Spetsnaz Experience in Afghanistan by Timothy Gusinov
Soviet Special Forces (Spetsnaz):
Experience in Afghanistan
When I read in the newspapers that U.S. Special Forces units had deployed to Afghanistan in the fullscale antiterrorist operation after the Attack on America on 11 September 2001, I could not help but experience déjà vu; I had .been there, done that.They are ready to go,. I said to myself. Maybe at this exact moment they are jumping into a chopper to take them on their mission. Or possibly, they are already on the ground in Afghanistan. I had lived through the dark nights in the mountains of Afghanistan. I had heard the angry roar of helicopter engines in thin air. And, I had
experienced the deafening bursts of automatic gunfire and the blasts of hand grenades as they exploded in narrow canyons or among packed mud walls of Afghan villages. I lived again the exhausting dash back toward the pick-up area. I saw the faces of my comrades, dead and alive.
The involvement of the Soviet special forces.the Spetsnaz.in Afghanistan began in 1980. The Soviet command soon realized that mechanized infantry units were not effective against Mujahideen guerrilla tactics. The Spetsnaz were called in as the only forces capable of fighting the enemy on his own terms. Even these crack units initially lacked mountain-warfare training.
Their mission in the event of a fullscale European theater of war was to hunt and destroy headquarters, command and communications centers, and mobile missile launchers. In Afghanistan they had to learn a lot fast to meet new and unique challenges. In the paragraphs below, I list some of the challenges and solutions Soviet Spetsnaz teams faced and what they learned.
Deployment Lessons Learned Helicopter assault tactics
When deploying a Spetsnaz team into enemy territory, helicopters should make several landings, leaving the team at one location only and under cover of darkness. Doing so complicates the enemy.s search and pursuit because they will have to conduct searches in several places, thus dispersing their forces. The helicopter drop should be from two to three miles behind the target, so that instead of going deeper into enemy territory for the attack, the group would be moving back toward its own base. If the enemy launches a search operation, chances are fewer that they will be searching in the back direction.Helicopters should use different routes for returning to base after dropping the team. To conceal the team.s deployment, there should be other air force activity in the area, including limited air strikes near but not too close to the team.s objective.
Destroying enemy supply convoys.
During the Soviet-Afghan war, the Mujahideen developed sophisticated and effective tactics of bringing weapons and ammunitions supply convoys into Afghanistan. The tactics the Spetsnaz most often used to destroy such convoys were helicopter assaults and ambushes en route.
The general rule for intercepting and destroying weapons and ammunition convoys is that the closer to the enemy.s base or main camp the convoy is intercepted, the higher the chances the convoy will be in one piece and its security will not be on full alert. After a large convoy arrives
at a distribution base or area, representatives of different field commanders and tribes meet it and divide it into smaller groups, which are much harder to detect. When a long line of camels loaded
with weapons and ammunition is attacked, the most depressing thing is the maddening shriek of wounded animals. The wounded from the convoy security detachment scream too, but they are the enemy; the animals are victims. The most unpleasant thing is when a camel loaded with mines or TNT explodes into bloody pieces, killing everyone nearby.
Even if soldiers speak the local language and dress like the locals, they should not count too much on their ability to pass as locals. The way they walk is different, and there are many tribal dialects. Dress-specific features, even in the way of wearing a headdress, carrying weapons, and so on, can betray someone as not being a native. Depending on the mission, however, it makes sense to dress as much like locals as possible for the particular area of the country in which the mission is to occur. Doing so could fool the enemy for some time and give soldiers a small advantage. Also, soldiers should collect and hide used toilet paper. Most Afghans in rural areas use small stones and pieces of dry clay for this purpose.
Tactics Lessons Learned Air-fuel munitions.
The Soviet air force used air-fuel bombs and unguided rockets with air-fuel warheads for the first time in Afghanistan. When used in populated areas, such munitions completely destroy buildings within a distance of 25 to 30 meters from the center of the explosion and partly destroying and damaging structures at a distance of up to 80 meters. The smashing and throwing effect of an air-fuel bomb.s hot explosion wave is effective at a distance of up to 200 meters, especially in canyons and narrow valleys. However, thin air in the mountains and wind at ground level can quickly disperse the concentration of aerosol needed for explosion, thereby decreasing the power of such munitions. These munitions should be used during cold season, at night, or during the early morning, when the air is still cool and thick. If dropped in thin air or during windy conditions, it is best to use a cocktail combination of aerosol munitions and smoke bombs dropped together. The smoke will keep the aerosol from dispersing too quickly. The number of landing zones in Afghanistan near fortified enemy bases are limited and usually mined. During air-assault missions, air-fuel munitions are effective for cleaning mines from helicopter landing zones before troops land. Soviet attack aircraft used the following tactics:
l Attacking the target from the sun.
l Performing .star. air strikes, which consist of aircraft attacking a target continuously from different directions, thus preventing the enemy from accurate firing in one direction.
l Using two aircraft or two pair of aircraft on parallel courses coming from opposite directions to attack the target.
l Finishing the attack by steady climbing, then performing a sharp hook turn to either left or right.
Often a flight of aircraft would launch a distracting attack by flying on afterburners to create noise, while the main striking force attacked a strongly fortified enemy base from another direction during a large-scale operation.
If a particular tribe, field commander, or village was known to have taken prisoners of war (POWs) or possessed the remains of those killed in action, from two to four aircraft would deliver an impressive air strike as close as possible to the location using heavy bombs and incineration
munitions. At the same time, leaflet bombs would be dropped that declared that unless there was immediate negotiation for POWs. release or for the return of bodies to a specified location, the next air strike would target the area itself.
Air Defenses Lessons Learned
During my service in Afghanistan, the enemy used a variety of portable, shoulder-launched missiles. They included the old (usually Egyptianmade) Strela-1, Strela-2, and Strela- 2M (modernized) missiles; American Red Eye and Stinger missiles; and British Blowpipe missiles.
According to information gathered from POWs, Blowpipe performance was disappointing because of its low accuracy, heavy weight, and complicated guidance system. Blowpipes
were used en mass during the 1986 assault on Javara south of Khost. I personally witnessed from
two to three simultaneously launched Blowpipe missiles missing a single aircraft and exploding in the air. Twelve 7-millimeter DShK (1, 2, or 4 barrels, mostly of Chinese or Egyptian manufacture) and fourteen, 5-millimeter Zenitnaya Gornaya Ustanovka (ZGU) antiaircraft mountain units, using Krupnokaliberniy Pulemet Vlavimirova Tankoviy tank-mounted, large-caliber machine guns of Vladimirov design (originally designed for tanks and armored personnel carriers (APCs)), had effective ranges of fire up to 1,500 to 1,800 meters. Even after the introduction of SA missiles, the DshKs and ZGUs caused from 50 to 70 percent of helicopter losses and damage and from 40 to 50 percent of aircraft losses and damage. Also in limited use were Swedish 20-millimeter Eurlicon antiaircraft guns and the Soviet-made mobile 4-barrel automatic gun system known as Shilka, which was used by the Taliban and the Northern Alliance. For better protection of their fortified bases and strongholds, enemy forces established a local early warning system that consisted of a net of observation posts. Small radio stations were located as far as from 5 to 15 kilometers from each post. This distance does not seem like much when flying in a jet, but it is enough to give advanced warning of approaching helicopters. Also, such posts kept air force bases under observation, reporting every group take off. To counter such a net, striking teams should take a deceptive course, then change it to the correct one once out of the observation area. Enemy air defense of fortified bases began from distant approaches of from four to six kilometers out from the main base area. Air defenses included heavy antiaircraft machine guns and occasional SA missiles located on high mountain ridges. The concentration of air defenses gradually increased toward the center of main bases and fortified areas. The number of heavy machine guns defending a base varied depending on its size and importance but could range from 60 to 80 pieces in a particular area. Crews are tough. Often, when a gunner was killed or wounded, another trained crewmember immediately replaced him. Soviet pilots nicknamed antiaircraft machine guns .welding machines, because from the air the flashes that occurred when they were fired reminded the pilots of welding works in progress. Fortified areas with large numbers of antiaircraft machine guns were called welding workshops. Special .free-hunting. Missile teams usually consisted of from 10 to 20 soldiers; one to two trained missile men; and two to three soldiers to carry additional tubes. Other team members carried infantry weapons for protection and cover. Hunting teams, operating near air bases, and missile teams defending
enemy bases, included 4- to 10- member groups whose mission was to kill or capture downed pilots. Pilots messes at airbases, such as at Bagram and Kabul, were specific targets for mortar or rocket barrages. Sometimes such teams would climb to incredible heights to attack or engage
transportation aircraft that the Soviets thought were flying at safe altitudes. In 1987, after recovering from being wounded for the second time, I returned to Afghanistan where I worked at the Military Intelligence Department in Kabul. I received information that a Spetsnaz team in the Panjshire area had intercepted and destroyed an enemy convoy carrying, in addition to the usual
variety of weapons and munitions, small portable oxygen bottles and masks. To counter such measures, humanitarian packages should be dropped from higher altitudes. Transportation
aircraft should alternate approach directions as often as possible, and they should avoid permanent flight routes.
Mine Warfare Lessons Learned
On many occasions, enemy forces would lay mines in a way that they could be easily detected and disarmed. Other mines in the same area would be much better concealed and laid with much more resourcefulness. For example, a mine having an easily detectable metal casing might be surrounded by mines that had plastic casings, which are much harder to detect. Enemy forces would also combine pressure-detonated mines with remote radio or wiredetonated mines and charges whose power was often increased by putting pieces of cut thick metal around them
or laying stones over them. Despite the fact that many modern weapons, including modern land
mines, are used in Afghanistan, many homemade devices are also used. A pile of empty artillery and tank shell cases, as well as cases from unexploded air bombs and other munitions, clearly indicates that the place is used for manufacturing explosive devices. Also, the enemy will collect empty artillery and tank shell cases, refill them with explosives, and use them as anti-vehicle
mines. Such refuse should be collected and rendered unusable by running over it with a tank or other heavy-armor vehicle. Finding large amounts of cheap soap and empty glass bottles indicates the production site of Molotov cocktails. Soap is grated, placed in a bottle, mixed with gasoline, and thrown on a vehicle. When the bottle breaks the burning mixture of soap and gasoline sticks to the surface and burns. MR
Editor.s note: U.S. Armed Forces on the ground in Afghanistan have most likely already encountered all or most of the tactics discussed here. However, it is wise to listen to the voice of experience. The War on Terrorism could last much longer than anyone can predict. Timothy Gusinov served two tours of duty, totaling from 4 to 5 years, in Afghanistan. Because he speaks Farsi and Dari, his duties included facilitating coordination and liaison between Afghani governmental and Soviet troops as well as negotiations with local authorities, tribe leaders, and field commanders. Wounded twice, he received a number of orders and medals including the Order of Red Star. After the Persian Gulf war, he was the U.N. military observer during the Iraq-Kuwait Observation Mission. He also served as an adviser to the former Yugoslavia. He now
lives in the United States.