By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
The first appearance of a BTS-5B armoured recovery vehicle (ARV) converted to a battle bus back in January 2015 certainly raised eyebrows, not least because it quickly got stuck in a ditch and was then destroyed. This contraption was the Islamic State's first attempt at converting an otherwise useless vehicle into a weapons platform adapted to the Islamic State's needs. While thus not very successful in its intended role, it took less than a year for its successor to appear on the plains of Iraq. First seen in December 2015, this first iteration combines lessons learned from its predecessor with technology not widely used by the Islamic State until that point.
The new vehicle makes an appearance in the Islamic State propaganda video 'The Dabiq Appointment', produced by the media office of Wilayat Ninawa (Nineveh Governorate) in Mosul, Iraq. The 'Dabiq Appointment' refers to the town of Dabiq in Northern Syria, where according to the Islamic State, the final battle between righteousness (The Islamic State) and wrongness (everything not the Islamic State) will take place. Contrary to what one might think, a large scale deployment of Coalition forces near this town and a resulting battle is what the Islamic State desperately wants. It is thé way the Islamic State wants to confront the 'Crusaders' (the Coalition), referring to its current air attacks and drone strikes as acts of cowardness. To further add to this threat, the video also includes a shot of an Islamic State operated T-55 marching on the Colosseum in Rome, Italy.
Featuring in the 'Dabiq Appointment' is the 3rd al-Farouq armoured brigade, which together with the 'Shield battalion' and 'Storming battalion' is responsible for operating armoured fighting vehicles (AFVs) in Wilayat Ninawa. This city is home to the largest concentration of Islamic State operated AFVs as Mosul was overstocked with equipment intended to be used by the Iraqi Army, which left all of their equipment behind before fleeing the city. The 3rd al-Farouq armoured brigade is seen training for the ''imminent'' battle at Dabiq, shooting up targets and storming positions while employing a host of armoured fighting vehicles including 2 T-55 MBTs, 1 Type-59 MBT, 2 MT-LBs, 2 Badger ILAVs MRAPs, 1 Battle fortress and 1 BTR-80UP APC in junction with well-equipped infantry.
The image below shows the seal of 3rd al-Farouq Armoured Brigade, reading: ولاية نينوى - الجند (?) لواء الفاروق المدرع الثالث - 'Wilayat Ninawa - Soldiers (?) - al-Farouq Armoured Brigade - 3rd'. The second part of the Shahada: محمد رسول الله - 'Muhammed is Allah's prophet' is seen on the right. This is sometimes seen on Islamic State operated vehicles and is believed to be applied for decorative purposes only.
As with its predecessor, this BTS-5B was heavily modified for its new role as an armoured fighting vehicle. The crane, snorkel and various crates normally mounted on top of the vehicle were removed. Although unlikely to ever be used, the dozer blade was retained however.
While the previous version had to do with simple blocks of armour installed around its newly erected platform, the new vehicle comes with slat armour installed around the hull and around its raised platform. The platform, complete with a door in the back, is believed to be well armoured. Although looking impressive, the strength of the protective slat armour and the firmness of its supportive mounts look marginal at best, raising questions about its viability against RPGs while in battle. No rubber side skirts are seen mounted, which was a feature of the first battle bus.
The erected platform does not appear to be blocking the driver's hatch, which was a serious issue of the previous version, where the driver had to enter its position by a hatch on the floor of the erected platform. The driver also had to stick its head out while driving as the support beams blocked the driver's viewing port. On this vehicle, his view is only slightly hampered by the slat armour installed on the front of the vehicle. To compensate for the removed headlights, the light beams of which would have been blocked by the slat armour, two new headlights have been installed on the front mudguards. All of the crew is believed to enter the vehicle by the door on the back of the vehicle.
Armament has been much improved from the previous version, which only donned a single 12.7mm DShK in addition to several mounts for light-machine guns (LMGs). The new battle fortress comes with the same 12.7mm DShK, this time mounted on the commander's cupola, and a 14.5mm KPV in an armoured cupola taken from an ex-Iraqi Army M-1114 placed on top of the raised platform. While providing an easy target for the enemy, the elevated position of the 14.5mm KPV offers it a great view of its surroundings, and enables it to fire at practically any target with a Line Of Sight (LOS) to the vehicle. A soldier operating a 7.62mm PKM LMG can be seen on the back of the battle fortress in the image above, which will likely accompany the vehicle when going into battle as well.
Although training for a possible confrontation at Dabiq, the vehicle could just as well be sent off against Peshermerga positions around Mosul. Such an attack usually commences with one vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) followed by M-1114s, Badger ILAVs, M1117 ASVs and infantry. As the Peshmerga has been entrenched around Mosul ever since its capture by the Islamic State in early June 2014, these ATGM-armed positions are meanwhile fortified to such a degree that capturing them has become nigh impossible. The fighters of the Islamic State still frequently attempt to storm these positions however, resulting in the loss of precious vehicles, equipment and manpower after every attempt.
While the new battle fortress is likely to suffer the same fate as its older brother (destroyed after getting stuck in a ditch while storming Peshermerga positions) it demonstrates the efforts made by the Islamic State to keep improving its vehicle park. Despite the Islamic State's best efforts, it remains to be seen if this vehicle will have any meaningful impact on the battlefield or if it will end up as target practice on the plains of Mosul. With the supply of captured BTS-5Bs in Iraq now believed to be completely exhausted, all eyes are now at the single BREM-1 captured in Tadmur, which could potentially serve as the basis for the next battle fortress.
The Islamic State going DIY, 122mm D-30 howitzers used as anti-aircraft guns
The Islamic State going DIY, from earthmover to earthbreaker
The Islamic State going DIY, from armoured recovery vehicle to battle bus