Meet Bardak, the BRDM and BRDM-2 armoured scout car from the Soviet Union
A nimble reconnaissance asset and carrier of the Soviets’ first generation guided missiles
If you were to ask the average Joe or Jane Public what first comes to mind when naming a reconnaissance platform or method, ‘drones’, ‘special forces’, ‘spy satellites’ and ‘recon team’ will dominate the answers. More knowledgeable folk may nominate ‘LRRP’, ‘Predator UAV’ or ‘U-2 spy plane’. Thanks to the popular movie and TV portrayal of reconnaissance and scouting tasks being performed by men in boonie hats and painted faces infiltrating on foot or high flying aircraft braving air defences, it is easy to neglect nimble ground vehicles racing across bucolic meadows on wheels or tracks to scrounge information on enemies who don’t want to be found. From the end of the 1950s, the BRDM and successor BRDM-2 armoured scout car acted as the eyes and ears of the armies of the Soviet Union and nearly forty other countries.
Scout vehicle designs follow two broad reconnaissance mission profiles: stealthy and aggressive. Stealthy reconnaissance focuses on information gathering while avoiding confrontation with the enemy whenever possible; vehicles like the German war time SdKfz 222 and modern Fennek prioritize speed and mobility while possessing just enough weapons to brush past light opposition. Aggressive reconnaissance favours fighting for information and skirmishing to either back up stealthy scouts or goad the enemy into revealing his true strength; light tanks and cavalry fighting vehicles armed with low calibre tank guns or automatic cannons like the British Scorpion and M3A-2 Bradley exemplify this approach. A third category of recon (or recce) vehicle which does not fit into the stealthy or aggressive paradigm is technical intelligence gathering: the use of measuring devices for complex calculations beyond the capability of optical observation. Artillery command reconnaissance vehicles (ACRVs), ground surveillance radars and NBC (nuclear, biological and chemical) scouts are members of this category.
Produced from 1958–1966, the BRDM (Bronirovannaya Razvedyvatelnaya Dozornaya Mashina: armoured reconnaissance patrol vehicle) was conceived to fit the stealthy reconnaissance mission profile. Appearing in February 1956, its prototype was the result of GAZ (Gorkovsky Avtomobilny Zavod — Gorky Automobile Plant) rebuilding the BTR-40 (Bronetransporter — armoured transporter) into a fully amphibious light scout. The resulting BTR-40P (plavayushchiy — floating) altered the original vehicle’s armoured truck appearance to a sandal on wheels; by the time it was developed into the BTR-40PM in 1957, it would be renamed ‘BRDM’ to acknowledge its departure from the infantry transport role. Just one year into its mass production run, the BRDM received a sorely needed roof to shield its occupants from the weather and hazards like thrown grenades and overhead shrapnel bursts.
Weighing 5.6 tons and achieving a top speed of 80 km/h on paved roads with its front mounted 90 hp GAZ-40P gasoline powerplant, the BRDM’s special ability was its four chain driven undercarriage wheels, hidden in its main body between the regular front and rear wheel axles. Normally stowed in the retracted position within its body, they were lowered via hydraulic hoists while crossing soft mud or trenches not exceeding 1.2 m. A central inflation system permitted the BRDM to alter its ground pressure but the tires were not resistant to bullets and shell fragments.
Soviet tactical reconnaissance doctrine prioritized infiltrating the enemy’s frontline to identify his operational reserve and nuclear delivery systems for destruction. Being able to cross water obstacles would vastly improve the chances of bypassing hostile lookouts and the Soviet Union featured plenty of rivers; these considerations dictated the Soviet Army’s need for the BRDM to be fully amphibious. Hidden within its rear compartment was a large diameter aluminium tube which curved upwards from the chassis into the back plate; an internally mounted impeller and rudder vanes resided here for pushing and turning the BRDM through water at a maximum flotation speed of 9 km/h. When not in use, a shutter activated from within the vehicle covered the BRDM’s ‘ass hole’. The presence of left and right mounted tubes leading away from the impeller blade into the rear corners of the BRDM permitted reversing in water. A front mounted rectangular plate, or trim vane, was raised for reflecting water away from the engine and inhabited compartment during crossings.
The room taken up by the trench crossing wheels in the stowed position and amphibious apparatus made the BRDM very cramped for its complement of driver, car commander and two — three scouts. The presence of these mobility aides also precluded installation of side and rear doors so the BRDM’s inhabitants had to climb over their mount through roof hatches — a death sentence when under fire or if the car flipped over on its roof. It is possible that its Russian nickname Bardak (mess) was not just a contraction of ‘BRDM’ but a comment on its overly intimate interior.
The BRDM’s nimble mobility made it a candidate for some of the Soviet Union’s first generation anti tank guided missiles (ATGMs). Debuting in 1960, the 2P27 mounted a trio of 3M6 Shmel (bumblebee) wire guided missiles. Distinguished by huge guidance fins and labelled AT-1 Snapper by NATO observers, their theoretical efficacy over conventional tank guns in engagements exceeding 1500m was curtailed by a ponderous 110 m/s speed and manual command line of sight (MCLOS) guidance. MCLOS systems required the operator to use a joystick to steer the missile till impact by visually following its launch flare, which was problematic when the intended target and its companions took evasive action or began shooting back.
Notable as the first guided missile armament for Soviet armed helicopters, the radio command guided 3M11 Falanga (phalanx) was fitted on the 2P32, introduced in 1962. Its advantage over the Shmel and 9M14 Malyutka (on the 9P110 variant) was that it had no wires to get caught on obstacles and was a lot faster at 160 m/s. Its slimmer configuration allowed the 2P32 to store four rounds on its launch rack compared to the 2P27’s three. However, its radio command guidance was susceptible to electronic jamming and its 31 kg weight made it more onerous to handle than the 24 kg Shmel.
As the Cold War was dominated by the anticipation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) usage, the Soviet Army required special mission vehicles to detect environmental defilement by their foul residue. Developed from 1958–59, the BRDMRKh Buran was distinguished externally by two KZO-2 territorial marking dispensers mounted on its rear corners. These racks held several flags with the pointed ends pointing downwards prior to emplacement. Upon a crew member pressing a button from inside the car, a pyrotechnic charge shot the flag pole into the ground. Only 100 Buran were produced from 1960–61; its greatest weakness was that for self defence it retained the vanilla BRDM’s pintle mounted SGMB machine gun which could only be operated by opening the hatches and exposing the interior to WMD contamination.
Giving ‘Bardak’ a Serious Makeover
In terms of agility and speed, the BRDM was satisfactory enough but suffered from notable deficiencies. The scout car, whose armour cladding of 6–12 mm thickness would only stop rifle calibre rounds, would be stopped cold if struck in the frontal aspect where the engine resided. Its focus on stealthy reconnaissance — speed at the expense of armament — went too far with its single SGMB 7.62x54 (R) mm machine gun which the gunner had to expose himself to operate. Except for the -RKh NBC scout variant, the BRDM possessed no internal overpressure apparatus against WMD contamination.
Just one year after the BRDM commenced production, GAZ’s SKB (Spetsial’noye Konstruktorskoye Byuro: Special Design Bureau) were already working on its successor in 1959. (SKB was a subordinate component of the KEO, or Konstruktorkso Eksperimental’nogo Otdela: Design and Experimental Department led by Vladimir Alekseevich Dedkov.) The eventual BRDM-2 would take almost five years to develop owing to radical changes to its internal layout, external body, armament and automotive mechanisms. It retained the river fording apparatus and trench crossing auxiliary wheels of its predecessor but moved the meatier 140 hp GAZ-41 gasoline powerplant to the rear; conversely the driver and vehicle commander sat at the front with greater forward visibility. Contributing to the car’s protracted development were GAZ SKB’s concurrent work on the BTR-60P armoured personnel carrier, creating a compatible transmission and cooling method for the new engine which was shredding the existing gears and cooking the crew compartment beyond 40⁰C. The original 12 volt electrical generator was replaced with a 24 volt device to enable the overpressure device’s activation when a nuclear detonation was detected. An early armament proposal was to transplant the KPVT heavy machine gun mounting from the T-10M heavy tank loader’s hatch. This idea was quickly discarded as it repeated the original BRDM’s problem of the gunner exposing himself to fire the weapon and negating the crew compartment’s sealing against NBC contamination. A more elegant solution was to adopt an enclosed dome turret incorporating both the KPVT and PKT machine guns which could also fit the BTR-60PB APC. As GAZ’s manufacturing lines were still tooled for the BRDM and committed to filling the Soviet Army’s Motor Rifle Regiments with BTR-60PBs, BRDM-2 production commencing in December 1964 was rather slow in completely replacing its predecessor for several years.
At seven tons, the finalized BRDM-2 offered significantly superior speed than the BRDM (neologically renamed ‘BRDM-1’), reaching a maximum of 100 km/h compared to its forbear’s 80 km/h peak. It continued the BRDM’s mobility on both land and in water. Its BPU-1 turret was a hand crank operated dome offering an elevation of +30⁰/-5⁰, which would prove unsatisfactory when responding to enemies firing from the high ground in Afghanistan’s mountains or the urban hellscapes of the current Syrian Civil War. Although still expected to focus on information gathering rather than exchanging blows, the monstrous KPVT (Krupnokaliberniy Pulemyot Vladimirova Tankoviy: ‘Vladimirov’s heavy calibre machine gun — armoured’) main armament offered the BRDM-2 more survivability against opposition ensconced in competing light armoured vehicles or cover. The Bardak’s cramped quarters and the size of its huge 14.5x114 mm cartridges permitted a maximum load of 500 rounds. It was more economical to handle hostile dismounts using the coaxially mounted PKT (Pulemyot Kalashnikov Tankoviy: Kalashnikov’s machine gun — armoured) 7.62x54R mm machine gun, 2000 total rounds which were stowed.
In addition to two main viewports for driving open in ‘quiet’ conditions, the BRDM-2 was provided with an array of observation and navigation devices to maintain visibility when ‘buttoned up’ and to fulfil its scouting job. A total of ten vision blocks were arrayed around the frontal aspect of the Bardak’s ‘brow’ for the commander and driver; an eleventh vision block was placed on the driver’s left side below this observation line to cover his 10 o’clock field of view. The driver was provided a night vision device and infrared headlights for low light movement. A further cluster of three blocks on both left and right sides on the scout car’s amidships position permitted the onboard scout troops to monitor its flanks. The car commander sitting on the right side of the driver could perform magnified observation with a swivelling 6x magnified periscopic sight with an infrared searchlight mounted directly above for facilitating nocturnal work. Naturally, the turret featured its own daylight scope alongside its gun sights to provide a more elevated view. A R-123 Magnoliya (Magnolia) VHF radio gave the BRDM-2’s scouts the means to report their findings to their superiors; orientation was facilitated by a TNA-2 navigation apparatus comprising a GPK-52 gyrocompass and PT-200Ts electrical controller. The TNA-2 was usually reserved for command variants of T-10M, T-54, T-55 and T-62 tanks but allocated to all BRDM-2s as standard owing to the relative isolation and autonomy that scouts operated in compared to line formations.
Unfortunately the BRDM-2 carried over several weaknesses from its forbear. Though it normally conveyed a crew of four rather than five, conditions were little better than a small submarine. Just two top mounted hatches were left on the roof, providing even fewer options for egressing the vehicle in emergencies. Its armour thickness had not increased much and its tires were not bullet proof, rendering the Bardak easy meat for any weapon heavier than small arms.
The Soviet Army’s Messenger and Missile Archer
Within the reconnaissance company of a Soviet Motor Rifle or Tank Regiment during the middle Cold War period (1960s to 70s), four Bardaks were assigned to the wheeled platoon; they provided a ‘middle option’ compared to the non armoured motorbike section and more heavily armed tracked platoon of BMP infantry fighting vehicles. A further four Bardaks were distributed in the MRR’s anti-tank missile battery; 1 in the battery’s headquarters and the remainder used as platoon leaders for its nine ATGM carrier versions. The VDV (Vozdushno Desantnye Voyska: Air landing forces — paratroopers) Divisions who were receiving the aerial assets to move armoured vehicles too added both the BRDM and BRDM-2 scout and tank destroyers to their orders of battle.
Motor Rifle or Tank Divisions took this distribution further with their reconnaissance battalions. Most of the recon battalion’s foraying strength lay in its two tracked recon companies and one reconnaissance assault company. The RAC commanded two recon platoons fielding a total of either 12 BRDM-2s or 6x BRDM-2s and 6x BTR series APCs.
The Bardak was not confined to dedicated scout formations in a Soviet MRD or TD; the organic air defence regiment (with 2K12 Kub or 9K33 Osa medium altitude SAM complexes) and anti tank battalion fielded up to five BRDM-2s to scout suitable placement sites for their weapons.
Just like its predecessor, the BRDM-2 was adapted into several tank destroyers and an NBC scout. If the Soviet Army’s tanks were likened to the heavy cavalry of antiquity, responsible for brawling with their foes in frontal assaults with guns replacing lances and swords, these ATGM carriers were comparable to longbow archers. Given their marginal armour, superior road speed and easier concealability, they were to ideally maintain stand off distance from the opposition and pick them off with missile strikes, thinning their numbers through guerrilla style shoot and scoot attacks.
Introduced in the late 1960s, the 9P122 and 9P124 carriers that eschewed the gun turret for their launcher racks still possessed MCLOS aimed weapons, with minor performance improvements over those on the BRDM. Only from 1969 onwards did more advanced missiles with Semi Automatic Command Line of Sight (SACLOS) aiming make an appearance. SACLOS was significantly less stressful to use because the missile would make course corrections so long as the gunner trained his aiming device’s crosshairs on the target. The 9P148 was the last and most advanced BRDM-2 tank destroyer derivative with the 9K113 launcher and 9M113 Konkurs of 1977; it was incorrectly termed ‘BRDM-3’ in the West.
Following eight years of tests before acceptance in 1968, a different kind of ‘archer’ in the form of the 9K31 Strela-1 (arrow) was designed to slay airborne adversaries. Distinguished as the first Soviet built mobile launcher for short range infrared guided surface to air missiles, a platoon of four were assigned to every Motor Rifle or Tank Regiment’s air defence battery; a companion platoon was stocked with four ZSU-23–4 self propelled anti-aircraft guns. In NATO speak it was designated ‘SA-9 Gaskin’. The 1.8 m long Nudelman 9M31 projectiles, travelling at 420 m/s (Mach 1.2) out to a 4200 m range and 3000 m ceiling, were a ground based analogue to the K-13A (NATO name: AA-2A Atoll) air to air missile. The K-13A itself was the Soviets’ answer to the US AIM-9B Sidewinder. It was common practice for two missiles to be launched at a single target to increase the kill probability. The 9K31 and the successor 9K31M were notable for deleting the trench crossing undercarriage; unusually they did not carry reload missiles on board.
Succeeding the BRDM-RKh Buran in the NBC scouting role, the BRDM-2RKh Delfin (Dolphin) retained the KZO-2 territorial markers while featuring a wider array of gas detectors, dosimeters, sampling devices and decontamination tools. Since the Delfin was expected to work in conditions where few survivors would be in a condition to fight and to make room for its special mission instruments, it dispensed with the KPVT heavy machine gun, leaving just the PKT and a reduced total load of 1250 rounds. Contrary to the 2019 HBO TV series Chernobyl, Colonel General Vladimir Pikalov (Commander of Chemical Troops) did not drive a truck with improvised lead lining into the toxic perimeter of the shattered Reactor Number 4; in reality it was a member of the Kiev Civil Defence Regiment in a BRDM-2RKh who performed this perilous task on the night of 26 April 1986.
Coup Participant, Counter Guerrilla Scout and Civil War Belligerent
Even though the original BRDM was exported to more than 20 Soviet client states, almost no sources seen by the author specifically mention its combat record. For instance, Egypt would have certainly used the BRDMs included in the Soviet arms shipments received before the June 1967 war with Israel but most literature would focus on the aircraft and tanks when discussing participating weapons and vehicles.
The succeeding BRDM-2’s first documented operation was in the Warsaw Pact’s coup de main against the Czechoslovakian reformist government of Alexander Dubcek in August 1968. As the Soviets wished to avoid a messy brawl with the highly rated Czechoslovakian Army (CSLA) who would respond forcefully to a ponderous mechanized assault, the invaders decided on a VDV led rapid decapitation strike against the Dubcek government. As an air transportable asset, the scout and ATGM BRDM-2s, along with ASU-57 and ASU-85 assault guns, were central to the VDV’s ability to arrest Dubcek and most of his officials within 11 hours of landing at Prague’s airport. Taking advantage of the CSLA’s confinement to barracks without direct orders from their incarcerated government, the BRDM-2s participated in the seizure of strategic assets such as radio stations and power plants and cowing the civilian population long enough for follow up Motor Rifle and Tank Divisions to completely subdue Czechoslovakia.
When Angola fell into civil war following the departure of its Portuguese colonial overlords in 1975, the Soviet Union supplied a diverse array of weapons and combat vehicles to prop up the Angolan Army (FAPLA) and the Marxist oriented MPLA guerrilla movement; BRDM-2s were amongst the arms shipments. Unfortunately, available sources on the Angolan civil war and Border War with South Africa do not specifically mention the BRDM-2’s performance specifically in these bush conflicts. Even though both FAPLA and MPLA outmatched their UNITA rivals and South African allies in technological prowess, they often abandoned scores of military equipment in the field; the Cubans were the only pro-Marxist faction who were competent with operating their Soviet supplied war material.
Afghanistan, where the Soviets were to expend a decade in a failed pacification campaign, was punishing for most of their military vehicles and the BRDM-2 was no exception. While the scout car relied on its agility to survive on an anticipated conventional battlefield in Central Europe, it was more likely to be shot at first in Afghanistan’s guerrilla environment where its thin armour and unprotected wheels were easily crumpled by shoulder launched rockets or mines. The Soviet reconnaissance doctrine of infiltrating an enemy’s frontline and avoiding fights until his operational reserve was discovered was turned upside down in Afghanistan, featuring a plain clothes enemy with non existent front lines rather than uniformed soldiers in obvious military encampments. Most Soviet recon units in the Afghan theatre were used in ambushes initiated by soldiers in observation posts who called in artillery fires on mujahideen supply caravans spotted by sensors, while intelligence was more likely to be collected from spies inside the mujahideen ranks or aerial reconnaissance. In these circumstances it was more likely that the BRDM-2 was employed in the daily chore of patrolling the lines of communications (roads and pathways) between major Soviet and Afghan regime garrisons and escorting supply convoys.
BRDM-2s of all variants have seen the most diverse career in Syria with multiple factions. The Syrian Arab Army (SyAA) first used them in their invasion of Israel’s northern borders in the 1973 Yom Kippur War and to oppose the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. When the ceasefire was declared, Syria’s BRDM-2s were used for ‘peacekeeping’ during their occupation of the latter country which lasted until 2005.
At the start of the civil unrest which led to full scale insurrection in 2011, most Bardaks were living a quiet retirement in military warehouses or repurposed by the regime’s police forces in suppressing the early protests. A few forlorn examples ended their lives as static pill boxes at government bases before falling to the anti-Assad opposition. While most rebel factions were eager to press any captured SyAA vehicle into service as transports or battle wagons, any BRDM-2 falling into ISIL control was just as likely to suffer the indignity (or honour, in ISIL’s view) of conversion into a suicide bomb carrier. The regime in turn has recalled a small number of tank destroyer 9P148s to either slay their turncoat brethren or demolish urban strongpoints.
The Fate of the Bardak
By the time BRDM-2 production ended in 1989, it was approaching the unhappy obsolescence of a retired 1970s porn star. What passed for their ‘observation equipment’ were little more than the same vision blocks found on tanks and troop carriers; as a product of 1960s tech the Bardak does not possess long range optical devices or thermal imagers similar to the LRAS3 found on some US M1127 Stryker reconnaissance vehicles. The modern Russian Army’s reconnaissance formations have found more favour with the GAZ Tigr series of armoured 4x4 utility cars. Specialized BRDM-2 variants were displaced in Soviet service by more advanced platforms derived from the tracked MT-LB multi-purpose tractor which offered more room and cross country mobility.
Several military plants have modernized the BRDM-2 to keep them relevant. AMZ (Arzamasskiy Mashinostroitelniy Zavod: Arzamass Engineering Plant), a subsidiary of GAZ, created the BRDM-2A upgrade which has been adopted by some MVD (Ministerstvo Vnutrennikh Del: Interior Ministry) formations. Its most significant alteration is the auxiliary wheels’ removal, freeing room for coffin shaped side doors patterned from the BTR-70 troop carrier. The -2A’s gun turret is inherited from the BTR-80 troop carrier, permitting a 60⁰ elevation against high rise adversaries. A further BTR-80 inheritance was a more stable suspension mated to bullet resistant tires, eliminating the unwelcome proclivity for tipping over when executing high speed turns. On the inside, the -2A swapped out the original petrol GAZ-41 for a diesel turbocharged YaMZ-236 rated at a meatier 155 hp; this engine is a scaled down version of MT-LB’s YaMZ-238. (Another source cites the replacement engine as a 136 hp D245.9 turbo diesel).
Poland is the largest Eastern European nation to operate the Bardak outside of the former Soviet Union, progressively pimping them up since 1996 to culminate in the BRDM-2M-96ik Szakal (Jackal) and BRDM-2M-97 Zbik-B. (Shrew). Both Polish models feature square side doors for expanded crew entry options in place of the deleted undercarriage, swapped out the KPVT main armament for a 12.7x108mm NSVT heavy machine gun and are locomoted by Iveco diesel engines. The Szakal was deployed by the Polish elements of KFOR and IFOR in the former Yugoslavia for peacekeeping, while the Zbik represented the most advanced BRDM-2 model in Iraq compared to its stock relatives in Mongolian or Ukrainian coalition member contingents following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003.