Mutant Soviet Armored Vehicles Have Come to Ukraine

ukrainian army mt lb with 23 millimeter zu 23 gun at zhytomyr training ground on october 2017
'Mad Max' Fleets of Mutant MT-LB APCs Sees CombatWikimedia Commons

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The Soviet Union’s MT-LB tracked APC was named based on the Cyrillic acronym “multi-purpose tractor, light armored.” Introduced in the 1960s, it was effectively a mechanical successor to the mules and packhorses of yore, towing howitzers and anti-tank guns into firing positions, and transporting vital supplies or up to 11 infantry to the frontline.

Up to 14 millimeters of welded-steel armor protected crew from small arms, and a mount for a medium-machine gun gave the 13-ton vehicle a touch of self-defense capability close to enemy forces. Steel tracks, a 240-horsepower YaMZ-238 eight-cylinder diesel engine, and amphibious equipment gave it all-terrain mobility (19 miles per hour cross-country, twice that on roads). But it clearly wasn’t intended for direct combat.

But don’t tell that to the Russian and Ukranian forces battling in Ukraine. There’s a premium on anything with armor protection to keep crew and passengers alive, hard-hitting weapons to knock out enemy armored vehicles and entrenched troops, and the mobility to traverse muddy trenches and forests.

ukrainians refurbish captured russian military gear for re use
A mechanic modifies a captured Russian MT-LB armored vehicle for use as a medical evacuation vehicle by Ukrainian forces on February 13, 2023 at a facility in eastern Ukraine crowdfunded by the Serhiy Prytula Charity Foundation.John Moore - Getty Images

And thanks to the MT-LB’s intentionally adaptable design and the transparent numbers produced—over 55,000, including a stretched-version called the MT-LBu—it has become both sides’ go-to platform for bolting on all manner of weapons large and small, common-place and utterly bizarre. At this point, it brings to mind the improvised ‘war rigs’ of a Mad Max movie.

MT-LB self-propelled guns

On Moscow’s side, MT-LB conversions were particularly common amongst pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk. Among the weapons slapped onto MT-LBs were the turret of a BMP-1 fighting vehicle with its the 73-millimeter 2A28 Grom(“Thunder”) low-pressure gun, the 2B9 Vasilek (“Cornflower”) automatic 82-millimeter mortar both in a hull-top or turret mount, and even the gun-turret of a 2S9 NONA-S vehicle armed with a 120-millimeter rifled gun-mortar (indirect fire range 4 miles).

Meanwhile, Ukraine has developed at least two MT-LB-12 variants, mating the towed 100-millimeter T-12 or MT-12 Rapira anti-tank gun to the top chassis.

These direct-fire smoothbore weapons also have an indirect fire range of just 5 miles at its maximum 20 degrees elevation. And MT-12s can launch anti-tank missiles, including a variant of the Stugna anti-tank missile.

There are also multiple Ukrainian MT-LBs fitted with World War II-era D-44 85-millimeter field guns too, primarily for indirect fire.

The T-12/MT-12 can penetrate more armor than the D-44 (225 millimeters penetration at medium range with kinetic 3BM10 shells, or 400 millimeters with 3BK16M shaped charge rounds), but still can’t defeat the frontal armor of modern main battle tanks unless employing missiles. However, it remains lethal against personnel and non-tank armored vehicles.

Ukraine’s military first released media portraying an MT-LB-12 undergoing tests in the Mykolaiv region in August of 2022. This model has rear-mounted hydraulic claws to stabilize the vehicle against the gun’s recoil and employs a crew of six: driver, gunner, commander and three loaders. Some MT-LB-12s retain the gun’s heavy gun shield, others do not.

One video, with the claws un-deployed, shows an MT-LB roll back several feet from the recoil after discharging its 100-millimeter gun, which is not great for second-round accuracy.

Three such conversions made by Ukrtransgaz were reportedly supplied to a Ukrainian Territorial Defense Force brigade, though this model was altered to allow the gun to be elevated further, boosting range to between 6 and 7 miles.

On the smaller side, Russia and Ukraine have outfitted many MT-LBs with twin-barrel ZU-23 23-millimeter anti-aircraft guns, making them ersatz direct-fire combat vehicles. Autocannons are much more effective than machine guns at longer range and against enemies in cover. The ZU-23 is effective out to a range of 2 miles, and has a practical rate of fire of 400 shells per minute (though feeding from 50-round ammo belts).

Reflecting their widespread use, by August of 2023, photos show Russia has lost at least 30 23mm-armed MT-LBs destroyed or captured, while Ukraine had lost eight.

A rarer MT-LB self-propelled gun integrates the bigger AZP S-60 57-millimeter anti-aircraft gun. This medium-caliber weapon can reach out to between 2.5 and 3.7 miles, penetrate non-tank armored vehicles, and sustain fire at one round per second (though, after 40-50 rounds, the barrel must be cooled with a hydraulic pump). MT-LB/S-60s have also has been improvised for indirect fire use, with digital fire control calculators and correction by drone spotter compensating for small shell size.

Naval and aerial guns and rockets on MT-LBs

The most exotic MT-LBs are fitted with weapons never intended for use on ground vehicles —most grotesquely, the MT-LB 2M3. It has a 2M-3 25-millimeter naval twin-gun turret ordinarily used on Soviet warships for close defense protruding from its rear hull, and its two M110 autocannons are (unusually) arrayed vertically atop each other. The turrets were reportedly sourced from Russia’s Pacific Fleet and installed onto MT-LBs at Primorsky Krai.

Russia has also fielded 2M-1 and 2M-7 naval gun mounts on MT-LBs, with vertically-arrayed dual 12.7- and 14.5-millimeter machine guns, respectively.

Thinking bigger, another field variant mounts an A-22 22-barrel 140-millimeter rocket launchers ordinarily used for shore-bombardments by Russian landing ships. This short range system (2.8 miles max, or 6 miles using modern ammo) can equip either fragmentation or incendiary warheads.

Yet another curious MT-LB fielded by Russian separatists has a launch rack loaded with RPO-A Shmel (“Bumble Bee”) thermobaric ‘flamethrower’ rockets.

Ukraine and Russia have also grafted rocket pods intended for use by combat aircraft stuffed full of 80-millimeter S-8 rockets or 57-millimeter S-5s onto MT-LB hulls. The results are evocative of a Mechwarrior computer game. Lacking accuracy, they’re intended as a sort of mini-rocket artillery system for area bombardments.

One especially weird MT-LB in Russia’s 40th Naval Infantry Brigade was armed with both a UB-32 pod and a Vasilek gun-mortar—weapons it can’t employ at the same time, as exhaust from the rockets would cook crew standing in the fighting compartment.

Lastly, one should mention Russia’s use of MT-LBs for kamikaze vehicles in attacks on Ukrainian fortified positions, beginning with an attack on Ukrainian troops in Svatove in February. The kamikaze vehicles were stuffed full of mine-clearing line charges and aerial bombs, and the MT-LB’s crew bailed out after pointing the vehicle towards the Ukrainian position and locking the throttle down.

Ersatz infantry fighting vehicles

Second-tier Russian and Ukrainian mechanized units, and their Soviet predecessors, have long used MT-LBs as armored personnel carriers (APCs) transporting troops into battle due to the shortage of more heavily armed BMP fighting vehicles.

ukraine russia conflict war
Destroyed Russian MT-LB near Izium during Ukraine’s Kharkiv counter offensive, on September 14, 2022.JUAN BARRETO - Getty Images

But they’re not popular in that role, due to being lightly armed (a single front-hull PKT machine 7.62-millimeter machine gun) and armored. Photos show that Russian has lost over 640 regular MT-LBs and MT-LBus as of mid-2023, and Ukraine around 80. Naturally, frontline troops look for ways to change that equation.

Ukraine has fitted some MT-LBs with BPU-1 turrets, sporting a heavy 14.5-millimeter KPVT machine gun ripped off from a BTR-60 or BTR-70 wheeled APCs.

Slatted cage armor and even spare tank tracks have also been mounted on MT-LBs by both sides to mitigate damage from rocket-propelled grenades.

Ukraine’s Kharkiv Automobile Plant also built 62 MT-LB-ATs in 2014, equipped with a 12.7-millimeter Dashika-M heavy machine gun fitted with an elaborate gun shield. These initially served in Ukraine’s 14th Mechanized Brigade, but have since been re-distributed.

mt lb at armored personnel carrier of ukrainian army
Ukrainian MT-LB-AT with 12.7-millimeter DshK-M heavy machine gun with gun shieldUkrainian Army photo - Wikimedia Commons
ukraine's bakhmut under attack by russia
A Ukrainian MT-LB-AT with its distinctively elaborate gun-shield for its 12.7-millimeter machine gun seen in Bakhmut in December 2022.Anadolu Agency - Getty Images

An MT-LB with a Turkish-Ukrainian Serdar remote weapon station mated on top was spotted in August of 2022. This combined a machine gun with an electroptical/thermal sensor and the capability to fire anti-tank missiles.

Perhaps the ultimate attempt to improve the MT-LB for direct combat was the unique prototype 18.5-ton Kevlar-E infantry fighting vehicle by UkrInnMash. It paired an MT-LBu hull with a Shturm BM3M turret, packing a 30-millimeter autocannon, medium machine gun, and mounts supporting Barrier anti-tank missiles.

kevlar e fighting vehicle based on mt lbu chassis on display in kyiv with shturm turret
UkrInnMash MT-LBu-based Kevlar-E infantry fighting vehicle prototype at military fair in Kyiv in June 2021. Note the Shturm turret with a 30-millimeter gun, medium machine gun, six smoke grenades, and racks for two anti-tank missiles.VoidWanderer photo/CCA-SA4 - Wikimedia Commons
interior of kevlar e infantry fighting vehicle based on mt lb chassis
Seating for six dismounts inside the Kevlar-E fighting vehicle prototype on display at an exhibition in Kyiv in June 2021.VoidWanderer photo/CCA-SA4 - Wikimedia Commons

This vehicle, with a crew of three and capacity for six dismounts, was seen active in Kharkiv when Russia invaded, and remained operational early in 2023.

Russia, meanwhile, has fitted modernized 1990s-era MT-LB-6Ms with an MB2 gun turret (30mm 2A72 cannon, a night sight, and six smoke grenades ) from the wheeled BTRA-82A vehicle. Known as the MT-LBM-6B, at least six have been confirmed destroyed and four abandoned or captured.

mt lbm 6mb2 infantry fighting vehicle at bronnitsy test range with 30 millimeter cannon turret
MT-LBM 6MB2 with 30-millimeter 2A72 gun turret from BTR-82A APC at Bronnitsy test range in June 2011.Vitaly V. Kuzmin - Wikimedia Commons
traces of russia ukraine war in kharkiv
Near Kharkiv on July 22, 2023, a child plays next to the 30-millimeter gun turret of an MT-LBM-6B infantry fighting vehicle put on display by the War Diaries charity foundation. This turret is the same as that as that on the BTR-82A wheeled infantry fighting vehicle.Anadolu Agency - Getty Images

Despite the numerous mutant MT-LB fighting vehicles describe above, there are doubtlessly still more that have been overlooked, and yet others that will be invented in the coming months and years.

While peace time armies go to great expense tailoring exquisitely optimized (and expensive) war machines, the pressures of an ongoing lethal conflict inspire creative adaptation of resources already at hand. For those purposes, an affordable and adaptable base vehicle can be of greater value than a perfectly designed specialist.

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