Light utility vehicle conversion –
2 machine gun cars, 1 pick-up
In 2013, a strange curiosity was shown at the Romanian 1st December parade, a matte green Dacia Duster with a remote control weapon station with a 7.62 mm machine gun on top, mounted on a tubular steel frame.
The vehicle at the 1st December parade was entirely based on the Dacia Duster, a light civilian Sport Utility Vehicle (SUV) built by Dacia, a subsidiary of Renault Group. The company was first established in 1966 by the Romanian communist Government and the French company Renault to build, under license, the Renault 8 and later the Renault 12. After the fall of Communism in Romania in 1989, and with the Dacia suffering from poor privatisation, suffocated by the vastly superior foreign cars, the company was bought by Renault in September 1999.
While initially focusing on super cheap sedans, such as the Dacia SuperNova and Dacia Logan, in 2010, the company released the Dacia Duster at the Geneva Motor Show. Although rugged, filled with plastic, and rudimentary, it was met with appreciation in its home country and surrounding nations, with almost 70,000 units sold in 2010 alone. The name Dacia Duster had been previously used by the Romanian state to export the ARO 10 in the UK.
Romania had plenty of experience with SUVs prior to the Duster. The ARO factory had built the entire automotive park of the Romanian military, but also widely used by other state agencies, such as the Securitate and Miliție, and different enterprises. In the military, most were used in the way they were built out of the factory, but some featured extra armor or even weapons.
The Army Dacia seen on 1st December parade in 2013 was a combined effort to revitalise the dead defence industry, but also replace the ageing ARO cars, that were still the majority of the unarmored cars in the Romanian Army.
It was named the Duster Army, specifically designed under a three year period by engineers from Renault Romania for the needs of the Romanian Army, and was tested at the UMB testing range Mihai Bravu, where civilian journalists were shown a firing test and a driving test. It was developed by RTR (Renault Technologie Roumanie), Romturingia, UMB (Uzina Mechanica București), Electro Bit, and specialists from the Ministry of Defence armaments department. The idea belonged to RTR, who built the car, Romturingia made the steel frame, and UMB the remote turret. Viorel Salan, head of the RTR at the time, said “With the prototype, we wanted to show what can be done”. The car was virtually a Technology Demonstrator. He then expanded with:
“If the army will be interested, we can sit down and produce it. We chose working with Romturingia, because we are talking about a vehicle built in small numbers with a special purpose, something that couldn’t’ve been done on the regular Duster’s production line.”
Despite the comical look of the car, it is filled with gadgets and possibilities for further upgrades. The roll cage is mounted externally to allow for more interior space, and to support the weight of the RCWS (Remote Controlled Weapon Station). There are 4 attaching points to the frame of the car which allow the addition of heavy equipment, such as a plow. On the rear, a tow hook is attached and to the front, a detachable Warn winch is mounted. Curiously, the winch and the Goodyear Wrangler HP 215/65 R16 tires, along with the 4 LED lights (2 on each side) are some of the only imported products, the engineers realising the importance of reviving and sustaining local industries, while also making the vehicle easier to market. The signal LED lights were imported from the US because of the international military vehicle signaling laws. In addition, there are two front mounted masked position lights, made for nighttime maneuvers. The car has a blackout system, switching off all external and interior lights, including the dashboard lights. The switch is mounted on an additional box, on top of the dashboard. A green vinyl wrap has been applied to the entirety of the car as a form of provisory camouflage. The Duster does not have any sort of external armor. According to Salan, metal armor would be too heavy, but kevlar armor can be mounted if desired. Yet there were steel armor plates along the belly of the car, one in the front, for the engine and gearbox, one for the gas tank and one for the rear differential.
Also above the dashboard is a switch for the 24 V system. The car runs on regular 12 V, but an additional 24 V battery has been added in the boot to suit military standards. In addition, on the left side of the boot, there is a transformer sending 220 V for two outlets.
The most peculiar part of the car was, of course, the machine gun turret. It was made at UMB, with a weight of 135 kg (300 pounds) and costs more than twice the price of the Duster. It is controlled remotely, from the inside, with the use of a joystick, similar to those used for gaming, through which the gun can be moved, aimed, and fired. An 11 inch screen is used for display. A special software shows how many bullets are left, and can also show the position of friendly, and enemy troops, just like in a first-person shooter. On this pilot model, the screen is mounted above the glovebox, in front of the right-hand passenger, and the joystick is on a mobile metal support.
All the additions to the base SUV altered the Dacia Duster’s driving style and capabilities. The 135 kg turret raises the center of gravity of the car, which can be felt in corners. The engine is a Diesel 1.5 dCi 110 hp with 4×4 drive. The extra equipment (excluding the turret) adds up 140 kg, for a total of 275 additional kilograms. This can be felt, even if on bumps the ride quality is good. Driving in a straight line, the Duster Army can reach 120 km/h (75 mph).
Dacia Duster Army 2.0
A year later, at the 1st December parade, the Duster Army was back. This time, two 2014 model Dacia Dusters were shown. The first was very similar to the previous one, but with a new RCWS, equipped with a .50 cal. The exact turret is unkown, but it is also a Pro Optica produuct, similar to the Anubis RCWS. The second was a pickup mounting the Romanian Pro Optica Artemis Medium Range surveillance cameras. According to Pro Optica, features an color camera, uncooled thermal camera, “eye safe” laser rangefinder and the option to isntall a radar and laser target designator, all on an elevatable pan and tilt platform. Most notable is the very unorthodox camouflage pattern, consisting of small and intricate black, green, brown and beige color splashes. This was also a vinyl wrap and not painted/sprayed upon the body. Unfortunately, the Dacia Duster Army was never ordered, but it strengthened relationships between companies and was a good technology demonstrator for what can really be done with such a budget car.
Another variant of the Duster Army was shown at BSDA 2016, where a Duster pickup was shown with 4 ACF tracks and a Romanian Digital BIT DShK heavy machine gun RCWS on the platform, namely the AGIL 127 ERLG. This vehicle was also sold and marketed by Digital BIT. The ACF tracks are mechanically attached directly to the drivetrain of the car and requires little prior preparation, specifically 1 hour for 1 ma, according to ACF tracks. They allow the light 4 wheel drive car to cruise over muddy and snowy ground at high speeds, and a maximum speed on roads of 60 km/h. They decrease ground pressure by 15 times and increase the ground clearance to 210 mm. Dacia Dusters with ACF tracks have been tested by the ambulance services and Gendarmerie.
Dacia Duster Army 3.0 Hoax, the Scorpion Trail
In December 2020, images were leaked by Dacia Duster Trails, a fan group website, allegedly showing the construction of a new special military Dacia Duster. Two versions were initially named, a troop transport variant, with heavy STANAG level 3 armor (out of kevlar and steel plates) and STANAG level 2 windows. This armor would be optional.
The second version would be for reconnaissance and scouting, featuring a drone launcher, carrying 2 attack drones, capable of firing AG7 warheads, and 3 surveillance drones, or only 4 surveillance drones. Alternatively, it could be equipped with a 81 mm mortar, supposedly capable of firing HEAT rounds up to 5.5 km. This version had only 2 seats (where the crew operating the equipment went is unclear), would be amphibious, and had a whopping STANAG level 3 to 4 protection.
Sadly, but naturally, this was a hoax. While never confirmed, it is clear that it was done by somebody unfamiliar with armored vehicles and military technology. The Dacia Duster, although robust as a civilian vehicle, was never meant to carry particularly heavy weights. So a Duster with any level of protection, a mortar or drones, and amphibious kit would be impossible. The strain on the suspension, chassis, engine, and transmission would be way too large. If these components were to be upgraded, the price would be too large, and would not justify the conversion when an already designed military vehicle could be bought.
The Dacia Duster has entered the Romanian Military and has seen extensive use, albeit as a stock factory vehicle, with occasional upgrades for transport of goods and specific tasks, but never weapons. The Duster, despite being light, affordable and a great off-roader, is a car deemed underpowered by civilians. It is simply not a good platform for carrying heavy weights, thus making it impossible to add armor or close range weapons.
Dacia Duster Technology Demonstrator specifications
|Dimensions (L-W-H)||4.315 x 2.000 x 1.625 m
(14 x 6.5 x 5 feet)
|Curb weight||1,670 kg
|Crew||5 (driver, turret operator + 3 passengers)|
|Propulsion||1.5 dCi 110 hp with 4×4 drive|
|Speed||120 km/h in straight line
60 km/h with ACF tracks
|Armament||7,62 mm / .50 cal / DShK 12,7 mm machine gun turrets|
|Total Production||2 SUV + 1 pickup|