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The last decade of the Cold War - 80's Soviet Infantry

For the obvious reasons of the Cold War nostalgia, many people are interested in what it was like to be a Soviet Army infantryman in 1980s. Since we are now steamrolling towards our next book - Red Alert: Structure of Soviet Infantry Regiment, I decided to make couple of articles on the topic to introduce future readers to the era. In this blogpost we will look at more basic organizational parts of the Soviet infantry life - the tactical element of platoon and section.

Structure of the 80's Soviet Infantry units

While we will focus on the lower level units, it is important to know the general structure of the Soviet Army. The Cold War was the time of big units, so the forces mostly consisted of divisions, which were hubs for smaller subunits, namely the regiments. The latter was a self sufficient detachment, mimicking the division in terms of service units included, although on a smaller lever. But what actually mattered for an individual soldier was his battalion and for a bigger matter - his company.

80's Soviet Infantry
Oh my... the structure of the Soviet Infantry Brigade. We will have similar schemes in the Red Alert book, though a bit less chaotic

In case with the Soviet Army, many regiments were actually based in one place - on a big military base housing up to five thousand people. This number could be even more when outside a major city, as there had to be some housing for the families. But for conscripted soldier a battalion was usually the biggest unit to care about - mostly because all the tasks were done within it. The company was even more intimate, as basic Soviet barracks were accommodating the whole company in one big room. So, company was like a family - soldiers would eat, sleep, study and, in case of war, fight together.

But while a standard infantry company of the Soviet Army deserves an article of its own, or even a good chapter in the upcoming book, but here we will talk more about sections withing platoons.

Soviet Infantry sections and platoons

A section was the smallest unit, consisting of around 7-8 men in infantry and airborne and of one tank or artillery system in corresponding branches. In most cases, section was commanded by a conscripted sergeant, while a platoon had to be commanded by an officer. There were exceptions, but let's leave these for another article.

80's Soviet Infantry
A general inspecting Soviet infantry conscripts

Sections were never supposed to operate on their own and the only reason for platoon to be divided was for an easier operational control of the group. However, a single Soviet infantry section was quite a capable force if we are talking about the 70s and 80s period. They had some very decent fire capabilities, which will be discussed later in the Equipment.

A platoon was a very prominent fighting unit, which, however, could not support itself for a prolonged operation or in some heavy combat. While most of the administrational work was done on the company level, to get at least some fire support - the platoon commander had to get it from the battalion level.

Tactics of the 80's Soviet Infantry

While we already have a blogpost dedicated to the Soviet section tactics, it is wise to recap the knowledge and expand it a little with the platoon maneuvers. Yet, there is not much to expand with. If we are talking about the by-the-book tactics of the Soviet small units - it was just as straightforward as it gets. Soldiers were supposed to dismount from their armored personnel carriers within a close proximity from the enemy's defenses and run towards them. The idea was to overwhelm the defenders with fire capacity, mostly from divisional and regimental artillery, so that the infantry wouldn't meet much resistance. While this tactics would work quite well against poorly armed forces in light defenses, fighting against professional armies in such manner would only lead to horrible losses of men and materiel.

While in Afghanistan, Soviet junior officers quickly realized that this tactic is only going to kill them and their men and had to adapt the way they operate.

Equipment of the Soviet Infantry platoon

As our website and publishing house mainly focus on more practical things, like weapons, equipment and the uniform, two parts of the article will be dedicated to that.

So, a platoon was a combination of three sections with an officer in charge - usually a lieutenant, but could be an unfortunate captain. A given infantry platoon in 1980s would usually feature following equipment:

  • Three armored vehicles, most usually BMP-1 or BTR-60.

  • Usually one SVD rifle and one PKM machine gun

  • Three RPK-74 light machine guns

  • Three RPG-7 grenade launchers

  • Everyone else was armed with AK-74 rifles, hand grenades and anti-tank grenades.

80's Soviet Infantry
The most common weapon of a Soviet infantryman. Picture from the book "Soviet Weapons of the Afghan War"

When trying to recreate a soviet infantry platoon in any form it is wise to remember that vehicles in one unit (regiment) were always the same - either BMP or BTR. These were also mostly updated to BTR-80 and BMP-2 by the end of the 1980s. And while BTR series of vehicles was really just a carrier with low offensive capabilities, the BMP-2 was more of a light tank than anything else. Featuring a very powerful 30mm cannon and an ATGM - a standard Soviet infantry platoon equipped with these cars could, at least in theory, fight heavy armor. These sort of capabilities were unheard of not so long ago.

80's Soviet Infantry

There were some other soviet infantry weapons which are not included in the list above, as they were usually on the company or battalion level. We are talking about high caliber machine guns, AGS-17 and SPG-9. All these weapons would, in practice, end up in regular platoons, which were not supposed to use them by the book.

If you have deep interest in the weapons of the era, we strongly suggest to check out one of our books - Soviet infantry Weapons of the Afghan War. Despite the name, it features the whole range of small arms and mounted weapons used by the Soviet Army in that period. From all five pistols, to all the rifles and light machine guns and all the way up to grenade launchers and Utes machine gun - the book has it all.

Uniforms of the Soviet infantrymen

Finally, the topic which resonates the most with our authors - the uniforms worn by the Soviet Army enlisted men! And, well, the situation was rather sad. The famous M69 uniform was literally a First World War concept - a fitted jacket with two small pockets and shiny exposed buttons with breeches that were fitted on the lower part. Jackboots, while quite durable, were a very outdated concept. The pilot cap was not a practical headgear either.

80's Soviet Infantry
Typical winter uniform and loadout of a Soviet machine gun operator. Similar photos will be presented in the Red Alert book.

The load bearing equipment was also way behind its counterparts. The standard Soviet webbing was designed in the 1950s, generally following German concepts of the Second World War. It was uncomfortable and not designed to carry much into battle - just three-four mags, couple of grenade, small water flask and a shovel. Compare it with British PLCE or even US A.L.I.CE.!

Saying all that, there was quite some variety in uniform and there is more than one fan of the topic in the world. For that reason, we have created a pretty outstanding book on the topic, which features almost 100 modern photographs of the correct loadouts and uniforms of the Soviet servicemen of the era. But apart from fancy pictures - we do have quite some reading to do - both on the official structures and unofficial realities of the Soviet Army in the 1980s.

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