A step to nowhere: Ukraine’s flawed efforts to pitch armored vehicles in Asia-Pacific markets

Published: October 9, 2019 1:31:49 PM

In late August the state-owned Malyshev Plant (ZiM), the largest Ukraine’s manufacturer of armoured weapon systems was reported to be planning to cease the serial production of the BTR-4-family armoured personnel carriers (APCs) developed by the ZiM.

Nevertheless, Ukraine is still in efforts to shore up its positions on the armour maintenance and modernisation market of the Asia-Pacific region, trying to win orders for the repair and upgrade of Soviet- and even Chinese-made armoured systems. (Reuters file photo)Nevertheless, Ukraine is still in efforts to shore up its positions on the armour maintenance and modernisation market of the Asia-Pacific region, trying to win orders for the repair and upgrade of Soviet- and even Chinese-made armoured systems. (Reuters file photo)

By Antony Bell

In the early 2010s Ukraine received some orders for its medium and heavy vehicles from various countries, with Thailand’s acquisition of 49 Oplot main battle tanks (MBTs) being the largest one. However, the country’s declining industry cannot maintain those weapon systems, while its efforts to conquer new Asia-Pacific markets are failing.

In late August the state-owned Malyshev Plant (ZiM), the largest Ukraine’s manufacturer of armoured weapon systems was reported to be planning to cease the serial production of the BTR-4-family armoured personnel carriers (APCs) developed by the ZiM. The Lozovskiy Forging and Mechanical Plant (LKMZ), which produces armoured hulls for one of the BTR-4 manufacturers, did not supply the Zhitomir Armour Plant (ZhBZ) with its production due to very low manufacturing rates that did not exceed 1.5 hull per month. Therefore, an order of the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence (MoD) for 45 brand new BTR-4s could not be completed, threatening to stop the ZhBZ’s BTR-4 manufacturing line.

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The country’s main defence manufacturer, state concern Ukroboronprom (UOP), confirmed these problems related to the BTR-4 manufacturing. The Ukrainian-made steel, of which the APCs are built, has very low durability and is prone to micro-cracks that drastically limit the protection level of the hull. The specialists of the ZiM regularly have to repair the hulls during normal maintenance works in order to fix the failures of the hull manufacturer.

It should be mentioned that Iraq had previously acquired 420 BTR-4Es with the Parus combat module, but then broke the contract due to very low quality of the vehicles: the country’s military received 88 APCs, of which only 56 had their engines running. Moreover, almost all those 56 BTR-4Es had cracks in their hulls, and the Iraqi MoD had to scrap the vehicles. The Indonesian Marines (Korps Marinir) also declined to procure the BTR-4s due to the problems related to the platforms’ poor seaworthiness. Therefore, Ukraine may cease the manufacturing of the BTR-4 that is being promoted as the country’s most sophisticated APC.

The same case is with the Oplot MBT. In 2011 Ukraine won the largest order for the Oplots worth USD240 million: Thailand ordered 49 tanks to be delivered to 2015. However, due to the poor economic performance of the Ukrainian defence industry, the Pacific country got the first batch of some 20 Oplots only in 2016. The agreement’s schedule was extended to 2017; however, due to slow rates of its implementation Thailand revealed an intention to break the contract. Initially, the country was planning to get two Oplot batches with 49 tanks in each, but after the delivery of the first consignment Bangkok decided to switch to the acquisition of the Chinese-made VT-4 MBT. The real technical specifications of the Oplot tanks also failed to meet the original requirements: in particular, the vehicles have poor armour protection and low-quality gun stabilizers, and the manufacturer’s technical support is not sufficient. The Pacific country is now the only operator of the Oplot MBTs: even the Ukrainian military has decided to walk away from the acquisition of the vehicle, modernising the Cold War-era T-64B/BV and T-72A tanks to a relatively modern standard.

Nevertheless, Ukraine is still in efforts to shore up its positions on the armour maintenance and modernisation market of the Asia-Pacific region, trying to win orders for the repair and upgrade of Soviet- and even Chinese-made armoured systems. The UOP has confirmed, for instance, the concern’s intention to maintain and upgrade Bangladesh’s armour, including the MBT-2000, Type 69-II, and Type 59G MBTs and the BTR-80 APCs. The Ukrainian defence industry has no experience of repair and modernisation of Chinese-made heavy armour, except for the 6TD-1 and 6TD-2 engines that have been integrated with the MBT-2000 tank; neither does Ukraine have technical terms of reference for the upgrade of such vehicles. The country’s armour repair plants could be involved in the maintenance and modernisation of early models of the BTR-80; at the same time, the late BTR-80s have been fitted with modern sighting systems that cannot be overhauled by Ukraine.

The UOP also lacks capabilities and hardware to update modern Russian- and Chinese-made armour. The company could only provide repair and upgrade of the T-54/55 and T-64 MBTs and the BMP-1 infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs), using its Soviet-age stocks of spare parts. Moreover, the concern cannot offer brand new reliable armoured vehicles, focusing only on the rebuilding of surplus tanks and IFVs to support systems (for instance, the latest development of the Lviv Amour Plant (LBZ), the Zubr (Bison) armoured recovery vehicle, is based on the chassis of the T-55 main battle tank, the production of which was completed more than 40 years ago). Moreover, the UOP produces no spare parts for machine tools and cannot establish facilities for armour testing and checking procedures. Therefore, Ukraine’s efforts to upgrade the armoured vehicles of the Bangladeshi military and the armies of other Asia-Pacific countries seem to be forlorn.

(The author is Moscow based independent Military Analyst. Views expressed are personal.)

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