Kingdom of Sweden (1994-2008)
Infantry Fighting Vehicle – 5 BMP-1s Purchased For Trials, 350 Purchased For Service And Modernized, 83 Purchased For Spare Parts (438 Total)
The Soviet BMP-1 was and remains a ubiquitous infantry fighting vehicle. The most produced vehicle of its type to this day, with almost 40,000 assembled by the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia during the Cold War, the vehicle was, with a few exceptions, fielded by pretty much all of the Soviet Union’s allies.
With the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, several of these Soviet allies and BMP-1 became much closer to the former Western bloc. The newly reunified Germany inherited the large weapons and armored vehicles stocks of East Germany, including a fleet of more than a thousand BMP-1s. Though a local upgrade program was carried out, in the form of the BMP-1A1 Ost, Germany quickly sold the vast majority of its BMP-1 fleet to European customers interested in acquiring large quantities of surplus infantry fighting vehicles, pretty much off-the-shelf. One of these buyers would be Sweden, which would run its own refit program for the BMP-1. The vehicle was designated Pbv 501 in Swedish Army service.
The Swedish Army and Mechanization in the Early 1990s
At the conclusion of the Cold War, the Swedish Army (Svenska Armén) had a relatively limited fleet of armored vehicles able to carry infantry sections. The only type in any significant service was the Pbv 302, with about 650 vehicles produced. Even then, the vehicle’s production stopped in 1971, and it really was only sufficient to outfit the infantry complement of some armored units.
In practice, the standard transport vehicles in Swedish infantry units were the Tgb 20 (Terrängbil 20) truck and the Bv 206 (Bandvagn 206) tracked articulated all-terrain carrier. In spite of the Bv 206’s positive features, which have resulted in the vehicle continuing in service and having had a successful export record, simply put, it could not fulfil the role of an infantry fighting vehicle The Tgb 20 was a simple truck, and the Bv 206, while tracked and able to mount a machine gun if need be, was not armored.
At that time, there was ambition within the Swedish Army to mechanize more of its armored forces. The development of the Strf 9040/CV90 was underway, and the vehicle appeared as a promising future infantry fighting vehicle. However, back then, it had still not entered service, and the possibility of training crew and mechanics to the operation of infantry fighting vehicles before receiving this advanced new vehicle appeared attractive to the Swedish Army.
The German BMPs
A possibility for Sweden to purchase foreign infantry fighting vehicles at an incredibly cheap cost soon emerged from Germany.
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 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 dismounting infantry would be provided by a 73 mm Grom infantry support gun and a Malyutka missile launcher, with four missiles stored in the vehicle.
More than 1,100 BMP-1s (of which a very significant part, or perhaps all, were Czechoslovakian-built) were acquired by the East German NVA (Nationale Volksarmee Eng. National People’s Army), and eventually ended up in the Western-aligned Federal Republic of Germany following German reunification.
|1986||58||Of them 12 K2 version|
|1987||85||BMP-1P of them 6 command version K1 and three K2|
|1988||92||BMP-1P including 12 command K1, three K2, and three K3|
In December 1990, the decision was taken to maintain a number of these in service, and to this end, the BMP-1 would be ‘westernized’. This resulted in the BMP-1A1 Ost, a BMP-1 which forfeited the missiles, removed toxic asbestos from the vehicle, added German-standard headlights, rear lights, wing mirrors and Leitkreuz low-light identification markers, locked the 5th gear, and added an additional handbrake. Around 580 vehicles werebe converted from 1991 to 1993. The majority of these modernized vehicles, around 500, were sold to Greece in 1994, but around 80 modernized vehicles as well as hundreds of unmodernized ones remained in Germany’s stocks.
Sweden Tests the BMP-1
With Sweden eager to purchase infantry fighting vehicles at a cheap cost, and Germany providing just that in the form of hundreds of BMP-1 offered at a bargain price, interest soon arose. In early 1994, interested in the German BMPs, Sweden purchased five vehicles to run trials of the type and see if it would meet the requirements for what the Swedish Army was looking for.
Out of the five trial vehicles, one was used in ballistic trials to estimate the protection of the vehicle. The other four were given Swedish registration plates and named after famous commanders from the Second World War: 204992 ‘Patton’, 204994 ‘Monty’, 204997 ‘Rommel’, and 204998 ‘Guderian’.
The trials were run pretty quickly. The BMP-1 was, in many ways, not a vehicle which could beadapted to western standards, as the Germans themselves had taken notice and attempted to correct with the BMP-1A1 Ost. If Sweden was interested in purchasing large numbers of vehicles, which would necessarily include some which had not been modernized, a new upgrade programme would have to be devised for the vehicle to be compliant with Swedish army regulations.
Nonetheless, the BMP-1 had some interesting qualities. It was thought to be highly mobile, notably thanks to its amphibious capacities, and as such was considered to outfit the Norrland brigades, infantry brigades operating in northern Sweden specialized in sub-arctic warfare, for which mechanization was desired. Sweden also took interest in German surplus MT-LB multipurpose lightly armored auxiliary vehicles, which would, on the other hand, be given to units operating in southern Sweden.
In June 1994, convinced that the BMP-1 was a worthwhile addition to the Swedish arsenal, Sweden decided to formally acquire 350 BMP-1s to enter service. A further 83 were also purchased for spare parts. These 433 BMP-1s comprised 81 BMP-1A1 Osts, all the leftovers which had not been purchased by Greece save for one or two examples kept by Germany, 60 BMP-1s which had been through the BMP-1P upgrade during the Cold War (which included a new ATGM and smoke launchers), and 292 BMP-1s which had not gone through the BMP-1P upgrade.
The cost of these BMPs was reportedly extremely cheap, at 33,000 Deutschmarks (or roughly €17,000, or US$19,000) a piece, or one tenth of the price of purchasing a new Bv 206, of which the Swedish Army had thousands. The reason for such a cheap price was that Germany was eager to rid itself of these BMP-1s because of newly put in place military restrictions and to recoup the financial cost of the BMP-1A1 Ost refit program.
Turning BMPs Into Pbvs
As said, the BMP-1, as it was, would not satisfy Swedish standards and would have to go through a modernization process to be operated by the Swedish Army. This, however, would not be conducted in Sweden or by a Swedish company.
While 11 BMP-1s, seemingly of the modernized BMP-1A1 type, would be sent to Sweden to continue trials and experimentations, all others, which were to be modernized, would instead be sent to the Czech Republic. There, the Swedish Army contracted the VOP-026 repair workshop to conduct the modernization which the Swedish Army had decided to carry out.
The 83 IFVs bought for spare parts were also delivered to the Czech company, to cannibalize them if there was a need to replace damaged parts in vehicles which were to enter service. Contracting a Czech workshop was a logical decision. Czechoslovakia had been, by far, the second largest manufacturer of the BMP-1, locally designated as BVP-1. Around 18,000 had been manufactured, and as such, there was a large infrastructure and workforce which had good knowledge of the vehicle. At the same time, Czech companies offered their services at a very affordable cost. The deliveries of these modernized BMP-1s would start in 1996, at a rate of twelve vehicles a month. Once modernized and pressed into service with the Swedish Army, the vehicles would become known as the Pbv 501 (Pansarbandvagn 501).
The paint scheme given to Pbv 501s was either a unicolor green scheme or a bicolor green-and black scheme. The registration number would typically be inscribed on the rear right infantry door. Previously, when in German service, the vehicles had a typical Soviet khaki green paint scheme.
Bringing the Vehicle to Western Standards
The core of the Pbv 501 refit consisted of a large number of small upgrades which focused on bringing aspects of the Pbv 501’s ergonomics and safety to standards expected of Swedish Army vehicles.
First would be the removal of asbestos. Some of this toxic element was found inside the BMP-1, notably brake and clutch linings, but it was found to be dangerous for humans after too much exposure, and was banned in most Western countries. Asbestos elements were purged from the vehicle and replaced by harmless materials. The Germans had done the same with their BMP-1A1 Ost refit.
On the outside, the vehicle received new external lighting which would conform to NATO standards. It notably received indicators to be able to pursue safer driving on roads. Two rectangular lights were also present on the side of the vehicle’s hull. Outlets were also added to start up the Pbv 501 from outside of the vehicle.
The exhaust pipe of the vehicle was improved, while a number of changes were made to the hull’s exterior so it could be easier to move around for soldiers. A number of patches of anti-slip coating were added. These were notably present around the hull sides and the center of the large hatches present on the deck.
The external change which allows for the easiest external identification of the Pbv 501, however, is likely a rectangular box present to the left of the turret. This is a protective cap over the outlet and inlet of the ventilation.
Internally, a number of changes were carried out to make the vehicle more comfortable for the crew. An autonomous heater was added to ease the life of crews and dismounts during the winter months. A fire detection and extinction system with possibility of automatic operation was installed inside to allow for the quick extinction of fires. The batteries were moved from their original place and isolated from the ventilated crew compartment inside the sealed box. Protective covers were added around the observation devices so the dismounts would not hurt themselves on the sharp corners, something the Germans had previously adopted on the BMP-1A1 Ost. The weapon holders were changed to be able to hold Swedish weapons, with the Ak 5 assault rifle also being able to be fired from the vehicle’s firing ports.
Safety Features Limiting the Vehicle’s Armament
A few further modifications concerned the Pbv 501’s armament. Some of them significantly reduced the combat capability of the IFV, however it was a necessary evil needed to lower the operational risks.
First, the autoloading mechanism was removed outright, meaning the gunner present in the turret would have to manually load rounds into the breech. Additionally, the rail for the Malyutka ATGM and all control devices for the missile were removed as well. At last, a new safety mechanism was installed so that the 73 mm Grom and coaxial 7.62 mm PKT machine gun could not be fired when any of the vehicle’s hatches were open.
As such, when taking into account the combat capacities of the Pbv 501, it was likely one of the least capable BMP-1 models ever fielded. This was not an issue for the Swedish Army though. The Pbv 501 had not been purchased with the idea to field a large number of ex-Warsaw Pact infantry fighting vehicles as frontline combattants of the Swedish Army. Rather, the type was to form crews and mechanics around the operation of an infantry fighting vehicle, preparing for the entry of service of the infinitely more capable Strf 0940.
Stripbv 5011 Command Vehicles
Fifteen of the BMP-1s were not converted to be Pbv 501s, but rather Stripbv 5011 command vehicles. These went through the same upgrades as the Pbv 501, with the only changes being the addition of three Swedish radios: a single Ra 420 and two Ra 480, instead of the single Soviet R-123M which was retained in the Pbv 501. This heavier radio equipment took more space and meant the number of dismounts would be reduced from eight to six. Externally, the vehicle could be differentiated by the presence of three large radio antennas, in comparison to just one on the Pbv 501.
Deliveries and Disappointments
After deliveries of the Pbv 501s began in 1996, a number of plans the Swedish Army had to be modified because the vehicle had not lived up to all the expectations of the Army.
First, the vehicle’s mobility, while generally being considered satisfactory in most conditions, actually struggled quite considerably in the snow, to the point where the vehicle was actually judged not sufficiently mobile to be fielded to the Norrland brigades. As such, the plans to outfit these with the Pbv 501 and brigades from the south with the MT-LB, now designated Pbv 401, were reversed, with the Pbv 501 instead being delivered to southern brigades, more precisely the 2nd, 4th, and 12th infantry brigades of the Swedish Army.
In service, the Pbv 501 proved to have a rather satisfying mobility in the south, but a significant number of issues, some of which could not be removed easily, were found with the vehicle. The first was with the ammunition, and was one which the vehicles shared in German service.
It was discovered that a certain amount of the nitrocellulose had been discharged into the air when firing the 73 mm Grom cannon. It was found potentially harmful to the health of the crew. Swedish trials seemingly found that this was an issue mostly with the PG-15V HEAT round, with the OG-15V high-explosive shell seeming safe in comparison, though the firing of all 73 mm shells appear to have been prohibited in peacetime. In the German Army, the issue of potential nitrocellulose poisoning was solved by restriction, meaning the crews were not allowed to fire the gun, at least not with potentially toxic rounds, in peacetime.
Sweden went even further though. No large stockpile of PG-15V was acquired, meaning even if the need was ever to arise, the Pbv 501 in Swedish service practically had no meansto deal with enemy armor. It appears a small amount of rounds was purchased for conversion into safe training rounds, but it is unclear if this ever took place. In addition to the problem of lack of anti-armor round, the Pbv 501 had removed the autoloader for the sake of safety. This made gunners overtasked, as they had to observe the outside of the vehicle to spot targets, aim and fire, and then reload the gun, a configuration one may cynically relate to be similar to pre-1940 French tanks. Furthermore, as found by the majority of Grom users, the gun was considered to be very inaccurate beyond practically very short range.
The vehicle was found to be rather reliable, however, if a mechanical issue was to arise, the removal and replacement of the engine block was found to be a long process, about 10 times longer than in the more modern Strf 9040 in fact. The radios were also a considerable disappointment; in comparison to Swedish models, as they were found to have a poor transmission quality and reduced range, and would require preheating for up to half an hour before functioning.
The limited internal space was found to be an issue for the majority of BMP-1 users. However, Swedish dismounts had probably the worst issues with the Pbv 501’s cramped interior, as Swedish males have an average height of 1.797 m, one of the tallest in the word. This is largely considered to already be in the range where sitting in the vehicle’s dismount compartment would be quite the uncomfortable experience, and finding servicemen who could comfortably operate inside a Pbv 501 was likely even harder for Swedish Army units in comparison to other BMP-1 operators.
In and Out
All these issues with the Pbv, alongside the entry into service of the Strf 0940 and the reduction in size of European armies following the end of the Cold War and its tensions, played a large part in the vehicle being retired from active service. As such, it would appear that the Swedish Army took the decision to place the Pbv 501 into storage and stop operating vehicles of this type as early as 2000. This was before deliveries were even completed, which would continue into 2001. Some vehicles were placed directly into storage, without even being issued to Swedish Army units.
It appears that, in 2005, the decision was taken to phase the Pbv 501 from service and never issue them again. In practice, the vehicles remained in Swedish Army storage in the following years. In December of 2008, they found a buyer. This was actually the owner of the VOP-026 workshop which had carried the Pbv 501 modernization. The company, by that point known as EXCALIBUR, acquired the vast majority of the Pbv 501 fleet which Sweden had in its hands, with the vehicles being moved to its facilities in Czechia. The purchase price was 30 million Swedish Kronor (or roughly US$6 million) for the entire fleet.
It ought to be noted that apparently, the purchase was done under the cover of the Czech state, claiming that the vehicles would be used for the Czech Army, which still actively operates the BMP/BVP-1, and not purchased by a private company within Czechia. Jan Villaume, spokesperson of the Swedish Defence Materiel Administration (Swedish: Försvarets materielverk, abbreviated as FMV), the state company tasked with weapon exports, said that when approached by EXCALIBUR:
“We were [at first] informed by them too that they were interested, and we told them that we cannot sell to them, since they are a private company”
When the Czech Republic later expressed interest, Jan Villaume described the position of FMV as:
“They were exchanging parts of their own fleet and were going to use the rest for spare parts […] They seemed serious. We had no reason not to believe them.”
Pieter Wiezeman, spokesperson for the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), described Sweden’s side of the deal and the assumption that the vehicles would end up in Czech service after having first been approached by EXCALIBUR as naive:
“Realistically, I think that they should have known that these tanks probably were not meant for the Czech Republic. They should have investigated this more carefully, that would have been very easy to do.”
Iraq Unsheathes the EXCALIBUR Pbv 501s
The Czech company of EXCALIBUR Army continued storing of the Pbv 501s in its facilities at Přelouč, Czechia, waiting for a potential buyer. The vehicles were stored in particularly packed storage presumably in a climate-controlled environment, and seem to have been pretty regularly maintained, with some vehicles being rolled out quite regularly to show the Pbv 501 were still functional and ready for a buyer to take up the offer.
A buyer was finally found in the shape of Iraq, which in 2015 acquired a number of the Pbv 501s stored by EXCALIBUR. Several estimates for the number of Pbv 501s delivered to Iraq have varied between 45 and 70 depending on the source. A convoy was spotted heading to Iraq with at least 52 Pbv 501s. It appears a higher number of vehicles could have been purchased too, perhaps as many as 250. Not all EXCALIBUR Army Pbv 501s were sold to Iraq, as the company has continued to showcase some of the vehicles since.
This purchase was far from uncontroversial. The main issue was that the Swedish Defence Materiel Administration maintains a pretty strict list of countries which are embargoed from Swedish military sales for a number of reasons, notably regarding human rights or the possibility of the sold equipment to fall into the hands of terrorist groups. Iraq is one of the countries that feature on this list. But the purchase of the Pbv 501 by EXCALIBUR, and EXCALIBUR then selling the vehicles to the Iraqi government, circumvented the Swedish export regulations, which highly displeased some in Sweden. Former Swedish Army weapon systems ending in areas of the world where they did not want them, was exactly what the Swedish Defence Material Administration wanted to prevent.
Nonetheless, there was nothing in Sweden’s power to do about Pbv 501s being exported to Iraq. The vehicles ending up in EXCALIBUR’s hands was a shady process to begin with, with FMV and Sweden seemingly not entirely aware that they were selling their vehicles to a private company. Once the vehicles were in the hands and ownership of EXCALIBUR, Sweden had no means at its disposal to prevent the sale except complaints which had little to no hope of being received. Jan Villaume of FMV commented that: “We clearly wouldn’t have made the deal directly with Iraq, so it is now an indirect deal. It seems legal, but is not so good.” It is likely the deal somewhat soured Czech-Swedish relations at least in military matters, but it does not appear any measures or reforms were applied to Swedish export laws. Considering that the vehicles ended up in Iraq as a result of an under-handed process in which Sweden was misguided into selling the vehicles to what they believed to be a legitimate state actor, there may not be too much to even be done except enforcing already existing restrictions.
Into the Iraqi Army
The Pbv 501s were pressed into service into the 34th Mechanized Brigade of the 9th Armored Division of the Iraqi Army (الجيش العراقي). They joined a fleet of ex-Greek BMP-1A1 Ost which had been delivered to Iraq almost a decade prior.
The Pbv 501 were very heavily engaged in the Iraqi offensive to retake the city of Mosul from the so-called Islamic State (ISIS), and suffered considerable losses during this phase of the conflict. During the 2014 to 2017 period, out of 85 Iraqi BMP-1s spotted as destroyed, 35 were Pbv 501s, despite the vehicle most likely was introduced only in early 2016. It is possible that the Iraqis, while they may have appreciated the comfort upgrades brought by the modernization, were more displeased with the significant reductions in combat capacities it introduced, for example removing the autoloader and missile capacity.
After the fall of Mosul, the Pbv 501s were engaged in further operations against ISIS, such as the reduction of the last ISIS stronghold in central Iraq, Hawija, in October 2017. The vehicles have notably been seen deployed near the Syrian border in November 2018, and remain in service of the Iraqi Army up to this day, and potentially for the foreseeable future.
Conclusion – The Convoluted Fate of German BMPs
The Pbv 501, alongside its MT-LB cousin, the Pbv 401, can appear as an anomaly in Swedish armored vehicles history, a Soviet vehicle operated by the army that has historically almost exclusively used western and indigenous designs.
When looking at the vehicle’s service life in Sweden, one may be tempted to say the purchase of BMP-1s from Germany was a total failure, with no proper use of the vehicle ever being found in Sweden. While that could be argued not to be far from the truth, at the same time, it ought to be remembered that Sweden was able to purchase ex-East German surplus BMP-1s at an incredibly cheap price, to the point where the investment that had to be placed to purchase 350 BMP-1s was in practice much less than what would be expected for such a large fleet of even outdated infantry fighting vehicles. Despite their very short service, therefore, it is not too far-fetched to say the Pbv 501s may, in the end, very well have been worth their price in the experience they gave to crews and mechanics who would later operate on the Strf 9040.
Pansarbandvagn 501 Specifications
|Dimensions ( L x w x h)||6.735 x 2.94 x 1.881 m|
|Engine||UTD-20 6-cylinders 300 hp diesel engine|
|Forward gears||5 (likely just 4 on BMP-1A1 Ost-based Pbv 501s)|
|Fuel capacity||462 L (perhaps just 330 L on BMP-1A1 Ost based vehicles due to rear door fuel tanks not being used)|
|Maximum speed (road)||65 (likely 40 km/h on BMP-1A1 Ost based vehicles)|
|Maximum speed (water)||7-8 km/h|
|Crew||3 (commander, driver, gunner/loader)|
|Radios||1 R-123M (Pbv 501), 1 Ra 420 & 2 Ra 480 (Stripbv 5011)|
|Main gun||73 mm 2A28 “Grom” with autoloader removed|
|Secondary armament||Coaxial 7.62 mm PKT|
|Armor||Welded steel, 33 to 6 mm|
“250 Swedish military vehicles sold to Iraq”, Radio Sweden, March 3 2015: https://sverigesradio.se/artikel/6106834
Soldat und Technik, 1994, no.12 p.675 “350 Schützenpanzer BMP-1”
SIPRI Arms Transfer Database
BMP-1 field disassembly, Tankograd: https://thesovietarmourblog.blogspot.com/2017/03/field-disassembly-bmp-1.html
Swedish servicemen testimonies: https://forum.soldf.com/topic/8717-pansarbandvagn-501-bmp-1-erfarenheter/#comments
Pbv-501 in the Swedish army: https://bmpvsu.ru/Pbv-501_2.php
Pbv-501 in the Iraqi army: https://bmpvsu.ru/Pbv-501.php
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