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The Russian army’s latest weirdo armored vehicle didn’t last long. Just 10 days after making its public debut in photos that circulated on social media, a Russian BTR-80 wheeled fighting vehicle packing UB-32 rocket pods—borrowed from an attack helicopter or warplane—came to a bad end.
Video captured by the Ukrainian defense ministry depicts first-person racing drones striking the BTR-80-UB-32 in its temporary hideout in a treeline adjacent to the road along which it had been traveling in southern Donetsk Oblast, just south of Vuhledar.
That’s one of the several axes along which Ukrainian forces have been on the offensive in the last two weeks. The Vuhledar axis is particularly promising for the Ukrainians because the Russian brigades defending the axis—the 40th and 155th Naval Infantry Brigades—badly have been depleted in the first 16 months of Russia’s wider war on Ukraine.
It’s unclear whether the Ukrainian drones—speedy, explosives-laden quadcopters that operators control via virtual-reality headsets—disabled the 15-ton BTR or merely damaged it. In any event, the Russians at least are inconvenienced as they scramble to reinforce one of their more vulnerable sectors.
The eight-wheel, 10-person BTR-80 with its 32-round rocket pods for unguided S-5 or S-8 rockets is an expedient—one that reflects the growing desperation of an army that has lost no fewer than 10,000 armored vehicles in the first 16 months of its wider war in Ukraine.
There actually is a long tradition of Soviet, Russian and allied forces fitting UB-style rocket pods to trailers, trucks, fighting vehicles … and even tanks. But these rocket-pod technicals never solved a fundamental fire-control problem.
Rocket pods for unguided rockets work on helicopters and warplanes because helicopters and warplanes generally have ballistic computers that can help their crews to aim. It’s apparent none of the crude ground technicals have computers. Their crews open fire at targets no farther than a couple of miles away—and hope they get lucky.
That Russian forces are employing more and more crude technicals—not just BTRs with rocket pods, but also MT-LB armored tractors with old naval guns and even explosives-laden T-55 “suicide” tanks—speaks to a growing shortfall of purpose-made fighting vehicles.
The Russians have been losing more than 500 armored vehicles a month for 16 months—and producing, at most, a few hundred new and reconditioned vehicles every 30 days.
Until Russian industry can adapt to high demand and limited resources, the do-it-yourself vehicles pretty much are the Kremlin’s only alternative to sending recruits into battle in machine-gun-armed pickup trucks.
But these DIY vehicles are subject to the same hazards that have depleted Russia’s arsenal of purpose-made vehicles—and have made the improvised vehicle necessary. First-person racing drones, such as the ones that struck the BTR-80-UB-32, are just one of the hazards. Mines, artillery and anti-tank guided missiles arguably represent even greater threats.
The swift evolution, and extinction, of the BTR-80-UB-32 is a reminder that scale matters. The Russian and Ukrainian armed forces need hundreds of new armored vehicles a month merely to make good wartime losses—and scores more in order to stand up new brigades for offensive operations.
The handful of custom-made vehicles—not just BTR-80-UB-32s, but also MT-LB-2M-3s, MT-LB-12s and BMPT-62s—might make for interesting headlines. But it’s the vehicles both sides can acquire in large numbers, or mass-produce, that really make a difference on a battlefield that gobbles up vehicles by the dozen.
For that Russians, that’s downgraded T-80 and T-72 tanks and reconditioned BTRs. For the Ukrainians, it’s Leopard 1 tanks, mine-resistant armored trucks and M-113 armored personnel carriers. Which types work best in battle … remains to be seen.