Saturday, 18 March 2017

A Rare Species: Cuba’s David Infantry Mobility Vehicles exported to Angola

By Stijn Mitzer

Cuba is well known for its former leader Fidel Castro, communism and its renowned cigars, exporting the latter two to numerous countries throughout the world. In contrast, its role as an arms exporter remains much more elusive. While Cuba has begun converting and manufacturing a wide range of arms-related equipment in recent years, this industry has so far mostly been serving the needs of Cuba's own Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias (FAR). The presence of Cuban 'David' infantry mobility vehicles (IMVs) in service with the Forças Armadas Angolanas is thus highly notable.

The strong relationship between Angola and Cuba, established during the former's freedom struggle against Portuguese colonial rule of the country, has had a significant influence on Angola and its armed forces, but was not known to have materialised in the delivery of military equipment to Angola over the past decades. The bond between the countries was once again reaffirmed by recent meetings of Angolan and Cuban officials, where ministers stated their willingness to continue and even strengthen cooperation in the military field. [1]

The David IMV was first spotted in service with the Angolan Army during the Southern African Development Community's (SADC) multinational exercise 'Vale do Keve 2014', where it carried out simulated missions alongside Namibian Casspir MRAP (Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected) vehicles. The David had been sighted in Cuba several years earlier, taking part in the 50th Anniversary of Playa Giron's Victory parade (as seen in the image below) in 2011 in commemoration of the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion of 1961.

Although sometimes designated as an MRAP, the David can best be classified as an infantry mobility vehicle (IMV). Owing to the Do-It-Yourself nature of the project, the vehicle represents an interesting mix of parts mostly cannibalised from different types of military vehicles. The chassis is that of a Soviet GAZ-66 truck, on which an armoured body was installed. Although the armour values of the vehicle are unknown, the all-round protection is likely sufficient against small-arms fire and explosive fragments.

The armament of the vehicle consists of a single 7.62mm PKT light machine gun taken from the turrets of BTR-60 APCs or BRDM-2 patrol cars that have been converted to serve in different roles, losing their turret in the process. These vehicles are also the source of the roof hatches, up to four of which are present on the David. Two variants are known to exist, one with no such hatches and one with four of them, which is the variant in service with Angola. Three viewing ports with associated firing ports (also taken from BTR-60s) are located on each side of the vehicle.

The David IMV, also known as 'Iguana' (for the lizards species native to Cuba), is a direct result of Cuba's inability to replace its dated inventory of mostly Soviet-made weaponry by acquiring more modern weaponry from abroad. The sheer build-up of the FAR that took place throughout much of the Cold War solely relied upon a mass influx of Soviet weapon systems provided free of charge, or in exchange for Cuban participation in a number of conflicts in Africa and the Middle East. Thus, unsurprisingly, Cuba was hit hard by the dissolution of the Soviet Union and lack of support of the Russian Federation that emerged from it.

With its traditional (and only) supplier of weaponry gone, the FAR now found itself forced to find an indigenous solution for the decreasing flow of spare parts and increasing obsolescence of its weapon systems, a situation which became increasingly evident throughout the 90s and early 2000s. Any solution had to be carried out within the technological capabilities of the Cuban industry and more importantly, within the limited budget available.

Prior to the production of the David IMV, Cuba already had limited experience in the manufacturing and conversion of several types of vehicles by replacing weaponry or adding additional armour for increased protection on the battlefield. At least some of these vehicles were subsequently used in Angola, where elements of the Cuban Army and Air Force were fighting in support of the MPLA against UNITA, the FNLA, the FLEC and the South African Defence Force (SADF) in the 1970s and 1980s.

While the Cuban contingent deployed to Angola mostly served as advisors or in counter-insurgency operations, they frequently engaged in direct combat with the SADF as well. Although often credited for defeating the SADF, causing the latter to pull out of the Angolan conflict and grant South West Africa independence (becoming Namibia in 1990), the Cubans suffered a string of defeats at the hands of the SADF. However, they ultimately convinced the SADF that this conflict could not be won without a significant increase in commitment and resources, thus essentially gaining the Cubans a political victory through their presence in Angola rather than a military one.

While the returning Cuban contingent was hailed as victorers over Apartheid South Africa, Cuba would soon find itself in major problems at home. Largely reliant on the Soviet Union for its trade, the dissolution of the Soviet Union had a devastating effect on the Cuban economy. The Cuban military was also hit hard, and was soon faced with a shortage of fuel and expensive spare parts. As a result, large numbers of armoured fighting vehicles and aircraft were put into storage and large naval vessels and submarines were laid off.

In more recent years several types of otherwise redundant vehicles and equipment were taken out of storage for conversion to new roles in an effort to increase the Cuban military's fighting capabilities, sometimes leading to dubious contraptions with little fighting value in case of war but also leading to more realistic projects such as the David IMV. Other examples of these conversions include the mating of surface-to-air (SAM) launchers onto the chassis of T-55 tanks, and the installment of anti-tank guns, anti-aircraft guns, and artillery on the chassis of BMP-1s, T-55s and even World War II-era T-34/85s.

While the prospect of more Cuban weaponry showing up in countries throughout the world is not very likely, the sighting of such an exotic vehicle in Africa once again shows the complexity of the international arms market, necessitating accurate analysis to keep track of the way armament proliferates. This particular vehicle serves as an excellent illustration of this fact, adding to an armed forces' arsenal of extremely diverse fighting vehicles, many of which originated from unconventional sources including even North Korea.


[1] Cuba and Angola will grow their military cooperation between the two armies

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  1. Actually in campaigns that saw tactical victories and setbacks for Cuba's expeditionary forces in Africa, they did manage a strategic victory in gaining the independence of southwest Africa. And in the country of South Africa, the Cuban intervention is popularly credited as dealing a psychological blow to the Afrikaners and enabling the end of Apartheid. It is the reason after his release from prison, the very first foreign trip undertaken by Mandela was made to Havana to personally thank Castro.

    I was looking forward to this post on the David IMV. Many thanks, as always.

    1. Lie read about SA intervencions in south Angola its avaibale with military details the achieve all goals with killing ratio of 100 to 1 , SA of Whites had the best army of south hemisferie poor Australia...