Russia’s Counter-Insurgency Armored Trains Enter the Electronics Age

Andrew McGregor

AIS Special Report, February 28, 2017

Strelnikov’s Red Army Armored Train in Doctor Zhivago

Armored trains have a place in the popular imagination, having been featured in films such as Doctor Zhivago (1965), The Train (1964) and the James Bond thriller Goldeneye (1995). More fantastic armored trains are now encountered in popular video games and Japanese anime. Hundreds of these menacing iron giants armed with formidable naval guns once roamed the expanses of Eastern Europe and Asia, but today there are only four left in service; the Russian Defense Ministry’s armored trains Terek, Baikal, Amur and Don (like the cruisers of the sea, these cruisers of the rails are given individual names). The Terek is the Russian Army’s sole factory-made, purpose-designed armored train, the others having been converted from various civilian rail cars.

A Weapon Built for Russian Expanses

Russia has an extensive history of armored train use, largely due to the difficulty of moving large numbers of troops across the vast road-less regions of early 20th century Russia. Large numbers of armored trains were deployed on the mobile battlefields of World War One’s Eastern Front, but the Russian Civil War of 1917-22 saw a virtual explosion in their use, with over 200 in operation at one point.

Many of the White Russian trains passed into the service of northern Chinese warlords before falling into the hands of the Japanese after their 1931 invasion of Manchuria. Both Russia and Germany deployed armored trains on the Eastern Front in World War Two. Russian armored trains patrolled the wild east Siberian frontier during the Sino-Soviet border conflict of the 1960s and appeared again during the 1990 Nagorno-Karabakh War. During the most intensive phases of the Chechen-Russian War armored trains were successful in performing reconnaissance missions, de-mining operations and the escort of military trains carrying troops and equipment.

The defensive weaknesses of armored trains (vulnerability to ambush, derailment, capture etc.) were recognized early and by 1919 it was common for each Russian armored train to carry a desantniy ortryad (raiding team) that could be quickly deployed alongside train-borne tanks or other armored vehicles. With fire called in by forward observers deployed from the train, the armored train can provide powerful fire-support to drive away or destroy enemy forces. In modern times these raiding teams include BMP-2 infantry fighting vehicles and T-62 or T-72 tanks. While mounted on flatcars, the more vulnerable sides of these vehicles are protected by timber and sandbags. The tanks have a secondary role as tractors in the event of a derailment.

Armored trains may also use small railed reconnaissance vehicles known as draisines to scout the track ahead of the main train.  The trains typically carry the material and trained men necessary to quickly repair damaged track as immobility places a train in danger of ambush or capture.

French Armored Train on Counter-Insurgency Operations in Indo-China

Use in Counter-Insurgency

Modern armored trains are vulnerable to air raids or artillery strikes, making them suitable only for counter-insurgency operations where such capabilities are typically unavailable to insurgents. Armored trains were first used for counter-insurgency work by the Austro-Hungarian Army in 1848. Later armored trains were used on counter-insurgency missions by the British against the Boers in South Africa, the Germans against Partisans on the Eastern Front in World War Two and by the French against the Viet Minh in Indo-China. Their use enabled railway troops to secure important transportation links from sabotage and provide fire support to infantry and armor.

Though armored trains have become vulnerable to modern tank tactics and armor-piercing munitions, their rail support allows the trains to carry a weight in weapons and armor that would crush paved roads or have mobility difficulties on certain types of ground. Expendable flatcars (often loaded with sandbags) are typically deployed ahead of the train to absorb the initial impact of explosives or derailment.

Antiaircraft gun of the Armored Train Terek. The Baikal is to the left. This photo was likely taken at the Russian Armored Train base at Khankala, Chechnya. © Photo: otvaga2004.ru

Modernizing Russia’s Armored Train Fleet

The return of the Russian Defense Ministry’s four armored trains to service after a brief retirement is part of an expensive program to modernize and expand Russia’s armed forces by 2020, though sanctions and economic difficulties have hindered implementation.  The trains were operated by Russian Railway Troops (Zheleznodorozhniki -ZhDk) in the North Caucasus from 2002 to 2009, at which point Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov decided the trains had outlived their usefulness as the Chechen insurgency wound down. Serdyukov was sacked over corruption allegations in 2012 and his order to dismantle the trains was never carried out. His replacement, Sergey Shoigu, had seen the trains in action and decided to bring them back into service (International Business Times, August 28, 2015).

Armored train Terek © Photo: otvaga2004.ru

The four corps of ZhDk railway troops are under the authority of the Defense Ministry and are responsible for securing and repairing Russia’s railway network during military operations or natural disasters.

There is no sign yet that the Defense Ministry trains will be re-joined by the Russian Interior Ministry’s sole armored train, the largely improvised Kozma Minin, which served in the Caucasus in the periods 1994-2002 and 2011-2012 before being sent for a technological overhaul in 2013. The Kozma Minin operated separately from the Army’s trains, carrying out missions for Interior Ministry forces.

Diagram of the Baikal and Amur armored trains: The Baikal (top) features 1) cover platform 2) anti-aircraft gun 3) locomotive 4) kitchen and dining car 5) sleeper car 6) radio station 7) headquarters 8) jammer; the Amur (bottom) features 1) freight car 2) anti-aircraft gun 3) locomotive 4) kitchen and dining car 5) sleeper car 6) sleeper car 7) radio station 8) jammer 9) headquarters 10) freight car 11) freight car, 12) crane 13) cover platform© Politrussia.com

The Defense Ministry’s overhauled armored trains now include an electronic warfare wagon capable of jamming enemy communications and radar. New tactical protocols now allow the trains to operate in tandem with helicopter support, a potentially lethal combination for insurgents operating anywhere close to the railway system (Sputnik News.com, August 15, 2016). Russia’s armored trains have also been fitted out with anti-mine technology, including the Kamysh M4K system, which uses white noise to interfere with radio-controlled IEDs at a distance of up to 20 meters. Firepower is now provided, not by naval guns, but by powerful, rapid-firing twin 23 mm ZU-23 anti-aircraft guns (MK.RU, August 12, 2016). These guns are protected by shields and their crews have access to armored shelters on both ends of the gun-car. Heavy use of camouflage nets helps reduce the visibility of the armored trains as targets.

Armored Train Baikal © Photo: otvaga2004.ru

Amur and Baikal undertook intensive drills in Volgograd, Krasnodar, North Ossetia and Crimea in August 2016. One of the high points of the exercise was the construction by railroad troops of a 1300-foot long pontoon bridge over the Volga capable of supporting the armored trains (Russia Today, August 17, 2016; Video of the operation at Vesti.Ru, August 17, 2016).

Russia is also re-introducing military trains equipped with the new MS-26 Rubezh light intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), armed with multiple nuclear warheads (the whole system is known as “Barguzin”). An earlier version of these missile trains was deployed from 1984 to 1994, but the enormous weight of these missiles damaged the rail system and the entire project was shut down in 2005, partly due to strategic weapons treaties (Russian Beyond the Headlines, May 17, 2016).  The new, much lighter missile trains will be disguised by the inclusion of normal freight cars and wagons in the train to prevent their easy detection from space (Independent, November 23, 2016).

 

Russian Interior Ministry Revives its Armored Train in the North Caucasus

Andrew McGregor

May 14, 2013

In an effort to control “banditry” and rebel activity in the North Caucasus region, Russia’s Interior Ministry is returning its sole armored train to service on the often dangerous rail lines of southern Russia. The main mission of the armored train Kozma Minin, which has spent some years sitting in a rail-yard, will be to counter the insurgents’ mine attacks on Russian rail lines. The Kozma Minin is expected to join several other Ministry of Defense armored trains returned to service in the North Caucasus in 2010 (see EDM, February 23, 2010).

Armored Train Kozma MininWW II’s Armored Train Kozma Minin

The original Kozma Minin was a World War II armored train named for a Russian merchant who helped Prince Dmitri Pozharsky defend Russia against a Polish invasion in the early 17th century. Completed in February 1942, the original Kozma Minin was a formidable fire platform, with two covered wagons each having two T-34 tank turrets and six 7.62mm machine guns. Two open armored wagons each contained one M-8 rocket launcher and two 37mm anti-aircraft guns. An armored locomotive and several flat-bed cars completed the train.

Unlike its namesake, which might be described as a battleship on rails, the modern Kozma Minin is the battle cruiser of military trains – lightly shielded but highly mobile. While Russia’s other armored trains have been used to provide fire support for military operations in the Caucasus as well as rail security operations,  the armament of the Kozma Minin is intended for a defensive role that will allow the train to conduct mine-clearing operations, line maintenance and other defensive roles.

Armored Train Modern Kozma MininThe Modern Kozma Minin (Yuga.ru)

The Interior Ministry’s version of the Kozma Minin was built by a Volga-Vyatka OMON unit in 1994 from old railway platforms, railway ties, scrap metal and whatever other suitable materials might be found. The covered wagon of the train was painted in a brown and green camouflage pattern and most of the train was covered in well-worn camouflage netting, giving the entire train the appearance of a relic from a much earlier war. Despite its improvised and ramshackle construction, the Kozma Minin soon became the pride of Interior Ministry troops based in the North Caucasus, continuing its important work in the North Caucasus until it was retired to a rail-yard in 2002. Several cars of the train were marked with the acronym “OMOH,” the Cyrillic version of OMON (Otryad Mobilniy Osobogo Naznacheniya or Special Purpose Mobile Unit), the common term used for Interior Ministry units.

Before undertaking its new tasks, the Kozma Minin is being fitted with modern anti-mine technology, including the Kamysh (Cane) M4K system, made public in 2009. The mine-disabling system uses white noise to interfere with radio-controlled explosive devices, operating effectively at a distance of up to 20 meters.

Providing the new system works, it will be a vast improvement over the train’s old mine-prevention procedures, which involved the train moving at a walking pace in suspect areas behind combat engineers with mine-sniffing canines.  Measures are also being taken in the reconstruction to improve the safety of train personnel, which was usually provided for in the old train not so much by “armor,” but by an improvised mixture of sand-bags and timbers.

For armament, the Kozma Minin relies on two quad-barrel ZPU-4 air defense machine guns and ten hard-mounted AGS-17 automatic grenade launchers and machine guns.The ZPU-4 is a modification of the original ZPU, brought into Soviet service in 1949 and one of Russia’s most popular arms exports since. Mounted on a pick-up truck, the weapon was widely used by both sides in the Libyan Rebellion.

Additional firepower is provided by a BMP-2 (an amphibious infantry combat vehicle) chained to a flat-bed car with sand-bags to protect the wheels. The BMP02 is equipped with a 30mm 2A42 autocannon, a 9P135M anti-tank guided-missile launcher capable of firing a variety of anti-tank missiles and a 7.62mm machine gun. Ministry of Defense armored trains usually include one BMP-2, but also mount one to two T-62 tanks with a more powerful 115mm cannon.

The rebuilt Interior Ministry train is expected to be based either at Mozdok in North Ossetia or, more likely, at Khankala, a rail station east of Grozny in Chechnya where armored trains belonging to the Ministry of Defense are stationed. Khankala is also home to a Russian military base hosting the 42nd Motorized Rifle Division.

When finished, the train will transport Interior Ministry supplies and personnel in addition to providing rail security, much as it did in its earlier incarnation. The overhaul of the Kozma Minin is expected to be finished by December 1, 2013 and will cost an estimated $635,000.

Sources:

Izvestia, April 10, 2013; Gennady Zhilin, “Baikal, Terek and Co.” http://sovietoutpost.revdisk.org/?p=61; Dkvartal.ru, April 11, 2013, http://ekb.dkvartal.ru/news/bronepoezd-kozma-minin-v-chechne-budet-proveryat-zhd-puti-236716848

This article first appeared in the May 14, 2013 issue of Eurasia Daily Monitor

Armored Trains Return to the Russian North Caucasus

Eurasia Daily Monitor

Volume: 7 Issue: 36, February 23, 2010

Andrew McGregor

A weapon thought by many to belong to military museums is making a return to active anti-insurgency operations in the North Caucasus: the armored train. First used for such purposes in the American Civil War, armored trains and the tactics associated with their use were most fully developed in the vast expanses of Russia, where they were used in large numbers in World War One, the Red-White Civil War of 1917-22 (including extensive operations in the Caucasus), the Second World War and the Sino-Soviet border conflict of the 1960’s. More recently, Russian armored trains were deployed to secure railway lines against Azeri nationalists during the 1990 Soviet military intervention in Baku. Now Russia’s defense ministry has announced the return of armored trains for use against Islamist insurgents in the North Caucasus (Interfax, January 5, 2010; Russia Today, January 5, 2010).

The growing insecurity of Russia’s railway system led to an announcement by President Dmitry Medvedev on December 2 that he had just signed a special order regarding the prevention of terrorist attacks on railways (ITAR-TASS, December 2, 2009). Medvedev’s announcement followed remarks by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin that called for pre-emption as the best means of eliminating attacks on the rail system (Moscow Times, December 1, 2009).

Bombings of Russian trains in Dagestan have become a major security problem, with some seven explosions occurring on trains in the last six months of 2009 alone. The attacks appear to be part of a new campaign by North Caucasus Islamist insurgents to strike Russian infrastructure, including railways (EDM, December 10, 2009).

A review of recent attacks on railway infrastructure gives some sense of the growing problem:

  • One person was killed in an explosion on railroad tracks near the Dagestani capital of Makhachkala on February 10. The bomb appears to have gone off prematurely, narrowly missing an incoming freight train carrying 20 tankers full of jet fuel (www.news.az, February 11, 2010; AP, February 11, 2010).
  • Militants fired two shots from a grenade launcher at militia quarters in the railway station at Nazran (Ingushetia) on February 2 (Chechenpress, February 2, 2010).
  • Federal Security Service (FSB) forces in Dagestan announced the killing of a veteran Egyptian jihadist who had targeted railway infrastructure in the North Caucasus. Mahmud Muhammad Shaaban was killed in a shootout on February 2 (RIA Novosti, February 3, 2010).
  • A cargo train including oil tankers was derailed by an explosion in Nazran on January 4 (Caucasian Knot, January 4, 2010).
  • On November 30, 2009, a bomb went off under the Tyumen-Baku train in Dagestan, damaging the locomotive (Moscow Times, December 1, 2009; ITAR-TASS, November 30, 2009).
  • The Nevsky Express running between Moscow and St. Petersburg was derailed by a reported explosion on November 27. The FSB estimated seven kilograms of explosives were used (RIA Novosti, November 28). Though the Caucasus mujahideen claimed the explosion was carried out under the orders of their amir Dokka Umarov, elements of the police and many observers questioned the ability of the rebels to conduct such an operation. The mujahideen’s message included threats to carry out further attacks on rail lines and other Russian infrastructure (www.kavkazcenter.com, December 2, 2010; RIA Novosti, December 2, 2010; ITAR-TASS, December 2, 2010).
  • A landmine blew up a section of rail in Makhachkala as a locomotive passed over on October 25 (Interfax, October 25, 2010).
  • A section of the Baku-Rostov rail line near Makhachkala was destroyed by a bomb blast on October 12, 2010.
  • An explosion damaged the rail line between Makhachkala and Baku and set fire to a locomotive on November 26, 2009 (ITAR-TASS, November 26, 2009).
  • A sapper was killed by an explosion on the rail line south of Makhachkala on July 2. The bombing occurred as a repair crew arrived to fix track destroyed earlier that day in another explosion (RIA Novosti, July 2, 2009).

Building on the 1919 innovation to include a desantniy ortryad (raiding team) with every armored train for offensive and defensive missions, modern armored trains include detachments of armor and infantry that can be quickly offloaded and deployed around the area of the train or sent on reconnaissance missions. This makes it difficult for insurgents to prepare ambushes or destroy sections of track without detection. Meanwhile, the armored train can provide mobile artillery fire in support of infantry operations. Anti-aircraft weapons provide a defense against air attack, though this does not figure into anti-insurgency operations such as those in the North Caucasus where control of the skies is held by state forces. Tanks carried on the armored train may also be used in a secondary role as tractors in the removal of derailed railroad cars (as a result of ambush, mines, etc).

During the Cold War, Russia deployed 56 RT-23 Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM’s) (NATO name – SS-24 Scalpel) on military trains used as mobile launch pads. The last of these was decommissioned in 2005. Elaborate armored trains were deployed along the Soviet-Chinese border in the 1970’s. These trains carried a motorized rifle platoon, an anti-missile detachment, military engineers and communications units. The train could also deploy 12 tanks (two amphibious), eight armored personnel carriers and a variety of lighter transport. The armored trains were demobilized as border tensions with China calmed in the 1980’s (www.russia-ic.com, November 26, 2009).

Russia maintains a unique formation of Railway Troops (Zheleznodorozhniki -ZhDk), composed of four railway corps, 28 railway brigades and a number of military and research units under the control of the defense ministry since 2004 (ITAR-TASS, May 2, 1999). The Railway Troops are responsible for securing and rebuilding railroads in support of combat and mobilization efforts, the construction of new railways and the repair or reconstruction of rail systems destroyed by enemy forces or natural calamities. Railway troops were active in these roles in the First Chechen War of 1994-96. Shortly after the Second Chechen War began in 1999 the Railway Troops began operating an armored train to protect commercial cargo and military supply trains (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, June 10, 2008).

In the wake of continuing insurgent attacks on the railroads of the North Caucasus, Russia will return two Stavropol-based armored trains to service in Ingushetia, Chechnya and Dagestan. The trains, which have been held in reserve for two years, are equipped with “special devices for the removal of landmines and heavy weapons capable of countering an attack by armed militants.” The armored trains will likely be manned by railway troops of the 76 ZhDK, based in Volgograd. The unit is considered well-trained, well-equipped and ready for combat operations. [1]

Note

  1. C.W. Blandy, “Georgia and Russia: A Further Deterioration in Relations,” Advanced Research and Assessment Group, Caucasus Series 08/22, July 2008, http://www.da.mod.uk/Publications/category/67/georgia-and-russia-a-further-deterioration-in-relations-1167.