Red Thrust: Attack on the Central Front, Soviet Tactics and Capabilities in the 1990s

Steven J. Zaloga

Red Thrust: Attack on the Central Front, Soviet Tactics and Capabilities in the 1990s

To Marlene and Paul

For their encouragement and support


How good is the Soviet Army? Certainly it is large. With a tank inventory in excess of 55,000 vehicles, more than 200 divisions, and quantitative superiority over NATO in nearly every type of conventional weapon, it is an imposing force. But would these numbers directly translate into combat power on the modern battlefield?

These questions are impossible to answer. The Soviet Army has not fought a conventional land war in forty-five years. Attempts to answer these questions based on Soviet performance in World War II are growing increasingly irrelevant with the passage of time and the advent of new military technologies. But even if these questions are impossible to answer, some tentative conclusions can be suggested on the basis of a careful examination of what is known about today's Soviet Army.

This book examines the combat power of the Soviet Union in a unique fashion. Each chapter is devoted to a particular aspect of the modern Soviet armed forces: the tanks, motor rifle troops, special forces, attack helicopters, and so on. Each chapter begins with a fictional scenario of this element of the Soviet military forces in combat in a conventional war in Europe in the early 1990s. These fictional scenarios are complemented by an analytic essay about current and future trends in that branch of the Soviet armed forces. It is not the point of this book to suggest that such a war in Europe is likely. Rather, the Soviet Army is configured and deployed primarily for such an eventuality, and it is in this context in which it should be judged.

The perspective of this book is mainly from the tactical viewpoint. It examines the tactics and equipment of small units: squads, platoons, companies, and battalions. It is not the aim of this book to predict whether the Soviet Army would win in a conventional war against NATO.

Rather, it is a more modest attempt to describe how the Soviet Army would be likely to fight.

There are three underlying themes in this book. The first is that quantitative advantages in weapons and hardware do not necessarily translate into real advantages on the battlefield. Superior tactics, better training, and technological advantages can overcome mere numbers. The second theme is that the contemporary battlefield is likely to be extremely lethal, even by World War II standards. Firepower density and accuracy at all levels has increased enormously since 1945. Many of the Soviet units depicted in the fictional scenarios are decimated in relatively brief encounters. This should not be misunderstood. This is not an attempt to portray the Soviets as a bunch of bumbling military incompetents. Modern warfare at the small unit level is likely to be extremely destructive of men and machines. The fictional scenarios attempt to show why this is so, and where particular weaknesses in Soviet training, tactics, or equipment may exacerbate these trends.

The third underlying theme is the issue of the likelihood of such a European war. This book tries to avoid directly addressing this issue. The decision to go to war is more in the realm of grand diplomacy and military strategy than the muddy world of small unit tactics, which is the focus of this book. But the scenarios attempt to show that the Soviet Union cannot be assured of a cheap or easy victory in a conventional European land war, in spite of its substantial numerical advantages. The Tsar's army of 1914 and Stalin's army of 1941 were substantially larger than their opponents but were soundly trounced. Anxiety over possible shortcomings in the performance of the modern Soviet Army and any effort on the part of the Kremlin to use its military power in Europe will continue to worry the Soviet Union.

Indeed, as this book was being written, Mikhail Gorbachev announced unprecedented, unilateral cuts in Soviet conventional forces. After over forty years of armed tension, the Cold War seems to be finally abating. This book attempts to show how internal pressures in the Soviet armed forces helped to promote these unilateral cuts. It also explores some of the changes that may be seen in the Soviet Army over the next few years.

The setting for the fictional scenarios has been confined to one area in southern Germany, in the Bavarian countryside to the northeast of Munich. The fictional scenarios examine the progress of several related Soviet units during the first week of the war as they attempt to break through frontier defenses and push across the Danube River into the Bavarian plains beyond. Although the time of this war is the early 1990s, the equipment, organization, and tactics are not markedly different from those of the Soviet Army today, with some minor exceptions.

The fictional accounts are entirely from the Soviet perspective. Soviet terms have been used in favor of NATO code names or expressions. This extends to many small details, such as the use of metric measurements when referring to distances, which may be a bit awkward for some American readers. But Soviet troops do not refer to their weapons by their NATO names, such as Saggers, Fulcrums, or ACRVs, but by their Soviet names, such as Malyutka, MiG-29, or 1V12. For readers unaccustomed to these terms, explanatory notes have been provided. For readers interested in pursuing further reading about the contemporary Soviet armed forces, the bibliography should provide a good starting point.


Plan Buran:

The Invasion of Western Europe

0730, 22 September, Moscow

Colonel Stepan Kucherenko stepped out of his army limo in the interior entrance of Moscow Military District headquarters at Chapayevskskiy Lane. Normally the wartime STAVKA high command would meet in its own central headquarters.[1]

The district headquarters had been selected to attract less attention from the prying eyes of NATO intelligence.

Kucherenko had never spent much time in the district headquarters. As a staff officer in the operations directorate of the General Staff, he spent most of his time at the Ministry of Defense offices. It didn't matter, as at the security entrance, there was a young NCO assigned to escort the STAVKA officers to the proper meeting rooms. Kucherenko's task today would be to brief fellow staff officers of the Southwestern Front regarding the forthcoming operations.[2]

He knew many of the officers quite well, having attended the General Staff Academy with several of them. The hallways were filled with other officers scurrying to meetings. Many wore the camouflage battle dress of the air assault helicopter pilots, which had become fashionable in the late 1980s, when the uniforms had been first issued to aircrews in Afghanistan. Kucherenko disdained such affectations, even though he had served a tour fighting the Afghan rebels. Staff positions, even in the Soviet Army, attracted fops and political opportunists. Wearing battle dress at a time like this seemed not only tasteless, but provocative, since the NATO intelligence snoops might notice.

On his way to the meeting hall, Kucherenko ran into an old friend, Col. Yevgeniy Burlatskiy, who would be attending the briefing.

"So, Stepan Romanovich, it will be you giving us the briefing today. Nice to see you again."[3]

"Welcome back, Yevgeniy Pavlovich. I see your German comrades are giving us some serious trouble. How was Berlin?"

Burlatskiy grimaced. The situation in East Germany was for worse than anyone could have expected, even an astute officer like Stepan Kucherenko. It seemed certain that the deteriorating situation in Germany would lead to war.

The German Crisis

The troubles had begun in the spring. A fire had started at a large GSFG (Group of Soviet Forces-Germany) storage area near the Saale rail yard. The local commander was convinced he could bring the fire under control and did not evacuate local civilian factories or the local elementary school. It was a costly mistake. In the afternoon, the fire reached the missile and ammunition reserves, setting off a huge explosion, which devastated several nearby factories and part of the school. Casualties were made worse by a large cloud of noxious gas. The Soviets claimed the cloud was created by dispersal of rocket propellant chemicals. Local residents were convinced it was from some sort of chemical weapons. Total casualties were 405 killed and nearly three times as many injured.

What ignited the troubles was the decision by the German Communist party to allow newspaper and television to run the story instead of suppressing it per usual policy. They realized that the underground samizdat press would cover it anyway, and the West German television stations as well. Running the story would give the party a bit of badly needed credibility with an audience weary of the numbing socialist press. The German Democratic Republic was coming down with a bad case of the "Polish disease" that summer, on the fortieth anniversary of the East Berlin riots of 1953.

The story captured nationwide attention and led to a series of protest marches outside the Saale ...

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