The Soviet BMP-1 was one of the first modern infantry fighting vehicles. It both reflected, and helped to drive, profound changes in Soviet ground-combat doctrine when it entered service in 1966.
Fifty-seven years later, the BMP-1 is obsolete. And that’s a big problem for the Russian army, which after a year of hard fighting in Ukraine is so desperately short of newer BMP-2 and BMP-3 fighting vehicles it has had no choice but to reactivate hundreds of stored BMP-1s.
A recent tally by an open-source-intelligence analyst underscores the BMP crisis. The Russian army widened its war in Ukraine in February 2022 with 400 active BMP-3s, 2,800 BMP-2s and 600 BMP-1s.
Over the next 12 months, the Ukrainians destroyed or captured at least 220 BMP-3s, 750 BMP-2s and 300 BMP-1s. The Kremlin is sitting on huge stocks of surplus BMP-1s and -2s—7,200 and 1,400, respectively—but it has zero of the latest BMP-3s in reserve.
So as the Russian army scrambles to rebuild its battered forces, it’s replacing the third-generation BMPs it’s lost with second- and—even more so—first-generation BMPs it’s pulling out of long-term storage. The army is, in technological terms, traveling back in time.
The BMP-1 is armored—albeit thinly—and it carries personnel, but it’s not an armored personnel carrier. That’s because, in mechanized warfare, APCs haul troops into battle but don’t actually fight. They’re too lightly armed, too lightly protected.
An infantry fighting vehicle does as its name implies. It hauls infantry into battle and, unlike an APC, also stays and fights. That requires thicker armor and bigger weapons than you’d find on an APC, which tends to weigh on an IFV’s passenger capacity. A Russian MT-LB APC can pack in 10 or 11 infantry; a BMP-1 IFV squeezes in just eight.
But even that modest troop-capacity meant major design compromises as BMP-inventor Pavel Isakov struggled to balance firepower, protection and payload. For one, the BMP-1 stows ammunition in the passenger compartment. A direct hit can set off the ammo, with obvious negative implications for the infantry sitting right next to the exploding shells.
The 13-ton, three-crew BMP-1 has other problems. Its low-velocity 73-millimeter gun is unimpressive. Its turret has blind spots: it can’t rotate through 10 o’clock without the gun running into the hull-mounted searchlight.
The vehicle’s biggest flaw is its steel armor, which is just a quarter-inch thick in some places and can’t even stop heavy machine guns firing armor-piercing rounds. It’s not for no reason that the major driver of the BMP-2 and -3’s developments, respectively in the late 1970s and early ’80s, was protection.
There’s no shortage of videos on social media depicting Russian BMP-1s and their crews and passengers coming to bad ends in Ukraine. Peppered by artillery, popped by mines, pulverized by anti-tank missiles, the BMPs explode like firecrackers and burn like kindling.
The Russian army in a year has written off around 1,300 BMPs of all models. But a thousand were BMP-2s and -3s with their thicker armor. The Russians could lose even more IFVs in the next year as the older, and much more vulnerable, BMP-1 once again becomes their standard fighting vehicle. Just like in 1966.
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