Tuesday, 7 June 2022

DIY On The Dniester: Russia’s Transnistrian SPAAG

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
Russia's anti-aircraft artillery forces are perhaps best known for operating large numbers of vicious-looking 2K22 Tunguska and Pantsir-S1 self-propelled anti-aircraft guns (SPAAGs). Limited numbers of ZSU-23 Shilkas continue to see service as well, with at least four of them lost during the Russian invasion of Ukraine. [1] Newer fighting vehicles in this category and modernisation packages for them continue to be developed to this day, including newer variants of both the Pantsir and Tunguska. Perhaps it's all the more ironic therefore that the latest addition to Russia's anti-aircraft arsenal is in fact a DIY SPAAG currently deployed with the Operational Group of Russian Forces (OGRF) in the breakaway state of Transnistria.
Although this DIY contraption can more accurately be described as a fire-support vehicle, its intended role as an anti-aircraft vehicle was confirmed in a Russian TV interview with an OGRF officer in Transnistria. [2] The design mates a modernised BTR-70 turret fitted with two 12.7mm NSV heavy machine guns (HMGs) to a standard MT-LB armoured multi-purpose vehicle, and was produced in limited quantities in early 2020 for both the OGRF and the Transnistrian Army. [2] The vehicle's dual 12.7mm HMGs can be used against low-flying helicopters with some degree of effectiveness, although no dedicated anti-aircraft or night sight appears present.

Transnistria, officially known as the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (PMR), has remained in the shadows ever since its self-proclaimed independence as a Soviet republic in 1990 and the subsequent violent breakaway from Moldova in 1992. Despite having ended armed conflict that same year, the situation in Transnistria remains complicated, with the breakaway state wishing to join the Russian Federation while continuing to remain heavily reliant on Moldova for exporting the limited goods its economy outputs. In spite of its disputed status as a true country, Transnistria functions as a de-facto nation state with its own army, air arm and even its own military industry.
Russia still maintains a limited military presence in Transnistria, its soldiers officially on a peacekeeping mission. In April 1995, the former 14th Guards Army that was stationed on the area controlled by Transnistria became the Operational Group of Russian Forces, which has meanwhile shrunk to just two battalions and no more than 1,500 troops. Surrounded by Moldova on one side, and by Ukraine on the other, the OGRF has been unable to replace its ageing vehicle park ever since Ukraine banned the passage of Russian military cargo through its territory in 2014, formally denouncing the treaty that allowed Russia to do so a year later. This means that the OGRF continues to rely on vehicle types mostly retired in mainland Russia, such as the BTR-60 APC, BRDM-2 scout car and the MT-LB.
The Transnistrian Army similarly continues to operate limited numbers of MT-LBs, parading them through the streets of the capital Tiraspol as recently as September 2020. [3] But with little operational need for a large fleet of MT-LB artillery tractors, it appears that most vehicles currently languish in storage or have been passed on to the OGRF. Another possibility is that the vehicles upgraded to DIY SPAAGs were already owned by the OGRF, and only recently converted to their new role. Although the actual number of MT-LBs available to the Transnistrian Army and the OGRF remains unknown, the number is likely more than sufficient for the conversion of more vehicles.
Redundant in their original role as artillery tractors during the 1992 Moldovan Civil War, several MT-LBs were already employed as makeshift armoured fighting vehicles in the armies of both sides, usually by fitting them with 14.5mm ZPU-2 or 23mm ZU-23 anti-aircraft guns mounted directly above the infantry/cargo compartment. Featuring only very light armour, these vehicles proved an easy prey to RPGs and anti-tank guns (which were widely deployed during the 1992 war), but nonetheless found good use during the urban fighting in the city of Bender and elsewhere.

Perhaps as a result of positive experiences gained during the 1992 war, forces in Transnistria would again look to the MT-LB platform to reinforce its inventory of AFVs roughly twenty years later. Rather than featuring an externally mounted AA gun, the MT-LB now sports a dedicated turret with two 12.7mm NSV HMGs. In addition to the dual HMG mount, the MT-LB also comes with the regular small turret at the front of the vehicle that houses a single 7.62mm PKT light machine gun (LMG) and four firing pots on the sides and rear of the vehicle. The vehicle is protected against small-arms fire and explosive fragments.

The turret of the DIY SPAAG was installed on a tower to increase its effective field of fire, as a result of which the MT-LB's profile was increased significantly. Although the turret is believed to have been locally designed, it looks highly similar to the BTR-80-based MA9 turret developed by the Russian Muromteplovoz company for installation on BTR and MT-LB series of AFVs. The MA9 too sports two 12.7mm HMGs, but of the more modern Kord type. The armies of Russia and Ukraine field similar up-armed MT-LBs fitted with BRDM-2 and BTR turrets, which now see action on the battlefields of Ukraine. [5] [6]

Transnistria's gun turret based on that of the BTR-70 APC that originally housed a single 14.5mm KPV and 7.62mm LMG.

The MA9 turret based on the BTR-80's turret that was developed by Russia's Muromteplovoz company. The MA9 has yet to secure any customers.

Apart from the addition of the turret and mudguards (on some vehicles), little to no modifications appear to have been incorporated in the final design. The hydraulic dozer blade at the rear of the vehicle was retained, meaning that the vehicle can still be used for the multi-purpose roles it was originally designed for.

For the time being, neither the Transnistrian military nor the Operational Group of Russian Forces are capable of acquiring more modern equipment to replace their dated inventory of AFVs, and thus Transnistria is likely to continue to be a breeding ground for more DIY creations. The design and conversion of at least eight GZM-3 minelayers to BTRG-127 ’Bumblebee’ APCs and the production of Pribor-2 MRLs shows that Transnistrian engineers (perhaps aided with Russian expertise) are certainly nifty enough to provide some degree of indigenous replacement.
Special thanks to Ilya.A.
[1] Attack On Europe: Documenting Russian Equipment Losses During The 2022 Russian Invasion Of Ukraine https://www.oryxspioenkop.com/2022/02/attack-on-europe-documenting-equipment.html
[4] Башенная установка МА9 https://muromteplovoz.ru/product/mil_cs_ma9.php

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