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Edited wording a bit from the original Red Thrust Star article for a better "Cold War feel"
An operational focus is important because to truly understand the danger of Soviet forces,
commanders and staffs must master Soviet operational doctrine. The Soviets remain the only
nation with an operational potential parallel to the United States. Soviet military history clearly
demonstrates that the Soviets win wars operationally despite tactical setbacks. Soviet
operational doctrine is very thorough and well developed. Compared to the Soviet model,
operational doctrine of the United States Army is still in its infancy
] Also, not
only is the Soviet approach to war scientific, but it is uncannily full of "common sense", a
"national" trait we claim reflects the essence of U.S. doctrine.
During a 1988 visit to the National Training Center, C.J. Dick, of the British Army's Soviet
Studies Research Center, remarked, "The Soviets tactically fight only in order to operationally
maneuver." In other words, the Soviet always choose a tactical course of action on the basis
of the operational advantage it will create. Thus, they may choose a tactical action which, on
its face, is not the optimum but which will yield a significant operational benefit. This principle,
applied to mountainous operations, implies that the Soviets will tactically attack through
difficult mountainous terrain in order to secure or support operational maneuver.
From Hannibal's crossing of the Alps to the Ardennes in 1944 (in the Battle of the Bulge),
numerous battles throughout history demonstrate the danger of the surprise avenues of
approach that mountains provide the attacker. Why then do U.S. commanders and staffs
continue to template mountains as obstacles rather than avenues of approach? Is it bad habit
or the result of mechanization? The reason is probably both.
To correct this, we must break the paradigm and make an effort to see through mountains,
not around them. Commanders must evaluate the operational situation to determine if any
mountainous approaches are available to secure or support the enemy's operational maneuver
before disregarding them as insignificant. Mr. Dick also stated that, "The Russian is obsessed
with time. He chooses the approach he deems fastest." It is not common for us to perceive
mountains as high speed avenues of approach. Tactically, they are not, but operationally they
may be. Commanders and staffs must be alert to this comparison.
West Germany, 1987. Hostilities between NATO and the Warsaw Pact are threatening. You are
the VII Corps G-2, posted in Nürnberg. The corps commander directs that you update the
current IPB and provide him an intelligence estimate tomorrow. You pull out the IPB overlay
from the battlebook and post it on the map (Figure 3).
As you study the IPB, you observe that the previous G-2 has highlighted the most dangerous
avenues of approach as Erfurt-Fulda-Gap-Fulda-Würzburg-Nürnberg and the other dangerous
avenue of approach as Gera-Hof-Bayreuth-Nürnberg. You observe the Thüringer Wald and
although you see several roads through the Wald, you dismiss them as operationally
unimportant. You assume that your opponent, a Soviet foe, seeks fast and open battle
approaches such as the ominous Fulda Gap. You then proceed to template the enemy's
courses of action off the current intelligence summary.
You conclude that since Czechoslovakia is neutral, the enemy will not violate Czechoslovak
territory and so will conduct the
main attack by penetrating through the Fulda Gap to
drive on Frankfurt located in V Corps sector. You also conclude that an army will march south
achieves a penetration in V Corps sector to encircle VII Corps and isolate it
from the fight. A supporting attack is also expected in the vicinity of Hof to draw forces deeper
into the encirclement.
You brief this enemy course of action to the corps commander. The corps commander decides
to counterattack the flank of the enemy
penetration along the
Schweinfurt-Meiningen-Eisenach approach. VII Corps will also conduct a supporting defense in
the vicinity of Hof (Figure 4).
Later, with the preparations for the counterattack complete, cavalry troops start to report
major enemy maneuver in the Thüringer Wald. An enemy tank army exits the Thüringer Wald
and forces VII Corps to fight in an unexpected direction and forces the cancellation of the
counterattack. The enemy
penetrates the Fulda Gap and wins the day (Figure 5)!
The G-2's conclusions were not wrong, as far as they went. What was wrong was the failure to
consider the tactical avenues of approach through the Thüringer Wald as operationally useful
in securing the
flank from counterattack during its penetration. Again, one must look at
the operational picture before dismissing tactical avenues of approach.
The Soviet Experience
Having raised the alarm about the real danger of mountainous approaches, let’s study Soviet
doctrine for operations in mountainous terrain.
The Soviet aim of operations in low mountainous terrain is to facilitate operational maneuver.
Mr. Dick also stated, "All armies are prisoners of their own experience." Historically, the
Soviets have scant experience in conducting operations in mountainous terrain. Unlike the
armies of the mountainous nations of Europe, no specific mountain unit is known to exist in
the Soviet Army. [
A mountain brigade was established in the Turkestan Military District in
] The Soviets, historically, campaign on extensive steppes and river valleys. Thus, their
tactical and operational doctrine does not reflect a significant influence of mountains. Neither
nor FM 100-2-1 have major chapters on operations and tactics in mountainous terrain.
Undoubtedly, the Soviets learned much tactically in the low-intensity conflict of Afghanistan,
but it is doubtful much change occurred operationally as a result of that experience. So, while
it is useful to explore Soviet writing on the subject, we must bear in mind it is largely
Soviet Principles of Operation in Mountainous Terrain
Let's now look at the Soviet principles of operations in mountainous terrain.
● The Soviets consider any terrain feature over 200 meters above the surrounding area a
● The Soviets prefer not to fight within the constraints of mountains, but will to achieve
surprise, gain time and facilitate future maneuver.
● The Soviets stress a rapid projection of combat power well forward. They reduce
reserves and strengthen forward detachments.
● The principal goal of mountainous operations is optimally to control the lines of
communication through a mountainous region before the enemy. To achieve this aim,
one must control passes, road junctions, built-up areas, and adjacent high ground to
these lines of communications.
● The Soviets stress decentralization and the tactical independence of battalions and
companies. This is primarily out of necessity, not design.
● The Soviets may use the three-echelon formation in mountains, but consider two as
Order of Battle
Having outlined the primary Soviet principles of operations in mountainous terrain, let us now
consider his order of battle.
: As with all Soviet operations, they will employ advanced reconnaissance
forces to determine the enemy disposition and the condition of routes through the region.
Reconnaissance groups maintain continuous surveillance on the enemy activities and the
trafficability of routes as the main formations approach. Helicopters conduct reconnaissance of
reverse slopes and dead spaces not under surveillance of the groups.
Tactical Airborne Forces
: Tactical airborne forces deploy in advance of the forward
detachments or are held in reserve. The primary role of airborne forces is to secure key terrain
features before the enemy and gain time for the arrival of the forward detachments. The
secondary role is to provide flexibility and surprise through vertical envelopments to clear the
enemy opposition from key terrain in conjunction with the main forces. Forces for air assault
employment within a division will often be a regular motorized rifle company or battalion.
and army, generally, will have an independent air assault brigade and battalion,
may have an airborne division.
and army Spetsnaz forces also
deploy to interdict and delay enemy movement into the region.
: The Soviets deploy forward detachments well ahead of the main
body to seize those key terrain features outlined above in coordination with tactical airborne
forces. They consider this task critical to the operation. Securing lines of communications
before the enemy often decides the operation before the arrival of the main forces. Forward
detachments provide the combat power required to retain control of key terrain features after
their seizure by airborne forces. Forward detachments range in size from a battalion to a
regiment, for division and army respectively, and are reinforced with artillery, air defense and
Movement Support Detachments (MSD)
: These may precede or follow the forward
detachments. Their role is to clear the lines of communications ahead of the main body.
: Regiments will advance on one to two routes. One route is the primary and the
other supporting (enveloping). Battalions and companies use one route. The regimental
formation will typically take the following form.
: Advance guards deploy to protect the regimental main body from ambush
and to destroy or fix enemy resistance so that the enveloping detachment may surprise and
destroy it. To assist in the rapid destruction of enemy resistance, regiments allocate artillery
platoons or batteries to the advance guard to provide direct fire, support. This is particularly
critical if the enemy occupies high ground above the elevation of the tank main guns. Advance
guards are also reinforced with air defense and engineer forces.
: Each regiment designates a battalion and each advance guard a
company as an enveloping detachment. The role of the detachment is to surprise and destroy
enemy forces from an unexpected direction in conjunction with the fixing action of the
advance guard. When the advance guard encounters enemy resistance, it first attempts to
destroy the resistance. If it is too great, then the regimental enveloping detachment will
maneuver to destroy the resistance. If vertical approaches are available, the enveloping
detachment may conduct an airborne operation using division lift assets. If the resistance is
critical to the
and army, then an independent airborne force may conduct a vertical
envelopment in conjunction with the advance guard and ground enveloping detachment.
Decentralized Combat Support
: To best employ combat, support such as combat
engineers, artillery, air defense, and attack helicopters the Russians decentralize many (but
not all) of these assets. Decentralization is required because the terrain limits mutual support,
movement, and masks fires and observation. For example, motorized rifle companies are
allocated engineer platoons, battalions receive engineer companies and regiments receive
battalions. Their primary mission is to enhance mobility. MSDs of battalion strength may also
precede each regiment.
Also, regiments allocate artillery directly to companies to provide direct fire support to
compensate for the limited elevations of tank main guns. The army, division and regimental
artillery groups (AAGs, DAGs, and RAGs) still form, but push the preponderance of artillery
down to the lowest level. RAGs are largest while AAGs are smallest. Only long range artillery is
kept in the AAGs to cover the movement of the main body through the region. The RAGs and
DAGs receive the rest of the artillery so the army can range the majority of their artillery when
major resistance is encountered.
Mountains severely impede radar systems and range. Therefore, the Soviets decentralize their
air defense assets throughout the forces. Shoulder-fired systems are the primary weapons for
the protection of the force. Air defense ambushes deploy well forward, often in conjunction
with reconnaissance and airborne forces.
Finally, attack helicopters form into hunter/killer flights. Their primary target is the destruction
of enemy forces on the reverse slope that cannot be effectively attacked by artillery and fixed
Soviet Course of Action
Let’s now examine the Soviet course of action that unfolded against VII Corps above to better
understand the time, space and events of a Soviet tank army maneuvering through
mountainous terrain (Figure 6).
Reconnaissance groups infiltrate throughout the region.
11th Air Assault Brigade air assaults into Meiningen, Eisfeld, Coburg and
Kronach to seize control of the road junctions leading into the Thüringer Wald.
Attack helicopters deploy well forward in support of the 11th Air Assault Brigade.
Reconnaissance helicopters search the reverse slopes of the Thüringer Wald.
Forward detachments enter the Thüringer Wald to link up with the air assault units.
Reconnaissance detachments from the forward detachments search suspicious areas on the
way through the Wald.
The AAG deploys to cover the forward detachments through the Thüringer Wald.
14th Antitank Brigade enters the Thüringer Wald to establish an antitank screen between
the forward detachments and the air assault forces in order to guard the approaches to the
exits of the Wald.
Forward security elements of the regimental advance guards enter the Thüringer
Regiments enter the Thüringer Wald. Each division moves in a diamond formation.
Speed is approximately eight kilometers per hour. Interval between regiments is one hour.
The 66th Guards Tank Army formation is an echelon right so that all divisions exit the Wald at
the same time ensuring mutual support and prevent the exposure of one division before the
other. Each enveloping detachment of each regiment is thirty minutes behind the advance
guard main body. Therefore, if resistance is encountered, the advance guards have from sixty
to ninety minutes to overcome resistance before the regimental enveloping action occurs.
The 610th Air Assault Battalion is on standby as reserve to assist in overcoming major
resistance in the Thüringer Wald.
Lead regiments exit the Thüringer Wald.
DAG establish firing positions. AAG displaces forward.
Divisions are through the Thüringer Wald and continues the attack to seize the
Hassberge and seize control of the Main River.
610th Air Assault Battalion conducts an air assault to seize critical crossing points, followed by
a forward detachment.
66th Guards Tank Army controls the crossings over the Main River and blocks the VII
Corps counterattack approaches securing the flank of the
In conclusion, the Soviets will always seek the operational advantage over the tactical
advantage when deciding a course of action. Never disregard a mountainous avenue of
approach without reviewing the operational situation and the advantages such avenues of
approach may offer. We deliberately avoid dictating how one should fight the Soviets in
mountainous terrain. However, we caution you that if a commander and his staff attempt to
solve a tactical or operational problem without understanding the doctrine and experience of
their enemy, they may omit critical information. This lack of information will lead to an
uninformed gamble rather than a well-reasoned plan. Candidly, know your enemy!