About the Airborne Assault Forces (VDV)

I don't think I can do any justice in explaining about the Soviet Airborne or Air Mobile Forces like Steven J. Zaloga. Zaloga is a master and expert on all things Soviet. I am going to use Zaloga's description of the VDV and DShB here for my page because he explains the subject so well. I took these excerpts from his 1989 book, "Red Thrust," published by Presidio Press. I HIGHLY recommend anyone getting into this hobby to pick up a copy of this book. It is the best book that I have ever read on the subject of the Soviet Armed Forces PERIOD!

"The Air Assault Force (VDV)"

"The largest Soviet special force is called the VDV (Vozdushno-Desantnye Vojska), which is the Russian acronym for Air Assault Forces. The VDV is a semi-independent branch of the army, under central Moscow control for strategic operations. The core of the VDV is the seven air assault divisions stationed around the Soviet Union. The air assault divisions are paratrooper formations, like the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division or the British Army's Parachute Regiment. The VDV is a select, elite force and receives a high priority in recruitment. Emphasis is placed on a clean record, and most Soviet paratroopers are recruited out of the Slavic majority: Russians, Ukrainians, and Byelorussians. Athletic ability is prized, especially evidence of leadership skills, such as team leaders in secondary school sports teams. The training is much more rigorous than that in ordinary Soviet units, and is similar to U.S. Marine or airborne training."

"Soviet air assault divisions are smaller than tank or motorized rifle divisions but are more heavily mechanized than American or British airborne units. The Soviets use the airmobile BMD armored infantry vehicle as the basis for these formations. However, the Soviets have significant shortages of large transport aircraft to carry so much equipment in a single sortie. So the VDV troops are trained for operations with little mechanized equipment. They are a light infantry force first and foremost, capable of using mechanized equipment if available."

"The role of the VDV divisions is to provide the Soviet General Staff with a deep operations force for special missions. A typical operation might involve seizing a bridgehead in advance of a mechanized column. The usefulness of an airborne division is constrained by two factors. Soviet airlift has decided limits, which probably means that airborne divisions will be used minus their BMDs. When used as light infantry, airborne divisions, in spite of all their fine training, suffer from serious military weaknesses compared to mechanized infantry divisions with less vigorous training. Light infantry divisions are only as mobile as human feet will carry them, and so are less mobile than mechanized infantry in most Western European terrain. More importantly, airborne divisions are very light on firepower. Airborne divisions have little capability to withstand tank attack. They cannot carry sufficent weapons for this contingency by the very nature of their organization. The best enemy of the tank is another tank, and airborne tanks have never really panned out. ...this problem is endemic to light infantry, and not peculiar to airborne forces alone."

"The Soviets concluded as much after World War II. Their study of World War II operations suggested that airborne units are valuable only when used against enemy forces that are already broken, or in peripheral operations. The battle for the Arnhem bridges was one of the clearest examples of the severe limitations of airborne forces during World War II, and the Soviets had several of their own examples with similar outcomes. So in view of these limitations, why do the Soviets still have seven airborne divisions?"

"The VDV still has its use as a Praetorian Guards. They are an elite force that is more reliable than the rest of the army rabble in the eyes of many Soviet leaders. Like most NATO leaders, the Soviets do not think that a war in Europe is particularly likely. More likely are wars outside of Europe. It is for these wars, not a confrontation with NATO, that the VDV is most useful. The VDV is used in ticklish situations where regular Ground Forces units might be a bit too clumsy. In 1968 in Czechoslovakia, it was the VDV that took over the Prague airport and captured much of the Czech leadership. It is significant that no VDV division is stationed in Central Europe. They are stationed in the USSR itself, and while they may be used in Europe, their orientation is worldwide.

"In Afghanistan in 1979, it was the VDV task force that spearheaded the invasion. The VDV units also formed the heart of Soviet counterinsurgency forces in Afghanistan. Many of the regular Ground Forces units were good for little more than guarding towns or conducting futile sweep operations. It was the VDV, with its combination of rugged training and high expectations, that carried out the more successful missions against the mujihadeen."

"A recent study of the Afghanistan fighting by the Rand Corporation provided a good example of VDV skills. A mujihadeen unit in Nangrahar province had taken up positions in a mountain overlooking a Soviet base. They had laboriously moved rocket launchers and mortars up the mountain and in September 1986 were bombarding the Soviet base in the valley below. One morning, the mujihadeen was suddenly suprised by a group of about ninety VDV troops, who had scaled the mountain the previous night. One of the soldiers fighting them remarked: 'Before that I had thought that the Soviet soldiers are not worth anything, but I must say that I have never seen anything like that. We had good food there and I was in good shape, but I would not have been able to climb that mountain. It was simply impossible for me. These were really tough guys.'"

"The Soviet leadership uses the VDV where the other tough guys fail. The Soviets have a special paramilitary Interior Army (VV), which acts like a state police force. If they need to bust heads during urban disturbances, they call in the Interior Army. But in situations where the Interior Army is unable to quell the rioting, the VDV is put into action. Soviet citizens know when they see the blue berets of the VDV that party time is over. In Azerbaijan and Armenia in 1987, ethnic disputes got out of the control of the local police. The Interior Army was called in. They couldn't handle it. The VDV was called in."

"The VDV are classic examples of cold war soldiers. Their training is the best traditional sort - tough, demanding exercises with a focus on the basics of light infantry. This might not be so useful on a mechanized battlefield, but a mechanized battlefield in Europe is not very likely. Low-intensity wars are probable, and the VDV is the Soviet shock force for these contingencies."

About the Airmobile Forces (DshB)

Again from Steven J. Zaloga's "Red Thrust"

"Airmobile: The New Generation"

"The problem with paratroop operations is the method of delivery. It is strictly one way. You drop them in, then they fight their way out. Or you have to fight your way in to get them out. The Soviets had several airborne operations in World War II in which they dropped a force in and then could not extract it. Helicopter technology is a better solution. Helicopters provide the ability to deposit forces deep behind enemy lines with considerable precision - even better than parachutes, since you don't have to worry about the wind. And better yet, you can extract them once they have completed their mission, or if the going gets too tough."

"The Soviets began playing around with airmobile forces in the 1970s. These units are called Desantnaya Shturmvaya (assault landing forces). The concept is closest to U.S. air cavalry or airmobile forces. These forces are organized into brigade-sized formations rather than divisions, called DShB (Day-Shah-Bey) for assault landing brigades. The Soviets have tried a variety of different organizations. The DShB troops are recruited and trained like VDV troops, and appear to be under a similar organization. They are trained in parachuting, but their main means of delivery is the helicopter.There are at least two types of DShB brigades: units that have their own helicopters, and units that depend on regular air force helicopter units to provide the lift."

"The DShB do not have the long lineage of the VDV paratroopers, but their combat role in Afghanistan was every bit as bold. Afghanistan became a helicopter war favoring Soviet airmobile forces just as Vietnam spurred American interest in helicopters. Helicopters give the infantry an incomparable degree of mobility in the worst terrain. Although physical training is still important, an airmobile unit in a helicopter will be better ready for battle than a crack special forces unit that has just trudged up and down the mountains."

"It remains to be seen what the Soviets will do in the wake of Afghanistan with the VDV and DShB. The VDV has lost at least one division, disbanded after Afghanistan. The trend seems to be in favor of the heliborne forces. The question is not one of combat role or training, only the mode of delivery. The traditional silk, or the contemporary rotor?"

Air Assault troops (DShB) in Afghanistan

By Vinnie (hist2004)

"There have been many references to VDV (Airborne) and Spetsnaz (special forces) service in Afghanistan. The Air Assault troopers were also very active in combat operations, but dont seem to get the same recognition. I know that there was a separate Air Assault Brigade (56th) and Air Assault Battalions assigned to the 66th & 70th Motorized Rifle Brigades. These troopers (DShB) were also screened (VDV & Spetsnaz recruiters had the pick of conscripts after induction) based on physical ability, etc. as the VDV and special purpose troops were (although I have read that soldiers selected for DShB were considered third tier compared to VDV & Spetsnaz). Part of the lack of acknowledgement is that Air Assault troopers operated and performed similar missions to the other units engaged in counter-insurgency operations. VDV & DShB mode of operation, whether it be heliborne, BMD-mounted, or on foot parallel, making distinguishing these units difficult. Troopers of both units also wore the distinct blue and white-stripped t-shirt of the Landing forces (Airborne)."

"As I mention previously, the DShB (Air Assault troops) operated extensively in Afghanistan along with the VDV (Airborne) & Troops of Special Designation (Spetsnaz). Training for the DShB Brigades was very similar to that of the VDV. Recruits reporting for training for these units were screened for athletic and political reliability. They would be told that they have been selected for a special purpose unit, and tactical training would include simulated combat in specially constructed models of Afghan villages and hand-to-hand combat. In a significant departure from normal Soviet practice, the training commanders would be majors training men for their own units in Afghanistan. Many of the sergeants helping with the training were also Afghan veterans."

"For those readers unfamiliar with the deployment structure of Soviet forces in Afghanistan, the counter-insurgency forces (Spetsnaz, VDV, DShB) are defined as those units, and subunits that regularly engage in genuine antiguerrilla operations, often on the Mujahideen's turf. They're easily distinguished from the large-scale combined arms operations in which conventional tactics and overwhelming firepower are brought to bear. As a rule, counterinsurgency operations are small, seldom conducted above battalion level, and highly mobile."

"The majority of the DShB units tended to be Slavic, Ukrainian, or Belorussians. Many came from Siberia and Altai Region, which are cold and mountainous. Regular troops were well aware of the personnel of the DShB units and knew that they had received special training and were physically fit. Not all of the DShB members were parachute trained. I believe there were two types of DShB units: Air-Assault Brigades and Air-Mobile Brigades. The main difference is the presence of parachute battalions in the air-assault brigades, and they're somewhat larger than the air-mobile brigades."

The DShB were often mistaken for the GRU Spetsnaz. The mujahideen had a difficult time identifying particular counterinsurgency units. So much so that they referred to the Air Assault battalions of the 66th Motorized rifle Brigade as "Spetsnaz". Additionally when the mujahideen used the term "Spetsnaz" or "Commandon" (Afghan term for Soviet commandos) they are referring more to tactics than any type of identifiable units. A DShB battalion was sometimes attached to a Motorized Rifle Regiment to provide a counterinsurgency capability. The DShB brigade stationed at Samarkhel near Jalalabad (66th Motorized Rifle Brigade) had three DShB battalions and three Infantry (Pekhota) battalions, for a total of around 4,000 troops."

"It is difficult to provide a clear functional delineation between the assault forces and the other counter-insurgency units since all of them engaged in similar operations and used common tactics at times. The DShB would specialize in laying ambushes on resistance supply routes, especially at night. They proved to be particularly effective and had created considerable difficulties for the guerrillas. DShB units were also used as a reserve strike force in the operations of others. DShB operations were apparently seldom conducted by units larger than company size, and emphasis is placed on mobility and surprise."

"The officers assigned to the DShB units were amongst the best available indicative of the special status accorded these units. A major who had recently graduated from the Frunze Academy (Russian equivalent to the US Army's Command and General Staff College) with distinction was described as the commander of a DShB-like battalion in the Pansher Valley engaged in caravan interdiction and convoy security on a "daily basis". Normally, any Frunze graduate, let alone a distinguished one, would be given a deputy regimental command slot at the very least."

"Assault troops (DShB) carried out several types of operations on a regular basis. Again, very similar to the VDV & Spetsnaz. One such operation was protecting Soviet convoys from mujahideen ambushes. This mission required scouting the route and engaging resistance ahead of the convoys, to secure free passage. It was usually conducted by heliborne assault troops, but dismount operations also occurred. The DShB elements often accompanied convoys in BMD, BTR or BRDM vehicles."

"Many sapper units charged with deactivating land mines also seem to have been part of DShB units. All three types of counterinsurgency units (VDV, DShB, Spetsnaz) used specialized equipment and weapons to carry out their operations. Silencers were used extensively on the standard-issue AK-74 automatic rifle and on the 9mm Makarov pistol, as were subsonic rounds, and spring loaded knifes that could fire a blade up to 5 meters. The new (at that time) AKSU-74 automatic rifle first made its appearance among the counterinsurgency forces. Portable flame throwers (RPO), and disposable grenade launchers (RPG-18) were also employed, along with special acoustic mines and a variety of night-vision devices and scopes."

"Despite the success the DShB units had against the resistance, the Soviet political machine was sensitive to losses, particularly in the last few years of the conflict. There was an effort to keep casualties to a minimum, even at the cost of operational objectives. An example of this occurred when a Soviet force had surrounded a 500-man mujahideen force in the Paghman highlands. A DShB unit inserted into the area ran into an ambush and lost about 50 of its men. The operation was called off immediately after the commanding officer learned of the losses, even though according to troopers involved in the operation that it was only a question of time before the resistance group would be liquidated. Political restraints, real or perceived, would continue until the end of the conflict."

"The counterinsurgency forces (VDV, SpN, DShB) consisted of about 18,000 to 23,000 troops, which was only about 15 to 20 percent of the Soviet expeditionary force, but they bore the brunt of all combat. The "desantniki" conducted heliborne surprise attacks on villages or tea houses (chaikhanas) deep in resistance territory. The Soviets usually acted on a tip of suspected mujahideen presence and were often able to achieve surprise."

"In one instance, described by a prominent resistance commander, two Soviet helicopters landed some two dozen "commandos" near a remote chaikhanas, killed 30 of the mujahideen having dinner inside, and left-all in less than 10 minutes. Similar cases, although not as successful as that one were reported by a number of resistance commanders indicating it was a wide spread tactic which instilled fear in what should have been considered 'safe areas'."

"Airborne troops were known to conduct rigorous training even while deployed to a war zone. The Soviet military press reported that VDV units in Afghanistan regularly engaged in live fire exercises, 14-hour forced marches and mountain-climbing training. An article describing the physical training in a VDV regiment in Afghanistan mentioned in passing that "there wasn't a single mission where is was not necessary to cross canyons and scale peaks". An interesting aspect of the perception of spetsnaz operations particularly in the 1988 period was that they were either engaged in every major operation (special operation) or that there presence is overestimated and there are only second-hand accounts of spetsnaz-like activities by troops dressed like Afghan's and operating at night."

ABOVE: The soldier's impression is of the DShB from the Soviet-Afghan War (1979-1989). The period of his uniform places him between 1985-1989. Note that his trousers are in TTsKO, a camouflage pattern that wasn't seen much till the later half of the conflict. His chestrig is Chinese, most likely captured from "Dushman" fighters due to Chinese aid to the Mujihadeen. The Soviet chestrig came into service mid-war.
Courtesy of Camo (www.wargearweb.org)
BELOW: A real soldier of the DShB dismounts his Mi-8 "Hip" during one of many missions the DShB took part in in Afghanistan.

Two books for recommended reading from Steven J. Zaloga:

- "Red Thrust: Attack on the Central Front, Soviet Tactics and Capabilities in the 1990s", 1989, Presidio Press.

- "Inside the Blue Berets: A Combat History of Soviet and Russian Airborne Forces, 1930 - 1995", 1995, Presidio Press.

Another HIGHLY recommended book is from Vladislav Tamarov:

- "Afghanistan: A Russian Soldier's Story", 2001, Tenspeed Press.

For other recommended reading, please click here.