A question on Soviet military history from a reader

I received the following question from a reader:

Just a brief question, sir. With regard to Soviet Airborne/Air Assault troops during the Soviet war in Afghanistan; because they were armored vehicle operators (mechanic-drivers, operator-gunners) – but paratroops first, did VDV AFV crew members of BMD’s, BMP’s, T-62’s and the like participate in dismounted Air Assault operations, or were they pretty much restricted to operating the AFV? I’ve read that they wore a black uniform, rather than the beige Afghan style infantry wore, with a diamond tanker patch over the right shirt pocket, hardly camouflaged gear for the Afghan terrain. Thank you very much for any response given.

Soviet military history is not something I know very much about, but I figure there’s at least a decent chance that one of my readers might know something about this topic. If you can answer this question, please comment or send me an email.

6 thoughts on “A question on Soviet military history from a reader

  1. That’s true. In fact, one battalion per Motor Rifle unit (Division/Regiment) conducted countinsurgency operations. There was some overlap between branches. Did the armored vehicle crews ever dismount for tactical light infantry operations or were they relegated to operating the vehicles?

  2. If you get a chance, track down Les Grau’s The Bear Went Over the Mountain. In it, he describes some of the tactics techniques and procedures that the Soviets developed over the years in Afghan.

    He talks specifically about the dismounts for mech infantry taking part in air assault missions, and the minimally occupied armored vehicles came in to pick up forces.

    Interesting book. It includes AARs/memoirs, with analysis by soviets, and overal analysis by Grau.

    Hope this helped.

  3. I asked a good friend and journalist residing in Moscow your question. This is his reply:

    The airborne troops were the 2nd stage of the invasion. The first stage was 700 Soviet special forces troops dressed as Afghans.

    Re the Airborne troops the most important thing to remember is that the Soviet air Corp at that time was part of the Army but trained and deployed its own units. They were “mixed units” meaning that the Airborne divisions had their own trucks, infantry troops, motorized divisions, etc.

    After the initial attack which killed the president of Afghanistan as the Special Forces entered the Palace, the Soviet 103rd Guards ‘Vitebsk’ Airborne Division landed at the airport at Bagram. As part of the 40th Army, units were comprised from the 103rd Airborne, the 108th and 5th Guards Motor Rifle Divisions, the 860th Separate Motor Rifle Regiment, the 56th Separate Airborne Assault Brigade, and the 36th Mixed Air Corps.

    Not long thereafter the 201st and 58th Motor Rifle Divisions followed in a third wave with 1800 tanks, troops and AFVs. The average number of air raids by Soviet aircraft averaged close to 4,000 flights in the initial weeks. The VDV and DShB were both involved from the start.

    The Soviets used BMD’s early and often because they gave the element of surprise and could be hidden more easily. It was also more lightweight than the BMP-1.

    You asked about AGS: Parachute companies patrolled with machine gunners, AGS-17 crews, reconnaissance, engineers (sappers) and marksmen/snipers. Airborne and air assault units also provided security and convoy escort for military and economic cargo.

    Soviet Airborne troops were “special forces” in every sense of the word. Recruits were selected based on physical, psychological and intelligence tests. An airborne recruit was required to pass a rigorous six-month course in weapons, special techniques, urban & mountain warfare and commando training. Much like the US Navy Seals, Airborne troops were able to operate as small groups in highly maneuverable situations with a minimum of control from command structures.

    Here are some links:

    http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/russia/army-vdv.htm

    http://www.militaryhistoryonline.com/20thcentury/articles/sovietexperience.aspx

    http://www.airpower.maxwell.af.mil/airchronicles/aureview/1985/jan-feb/nelson.html

    He even gave me electronic copies of the uniform patches worn during the campaign but I don’t know how to post that here.

    Hope this helps you.

  4. VDV AFV crews did indeed wear the standard Soviet black coveralls and generally stayed with their AFVs; they were VDV, to be sure, but (a) they were not equipped for infantry roles, typically lacking body armor and helmets and often in the later years having AK-74SU carbines instead of full-size AK-74s and (b) they were more useful doing their jobs. They dismounted generally only when they had to.

    Given that vehicle crews were also often maintenance crews in practice, often they would be left behind working on their AFVs while the rest of their units engaged in helicopter assaults or the like. From what I was told, in the latter years some VDV units actually deployed to Afghanistan with less than their full complement of AFVs anyway as they increasingly became heli-cavalry. The BMD, after all, was always regarded as “the best AFV we can drop out of a plane” rather than a particular good vehicle in its own right.

    That said, drivers of trucks within VDV units tended to be armed and equipped as everyone else and fought on foot when the situation indicated or demanded it.

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