Monday 14 November 2022

A Caucasian Contraption: Armenia’s BMP-1-ZUs

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
Armenia's attempts at increasing the fighting efficacy of its forces has seen it designing and producing anything from lightweight MRLs, remote-controlled machine guns that can be fired from the safety of a trench to various types of drones and even IR dazzlers to protect tanks against the threat of anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs). [1] [2] Most of these designs have remained shrouded in obscurity as a result of their low production numbers and the fact that little attention was ever devoted to the Armed Forces of Armenia, despite it being engaged in active conflict for decades.
For all of its ingenuity in coming up with indigenous solutions to modernise and expand the capabilities of its military, Armenia has spent relatively little effort and resources into upgrading its armoured forces. While the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War proved the futility of mechanised warfare on a large scale in the face of UCAVs, loitering munitions and Spike ATGMs, with more than 250 tanks lost by Armenia during 44 days of conflict, it was all that Armenia had ever trained for. [3] Even to this day the Armenian Army has made little progress in moving away from its original war plans, despite it being more than two years since these strategies were soundly defeated during the 2020 War. [3]
One of the few upgrade armour projects undertaken has seen the conversion of most of Armenia's MT-LB armoured auxiliary vehicles to the role of fire-support vehicle equipped with Yugoslavian 20mm M55 triple-barreled anti-aircraft (AA) guns or more rarely, 23mm ZU-23 AA guns or even 57mm AZP S-60 AA guns. Owing both to their ubiquity and their irrelevance on today's battlefields, at least 40 MT-LBs equipped with AA guns were lost during the 2020 war. Of these 40, some dozen were lost to TB2s, two to Spike-ER missiles and 26 were captured. [2]

Another vehicle type that has been the subject of a number of DIY modernisation attempts is the ubiquitous BMP-1 infantry fighting vehicle (IFV). Heavily utilised during the first Nagorno-Karabakh War (1991-1994), early attempts to improve the fighting capabilities of the BMP-1 through the installation of rocket pods taken from aircraft and helicopters and even a launcher for three 9M14M Malyutka anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) would later give rise to a more complex modernisation undertaken by Armenian engineers somewhere during the late 1990s or early 2000s. 

Referred to as the BMP-1-ZU in this article, a number of BMP-1s were modified through the addition of two 23mm autocannons taken from ZU-23s and ZSU-23s. But while countries like Iran and Greece replaced the BMP-1's 73mm 2A28 cannon with an armoured ZU-23 turret, Armenian engineers found a nifty way to install the autocannons over the 73mm cannon, with the only downside being the loss of the ability to launch ATGMs from a rail over the cannon. The resulting design combines the capabilities of an IFV with a radar-less self-propelled anti-aircraft gun (SPAAG).
Although the 23mm autocannons retain some efficacy against helicopters and low-flying aircraft, they proved wholly inadequate in dealing with the threat of Azerbaijani UCAVs, attack helicopters armed with long-range ATGMs and loitering munitions during the 2020 War. Of course, it should be remembered that the BMP-1-ZUs were converted at a time when the only aerial threat to Armenian forces were low-flying aircraft and helicopters armed with dumb bombs and unguided rockets. The low elevation of the 23mm guns also enables the BMP-1-ZUs to carry out a secondary role of providing fire support to allied forces (provided they ever manage to come in range of enemy forces).
As nifty as Armenia's solution to combining the capabilities of an IFV and SPAAG was, it was also an overly complicated solution for the simple task of installing an AA gun on a BMP-1. The guns are controlled from the inside, hugely increasing the workload of the gunner, who has to operate the autocannons, the 73mm cannon and the coaxial 7.62mm PKT LMG. The ammunition, normally located in two 40-round magazines (for the ZU-23) is now fed from a belt that runs around the entire length of the turret, making it significantly more prone to jamming. The result is a pretty massive vehicle, imposing in its complexity yet surprisingly lacking in utility.
The BMP-1-ZUs appear to have been solely used by Armenian forces deployed in Nagorno-Karabakh (or the Republic of Artsakh as it's nowadays known by Armenia). For the purpose of taking part in Artsakh's Victory Day Parade in the capital Stepanakert, the BMP-1-ZUs were adorned with the flag of Nagorno-Karabakh (which adds a white stepped carpet pattern on the Armenian flag) and Nagorno-Karabakh's coat of arms. [4] These markings were retained for some time after the parade, but were noticably absent on the single BMP-1-ZU captured by Azerbaijan during the 2020 War.

A BMP-1-ZU fitted with two 23 mm 2A7 cannons taken from a ZSU-23 SPAAG.

The few uparmed BMP-1s that remain in Armenian service will likely continue to see service as a reminder to a past in which a renewed conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh was thought to consist of massive battles pitched between mechanised units. Though it was conceived for a conflict that was increasingly less likely to be fought by the year, the design nevertheless showcases the ingenuity of Armenian engineers, and their ability to come up with indigenous solutions rather than relying on equipment sourced from abroad. It is this kind of ingenuity that is to play an important role in rebuilding the Armenian military in the coming decade.
[1] Trench Warfare Revisited: Armenia’s Indigenous Remote-Controlled Armament
[2] Shoot-And-Scoot: Armenia Designs New Lightweight MRL
[3] The Fight For Nagorno-Karabakh: Documenting Losses On The Sides Of Armenia And Azerbaijan
[4] Ռազմական շքերթ Ստեփանակերտում (09.05.1995 թ․) 

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