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 most notable spinoff of the BTR-D is the tank-like 2S9 Nona with a turret-mounted 120 millimeter gun-mortar — effective at both direct fire and lobbing shells at targets up to nine kilometers away.
The 2S9 saw action in Afghanistan, where the armored mortar proved useful due to its mobility, low minimum firing range, and ability to plunge shells at steep angles behind walls and ridges.
By 1990, production began of a new 14-ton BMD-3 with a roomier, redesigned hull that accommodates the same two-man steel turret as the BMP-2, and five passengers. However, Russia only produced 143 of these as its military rapidly contracted following the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Despite the BMD’s specialized role, the vehicle did not fade into obscurity. BMDs continued to serve with airborne units fighting in Chechnya and Georgia, and even with Russia’s former peacekeeping force in Kosovo.
Exported BMD-1s saw action in Iran, Angola and Iraq during the ’80s and ’90s. A photo from 2003 credits a tank from the U.S. Marine Corps’ 1st Tank Battalion as having blown the turret off a BMD-1 in Al Tubah Habra, Iraq.
‘Desantniki’ in Georgia
At midnight on Aug. 7-8, 2008, Georgian forces launched an offensive against Russian-backed South Ossetian separatists. The artillery barrage, and the ground offensive that followed it, struck Russian troops based in the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali.
By 4:00 p.m. on Aug. 8, Moscow began flying the desantniki of the 104th Air Assault Regiment based in Pskov on Il-76s to a forward staging airfield in Beslan, North Ossetia — earlier, the site of a horrific terrorist attack. The 104th, which operated BMD-1s, was soon joined by the BMD-2s of the 234th Regiment. Both united and transited into South Ossetia via the Roki tunnel.
The publication The Tanks of August from the Moscow-based Center for Analysis of Strategies of and Technologies details some of the confused action that ensued.
On Aug. 11, a battalion each from the 104th and the 234th spearheaded an offensive aimed at pushing back Georgian artillery units from Tskhinvali. Each battalion had around 20 BMDs, supported by 2S9s and BTR-Ds equipped with 23-millimeter anti-aircraft guns.
The BTR-Ds reportedly engaged Georgian Mi-24 Hind helicopters which had just shot up a Russian truck convoy, and damaged one of the gunships. Meanwhile, the 2S9 self-propelled mortars served as the only forward artillery support available to Russian ground forces at that stage of the campaign.
In one engagement, a company of Georgian engineers mounted on a dozen trucks bumped into two BMD-1s — one of them broken down — and a dozen paratroopers who had been left behind in the town of Shindisi. The blaze of cannon shells and rocket-propelled grenades from the desantniki caused the Georgian unit to scatter and take cover in nearby buildings.
The BMDs engaged in a half-hour-long firefight before Russian armored and infantry companies intervened and destroyed the Georgian unit. By the end of the same day, a Russian recon company mounted on BMDs entered the important city of Poti.
The Russian mechanized airborne units had succeeded in securing key objectives in Georgia while suffering only modest losses — with only a single BMD-2 confirmed destroyed near Shindisi.
The BMD-4 gets a large gun
In 2014, Ukrainian and Russian-backed separatist forces both made extensive use of BMD-1 and 2s and BTR-Ds — and lost 40 to 60 of the vehicles between them, highlighting the vehicle’s age and vulnerability to virtually any type of heavy weapon.
Despite being intended to provide a defense against tanks, there are no accounts of BMDs destroying tanks in any conflict. The vehicles have proven handy in reconnaissance and fire support missions, but it is hard to envision large-scale parachute operations on a 21st century battlefield featuring modern anti-aircraft weapons.
Nonetheless, in 2005 Russia produced a small run of new 15-ton BMD-4 vehicles evolved from the BMD-3. This version incorporates the heavily-armed turret of the earlier BMP-3, including a 100-millimeter cannon equipped with high explosive and shaped charge anti-tank shells, and a 30 millimeter co-axial auto cannon.
The BMD-4 not only retains the Konkurs anti-tank missile launcher post on top, but can shoot long-range AT-10 Arkan missiles through the cannon.
A recent modernized variant, the BMD-4M, features increased parts commonality with the BMP-3, including an improved engine, as well a new version with a thermal imager.
Supposedly the BDM-4M’s front armor has been reinforced to survive hits from 30-millimeter cannon shells, but chances are it’s vulnerable like its predecessors, and its airborne and amphibious roles remain a specialized niche compared to the larger BMP-3.
This led to a rare spate of internal criticism of the vehicle, with one Russian general ridiculing the production of a light vehicle “with no protection, that costs as much as a tank.”
Nonetheless, the Russian military approved a new order in 2014, and the Volgograd tank factory is currently churning out dozens of BMD-4Ms and their BTR-MDM trooper carrier models each year to fulfill an order of 250. The new model will enter service with Russian naval infantry — and possibly the Indonesian navy as well — due to its amphibious capabilities.
Though the era of mass airborne drops behind enemy lines may have passed, air-deployable vehicles still have great utility, even if they’re not especially tough. The U.S. Army once operated its own parachute-tank, the M-551 Sheridan, which saw action in Vietnam, Panama and the Gulf War. The Sheridan’s only air-dropped combat mission was in Panama.
Like the BMD, the Sheridan was made of aluminum armor that left it vulnerable to mines and heavy weapons, and many were lost in action. However, the light tanks brought heavy firepower to the battlefield, especially as they were sometimes the only armor available to support infantry in the field. The Sheridan’s retirement in 1996 left a gap in the airborne force structure that has yet to be replaced.
By contrast, even though Russia’s airborne force has been reduced to just four divisions, the desantniki seem intent on retaining their lightly armored, air-droppable steeds just in case.
Like the United States, Russia has called up its airborne units time and time again to fight in conventional military operations — and possessing fast and heavily-armed fighting vehicles for those situations is handy, even if their armor leaves something to be desired.
This first appeared in WarIsBoring here.