This article comes to us from a former member of the Greek Special Forces, Vasilis Chronopoulos. I’m trying to get him on board as a regular writer with SOFREP so let us know how you like his first article! -Jack
Seeing that Russian Zubr casually docking amongst heedless sunbathers surprised many. For me, what it did was tickle some memory neurons: boy, hasn’t it been a while since I’ve boarded one of these big guys. Do I miss it? Yes and no.
The Soviets started to build their first sea-bison (zubr means bison) in 1983, in an attempt to make a bigger, faster and better armed air-cushioned landing craft than those they already had. By 1986 the first craft was ready and commissioned by 1988. In the early 90s there were eight Soviet Zubr’s in the Baltic and Black seas. The inspiration behind its construction was to be able to realize flanking maneuvers from the seas in case the NATO armies were to advance against the Russian mainland. The collapse of the Soviet Union put the program to an end and with the Black Sea fleet being divided, the existing Zubr units were distributed between Russia and Ukraine.
Beginning their design, the Russians decided to go big or go home. So big, that their bison ended up being the largest hovercraft on the planet: 187ft long and 84ft wide. It bears five Kuznetsov NK-12 engines, two for lift and three for propulsion, and with the combined 35,508hp of the latter, it can reach the impressive speed of 75mph, with only the 70% of the engine power in use. In its belly, the little sea-monster can fit 3 main battle tanks, or 10 armored vehicles, or 8 APCs with up to 140 soldiers. Without the vehicles, it can transport up to 500 men.
For its armament, it has several configurations. Its AA protection is based on 4×4 Strela-3 or 2 SA-N-5 “Grail” quad launchers, and 30 mm AK-630 Air Defense Gun Mount. For landing troops support, it has 140 mm Ogon launchers or 2 retractable 122mm rocket launchers.
You may wonder how this Russian monstrosity ended up sailing the Greek seas. Even more, how a Soviet craft ended up in a NATO member country. Well, here it is: one major concern in the strategic planning of the Greek military, is the defense of the many islands of the eastern Aegean and their reinforcement in case of an attack. For that purpose, what was needed was a ship with the ability to transport heavy conventional forces or special forces units at a great speed and range.
For the special needs of a sea as narrow, as easily controlled by submarines and threatened by enemy air force as the Aegean, a ship as fast, as flexible and with the design of the Zubr, seemed to be the right answer. And that very design has proved to give this craft its very own advantages and also disadvantages.
The large quantities of spray that are produced by the engines create a chaff effect that denies the lock on capability of most FCS which consequently protects it from radar-guided missiles. However, the same powerful engines also produce a great amount of heat, which makes it easily detectable by IR-guided weapon systems. Lacking a keel and not having an in-water propulsion system, the Zubr is detectable by sonar only at close ranges and its air-cushion reduces the magnetic signature of the ship, thus protecting it from magnetic mines.
But that same lack of keel prevents it from operating efficiently in sea conditions of more than 9-13ft wave height. Its bow thrusters allow it to have a tight turning radius and to make fast course changes. However, its engineering has proved to be inadequate, as in its service in the Greek navy it has presented reliability problems, mainly in its hydraulic systems. With the speed and the maneuverability being the main priorities in its design, the craft is made of aluminum which provides very little protection. And with aluminum being its basic material, the lack of fire a extinguishing system adds another hazard.
In 2005, the Greek navy received the last of its four Zubr’s, named “Kerkyra.” And one year later we met. The Zeta Amphibious Raider Squadron, of which I became a part in 2006, is a special forces unit of the Greek army, with the whole Hellenic space in its area of responsibility, and is the unit tasked with utilizing the Greek defensive doctrine in crisis like the one of Imia. And so, it was the unit that used the Zubr’s in its trainings, in exercises of rapid deployment to face threats to the national security.
One of the things one doesn’t miss about the Zubr is the actual boarding process. The only way to board a Zubr with a 16ft Zodiac is through its ramp, which can be achieved in the following way: the Zodiac’s operator aligns the bow of the boat with the center of the ship’s ramp and accelerates until it reaches it, and the crew members can jump off the boat and start pulling it inside.
And no, pulling a boat full of weapons, ammunition and rucksacks up a 45 degree slippery steel surface is not nearly as fun as it sounds.
And after you’ve helped pull all the boats on the ship, you can proudly call yourself its passenger. No, still not as fun as it sounds. Why not? Because of the noise. How much noise? Well, imagine your mother vacuuming your room on a lazy Sunday morning. Now multiply that with… about 10,000 and you’ll get the feeling. The best you can do is put in your earplugs and wait patiently until you reach your destination.
Heading for the troops accommodation, you will realize that everything you ever read about Russian personnel-friendly designs is absolutely true: they did not exist. The troop area consists of wooden benches and iron hammocks. The fun part is that due to its speed, you don’t need to stay in the Zubr for long. Despite its discomfort, a ride on a Zubr resembles little else. And it is for this kind of experience that one chooses to serve in the Special Forces.