Tuesday 2 March 2021

Trench Warfare Revisited: Armenia’s Indigenous Remote-Controlled Armament

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
Armenia's small population and limited economic means force the country to come up with creative solutions to address the obsolescence of its military hardware and to introduce entirely new capabilties to its armed forces. Through the years this has led to a highly active R&D industry that has received little media attention outside of its own borders. While most of its projects never progressed beyond prototype status due to a lack of funding, those with a more limited scope (thus requiring less financial commitment) usually had more success. 
One of these projects comprises a PKT machine gun that has been adapted to allow to fire it from cover with a thermal sight connected to a screen for aiming. This highly interesting contraption was first shown in use with Armenian forces during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war, and was examined in more detail after having been captured by Azerbaijani forces as they overran Armenian positions. [1] [2] Unsightly but efficient in its intended role, the system is a clear example of the adaptive nature that has come to typify the Armenian defence industry.

Of course, we can't entirely blame you for opining that the device looks like a modern adaption of something that came straight out of the trenches of the Somme and Verdun during the First World War. Engaged in a bitter standoff ever since the ceasefire agreement of 1994, Armenian trenches along the line of contact were in fact reminiscent of those of World War I, with both sides separated only by a thin strip of no-man's land littered with mines and other obstacles. The network of defensive fortifications changed little over the past decades, and often still resembled temporary fighting positions rather than modern defensive structures.

While these trenches can be a nightmare for any military ground force to approach and eventually overcome, they proved of little defensive value in the face of Azerbaijani Bayraktar TB2 drones, which could fly circles above them and carefully select which positions were worth targeting either with their own MAM-L munitions or precision-guided munitions delivered by rocket artillery. As a result, most trench lines and positions fell to this invisible opponent long before the enemy it was supposed to keep at bay ever came in sight.

Still, a small fleet of UCAVs can only cover a limited area, and several defensive lines found themselves instead facing repeated artillery barrages on their positions followed by mechanised or infantry assaults. While most of these eventually succeeded in dislodging Armenian soldiers from their positions, other positions managed to keep Azerbaijani forces at bay for days or week on ends. This was true especially in the North of Nagorno-Karabakh, where the mountainous terrain and fierce resistance by Armenian forces limited advances made by Azerbaijan for the entire duration of the 44-day long war.
The weapon used is the PKT machine gun, a variant of the PK that was specifically designed for use as a coaxial mount in Soviet tanks and AFVs (hence its name, PK-Tank). Designed for remote firing from the onset (by means of an electric solenoid trigger), the PKT needed little modification for its new role as a remote weapon system. Another benefit of the PKT is the size of the magazine, which holds an impressive amount of 250 7.62×54mmR rounds. To enable long periods of almost continuous firing before having to bring in additional magazines, a basket for a spare magazine was welded on the right side of the metal structure.
Incidentally, Armenia was already in the possession of large numbers of PKT machine guns, with no apparent practical use for them. These PKTs once equipped BRDM-2 reconnaissance vehicles and BTR-60 armoured personnel carriers (APCs), but after most of these vehicles were relegated to reserve status and eventually decommissioned by the Armenian military, their weaponry was put into storage. Rather than leaving this potentially useful armament to rot, sizeable numbers were then converted to remote weapon systems.

The operating method of the system is as simple as it looks, with the PKT fitted to a rudimentary metal structure on top of a pole that can be heightened just above the trenchline when in use, and lowered back into cover when not in use or when having to reload. The gunner aims through the screen in front of him that's linked to a Russian Infratech IT-615 thermal sight located on the left of the weapon. When someone enters his crosshairs, the gunner presses the trigger on one of two handlebars, which he also uses to aim the weapon system. [3] [4] What appears to be a battery for the thermal sight is crudely fitted to the left side of the metal structure, although this doesn't appear to be installed on every example.

The PKT contraption is not the only attempt made by Armenia at designing automated gun emplacements. Another project called for the automisation of anti-aircraft guns for use against ground targets, and a prototype based on the 14.5mm ZPU-2 anti-aircraft gun was actually built. To increase the lethality of the system against armoured targets, a 73mm SPG-9 recoilless rifle (RCL) was additionally slaved to it. This combination could prove deadly against the armour of anything up to a tank, with BMP infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs) loaded with infantry likely being particularly suitable targets. 
Fully remote-controlled and aimed by the means of a thermal sight, the only human intervention required would be reloading the SPG-9 after each shot and the ZPU-2 after firing off the 2400 rounds stowed in the guns' two huge magazines. Like the PKT machine guns, the ZPU-2s too had been retired from active service in Armenia. However, much in common with most other Armenian indigenous military projects, any further development and an eventual introduction into the armed forces appears to have been prevented by a lack of budget.

Meanwhile a more advanced iteration of the PKT weapon system concept was also in the works, and first unveiled during the ArmHiTec 2018 military exhibition in Yerevan. [5] This version of the PKT could finally be called truly remote-controlled, with the operator of the box system sitting in the safety of an underground bunker. Perhaps unsurprisingly at this point, a lack of budget precluded the introduction of this promising weapons system.
The only real downside of the box system is that it has to be manually reloaded each time after emptying its relatively small magazine. This could be a dangerous endeavour depending on the location of the gun box, and could entail Armenian soldiers having to climb to elevated positions in the view of the enemy to reload the system for continued use. Although the magazine used likely contains up to 150 7.62mm rounds, these can be quickly spent in anger, given the weapon's firing rate of 750 rounds per minute.
Although Armenia's PKT contraptions could not turn the tide in a war which was ultimately decided in the skies, and not in trenches, they remain a first-rate example of cost-effective ingenuity in the face of limited means. With its army in tatters after a catastrophic defeat, it is likely that the nation will call on this ingenuity to provide its military with weaponry suitable for the new military balance and the type of warfare witnessed during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War. When provided with sufficient funding, Armenia's indigenous military industry could well surprise friend and foe alike, and slowly begin to return the country from the adverse condition it currently finds itself in.