Saturday, 25 February 2017

A Forgotten Army: Transnistria's DIY APCs

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

Transnistria, officially the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (PMR), is a breakaway state in Eastern Europe that has remained in the shadows ever since its self-proclaimed independence as a Soviet republic in 1990 and subsequent breakaway from Moldova in 1992. Currently only recognized by Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh, which themselves are also unrecognised countries, Transnistria is situated in between the Ukraine and Moldova. Nonetheless, Transnistria functions as a de-facto state with its own army, air force and even its own arms industry.

It is the latter that has produced a number of very interesting designs that have entered service with Transnistria's armed forces over the past two decades. This industry was highly active during the Moldovan Civil War, producing a variety of DIY armoured fighting vehicles and homemade multiple rocket launchers (MRLs) for use against the Moldovan Army. After the cessation of hostilities, the arms industry would play a vital role in upholding the operational status of the Transnistria's army, which has remained unable to replace its dated inventory of Soviet weaponry ever since its establishment in 1991.

One of these designs is a unique armoured personnel carrier (APC) based on the Soviet GMZ-3 minelayer. First unveiled in 2015 by Transnistria's former president Yevgeny Shevchuk and Defense Minister Alexander Lukyanenko, at least eight of these vehicles are believed to have entered service with the Transnistrian army that year. At least two of these vehicles were seen participating in exercises just over a month later, confirming their operational status.

Transnistria is notorious for its supposed role in arms trafficking throughout the region and farther abroad. Large quantities of weaponry and ammunition from the Soviet 14th Army were taken over by Transnistrian locals, elements of the 14th Army loyal to Transnistria and foreign fighters when Moldava entered what according to the Moldovan government was and still is Moldovan territory, resulting in conflict between the two in 1992. While large amounts of the missing weaponry and ammunition was subsequently secured, taken over by the newly established Transnistrian Army or transported back to Russia under the supervision of the Operational Group of Russian Forces in Moldova, limited quantities of weapons originating in Transnistria still found their way abroad. Nevertheless, its status as an arms trafficking country is certainly exaggerated.

Despite having ended armed conflict in 1992, the situation in Transnistria remains extremely complicated, with the the breakaway state wishing to join the Russian Federation while continuing to remain heavily reliant on Moldova for exporting the limited produce its economy outputs. Despite making small steps towards increasing transparency to the outside world, Transnistria remains a Soviet Socialist Republic, as such continuing to make use of the hammer and sickle in its flag – even retaining the KGB as its main security agency. Russia still maintains a limited presence in Transnistria, its soldiers officially on a peacekeeping mission.

When the Soviet Union dissolved, much of the personnel and their associated weaponry which once made up its military became subordinate to the newly established states they were located in. While this process was often troubled by the departure of many ethnic Russians stationed outside of the former Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, this wasn't the only problem encountered in Moldova. The 14th Army was in fact stationed in the Ukraine, Moldova and the breakaway state of Transnistria, with various units of the 14th becoming subordinate to either the Ukraine, Moldova and Russia, or loyal to the newly formed Transnistrian republic. Obviously, this made for an extremely complicated and sensitive process.

When Transnistria took over most of the weapon storage depots on the territory it controlled, it inherited large amounts of highly specialised vehicles while being left without any significant numbers of infantry fighting vehicles or self-propelled artillery. Indeed, apart from several 122mm 2S1 Gvozdikas and 152mm 2S3 Akatisyas that were present in this area (which in fact likely found their way to Russia), there is no self-propelled artillery in the inventory of the Transnistrian Army. Instead, it relies on an arsenal of towed field artillery and 122mm 'Pribor' MRLs for indirect fire support.

The specialised vehicles Transnistria took over included a large number of GMZ-2 and GMZ-3 minelayers. Redundant in their original role during the Moldovan Civil War, several GMZs were employed as makeshift armoured personnel carriers by Transnistria, and at least one was subsequently destroyed in the fighting. Transnistria would continue to make use of several GMZs in their original role after the war, but with no need for such a large fleet of minelayers, most vehicles were placed in storage until it was decided to convert at least eight GMZ-3s to armoured personnel carriers. Although the amount of GMZs available to Transnistria remains unknown, the number is likely insufficient for the conversion of much more GMZs to this role.

In order to be capable of carrying infantry, all minelayer equipment was removed in line with its new role as armoured personnel carrier. The minelaying arm and the compartment for its operator were removed to make place for a door, while the space the mines were stored in was cleared and expanded to accommodate for the infantry compartment. The GMZ-3 in its original configuration can be seen here, a striking indicator of the transformation it has underwent.

A clearing was created between the driver's seat and infantry compartment for a gunner position equipped with a single 14.5mm KPV heavy machine gun (HMG), which was extensively modified for easier handling by its operator. In addition to the single HMG, rifles and light machine guns can be fired out of the vehicle's five firing ports. It is unknown if this transformation effected the armour of the GMZ-3, which was originally protected against small-arms fire and explosive fragments.

For Transnistria's size and economic means, the vehicle certainly exhibits impressively professional features, and presents a clear case of making the best possible use of every means available. In that regard, Transnistria is sure to continue surprising its tiny audience of foreign observers with the products of its indigenous military industry.

Friday, 17 February 2017

Replenishing the Stocks: Russian deliveries of T-62Ms and BMP-1s reach Syria

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

Following many rumours concerning the delivery of new armoured fighting vehicles to the Syrian Arab Army, images coming out of Syria have now confirmed such a delivery did indeed take place. These newly delivered vehicles are destined for the Syrian Arab Army's 5th Corps, which is currently engaged in heavy combat with the Islamic State in between T4 airbase and Tadmur. Indeed, images and videos covering the fighting that currently takes place here have already confirmed the vehicles are doing their part in bringing the fight back to the Islamic State.

While many expected the delivery of more T-72s or even T-90s as a follow-up to the small deliveries of these vehicles to elements of the Syrian military in late 2015, it now appears the core of the 5th Corps will be made up of battle-proven armored fighting vehicles (AFVs) such as the T-62M and BMP-1(P) instead. Although certainly less advanced than some of the more modern T-72s and BMP-2 variants employed in the Syrian theatre elsewhere, the delivery of these AFVs are still a welcome addition to the badly-depleted vehicle park of the Syrian Arab Army.

Indeed, while deprived of any active protection systems such as the Shtora found on the T-90 series of tanks, the T-62M is a vast improvement over the T-55 and earlier T-62 variants that continue to make up the majority of Syria's now battered tank fleet. The BMP-1s and BMP-1Ps delivered offer little in offensive and defensive capabilities, but are likely to serve the 5th Corps well because of the fact that they are easy to master and maintain, especially for crews with existing experience in operating these vehicles.

The 5th Corps is a newly established unit of the Syrian Arab Army, and serves as a counterweight to the increasing strength of the various militias that have largely taken over the role of the Syrian Arab Army (SyAA) in the past years. While the partial dissolvement of the SyAA and the subsequent rise of militias was necessary for the survival of the Syrian regime, it ended up creating a whole host of major problems that could potentially spiral out of control in the future. The establishment of the 5th Corps aims to address at least a part of these problems.

Russia appears to be a key driver behind the de-facto re-establishment of the Syrian Arab Army by exerting pressure on the regime to bring back control of the many militias to the army instead of continuing as independent units under the control of the Syrian High Command. While Iran's goal of keeping Syria under its sphere of influence was enacted by the establishment of several militias, many of which foreign, Russia seeks to create a stable situation that allows for the survival of the current government by creating an unified army instead.

The lack of such an unified army has been made painfully clear during most of the regime's defeats over the past several years, the failed Tabqa offensive and losing Tadmur for a second time serving as recent examples. A project similar to that of the establishment of the 5th Corps was initiated shortly after the Russian intervention in Syria, which called for the merging of several militias, including parts of the NDF, into the 4th Corps. When the NDF largely replaced the Syrian Arab Army as the regime's primary forces, the NDF saw its tasks expanding from guarding neighbourhoods to undertaking offensives elsewhere and guarding towns, gasfields and other strategic installations throughout Syria. Thus, this initiative would have called for the return of these tasks to the SyAA, with the NDF remaining a force dedicated for local defense only. Thus far, this process appears to have been largely unsuccessful however.

In contrast to other units of the Syrian Arab Army, which consist almost exclusively of drafted personnel, the 5th Corps hopes to attract large numbers of men by offering salaries and benefits that were previously only found with militias such as Suqour al-Sahraa' (The Desert Falcons). To further strengthen its ranks, Syrian men that were previously exempted from the draft are likely to join the 5th Corps amidst sharpened rules for exclusion from mandatory service.

The now almost six-year long civil war has taken a heavy toll on the once immense Syrian tank fleet, suffering heavy losses due to the widespread profileration of rocket propelled grenades (RPGs) and anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs). Yet it is mainly the poor tactics employed by most regime forces that have effectively degraded the tank to the role of a vulnerable static pillbox. Although the amount of armoured fighting vehicles that remain available still appears to be sufficient for current operations, the number of vehicles of the same class is too low to equip an entirely new fighting force: The 5th Corps.

In accordance with Russia's role in the establishment of the 5th Corps, it is also Russia that is responsible for equipping the new force. Although this led some to believe the new force would be equipped with a wide range of modern Russian weapon systems, Russia has so far committed to the delivery of older weaponry that is no longer in service with the Russian Army itself. Nonetheless, the delivered vehicles and weaponry are ideally suited for the Syrian Arab Army and the 5th Corps.

In addition to the delivery of small arms and a large number of Ural, GAZ, KamAZ and UAZ trucks and jeeps, deliveries to the 5th Corps so far have encompassed T-62Ms, BMP-1Ps and BMP-1s and 122mm M-1938 (M-30) howitzers. The latter are of a more modern variant than the examples already in use in Syria, with the Russian-delivered examples part of a batch that underwent modernisation during the 1970s, exchanging the original rubber foam wheels for more modern ones allowing for better mobility both on-road and off-road.

Before their appearance in Syria, some of the T-62Ms were already spotted in Russia while underway to a harbour for transport to Syria. These vehicles were then shipped onboard the 'Syria Express' towards Tartus, where the majority of vehicles and equipment has been arriving. The T-62Ms and BMP-1s were subsequently spotted in Tartus waiting for distribution to their new units, including a part of the 5th Corps currently seeing action against the Islamic State in Central Syria.

The T-62M is an upgrade programme aimed at upgrading several variants of the T-62, which by the early 1980s had become severely outmatched by their more modern Western counterparts, to a common standard. The programme aimed to adress the T-62's shortcomings in the field of firepower, protection and mobility, greatly improving the capabilities of the until then badly underperforming tank. The upgrade ran parallel to the modernisation of the T-55 and T-55A to T-55M standard, which was carried out during the same time.

The increased armour protection was achieved by the installment of BDD 'Brovi Il'icha' appliqué armour on the turret front and upper and lower glacis plates, increased armour protection against anti-tank mines, rubber side skirts and anti-radiation lining on parts of the turret. The resulting increased weight was compensated by a new V-55U diesel engine. To utilise the full potential of the powerful 115mm gun the 'Volna' fire control system module was installed, comprising the KTD laser rangefinder (LRF) and associated equipment. The tank also gained the capability to launch the tube-fired 9M117 (9K116-2) Sheksna ATGM, which is nearly identical to the 9M117 (9K116-1) Bastion in use with Syria's T-55(A)MVs. For this purpose, both the gunner and commander received new sighting systems, now also allowing for much increased efficacy during night combat. In addition to all this, the tank was equipped with a new stabiliser, a thermal sleeve for its 115mm gun, a new radio and a block of smoke grenade launchers on each side of the turret.

Despite its age, the T-62M has only just been retired by the Russian Army after decades of counter-terrorism operations in the Caucascus, a task for which it was also heavily employed in the mountainous terrain of Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion of this country. Several other nations continue to operate the T-62M, most notably Cuba, where it ironically serves as the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias' most modern tank.

While several variants such as the T-62 Obr. 1967 and T-62 Obr. 1972 were upgraded to the common T-62M standard, both are still easily discernible by the lack of the 12.7mm DShK on the T-62 Obr. 1967. Interestingly, Syria has received both Obr. 1967s and Obr. 1972s upgraded to T-62Ms. The latter has so far been featured more extensively in the footage coming out of Central Syria, and was also the first to fall victim to an Islamic State ATGM, with no casualties reported.

Most of the tanks can still be seen with the H22-0-0 rail transit markers that were applied in Russia before shipment to Syria. While not removing these markings is in this case of little significance, similar markings were also left in place on Russian tanks deployed in the Ukraine, which could once again be used to confirm Russia's involvement in the war in Eastern Ukraine.

The delivery of large amounts of these albeit dated vehicles could very well end up reversing the trend of widespread attrition that has decimated Syria's fighting vehicles. Perhaps more importantly, it shows Russia remains willing and capable of supporting its ally with large amounts of military equipment, despite economic hardships and the fact that Syria is bankrupt. This initiative essentially represents the re-establishment of the SyAA in organised form, and should it succeed it is certain to have far reaching consequences for future developments in the Syrian War.