Soviet/Russian Armoured Trains from the Cold War to the Present Day

The end of the Great Patriotic War did not see armoured trains disappear from the Soviet inventory. An armoured train was active during the suppression of the Hungarian Uprising in 1956 and also, up until the 1960s, another was permanently parked in a tunnel in a suburb of Berlin, according to former East German railway workers. Three important periods mark the modern history of these trains: the Sino-Soviet conflict, the wars in Chechnya (1994–6 then 1999–2000), and since 2010, the maintenance of order in the face of the growing insecurity in the republics to the south of Russia (Chechnya, Daghestan and Ingushetia). In addition, the continuing latent rebellion in the Caucasus region requires that appropriate railway security measures remain in force.

Between the late 1950s and the early 1960s, tension between the Soviet Union and China mounted over the question of the delineation of the frontier between the two countries, and in particular the status of the island of Damansky (Zhenbao to the Chinese) situated on the River Ussuri which separates the two countries.11 In March 1968, two weeks of fighting ended in a Soviet victory, but both sides continued to build up their forces for a future confrontation. On the Soviet side, the under-developed state of the region12 made the garrisons almost entirely dependent on the Transbaikal and Trans-Siberian railway lines, as much for resupply as for troop movement. The latter line is situated only some 100km (63 miles) from the frontier and is therefore vulnerable to a mass attack. With the whole railway network plus 1,200 sensitive points to protect, only armoured trains had the necessary firepower, flexibility and mobility.

Locomotive Design Bureau No 65 at the Kharkov factory, which had specialised in the production of T-64 tanks and locomotives since it was opened, was charged with the design work. Railway and armoured vehicle components were taken ‘off the shelf’, copying the ideas followed during the Great Patriotic War. Initially, the turrets were to come from T-55 tanks and ZSU 23-4 Shilka anti-aircraft armoured vehicles, armed with four 23mm AZP-2313 cannon. The use of a diesel locomotive circumvented the problems of electricity or alternatively water supply. The locomotive was built in Lioudinovo, and the armoured wagons in Kalinine and Marioupol. The train was ready in 1970 and was tested, but never entered service as the frontier tensions had decreased.

When tension once more increased, the employment of armoured trains was again considered during the establishment of the Far East central command structure in February 1979.

The new concept was modular: each armoured train was to comprise a central train and several autonomous units, with tanks embarked. Each of these armoured attack groups was to be formed with a TGM-14 armoured diesel shunter, positioned in between two flat wagons carrying T-55 or T-62 tanks. At the rear of each platform wagon, a demountable armoured casemate was intended for an infantry detachment, who could observe using periscopes, communicate by radio and fire through loopholes. Each train could include up to five groups of two tanks plus twenty-five men. Thus organised, a train could cover 500km (300 miles) of the rail network, each group covering 100km (60 miles).

The central train was formed from an armoured TG-16 diesel locomotive, a command wagon protected against NBC (Nuclear Bacteriological and Chemical) effects, since it was thought these trains could enter contaminated zones in the event of a nuclear attack. The wagon was armed with two 23mm ZU14 23-4. Additional anti-aircraft defence was provided by an armoured wagon equipped with either two ZU-23-4 or ZU-23-2 mounts. The reconnaissance element was provided by two flat wagons transporting PT-76 amphibious tanks which were protected by lateral armour plates 2m (6ft 6in) high, and able to disembark. The rail reconnaissance company was formed from eight BTR-40 ZhD vehicles, which could be carried over longer distances on flat wagons fitted with rails. In 1969, several BTR-40s were converted into trolleys by using the same method developed by GAZ for the wartime BA64-ZhD. Disembarking them took less than five minutes.

The four trains which were built never went into action, and were stored at Chita, being regularly used for exercises. One of the trains helped with clearing the track of derailed rolling stock in 1986. In January 1990 they were reactivated to go into action during the uprisings in Baku and Sumqayit, to keep open the two key routes linking the South Caucasus with Russia. They arrived on station after the recapture of Baku, but remained active to protect the railway convoys. At the end of their tour of duty, they were gradually dismantled, with the exception of the locomotives.

When the Chechen war began, the railway engineers put a certain number of specialised trains into service, incorrectly described as ‘armoured trains’, which were intended to maintain and repair the rail network and remove mines. It was only at the end of 2002 that four genuine armoured trains were employed, named Amur, Baikal, Don and Terek. Only the last of these included armoured wagons from trains previously taken out of service.

Their composition was generally as follows, with variations in the number and order of the wagons:

– flat wagon with ZU-23-2.

– flat wagon with BMP-2.

– flat wagon with T-62.

– armoured wagon, with fixed turret, for infantry weapons and grenade launchers.

– equipment wagon.

– one or two coaches for the crew.

– two or three safety wagons (carrying sand or ballast).

– one or two flat wagons carrying a signals vehicle.

– locomotive.

In October 2002 a fifth train, the Cosima Minine, joined the base at Hankala, which served as the supply depot for the trains. It had been built by an OMON unit on the base of commercial rolling stock, armoured with all the materials that could be found on site. In particular it transported a BMP-2 with additional protection provided by sleepers and other materials, which were also used on the other wagons of the train.

The armoured trains in the Caucasus are credited with an impressive performance, such as the clearing of mines from 1000km (over 600 miles) of track, the escorting of 100 troop trains, and reconnaissance missions covering the 32,000km (20,000 miles) of track between Russia and Chechnya.

Since 2004, the Russian Army has had a specialised railway unit, the ZhDk (Zheleznodoroznhiki), split into four railway corps, twenty-eight brigades and an unspecified number of units, in charge of military transportation, and responsible for their correct functioning and their protection. The two armoured trains in the North Caucasus (Ingushetia) were activated by the 76th ZhDk based at Volvograd.

With the return of insecurity in 2010, the Cosima Minine, the sole armoured train deployed by the Interior Ministry, was reconstructed and fitted with modern equipment. For mine clearance work, it is equipped with an M4K Kamysh which interferes with the radio detonation of mines up to 20km (12.5 miles) away. Its anti-aircraft defence is provided by two ZPU-4 armoured vehicles, ten AGS-17 automatic chaff launchers and a number of machine guns. Firepower is provided by a 30mm 2A42 cannon, and the 9P135 M anti-tank missiles of a BMP-2 armoured vehicle carried on a flat wagon and protected by a side wall of sandbags. As necessary, one or two T-62 tanks (115mm gun) can be added to the train. On its return to service in around December 2013, it was stationed either at Hankala to the west of Grozny or at Mozdok in North Ossetia, along with other armoured trains.

The other trains were supposed to have been dismantled after the end of the operations in the Caucasus. At the time of writing that order has been rescinded, the Russian Defence Minister having announced their reactivation as part of the modernisation of the armed forces. Certain sources consider that, apart from their value in asymmetric warfare, they could form excellent platforms for the transport and firing of self-propelled artillery pieces such as the brand-new 152mm 2S19 Msta-S howitzer.

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