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Soviet Cold War mechanized infantry

Since I am actively working on my second book - Red Alert: Structure and uniforms of Soviet Infantry Regiment, I've decided to make a small article about the basics of the Soviet Cold War mechanized infantry organization and tactics. Disclaimer - this article is only about the later stages of the Cold War. Soviet infantry of the 50s and 60s will be studied in one of the upcoming books.


General organization of the Soviet Armed Forces

The main organizational unit of the Soviet mainland army was a division. This was a common practice since the Second World War, where the size of the battles called for big units and centralization. Because Soviet war doctrine was mainly based on a combination of German and Soviet tactics during WW2, it was only natural that the absolute majority of land units were organized in divisions.

A division was a huge unit, depending on the type and organization it could have up to around 15000 men in it. Soviet land forces usually had motorized and tank divisions, with some exceptions for artillery. Since we are talking about Soviet Cold War mechanized infantry, we will not cover tank divisions in this article.


Organization of the Soviet Cold War mechanized infantry

Mechanized divisions would usually consist or 3 mechanized regiments and 1 tank regiment. It would of course feature numerous sub units, like artillery, logistics, engineering etc. It was basically an entire self sufficient organization on its own. But it will take an article of its own to even briefly describe the structure of a whole division. So instead we will just focus on a single Mechanized infantry regiment.

Ironically, a mechanized infantry regiment was basically a scaled down division. It would have almost identical sub units, but of a smaller size. However, a regiment was an actual fighting unit, with most of its smaller units consisting of battle ready soldiers and officers who would be tasked with the actual fighting orders.

Soviet Cold War mechanized infantry
Soviet infantry withing the tank division during tactical exercise

The regiment was split into three main parts - combat units, support units and headquarters. The latter would consist of senior officers, responsible for the combat and support units. The list of support units is quite long, it features medical, logistical, communications, engineering and repairment companies, chemical protection platoon and orchestra and military police.

The combat units of a mechanized infantry regiment would usually consist of three infantry battalions, one tank battalion, artillery unit, anti-tank unit and anti-aircraft defense. The submission of a reconnaissance unit varied over the years.


Weapons of the Soviet Cold War mechanized infantry

Assuming that the reader knows about the infantry small arms of the Soviet Army in the late Cold War era, we will focus on heavier weapons. Soviet Union was a militaristic warmonger country, so soviet regiments were pretty well equipped with both weapons and means of transportation. In fact, by late 50s, Soviet Army got rid of foot infantry units, as all of its divisions were now mechanized with either tanks or armored personnel carriers.

In 1970-80s, Soviet mechanized infantry had two main types of armored vehicles. Battalions were either equipped with one of the BTR modifications or with BMP (1 or 2). In most cases a given regiment would have one battalion equipped with BMP-1 or BMP-2 and all other battalions equipped with BTRs. But the structure could vary. For example, infantry regiments withing tank divisions were armed only with BMPs.

Soviet Cold War mechanized infantry
Soviet soldiers on top of the BTR-60 during the Damanskiy island crisis

The BTR was an armored personnel carrier with the design dating back to 1960s. It was a generally good vehicle for its era. Due to good passability, BTRs could keep up with the tank units, which were considered as the main fighting force of the Soviet Land forces. The armament and armor of BTRs were relatively poor. They were only good against small arms fire, with high chances of being destroyed even with a .50cal machine guns, which were quite common among NATO forces. The armament consisted of 14.5 and 7.62 machine guns, which could shoot at distance of up to 2000 meters. However, there were no antitank capabilities installed on a BTR, so the infantry section had to rely on RKG-3 hand grenades and RPG-7 launcher to counter any enemy armor.

BMP-1 was a much more capable vehicle, in comparison to BTR. It is a light tracked vehicle, which could move through rough terrain and transport 8 people (11 including the crew). The armor of a BMP was still on the lower end of a scale, but this was partially compensated by its ability to swim. The weapon combination on a BMP-1 was much better than on a BTR. The turret was well armed - it featured a 76mm cannon, 7.62 PKT machine gun and a guided anti-tank rocket. All these weapon system highly increased the combat abilities of a single infantry section, as it was now possible to take out enemy armored vehicles, including tanks, from a longer distance.

Soviet Cold War mechanized infantry
Soviet infantry platoon in front of its BMP-1s

Tactics of the Soviet Cold War mechanized infantry

The tactics of the Soviet land units was not too complicated or sophisticated, for that matter. In fact, Soviet infantry and tank smaller unit tactics were degrading since 1937, when the last sensible tactical guide was published. Since then there was a move to simplification. By 1970s the whole tactics consisted of dropping high amount of artillery shells on top of the enemy and move forward.

On the higher unit level there were some ideas about flanking and surrounding the enemy, but a battalion commander was usually expected just to push his soldiers and vehicles forward and win the firefight by sheer firepower superiority.

Soviet infantry in offensive
Soviet infantry in offensive

The reason for such simple and dangerous tactics possibly comes from the lessons learned during the Second World War. Soviet Army started getting any meaningful offensive victories only in late 1943, when it finally had proper superiority in all military components - people, vehicles and ammunition. Since then, this was considered as valuable and successful tactics and infantry mechanized units were supposed to push the enemy by applying as much firepower on them as possible.

This tactics was challenged numerous times in local conflicts when Soviet soldiers had to take high casualties because of pure ignorance of the officers who just didn't know any better ways to fight. Soviet paratroopers in Afghanistan were among the first units of the Soviet army to learn and adapt counter insurgency partisan mountains fighting tactics. This made them way more successful than their infantry partners.



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