When you think about the Soviet-Afghan war, Soviet paratroopers is what immediately comes to mind. This happens for a number of reasons, mainly because of movies and Soviet propaganda in general, which focused its efforts on promoting Airborne Forces. However, it is now just the façade. Soviet airborne forces among the first to adapt to the harsh conditions of Afghanistan and to deliver best results. In this article we will get in detail of how Soviet paratroopers ended up to be the best branch of service in the Soviet Army in Afghanistan.
Ideology around Soviet paratroopers
In the 1970s, Soviet propaganda invested a lot of time and effort into promotion and marketing of the VDV - Soviet Airborne Forces. This was done on all levels - in cinema, in songs, with special uniform and by having higher physical standards. The uniform alone deserves an article or even a book of its own. Despite being pretty much the same as all the regular M69 sets, these little changes made it much more desirable to regular soldiers. In short, instead of regular pilot cap, paratroopers had the blue beret and instead of a regular undershirt they were issued with striped shirts. This, in turn, gave it a huge boost and the striped shirts were incredibly popular in the Soviet Union in 1980s and 1990s.
As was mentioned earlier, movies played a big role in creating this aura around the Airborne Forces. In 1950s and 1960s Soviet cinema industry focused on movies about the Second World War, as the events were well remembered by the audience. There are some honorable exceptions, like "Maxim Perepelitsa", a movie about the modern day Soviet Army of the 50s, but most of the movies were about the events in 1940s.
In fact, there were not that many movies about the Soviet paratroopers. However, these movies were very good for the time and were incredibly popular with the younger generation - those, who were to serve in the armed forces in the nearest future. The most notable example is "In the zone of the special attention" and it's sequel.
All this lead to increased popularity of the Airborne forces. After a while, they had a preference in choosing recruits and would set up higher standards. There were enough volunteers to choose from - almost every young boy freshly conscripted to the Armed Forces would sell his soul to serve in the Airborne.
Soviet paratrooper officers
Officers for the airborne forces were trained in a separate military institution, called the Ryazan Higher Airborne Command School. Just like with any other airborne related entity, the entry standards were higher than for any other military school or institution. It would not be fair to say, that the airborne officers were the best of the best of the Soviet Army, but they definitely had more courage and were more flexible in adapting new things, as the Afghan war has shown.
Generally speaking, junior officers who were eager to join the airborne were way more motivated than their collogues from other branches of service. This played a big role in the efficiency of the airborne units, which participated in the Soviet-Afghan war. Since the majority of operations required a very limited number of people, usually a company size unit, it was up to junior officers to lead their paratroopers into the battle and deliver results.
The higher ranking officers, such as Colonels and above would usually go through the Academy, which was common for different branches of service. In the academy they would all sit through similar course, which would somewhat standardize all the high ranking officers of the Soviet Armed Forces. This would, in turn, limit their abilities to adapt to unusual conditions, as after 20 years of service in the forces they would get to used to do everything by the book.
Training of the Soviet paratroopers
As was cover in another article of our blog, the pre-deployment training of Soviet soldiers has changed since the beginning of the Soviet-Afghan war. In the first couple of years, fresh recruits were trained in the regular way - some were sent to training division in Lithuania and some to the training regiment in Uzbekistan.
The training was not bad and certainly better than for the ground infantry. New paratroopers would spend long hours on their weapon systems or vehicles, the use of which would become their future specialty. They did lack training on counter insurgency, tactics of the small units and as it became obvious in Afghanistan, on stamina training.
As the war progressed, it became obvious that in order to increase the individual capabilities of soldiers, training has to be specific for the Soviet-Afghan war realities. Training facility in Ferghana, Uzbekistan, which was formed from the disassembled 105th Airborne Division was enhanced with the required material for Afghan training.
Airborne recruits were now trained on the majority of hand held weapon systems, which were used on operations. They were also familiarized with heavy group weapons, such as 12.7mm NSV "Utes" machine gun, 30mm AGS grenade machine gun and 82mm mortar. The airborne training such as parachute jumping was minimalized at this point, as it had no practical use in Afghanistan and was there mainly for traditions.
After arriving to Afghanistan. most soldiers were lucky enough to go through the so called quarantine routine, when they had couple of weeks to adapt to new conditions. They were not participating in the actual operations at the time, but were instead getting familiar with the situation in the local region and learned tactics from their platoon officer and more experienced soldiers.
Equipment of the Soviet paratroopers
The weapons and equipment of the Soviet paratroopers was standardized with the majority of Soviet Army systems, but it was slightly modified to fit the airborne purpose. The simplest example is the 5.45 small arms systems - AK and RPK. While having exact same characteristics, airborne versions featured a folding stock on both weapons, which allowed to use them with the parachute. As was said before, parachute operations were not practiced during the Soviet-Afghan war, but the folding stock option was still more comfortable when transported by an APC or a helicopter.
The armored vehicles used by the paratroopers were at first limited to the regular airborne BTR-D and BRD-1. These machines featured only very light aluminum armor, so that they could be airlifted and airdropped. Their protection capabilities are very low - they can be penetrated even from a medium machine gun. RPG-7 and DShK machine guns, which were widely used by the Mujahadeans ripped these APCs in pieces. Hence, after first couple of years in Afghanistan, airborne regiments lost most of their lightweight vehicles and they were now replaced with the regular BTRs and BMPs.
Interesting fact - airborne bootcamps did not train any BTR and BMP drivers, since regular airborne divisions did not have these vehicles. So airborne units stationed in Afghanistan had to make the exception and allow infantry driver-mechanics to join. This was very unusual for the Soviet Army, as soldiers and officers rarely had a chance to change their branch of service.
Individual equipment of a paratrooper was generally similar to his infantry colleague, with one main exception - paratroopers had RD-54 rucksacks, which were the best (and pretty much the only) backpacks in Soviet Army. They were also very useful because each rucksack featured a pair of pouches. Two pairs of which were used to make famous Afghan style chest-rig webbings.
Tactics of the Soviet paratroopers in Afghanistan
Tactics of the Soviet paratroopers in Soviet-Afghan war varied and depended on their location and primary tasks. In general, each unit of the Soviet Army stationed in Afghanistan was responsible for some region of the country. Depending on the situation and the Mujahedeen bands operating in the area, the tactics would differ.
Overall, most big units - regimental or brigade size, relied on three main tasks. They would create outposts, which were to protect the supply convoys, which were to deliver supplies for fighting teams which were the ones actually going on operations.
Huge amount of people was required to maintain and protect the outposts. Depending on the size, location and importance, outposts were of a section or a platoon size. People serving on such outposts would usually stay on the same spot for the whole duration of the service without rotations to the main base or elsewhere. Supplies were delivered by vehicles or helicopters, depending on the elevation. The excessive number of personnel required to maintain the system of outposts is one of the reasons why Soviet Union decided to withdraw from Afghanistan.
The tactics of the supply convoys is well described in one of our articles and you can read it in full if interested.
Now for the actual active operations, they would depend on the objective. It was either a caravan hunt or an attack on a mujahedeen supply depot. The caravan hunts required a lot of reconnaissance and spy work prior to the mission, as air surveillance was limited to availability of aviation and the weather. It was not always easy to spot a mujahadeen caravan - locals knew good routes and they would usually move at night, camouflaging themselves during the day while resting.
Soviet groups would usually be delivered by helicopters or vehicles around 15-25km away from the ambush position. They would then have to get to the potential caravan route discretely, preferably at night. After setting up the ambush, the group would patiently wait for the mujahadeen caravan to get into trap. In this case, Soviet paratroopers usually had an advantage in night vision scopes. However, such operations would sometimes end up with nothing, as mujahadeens had their own reconnaissance and they would try to avoid confrontation when it was not in their favor.
The caravan hunt operations were usually carried out by a platoon size unit or less. But from time to time, airborne units were engaged in much bigger operations, which would involve multiple units from different branches of service as well as the units of the Afghan National Army and Afghan police. These full scale operations were done to establish control of the area. They would usually take place in the Panjshir valley, where official Afghan government had only limited control.
However, since the preparation of such an offensive was done on a large scale, Mujahadeens knew about it well before the beginning and they had time to move away, up to the mountains and caves. So, as was said by one of the Soviet-Afghan war veterans - "these operations reminded more of a large scale training exercise. We would just drive and walk long distances, without engaging the enemy or being engaged ourselves".