Naval Infantry, Russian (Peter Antill)

A Brief History
After the Cold War

A Brief History

The history of the Russian Naval Infantry predates its much larger cousin, the United States Marine Corps, by around seventy years, when Tzar Peter the Great transferred two regiments of ordinary infantry to the Navy, thus creating the Naval Infantry (Morskaya pekhota). However the arm of service has not had the same recognition or development as others have. The Naval Infantry fought well during the Great Northern War (1700 - 1721) and the Seven Years War (1756 - 1763), as well as during campaigns against the Turks in the Mediterranean, the Crimea and Russo-Japanese Wars.

The large number of Naval Infantry formations maintained during these wars cannot be ascribed to any recognition of their usefulness. On the contrary, most of the units raised consisted of supernumerary ships’ crews from immobilised or destroyed Russian warships. [note 1]

The naval Infantry performed a number of important landings in both World Wars including raids against the Turks around the Black Sea and the capture of Sakhalin Island and the Japanese-held ports in North Korea. However, they were disbanded in 1947 and remained so until 1961. There were several reasons for this. Firstly, the countries that had maintained a strong amphibious capability (the USA and UK) have been active in seaborne empire building (militarily and economically) and trade, and so for many years after the Russian Revolution, the Kremlin regarded marines as a symbol of imperialism. Secondly, the appearance of a Soviet ‘blue-water’ fleet is a fairly recent phenomenon. There have however, been many historical examples of the Russians using armed parties of sailors ashore. The 1st Separate Naval Infantry Brigade earned a fearsome reputation during the siege of Leningrad in World War Two. However, several factors came together at the start of the 1960’s which heralded the Naval Infantry’s resurrection. Firstly, there was a growing unease about the all-out nuclear strategy introduced by Krushchev in the 1950’s (which mirrored the unease in the USA over massive retaliation at the same time). Secondly, the study of US and British operations during World War Two, showed the utility of amphibious forces in conventional operations (as did the landings of the US Marines in Lebanon in 1958, and the Royal Marines at Suez in 1956). Thirdly, the Cuban Missile Crisis underlined the need for a more balanced Soviet Navy and fourthly, Admiral Gorshkov (who had been involved in amphibious operations during the war) took command of the Soviet Fleet and was determined to build it into a true ‘blue-water’ navy.

It was only with Gorshkov’s appointment that the old Soviet stigma of seeing marine forces as a manifestation of imperialism was finally overcome. His importance in this resurrection cannot be overemphasised. [note 2]

To this was added a number of articles in the Soviet military press, such as the ones by Captain N P Vivuenko and Admiral Yu A Panteleev.

The revival of the Naval Infantry entailed the building of a modern amphibious fleet. Starting in the late 1950’s, the Soviets had started to build sixteen MP-2 and twenty-five MP-4 class landing ships. While the MP-2s could only carry infantry, the MP-4s could carry up to eight APCs and were eventually converted from transporters to fully fledged landing ships. In the 1960’s ten cargo ships of the ‘Bira’ class were converted as well, creating the MP-6 class and were followed by the eighteen ships of the MP-8 class, which were heavily armed and could carry 12 APCs or 400 tons of material. Finally, the forty-six ships of the MP-10 class, which were capable of carrying three tanks, concluded the first generation of post-war Soviet landing ships. After a short pause in the build up, the first ships of the ‘Polnocny’ class were laid down. These were to become the standard Soviet landing ship, and were built in three versions. The last (Polnocny III), could carry eight APCs or 500 tons of stores, and could give substantial support to its Naval Infantry with its two sets of fourteen rocket launchers. Soon after this came the first exercises on the Black Sea with Bulgarian and Rumanian troops. These were probably small in scale and only involved around a company of Naval Infantry in each.

From there on, the build up of the Naval Infantry continued at a steady pace. From 1965 to 1969 it grew from just over 3000 personnel to around 8000. The growing importance of the arm was demonstrated with its part in Soviet naval exercises. There were a number of these conducted on the Baltic and Black Seas with other members of the Warsaw Pact, including Exercises ‘Sever’ and ‘Oder-Neisse’, as well as a regimental landing conducted in 1974 with East German and Polish Marines. Along with these high profile manouvres, the second generation of landing ships came into service. Among these were the Alligator class, which could carry up to thirty APCs or 1700 tons of stores. Finally, during the 1970’s, the largest Soviet landing ship began construction, the ‘Ropucha’, which had the capacity to take nineteen APCs or 1000 tons of material. The Naval Infantry was divided between the four fleets (Northern, Baltic, Black Sea and Pacific) with a single regiment going to three of the fleets and two going to the Pacific. As the Naval Infantry expanded through the 1970’s and 1980’s, the regiments were expanded into brigades (an indication of their elite status as brigades were not a common formation in the Soviet Armed Forces) and the Pacific units were formed into a division. Each formation was tailored to its geographical situation, but it can be assumed that the regiments were composed of three infantry battalions (of around 350 personnel) mounted in BTR-60PB armoured personnel carriers, a battalion of T-54 or T-55 medium tanks, a light tank battalion of PT-76 tanks, plus a number of combat support and combat service support assets including BM-21 multiple rocket launchers, ZSU-23-4 ‘Shilka’ self-propelled anti-aircraft artillery systems, SA-9 ‘Gaskin’ surface-to-air missile systems, and AT-3 ‘Sagger’ anti-tank missile systems. A Naval Infantry brigade has two tank battalions and five infantry battalions, making it nearly double the size of the regiment. Naval Infantry are of a higher calibre than normal motor rifle troops, and are given more rigerous training and special courses to familiarise them with ship types, naval terminology and signals, parachuting and navigation as well as being taught to use all the weapons at the company’s disposal. The general character of the Naval Infantry is elitist, as are most other marine forces, and they wear the distictive blue and white stripped shirts, that are also worn by the paratroops. The ranks in the Naval Infantry are military, but non-rated personnel are called Seamen. The highest rank is that of Major General, and officers are graduates of the higher military schools.

Given the fact that the Naval Infantry of the modern period has been fairly small, its use would remain limited to the tactical and operational levels, as raiding parties or the spearhead of a larger amphibious force, where the beachhead would be seized by the Naval Infantry, and the second echelon would comprise of units of the Ground Forces. While the US Marine Corps uses specially designed armoured amphibious vehicles (amtracs) the Naval Infantry uses normal Army equipment (in the Soviet era this was the BTR-60) as the tactics would be different. The Naval Infantry would be unlikely to assault a heavily defended coastline, while the US Marines are trained and equipped for such a mission. The Naval Infantry have however been ahead of the Marine Corps in the adoption of hovercraft for beach landing operations. Four types have come into service : ‘Gus’, ‘Lebed’, ‘Uterok’ and ‘Aist’ and their capacity is quite impressive. The ‘Gus’ class can carry nine tons of stores at 57.5 knots, while the ‘Aist’ class can carry either four PT-76 tanks, two T-72 tanks or 220 troops at a maximum speed of 70 knots. Finally a new class of assault landing ship came into service at the end of the 1970’s - the ‘Ivan Rogov’ class which had habitable berths for a whole battalion of Naval Infantry and so allowed them to be projected much further from Soviet shores than was previously possible, and so permitting long voyages to more distant destinations. This point has been illustrated by Soviet landing exercises in Syria. [note 3] The Naval Infantry had come of age as a power projection force.

The 1980’s saw a gradual overhaul of the Naval Infantry force structure as well as modernisation of its equipment and a change in doctrine under Chief of the Soviet General Staff, Marshal N V Ogarkov. He planned to use amphibious landings along with ‘deep’ strikes (such as airborne and airmobile assault) in a theatre offensive to attack an enemy’s nuclear weapons, missile and air force concentrations, command and control assets and logistics infrastructure. The categories of desant were updated into six new types : Operational - Strategic, Operational, Operational - Tactical, Tactical, Special Purpose and Demonstration. No sizes were given, but were assumed to be army / corps, division, brigade / regiment / battalion / company and company / platoon / squad respectively. Similarly, no depth was indicated for each type of operation but would be expected to vary between fifty and 1000 kilometres depending on the situation. The term ‘Sea Landing Operation’ (morskaya desantnaya operatsiia) is used to describe landings at the operational - strategic, operational and operational - tactical levels. It can be conducted as part of a strategic theatre offensive, a counter-offensive operation, an independent strategic operation or to support a front or fleet, and is controlled by a TVD headquarters (teatr voyennykh deystviy) - the equivalent of a ‘theatre of operations’. Along with the increase in Soviet surface fleet numbers and the upgrading of the naval infrastructure, the Naval Infantry’s numbers were expanded from just over 12,000 to around 20,000. They also received a boost to their organic firepower with the addition of the M1974 122mm self-propelled gun, the replacement of the BTR with the new BMD airborne infantry fighting vehicle, MT-LB multi-purpose combat vehicle, the replacement of the T-54 and T-55 medium tanks with the T-72 main battle tank, and the addition of SA-8 ‘Gecko’ SAMs. Naval Infantry airborne assault units were also created to enhance the shock effect of an amphibious landing, and prevent the Naval Infantry from having to call upon the VDV (Vosdushno desantnaya voyska - air assault force) for help and becoming part of the planning process which would complicate command and control. This consideration has a particular implication for the Pacific Naval Command. It tacitly implies an endorsement of the Command’s relative autonomy in the conduct of military operations over the far-flung territories of the Soviet Maritime Far East and beyond - into the expanses of the Pacific. [note 4] In the late 1980’s the Naval Infantry of both the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact were given a lower profile, and its exercises were to have a low key approach in line with Gorbachev’s new thinking and his decision to follow a more defensive doctrine.

After the Cold War

With the end of the Cold War, dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 - 91, the Naval Infantry once again found itself to be ‘Russian’. The new scenarios that were created by these events seemed very different from those of the Cold War - namely internal security and counter-insurgency missions both in Russia and in the Near Abroad (the regions that are in the immediate vicinity of the Russian Federation). The emphasis is now on elite mobile formations, particularly those of the VDV, air assault brigades, the Spetsnaz and the Naval Infantry. The Naval Infantry is controlled through a joint command with the Coastal Missile and Artillery Troops and has a strength of around 27,000 personnel. The Naval Infantry is however at around half of its listed strength and has a large number of conscripts, which can do little to help the combat strength of the units.

The listed formations include one division, three independent brigades, one independent regiment and a number of smaller detachments. The 55th (formerly 5th) Division is based in the Far East and is composed of two infantry regiments, one air assault regiment, one tank regiment, one artillery battalion and other combat support elements. Only the air assault regiment is fully manned, with the two infantry regiments significantly understrength. The 63rd Guards Independent Brigade is based with the Northern Fleet at Pechenga - Petsamo and the 175th Independent Brigade at Serebrinanski. The 63rd has two infantry battalions, one air assault battalion, a tank battalion and an artillery battalion. The 175th is mainly at cadre strength. On the Baltic resides the 336th Guards Independent Brigade (formerly the 36th) at Kaliningrad, and is composed of four infantry battalions, two tank battalions plus combat support and combat service support elements. On the Black Sea, the continuing problems between Russia and Ukraine has meant that the 810th Independent Brigade (formerly 79th) has been split between the two countries with the Ukrainians forming the 1st Naval Infantry Brigade, and the remnants becoming the cadre of a new independent regiment for the Russians. Detachments include small units based on the Azov Sea, Caspian Sea and Amur River. There is also a detachment at the Moscow Navy HQ based around two companies of Naval Infantry.

Many Naval Infantry battalions have BTR-70 armoured personnel carriers (APC) but are slowly converting to BMD-2 airborne infantry fighting vehicle. The tank battalions have either T-55AM medium tanks or T-72 main battle tanks (which are steadily replacing the older tank). The OT-55 flamethrower and PT-76 light tanks have almost completely been replaced. The Northern Fleet’s brigades have a larger tank battalion based around four companies of main battle tanks (MBT) and another two companies of PT-76 light tanks that are being phased out or replaced to some extent by the 2S9 ‘Anona’ self-propelled gun. The artillery battalions contain 122mm 2S1 ‘Gvozdika’ self-propelled guns (SPGs), augmented by 2S9 ‘Anona’ SPGs in some cases. The Pacific Fleet’s 55th Division also has 152mm 2S3 SPGs and some 122mm M-74 towed guns. The MRL battalion has 18 BM-21 trucks with 122mm barrels, while the anti-tank battalion consists of 18 BRDM-2 vehicles, which mount AT-3 ‘Sagger’ or AT-5 ‘Spandrel’ anti-tank missiles. In the anti-aircraft role, the air defence battalion fields a mix of ZSU-23-4 ‘Shilka’ and 2S6 ‘Tunguska’ self-propelled anti-aircraft (AA) systems and SA-9 ‘Gaskin’ surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems. Interestingly, both the PTS-M and MT-LB tracked vehicles are in common use (the former with the engineers) and the MT-LB sometimes replaces the BTR-70 as its wide tracks give it better mobility over soft terrain, and is used as a weapons carrier for the 120mm mortar and SA-13 ‘Gopher’ SAM.

As in the Soviet era, the Naval Infantry could be used as a show of force, such as the landings in Syria, Vietnam, Cuba and Aden demonstrated. The Naval Infantry now operates in the ‘Near Abroad’, for example, in the civil war in Georgia, the Naval Infantry was landed to gain control of important communications sites. The Naval Infantry was also used in the Chechen conflict when four battalions were airlifted (from the Baltic and Pacific) to Chechnya. While the training and the motivation of the Naval Infantry are among the best in Russia, their use in counter-insurgency operations has meant problems, as exemplified by the refusal of 300 men to go to Chechnya. They have also seen action in the South China Sea where they engaged pirates attacking Russian merchantmen. They have also been used as an internal security force, with action in the Crimea and the Baltic Republics. The Naval infantry were even used to force the local electricity company in the Kola Peninsula to turn the electricity back on to the naval base which had failed to pay its bill, due to fears over the safety of nuclear reactors.

Unfortunately the very assets that make the Naval Infantry what it is, are in poor condition and much of it is becoming elderly, due to a lack of spare parts and proper maintenance (which isn’t helped by the fact that the shipyard that built the ‘Ropucha’ and ‘Polnocny’ classes is in Poland). While evaluating overall combat capability is therefore difficult, short-range capability is probably still good as the naval infantry can still use the twenty-six ships of the ‘Polnocny’ class (as they can land directly on the beach area) and the various classes of hovercraft (‘Gus’, ‘Lebed’, ‘Aist’, ‘Uterok’, ‘Tsaplya’ and ‘Serena’). Problems persist however in keeping these air-cushion vehicles in service, as they are expensive to maintain.

Finally, while the special forces available to the Russian Army have declined in numbers, the navy has maintained its special forces almost untouched. Each fleet has a special forces brigade (Morskaya brigada osobogo naznacheniya) attached to it. They are located at Murmansk (Northern), Baltiysk (Baltic), Sevastopol (Black Sea) and Vladivostock / Sovetskaya Gavan (Pacific). The Naval Spetsnaz brigade has a headquarters company, a battalion of special craft (including midget submarines), two or three commando battalions and supporting units. The Northern and Black Sea Fleets have smaller brigades, while the Baltic and Pacific Fleets have larger ones. At most, a battalion of Spetsnaz will have around 200 personnel and a brigade will have around 8 - 900 personnel. Most of the Spetsnaz are selected two year conscripts or short-term volunteers with three years of service.(de Lionis, p. 302)

In recent times, the parachute battalion or independent battalion for sabotage and reconnaissance has been moved from brigade control to fleet headquarters control. Most are around 120 personnel, while the Pacific Fleet’s is larger. This was due to the need to resort to specialised long-range reconnaissance units for intelligence gathering leaving harbour sabotage to the Naval Spetsnaz and beach operations to either Naval Spetsnaz or the MP.(de Lionis, p. 302) There is close co-operation between the Naval Spetsnaz and Naval Infantry and tasks such as beach raiding and reconnaissance, underwater demolition and amphibious assault can be given to either.

In conclusion, the long history and proven performance of the Naval Infantry should ensure its future among the cash starved Russian Armed Forces. The only problems are the lack of funds for the maintenance of the amphibious fleet and adequate operational training. Also, there is a lack of training in counter-terrorist operations (unlike Western special forces) but given the changing world in which we live, the hijack of a Turkish ferry by Chechen rebels and the increasing problems with organised crime, this situation could change.


  1. de Cuhna, Derek, "Soviet Naval Infantry and Amphibious Lift in the Pacific", Armed Forces, October 1988, pp.446-450
  2. de Lionis, Andres "How Elite is Russia’s Naval Infantry ?", Jane’s Intelligence Review, July 1996, pp. 298-302.
  3. Pritchard, Charles G "Warsaw Pact Amphibious Forces under Gorbachev", International Defence Review, 4 / 1989, pp401 - 404
  4. Rasmussen, Peter H "Naval Infantry", Soviet Armed Forces Review Annual, No.4, 1980, pp228 - 238, Academic International Press, Florida
  5. Rasmussen, Peter H, "Naval Infantry", Soviet Armed Forces Review Annual, No.5, 1981, pp153 - 157, Academic International Press, Florida
  6. Rasmussen, Peter H, "Naval Infantry", Soviet Armed Forces Review Annual, No.8, 1985, pp185 - 189, Academic International Press, Florida
  7. Rasmussen, Peter H, "Soviet Naval Infantry and Spetsnaz Naval Brigades", Soviet Armed Forces Review Annual, No.10, 1987, pp141 - 145, Academic International Press, Florida
  8. Urban, Mark L "The Red Banner Baltic Fleet Guards Naval Infantry Regiment", Armed Forces, June 1984, pp224 - 227
  9. Zaloga Steven J & Loop, James, Soviet Bloc Elite Forces, Osprey Publishing Ltd, 1985, Elite No.5, 0-85045-631-2, 64 pages
[BACK] 1 Rasmussen, Peter H "Naval Infantry", Soviet Armed Forces Review Annual, No.4, 1980, p.228
[BACK] 2 Urban, Mark L "The Red Banner Baltic Fleet Guards Naval Infantry Regiment", Armed Forces, June 1984, p.225
[BACK] 3 Zaloga Steven J & Loop, James, Soviet Bloc Elite Forces, Osprey Publishing Ltd, 1985, Elite No.5, p.25
[BACK] 4 de Cuhna, Derek, "Soviet Naval Infantry and Amphibious Lift in the Pacific", Armed Forces, October 1988, p.448
How to cite this article: Antill, P. (2001), Naval Infantry, Russian (Peter Antill),

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