Monday 23 November 2020

Fighting Attrition: A Look Inside a Damascus Armour Repair Facility

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

The following photos were taken during a visit of a Russian journalist to a small armour repair facility in the suburbs of Damascus in June 2017. While already several years old with several of the armoured fighting vehicles pictured likely having been lost to combat damage since the images nevertheless provide an interesting insight into the inner workings of a small Syrian tank workshop.
Even though a job as a mechanic in a conflict is usually a guarantee of relative safety, this particular workshop was unique in that it served both as an armour repair facility and as a defensive structure to stop any rebel incursions from Jobar. In fact, the facility was located (33°32'2"N 36°20'11"E) only some 300 metres away from the actual frontline! Fortunately for the mechanics serving at the facility, no such surprise raids took place before the last pocket of resistance in Jobar was neutralised in March 2018. As a result, the images we discuss here are the rare exception where we get to examine such a workshop while it is still operational.
In the image below, the sad remains of a T-55(A)MV lay in front of a pile of rusty BMP-1 tracks. Having been stripped of most of its components, including nearly all of the Kontakt-1 explosive reactive armour (ERA) tiles on the turret and hull, it appears that this particular T-55 ended its career as a donor vehicle: keeping other vehicles of the same type running, presumably after suffering some type of irreparable damage in combat. Also note the collapsed roof in the background, which really drives home the run-down status of this facility.

Three T-55As still in pristine condition stand guard outside the repair facility. Their good condition is a far cry from the T-55 above or most other T-55s still operational in Syria for that matter. While the vehicles might look ready to head out to the frontline, satellite imagery shows that these tanks were parked in the exact same location from 2015 to early 2018, making it likely they belonged to a resident unit that was tasked with defending the workshop and the area that surrounds it against possible attacks coming from rebel-held Jobar.

Note that the headlights, infrared searchlight and sighting systems are all protected by sandbags in an attempt to protect them from shrapnel from shell or rocket fire landing nearby. As visible on the building behind, the facility came under repeated attacks of small arms and presumably mortar fire, which could inflict serious damage on the otherwise unprotected optical/electrical devices.

Next we see two T-72s that couldn't be more different in the task they fulfill. On the left, a T-72 'Ural' that has been converted into a towing vehicle to haul AFVs that can't move on their own around the facility on the right, a Syrian T-72AV deprived of all its Kontakt-1 explosive reactive armour. This T-72AV is likely operated by a training unit, with the explosive reactive armour removed for use with other tanks serving on the frontline which obviously need it more direly.

The workshop's motor pool quietly gathers dust in one of the storage halls of the facility. Having largely abandoned its aging fleet of Soviet trucks in favour of Russian-delivered GAZ, Ural and KamAZ trucks as well as more reliable and fuel-efficient commercially available vehicles, trucks like the ZIL-131, ZIL-157 and Ural-375 that once formed the backbone of the Syrian Arab Army's vehicle park now rust away in abandoned corners of SyAA bases all throughout Syria.

A SyAA T-55(A)MV has its engine reinstalled after thorough maintenance in the main hall of the armour workshop. Interestingly, while the cannabilised T-55(A)MV earlier in this article has at least some of its ERA tiles still in place, this particular tank was completely stripped of it. This in sharp contrast to the turret of another T-55(A)MV seen further to the rear in the same image, the DIY armour placement of which even saw the installation of ERA tiles on the rear of the turret.

Although the markings on the rear of the tank seen in the second image indicate that the tank once belonged to the 5th Mechanized Division, it is not unplausible that the tank was actually operated by a different unit by the time it entered the workshop for some much needed maintenance.

A BMP-1 is shown undergoing depot-level maintenance, which clearly depicts how cramped the interior of the vehicle is even when the benches for the infantry have been removed. With such a small internal space, it is perhaps unsurprising that the designers of the BMP-1 had to come up with ingenious solutions of where to place the fuel tanks. Unfortunately for the infantry riding inside the BMP, these became the compartments in between the benches and the rear doors respectively. With APCs and IFVs capable of carrying infantry in high demand and with the BMP-1's ruggedness allowing long periods on end of maintenance neglect and abuse on the battlefield, depot-level maintenance must be a rarity for any BMP-1 in Syrian service.

The turret of a T-55(A)MV likely taken from the hull seen in the above image undergoes internal maintenance. Equipped with an advanced fire-control system and some even with an indigenous thermal imaging device, one could argue that the T-55(A)MV presents a more potent adversary than the early-generation T-72 variants (T-72 'Ural', T-72M and T-72M1 respectively) also in Syrian service.

The T-55(A)MV was also the only tank in Syrian service confirmed to be equipped with gun-launched anti-tank guided missiles (GLATGMs) in the form of the 9M117M missile, at least until the delivery of more advanced T-72B variants and T-90s (which in Syrian service are equipped with the 9M119 Svir GLATGM) in 2015.

Another feature of the T-55(A)MV is an extensive array of Kontakt-1 ERA tiles on its turret, hull and sideskirts. Although most remaining operational tanks of this type still have the original configuration, this particular tank had all of its ERA reinstalled in a different fashion. Although this DIY placement certainly looks less professional than the original one, it likely doesn't much effect the protection value that these ERA tiles bring. Also note the row of T-72 roadwheels lined up against the wall just behind the turret.

A collection of tires and truck engines gathers dust in an abandoned corner of the facility, suggesting most are never to be used again.

A battered T-72AV receives some much-needed attention to the wrangled flaps that used to hold the Kontakt-1 ERA-equipped side skirts, which have already fallen off this vehicle. Due to their heavy usage, many T-72AVs were soon left without these side skirts. Indeed, this was one of the more common complaints of tankers of the Republican Guard. One hit by an RPG often results in the whole side skirt falling off, leaving the sides of the tank dangerously exposed to enemy RPG fire. As a simple measure to improve the turret armour, this tank received a bucket of welded metal bars that both acts as slat armour and allows for the stowage of sandbags or other materials to further increase the armour protection.

A mechanic works on the 300 horsepower UTD-20 engine of a BMP-1. With Syria's armoured forces having been engaged in continuous fighting since 2012, there is often little time to undertake crucial repairs, in turn leading to a higher rate of breakdowns in the field. Indeed, regular maintenance of vehicles and equipment has proven to be an overlooked factor in the Syrian Civil War, or in almost any conflict for that matter. As with any sophisticated equipment, components have to be regularly inspected, tested, repaired or even replaced. Considering these facts, the Russian deliveries of more dated equipment like T-62M(Vs) and BRM-1(Ks) is more sensible than delivering more advanced equipment that needs to be more regularly maintained (which also drains manpower) to remain combat efficient.

Stay tuned for articles covering the Syrian Arab Army's major tank and artillery repair workshops in Hama Governorate in the near future!

All photos courtesy of Mikhail Voskresensky of Sputnik.

Recommended Articles

Armour in the Islamic State, the Story of 'The Workshop'
Armour in the Islamic State, the DIY works of Wilayat al-Khayr 
The YPG going DIY, armour upgrades in Northern Syria