In July 2018 Russia finally demonstrated its new BTR-MDM tracked airborne armored vehicle being airdropped (by parachute) with its three man crew on board. The BTR-MDM landed, via parachute, in front of a large audience. The crew detached the vehicle from the parachute gear, started the engine and drove off. Other troops landed via individual parachutes were able to get on board and move away from the drop zone. The demonstration marked the completion of a twelve year effort to design, develop and build the BTR-MDM.
The BTR-MDM effort began in 2006 when Russia announced an upgrade program for the equipment of its airborne forces. A new version of the BMD armored vehicle, the BTR MD (nicknamed Rakushka) was to be produced, but slowly (nine years to deliver 499 of them). The BTR-MD was basically the old BMD (an infantry fighting vehicle with a turret) with the turret removed and the body of the vehicle expanded. The BTR-MD began as an eight ton vehicle designed to be dropped by parachute or delivered slung under a helicopter. It was armed with two machine-guns (12.7mm and 7.62mm). By 2008, even before production began, the design was upgraded to the 13 ton BTR-MDM. Development prototypes were revealed in 2013 and troops began receiving production models by late 2014.
The MDM model could carry two tons of cargo or 13 personnel. It was armed with a RWS (Remote Weapons Station) that enabled a crew member to operate a machine-gun (7.62mm or 12.7mm) from inside the vehicle. There was also a manually operated 7.62mm machine-gun next to the RWS weapon. The BTR-MDM has a top road speed of 70 kilometers an hour and can travel 500 kilometers on roads before needing to refuel. Going off-road that is reduced to 350 kilometers. The vehicle is amphibious and can move at up to ten kilometers an hour in the water. The vehicle can stay in the water for up to seven hours at a time. The lightweight armor protects against machine-gun fire and most shell fragments. The BTR-MDM will be the standard armored infantry carrier and cargo carrier throughout the VDV (Rapid Reaction Force). There are also ambulance and command post versions.
The 2006 decision called for airborne troops to get new gear across the board, and the brass expected this to double their combat power in the next few years. The airborne forces were the main component of the VDV. The new equipment includes modern communications, computers and sensors. The airborne troops are among the best trained and led in the Russian armed forces. Lacking the large standing army Russia possessed for centuries, the current strategy is to substitute quality for quantity. Even after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Russia is still the largest country on the planet. But the 2008 world financial crises hit the Russian defense budget hard and that slowed things down. It took four or five years for these projects to get revived.
The introduction of the BTR-MDM was part of 2013 decision to form a new major command, the VDV which incorporates all airborne, special operations, and marine troops. All these will operate under one VDV commander and VDV staff. The air force and navy will supply transportation in addition to vehicles each unit has and access to the national railroads. The air force and navy will also provide fire support as needed. The VDV staff will prepare and maintain lists of potential trouble spots and come up with a plan for which VDV units can most quickly respond and exactly how they will do that.
The BTR-MDM was not the first of the new VDV armor vehicles to paradrop with crews. The similar 13.6 ton BMD-4M, which entered service in 2004, was the first such vehicle to do so. The BND-4M has a turret, more weapons and can carry six infantry plus crew. This vehicle has been parachuted down with the crew of two on board but not in public. VDV commanders noted that dropping these vehicles via parachute is not done regularly as it does cause some additional stress on the vehicle. In addition drops with crew on board are even rarer and only done in peacetime to test the concept, which would be done more frequently in wartime. Something the VDV officers did not comment on how many vehicles could be moved at one time. The answer is not much. The Russian air transport fleet is aging and shrinking as there is not enough money to upgrade that force.
VDV will have control of about ten percent of Russian military personnel. This is also the most skilled lethal personnel in the Russian military. They are a diverse group. Russia has ten Spetsnaz special operations brigades with about 12,000 of these elite troops in service. The Spetsnaz brigades contain about 1,600 troops, at full strength, and the army is still having a hard time getting volunteers for these units. Airborne forces consist of four divisions and four separate brigades of airborne (parachute and air landing) troops with a total strength of 35,000 troops. There will also be several support brigades, including a training brigade. There are about 9,000 marines, which include several hundred naval commandos. VDV will also have some support troops based with their fighting units. In 2016 a further expansion of the VDV was announced, to include more contract troops as well as special VDV support (logistics, communications, transportation and so on) that would eventually add another 20,000 personnel.
Russia has long used these units as quick reaction forces but now that will be the main task of these elite units and more money and effort will be applied to improve skills and speed of execution.