Sunday, 16 May 2021

The Strazh BMPT - A Ukrainian Terminator

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans 
The turn of the 21st century marked the start of a period of decay for Ukraine's military, with masses of military hardware facing early retirement while replacements for its surviving inventory were nowhere in sight. The 2014 annexation of Crimea by Russia and the war in Donbas brought about a dramatatic reversal of this policy, and factory yards previously filled with surplus tanks began to be emptied to reinforce the ranks of the battered Ukrainian military. This has so far resulted in the reactivation of hundreds of T-64, T-72 and T-80 main battle tanks (MBTs) and BMP infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs).
Not long ago, these same yards were the scene of armoured fighting vehicle (AFV) concepts that were only limited in creativity by the imagination of their creators. The peculiarity of several of these projects can hardly be overstated, including designs such as the BMT-72 infantry fighting tank, a wheeled T-64-based APC design known as the BMPT-K-64 and even a British Centurion tank turned IFV designated as AB-13. Rather unsurprisingly, none of these designs ever succeeded in achieving any export orders, with most clients merely being interested in overhauled tanks and BMPs instead.
Even those designs with a more conventional approach at armoured warfare failed to compete with cheaper alternatives such as the T-72AV and T-72B, in excess of 500 of which found their way to various countries in Africa and Asia. This possibly had as much to do with the stiff competition in the AFV market as with the fact that many of these projects were based on the T-64 MBT, which was never exported outside of the Soviet Union and likely proved an operational and maintenance risk many countries were unwilling to take (Angola and DR Congo would end up as the only non-Soviet states to purchase T-64s). 

While slick in design, concepts like the BMPV-64 (left) and T-64E (right) were essentially doomed from the onset.

Adjusting Priorities
As hostilities in Eastern Ukraine began to escalate to the point of conventional warfare in 2014, Ukraine's military industry shifted much of its attention away from developing projects for export in favour of serving the needs of its own military. No longer did it invest precious resources into yet another T-64 modification project no country was ever likely to purchase, instead focusing on more simple projects such as the T-64BV type 2017 that improves upon the original capabilities of the tank with thermal imaging and a new communications suite. Both affordable and effective, it is likely that all of Ukraine's T-64BVs will eventually be modernised to this standard. [1]

Another project that is relatively modest in its scope is the Strazh BMPT. By mating the chassis of a T-64BV MBT to an existing turret originally designed to be fitted to an IFV, the Strazh is a simple yet effective way of introducing new capabilities without having to develop entirely new components. As heavily armoured as it is armed with two rapid-firing cannons, four anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) and an automatic grenade launcher, the Strazh ("Sentinel") will be a daunting sight for all those who encounter it on the battlefield.
Ukraine is the third country in the world after Russia and China to develop its own BMPT (Tank Support Fighting Vehicle), although only Russia, Algeria and Kazakhstan are currently operators of such designs. Much like the Russian and Chinese designs, the Strazh BMPT is based on an existing tank chassis, the T-64 in this case. Born out of experiences gained during the Soviet–Afghan War and the First Chechen War, the BMPT is meant to keep up with mechanised forces and provide protection in urban combat, but also to engage infantry and AFVs in open terrain with its rapid-firing dual cannons and long-range ATGMs.

Instead of a turret armed with a 125mm 2A46 cannon, the Strazh BMPT comes equipped with a Doublet combat module developed by the Zhytomyr Armoured Plant. Arguably its most distinctive features are the two 30mm ZTM-2 (the Ukrainian version of the 2A42 cannon that's fitted to the BMP-2) rapid-firing cannons protruding from the turret. These can be independently fired from each other, allowing the Strazh to maintain longer periods of fire than could be achieved with a single example, and also enabling it to fire different shell types from each cannon.
The Strazh's truly heavy armament – and potentially its knockout punch – are the 2x2 ATGMs mounted on either side of the turret. Although still of the 9M113 Konkurs type during its unveiling, these can be replaced by R-2 Baryer (Barrier) ATGMs with a range of up five kilometres. The ATGMs are guided by a fire-control system (FCS) placed above the 30mm cannons, which houses (infrared) imaging devices and a laser rangefinder. [2] Bulky and filled with sensitive optics, this FCS is perhaps the Strazh's weakest point as even light armament may be used to disable it. On top of the turret a 30mm KBA-117 automatic grenade launcher has been fitted for anti-personnel use. Additionally, two 7.62mm machine guns are fitted in between the 30mm cannons. A total of six smoke-grenade launchers complete the turret's armament suite.
In addition to the aforementioned vulnerability of the FCS, the light armour of the turret, likely providing protection against small-arms fire and shell fragments only, and the exposed placement of its ATGMs are significant weak spots that could knock out vital functions of the Strazh even before it enters battle. The original Russian BMPT featured several of the same weak spots, which have since been remedied on later variants of the vehicle. On the Strazh, protective covers around its FCS, ATGMs and base of its 30mm cannons would do much to decrease its vulnerability to light weaponry or shrapnel.

The Doublet combat module is the latest in a series of Ukrainian modular turret systems originally designed for the BMP-series of IFVs. It is operated by a crew of two (compared to just one for the regular BMP-1 and BMP-2 turrets) that enter the combat module via two large hatches situated under the ZTM-2 cannons. Two additional smaller hatches are fitted to the rear of the turret for the reloading of the 30mm ammunition for the ZTM-2 cannons. Although the heavy armament makes any IFV equipped with the Doublet capable of tackling most (armoured) threats, it also does much to increase the tasks and complexity of an IFV, and many militaries might simply deem such armament excessive to their needs.

Although the prototype of the Strazh is still based on the hull of a T-64BV, production variants could make use of the more readily available T-64B(1) variant instead, which unlike the Strazh doesn't come equipped with Kontakt-1 explosive reactive armour (ERA) and has less advanced features than the T-64BV. That said, with hundreds of T-64BVs still laying in storage their supply almost certainly outlasts the needs of the Ukrainian military over the next decade.

Although it seems promising both in its capabilities and pragmatic design, it is as of yet uncertain whether it will actually enter service or enjoy any export orders. Given the fact that it was unveiled in 2017, both have slowly become increasingly unlikely, despite the fact that the Strazh BMPT represents perhaps one of the more realistic approaches at fulfilling the needs of a modern day army. With most Western nations even struggling to operate a small fleet of tanks, the BMPT concept has so far remained exclusive to a very select group of nations, having yet to be properly validated in actual combat. Whether Ukraine is set to join this select group depends on its evaluation of the BMPT concept as well as its immediate operational requirements – though of course funding remains the ultimate limiting factor.