The BMP-1 is a Soviet infantry fighting vehicle from the 1960s. Ours was captured during Operation Desert Storm in 1991 and has been on display at IWM Duxford for over 30 years. Yet vehicles just like it are still being used by both sides in the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian War, with heavy losses. So why are museum pieces being fielded in a 21st century war? And how are they performing? 

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Why is the BMP-1 still in service?

This is the BMP-1, a Soviet infantry fighting vehicle from the 1960s. This one was captured by the British Army during Operation Desert Storm in 1991 and has been on display here at IWM Duxford for over 30 years. And yet vehicles just like this one are still being used today by both Russia and Ukraine, with heavy losses. So why are museum pieces being fielded in a 21st century war? Well to find out, we first need understand why the BMP was designed in the first place.

During the Second World War most participants fielded open top armoured personnel carriers or APCs. Their job was to transport soldiers to the frontline, not to get involved in the fighting. But everything changed in 1945. New nuclear, biological and chemical threats meant that open top APCs could no longer protect their cargo. And so, the infantry fighting vehicle, or IFV, was born. Effectively a cross between a tank and an armoured personnel carrier, the IFV could protect its soldiers from these new threats and be a part of the fight as well. One of the most influential IFV designs of them all was the BMP-1.

Rebecca Harding. Head of Technological Objects, IWM: "The Soviet armed forces needed a fighting vehicle which was fast, highly manoeuvrable and packed a powerful punch with its weaponry, and the BMP-1 delivered on all of these. It could travel up to 40 miles per hour on the road and 28 miles per hour off-road, allowing Soviet infantry to keep up with advancing tanks. This is the BMP-1’s primary armament, the 2a28 Grom. It's a 73mm low pressure smoothbore semi-automatic gun. It was a big change compared to the heavy machine guns mounted on previous Soviet Armoured Personel Carriers. Although it could initially penetrate the armour of Western tanks, as technology advanced, it soon became obsolete and whilst on the move the gun was completely inaccurate. The BMP-1 was also equipped to operate the 9M14 Malyutka also known as the AT-3 Sagger. Finally, the infantry inside were able to fire their weapons within the relative safety of the vehicle. This combination of weapons allowed the BMP- to support the infantry in the fight whilst keeping them safe, and even take on enemy tanks if needed."

Altogether, the BMP-1 was a revolutionary vehicle. After entering service with the Soviet Army in 1966 over 40,000 were produced, with over 20,000 built in the Soviet Union alone. That's a key reason why the BMP-1 is still being used today, both Ukraine and Russia have large stocks dating back to the USSR – when their armies were one. Other former Warsaw Pact countries like the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland also have stocks of their own and many of these have also been donated to the Ukrainians – a programme which has other advantages.

Samir Puri. Author, Russia's Road to War with Ukraine: "There probably wouldn't need to be any retraining, you probably need to give them the you know the keys, point them to the ignition and off they can go as long as it's been serviced. And I think a final observation on the Ukrainian stocks of BMP-1s is that some of these are actually being captured from the Russians. Not only BMP-1s, but also other Russian armoured vehicles that have moved into Ukraine since February 24 2022 and have either been sort of disabled with minimal damage or just abandoned by crew who have been surrounded or suffering from low morale and they've run away.

Meanwhile on the Russian side, BMP-1s are now being brought out of storage after the Russian attempted at a swift knockout blow was thwarted.

Attrition rates in Russian forces have been extraordinarily high. So that means if the Russians sent in more cutting-edge equipment, for example the BMP-3, they may be finding they're running low on those stocks. BMP-1s possibly in storage, mothballed somewhere, they'll be able to be accessed and taken into the Ukrainian front. You know, new vehicles intermingling with older vehicles, intermingling with Museum pieces that somehow still work and are now being pressed into action.

But although these vehicles clearly have utility for both sides, they also have major problem which were exposed way back in the 1970s and 80s. The Soviet Union’s ill-fated invasion of Afghanistan in particular revealed multiple design flaws.

Rebecca Harding: "The driver sat in the front of the vehicle on the left-hand side here, with the tank commander just behind him. That meant that if the left track hit a land mine, there was a high probability it would destroy the underside of the vehicle, killing or wounding both highly skilled crew members in a single blast. This resulted in the introduction of an updated model of BMP-1, sometimes known as the Afghan version, fitted with additional armour under the tank commander and driver’s positions.

We’ve come around now to the back of the vehicle to examine a few other problems. The BMP-1s main fuel tank was here between the two rows of seats in the troop compartment, but additional fuel tanks were fitted inside the rear doors. These were not always filled when the vehicle was headed for the battlefield. When these tanks were utilised in combat though there was a risk that if the vehicle was hit at the rear, the fuel would ignite, and the vehicle would explode. However, if your vehicle is being hit from behind in the first place, the chances are something has already gone very wrong. A bigger danger to the crew was the vehicle's ammunition storage just behind me. In the event of a direct hit by enemy fire, the ammunition would almost certainly explode, risking the lives of all those on board and destroying the vehicle."

Alongside these well documented issues, the age of the vehicles may also pose problems on the modern battlefields. The BMP-1 was designed to charge headlong across the pains of Europe as part of large, armoured formations, not for attritional urban warfare of the kind seen in the Donbas. Those limitations may restrict their usefulness.

Samir Puri: "I would imagine that a commander on the ground probably wouldn't look at the BMP-1 as his vehicle of first choice because it's so old. The armour plating on something like the BMP-1 is of such an old vintage the anti-armor weapons that are being used against it are often of a much more modern vintage, they probably wouldn't last very long. You may find these vehicles are being used more to ferry casualties for logistics reasons. So I think that's another caveat around their usability and the utility of the BMP-1 in this conflict."

But if the BMP-1 is so deadly for its crews, why is It still being fielded? Well of course, the Soviets knew the BMP-1 had problems back during the cold war and introduced updated versions to rectify them. First came the BMP-2 in 1980. It featured an improved crew layout, upgraded weapon system and slightly thicker armour, but was still based on the same BMP-1 chassis. Then in 1987, came the BMP-3. This was a far more radical departure from the original BMP with a much heavier gun. However, the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989 stymied their rollout and so the Russian army of today till has for more BMP-2s in service. The difficulty of mounting slat armour cages or explosive reactive armour has left them vulnerable on the modern battlefield and losses have been heavy. But those problems may have more to do with the ways in which Russian armoured vehicles have been deployed.

Samir Puri: "Russia invaded from at least four points. That meant that Russia had purposefully split its own armored forces. The Ukraine have been very clever in ambushing and almost using Guerilla style infantry response tactics to the Russians. Picking off one or two vehicles at a time that are not being supported appropriately by Russian dismounted infantry. Russia's sudden manpower shortages meant that the Battalion Tactical Group, the Russian principal fighting formation, that has actually ended up being fielded under strength. So it's very possible that some of the BMPs are being used with either a reduced number of troops or possibly even empty. Whilst these are older vehicles perhaps with a different campaign plan and a different usage they may have had more survivability."

The final factor in all of this is economics and costs of war. The BMP-1 in particular may be obsolete, but ultimately, it is much cheaper to modernise existing vehicles than build new ones. The remaining BMP-1s in Russian and Ukrainian ownership are slowly being upgraded to newer variants, usually featuring modernised turrets. These continuing upgrades will allow the BMP-1 to serve for the foreseeable future on both sides.

Samir Puri: "Slowly but surely there is an attempt to try to supplement Ukrainian military kit with with NATO equipment. But I think when you look at the numbers it's going to be a really really long time. For the forseeable future and almost certainly for the duration of this conflict, however long it goes on for, I would expect to be seeing this old Soviet era equipment being used on both sides and and possibly being expended in quite large numbers by both sides because of the evident vulnerabilities that this kind of equipment has got in this kind of encounter."

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