Thursday, 19 May 2016

The YPG going DIY, armour upgrades in Northern Syria

By Stijn Mitzer

While many of our posts have been devoted to the MENA's attempts to locally 'improve' its armour, we have never touched upon on the YPG's DIY armour upgrades. Not that there has been a lack of DIY armour upgrades coming from Northern Syria, but mainly because these local conversions were often so hideous we'd rather continue the trend of leaving other sites to cover them. Nonetheless, there have been a number of interesting projects coming from the YPG-held territory lately, which will be covered in this post.

Carrying out the YPG's armour upgrades is the responsibility of two major armour workshops located in Afrin, Aleppo Governorate (Afrin Canton) and the Hasakah Governorate, the latter of which is supported by several smaller workshops located throughout the Hasakah Governorate. Interestingly, this closely mirrors the Islamic State's methods in Syria, which also established two major armour workshops further supported by several smaller workshops elsewhere in Islamic State held territory.

But compared to other major factions involved in the Syrian Civil War, the YPG (Yekîneyên Parastina Gel - People's Protection Units) is the least rich in armour. To compensate for this gap in its capabilities, the YPG became very active in the production of  DIY armoured vehicles, usually based on tractors or trucks. For true armour, the YPG is reliant on vehicles captured from the Islamic State, vehicles left behind by the Syrian Arab Army (SyAA) and equipment turned over by the SyAA in return for a save passage (for example after retreating from Mennagh airbase in 2014). The latter provided the YPG with three T-72 'Urals' and one T-55A, a major haul for the YPG. But apart from just operating its captured vehicles in their initial configuration, the YPG also performs upgrades on most of its armour. From simple things like replacing barrels of a ZSU-23 with those of a ZU-23 to producing complete armour packages, the YPG has done it all.


By taking over former SyAA bases, the YPG also gained a limited number of BTR-60s decommissioned from service shortly before the start of the civil war. Sometimes used as a static pillbox by the defenders, most of these vehicles were left to rot in various corners of the base by the SyAA. Because repairing these vehicles, almost all suffering from flat tires, was not worth the effort in the eyes of many of their other capturers, the YPG quickly became the largest operator of operational BTR-60s in Syria.

At least two of these BTR-60s were then upgraded by the addition of additional armour around the body of the vehicle and by the addition of skirts and mudguards covering the tires. Interestingly, one example uses a 12.7mm DShK as a replacement for the 14.5mm KPVT normally present in the BTR-60's turret. This vehicle, seen below, also received a new engine (as can be witnessed by the presence of a bulge in this location), likely because the original engine was damaged beyond repair.  Unfortunately for the YPG, after the intensive effort it put in upgrading this vehicle, it got stuck in a ditch while fleeing from an Islamic State attack in the Hasakah Governorate, during which an upgraded BMP-1 was also captured. The crew removed the 12.7mm DShK before abandoning the vehicle however, denying the enemy valuable ghaneema (spoils of war).

Another rarity that serves with the YPG is the MT-LB multi-purpose armoured vehicle, of which only six have so far been documented in Syria. Two are in service with the Islamic State in the Deir ez-Zor Governorate while the other four are used by the YPG in the Hasakah Governorate. All six examples came from Iraq, where the Islamic State captured them from the Iraqi Army. Although Syria acquired nearly any armoured fighting vehicle (AFV) available for export from the Soviet Union, it never acquired the MT-LB. The YPG-operated examples were already believed to be in Kurdish hands before the start of the Syrian Civil War.

Interestingly, the MT-LB seen below was one of the examples upgraded by the addition of wider tracks by Ba'athist Iraq. These vehicles are sometimes designated as MT-LBVs. Two of the YPG's MT-LBs can be seen in the row of AFVs on the bottommost image, which also includes two T-55s upgraded by the addition of a gunshield, stowage boxes and mudguards and one armoured earthmover equipped with the turret of a BMP-1 infantry fighting vehicle (IFV).

Opposed to the Afrin Canton, which has to do with just one T-55, YPG forces in the Hasakah Governorate now operate a respectable amount of T-55s captured from mainly the Islamic State. While some are immediately employed on the battlefield by the YPG, most T-55s get sent to Hasakah's workshops for overhauling and upgrading. The extent of these upgrades vary on every tank, which likely has to do with the state the tank is in: Tanks that require relatively little work are more likely to be sent back to the front as quick as possible.

Most of these upgrades are comprised of the addition of a gunshield for the loader-operated 12.7 mm DShK, new stowage boxes, new mudguards and a fresh coat of paint, resulting in plenty of colourful T-55s on the battlefield of Northern Syria. At least one T-55 has also been upgraded by the addition of slat armour to the sides of the tank, once again showing the improvised nature of these armour upgrades.

Not all AFVs captured on the battlefield are completely salvageable however. A damaged turret or a lack of traditional means to replace defective parts can result in a tank that is still able to drive, yet is completely useless in its intended role due to its defective armament. While in Syria this more than often means that the tank will be written off, the YPG generally refuses to let these scarce armoured platforms go to waste, and DIY light turrets are a common occurrence on YPG vehicles as a result.

Two such examples based on T-55s equipped with a 12.7mm W85 and 2x 14.5mm KPVs as well as two BMP-1s that had their 73mm 2A28 Grom turret replaced by one containing a 12.7mm DShK have been spotted so far. This resulted in a vehicle with extremely similar looks to that of the Czechoslovak OT-90 APC, which is equipped with the turret of an OT-64A, armed with a single 14.5mm KPVT and a single 7.62mm PKT. Curiously, the second BMP-1 features another light turret on the rear, which has yet to be fitted with any weaponry.

In order to accommodate the first T-55 to its new turret, the original one was removed and the turret ring gap welded shut so a smaller cupola could take its place. Also of interest is the vehicle's bow armour, which has been reinforced resulting in an even more sloped front than before. Lastly, a stowage box has been added to the rear of the tank. This vehicle was seen in a VICE documentary covering foreign fighters that joined the YPG and also in a training video where its new machine gun turret was being tested.

Another image of the same vehicle can be seen below, this time next to one of the YPG's M1117 Armored Security Vehicles (ASV) it operates in Syria. Several of these vehicles were taken over from the Iraqi Army while others were captured from the Islamic State and subsequently transferred to Syria for use by the YPG. This particular M1117 has been armed with a single 14.5mm KPV in a rudimentary turret and has been up-armoured by the addition of metal plating to protect the gunner and skirts to protect the wheels.

The second T-55 based AFV was first seen in the al-Shaddadi offensive last February, where it featured alongside several 'true' T-55s. This offensive was aimed at capturing the remainder of the Hasakah Governorate and the town of al-Shaddadi from the fighters of the Islamic State, and was successfully concluded in a week.

Although clearly based on the version seen above, the second example features several modifications over the previous iteration, most notably a new and larger turret. Interestingly, this turret looks extremely familiar to that of the North Korean 323 APC. Its actual origin is less exotic however, as similar looking turrets were already seen on earlier DIY AFVs produced by the YPG.[1] [2]

The new turrets now boosts two 14.5mm KPVs instead of a single 12.7mm DShK. This, along with the addition of side skirts and a radio antenna are the only visible external differences. A camouflage pattern instead of the black finish on the first example was also introduced, a welcome change when operating in the lush area around al-Shaddadi.

The armour situation in the Afrin Canton is even more critical, where the YPG operated no AFVs until the fall of Mennagh airbase, after which they received three T-72 Urals, one T-55A with DPRK LRF and later one BMP-1. These were also subsequently upgraded to various degrees, and recently saw use in YPG's offensive against the Free Syrian Army in Northern Aleppo. Currently two T-72 Urals, the T-55A and BMP-1 as well as a newly captured T-62 which will likely be upgraded in the near future remain in YPG hands here.

The single BMP-1 present in the Afrin Canton was upgraded by the addition of additional armour and unsurprisingly, stowage boxes. The new armour is comprised of additional plating covering the engine deck, further supported by slat armour on the front of the vehicle. The turret also received an additional layer of armour, resulting in similar looks to the 'Kovriki' armour seen on later-generation BMP-2s. The addition of sideskirts and a stowage box on the side of the vehicle make the vehicle surprisingly similar to the Ba'athist Iraqi BMP-1 'Saddam'.

Also handed over by the SyAA and subsequently upgraded by the YPG was a T-55A, one of the examples that was upgraded by the North Koreans decades ago. This T-55A was part of the convoy that fled Mennagh for Kurdish held territory, where the tanks were subsequently handed over to the YPG. This example, the only T-55 to operate in the Afrin Canton, received new mudguards, sides kirts, stowage boxes, camouflage and slat armour protecting the rear of the tank.

Even the YPG's most important AFV assets receive a variety of upgrades. All three of the T-72 Urals operated in the Afrin Canton were upgraded, and two received a complete cage of slat and spaced armour to enhance their protection against shaped charge warheads, comparable to the kits created by the Republican Guard and Islamic State. At least two of the T-72s appear to have been crewed entirely by females.

The first, which can be seen below, appears to make do with slat armour on the rear only, as well as the addition of side skirts.The other two feature mostly identical slat and spaced armour upgrades all around the turret and hull, and can only be distinguished by their camouflage and the fact that on one example the IR searchlight was damaged and replaced by three regular truck lamps bundled together.

Unfortunately for the YPG, one of these upgraded T-72s was destroyed by a TOW ATGM fired by the Free Syrian Army on the 29th of March 2016. The TOW penetrated the vehicle and caused the 125mm main gun to fire, indicating the tank has indeed been destroyed. At least one crewmember was seen moving around the tank shortly before impact, but the two others were believed to be present inside the tank at the time of impact and were undoubtedly KIA.

With practically all factions waging war in Syria now having committed themselves to upgrading various types of armoured fighting vehicles to increase their survivability, and with little chance of foreign supplies of large numbers of AFVs in the near future, the Syrian battlefields are rapidly transformed into the birthing grounds of ever more wild contraptions. The YPG's contributions in this area, while formerly mostly limited to outlandish DIY monstrosities, are now swiftly increasing in significance, and have secured their rightful place amongst the plethora of DIY projects out there.


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These are the Do-It-Yourself APCs of the YPG


  1. Can you ID what the wrapped water bottles are in this video? Maybe IEDs?

    They were confiscated from ISIS fighters after pro-government units launched a counter-attack in Deir Ezzor at the Al-Assad hospital.

  2. I habe to say, i follow your work for more than 1 year and i am still very pleased oft your forum,
    thank you for that excellent detailed work!

  3. Nice work but you should switch to wordpress for better organization.

  4. Would you make a post about armenians and assyrian groups in syria?
    There are very few information about them.
    How do they work on the front lines with saa since the kurds had already make use of them in the front lines.
    How about their relationship with rebels since more rebel groups became more and more islamistic?
    Thank you for the deep analysis post you have made.

    Regards from Indonesia.

  5. Hey Oryx, can you ID this vehicle?

  6. docduracoat says:
    I love the snakeskin camo on the T-55!
    I must say they are doing good work with the camo, all the tanks and afv's base color matches the local terrain.
    Only the armored bulldozer stands out
    YPG are using all female tank crews? That should scare the Jihadis!

  7. Hi
    Can you write about that?