Nov 13, 2023

Drones Hit So Many Russian Excavators That The Kremlin Got Desperate

MT-LB-2M-3s guarding an excavator.

Three months after the first photos appeared online depicting Russian technicians fitting 80-year-old naval guns to 70-year-old armored tractors, we finally have some idea what the Russians are doing with the bizarre, geriatric gun-trucks.

A photo that the independent Conflict Intelligence Team spotted on Telegram seems to show a pair of the MT-LB tractors with their 2M-3 turrets guarding a civilian excavator apparently digging defensive trenches somewhere in Russian-occupied Ukraine.

It appears the MT-LB-2M-3s are rear-area air-defenses for civilian contractors. "This is probably due to the cases observed in the previous months when drones used to fly by and drop grenades on workers digging trenches, including in the Belgorod and Bryansk regions," CIT noted.

CIT's analysts might be on to something. For months now, Ukrainian artillery gunners and drone-operators deliberately have targeted military and civilian excavators preparing fortifications along the 600-mile front line stretching from Kherson Oblast in southern Ukraine east to the Donbas region and north to the vicinity of Belgorod.

Anticipating a Ukrainian counteroffensive, the Russians for months have been digging in: laying mines, stringing up razor wire, digging trenches, piling up berms and sprinkling concrete "dragon's teeth" tank-obstacles. The idea is to slow attacking Ukrainian forces just long enough for Russian reinforcements to deploy to an attack site.

The Ukrainians anticipated that the Russians would anticipate their counteroffensive. It's not for no reason that Kyiv has solicited from its foreign allies sizeable donations of specialized engineering vehicles. Germany, Norway, the United Kingdom, the United States and other countries have given to Ukraine scores of armored mine-clearing vehicles, engineering vehicles and bridgelayers.

Working together, these vehicles can clear minefields, fill trenches, dig out berms and shove aside dragon's teeth—a combined effort called "breaching." Ukraine even has received from Finland six all-in-one breaching vehicles.

Even with Ukraine's extensive preparation for eventual breaches, these remain extremely risky operations. Engineers have to work fast and while under fire. If a breach is slow or fails, an attack could stall out right as the defenders’ reinforcements arrive.

So the Ukrainians have been trying to mitigate their risk by weakening Russian fortifications in advance of any attack. To that end, Ukrainian forces have been hunting down Russian excavators.

The analysts at Oryx, a collective that tallies wartime equipment losses, have identified 16 military excavators that the Ukrainians have destroyed, damaged or captured. Oryx doesn't count civilian equipment losses, but there's no shortage of videos and photos on social media depicting successful Ukrainian strikes on civilian construction equipment working for the Russians.

The drone threat apparently got so severe by this spring that the Kremlin launched a crash effort to build and deploy short-range air-defenses specifically for protecting the excavators. Back in March, social-media users in Russia spotted old MT-LB armored tractors sporting 2M-3 and 2M-7 gun turrets.

The 2M-3 and 2M-7—respectively armed with over-under pairs of 25-millimeter and 14.5-millimeter guns—normally equip naval gunboats. The turrets lack radar guidance. They’re strictly manual, daylight weapons—and effective at very short range, if they work at all.

The MT-LB gun-trucks are an air-defense expedient. But a seemingly necessary one given the importance the Kremlin places on its defensive preparations, Kyiv's efforts to disrupt those preparations and Russia's looming shortage of modern air-defense systems after 15 months of heavy losses in the wider war on Ukraine.

Whether the MT-LB-based air-defense guns actually have shot down any Ukrainian drones is hard to say. There's no evidence of any shoot-downs ... yet.