This project, divided into two parts, originated from an open source collection of photographic/video material I acquired for an investigation into the identification and tracking of the UAE Army’s BMP-3 Infantry Fighting Vehicles (IFVs) and Leclerc Main Battle Tanks (MBTs) operating in Yemen. This article will focus on vehicles of the first type.
This effort began as an offshoot of the #GermanArms inquiry into the United Arab Emirates Army’s military equipment and personnel testing/training at a recent addition to the Al Hamra Training Centre facilities built by the German company Rheinmetall. I want to publish this open source collection in case others within the research community may wish to consult, use, or collaborate in updating such a database and resulting analysis in the future.
The core element of this analysis is a logbook where all details of identifiable vehicles are recorded. Only vehicles which can be identified with a reasonable degree of certainty are included, e.g. one of the two specific vehicle identifying numbers must be known, even partially.
The UAE Army, a branch of the country’s armed forces, is a modern organisation which operates approximately 600 BMP-3 IFVs and 400 Leclerc MBTs divided into different units. Information indicating which unit operates how many vehicles is not available, and since my focus is exclusively on vehicles deployed to Yemen — for operations which may demand even more operational secrecy — I rely solely on observation within photographic/video analysis. This is not a definitive document.
ID I: Camouflage
The UAE Army has an original standard desert camouflage pattern which is applied almost identically to its BMP-3 IFVs and Leclerc MBTs deployed to Yemen, featuring a sandy background with very distinctive brown stripes on the sides which grow larger at the base (vaguely resembling flames). I rarely focus on differences in camo patterns to tell one vehicle from another. The backbone of the identification effort is largely based on numbers and signs on the vehicles’ hull and rear, and my work consists of registering those for each vehicle. However, being creative has advantages too.
ID II: Registration
When it comes to different countries’ armed forces, different regulations govern the registration of vehicles. It appears the UAE has adopted conventions similar to identification markings used by the British Army. For the BMP-3 IFV fleet, in the greatest majority of cases, only two different sets of numbers per vehicle can be sighted — vehicle registration number and unit number on divisional sign. For the Leclerc MBTs three series of numbers are visible: vehicle registration number, vehicle identification number and unit number on divisional sign. These markings should be visible both on the vehicle’s front and rear, but this is not always the case; despite the presence of a standardised system, exceptions are frequent.
ID III: Structure
According to defense sources, the UAE Army includes one Royal Guard (now Presidential Guard) Brigade, two Armoured Brigades, three Mechanized Infantry Brigades and one Artillery Brigade divided into three regiments. Some sources even mention a Marine battalion.
The UAE shares as little information as possible about its military, thus my inability to determine with absolute certainty to what type of unit the numbers and signs on the vehicles refer to. The resulting assessment stemming from OSINT analysis is exclusively based on collected evidence, and begins with one example:
UAE state media propaganda displays these two insignia before video footage showing live fire drills. The one to the left belongs to the Emirates’ Armed Forces, literally “Land Forces,” while the one to the right, in red and blue with a number, seemingly belongs to an artillery unit. It has also been seen on vehicles deployed to Yemen that are typically operated by the artillery, such as G6 and M109 self-propelled Howitzers. This does not only confirm that BMP-3 IFVs and Leclerc MBTs are not part of artillery units — these types of vehicles rarely are — but it also suggests that all artillery units share the same sign colours with different numbers on.
The BMP-3s that are recorded here sport either a black-over-red sign with the number 33, or a diagonal yellow/red sign with no number at all. The 33rd Combat Group was active at least until October 2017, when it participated in the Iron Union 5 training event. BMP-3 IFVs visible in the video of the exercise do bear the number 33, but on a full-red sign; it is likely that the number 33 on full red refers to that specific combat group.
Ad hoc units may have been formed prior to their deployment to Yemen, making a precise estimate of the units’ type and size even harder. Another example is offered by the 32nd Battalion from the 1st Zayed Brigade, which reportedly participated in joint exercises with the Royal Army of Oman in February 2019. Both BMP-3s and Leclercs were involved in the event, and a second video offers a closer visual to an MBT’s front hull, suggesting its unit number is in fact 32. Unfortunately, the brigade’s сolours do not match any of those observed on IFVs nor MBTs in Yemen, but it indicates that those unit numbers probably refer to battalions.
Normally, combat groups are comprised of vehicles of various types from different large units, typically combining elements from armoured with elements from mechanized infantry brigades. However, OSINT research revealed that while there were many instances of BMP-3 IFVs and Leclerc MBTs sharing the same divisional sign and number, confirming this premise, there were just too many of these formations to be at the typical brigade or division level. All the more so, these tactical formations are presumably reinforced battalions, and the divisional colours on their signs represent the brigade they are attached to.
Each battalion is formed by at least one company of IFVs and one company of MBTs. They are likely assembled before deployment and operate independently from the brigades (or regiments) they normally belong to. Applying this deductive reasoning to the case at hand, a brigade that certainly deserves a special mention is the UAE’s Presidential Guard.
As already mentioned, many BMP-3 IFVs deployed since the beginning of the UAE’s involvement in Yemen sport a unique, diagonally divided yellow/red divisional sign with no numbers — or, alternatively, a very small one on the sign’s top left corner — which is distinctly different from other, more “traditional” signs, formed by two vertical bands.
The vehicle registration number is on a different kind of plate and the numbers are Arabic, instead of Latin. Apart from these details, the rest of the vehicle resembles any other BMP-3 in service with the UAE military. The participation of elements of the UAE’s Presidential Guard in the war in Yemen has been abundantly documented, especially during the initial phase of the offensive, which aimed at retaking Aden and then headed north. However, I needed to verify this information by analysing the units on the ground. State broadcast footage of a military drill helps in clarifying a few elements:
In the video, the vehicle commander sports two patches on his uniform: one is the standard patch for the UAE’s Presidential Guard Brigade, as it is stated on it, over a falcon, on a yellow and red diagonally cut shield. Just above that is what appears to be a combat patch bearing the same colours and order as the divisional sign on the BMP-3. The video also shows that the divisional sign of one BMP-3 IFV participating in the drill is covered by a white taped patch, in an attempt to conceal it from the camera.
Going back to the image above and looking at the personnel on the BMP-3s, we see people operating the IFV notwithstanding which unit the vehicle originally belongs to: can they be identified and the unit they serve in ascertained? An initial analysis of these two crews, and of others photographed on BMP-3s deployed to Yemen, indicates that all uniform signs and patches have been removed.
Their helmets have not been removed, however: apart from the commander and driver, who wear the traditional tank crew helmet, remaining personnel wear a helmet recently adopted by many special forces around the world: the Ops-Core FAST helmet, produced by Gentex.
OSINT research reveals that in 2013 the company was awarded a contract to supply the UAE Presidential Guard with its modular integrated helmet.
Speaking of concealment, the widespread practice of covering with spray paint or deliberately removing identifying numbers and signs has been amply reported by the international media. Below, only a few examples are reported. However, this process is so common that it has severely hampered the efforts in identifying vehicles, particularly as far as the BMP-3 is concerned.
In the majority of cases, it can observed that BMP-3 IFVs with concealed identification numbers do not appear to be operated by UAE uniformed military personnel. It has been extensively reported that the UAE military transfers large quantities of its vehicles to loyal Yemeni forces, and the covering of original identification numbers may be possibly linked to the need to hide the supply operation (which is possibly illegal as it amounts to arms transfer to a third actor), its extent (precise number of assets ceded) and conceivably to shield said forces from accountability.
In this regard, it appears perfectly logical that BMP-3 IFVs are handed to local militias in larger quantity compared to Leclerc MBTs, which represent a more lethal, technologically sensitive and harder to operate platform. This could also explain why, even when ceded, the platforms appear to be operated by UAE Army tank crews.
This video shows a convoy of the Southern Resistance composed of Toyota technicals and UAE Army vehicles, among which there is one BMP-3 with its identification removed from the rear hull and one Leclerc with covered/removed identifying numbers:
An image of a BMP-3 IFV with no identification number shared by Yemeni media:
And here are two BMP-3 IFVs in Lahj governorate in August 2015: the first IFV’s identification numbers are covered, the second one’s are removed:
An image of BMP-3 IFVs in Aden shared by the Media Front for the Southern Resistance. The first IFV has its registration number removed and identification number covered:
ID IV: Protection
Regarding other visible details, it is important to note that while both vehicles present significant modifications and upgrades compared to their original Russian and French models, they have been acquired in one specific configuration, making them indistinguishable within their own type.
Additional markings — other than identifying numbers and unit signs — occasionally visible on BMP-3 IFVs are tactical signs: black-coloured geometrical shapes, usually visible on the turret or certain parts of the hull. Similar to Western armies, shapes such as hollow triangles, squares, diamonds or circles, usually indicate subdivisions within a parent unit.
Since tactical signs are easily applicable/removable, they do not constitute a permanent characteristic. In at least one case, it was detected that a tactical sign was applied to the turret of a vehicle which did not previously bear one.
The same criteria should be applied to slat armour, for Leclercs and BMP-3s alike. Slat armour — also known as bar armour, cage armour or standoff armour — is a protective armour designed to prevent the detonation of an anti-tank projectile by damaging its fuze on impact or to cause its early detonation before striking the targeted vehicle’s body armour, thus lessening its destructive effects. Despite vehicles with slat armour being a minority, it is a rather quick-to-install protective upgrade available for many vehicles within the Saudi-led Coalition fleet. It can be, nonetheless, considered a significant detail in indicating the type of threat the operational commanders expect the vehicles to face.
Occasionally, when everything else fails, other, smaller details may be crucial. These include matching signs of damage (seen below in green, yellow, and blue):
The UAE contingent is deployed to the port city starting from mid-July 2015. Initially, available material only depicts BMP-3 IFVs, mainly the UAE Presidential Guard Brigades’, stationed at the city’s main harbour and international airport facilities. Many of those vehicles are seen stationed at these same facilities in early 2016.
Here we see UAE Presidential Guard personnel stand guard at Aden’s international airport on August 12, 2015. At least four BMP-3 IFVs are visible in the background, one bearing the Presidential Guard Brigade’s divisional sign:
Other photographs show divisional colours applied to the rear hull of BMP-3 IFVs of the Presidential Guard Brigade:
And here are photographs of the same three BMP-3 IFVs of the UAE Presidential Guard Brigade at Aden’s container port. The second IFV bears the registration number 22859 (Arabic) and a 3 on black-over-red background on the top left corner of the brigade’s divisional sign:
By early August of 2015, the force is fully deployed, and on August 3, columns of armoured vehicles begin to move out of the city, heading north.
Al Anad Air Base
Despite some of the identifying numbers and marks on the vehicles not being clearly visible due to the poor quality of part of the material, the attack on Al Anad air base is the first large scale operation in which we see BMP-3 IFVs and Leclerc MBTs participate jointly in significant numbers.
Photographs of the convoy have allowed for a thorough analysis of the specific BMP-3 IFVs and units involved in the operation. In the 33rd Battalion, BMP-3 IFVs with registration numbers 9246 and 22009 stand with at least one other BMP-3 from the same unit and one BMP-3 of the Presidential Guard Brigade. A BMP-3 with registration number 1120, also of 33rd Battalion, awaits in the column in front of at least two other BMP-3s. Leclerc MBTs are visible in the background and make up the rear of the convoy.
Below is a BMP-3 IFV with the registration number 22859 (Arabic) of the Presidential Guard Brigade, previously spotted at Aden’s container port. Notice a diagonally divided yellow/red sign with a 3 on black-over-red background on the top left corner, possibly indicating 3rd Battalion of the Presidential Guard Brigade:
And here is a BMP-3 IFV with the registration number 3571 in two different locations in Lahj governorate, north of Aden, on August 4, 2015. Notice that there is no divisional sign on the front hull; the registration number is on the opposite side compared to where it normally is, and there is no official UAE Army plate:
The operation to recapture strategic territory around the Bab al-Mandab Strait from the Houthis in early October 2015 can be considered the second armoured campaign since the beginning of the UAE-led ground offensive in Yemen. This event registers a more substantial effort from other elements of the Arab Coalition as well, but the UAE Army still provides the greatest majority of the forces on the ground, especially wherein armour is concerned. Footage from the operation shows significant numbers of BMP-3 IFVs, together with Leclerc MBTs and other armoured vehicles.
Despite the considerable amount of vehicles involved, among which are at least three BPM-3 IFVs sporting full slat armour, none have been identified in detail. However, all the IFVs spotted are clearly part of the 33rd Battalion.
Below is a Presidential Guard Brigade’s BMP-3 with registration number 44859 (Arabic) bearing a 3 with black-over-red background on top left corner of divisional sign. Next to it is another Presidential Guard BMP-3. This picture was taken at Aden international airport, on January 7, 2016:
Following the initial phase of the Arab Coalition’s offensive in Yemen, the BMP-3 IFV gradually disappear from the frontlines, and are more often seen guarding key infrastructure within larger cities. One operation of seemingly little importance sees the BMP-3 as a primary actor: the occupation of the island of Socotra, in May 2018.
Very little photographic and video material is available for this event, but an initial analysis reveals that at least two BMP-3 IFVs were involved in the seizure of the facility, and at least one belonged to the 34th Battalion, displaying the registration number 21**2 (the asterisks stand for numbers missing from the available evidence). Another IFV is seen with a covered divisional sign but exhibiting the registration number 21**4:
Based on individual equipment, personnel spotted during this operation might be part of a unit within the Presidential Guard Brigade. Notwithstanding, the BMP-3 IFVs spotted at the airport do not exhibit any specific details for this potential affiliation.
Below is a log and a tentative order of battle where details of all the BMP-3s that could be identified are included:
Conclusion + A Note On Accountability
Identifying, analysing and tracking the UAE Army’s BMP-3 IFVs operating in Yemen with specificity entails a deeper grasp of the capabilities of these vehicles. This allows us to better comprehend their prolonged use, along with the consequences of said use.
The offensive leading to the seizure of Al Anad air base is the first large-scale operation in which UAE Army’s BMP-3 Infantry Fighting Vehicles are observed participating in large numbers. At least eight BMP-3 IFVs are sighted moving towards the air base, of which four are part of 33rd Battalion and four more belong to the Presidential Guard Brigade. Three BMP-3s of 33rd Battalion have been identified and analysed in detail, all spotted during the Al Anad offensive. From the Presidential Guard Brigade side, six BMP-3s have been identified in total, four of which during the assault towards Al Anad. The preponderance of special forces elements within UAE Army formations participating in the operation underlines the strategic importance of the objective.
While the BMP-3s of the Presidential Guard Brigade are not overtly involved in any major action following the retaking of Al Anad and appear instead relegated to surveillance duties, several BMP-3 IFVs of 33rd Battalion are again deployed, this time in Zinjibar and Bab al-Mandab. No specific IFV is identified on these occasions, but at least three are equipped with 360° slat armour, which could suggest improved protection was deemed necessary following the prior offensive.
Metal grids may have not been enough. Without speculating on the amount of vehicles lost, the BMP-3 is nowhere to be seen during the following offensives. Possibly, the BMP-3s’ vulnerability has been a conclusive factor in determining its future, limited use. In the operation for the seizure of Socotra, the deployed BMP-3 IFVs, of which at least one is from 34th Battalion, lack any additional slat armour a possible indication that operational commanders deemed the anti-armour threat to be low.
Overall, twelve BMP-3 IFVs have been identified. Most IFVs belong to the Presidential Guard Brigade, some seemingly as part of the 3rd Battalion. The second most represented unit is a brigade which seems to have fielded at least two battalions, the 33rd and the 34th.
The widespread transfer of BMP-3 IFVs to local forces and the practice of concealing or removing their identifying numbers must be noted and, as best as possible, kept track of. Inspecting the analysis disclosed in this report can raise awareness concerning the magnitude of the phenomenon, while, at the same time, it could provide the techniques necessary to analyse specific cases and possibly tell which IFV was ceded. The impressive amount of evidence available via open sources, compared to the relatively small number of BMP-3 IFVs which have been effectively identified, reveals a notable ratio in BMP-3 IFVs operated by non-uniformed personnel seemingly belonging to aligned Yemeni formations.
This report has also demonstrated that having a vehicle’s identifying numbers is the sole way to verify the uniqueness of the vehicle in question. Resorting to alternative determining signs, as witnessed, is not always safe. Tactical signs or camo patterns, for example, can be determinant in some cases but deceptive in others. Therefore, when looking at supplementary external characteristics, it may be best to use them in combination.
The UAE’s BMP-3 IFVs have witnessed a rather limited deployment, even more so for large operations, but the war is not over. By analysing the material available online, these vehicles’ movements can be traced across theatres of operation, and from there back to their home bases.
Therefore, it will be not only possible to better understand the use of such vehicles, but also to eventually increase the chance for accountability. Suggestions presented here on alternative means of identification may be valuable, especially in cases of willful concealment of identification numbers. Precise record-keeping adds an important tool for fact-checking as well.
My plan is to periodically review the evidence available on the UAE’s Leclerc MBTs and BMP-3 IFVs in Yemen and to share the results of my analysis. I also invite the research community to contribute additional evidence that might have escaped me, as well as observations and suggestions on how to make research more efficient and practical. I hope the information and suggestions presented here will be of use to further investigations.