Armor: The BMP Odyssey


October 19, 2020: The Russian BMP IFV (Infantry Fighting Vehicle) has been produced since the 1960s and seen lots of combat since the 1970s. The BMP is impressive looking and cheap (under $2 million each for basic models) compared to Western IFVs. BMPs look great in parades and during field exercises. The BMP is faster and more agile than Western IFVs and carries a lot of weapons. In combat the BMP proved to be a lot more vulnerable and unreliable than its appearance and PR implied. Despite that the latest version of the BMP is still selling.

In 1966, when the Russian BMP was revealed, it was hailed as the first IFV that did not just carry infantry but also featured a turret with heavier and more powerful weapons. The earlier APCs (Armored Personnel Carriers) were heavily used during World War II (1939-45) because they had tracks (like tanks) and armor but were only were armed with one of more heavy machine-guns plus the weapons of the infantry carried. In the 1950s box-like tracked APCs appeared with better protection. The APC users wanted more firepower. Russia was the first to respond. Unfortunately, the BMP had many flaws compared to later Western IFVs. Western IFV designers noted those BMP flaws before building their first models.

The original BMP was a 13-ton tracked vehicle that had a one-man turret, a crew of three and up to eight very uncomfortable passengers. By the 1980s over 30,000 had been built, The BMP’s shortcomings were exposed regularly during and after the 1970s as they were used in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, several African conflicts and then during the 1980s in Afghanistan, and in several more conflicts through the present. Hundreds of BMP-1s are still in service, mainly to intimidate the locals rather than resist foreign invaders.

In the 1990s improved BMP-2s and 3s saw action in many post-Cold War conflicts and demonstrated that the improvements made a difference, but not as much as the Russia designers expected. In response to the poor BMP performance in the 1970s, the 14.3-ton BMP-2 showed up in 1980. It had better weapons and protection. Extensive use in Afghanistan during the 1980s showed that the improvements were not enough. This led to the 18-ton BMP-3, which entered service in 1987. More protection, more powerful weapons and improved fire control made a difference, but not enough. The latest version, the 22-ton BMP-3M showed up in 2005. So far 2,000 have been built, half for export customers. Those export customers were initially pleased with the BMP-3M. Then some were used after 2015 in the Yemen Civil War and demonstrated that the latest BMP was still vulnerable to more powerful roadside bombs and improved anti-tank weapons.

The BMP-3M is still a lightweight (22 tons) compared to Western vehicles like the U.S. M2 Bradley (31 tons). It is smaller at 7.14 meters (23.4 feet) long, 3.2 meters (10.5 feet) wide, and 2.4 meters (7.9 feet) tall compared to 6.6 x 3.6x3 meters for the M-2. Moreover while both have a crew of three (commander, driver, and gunner), the BMP-3 sits seven, very uncomfortably, in the back, compared to six more comfortably in the back of the M2. The M2 is also vulnerable in combat, but not as much as the BMPs. That brings up another issue; how useful are IFVs on a modern battlefield? Not as much as their designers assumed. Wheeled armored vehicles, like the Stryker and many European designs that provided the inspiration for Stryker, do it cheaper and faster. Russia has always had a lot of wheeled armored vehicles and since Stryker demonstrated its superiority over IFVs in Iraq and Afghanistan, Russian began updating its wheeled IFVs and developing new designs. Despite that there are still fans of the tracked IFV.

The original BMP-3, which entered service in 1987, was an improvement over the original BMP models of the 1960s and 1970s, but was still cramped and uncomfortable for the passengers. The Russians believed the smaller size made it harder to hit and cheaper to manufacture, That meant 20-40 percent cheaper, depending on add-ons. This gave BMPs a cost advantage that was often decisive. Meanwhile the additional electronics and other gadgets has driven up the costs of all IFVs and wheeled counterparts.

The 3M model of the BMP has been upgraded with a new turret and engines. The electronics include an automatic fire control system and a gunner's sight with a thermal imager and laser illuminator. The commander's periscope has a laser infrared illuminator. There is a new ammunition loading system. The 100mm gun fires laser-guided projectiles, high explosive/fragmentation rounds, 30mm APSDS (Armor Piercing Discarding Sabot) rounds, and two other ammo types. Also in the turret is a 30mm automatic cannon with 500 rounds of ammo and a 7.62mm machine-gun. On top of the turret there is a 14.5mm machine-gun. The basic armor protects against machine-gun rounds up to 12.7mm. Explosive reactive armor can be added. There is also an active anti-missile system, as well as air conditioning for the crew.

In the late 1990s export customers were offered some essential upgrades. These included four tons of ERA (Explosive Reactive Armor) covering half the front and most (85 percent) of each side of the vehicle. This nearly doubled the protection against shaped-charge shells and missile warheads. The ERA also provided needed protection against heavy (12.7mm) machine-guns. With the ERA the BMP3 could not be penetrated by a 12.7mm bullets from machine-guns less than 600 meters distant. There was also improved protection for the fuel tanks so they no longer exploded when the vehicle was hit by a shaped-charge warhead. The interior received splinter-proof liners so that non-penetrating hits didn’t create debris that could kill or wound the crew. All these additions came at a cost. Some export models of the BMP3, when equipped with a thermal imager, had to mount some of that gear on the outside of the vehicle.

Then there the quality control issues. It wasn’t just export customers who were dissatisfied with that. The quality problems with the BMP-3 had been around for a long time and became more of an issue back in 2006, when Russia decided to greatly increase its military procurement by purchasing hundreds of BMP-3s. This was necessary to replace aging Cold War era equipment. This did not work out well. In 2013, after a three-year delay, Russian Army finally agreed to accept new BMP-3Ms from the manufacturer. Initial attempts to deliver in 2010 were refused because of quality and reliability issues. The Russian army currently has 300 BMP-3Ms and 400 BMP-3s. Deliveries were halted after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and began again in 2007, with about 40 a year until 72 were shipped in 2010, and that’s when the army began refusing to accept. The BMP-3M quality problems were kept quiet as it would also interfere with export orders. But rumors did leak and a Greek order for 460 BMP-3s was delayed and then cancelled because of the financial crises Greek has been undergoing since 2008.

One of the BMP variants was the BMD4 airborne armored vehicle, which is basically the body of the BMP3, with a new turret. Entering service in 2005, each one costs about $1.4 million. The vehicle includes thermal sights, is amphibious and can be dropped by parachute. Weighing 13.6 tons, it has a crew of three and carries five troops as passengers. Few BMD4s were needed but basing their design on the BMP-3 saved a lot of money and worry about performance.


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