The Russian military is working on an air-dropped snowmobile for its paratroopers. No, it's not a scene from a James Bond movie.
Earlier this year, Col. Gen. Vladimir Shamanov — Russia's airborne forces chief — ordered the development of "airborne snowmobiles" after a visit to the northern Yaroslavl region.
"Airborne snowmobile flies, shoots, and keeps the driver warm," Shamanov said according to the newspaper Komsolskaya Pravda.
What Shamanov is talking about is an ordinary Taiga-551 snowmobile dropped from the back of an airplane. The vehicle weighs about 705 pounds and powers itself with a liquid-cooled 65-horsepower engine.
Once on the ground, Russian troops could speed along at 62 miles per hour — at most — with the vehicle's 14.5-gallon fuel tank.
Even better, it has heated handles. The Russkaya Mekhanika plant in Rybinsk — which has a deal with the Russian defense ministry to build the snowmobiles during the next two years — is also adding some modifications.
"First, this snowmobile has an armored fuel tank like those on combat helicopters," designer Andrey Zhogin told the paper. "If shot through, it 'self-heals.' Second, it has a special cooling system that prevents the engine from overheating."
The hard part is modifying it to be dropped from a helicopter or airplane — something the plant's manager said they're working on. But the designers have already added mounts for a machine gun or a grenade launcher, which means Russia’s snowmobile force can shoot at … somebody.
Because what's the point? There's no war going on in the frigid tundra. More likely, it's just a make-work project.
Russkaya Mekhanika will build 130 snowmobiles and 110 all-terrain vehicles for the Russian military through 2017. The plant's management told the press that projects will keep the company in business.
Another reason for the snowmobiles is — of course — Russia's Arctic military build-up. During the past year, the Kremlin has boosted combat aircraft and paratroopers in its northern region.
On March 16, Russian Pres. Vladimir Putin ordered a snap Arctic exercise involving 38,000 soldiers, sailors and airmen. Il-76 transport planes practiced rushing paratroopers to the north during the exercise.
Then on April 1, NATO sent fighter jets and B-52 bombers into the Arctic to practice intercepting Russian aircraft. Which is to emphasize that the contest over the Arctic isn't over ground, but air and sea.
But still, the airborne snowmobile isn't an outrageous idea. As long as armies have dropped soldiers from the sky, they've tried to find ways to increase their mobility.
During World War II, British airborne troops sped around Arnhem on air-dropped Welbikes. German Fallshirmjaegers moved heavy weapons around Crete on glider-carried Kettenkrad motorcycle half-tracks.
Not to be left out, the U.S. Army developed the Model 53 Airborne Motor Scooter — but largely used it to zip around on bases away from the front lines.
After the war, the Welbike entered the civilian market in Britain as the Corgi — where it was fairly popular. But an American version known as the Indian Papoose sputtered on the market.
The Soviet Union developed a propeller-driven snowmobile known as the aerosani and used it during the war with Finland — and during World War II. But it couldn't fly.
Adding a propeller would be a neat idea, but it looks like Russia is sticking to just para-dropping its newest combat snowmobile into the middle of nowhere.
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