Monday, 16 September 2019

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

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

The YPG is well known for operating a large fleet of Do-It-Yourself (DIY) armoured fighting vehicles (AFVs) and other up-armoured battle monstrosities throughout the Northern Syrian theatre of conflict. Having performed these upgrades on a range of armoured fighting and support vehicles in the past years, the YPG has now begun fabricating its own true armour by introducing a new type of armoured personnel carrier (APC), designated the BMB (either you get it, or you don't) in this article.

First publicly showcased in March 2019 during preparations for a military parade commemorating the YPG's victory over Islamic State in Northern Syria, two BMBs wobbled through Qamishli as they made their way to the parade ground. Ironically, this number might not be far off from the total number of vehicles produced so far, indicative of the DIY nature of the YPG's armour projects. For this reason, and the defeat of IS as a state of terror capable of waging open conventional warfare, there has been little if any opportunity to spot the BMB in actual combat.



Its rather unimpressive performance in Qamishli's afternoon traffic set aside, the vehicle warrants a closer look to see whether the design is an effective solution to the YPG's armour shortage or if the design should best have been left to the drawing board. Although, of course, it would only be fair to consider the limited resources and technical capabilities of the YPG, it is unlikely that any of its enemies harbour any kind of sympathy towards these issues on the battlefield.

But before going into detail on the history and specifications of the BMB itself, it is insightful to consider the armour situation of the YPG (Yekîneyên Parastina Gel - People's Protection Units). Compared to other major factions involved in the Syrian Civil War, the YPG (itself the primary faction in the Syrian Democratic Forces alliance) has historically been 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 and trucks. For true armour, the YPG is almost entirely reliant on equipment left behind by the Syrian Arab Army (SyAA) and vehicles captured from the Islamic State.

While factions like the Islamic State managed to accumulate an arsenal containing hundreds of tanks and other armoured fighting vehicles captured from regime positions, the YPG, often avoiding direct combat with government forces, usually had to do with the scraps. In this manner the YPG acquired several vehicles like the BTR-60 and BRDM-2 left to rot in various corners of the base. However, with no real alternative, even these derelict vehicles would be patched up for another lease of life with the YPG.

On the other end of the spectrum, Islamic State forces captured and operated more than 200 tanks and around 70 BMPs in Syria alone, making it the second-largest operator of armour behind government forces and even surpassing the militaries of many established nations states in amount and quality of its equipment as well as tactics employed. The sudden change in the scope of warfare the Islamic State's rise brought to Syria and Iraq would be a shock to those caught up in it, and could only be contained through the massive influx of manpower, weapons and perhaps above all, airpower.

It is the latter that allowed the YPG to take the fight to Islamic State, further supported by artillery and multiple rocket launchers (MRLs) operated by U.S. forces inside Syria. Operating very little in terms of armour and anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs), the YPG mostly relied on Coalition airpower for the destruction of Islamic State vehicles and defensive positions. While this meant that Islamic State-operated AFVs were often destroyed before they could inflict serious damage on YPG forces, it also meant that most AFVs were completely obliterated by the heavy ordnance dropped by Coalition aircraft, preventing their capture and further use with the YPG.

Now back to the actual vehicle itself. Most special is undoubtedly the fact that the BMP-1's torsion bar suspension has been reused, and the observant reader is sure to have already noticed the familiar BMP-series roadwheels and sprockets installed on the BMB. The BMP-1's UTD-20 engine, tracks, steering yoke and hydraulic shock absorbers also found their way to the BMB, although the vehicle's shortened suspension necessitated a different installment than seen on the BMP-1. This is where the commonalities end however, and despite using rear mudguards and a rear door (which possibly houses a fuel tank) clearly inspired by that of the BMP-1, the rest of the vehicle consists of indigenously manafactured parts or off-the-shelf acquired items such as the headlights.

The resulting vehicle can best be described as an amalgam of the BMP and BTR/BRDM. In its most final configuration the BMB shows clear resemblance to the Yugoslav M-60 APC and the Georgian Lazika IFV (and several elusive Iranian APC designs), and although it's almost certain the YPG did not base any aspects of the BMB directly on these designs, it certainly seems to have inspired its ultimate form.

Armament consists of a single crew-served turret in addition to rifles and light-machine guns fired from the BMB's five firing ports. The turret appears to have been derived from the one installed on the BTR-60 and BRDM-2, but lacks the fixed 14.5mm machine-gun mount normally equipping this turret type. Instead, a 12.7mm DShK (or its Chinese derivative the W85) or a 7.62mm PK machine gun are the most likely candidates to arm the vehicle. But as hinted in the image below, some of the BMBs could also have been armed with a single 73mm SPG-9 recoilless rifle (RCL), which itself is a close derivative of the 73mm 2A28 Grom cannon arming the BMP-1.

The armour protection of the BMB is likely sufficient to protect its operators against small-arms fire and small explosive fragments. While this appears wholly inadequate in a conflict where heavy machine guns and anti-materiel rifles proliferate, past conflicts have proved that even the superior armour of the BMP-1 is vunerable to 12.7mm and armour-piercing 7.62mm rounds. Thus, little is achieved when increasing the armour of the BMB, as it's unlikely to translate into any increased protection for the crew. Instead, the BMB relies on its speed and compactness to evade enemy fire, and on its off-road capabilities to evade IEDs planted along roads, to which the BMB is particularly vulnerable.

Several photos depict one of the BMBs throughout its assembly in one of the YPG's armour workshops, clearly showing that the project is indeed of indigenous nature. Although the method of construction is somewhat unconventional for the production of AFVs, it must be noted that no other faction participating in the Syrian Civil War has managed to produce its own tracked armour. While one could argue that the delivery of Russian armour to government forces and the sheer number of AFVs captured by opposing factions has decreased the need for those parties to do so, it clearly shows that the expertise is in fact there.

While using the BMP-1's suspension is perhaps the only feasible method for constructing a tracked APC for the YPG, the fact that the suspension was significantly shortened while the original engine was retained greatly diminishes the stability of the vehicle. Those who followed the 2008 Russo-Georgian War are likely to remember the footage of Russian soldiers flying around on BMPs during accelerating and breaking. In fact, and as noticed in the parade footage, the stability of the BMB is so poor that not only makes breaking and accelerating a sickening experience for the crew, it is also likely to have a significant impact on the combat effectiveness of the gunner and occupants. In essence, this reduces the role of the BMB to a mediocre fast battle taxi or lightly armoured mobile pillbox, roles that most of the YPG's US-provided MRAP vehicles can already perform much better.

Another variant fielded looks much like the previous version, but features several major differences compared to its larger brethen. Most notably, it features just four roadwheels on either side, taking the concept of a DIY APC made out of cannibalized parts even further. In addition, the BTR/BRDM-inspired enclosed turret was replaced by one with an open cupola, which could allow for the installment of a larger gun. It is likely that sole reason for the vehicle's existence is a lack of enough roadwheels, presumably because the donor BMP-1 that was used for this variant was too badly damaged. As can be expected, the problems plaguing the original design are carried over into the smaller design, and are likely to be even worse as a result.

While many of the YPG's AFVs sport elaborate camouflage patterns optimized for the arid shrub-lands in Northern Syria, the BMBs feature a simple desert pattern. As the re-emergence of Islamic State as a force capable of waging conventional warfare is extremely unlikely, it is plausible that the project is instead geared towards expanding the YPG's inventory of AFVs in case of a potential conflict with government forces.

Although the time frame between the photos is unknown, it must be noted that one of the BMB's two forward attachment points has already broken off, while the other appears badly damaged. Whatever the cause of this achievement, it is likely that their 'strength' would have been unable to handle the weight of the vehicle under tow, making it in fact a useless addition to the vehicle. Although this isn't to say that the build quality of the entire vehicle is subpar, it does speak volumes about the care taken for important aspects that could ultimately prove the difference between the loss of the vehicle (which would be especially painful for the YPG) and successful retrieval.

It is worth noting that the driver of the BMB must have extreme difficulties keeping the vehicle stable, not to mention the huge blindspot to the driver's right side because of the small window and a lack of periscope vision-blocks to provide vision when the driver's hatch is closed. Also note the towing device on the glacis plate, which doesn't appear to have been installed on any of the other vehicles. Also note the space (or rather lack therof) between the BMB's hull and the tracks, which makes the suspension prone to loose objects that could potentially stop the vehicle in its tracks.

A shot of the interior further underlines the DIY nature of the vehicle, which was crudely welded together with other components. The driver sits directly left of the engine and uses a BMP steering yoke - another feature to have been carried over from a cannibalized BMP-1 - to control the volatile performance characteristics of the BMB. Also note that neither the windows nor firing ports appear to be situated on one straight line, which, although very DIY looking, is unlikely to cause any problems however.

The overall theme of the interior can best be described as basic with various objects further limiting the available space in the already cramped interior. The addition of a turret to at least two of the three sighted vehicles further reduces the infantry carrying capabilities of the BMB, as its operator occupies the space normally occupied by one of the passengers. The resulting size of the troop compartment is likely sufficient to seat four or five passengers, although this number could probably be increased at the cost of crew comfort. As expected, the BMB lacks the main fuel tank that normally divides the infantry compartment of the BMP-1, and is thus likely to have a significantly decreased action radius compared to its forebear.

In addition to a light or heavy machine gun, the firepower of the BMB is further enhanced by five firing ports (on the base variant), three of which on the left side, and two on the right side). These rudimentary firing ports can be opened and closed using a handle, and appear to be of indigenous design. Five bulletproof windows (three on the left side, one of which for the driver, and two on the right side) complete the vehicle.

Another curious addition to the BMB is the application of foam throughout the entirety of the vehicle's interior. While certain to increase crew conformability during the wobbly rides the crew is sure to find itself in, it also serves as a potential fire hazard in case the vehicle gets hit by enemy fire. This brings us to the peculiar location of the filler pipe in the side of the vehicle, whose's fuel cap is only inches away from the foam. The resulting hazardous situation could potentially disable or even destroy the vehicle well before it deploys to any battlefield.

Although not (yet) present at the moment these images were taken, the addition of grab handles or even seatbelts in the infantry compartment would do much to prevent soldiers bouncing around the interior. While seat belts appear an unusual choice for the installment in DIY AFVs, the YPG would not be the first faction to implement these safety devices in its AFVs. Indeed, the up-armoured M1114 of Abu Hajaar and friends sported several of such safety devices to increase crew safety.

While the 'BMB' is certainly an interesting attempt at producing a homegrown APC, the drawbacks inherent to its design will likely pose a major limiting factor when deployed on the battlefield. However, with little opportunity to increase its meagre stock of AFVs, producing these DIY APCs will have to make do for the YPG, and will surely provide its creators with valuable experience for designing future projects. Indeed, the importance of this APC doesn't lay in its capabilities but rather in the fact that it was independently produced by the YPG with only little means available. Thanks to the inventive nature of the YPG, more DIY projects will surely emerge from Northern Syria in the foreseeable future.

Special thanks to Woofers for providing the photos and additional background information.


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