Wednesday 2 February 2022

An Emirati Armata – The Golden Unit HIFV

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
The heavy infantry fighting vehicle (HIFV) concept has found little popularity with militaries around the world. Although a HIFV's heavy firepower and increased armour protection is of particular use during fighting in urban areas, the hefty pricetag of most HIFVs and their niche role have been enough to dissuade most militaries from ever acquiring them. Still, new HIFVs are designed to this day, with the Russian T-15 Armata, the Israeli Namer (HIFV) and the Chinese VT4 being some of the more recent examples. Of these, only the Namer has so far entered service.
HIFVs are based on tank chassis as a rule, with Ukraine even opting to lengthen a T-72 to allow for an infantry compartment to be installed between the engine and the turret. The resulting design, the BMT-72, could carry five dismounts and still be used as a tank. Other tank-based designs like the Chinese ZTZ59, the Jordanian Temsah and the Ukrainian Babylon lost their turret but were rearmed with autocannons and/or ATGMs. Each of these designs can also double as a fire-support vehicle, setting them apart from heavy armoured personnel carriers like the BMP-55.

Another country that has been looking at the HIFV concept with significant interest is the United Arab Emirates (UAE). In the mid-2000s, the UAE operated in excess of 600 BMP-3 infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs) acquired from Russia during the 1990s. [1] These operated alongside a fleet of some 400 French Leclerc MBTs, yielding the UAE the most modern and capable Armoured Force in the entire region at that time. Even still the UAE sought to expand on its existing capabilities by introducing a new vehicle type to its arsenal: The HIFV.

Rather than purchasing an existing HIFV design from abroad, the UAE launched its own project for the conversion of redundant MBT hulls to HIFVs. At that time, the UAE still maintained a stock of some forty OF-40s MBTs it had purchased from Italy in the early-to-mid 1980s. [1] After the arrival of the Leclerc MBTs, the OF-40s were put into storage. With its fleet of Leclerc MBTs already surpassing its own needs after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, there no longer was a need to maintain the OF-40s as a strategic reserve, paving the way for their conversion to HIFVs.

Although the export-oriented OF-40 proved to be a commercial disappointment, its chassis was eventually re-used for the Palmaria SPG, which entered service with Libya in large numbers.

Now that a suitable platform had been found, the UAE awarded a 15.8 million USD contract to the Belgian Sabiex International company (now known as OIP Land Systems) to rebuild one OF-40 to a HIFV in 2005. [2] Sabiex already had experience in refurbishing and upgrading a wide range of armoured fighting vehicles from both Western and Eastern origin, many of which are still offered for sale today. The project to convert a MBT into an heavily armoured vehicle that could also carry infantry was arguably the company's most ambitious undertaking up until that point.

Some of the vehicles still offered for sale by OIP Land Systems/Sabiex. From left to right: Gepard SPAAGs, a M109A4BE SPG, a Leopard 1A5BE, a SK-105, an AMX-13, a M113 and an AIFV-B.

In 2005, a single OF-40 MBT was shipped to the factory of Sabiex in Belgium to be completely dismantled and slowly built up again, now as a HIFV. This process took until 2007. [2] Still without a turret (which was to be fitted to the vehicle when it returned to the UAE), the HIFV undertook its first series of trials in Belgium in the same year. It would take another three years before the development of the prototype was finished. The HIFV was then shipped back to the UAE to undergo trials in the Emirati desert.
In the UAE the HIFV hull was mated with the turret of a BMP-3 IFV, which boasts a 100mm 2A70 cannon, a 30mm 2A72 autocannon and a 7.62mm PKT machine gun. The 2A70 cannon can fire a range of shell types, including the 9M117 Bastion ATGM. However, these do not appear to have been acquired by the UAE. The BMP-3 turrets purchased by the UAE are fitted with the advanced Namut thermal gunner sight jointly developed by France and Belarus. The fitting of six smoke launchers to the front of the turret completes the design.
After having passed its desert trials in 2010, the prototype by Sabiex was then to serve as an example for the conversion of the rest of the OF-40s to HIFVs in the UAE. Meanwhile designated the Golden Unit, a maximum of around forty vehicles could be assembled from the OF-40s still in Emirati stocks. For reasons unknown, the work to convert any of these vehicles never commenced, and the ambitious project remained limited to just the prototype, which presumably survives somewhere in an Emirati military warehouse to this day. [2]

The Golden Unit in the UAE now fitted with the turret of a BMP-3.

In order to accommodate an infantry compartment, the hull of the OF-40 was reverted, with the engine now at the front of the hull, creating enough space in the back to carry four dismounts. The chassis was significantly reworked, although the original 830hp MB 838 CaM 500 engine was retained. [2] The engine was likely still sufficient to power the HIFV even with the weight of the newly-added armour and BMP-3 turret, altogether weighing some 45 tonnes. [2] The hull armour consists of all-welded steel and is claimed to achieve STANAG 4569 level 5. [2] A new inner armoured bulkhead provides the sides of the HIFV with spaced armor, which was also fitted to the front section. The resulting armour protection significantly surpasses that of the OF-40 MBT or BMP-3 IFV.

The prototype of the Golden Unit undergoing trials in Belgium. Note how far the driver is situated from the front of the vehicle as a result of the front-mounted engine.

The Golden Unit is manned by crew of three, consisting of the driver, and the gunner and commander who sit in the turret. The infantry compartment holds enough space for only four soldiers (compared to up to seven in the BMP-3), who embark and disembark the HIFV via the rear ramp or via an emergency hatch at the right-hand side of the vehicle. Video cameras are installed at the front and rear of the vehicle for increased vision for the driver, which would have poor situational awareness and difficulty steering if the camera setup and video feeds were to fail. 

A rear shot of the Golden Unit clearly showing the periscopes for the passengers and the rear and front-mounted cameras.

The interior of the HIFV still appears spacious before the fitting of the BMP-3 turret.

The UAE was also presented with an opportunity to significantly increase the protection of its already existing fleet of IFVs after the unveiling of the Russian Kaktus explosive reactive armour (ERA) kit in the early 2000s. The Kaktus kit consists of blocks of reactive armour installed on the front and side of the hull and turret to provide additional protection against RPGs and ATGMs. [3] While the UAE is sometimes reported as a customer of the Kaktus armour kit for its BMP-3s, there is no evidence that suggests an Emirati acquisition of the kit actually took place.

Rather than purchasing the Kaktus armour kit, the UAE instead sought to increase the protection of its existing BMP-3s through the installation of lighter slat armour covering the entirety of the vehicle except for the front turret. These up-armoured BMP-3s were later deployed to southern Yemen during the Saudi Arabian-led intervention in Yemen in 2015. Superior tactics and training meant that the UAE Armoured Forces only suffered light losses during the campaign, possibly amounting to as little as two BMP-3s destroyed. [4]

An Emirati BMP-3 with slat armour fitted seen during a combat deployment in Yemen.

The impressive armour protection of the Golden Unit ultimately wasn't enough to convince the Emirati military to move ahead with the conversion of more vehicles. Whether this was due to a change in vision or for different reasons entirely is unknown, and the UAE might simply have lost interest in the project after five years of protracted development. Nonetheless, during IDEX-2019 Vice President, Prime Minister and Minister of Defence Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum inspected a model of the Chinese VT4 HIFV, perhaps indicating there is still some interest in the concept.

Vice President, Prime Minister and UAE Minister of Defence Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum inspects a model of the Chinese VT4 HIFV.

Rather than fielding tracked HIFVs, the UAE now looks to purchase significant numbers of Rabdan 8x8 wheeled IFVs, a variant of the Turkish Otokar Arma 8x8 designed to meet Emirati requirements. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these too will feature the turret of a BMP-3, resulting in the most heavily-armed wheeled IFV in the world. The Rabdan 8x8 can also be used as an APC, mortar carrier and ARV among a host of other roles, providing more operational flexibility than the Golden Unit could have ever hoped to achieve.

The Rabdan 8x8 IFV.

Special thanks to Tanks Encyclopedia. For more on the Sabiex HIFV be sure to check out their article here.