Ukraine’s foreign allies have pledged potentially dozens of armored bridgelayers to the war effort. And the ongoing battle for Bakhmut illustrated why these vehicles and their rapid-deployment bridges are so important.
A video that a soldier from the Ukrainian army’s 93rd mechanized brigade shot on or about Wednesday shows Ukrainian troops speeding down a dirt road leading to Bakhmut and crossing an armored bridge spanning a narrow obstacle – a shallow stream or ravine.
This bridge is a lifeline for the Ukrainian garrison in the besieged city. There are only two main roads leading to Bakhmut from Ukrainian territory in the west. The southern route, T0504, sneaks so close to the front line that Russian troops can bombard it with machine guns, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades.
THE north The road, passing through the settlement of Khromove, is somewhat safer for the Ukrainians, especially after the limited Ukrainian counterattacks of recent days have pushed back the Russian troops in this sector.
But nine months of relentless fighting in and around Bakhmut has brought down at least one of the permanent bridges on the O0506 road through Khromove. At some point, possibly recently, the Ukrainian military launched one of its armored bridgelayers as a replacement.
An armored bridgelayer is a tracked chassis – usually a tank chassis – with a folding or telescoping deck on top. The crew can deploy and land the bridge in minutes under fire.
The Ukrainian army entered the current war with a small number of ex-Soviet MTU-20 pontoons based on T-55 tank hulls. The MTU can clear a 59 foot obstacle and support vehicles weighing up to 60 tons.
These MTU-20s were too few and perhaps unreliable. For example, over the past year, the United States and Germany have donated newer and better bridges to Ukraine. The Germans proposed 16 Biber bridges, based on Leopard 1 tank chassis, which could span 66 feet and carry 50 tons. The Americans have promised an undetermined number of M-60-based bridgelayers that span 63 feet and support up to 70 tons, depending on the bridge design.
It is not known which bridgelayer the Ukrainians deployed outside Bakhmut. American models probably have not yet arrived at the front, so it was probably a Biber or an MTU-20.
The armored bridge is a necessary expedient in a dangerous environment. This helps keep Bakhmut accessible for now, but at great risk. It is clear from the 93rd Brigade soldier’s video that Russian troops are close enough to target the bridge, possibly with indirect artillery fire. A crashed Ukrainian BMP combat vehicle is visible on the Bakhmut side of the bridge.
This bridge to Bakhmut might not last forever. But it is not necessary. If and when the Russians blow it up – with artillery, drone or airstrike – the Ukrainians could roll in another bridgelayer and replace it. The United States and Germany have ensured that Ukraine has an adequate supply of vehicles.