March 22, 2023

Landsman with a Naval Head: Why Has Russia Mounted Anti-Aircraft Guns on MT-LBs

Many of our readers might have already seen memes about an improvised variant of a Russian MT-LB multi-purpose AFV, which was gently nicknamed "Tankenstein" in the English-speaking world. The amphibious combat vehicle was equipped with a naval machine gun mount dating back to the middle of the last century. We decided to study the "novelty" more closely.

The first evidence of the existence of new self-propelled anti-aircraft guns can be traced to mid-January 2023 when the Artilleriya [Artillery] Telegram channel published photos of three types of modified MT-LBVM armored multi-purpose tractors:

  • equipped with one DShK 12.7mm machine gun [model 1938] on a naval pedestal mount;
  • equipped with a 2M-1 twin-barreled deck mount with two DShK or DShKM machine guns;
  • equipped with a 2M-7 twin-barreled deck mount with two KPV 14.5mm machine guns.

Let us note that in all cases, standard heavy machine guns were removed from MT-LBVM vehicles. A photo of two more similar SPAAGs equipped with 2M-1 mounts on an MT-LB chassis (not an MT-LBVM) was published by the same channel on Jan. 29. At the beginning of February 2023; the AFU captured a similar vehicle with a 2M-7 mount on an MT-LB chassis near Vuhledar. The vehicle had a “51 in a circle” tactical marking. According to open sources,1, 2 it belongs to the 1st Slavyanskaya Brigade, previously known as the so-called "People's Militia of the DPR" and is now part of the RuAF.

Presumably, an experiment of equipping MT-LBs with naval anti-aircraft machine guns was considered successful, and after that, the production of a more “advanced” (more expensive and difficult to manufacture, but having a longer range) modification began. The new vehicles were equipped with 2M-3 type naval turrets, and their photos appeared around the beginning of March. The aforementioned Artilleriya Telegram channel believes that the 2M-3M turret modification was used, and two regular 25mm M-110 autocannons were replaced with KPV machine guns, but we could not independently confirm the modification of the turret, and we still consider it to be equipped with original 25mm autocannons.

The MT-LB multi-purpose AFV, with its good carrying capacity and excellent cross-country capability, is often used to create various improvised self-propelled vehicles on its chassis, and this war is not an exception. 2M-3 type naval turrets, apart from ships, were historically mounted on Soviet armored trains, East German trucks, and even Azerbaijani MT-LBU vehicles during the First Karabakh War. DShKM heavy machine guns on pedestal mounts equipped with thermal imaging sights for more reliable detection of drones are in service with the AFU.

In theory, the vehicles discussed could be modified by maintenance battalions in the immediate rear, but this would require delivery of weapons from naval depots to be arranged there. We believe these vehicles are more likely to have been upgraded not in the field but somewhere deep in the rear and then sent to the frontline on trains.

The function of such armored vehicles has not been fully clarified. Working on the issue, our team paid special attention to a couple of videos showing vehicles equipped with turrets of the 2M-3 family. The first video, in addition to a modified MT-LB, also showed a 9A35 Strela-10 (SA-13 GOPHER) surface-to-air missile system. The second video captured a train carrying, among others, two new vehicles on the MT-LBVM chassis, three 9A35 systems, and two ZSU-23-4 Shilka self-propelled anti-aircraft weapon systems. Based on these observations, we conclude that all such "novelties" should be considered self-propelled anti-aircraft systems, which are planned to be used as part of air defense units that shield important military (or, less likely, civilian) objects or, as it often referred to, “point  air defence.”

Thus, the emergence of such modified vehicles may indicate a shortage of short-range air defense systems, primarily Pantsir-S (SA-22 GREYHOUND) surface-to-air missile and anti-aircraft artillery systems, Tunguska (SA-19 GRISON) and Shilka self-propelled anti-aircraft weapon systems, as well as Tor (SA-15 GAUNTLET) and Osa (SA-8 GECKO) surface-to-air missile systems. This, in turn, may be due to the recent increase in UAV attacks on military facilities inside the Russian Federation. We believe that in response to those attacks, the Russian leadership had to deploy modern air defense systems to protect the most important, in their opinion, objects within the country. The deployment of Pantsir-S systems in Moscow and near the presidential residence in Valday may be a good example. Meanwhile, the protection of less important objects near the frontline falls on such a “substitute” hastily tinkered out of MT-LB and naval anti-aircraft guns.

The range of drones used by the Armed Forces of Ukraine is constantly expanding: commercial and home-made UAVs in droves drop all sorts of projectiles (from grenades to mines and to custom-made munitions) on Russian positions. Furthermore, Ukraine’s Western allies regularly announce shipments of combat drones. On Feb. 24, 2023, the Pentagon announced another package of military aid to Ukraine, which included Switchblade 600 long-range loitering munitions. Their flight duration and range, combined with the mass of the warhead, enable Ukrainian operators to successfully hit targets that are usually beyond the reach of such weaponry. On Mar. 9, the Security Service of Ukraine released a video showing what was believed to be a successful Switchblade 600 strike, resulting in at least serious damage to a Tor-M2 and a S-300VM (SA-23) SAM systems.

It is also worth considering the issue of the effectiveness of this anti-aircraft system family. The firepower of both coupled naval anti-aircraft guns or heavy machine guns, in our opinion, is quite sufficient to destroy all low-speed UAVs. Target designation, on the other hand, is likely to be a problem. In the absence of modern air defense control systems like the Virazh-Planshet software used by the Armed Forces of Ukraine, it will be difficult for vehicles equipped with neither their own radar nor a thermal imager to combat small-sized and inconspicuous UAVs used to strike at rear targets.