Monday 7 June 2021

Monsters Of Desperation: The YPG’s Sturmpanzers

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans 
Relegated to the annals of history by the most of the world since roughly 1918, the YPG on the other hand remains an active user of so-called Sturmpanzers: uparmoured infantry support platforms that hearken back to their Second World War namesakes. Bulky and monstrous in appearance, these vehicles have begun to symbolise the YPG's resistance against Islamic State and Free Syrian Army forces that sought to dislodge the YPG from the territory it holds in Northern Syria on numerous occasions. While the presence of these DIY monstrosities in the ranks of the YPG is well-acknowledged, little attempts have been made at inventorising the types of Sturmpanzers in service. Thus, this article is long overdue.

Compared to other major factions involved in the Syrian Civil War, the YPG (Yekîneyên Parastina Gel: People's Protection Units, itself the primary faction in the Syrian Democratic Forces alliance) has operated little in the way of armoured fighting vehicles (AFVs). To compensate for the resulting gap in capabilities, the YPG became very active in the production of DIY armoured vehicles, usually based on tracked loaders, bulldozers or large trucks. At first consisting of boxy structures on tracks – almost resembling mobile pillboxes – the YPG would eventually incorporate several advancements in their designs. The resulting vehicles, although limited in effectiveness in an uncountable number of ways, could actually be of some use in certain situations.
Undoubtedly as a result of a wider lack of information concerning YPG armour operations, fairly little is known about the combat effectiveness of the Sturmpanzers. Although often present in propaganda footage and photographs taken of YPG positions situated away from the frontline, footage of the vehicles in action appears almost non-existent. Even the Islamic State (IS), which waged war on the SDF from 2013 to 2017, only ever managed to capture one example that was damaged and subsequently abandoned by the YPG after its forces were routed in al-Hasakah Governorate in 2015.
'Humble' beginnings
Early Sturmpanzers were often based on a wheeled chassis, for which the dump truck proved an ideal basis. Although a wheeled chassis might be associated with a decrease in mobility in the field compared to their tracked counterparts, tracked loaders were never designed with speed in mind, and combined with the newly added armour plating, it is plausible that some of the larger tracked models are limited to driving on hardened surfaces only. This puts severe restraints on their operational capabilities, and gives wheeled platforms an edge in retaining some off-road capability.
The image below shows a typically modified dump truck, which has been lavishly adorned with a paintjob that achieves little but to make it stand out from its surroundings (unless one wishes to argue that it instills fear in the hearts of its enemies). In place of sand or construction waste, an armoured structure was placed inside the open-box bed, providing shelter to several infantrymen that can fire their personal weapons out of one of the three firing ports on each side. A 12.7mm DShK heavy machine gun (HMG) in an armoured cupola was fitted to the top of the cabin, which likewise has been entirely covered in metal plating. 

The concept of a mobile bunker would be continued with the first tracked versions of the Sturmpanzer. Clearly paying (unintentional) homage to the German A7V heavy tank deployed on the battlefields of France in World War I, this particular example was armed with a forward-firing 14.5mm KPV in addition to crew-served weapons that can be fired out of the vehicle's 10(!) firing ports. Although these provide almost 360 degrees coverage of the vehicle, the weapons fired out of them would only be useful against enemies that have already ventured in RPG range of the Sturmpanzer. With its light armour providing protection against small-arms fire and shrapnel only, an RPG would almost certainly cause catastrophic damage to its interior, killing its occupants and thus stopping the Sturmpanzer dead in its tracks.
Perhaps for this very reason, later iterations almost always featured two turrets at the front of the Sturmpanzer, which can turn to provide a wider degree of coverage. The example seen below illustrates such designs nicely, which appears to be armed with a 14.5mm KPV heavy machine gun in its left turret (from our perspective) and a 12.7mm in the turret located on the right. Additionally, a gunshield is placed on top of the left turret for a crewmember to fire another weapon while remaining in cover.

Entering battle as if in a bygone age, three Sturmpanzers 'charge' forward closer to the enemy. The vehicle closest to the camera appears to be the same example as seen in the image above, hinting that despite the frequent appearances of these vehicles on propaganda footage, the production of these monstrosities was actually quite limited.

A row of YPG armour clearly shows off the humongous size of the larger type of Sturmpanzer parked in the rear. Almost twice the height of the MT-LB multi-purpose armoured vehicles parked in front of it, the Sturmpanzers do little to expand on the capabilities of the MT-LB, or any other type of AFV for that matter. While born out of necessity, the career of most Sturmpanzers was surprisingly long, continuing to operate long after more suitable replacements vehicles such as mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles (MRAPs) readily became available to the YPG/SDF.

A Sturmpanzer that was captured by IS near Tel Tamir in 2015, which surprisingly is the only recorded loss of one of these vehicles. That said, their low loss rate could also be explained by the small numbers produced and the conservative deployment of these vehicles, mainly utilising them in mopping up operations in which enough infantry support was available. Contrary to popular belief, the Sturmpanzers were never used as heavily armoured breakthrough vehicles in heated battles with either IS or the FSA.
The capture of the above example also highlights the inherent weakness of the design: its low mobility. With a speed that is likely well under 10km/h and mostly limited to moving on paved roads, any Sturmpanzer finding itself under concentrated enemy fire would have trouble making a successful retreat, especially when it has to traverse backwards out of harm's way. In such situations, abandoning the vehicle altogether could end up being the best option, for which the large back door and escape hatches on the side(s) provide ample opportunity.
A subset of Sturmpanzers retained their dozer blade for use as heavily armoured engineering vehicles (AEVs), clearing rubble and other obstructions to allow friendly forces to continue their advance. Incidentally, the dozer blade also acts as an additional layer of armour when facing the enemy from the front. Although this example was unarmed (it however does come equipped with two firing ports on each side), others featured a machine gun turret to fend off possible attacks by enemy stragglers.
One of these Sturmpanzer AEVs was struck by an improvised munition dropped from an IS quadcopter drone in Raqqa in August 2017, resulting in unknown damage to the armoured superstructure. Amusingly, this example was misidentified as a BMP infantry fighting vehicle (IFV) by the IS media department responsible for the photo release.

In addition to the larger designs, the YPG constructed several smaller examples that after several design iterations would eventually end up as the most capable Sturmpanzers constructed. This claim has little relevance to the first example in the series though, which although now equipped with a camera system for better situational awareness, has its dual armament installed in a fixed position at the front. This means that the vehicle would have to move its tracks to align itself with the target, likely resulting in being wildly inaccurate and unwieldy. Another curious feature of this example is a fixed cannister containing four unguided rocket launchers attached to the left side of the vehicle.
For the benefit of the YPG, this concept quickly evolved into a significantly more useful design, this time featuring a turret armed with a 12.7mm Type 54 HMG (a Chinese version of the ubiquitous Soviet DShK) and a total of seven firing ports. Conversely, the small size of the vehicle and the operators' close proximity to the engine potentially makes it a nightmare to operate in Syria's often hot and dry climate. Also note the small door on the right-rear side of the vehicle, one of two points the crew can enter and exit the vehicle from.
A second iteration (named Soendil) was clearly built around the same design but with an open-topped turret (which although providing less protection to the gunner greatly increases his situational awareness) and other minor differences. This particular vehicle is also one of the few Sturmpanzers to have been spotted in action, providing overwatch and suppressive fire during street battles as the SDF began to clear Northern Syria from Islamic State presence in 2016.

Yet another version of the same design features a larger turret somewhat reminiscent of 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. The new turrets now boosts two machine guns instead of one, which can be interchanged depending on the operational requirements or weapons on the hand. In the case of the second image, this consists of a 14.5mm KPV HMG and a 7.62mm PK GPMG while on the vehicle in the third image two KPVs are mounted.
The ultimate Sturmpanzer design is also the one that comes closest to a full-fledged AFV. Equipped with the turret of a BMP-1 infantry fighting vehicle and a ball mounted frontal 12.7mm W85 HMG, it is both well-armoured and and heavily armed whilst retaining some situational awareness. Cage armour has been added to reduce the effectiveness of shaped-charge warheads, thus attempting to protect against more than just small arms and shrapnel, but the close spacing to the hull means it is unlikely to be effective. Its superior firepower and mobility over previous designs means it could actually have some worth as a fire-support vehicle, clearly showing the benefits of years of incremental design improvements.
Born out of sheer desperation, the YPG's Sturmpanzers have sticked around for far longer than one would initially have thought in the incredibly harsh conditions of Syria's never-ending conflict, even when better alternatives in the form of U.S. delivered MRAPs became readily available. Perhaps the reason for their hardiness lies in little more than their propaganda value or the need to keep YPG engineers at work, but in the absence of reliable data this author chooses to believe it is the sheer spirit of resilience that keeps YPG's Sturmpanzers alive and kicking.
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