Armor: Cheap, Safe And British In Ukraine


November 10, 2016: Since late 2014 Ukraine has been seeking cheap used armored vehicles as part of its emergency rearmament program to deal with the 2014 Russian invasion. Some of these purchases were seen as dubious but the Ukrainians have proved otherwise. One example of that is Cold War era British AT-105 Saxon armored “troop taxi” Ukraine purchased. These began to arrive in Ukraine in early 2015 after Ukraine bought 75 of them from a private company for about $50,000 each a few months earlier. This low price included the cost of shipping them from Great Britain.

The AT-105 Saxon is one of the ugliest Cold War era armor vehicles. The British didn’t care about appearance. The Saxon was designed in the late seventies and came into service in the early eighties. The Saxon is just a Bedford M series 4x4 truck chassis that had an all-welded steel hull installed. It could carry up to 10 troops. Saxon was very cheap, easy to repair (commercial spare parts availability), fast (96 kilometers per hour on roads so is had been much faster than tracked vehicles) and offered the basic protection against small arms fire and mines (thanks to a V-shaped hull).

Saxon was not pretty but it did what it was designed for; get troops quickly and safely through hostile areas in West Germany. During the Cold War the British Army had some soldiers stationing at permanent locations in West Germany. These units would need rapid support from Great Britain if the Soviet Union and its allies ever rolled across the border. The Saxon was designed to move British troops around in areas where Russian paratroopers or commandos might be active. Only about a thousand Saxons were produced and half those were still in service when the Cold War ended in in 1991. These were all retired by 2009. But Britain kept about 140 in storage, just in case.

The British tried to find other alternative roles for the Saxon but were not very successful. For example a few were adapted for riot control, some were deployed to the Balkans and Iraq but were soon replaced by the better protected MRAPs. Until Ukraine came along, Saxon never got to do what it was designed for.

When the first 20 Saxon arrived in Ukraine they were tested at the National Guard’s training center and found satisfactory. The Ukrainians were impressed with the good resistance to small arms fire (side armor can withstand B-32 7.62x54 armor piercing round from SVD sniper rifle from 20 meters) and fuel tanks that did not explode when hit. Saxons were found to have better off-road capabilities than their reputation indicated. By March 2015 these vehicles entered service in various units (regular and volunteer ones). Then in June the second batch (55 vehicles) arrived. Nearly half of these were modified to service as battlefield ambulances. Ukrainian troops were in dire need of such a vehicle because the wounded soldiers were being moved from the battlefield by whatever vehicles were available and that usually meant civilian cars or trucks. The enemy ignored Red Cross markings and fired on any vehicles carrying wounded to safety. The Saxon solved that problem.

In the combat zone Saxon was praised for its excellent off-road capability. What’s more the Saxon also showed extremely low failure rate. On the other hand there are also problems like getting spare parts. Major logistics and supplies problems have been plaguing the Ukrainian armed forces from the beginning so this was nothing new. The other problems are the relatively small fuel tank (only 100 liters/26 gallons) and a boxy shape and height which is very hard to hide.

Basically the Ukrainians needed anything with armor and their options were limited in 2014/2015. Their military industries had other priorities like refurbishing T-64 tanks. There was little cash and because of an arms embargo vehicles like the Saxon were one of the few available options. In the combat zones of eastern Ukraine (Donbas) anything with some armor was better than improvised armor on trucks and buses that were being used to transport soldiers near the frontline. Because the Donbas fighting was often a guerrilla type war where a single sniper or machine-gun could cause serious loses. It was quickly discovered that soldiers in Saxon vehicles were much safer. The Ukrainians are repeating the same process the American military went through in Iraq and Afghanistan. The American found that their lightly-armored Humvees were extremely vulnerable to improvised explosives, so the Americans pumped out thousands of wheeled, up-armored MRAP trucks to counter this weakness. Saxon isn’t as well protected as an MRAP but is sufficiently protected to save lots of lives and do it at less than a tenth of what an MRAP costs. -- Przemysław Juraszek




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