World War 2 warfare instilled on the Soviet Army the need for a very mobile armored force. After the war, the concepts proven in battle were furthered to all new levels. During the Cold War years, a slew of armored vehicles emerged with various battlefield roles in mind and one of these creations became the MT-LB multirole tracked vehicle. Development began in the 1960s, at the height of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the West, to which the completed vehicle was adopted sometime in the latter part of the decade. Once identified by the West, the vehicle was designated in NATO nomenclature as the "M1970" ("Model 1970").
The MT-LB was developed as a direct replacement for the aged AT-P artillery tractor line. The design was largely formed from the work that also begat the successful PT-76 Amphibious Light Tank which was produced in over 12,000 examples. The initial product was the MT-L which then evolved to become the armored MT-LB. Production was assisted by the type utilizing many off-the-shelf components in circulation, and readily available, to the Soviet Army at the time. Manufacture was headed through the famous Kharkov tractor facility. The designation of "MT-LB" is born from the Russian translation describing "Multi-Purpose, Light-Armored Towing Vehicle".
One of the key qualities required of most any Soviet armored vehicle was amphibious support allowing the vehicle to cross moving water sources under its own power. The alternative was traversing bridges and similar checkpoints or arranging for engineers to construct a make-shift bridge over the span of hours and maybe days. The MT-LB was designed with this quality in mind, fully-amphibious, and propelled in the water by its own tracks, negating the need to activate a dedicated propulsion system.
Another key quality consistent with Soviet-inspired armored combat vehicles of the period were low silhouettes to make for a harder target to spot, identify and engage along the horizon. The MT-LB, therefore, was granted as low a profile as possible. It lacked any large, powered turret (a small, one-man installation was used instead) with the hull consisting of a near-flat glacis plate, armored visors at the front panel and a flat roof line with rounded hatches for the crew (a pair of hatches are set along the forward portion of the hull roof line). Armor consisted of welded steel for maximum protection (14mm at its thickness). A typical operating crew was just two men with up to 10 or 11 passengers in relative comfort (inward-facing folding canvas seats are provided).
The vehicle utilized a two-man crew compartment (driver and commander/machine gunner) situated at the front of the vehicle with the powerpack to the aft-left side of the hull. The passenger compartment was at the rear with twin, hinged access doors for entry/exit in a timely fashion. These doors also showcased firing ports for occupants to use their personal infantry weapons in protecting the most vulnerable face of the vehicle from infantry attack. Another firing port was available along each hull side for full vehicle protection. Primary armament included a single 7.62mm PKT series machine gun with 2,500 rounds of ammunition afforded. The gun was managed through the turret situated at the right-front of the hull roof with 360-degree coverage around the vehicle. Its caliber indicated the weapon to be an anti-infantry defensive measure. As with other vehicles of the period, the MT-LB came equipped with an NBC (Nuclear, Biological, Chemical) system.
The MTLB was fielded with a YaMZ 238 series V8 diesel-fueled engine developing 240 horsepower at 2,100rpm. This allowed for a top road speed of 38 miles per hour with an off-road pace of 20 miles per hour. When traversing water sources, the vehicle could maintain a speed of nearly 4 miles per hour. Coupled to the powerpack was its road gear which consisted of a track-and-wheel arrangement. There were six road wheels to a hull side with the drive sprocket at front and the track idler at rear. There were no supporting track return rollers used.
By design, the multirole MT-LB series proved a highly versatile combat vehicle. Beyond its obvious Armored Personnel Carrier (APC) duties, it could be configured with additional communications equipment and utilized as a Command Vehicle. The vehicle also held a towing capability that allowed it to serve as a prime mover for Soviet artillery brigades while also providing passage for the artillery crew itself - under the protection of armor. Beyond its artillery-hauling escapades, the vehicle could also carry or tow supplies to the frontlines. Other types served as large-caliber mortar carriers and mine dispensers in-the-field while still others formed the chassis of Surface-to-Air Missile (SAM) systems (SA-13 "Gopher") and Self-Propelled Guns (SPGs). The MT-LB was also modified for inglorious roles such as combat engineering, battlefield ambulance and general support. The standard MT-LB is usually fielded with 13.8" wide track links though some customers have adopted the wider 22.24" variety for better ground pressure which, in turn, assists traction in loose terrain such as gravel or snow.
The MT-LB proved popular around the globe, particularly with then-Soviet aligned nations and states. This included the likes of Bangladesh, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic and Slovakia), Finland, Georgia, Hungary, Iraq, Nigeria, Poland, Romania, and Ukraine (among others - see full listing below). Sweden adopted some 460 of the type from ex-East German stocks as the "Pbv 401". The United States used a collection of these vehicles in their OPposing FORce simulations (OPFOR). Former operators include the East German Army, Germany proper, the Soviet Union and Hungary. Iraq is set to receive some 500 ex-Bulgarian units following a 2012 deal to restock its depleted armored corps following the American-led invasion of 2003. Some original MT-LB production was handled within Bulgaria and Poland.
The modern Russian Army maintains roughly 1,500 of the vehicles in active roles today. There remain over 5,000 or so in storage showing the breadth of Cold War production for vehicles of such value. It has been either supplemented or replaced by the BMP-3 series Infantry Fighting Vehicle (IFV) which adds a tank-killing capability, better anti-infantry defenses and passenger seating for up to 9 infantry.