Rethinking the Structure and Role of Russia’s Airborne Forces

Re-posting my article on the Russian Airborne from Oxford’s Changing Character of War Program Issue Brief #4. This is a great center (or centre?), and has some of the more interesting articles you’re going to find on the Russian armed forces, by some of the best experts in the field. If you follow the Russian military then you should try and make time for their articles and issue briefs.


The Russian Airborne Forces (VDV) compose one of the more important instruments in the General Staff’s toolkit, serving as a rapid reaction force for local conflicts, supporting special operations, or striking behind enemy lines in a conventional war. The VDV has proven to be leading edge of Russian (and Soviet) military power in operations from the 1956 intervention in Hungary, to the 2014 seizure and annexation of Crimea. A combat arm distinct from the Land Forces, the VDV may be used tactically, operationally, or play a strategic role, depending on how it is employed. Whether responding to a crisis, or choosing to visit the territory of its neighbor without notice, Russia is likely to lean on the highest readiness units with elite training, and good mobility, which in many cases means the VDV.

Today the VDV consists of two parachute divisions, two air assault divisions, four independent brigades, along with a signals and an independent reconnaissance brigade. Parachute divisions can be air dropped to seize enemy air fields and key points, making them a strategic asset, while air assault units are flown into secured landing zones. Brigades represent a mix, often with one parachute battalion and two assault battalions. The Russian operation in Crimea, together with other military actions have demonstrated that if the VDV can seize an airport then they can fly in supporting battalions, and those follow-on units can secure terrain for Russia’s land forces to enter the battle space. In theory, it is a Soviet Airborne, simply cut down to Russian size (VDV Divisions used to have three regiments each, but were long ago reduced to two).

The Russian General Staff has been experimenting with this force since 2016, and according to recent announcements by their commander, Colonel General Andrey Serdyukov, the VDV is in for a rethink. Serdyukov is a well-known figure in Russian military circles. An airborne officer by training, he had seen combat experience in the Chechen wars. As deputy commander and chief of staff of the Southern Military District in 2013, he helped organize the operation to seize Crimea. Serdyukov has also been sanctioned by Ukraine, allegedly for commanding forces in the Donbas 2014-2015. Subsequently promoted to command the VDV in 2016, Serdyukov was seriously injured outside Murmansk in a motor vehicle accident. He was on the way personally to observe Airborne operations, together with several staff members, as part of the wider Zapad 2017 strategic command staff exercise. Having recovered, the VDV commander announced his intention to remodel the force, stating in October 2018 that the Airborne is officially on a “search, testing new forms and methods of force employment to answer the challenges of modern warfare.”

can't assault an enemy airbase without a photo

And, indeed, not all is well with Russia’s airborne forces. Two problems stand out. The first reflects a degree of conceptual confusion. The USSR had two concepts for the VDV: one arm was strategic, composed of parachute divisions, while the other was air assault. In theory, the parachute units answered to the General Staff, while air assault units were subordinate to the military districts and supported their advance on the battlefield. Air assault units would seize key terrain or strike enemy reserves not far from the line of contact with the ground forces. But in practice the VDV always had a third role. Early in the 1960s, and subsequently during the war in Afghanistan 1979-1989, deployed Airborne units were armed with heavy equipment in the role of motor rifle units, receiving tanks and artillery. Basically, they were used as elite mounted infantry. These ad hoc changes are similar to the processes shaping the current VDV, though after some improvisation, it increasingly seems that Russia’s General Staff is starting to impose an actual vision (even if – caveat emptor – General Staff visions tend to change every few years, together with Russian force structures).


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Second, despite its service record, and esprit de corps, the VDV can be seen as an anachronism: yet another piece of Soviet inheritance that Russians might qualify as a “briefcase without a handle”. Rather than parachuting into battle, in practice the VDV has spent most of its time in the role of motor rifle units on lightly armored vehicles. Allegedly, at one point during the New Look reforms, then Minister of Defense Anatoly Serdyukov and then Chief of General Staff Nikolai Makarov even considered cutting the entire combat arm and handing it over to the land forces. The reasons are not difficult to fathom. Russia’s airborne and Russia’s logistics are woefully misaligned – maintaining an alternate park of airborne infantry fighting vehicles and a host of specialized equipment for the VDV is not cheap – while the force spends much of its time fighting as another form of motor rifle infantry. So it is no surprise that their commander thinks the VDV is due for new operating concepts, and force restructuring.

There are other problems. Optimistically, Russia’s military transport aviation (VTA) is at best able to deliver between one and two regiments in a sortie. The aviation park of Il-76 heavy transports is simply not big enough for serious airborne operations, and certainly not in a contested environment. Given that Russia’s VDV trains to force generate as battalion tactical groups, more than likely the maximum air lift capacity is for two or three such formations. In practice, this means that Russia has one of the world’s largest airborne forces (approx 45,000 strong), but without the air lift to use them in their designated role. Indeed, according to Russian defense journalist Ilya Kramnik if Russia wanted to deliver its airborne in the initial period of war it would have to increase the air transportation park four-fold. This is simply impossible given the current rate of Il-76MD-90 modernization and aircraft production. At best the VTA is likely to tread water on the number of currently available aircraft in the strategic airlift role.

VDV praciting loading

Therefore, the General Staff seems to have chosen an entirely different direction: the VDV’s air assault divisions are set to become heavier, with an expanded force structure, tanks, and air defenses, while independent brigades will conduct heliborne operations. Parachute divisions will still train to perform the more strategic air assault mission. At Vostok-2018, 700 soldiers and 50 vehicles were air dropped at Tsugol range, employing roughly 25 Il-76MD transports. While airborne divisions still train for the airborne assault via Il-76, tactical and operational mobility may increasingly come from helicopter based operations and raids behind enemy lines in support of ground forces.

Serdyukov announced that experiments during Vostok 2018 strategic manoeuvres (September 11-18) determined the future tactics and overall force development. Those experiments employed a special battalion tactical group, based on the 31st brigade, suggesting that the size and scope of the concept is considerably different from the Soviet 1980s formulation. On the second day of the exercise, VDV units aboard 45 Mi-8 helicopters and two Mi-26 helicopters, practiced three types of air assault: low altitude parachute, repelling, and dismount. Gunship support included eight Ka-52 and fourteen Mi-24 helicopters. The much larger Mi-26 helicopters delivered Tigr light utility vehicles, and recon ATVs, serving as an air mobile reserve for the operation. This is a distinctly large helicopter assault formation, intended to deploy a reinforced VDV battalion, with gunship support, and light reserves.

airborne repellingairborne ATVshelicopter units

Recent reporting by journalists, like Aleksei Ramm, suggests that the 31st brigade has become an experimental unit, with its own army aviation support, composed of two squadrons of Mi-8 and Mi-26 helicopters. This would give the 31st native air mobility, granting the commander freedom to design and execute an operation. Otherwise, the VDV has to negotiate access to army aviation, which is not necessarily assigned to support it, and may have other competing requirements imposed by ground force operations. Not only would this dramatically reduce the time required for VDV to execute a manoeuvre, but it would add considerable flexibility to the force, though heliborne operations would limit the airborne to light utility vehicles. This force structure redesign would allow the VDV to deploy much faster in response to a local conflict, or execute their own raids behind enemy lines in a conventional war. The VDV would also become much more suitable to expeditionary operations where there is a low barrier to entry, and good prospects for elite infantry to make a difference.

Availability may be the driving force behind this force structure redesign. While VTA is in the doldrums, Russia is much richer in helicopters. The Russian armed forces substantially increased their helicopter park during the first State Armament Program (2011-2020), establishing three brigades and six regiments. Russian experts like Anton Lavrov suggest that over 600 helicopters (they were buying about 130/year since 2011) may have been purchased for the armed forces and various ministries through 2017. Each combined arms army is being assigned a supporting helicopter regiment, while every military district will house an independent helicopter brigade. Though the rotary wing park is also not without some problems, given there are no mid-range options between the venerable Mi-8 variants and the giant Mi-26. Nonetheless, Russia bought far more helicopters than 4th generation aircraft, and is steadily filling out new army aviation regiments and brigades.

These changes are primarily, but not solely, intended for the VDV. Land force brigades and divisions will also develop company or platoon size detachments that are certified for air mobile operations – at least in the Southern Military District, if Colonel General Aleksandr Dvornikov has his way (Serdyukov is not the only one with a vision for helicopter assets). Some of these changes may bring nostalgia for the 1980s, when heliborne VDV units were assigned to support operational manoeuvre groups, and select Soviet army detachments were air mobile. In 2002, the army handed over its helicopters to the air force, which then got rolled into the aerospace forces in 2015. They similarly gave up air assault brigades to the VDV, making that exclusively the VDV’s business. Now the army looks to reclaim air mobility, and seems likely to compete for the same helicopter assets that the VDV will need to realize this new concept of operations. The implication for NATO, used to Russian forces getting places via rail, or driving there, is that Western forces will increasingly have to think at the tactical and operational level about a segment of Russian forces becoming air mobile in the initial period of war.

The introduction of tanks into Russian air assault units represents a countervailing trend, sacrificing mobility for firepower. In 2016, the 7th and 76th Air Assault Divisions, together with four brigades, were slated to receive tank companies. Since then, the 7th and 76th are being expanded with tank battalions, while one regiment (331st) will receive Russia’s new Sprut-SD airborne tank destroyer as part of a force structure experiment. The VDV is due to add three T-72B3 tank battalions in total. Tanks have been introduced on and off to the VDV throughout the Soviet period, as they have to the Naval Infantry (which is also getting tanks back). It seems almost a matter of tradition that the VDV receives tanks after combat experience demonstrates the need for them to employ heavier firepower in a ‘motor rifle’ role, they are subsequently removed, only to be reintroduced later.

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VDV with tanks in Afghanistan

Generally, the VDV continues to do well in terms of equipment. It has fared well in both State Armament Programmes (2011-2020 & 2018-2027), perhaps as a consolation prize for not receiving an expanded force structure. The former trend continues, while the latter seems finally about to change. In 2015, the head of the VDV at the time, Colonel General Vladimir Shamanov, sought to restore all four divisions to their former three regiment size. This did not happen, since money was prioritized for procuring capabilities and creating new army formations. Nonetheless, as of late 2018, the 76th Air Assault Division in Pskov is slated to receive a third regiment. Meanwhile an independent air assault battalion has already been established in Crimea, the 171st, structurally part of the 7th Air Assault Division. The VDV also received a combat service support battalion in Orehovo. Hence Russia’s airborne has not only gained upgrades in firepower, but it is growing in size as well, and working on new operational concepts for how to make the combat arm relevant in modern conflicts.

But if size and materiel is one measure, what about quality? According to Andrey Serdyukov, the VDV now has 30,000 servicemen and sergeants under contract service, which represents 70% of the force. His goal is to focus the VDV on being able to generate entirely contract staffed battalion tactical groups with an overall contract level for the force of 80%. During the tumult of the military reforms, 2008-2012, the VDV was de facto the only reasonably well staffed force available for handling local conflicts. This is no longer the case, and Russia’s airborne must compete for a future role alongside increasingly better equipped and larger ground forces. Although it is once again being saddled with a ‘motor rifle lite’ role, the General Staff is still positioning the VDV as a high readiness reaction force, and an air mobile component that offers the Russian military new options at operational depths.

Russian Military Buildup in the West: Fact Versus Fiction

A short article looking at the focus of Russian military modernization, the original appeared on the Russia Matters site of Harvard’s Belfer Center.

As Russia’s annual strategic exercise, titled Zapad-2017, approaches, media reports (and plenty of Western officials) have contended that Moscow is engaged in a military buildup along NATO’s borders, with particular trepidation over security considerations in the Baltics. Ironically, Russia’s military modernization and force structure expansion had been ignoring the Baltic region until only recently. Despite provocative air and naval activity concentrated in the area, Russian forces based there are principally defensive, and aging to boot. There are indicators that a change in the size and strength of Russian forces is inevitable, but it will be gradual, in part informed by what forces NATO chooses to deploy.

Moscow’s chief fixation of late has been establishing large unit formations along Ukraine’s borders, an expansion of the footprint in Crimea and upgrades to military equipment distributed across the country’s five military districts. Having achieved some success under the previous state armament program, the Russian General Staff is shifting its attention to the Baltic region, slowly but surely upgrading the antiquated forces based there and deliberating a larger military presence.

Russia’s military has been undergoing transformation since 2008 to compensate for a prolonged period of divestment and rot in the armed forces after the collapse of the USSR. This process was driven by military reforms launched in late 2008 and a modernization program begun in 2011 (a new one is due to be announced soon for 2018-2025). Russia’s force structure continues to evolve and expand, and the armed forces steadily acquire modernized or new capabilities. Change is a constant—new formations and a hurricane of announcements, only a fraction of which are ever implemented.

The modernization program launched in 2011 focused investment on Russia’s air force, navy and strategic nuclear forces, to the detriment of the army. Until 2014 Russia was not procuring like a Eurasian land power and was largely reducing the number of deployed formations on Ukraine’s and NATO’s borders to position them elsewhere. The war with Ukraine turned these initial plans upside down and has subsequently proven the driving factor behind changes in Russia’s force posture. (Nonetheless, today the Southern Military District, encompassing the North Caucasus, still maintains greater readiness than any forces abutting NATO.)

Conflict with Ukraine reawakened the national leadership to the likelihood of a large-scale war on the western front in the medium to long term. To deal with a constant rotation of forces in Ukraine, and to maintain conventional superiority over Ukrainian forces in the long term, Russia refocused its energy to that border or what Russian leadership calls the “southwest strategic direction.” Russia’s General Staff began to bring back all the units originally moved off Ukraine’s borders during the early years of the reforms. This included the 20th Army, along with other units. The next step was reestablishing the 1st Tank Guards Army west of Moscow and setting up the headquarters for a new 8th Combined Arms Army in the Southern Military District.

Spanning an arc from the border with Belarus to Rostov-on-Don in the south, Russia is setting up three new divisions, each of which is formally to have six regiments and an ultimate end strength toward 10,000 (although they will likely be undermanned for years to come). Supporting these divisions are several brigades, airfields and combat aviation. The 8th Army is there to be the primary threat to Ukrainian armed forces, and perhaps to coordinate troop rotation in support of separatists in the Donbas if the conflict continues several years out.

The current wave of modernization is similarly prioritizing units near Ukraine, especially Crimea, which saw a substantial expansion of Russia’s military presence after Moscow annexed and absorbed a significant percentage of what were previously Ukrainian forces on the peninsula. Russian planning is driven by a strategy to deter Ukraine from believing it can retake the Donbas, looking chiefly five to 10 years into the future. The intent is to keep the country in a vise with permanently garrisoned forces along its borders running north to south. Russian forces may even withdraw entirely from Ukraine once this much larger force just across the border is complete.

In the interim, the Baltic region was given only a modicum of attention, with few forces, terrible readiness and fairly dated equipment. Indeed, as recently as last summer the entire Baltic Fleet and ground force command staff was fired, and with seemingly good cause.

There has been, and remains, little to indicate that Russia is especially concerned with the Baltic region when compared to the situation further south. Despite bombastic rhetoric about NATO aggression, hostility and the like, Russia’s military has not prioritized the Baltic relative to other areas. Remarkably there is much more attention and energy being spent on expensive military infrastructure in the Arctic with a dubious cost-benefit proposition, as opposed to the supposedly existential struggle between Russia and its historic Cold War adversary to the West.

That being said, in 2017 the bow wave of modernization across Russia’s armed forces is steadily making its way from the units positioned around Ukraine to those in the Baltic region, and further north. New fighters, missile regiments, air defense systems and combat aviation are either in the process of being deployed or will be in the coming years. Meanwhile, the force structure continues to expand, with plans to add two tank battalions to the airborne division in Pskov, near Estonia, for example, while other adjustments may see the military footprint of the 11th Army Corps in Kaliningrad grow, along with the 14th Army Corps in the Northern Fleet. Although Russia remains fixated on building divisions around Ukraine, it is trying to balance this with the need for manpower to fill other units. The state armament program is pumping out equipment such that slowly but surely even lower-priority areas receive upgraded capabilities.

Russia’s vision for dealing with U.S. military power is less ground-force-based and more founded in integrated air defenses combined with long-range conventional strike power and nuclear weapons. Here Russia is working on improving its arsenal of cruise missiles and the capacity to inflict conventional damage at standoff ranges, rather than build large formations bordering NATO. Moscow understands that the U.S. has an incredible technological advantage in aerospace power, and thus has prioritized air defense, electronic warfare and other capabilities intended to deny NATO its preferred way of waging war from the air.

The various units around Ukraine can of course travel if need be to Belarus and the Baltic, and in the upcoming exercise some of them will demonstrate exactly that—their ability to move into Belarus as part of a planned operation. The logistics and resources available to realize such plans on a large scale do require some time, preparation and practice. In reality these units can only generate a percentage of their strength on short notice, especially if the maneuver forces are composed of contract-staffed personnel.

When it comes to its force posture in the Baltic region, Moscow is playing it slow—moving about capabilities to threaten and engaging in military activity that generates headlines, while the actual presence remains largely defensive in nature. This too will change in the coming years. More S-400s, Iskander-Ms, better tanks, tactical aviation, logistics units and everything else Russia’s state armament program has to offer has either begun arriving or will deploy to the Baltic region by 2020.

The Russian plan is perhaps much less a buildup and more a slow cooking of the overall military presence. Arguably NATO is doing the very same thing along its eastern flank. Gradualism is the name of this game, and if it is not carefully managed, nobody should be surprised if some years from now the Baltic region finds itself host to a force bidding contest.