Sunday, 25 January 2015

Onwards to the front, Syria's BMPs

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

The Boyevaya Mashina Pekhoty (Infantry Fighting Vehicle), better known as BMP and often incorrectly called BMB throughout the Middle East, remains the most prolific infantry fighting vehicle (IFV) series in the world. Syria acquired two products of this series, the BMP-1 and BMP-2. Syria used its (at the time brand-new) BMP-1s during the 1973 October War and by doing so became the first nation to deploy the BMP-1 in a real conflict.

Syria reportedly ordered no less than 2300 BMP-1s from the Soviet Union in 1977, with deliveries continuing until 1989.[1] Not only are both the date of order and delivery impossible due to the fact that Syrian BMP-1s already had their combat debut in 1973, the given figure is also greatly exaggerated. The actual number of BMP-1s received by Syria is believed to be closer to 1000. Syria acquired its last batch of BMP-1s in the late eighties. Contrary to the other BMP-1s, these late BMP-1s were equipped with 81mm 'Tucha' smoke grenade launchers at the back of their turret.

The BMP-2, despite the fact that only modest numbers were acquired, remains Syria's most iconic infantry fighting vehicle. Although indirectly, Syria has had a large stake in the development of the BMP-2. The 1973 October War saw the combat debut of the BMP-2's predecessor, the BMP-1, where it performed below expectations. Although this was partly because of badly trained crews and wrong usage of the BMP-1, which was used as a truck instead of actually supporting the infantry, Soviet teams responsible for the development of IFVs were sent to Syria to evaluate the performance of the BMP-1 in this war to see in what ways the design could be improved.

The lessons learned from the evaluation of the BMP-1 in the October War greatly helped the replacement program for the BMP-1, the product of this program of course being the BMP-2. So by deploying the BMP-1 in combat, Syria unintentionally took part in the development of the BMP-2.

Syria reportedly ordered 100 BMP-2s from the Soviet Union in 1987, which were delivered between 1987 and 1988.[2] The actual number of BMP-2s acquired is believed to have been slightly lower however. Almost all were subsequently assigned to the Republican Guard, which operated them alongside their T-72As (later upgraded to T-72AV standard). Syria's BMP-2s gained fame during the Republican Guard's operations as part of the Rif Dimashq offensive, especially in the neighbourhood of Darayya. The Republican Guard also has access to a limited number of BMP-1s in Deir ez-Zor.

The late eighties also saw the delivery of several BREM-2 armoured recovery vehicles (ARV) from the Soviet Union. Syria was one of the few non-Warsaw Pact countries to receive this type of ARV. Designed to both perform repairs and recover other BMPs, the BREM-2s joined the Syrian Arab Army only in limited numbers. All were detached to divisions already operating the standard the BMP-1. The Syrian Civil War saw the disintegration of these divisions and the BREM-2s were thus collecting dust until a decision was made to arm them, which will be covered later in this article.

Large numbers of AMB-S armoured ambulances were also acquired from Czechoslovakia. The AMB-S has provision for four stretchers to evacuate the wounded. In Syria the vehicle sees active use with the Republican Guard, which mainly uses it to deliver supplies to the frontline. The vehicles in service with the Syrian Arab Army have seen little use in the Civil War, and often remain stored at their bases.

The advantage of the BMP-2 over the BMP-1 is undoubtedly its 30mm 2A42 cannon. The BMP-1 uses the slow-firing 73mm 2A28 Grom, which although quite effective against armoured vehicles, is inadequate to provide fire-support to infantry. While originally designed to support infantry on the plains of Europe, the armament of the BMP-1 was focused at combating enemy armoured vehicles. The BMP-1's 2A28 cannon is also unable to fire accurately while on the move due to a lack of stabilisation, and its maximum gun elevation of just 15 degrees makes it impractical for operating in an urban environment to say the least.

The fast-firing 2A42 on the other hand is extremely well suited for supporting the advancing infantry. Not only can it fire up to five-hundred rounds a minute for a short amount of time, the gun is also stabilised, allowing it to fire accurately while on the move. The 2A42 also has a maximum elevation of 75 degrees, which makes it highly useful for operating in an urban environment. The BMP-2 also comes with an ATGM launcher for the 9M113 Konkurs on the roof opposed to the BMP-1's 9M14 Malyutka.

Given the BMP-1's drawbacks concerning its armament, it is quite surprising no decision has been made to remove the the slow-firing 73mm 2A28 Grom and install a 14.5mm ZPU-4, a 23mm ZU-23, a 37mm M1939 61-K or even a 37mm Type 65 instead. Such a vehicle would be an excellent addition to the Syrian Arab Army or National Defence Force (NDF). This type of conversion has proven to be extremely popular in Iraq and Afghanistan, and even the Greek Army recently converted a part of its BMP-1 IFVs to fire-support platforms armed with a 23mm ZU-23.

Relatively few BMP-2s have been lost in the almost four-year-long war, especially when compared to the Syrian Arab Army's BMP-1s. The number of actually confirmed destroyed BMP-2s amounts to less than a dozen. This is mostly due to the superior tactics and skill seen in the Republican Guard.

The situation is quite different with the BMP-1 fleet, of which a large part has been destroyed due to bad tactics employed by the Syrian Arab Army (SyAA) and poorly trained conscripts manning the BMP-1s. At least 350 BMP-1s have been destroyed, with another 175 captured by the various groups fighting for control over the country. While in service with the SyAA, the BMP-1 was often used as a tank or battering ram charging through cities and villages without any tank or infantry support, thus being an easy prey for the rebels' anti-tank weapons.

The Republican Guard on the other hand operates the BMP-2 in conjunction with T-72AVs, which are high on the rebels' anti-tank teams target list. The presence of the T-72AVs thus draws away the attention from the BMP-2s, which are often carrying infantry, wounded personnel or supplies to the frontline.

Also an important factor in the BMP-2s low attrition rate is the superior skill and competence of Republican Guard's BMP-2 crews. These crewman are all well-trained, actually operate as a team and coordinate their operations with other vehicles nearby. The Republican Guard's personnel are also often more motivated and dedicated to their mission than the conscripts often comprising the SyAA's crews.

The BMP-2s have been present in every Republican Guard offensive in Damascus, its suburbs and villages close to Damascus such as Yabroud. However, none are operated by the Republican Guard's 104th Brigade operating in and around Deir ez-Zor. The contingent deployed here was supplied with a limited amount of older T-72 Urals, T-72M1s, a couple T-72AVs, BMP-1s and some ZSU-23s taken from other units instead.

Despite this, the 104th uses its limited amount of armour to its full potential. Its BMP-1s are used in their intended role and covered by infantry, T-72s and ZSU-23s. The infantry carried inside the BMP-1s disembark and clear the buildings, again supported by BMP-1s, T-72s and ZSU-23s and this process gets repeated again and again. Footage of such a operation can be seen here.

One of the BMP-2's current area of operations is Jobar, although their operations here are on a more limited scale than was seen in Darayya.

Surprisingly, several BMP-2s were assigned to the Syrian Arab Army shortly after their arrival in Syria. The SyAA stationed these vehicles in Aleppo, where limited numbers likely continue to see action. Two BMP-2s were captured by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) when they overran Aleppo's Infantry School and another was destroyed in the fight for Aleppo's Central Prison.[3] [4] Neither were sighted in use with the FSA and were likely left here. The last confirmed sighting of BMP-2s near Aleppo was on the 13th of June 2013. The vehicle in question, together with a BMP-1, can be seen in the header image.

As often seen with vehicles operated by the Republican Guard, some BMP-2s have been decorated with the head of Hafez al-Assad on their searchlights. The Republican Guard was founded on the orders of Hafez al-Assad, and all of its members still hold him in high esteem.

Numerous other groups in Syria also continue to operate the BMP-1, of which the Islamic State is the largest operator with at least twenty-four BMP-1s captured in Syria and another four in Iraq. The examples captured in Iraq were all immediately destroyed after their capture however. The BMP-1 has been present in nearly all of the the Islamic State's offensives in Nothern Syria, and two were used as vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIED).[5] [6] The latter was used in an effort to clear out the remaining defenders of Mennegh in the assault on this heliport.

Three BMP-1s were later modified by the Islamic State. One BMP-1 was spotted with a 12.7mm DshK and associated magazine over its main gun which can be fired from the inside. This BMP-1 saw action against the YPG in Nothern Syria.

A BMP-1 spotted in Azaz had its armour strengthened by the addition of metal piping, similar as seen on one of the VBIED BMP-1s used by the Islamic State South of Azaz, at Mennegh.

Another modification was spotted in Deir ez-Zor, where this particular vehicle was captured by the NDF. The BMP-1's turret has been removed and a shielded 23mm ZU-23 was installed instead. The vehicle is also protected by a combination of slat armour and several pieces of metal alligned around the body and turret. The back of the BMP-1, which actually holds two fuel tanks has also been reinforced by slat armour. Sandbags on the front complete the upgrade.

The Ansar al-Haq Battalion was seen using a BMP-1 armed with just a single 14.5mm KPV a couple of weeks earlier. The vehicle participated in the assault and capture of Wadi Deif, where the BMP-1 charged to the frontline giving cover to members of the battalion on foot. 

Ahrar al-Sham meanwhile 'reinforced' the armour of one BMP-1 by adding several Kontakt-1  explosive reactive armour (ERA) blocks from two T-72AVs to its body and turret.

While this seems like an effective way to reinforce the BMP-1's paper thin armour, which can even be penetrated by heavy machine guns, applying ERA on any BMP-1 or BMP-2 actually achieves the opposite. Namely, tests conducted by the Soviets showed that the explosion of the Kontakt-1 shattered the thin hull armour of the BMP-1 and would actually inflict heavy injuries to those inside.

The BMP-1 modified by Ahrar al-Sham was destroyed shortly after the first photo was taken. Unsurprisingly, the Kontakt-1 tiles did not save the vehicle.

First seen in Libya, several Syrian rebel groups installed the BMP-1's turret on a range of other vehicles, such as the Toyota Land Cruiser.[7] [8] As the 73mm 2A28 Grom has little to no recoil, it makes an ideal weapon for such conversions. One rebel group was also seen operating a truck with only the 2A28 cannon installed.

Numerous BREM-2s, lacking any weapons by design, were also subject to several modifications in order to increase their usefulness in the Civil War. The rear end of the hull was cleared to make place for a platform used to mount an anti-aircraft gun on. The example below, armed with a 14.5mm ZPU-4 was captured by Jaish al-Islam at Battalion 559, one of the Syrian Arab Army's tank depots. No machine guns were installed on this BREM-2 at the time of capture.

Another ZPU-4 armed BREM-2 was seen in action near Mleha, Eastern Ghouta. This BREM-2 had a protective shield around the gun to cover the otherwise extremely exposed gunner and also had its now pointless crane removed. One of such vehicles was captured by the Sham Unified Front, part of the Free Syrian Army, near Sheikh Miskin. Only two of the ZPU-4's guns were installed, a common sight in Syria as the need for these guns for installment on NDF technicals is now higher than ever.

The Republican Guard's and NDF's offensive near Mleha also featured a BREM-2 armed with a single 37mm M1939 61-K. These anti-aircraft cannons were all in storage before the Syrian Civil War began, but are now re-entering service due to the high need for such weapons. This particular vehicle was later seen driving through Mleha after the capture of this town.

On the other side side of Mleha, Jaish al-Islam converted its only AMB-S to an armoured personnel carrier armed with one 14.5mm KPV.

But much more impressive are the upgrades performed on its BMP-1s so far. When still operating under the name of Liwa al-Islam, it bought two BMP-1s along with two T-72s from a corrupt officer within the Army's elite 4th Armoured Division, and captured several others. The use of armoured fighting vehicles by Jaish al-Islam, compared to other rebel groups in the Syrian theatre, can be seen as revolutionary, being the only group which operates various types of armour and infantry in a mechanised force, fully exploiting their potential. Jaish al-Islam operates its own armour school and armour repair shop, both located in Eastern Ghouta.

The first upgrade was seen in one of Jaish al-Islam's armour convoys, and consists of several blocks of Kontakt-1 ERA aligned around the turret and two new steel contraptions installed over the normal doors holding fuel tanks. Although the turret of the BMP-1 is the heaviest armoured part of the vehicle, the alignment of the ERA blocks is just as dangerous as on the example operated by Ahrar al-Sham.

Another version saw a better alignment of the ERA blocks, giving the BMP-1's turret almost 360 degree coverage. A steel plate behind the blocks decreases the chance of the explosion of the Kontakt-1 literally backfiring into the turret. This vehicle was also equipped with the steel contraptions, albeit looking slightly different than seen above. The vehicle also has provision for extra armour on its sides, although none was installed at the time of recording. This BMP-1 can be seen in action here.

A more heavily modified variant still sports the ineffective ERA blocks on the turret, but its armour was enhanced by the addition of spaced and slat armour in combination with rubber side skirts. The wide gap between the slat armour and BMP-1 also allows for the fitting of numerous sandbags, further increasing the chance to deform incoming warheads. The ability to fire through the BMP-1's firing ports was made impossible due to these additions however. The front of the vehicle also sports slat armour and a new mudguard. The steel contraptionsover its doors are also once again present. This vehicle can be seen in action here.

The ultimate modification fielded so far looks much like its predecessor, but features some small improvements. Most notably, it doesn't feature any ERA blocks on its turret, with slat armour providing protection instead. The slat armour on the hull, again backed up by sandbags was also installed in a different pattern, decreasing the chance of any RPG grenade slipping through. Further changes include longer rubber side skirts and the addition of four smoke grenade launchers taken from a T-72. The vehicle also comes with the steel contraptions over its doors and inability to fire through the BMP-1's firing ports.

The number of modified BMP-1s operated by the Syrian Arab Army is not as high as seen with the rebel groups, with just one simple upgrade spotted. The vehicle below, seen in Damascus during the the early days of the Syrian Civil War, had its armour locally improved by the addition of several tires filled with sandbags, all held together by several pieces of rope.

A limited number of BMP-2s that lost their sideskirts also received improvised armour additions during their operations. These armour additions are installed in the BMP-2's operational area, are quite rudimentary and vary between each BMP-2. As of now, no nation-wide upgrade program for the BMP-2 has been initiated, but such a program can't be ruled out for the future.

The first upgrade seen on the BMP-2 consists of rudimentary spaced armour filled with bricks. As the RPG enters the first layer of armour, the warhead will be deformed and slowed down, giving it a smaller chance to enter the second layer of armour (bricks) and ultimately the armour of the BMP-2 itself.

The second upgrade consisted of the installment of even more rudimentary slat armour. This variation is easier to produce and install and thus more common than the spaced armour.

The BMP-1, despite its numerous weaknesses, can still turn out to be valuable asset in the Syrian Civil War: upgrading them with anti-aircraft guns and slat armour will turn them into effective fire-support vehicles. It depends on the willingness of the Syrian Arab Army and National Defence Force to make such modifications, and that decision will have a large impact on the BMP-1's future in Syria.

As the Republican Guard is slowly mopping up what's left of the rebel presence inside Damascus and its neighbourhoods, it will undoubtedly set it eyes on other battlegrounds in Syria. Future operations undertaken by the Republican Guard outside Damascus will likely see the involvement of BMP-2s, which proves their career in the Syrian military is far from over.

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  1. Excelent, as allways!

  2. "A BMP-1 spotted in Azaz had its armour strengthened by the addition of metal piping, similar as seen on one of the VBIED BMP-1s used by the Islamic State South of Azaz, at Mennegh."

    ^^^just want to point out that this "piping" is just to add "shrapnel" to the vehicle borne homicide bombs, not to protect them in any way, just to cause more death and destruction, so the vehicle pictured more likely than not was to become a homicide bomb.

    1. This particular BMP-1 actually saw action in and around Azaz, so I highly doubt it.

  3. Yet another brillant report! But please allow me one question. Where do you get those informations from e.g. that Syria received no more than 1000 BMP-1? It's not that I wouldn't believe it. I'm just curious where I can look up such facts by myself. Is it simply just a matter of using google the right way?

    1. Sources, it's all about sources.

  4. The article was great. The BMP-1/2 family of IFVs still have that drawback of the fuel tanks integral with the rear doors. Fascinating details about the many modifications to meet battlefield needs.

  5. It is not common but some sources claim that the BMP 3 is in Syria too:

    What do you think about? I ve try to find some evidences with no success at the moment

    And thank you for all of your posts, they are really well made, specially I m grateful of your rigour.

    Sometimes I ve used some of them for my videos

    Regards from Spain