Airborne and Airmobile Forces, Russian (Peter Antill)

Early History
The VDV See Action
Post-War Developments
Sightseeing in Prague and Kabul
Going Solo
The War in Afghanistan
Into the 1990's
Bibliography

Early History

The Soviets can rightly be viewed as the pioneers of the airborne force, when in the late 1920's and early 1930's, trials were conducted that led to the first paratroop landing unit (PDO : parashyutnodesantniyotryad) in the Leningrad Military District in 1931. However the first actual use in combat of Soviet paratroopers had come in 1929 when the Red Army landed a force of fifteen men to relieve the besieged Tadzhik town of Garm, which was surrounded by a band of Basmachi guerrillas. The first major trial was conducted on 2nd August 1930 near Voronezh in the Moscow Military District. Experimentation went hand-in-hand with doctrinal research. Some of the leading names in this area were M. N. Tukhachevsky (commander of the Leningrad Military District), A. N. Lapchinsky (chief of staff of the Red Army's air force) and N. P. Ivanov. While aircraft had landed individuals in the enemy rear during the First World War, the developments in passenger aircraft now meant, it was theorised that it could be possible to put a substantial force down in the rear of the enemy and disrupt his operations. The first major test came in the Byelorussian Military District in 1934, and world-wide attention was given to their development when in 1935, foreign military observers were invited to the military exercises in the Ukrainian Military District, where 2,500 paratroopers were dropped near Kiev. This helped stimulate the development of airborne forces in both Europe and the USA.

The VDV See Action

Despite being part of the Air Force, the 212th Airborne Brigade was deployed to the Far East and saw action in the Battle of Khalkin Gol against the Japanese Army in July and August 1939, while the 201st, 204th and 214th Airborne Brigades took part in the invasion of Poland during September 1939. The first full-scale combat jump in history occurred in November 1939 near Petsamo, Finland during the Russo-Finnish War and were again in action during the occupation of Rumanian Bessarabia. The reasonable success and good combat record, along with the success of the German Airborne forces in Western Europe meant that the five airborne brigades based in European Russia were earmarked to be expanded to corps status, while the sixth remained in the Far East. When war broke out in June 1941, the technical assets of the VDV (Vozdushno-Desantnaya Voyska - Air Assault Force) were totally inadequate to start with, and what they had was devastated by the air attacks early on in the campaign. This shortage of air assets meant that the VDV spent most of the war fighting as elite infantry. A number of operations were conducted during the winter of 1942 / 1943 with the 201st Airborne Brigade dropping near Medzyn on the 2 / 3 January and again near Vyazma on the 18th January, with the 204th Airborne Brigade near Rzhev on the 14 - 22 February. An ambitious plan was formulated to drop the entire 4th Airborne Corps near Vyazma behind German lines at the beginning of February, but with the lack of air transport assets meant that the 22 TB-3s and 40 PS-84s would have to fly two or three sorties a night for a week. The Corps started dropping on the 27th January and about a quarter of them were dropped into terrible weather conditions and the operation foundered. Another operation later in the month against Yukhnov also failed. These heroic but ineffective operations led the Soviet High Command to convert the Corps to Guards Rifle Divisions and they fought with distinction in the northern Caucasus and Stalingrad. Eventually however, the Air Force managed to have them reformed as Guards Airborne Divisions and a large scale operation was planned in September 1943 to drop and air-land 10,000 troops from the 1st, 3rd and 5th Airborne Brigades and establish a bridgehead over the Dniepr River. The operation, however was a costly failure. "By a cruel irony, the only successful airborne operation by Soviet forces in the Second World War were small-scale drops by special Naval Infantry paratroopers in the Crimea, and operations by improvised Army units during the campaign against the Japanese in Manchuria in 1945." [note 1]

Post-War Developments

The VDV ended the war in some disarray. The operations had been bad fiascos, but the units had fought with courage and heroism, with some 196 soldiers receiving the Hero of the Soviet Union medal. In 1946 the VDV was transferred from the Air Force to direct control of the Ministry of Defence to serve as a strategic reserve. It languished over the next decade, while the role of the airborne divisions was examined in light of the experience gained by all sides during the war. The Soviets concluded that with the exception of the German operations in 1940 and 1941, most airborne operations were failures or made no real contribution to conventional campaigns. Successes were only forthcoming when facing weak or demoralised opponents, and when facing quality opposition the results were usually catastrophic (as at Arnhem). Despite this there remained a conviction that airborne forces did have a role to play in dropping behind enemy lines and causing mayhem in the enemy's rear areas. In 1956 the VDV was switched to the Ground Forces and came under the command of General V. F. Margelov (a wartime hero of the Naval Infantry), who set about modernisation with determination. The first results were the introduction of the An-8 transport (followed by the An-12) and the increase in firepower with the new B10 82mm Recoilless Rifle (followed by the B11 107mm Recoilless Rifle) in the mid-1950's, and the RPG-2 around the same time. What really helped was the development of light armoured vehicles that could be dropped with the paratroopers. The Soviets had realised that previous operations had ". . . . ended with the landing of the force. Manoeuvre was largely at the speed of the infantryman. Soviet recognition of this weakness formed the key to further development of this force. In the Soviet concept of the vosdushnii desant (airborne assault) the landing of the force is simply the beginning of the operation." [note 2] The first of these were the ASU-76 and ASU-57, the latter of which entered service in 1955. This was followed by the ASU-85 (based on the PT-76 scout tank) in 1960 and could be airlifted by the new An-12. With the embarrassment over the Cuban missile crisis, the Politburo decided that the Soviet Union should substantially enhance its ability to project military power abroad. As a result, the VDV was again transferred back to direct Ministry of Defence control in 1964.

Sightseeing in Prague and Kabul

The invasion of Czechoslovakia was designated Operation Danube. The Soviet Army formed a Strategic Direction composed of three Fronts (Central, Carpathian and Southern) and the VDV mobilised two of its divisions, of which the 103rd Guards Desant Division was to deliver the coup de main against Prague, with elements of the Polish 6th Airborne Division designated to take the airfield at Pardubice. On the evening of the 20th August 1968, an unscheduled Aeroflotte An-24 aircraft made an unscheduled landing at Ruzyme Airport at around 2030 hrs, and was soon followed by an aircraft from Lvov in the Ukraine at about midnight, which unloaded a number of Soviet 'civilians' who talked with Czech officials and then departed. As the troops of the three Fronts crossed the Czech border, the 'civilians' took up positions around the airport. At around 0200 hrs, two An-12 aircraft, escorted by MiG-21 fighters, landed at the airport, and two companies of desantniki (about 180 men) were disgorged and took over from the 'civilians'. After the airfield was secured, the command An-24, which had been the first aircraft to arrive, ordered the rest of the 103rd Guards Desant Division to start landing. This contained a number of ASU-85s and armoured personnel carriers, and a special assault group was to take the presidential palace, with the rest of the division seizing key points around the city. Not long after, the lead elements of the Central Front, the 6th Guards and 35th Motor Rifle Divisions entered Prague. For the invasion of Afghanistan, a larger VDV force was allocated than for Czechoslovakia, presumably because of the greater expectation of resistance. The VDV were to again provide the coup de main against Kabul, and were to eliminate the Afghan President, Hafizullah Amin, and replace him with a puppet regime under Babrak Karmal. One regiment was to be used from the 103rd and 104th Guards Desant Divisions, as well as the entire 105th Guards Desant Division in the operation. In early December 1979, the Soviets transferred the regiments from the 103rd and 104th into the country to assist in controlling Bagram airport just outside Kabul. Meanwhile, Soviet advisors all over the country began attempts to paralyse the armed forces. On the 24th December, the VDV forces at Bagram seized control of the airfield and the main elements of the 105th Guards began to arrive from their base in the neighbouring Turkestan Military District. The main Soviet forces began crossing the border on the 25th December, and the VDV assembled the main battle group to assault the presidential palace. After a brief but intense battle, the Soviets took the palace, and then spread out to take key locations around Kabul, and other population centres, such as Kandahar. Later in 1980, the airborne forces were reorganised, with the 105th Guards being disbanded, apart from the 345th Guards Airborne Regiment which became an independant air assault regiment, and both it and the 103rd Guards Desant Division were stationed at Bagram during the Afghan conflict.

Going Solo

It was its reorganisation as a semi-autonomous branch of the Soviet Armed Forces that marked a major shift in the VDV's nature. During the 1960's the Soviet Army had embarked on a shift in doctrine and tactics that emphasised the ability to fight on a nuclear battlefield (particularly in a European conflict). The VDV realised that they could be very useful in a theatre devastated by nuclear weapons but the troops could not survive in contaminated areas unprotected. So the VDV decided to follow the same route as the Ground Forces and develop a smaller lighter version of the BMP, which appeared in 1970 as the BMD (Boyevaya Maschina Desantnaya - Airborne Combat Vehicle). This marked the move from the light infantry role, to a mechanised air assault force, as the BMD equipped one, and eventually all three regiments (making around 320 BMDs) in a division. The BMD is a smaller version of the BMP, sharing the same turret and engine, but having a new hull and suspension design. The internal configuration is different and is more cramped. There are stations for three crewmembers (driver, gunner and commander) and for three passengers. The BMD-1 shares the same 73mm low pressure gun with the BMP-1 and has a revolving magazine of forty rounds, with an AT-3 'Sagger' missile launcher on top of the main gun. The engine and transmission are housed at the rear, and the suspension can be lowered and locked down for air transportation. Fuel is carried by a tank in the right rear corner of the vehicle and was supplemented on later models by two small external tanks. It is fully NBC protected, and has armour sufficient to withstand small arms and artillery shrapnel. However, "its light weight and small size have resulted in some performance and handling constraints. The armament system shares the same shortcomings as that on the BMP: the Malyutka (the Russian name for the AT-3 'Sagger') missile is difficult to aim due to its primitive guidance system, especially from a moving armoured vehicle; the main 73mm gun is short ranged; and its finned projectile is vulnerable to cross-winds to a greater extent than more conventional ammunition." [note 3] There were also problems with the poorly supported fuel tank, fragile transmission and poor ventilation when the crew fires the main gun. Many of these problems have been addressed to a greater or lesser extent in the BMD-1 M1973 model or the heavily redesigned BMD-2 which featured new grill vents, an internal redesign, new roadwheels, a 30mm automatic cannon in place of the 73mm gun, and an AT-4 'Spigot' or AT-5 'Spandrel' launcher in place of the AT-3 'Sagger', and first appeared in 1980. While it was initially unclear whether the BMD-2 had the complete turret of the BMP-2, it was later discovered that the turret was a new more compact design housing just the gunner (on the left), day / night sight, anti-aircraft sight, the 30mm 2A42 stabilised cannon and co-axial 7.62mm PKT machine gun. In 1990, a new airborne assault vehicle entered service, with the first production units going to the airborne forces, with delivery to the naval infantry to follow. The BMD-3 has a new chassis design and is fitted with the complete turret of the BMP-2. The vehicle is reported to have much better amphibious capability (hence the acquisition by the Naval Infantry), a more spacious interior, better firepower and improved command and control (due to the two man turret). The BMD-3 can be dropped complete with its crew of seven and the IL-76 can carry three such vehicles. An AG-17 grenade launcher is mounted on the front left of the vehicle and a 5.45mm RPKS machine gun on the right bow. The engine is a 2V-06 water-cooled diesel developing 450 bhp, giving a high power-to-weight ratio of 34 hp / tonne. The transmission is hydromechanical and features five forward and five reverse gears with a hydraulic steering unit. The vehicle has five rubber tyred road wheels, a large drive sprocket at the rear, an idler at the front and four return rollers.

The War in Afghanistan

The Soviets have had an interest in helicopters since their early development in the 1940s and 1950s. The crash development of the Mi-4 'Hound', Yak-24 and Mi-6 'Hook' showed that they had begun to appreciate the value of vertoletnyi desant (helicopter landing). The development of the Mi-8 'Hip' finally provided sufficient tactical flexibility for the formation of airmobile forces. Three regiments of infantry were designated as airmobile brigades, but without organic helicopter assets they were little more than dedicated versions of the motor rifle units being cross-trained in helicopter insertion. One of the clearest lessons of the Sino-Soviet clashes of 1969, was the need for closer integration between mobile units and helicopters to respond to changing situations. As a result, in the late 1970s the Soviets began to form Front-level DShBs (Desantoshturmovaya Brigada or assault landing brigade, originally called Brigady Osobennogo Naznachenia or Special Designation Brigades) and the equivalent battalions at Army level. These units trained much more closely with the Air Force regiments concerned, and as with the VDV, had their pick of recruits. The DShB were to have absolute priority on helicopter assets in combat, and the fact that these units were brigades is in itself indicative of their status, as the brigade was not a standard formation in the Soviet Armed Forces. "The war in Afghanistan provided the DShB with a range of challenges which bred .new tactics, new equipment and a new respect for the flexibility and tempo of helo-mobile operations." [note 4] The war itself was categorised by a sharp divide in the roles of the majority of Soviet troops, who were used primarily for garrison, convoy and perimeter duties, and the elite units that were used in an aggressive counter-insurgency role. These consisted mainly of the Spetznatz, VDV, reconnaissance troops, security troops (such as the MVD and KGB) and the DShB. While one brigade was supposedly deployed to Afghanistan in 1980, based at Shir Khan, the estimates for the whole war ranged from one to ten brigades at any one time, due to the regular rotation of personnel through the theatre and the use of Soviet forces from inside the USSR itself. Most likely, there was a single reinforced DShB with several battalion sized elements to it. In many cases it is difficult to isolate the use of the DShB from that of the VDV, security or motor rifle troops used in heliborne operations. All conducted convoy security, rapid response and vertical assault missions. Convoy protection was very important to the Soviet effort in Afghanistan. The airmobile troops would scout the route the convoy was taking out, and then identify possible ambush locations, and then land small detachments that could take control of any commanding heights prior to the convoy passing. Once it had passed, they would be lifted off, and carried to the next point in a leapfrogging manner. In this regard they worked closely with the reconnaissance troops and combat protection units (Boevoe Okhranenie Podrazdelinia) guarding the convoy. One of the most effective uses of airmobile forces was in the rapid response role, whereby platoons or companies were kept on a round-the-clock alert footing, and used to repel attacks on vital installations, or act on tip-offs from scouts or government agents regarding supply caravans. Air assault forces were also of value in the more conventional Soviet operations, the blikirovka (blockade) used to surround and destroy identified rebel groups, and the procheska (comb) used to root out suspected rebel concentrations.

Into the 1990's

Not long after the war in Afghanistan came to an end, the Cold War ended as well, and the break up of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact seriously disrupted the Soviet military, which did not bode well for the creation of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation. Morale, discipline and funding have all been serious problems, which were highlighted during the rather less than well-executed war in Chechnya. The VDV supplied a number of ad hoc regiments to the fight, and although even they were not once what they were under the Soviet Union, they outshone the rest of the forces assembled in the Caucasus. The VDV have to some extent been shielded from the problems of the Russian Army as a whole , as they still have priority with regard to funds and personnel selection. However, it has been difficult to maintain the number of personnel required in keeping five divisions and eight brigades up to strength. This was shown in that after the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and Soviet Union, the new economic and strategic realities facing the Russian Federation forced a rethink of the force structure, particularly in view of the economy's inability to support large groups of mechanised forces throughout the Federation. It was therefore decided to create a highly mobile, well-trained and equipped fire brigade type of force, especially in view of the local wars predicted by the new doctrine. The new Mobile Forces were planned to be complete by the end of 1995 and be split into two elements: the Immediate Reaction Forces and the Rapid Deployment Forces. The year 1996 saw two reorganisations of the VDV, which gained a lot of media coverage due to the political implications. The first was the transfer of four of the air assault brigades to the control of the commander of the Military District they were in. In addition, two airborne divisions that were deployed in border districts were to become operationally subordinate to those districts while remaining part of the VDV for administration and training. There was much heated discussion over this, and while General Grachev was accused of destroying the VDV, the General Staff defended the decision in that it would strengthen the VDV and prepare them for the missions they would face in the 1990's, given the Chechen experience. The VDV needed heavier equipments, and re-eqipping the whole force was just not possible. The reassignment of the air assault brigades was seen as a correction of an earlier mistake, which meant that control of army aviation and the air assault force, would now take place in the same headquarters. This in many ways made sense given the move towards decentralised power, and so territorial commands can now have their own small scale rapid deployment forces. It may also provide a leavening to the otherwise shakey local forces. The second reorganisation was the reduction in establishment of the VDV from 60,000 to 48,500 (down to 3 divisions and two brigades) recognising the unpalatable fact of undermanning, and rumours have continued to persist that the VDV might even loose its status as a separate branch of service and merge with the Ground Forces. ". . . . Russia will not have an effective . . . . desant force until the country's internal problems have been solved and the armed forces have undertaken a real reform. When that happens, Russia has the helicopter designers and tactical theorists to make a major contribution to this branch of the military art once again."

Bibliography

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[BACK] 1 Steven J Zalooga and James Loop, "Soviet Bloc Elite Forces", 1986, Osprey, p6
[BACK] 2 James F Holcomb and Graham H Turbiville, "Soviet Desant Forces", p1079
[BACK] 3 James F Holcomb and Graham H Turbiville, "Soviet Desant Forces", p10
[BACK] 4 Mark Galeotti, "DShB - Assault Landing Brigades from Afghanistan to 'Defensive Defence'", p387
5 Michael Orr, The Russian Heliborne Desant Force in Theory and Practice, p. 21.
How to cite this article: Antill, P., Airborne and Airmobile Forces, Russian, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/weapons_russianairlong.html

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