The Buzz

Russia's Secret Weapon: Armored Vehicles That Can 'Fly'

Since the 1970s, the Russian military has possessed a diverse fleet of armored vehicles it can drop out of airplanes … with parachutes, of course.

The BMD family of infantry fighting vehicles is armed to the teeth with autocannons, machine guns and anti-tank missiles. And despite being very much a product of the Cold War, the little fighting vehicles have continued to see combat — and the new BMD-4 variant is even packing a 100-millimeter gun.

How did an airborne assault tank even come about?

Following World War II, the Soviet Union expanded its elite air landing forces — a separate branch of the military known as the VDV, which at its peak consisted of 15 Guards Airborne divisions and 13 independent brigades. Soviet strategists foresaw deploying the VDV far inside enemy territory as part of their “deep battle” doctrine, with different airborne units dedicated to strategic, operational and tactical missions.

For example, an operational airborne regiment or division might drop 100 to 300 kilometers behind enemy lines to capture river crossings, enemy command centers, logistical bases and nuclear weapons facilities.

However, Soviet military theorists were aware of the problems airborne infantry had faced during World War II, particularly in massive air-landing operations such as Operation Overlord and Market Garden — the latter which resulted in the virtual destruction of the British 1st Airborne Division.

Upon hitting the ground, scattered and disorganized paratroopers lacking mobile anti-tank weapons were likely to be slammed by counter-attacking enemy tanks. Furthermore, once landed, airborne infantry were slow to advance on objectives because they lacked their own motor vehicles.

The Soviet solution, of course, involved giving the airborne troopers their own armored vehicles — ones that can either be air dropped, lifted by helicopter, or rolled readily from a transport plane at a rough satellite airfield recently captured from the enemy.

In 1966, the Soviet Union introduced the BMP-1 infantry fighting vehicle, a new type of armored personnel carrier which gave mechanized infantry squads the firepower to take on tanks and entrenched ground troops. The 14.6-ton BMP-1 packs a machine gun, an anti-tank missile launcher for sniping tanks at long range, and a 73-millimeter low-pressure cannon.

Soviet designers crammed the same formidable armament package onto the much smaller and lighter aluminum-hulled BMD-1, or Boyevaya Machine Desanta, meaning “Airborne Combat Vehicle.” The vehicle even boasts two additional machine guns on the corners of the front hull.

The smaller, eight-ton BMD-1 is most easily visually distinguished by its shorter front hull compared to the BMP-1.

The speedy, tracked vehicles can attain roads speeds of 50 miles per hour, 25 percent faster than the BMP-1. By 1982, each 6,500-man Soviet airborne division had 330 BMD-1s on its organizational chart, effectively making them into light mechanized units.

BMDs are compact enough that Mi-6 and Mi-26 transport helicopters can carry them, and up to three can fit inside larger Il-76 transport jets, or two within an An-12 medium transport. Heavy-duty hydraulic suspension helps the BMD cope with the impact of an air drop, and also allows for adjustable ground clearance ranging between 10 and 45 centimeters.

Originally, the Soviets’ plan was to drop the vehicles in cargo palettes separately from their crew of four, but the operators often landed far away from their tanks and had trouble finding them. The solution — simple enough — was for the driver and commander to hit the ground with a jeep and drive to their BMD.

The armored vehicles still experienced rough landings while floating down to the earth at 15 to 20 meters per second, so the Soviet Union developed a rocket parachute. Touch-sensitive rods dangling below the BMD pallet activates a retro rocket upon hitting the ground, helping slow terminal landing velocity to a safer six meters per second.

The BMDs can float in more ways than one.

The light vehicles are fully amphibious, propelled through water at speeds of up to six miles per hour by two water jets similar to those on the PT-76 light tank. Transitioning the vehicle for water operations merely involves lowering a trim vane, raising a driver’s periscope and activating a bilge pump.

BMDs brought paratroopers one more key advantage — the vehicles are protected from many of the effects of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, giving the crews a chance to survive on a contaminated battlefield.

However, the BMD-1 arrived with several major downsides. Its smaller, cramped passenger compartments have a lower passenger capacity of just three or four paratroopers, who must exit out a top hatch, a far more vulnerable disembarkation method than via the rear ramp on a BMP. In recent fighting in Ukraine, infantry have often elected to ride on top of their BMDs, rendering somewhat absurd the entire premise of an armored transport.

For this reason, some observers consider the BMD to be more of a light tank than a true infantry fighting vehicle.

Furthermore, the BMD has lightweight aluminum armor — not steel — which is prone to catching fire and melting, resulting in many battle-damaged BMDs being reduced to charred skeletons after the fuel ignited in combat.