The BMP Is Part Tank, Part Taxi
The Soviets designed the vehicle to fight in a nuclear war
When the Cold War escalated in the 1950s, the United States and its European allies knew that the Warsaw Pact far outnumbered the alliance’s own tanks, artillery and infantry.
Should the Soviets launch an invasion of Western Europe, the NATO armies expected — and planned—to use tactical nuclear weapons to make up for their inferior numbers.
This scenario gave rise to the Soviet BMP-1 infantry fighting vehicle — a nimble, heavily armed but lightly protected infantry transport.
The disproportionate destruction that even a low-yield nuclear detonation could inflict on advancing armies made it suicidal for the Soviets to mass ground forces in huge numbers.
Instead, the Soviets would have to disperse their armies, but such a tactic would dilute the firepower they could bring to bear. The BMP was a compromise. It was fast, and could dish out firepower at the same time.
Existing armored infantry transports—such as the highly successful American M113—were merely combat taxis.
The M113s gave U.S. troops enough speed to keep up with tanks, but to be sure, the vehicles weren’t meant to charge into battle. Instead, they’d drop off their passengers before encountering the enemy, then retreat to give covering fire with light weapons—typically a single machine gun.
The tracked BMP-1, which entered Soviet army service in 1969, was far more heavily armed than its contemporaries—and gave Soviet motor rifle units self-sufficient firepower if they dispersed in expectation of a nuclear strike.
The BMP-1 featured a tiny, one-man turret armed with the 73-millimeter 2A28 Grom—a low-pressure cannon that could fire spin-stabilized rocket projectiles, and penetrate the frontal armor of most 1960s-era tanks.
Even more threatening to armored and fortified adversaries was a launch rail for the wire-guided 9M14M Malyutka anti-tank guided missile, which had a maximum range of three kilometers. The BMP-1 also had a 7.62-millimeter PKT co-axial machine gun.
Another novel feature of the BMP-1 was the inclusion of firing ports in its sides and rear doors, so soldiers could shoot their rifles from inside—without leaving or opening any roof hatches. This was crucial, since the anticipated post-nuclear battlefield scenarios of the time guaranteed a gloomy, radioactive death for dismounted soldiers.
Troops aboard the BMP-1 could attach fume extractors and spent-cartridge deflectors to their AKM and AK-74 rifles, which made shooting from within the vehicle’s cramped interior a more tolerable enterprise.
The Egyptian and Syrian armies first used the BMP-1 in combat during the 1973 war with Israel. Six years later, these vehicles saw their first battles under Soviet command in Afghanistan.
But these conventional and guerrilla conflicts quickly exposed the BMP-1’s shortcomings — including fatally thin armor and deficient armaments.
One theory held that if the BMP-1 was going to keep up with fast-moving Soviet tanks in a contaminated, nuclear-devastated Europe, there would be few survivors left outside the BMPs to offer much resistance. This thinking influenced the designers’ emphasis on mobility and amphibious capability, while sacrificing armor.
Against both Israeli troops and Afghan guerrillas in a non-nuclear setting, the BMP-1’s armor plating offered little protection against rocket launchers from any angle, or from heavy machine gun fire directed toward the flanks and rear.
The vehicle’s reserve fuel tanks sat near the rear exit doors. If shrapnel penetrated and ignited those tanks, the doors became a fire exit—in a literal sense.
BMPs didn’t fare very well against land mines, either. The vehicle’s sloping, boat-shaped underside often caused tilt-rod activated mines in Afghanistan to explode once the driver’s compartment passed directly over the devices. And crew conditions in the blazing hot Middle Eastern and Afghan summers were intolerable.
As for the BMP-1’s weapons, the Grom cannon lacked stabilizers. This made the rocket rounds highly inaccurate, and winds easily blew the rounds off course.
The gun’s autoloader had a painfully slow rate of fire, and the weapon’s poor elevation of 33 degrees made it impossible to shoot at Afghan guerrillas shooting down from the mountains.
The Malyutka missile was devastating to Israeli armor when fired from difficult-to-spot infantry mounts near ground level. But it was difficult to fire from the BMP-1’s external launch rail, as the driver had to expose himself to reload the weapon.
This early-generation, wire-guided missile used a MCLOS — or manual command line-of-sight—guidance system, in which the user manipulated a thumbstick to give course corrections to the missile while in flight.
But operating the MCLOS was a maddening task while under fire inside the BMP’s tiny turret.
These weaknesses added up, so the Soviets hastened production of the superior BMP-2 in 1977. From 1985 onwards, these upgrades supplanted the earlier versions in Afghanistan. The BMP-2 retained the hazardous rear-door mounted fuel tanks, had marginally tougher armor and carried seven passengers instead of eight. But it’s weapons were vastly better.
A larger two-man turret replaced the maligned Grom low-pressure gun with a stabilized 2A42 30-millimeter automatic cannon, which featured an impressive 74-degree elevation. This gave the vehicle an accurate and lethal weapon against personnel, armored vehicles, helicopters and—most importantly for Afghanistan—hostile mountaintop positions.
The BMP-2 threw out the unpopular Malyutka missile in favor of either an AT-4 Spigot or AT-5 Spandrel. These missiles used electronic SACLOS—or semi-automatic command—guidance systems, which made them easier to aim and direct toward targets.
Both the BMP-1 and BMP-2 have fought heavily in wars since the end of the Soviet-Afghan conflict, and most recently in Syria. Government forces have used them to fight the rebels — and the rebels have used captured BMPs against the Assad regime.
The Syrian army has upgraded many of their BMPs to include reactive armor panels, sheet metal and wire cages for enhanced protection against shoulder-fired rocket launchers. And Syrian BMPs have gone into battle armed with salvaged crew-served weapons, including anti-aircraft cannons.
Strangely enough, Russia’s extravagantly armed BMP-3—which boasts a 100-millimeter 2A70 gun and missile launcher, a co-axial 30-millimeter 2A72 automatic cannon and three PKT machine guns—has been in Russian service since 1987. But it hasn’t seen any significant combat action compared to its predecessors.