Special Operations: Spetsnaz Are Born Again


September 13, 2010: Russia's ground forces, especially the country's numerous special operations units, have apparently benefited greatly from the major reforms being instituted in the armed forces in the last six years. Airborne Forces (paratroopers) and special forces (Spetsnaz) historically been a major source of pride to Russians going back to the '70s and '80s, when special forces and airborne troops constituted the most effective troops available during the Afghan War (1979-1989). Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia's special ops guys suffered the same problems as the rest of the Russian Federation, namely corruption, low morale, low funding, and a major degradation in training capabilities. Special forces soldiers were often accused of doing "hits" for the Russian mob during the chaotic '90s.  

The lowest point for the state of the Russian special forces was 1999-2004, during the height of the Second Chechen War. Spetsnaz and Airborne troops suffered major reversals and defeats at the hands of Chechen guerrilla fighters, with an entire company of supposedly "elite" paratroopers being wiped out during a now infamous battle. The most embarrassing moment for Russia's elite were the 2002 Moscow theater siege and the 2004 Beslan school siege. During the former, Spetsnaz troops, instead of executing a well-planned attack on the hostage-takers, bungled the the rescue op, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of hostages along with all the hostage takers. During the Beslan incident, Russian special forces conducted a conventional-style assault on the building, in some cases recklessly using RPO-A rocket launchers with incendiary warheads, tanks, and RPG-7V1s to blast their way into the school. Both incidents not only damaged Russia's reputation abroad, as it was seen as callously disregarding the lives of its own citizens, but also the reputation of the country's best soldiers. 

After the Beslan incident, Spetsnaz apparently decided to get its act together, and it's shown in recent years. A big part of the current Russian military reforms appears to be a major improvement in the equipment and training of Russian elite forces, primarily paratroopers and special forces. For the foreseeable future, the Russians know that their elites are the most effective, reliable troops they have and can't afford to have them spread thinly across the military in different formations. Instead, the Russians appear to be concentrating their most effective forces into specific units in order to have a lot of them ready to go and already integrated when they go into action. The same goes for the regular army, as it slowly but surely improves in quality. 

Such was the case during the South Ossetia War in 2008. Almost all the Russian combatants in that conflict were drawn from the Russian 58th Army Group, one of the units that has apparently benefited heavily from the improvements being made in the Russian ground forces. The 58th still suffers from a major continuing problem, old equipment, and the majority of the tanks employed during the conflict were T-62s, T-72s, and T-80s and only a handful of the latest T-90s. However, the quality of the regular forces employed was markedly different than those who fought in 1990s Chechnya, where soldiers were often drunk or high and frequently sold their weapons and gas to the enemy for drugs or currency. 

None of that this time around. Having had two years to analyze the war and the combatants involved, most observers agree that the Russian forces actually behaved with a surprisingly high amount of discipline and professionalism, with remarkable degrees of coordination between regular and elite forces. Airborne forces from the 76th ad 98th Guards divisions constituted the bulk of the parachute formations involved, along with a Spetsnaz reconnaissance battalion, all of which displayed a high degree of skill and ability during offensive operations. Within the elite units, even the equipment situation seems to have been alleviated to some degree, with Spetsnaz soldiers apparently employing a wide variety of specially developed small arms and light weapons during operations. 

The Russians, even their Airborne units, still use old Soviet offensive tactics relying on overwhelming fire support and overwhelming numbers of break through enemy lines. But eventually, even those problems will be fixed out of the necessity, as the Russian Army has transitioned from an Army and Division-based force to one based around brigades as the principal combat formation. 

The idea behind the new brigade-based organization is to build a leaner ground force with excellent equipment and training. The Russians realize that they are likely to be involved in the same kinds of conflicts in the future that they have been fighting since the USSR broke up, mainly internal counter-insurgency missions or limited conventional or semi-conventional wars within their territory or in neighboring states. The Russians have a lot of territory to protect, much of which is unstable, as well as a need to be able to project military power abroad, so this "smaller" army is still massive compared to the numbers retained by most NATO countries (like Germany or France). The idea is to increase efficiency and decrease response time to crises in the country's most remote regions. 



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