vehicle, does not grant any protection to the infantry dismounts when exiting the vehicle.
There are no known photographs or videos of the interior of a BTRG-127, but the fairly large size of the vehicle means there likely is some considerable internal space available for benches, stowage, and equipment for an infantry squad. The number of infantry dismounts is likely between 8 and 10.
There is a weapon station on the roof of the central frontal section of the infantry compartment. It consists of a semi-circular top opening, with a machine gun protected by a gun shield to the front. The weapon station is open-top, but rails, perhaps used for some form of canvas cover, have been seen in some photos.
The armament of this weapon station is an Afanasev A-12.7 12.7 mm aircraft machine gun. It is a single-barrelled heavy machine gun firing the standard Soviet 12.7×108 mm cartridge. Meant for aircraft use, the machine gun was produced between 1953 and 1983, and was used on a variety of Soviet trainer aircraft and helicopters, though it was rarely if ever mounted on frontline combat aircraft. It is fairly light for its caliber, at 25.5 kg, and also has a fairly high cyclic rate of fire of 1,400 rpm (though the practical rate of fire is closer to between 800 and 1,100 rpm) and a muzzle velocity of 818 m/s. The weapon is belt-fed.
The weapon had to be considerably modified in order to be operated in an armored vehicle. The original weapon, meant for aircraft use, did not feature a classic hand-operated trigger, and a mount that featured one had to be created to fit the machine gun in the BTRG-127.
The choice of this machine gun instead of more common Soviet machine guns, such as the 12.7 mm DshK/DshKM or NSVT, or the 14.5 mm KPV, may appear curious. The likely explanation may be the availability of large amounts of these machine guns being stored in a former depot used by the Soviet Air Force in Transnistrian territory, and little use being able to be found for these aircraft machine guns in the past.
The Resulting Vehicle
The resulting BTRG-127 is a fairly large armored personnel carrier, and while it is hard to estimate its weight, considering the GMZ-3 was 28.5 tonnes, it is unlikely the BTRG-127 is any lighter than around 25 tonnes at best. The crew perhaps remained at three, with a driver, a commander and a gunner, though the gunner’s role may be fulfilled by one of the infantry dismounts, of which there are likely 8 to 10. The driver retains the same forward position located below the weapon station on the BTRG-127.
Armor protection is unlikely to protect against anything more powerful than small arms fire, with the vehicle likely being vulnerable to even heavy machine guns, and any weapon with armor-piercing capacities. As such, considering the large size of the vehicle, it would likely be highly vulnerable in any battlefield or conflict. There have been efforts to camouflage the BTRG-127 during some training exercises, including using the rails around the weapon station to mount foliage, but whether such a large vehicle could be camouflaged with any effectiveness in operations is quite uncertain.
Nonetheless, the conversion likely still makes sense for the needs of the Transnistrian armed forces. Transnistria is only able to field a fairly small military force, and as such, the need for the highly specialized vehicles which served in the Soviet Army is lost on Transnistria. Even with their faults, the BTRG-127 grants the Transnistrian Army more tracked vehicles with limited amounts of firepower to carry infantry with, complementing the fleet of BMP and BTRs also in service of the Republic, whereas little to no use would likely have been found for GMZ-3s otherwise.
Conclusion – One of Transnistria’s Most Extreme Transformations
The BTRG-127, while it may seem – and likely is – a vehicle with limited capacities and many weaknesses, remains an interesting piece of hardware. Out of all the various modifications and upgrades which have been carried out in Transnistria, it is likely one of the most extreme, including much more complex and extensive modifications on the base vehicle than what have been observed on the Pribor-2 MLRS or GT-MU fire support vehicle, for example.
The vehicles are likely to continue existing as long as Transnistria does. The small unrecognized state has long called for annexation by Russia, and has known to have a severe economic and demographic decline, which raises the question of its viability as an independent entity in the future. But, as long as Transnistria remains independent and needs an armed force to defend itself, it is unlikely to phase out any of the relatively few armored vehicles it has been able to get its hands on.
|Height||Likely around ~ 2.7 m|
|Engine||B-59U 382hp V12 liquid-cooled diesel engine|
|Weight||Likely in the 25-30 tonnes range|
|Crew||Likely 3 (Commander, gunner, driver)|
|Dismounts||Likely 8 to 10|
|Armament||Afanasev A-12.7 12.7 mm machine gun
Dismounts armament fired from firing ports
|Numbers converted||At least 8|