Endlessly Adaptable, the MT-LB has been the Soviet and Russian Army’s All Terrain Pack Horse and Squire for 50 Years

Exploring the Career of the MT-LB multipurpose artillery tractor and the MT-LBu command utility vehicle.

Located 185 km (115 miles) south of Murmansk, Apatity (population 55200) does not usually stand out as a tourist destination for non-Russian travellers. Along with a Geological Museum and scientific institutes dedicated to studying the economic and biomedical effects on human habitation in Arctic regions, Apatity’s official website exalts its All-Russian Plant Growing Institute for holding the largest collection of potatoes in all of Russia or even globally. In January 2018 however, an unnamed Russian man briefly made Apatity world famous: crashing a stolen MT-LB artillery tractor into a closed convenience store to steal a bottle of wine, he had found a novel use for a vehicle that has been endlessly adapted for military and civilian uses around the world.

If Soviet armoured fighting vehicles and artillery were a modern analogue for knights and siege engines in their nation’s ground forces, the MT-LB (Mnogotselevoy Tyagach Legky Bronirovanny: Multi-purpose light armoured towing tractor) would serve the role of squire and packhorse since it was originally designed as a prime mover for towing artillery guns and conveying their crews over nearly any terrain. Known to Soviet troops as motolyga and emtelbeshka, the MT-LB and its extended MT-LBu cousin would see a massive portfolio expansion to its support duties in both military and civilian roles: orchestrating fire missions as artillery command reconnaissance vehicles, roaming the Chernobyl nuclear disaster zone as an NBC surveyor, armoured ambulance, rural fire fighter and arctic explorer. Their husks would also make for offensive (rather than support) combatants, being converted into self propelled howitzers, mortar carriers, air defence vehicles and anti-tank guided missile launchers. Demand for the MT-LB would exceed the Soviet Union’s production capacity to the extent that it was license built in Bulgaria and Poland. Despite the MT-LB family’s ubiquity in the armies of nearly 30 countries, the Western world’s focus on more threatening systems like nuclear weapons, long range air defence missiles and tanks has resulted in scarce English language exposure of this unassuming little tractor.

The MT-LB’s birth began in the 1950s when the Soviet Army desired a fully tracked, highly mobile tractor which could attain 60 km/h (37 mph), carry a 2.5 ton payload and tow 6.5 tons. An additional requirement was full obturation against contamination by weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The inadequacies of existing tractors hastened the urgency of a replacement too.

The petite AT-P (Artilleriyskiy Tyagach Polubronirovanny: partially armoured artillery tractor), based on the chassis of the Mytishchi Machine Building Plant’s ASU-57 air portable anti-tank gun, was approaching obsolescence. As an open topped vehicle it offered no protection from shrapnel and was not sealable against WMD effects. The larger 8.5 ton AT-L (Artilleriyskiy Tyagach Logkiy: light artillery tractor), in production since 1952, was reasonably fast at 42 km/h but had its own problems. Repeated travel over rough terrain created excessive vibration in the AT-L’s return rollers, cracking the sidewalls of the chassis. Built from a ZiS-164 truck on top of tank threads, its non-armoured cab precluded hermetical sealing against NBC contamination. The height of the vehicle made it tough to conceal, especially when paired with anti-tank guns in an ambush position. The AT-L’s creators, Kharkov Tractor Factory (KhTZ), tried installing a stronger engine and transmission as a remedy but the proposed powerplant’s weight and mass tipped the AT-L’s nose forward, imposing additional pressure on its suffering frontal roadwheels and blocking out the driver’s vision.

In 1960, the project team of KhTZ Chief Designer Anatoly Belousov commenced work on the Obiekt (object) 6 prototype. Belousov’s foresight while meeting the military’s requirements on speed and payload capacity was to give the vehicle endless adaptability options with a standardized engine, chassis, transmission, internal electrics and controls. Contrasting with the AT-L’s front mounted powerplant, the Obiekt 6 placed its engine in the centre, offset to the left if viewed from behind with the transmission mounted right in front of it. Siting the vehicle’s heaviest component in the centre of gravity bestowed unmatched mobility and low ground pressure for overcoming the Soviet Union’s legendary mud and snow, while its sealed cabin granted river crossing capability with little prior preparation.

Following four years of tests, including exposure to Arctic conditions in the Soviet Union’s northern reaches and the engine choking dust of Turkmenistan, the now type classified MT-LB was accepted by the Soviet Army in 1964. However it took a further three years for them to reach the army in quantity as KhTZ had to install tooling for the new tractors. Design plans for the MT-L, a cheaper non-armoured counterpart, were transferred to Semipalatinsk (present day Semey, Kazakhstan) for future production. This parallel development was doomed to languish into obscurity without achieving the mass production status of its armoured sibling since it was superfluous to the military’s requirements.

The Start of a Long Career

The vanilla model MT-LB’s foremost assignment was to be a prime mover for the MT-12 Rapira 100mm towed anti-tank gun, which entered service in 1970 to replace the preceding T-12. Even though towed anti-tank guns seemed anachronistic given the availability of easily transportable and more concealable anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) and shoulder fired rocket launchers, the Soviet Army still valued them as a reliable technology which made up for the range limitations of portable launchers and the inconsistent performance of 1970s era ATGMs.

According to the US Army publication FM-100–2–3: The Soviet Army: Troops, Organization and Equipment, a total of fourteen MT-LBs and twelve MT-12 guns were authorized to the anti-tank battalion found within Motor Rifle Divisions (MRD). While the MRD’s BTR wheeled armoured personnel carriers and BMP infantry fighting vehicles comprised the manoeuvre force for offensive action, the anti-tank battalion’s less mobile MT-12 guns were employed in the static defensive role for protecting the division headquarters, lines of communication and other sensitive locations. The Anti-Tank Regiment of a Combined Arms Army — a gargantuan formation fielding up to five Motor Rifle and Tank Divisions — performed the same role on a larger scale with a total strength of thirty-six MT-12s and forty-two MT-LBs to move them around. An unusual quirk arose early in the MT-LB’s towing job: it was so enthusiastically fast, the bullet resistant gusmatik tyre filler of its limbered guns overheated and burst dramatically.

Along with superior mobility, the MT-LB’s roomier interior made it a viable candidate for weapon carriers and special purpose vehicles; only a fraction of them can be discussed in this article due to space limitations. On several occasions, MT-LB derived platforms displaced similar systems built on the BRDM-2 ‘Bardak’ armoured scout car. Most notable of these was the three man operated 9K35 Strela-10 (NATO: SA-13 Gopher), a short range air defence (SHORAD) vehicle which replaced the 9K31 Strela-1 (NATO: SA-9 Gaskin) in 1976 after a seven year development period. According to African bush war specialist AJ Venter in Gunship Ace, the first of these squat airplane swatters fell into Western hands when the South Africans bequeathed a few abandoned Angolan samples from their 1966–89 Border War to the Americans. Air defence batteries within a Motor Rifle or Tank Regiment were allotted a four vehicle platoon of Strela-10s working alongside a sister platoon of ZSU-23–4 Shilka mobile anti-aircraft guns. Even when the 2S6 Tunguska combined gun — radar guided missile system succeeded the ZSUs from 1983 onwards, the Strela-10s stayed because their infrared guided missiles provided an alternative means of engaging adversaries if electronic jamming incapacitated the 2S6s. Each Strela-10 unit boasted four Nudelman missiles with a further four reloads; their engagement range was 800m — 5000m against airborne targets flying at a 25m — 3500m altitude.

The anticipation that nuclear and other WMD would turn much of Europe into a radioactive hellscape if war erupted between the Soviet Union and its Western adversaries created a need for NBC reconnaissance vehicles to identify and mark contaminated regions for avoidance or as a warning to adopt protective measures. The existing BRDM-2RKh and BRDM-2RKhb Delfin (dolphin)’s habited section was hermetically sealed against toxic conditions, but the crew still had to drive in the considerable discomfort of their protective suits because the interior would be compromised once the contamination specialist disembarked to perform his tasks outside. The MT-LB derived RKhM Kashalot (sperm whale)’s larger space permitted the driver and commander’s forward compartment to be partitioned from the rear compartment where the specialist resided. Just like its predecessor, the Kashalot mounted radiological, chemical and germ warfare substance detection sensors and the KZO-2 marking dispenser. KZO-2 was a rack holding several pennants with their staked ends pointing downwards when deployed in the ready position. These pennants were driven into the ground with a pyrotechnic charge for marking poisoned territory when a crew member pressed a button within the vehicle, reducing the need for anyone to step outside. The chemical protection platoons within Motor Rifle, Tank and SAM regiments were authorized three Kashalots; the chemical protection company, reconnaissance battalion and artillery regiment of a Motor Rifle or Tank Division added a fourth RKhM-K command version. The Kashalot’s most extensive use occurred in peacetime following the detonation of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant near Pripyat, Ukraine in April 1986. Unfortunately, the conclusion of their mission resulted in many of these scouts rotting away in vehicle graveyards as they were too corrupted with radiation to justify the cost and time of decontamination.

Approved in 1971 and received by the Soviet Army in 1973, the four man SNAR-10 (stantsiya nazemnoy artilleriyskoy razvedki: ground artillery reconnaissance station) Leopard is probably the only MT-LB variant that cannot swim. This handicap is due to the weight of its ‘Big Fred’ battlefield surveillance radar, a 35 GHz two-dimensional pulse/doppler apparatus capable of detecting ground vehicles up to a range of 23 km within a 30–50 m accuracy. The SNAR-10 also possesses a veritable array of radios, field telephones, topographic navigation equipment and an optical scope so that the locations of enemy formations can be passed on to artillery units for rapid destruction. While the SNAR-10 can adjust artillery fire through accurate tracking of friendly impact strikes, it only has a limited counter-battery application because it is not precise enough to pinpoint the origin of hostile incoming shells and rockets. One SNAR-10 was allocated to the self propelled howitzer regiment of a Motor Rifle or Tank Division; smaller howitzer battalions found within Motor Rifle and Tank Regiments used the BMP derived PRP-3 or PRP-4 mounting the shorter ranged ‘Small Fred’ radar.

Demand for the MT-LB by the Soviet Army and Warsaw Pact militaries exceeded KhTZ’s production capacity, necessitating outsourced manufacture beyond the USSR’s borders. Bulgaria’s Beta Plant commenced MT-LB construction in 1972, followed by Poland’s Stalowa Wola Steelworks four years later. Most vanilla MT-LBs built in Poland were exported back to the Soviet Union; their military retained just a few to teach their soldiers basic driving skills prior to assignment in MT-LB special mission derivatives unique to Polish design.

MT-LBu: A Player and Conductor in the Artillery and Air Defence Orchestra

Even as the MT-LB was entering mass production in 1967, Belousov’s design cohort were busy working on its longer, meatier cousin. Obiekt 26, type classified as the MT-LBush (udlinionnjye shassi: extended chassis), was about 0.75m longer, added a seventh road wheel on each side and swapped the 240 hp YaMZ-238 engine with the imaginatively named YaMZ-238N rated at 300 hp. When fortified with a rotating turret housing a D32 (2A31) 122mm howitzer, the resulting sixteen ton 2S1 Gvozdika (carnation) self propelled howitzer became a mainstay of Soviet regimental level artillery from 1974 onwards. Capable of slinging high explosive rounds up to 15.3 km (9.5 miles) away, the D32 was an adaptation of the towed D30 (2A18) howitzer, albeit with a bore evacuator and a double baffle muzzle brake replacing the slotted type of its forebear. An advantage of the 2S1 over heavier SPHs like the 2S3 Akatsiya (acacia) was that it could swim across rivers, obviating the need for bridges or landing craft. Each self propelled howitzer battalion found within a Soviet Tank Regiment or Motor Rifle Regiment with BMPs was authorized a total of eighteen 2S1s divided amongst three batteries; MRRs equipped with BTR series troop carriers retained the D30.

Further development of the MT-LBush resulted in Obiekt 10, production name MT-LBu (unifitsirovanniy: unified; nicknamed margaritka for ‘daisy’); this tracked van would eclipse the earlier MT-LBush to the point that most English language literature considers the 2S1 to be based on this carriage. If the 2S1 and other SPHs were considered the ‘players’ in the artillery ‘orchestra’, then the multitude of radar and command platforms built on the MT-LBu’s body were undoubtedly the conductors.

The 1V12 Mashina-S, also identified by the Russian abbreviation KSAUO (kompleks sredsty avtomatizirovannogo upravleniya ognem — fire control complex), was a collective term for the 1V13, 14, 15 and 16. First accepted in 1973, these six — seven man crewed artillery command reconnaissance vehicles (ACRVs) dealt with the mathematics and radio communications of fire direction, range finding and observation for most echelons of Soviet artillery formations like a regiment’s 2S1 Gvozdika battalion or division level 2S3 Akatsiya regiment.

In the specialty of air defence, 1970s era short range systems like the Strela-1, Strela-10 and ZSU-23–4 carried their own onboard radars but their range was quite modest, overly sensitive to ground clutter and offered intermittent performance against supersonic aircraft at close range. Even though they were grouped together as platoons, these systems operated individually in searching and tracking hostile airborne targets. The addition of the MT-LBu derived PPRU-M and PPRU-M1 battery command post, mounting a 9S80 Ovod radar (NATO: Dog Ear), granted early warning detection with its 34 km detection range against targets flying above 500m altitude, compared to the 20km acquisition and 10km tracking range of a ZSU-23–4 relying on its own RPK-2 Tobol radar. Additionally, the PPRU-1M could orchestrate a co-operative counter-air response by handing over target information to the shooters of its associated air defence battery or to MANPADS operators who possessed a 1L15 or 1L110 portable electronic data receiver.

A Need for Bigger Guns

Since artillery tractors were intended to move guns and howitzers to the battlefield in the fastest possible time and let them do the shooting once emplaced, the MT-LB prioritized speed and mobility over firepower and protection. The basic MT-LB tractor and some of its special mission derivatives were merely armed with a single 7.62mm PKT machine gun enclosed in a dinky TKB-01–1 turret; the on board passengers could boost this modest deterrent by aiming their rifles through four loopholes in the sidewalls and rear doors. The MT-LB’s armour plate was 7mm — 14mm thick, enough to stop conventional small arms rounds and glancing shrapnel but a mere inconvenience against automatic cannons and portable rockets.

Two factors influenced the appearance of heavier anti-personnel weapons on the MT-LB: its use as a substitute armoured personnel carrier in the USSR’s Arctic regions and the exposure to guerrilla and irregular warfare, starting with Afghanistan. In the far north and east of the USSR, constant deep snow and mud instigated the issuing of the wide tracked MT-LBV and MT-TWT as infantry carriers rather than the usual BTR and BMP series. (The MT-LB and MT-LBV have a ground pressure of 0.45 kg/cm2 and 0.28 kg/cm2, compared to the BMP-2’s 0.63 kg/cm2.) Replacing the original PKT machine gun with a 12.7mm NSVT machine gun in a swivel mount, resulting in the MT-LBVM, was an improvement in range, penetration and gun elevation but was no substitute for the 14.5mm KPVT of a BTR-80 or the 30mm 2A42 cannon of a BMP-2.

In the guerrilla warfare environment of Afghanistan where the distinction between front lines and safe rear areas disappeared, the MT-LB faced the same dangers of mujahideen attack as tanks and troop carriers while executing its artillery moving duties. Owing to the prevalent tactic of guerrillas shooting from elevated positions in the Afghan mountains, the MT-LB’s shallow turret elevation of +40 ⁰/-5 ⁰ precluded adequate retaliation. One solution involved the use of MT-LBVMs with the NSVT heavy machine gun; another was to convert a stock MT-LB into a mortar carrier. The most prolific weapon candidate was the 82mm 2B9 Vasilek (cornflower), a towed automatic monstrosity capable of flinging a salvo of four rounds up to 4.27 km away. Contrary to factory built systems like the Strela-10 mobile SAM or 9P149 Shturm-S anti-tank missile carrier, the MT-LB mortar carrier was a field expedient accomplished by bolting the Vasilek onto its roof with scrap metal salvaged from the numerous truck carcasses left from mujahideen ambushes. A more prominent field expedient observed in Middle Eastern war zones and the Donbass conflict in eastern Ukraine are MT-LBs with twin barrelled ZU-23–2 anti aircraft guns bolted onto the roofs.

Keeping the Motolyga Evergreen

It appears that the MT-LB will not be replaced in the foreseeable future. In 1985–86, research was begun on an artillery tractor named Planer (Glider) with hydrostatic transmission, improved crew habitability, thicker armour and the ability to tow artillery pieces exceeding 6.5 tons. The project quickly withered as Planer was a lot more expensive, mechanically complex and weighed nearly 15 tons while not offering significantly better performance than its predecessor. In the meanwhile, existing MT-LB and MT-LBu based weapons platforms and special mission units were continuously modernized to the present day.

Following this trend, the original Strela-10SV dating to 1976 was displaced by successive Strela-10M, 10M2 and 10M3 variants offering increasing kill probability in 1979, 1981 and 1989. The 1973 vintage SNAR-10 Leopard was developed into the SNAR-10M and SNAR-10M1 Panther which raised its maximum radar range from 23 km to 40km. The PPRU-M1 with the analogue 9S80/9S80M/9S80M1 ‘Dog Ear’ radar has advanced into the digital age with the adoption of the PPRU-M1–2 mounting the solid state 9S80M1–2.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union deprived Russia of the means to produce new MT-LBs, since KhTZ was in the newly independent Ukraine. Even though the MT-LB’s design makes it nearly irreplaceable, the age and wear on extant units up to forty years old has necessitated an overhaul of their automotive components. Remdizel JSC, a subsidiary of the KAMAZ truck manufacturing corporation based in the Tatarstan Republic of Russia’s Volga Federal District has assumed this august responsibility. Akin to hip replacement surgery on senior citizens, Remdizel’s overhaul project replaces the MT-LB’s 240hp YaMZ 238 engine with a lighter 360 hp KAMAZ 740.50, a new hydromechanical transmission and new closed pin tracks; these changes remove 800 kg from the unit’s weight.

Scores of MT-LBus surplus to the Russian military have found civilian jobs as forest fire fighting vehicles. Along with the obvious advantage of a tracked vehicle’s ability to overcome marshy terrain, the MT-LBu fire tractor can simply run over flames which would melt a regular fire truck’s tires. Being clad in armoured plating grants additional reassurance when closing with hazardous material conflagrations at munitions depots, crashed aircraft or chemical plants, while its fording talents permit the MT-LBu fire tractor to simply wade into a river to quench a fire from an unassailable position and refill its water reservoirs directly.

Dysfunctional middle aged man. Biographer on weapons of death.

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