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Airborne Assault Troops [VDV]

The mission of theAirborne Assault Troops [VDV] is to make possible a quick response to national emergencies. The airborne troops are considered an elite force because they are individually selected from volunteers based on physical fitness, intelligence, and loyalty. By traditional military standards, the airborne troops are not a powerful force. Each division is assigned about 6,000 lightly armed troops with lightly armored vehicles. Their value is that they have special training and have operational and strategic mobility provided by long-range aircraft. Their parachute assault capability means that they can be deployed anywhere within airlift range in a matter of hours without the need for an air base in friendly hands. However, resupply and support by heavy ground troop formations are necessary in a matter of days because the airborne troops lack the self-sustaining combat and logistical power of regular ground forces.

The Airborne Troops comprised five airborne divisions and eight air assault brigades in the mid-1990s (the USSR had seven airborne divisions). All of the airborne divisions were based in European Russia. One division ws based in the Northern Military District, two in the Moscow Military District, and one each in the Volga and North Caucasus districts. The division in the North Caucasus Military District took part in the Chechnya conflict. The eight airborne assault brigades are smaller than divisions, and they lack the armor and artillery assets that give conventional divisions ground mobility and firepower. Once the airborne brigades are on the ground, they can move no faster than walking speed. Their role is primarily focused on helicopter operations, but they also are trained for parachute assault from fixed-wing aircraft.

The Airborne Troops were designated as a separate service in 1991, at which time the air assault brigades were reassigned from ground forces units and military districts to Airborne Troop Headquarters, with direct responsibility to the Ministry of Defense. The justification for this reorganization was that airborne troops could not respond as quickly to an emergency under ground forces command as they could as a separate command. Experts believe that the decision to reorganize came mainly in response to internal politics rather than military necessity; at that time, the Russian national leadership did not want airborne troops under the control of the General Staff or the ground forces.

In 1992, when Moscow took stock of its military inheritance from the Soviet Union, the Russian state found it was left with almost no combat-ready reserves, and what still existed could only be dispatched to trouble spots with difficulty. In late 1992, by edict of the president of Russia, it was determined to create the Mobile Troops based on the Airborne Troops, corresponding in quality and quantity to the American mobile forces. The mobile forces were not created, but numerous reorganizations of the Airborne Troops, their transfer to military districts, and other changes resulting in a reduction affected their combat effectiveness.

Initially it was reported that the Mobile Forces might be composed of an Instant Deployment Force (capable of deploying in 3-5 days) and a Rapid Deployment Force (capable of deploying in 30 days, each having a strength of 100,000 to 150,000 men). In December 1993 Grachev referred to a force on permanent stand-by and able to mobilise in 4-10 hours (an `Immediate Reaction Force'), while the Rapid Deployment Force (as in the NATO concept) should be ready to move within three days.

In 1994 a plan which contains a concept for Russia's participation in peacekeeping activity was developed and adopted in the [Russian] Security Council. At the same time, two ground-forces motorized rifle divisions were given a new organizational structure which met the requirements for military contingents participating in peacekeeping operations. The necessary training materials and gear were created and, beginning in 1995, these missions were removed from the responsibilities of the air-assault troops.

Russia has made marked progress on shaping its peacekeeping forces, on both the military and legal levels. In addition to the CIS "collective peacekeeping forces", comprising the 201st Russian motorized rifle division stationed in Tajikistan, the "Russian peacekeeping forces" were being formed, with the 27th and 45th motorized rifle divisions and an independent parachute battalion assigned. More than 16,000 Russian army servicemen were performing peacekeeping tasks in the "near abroad" in the beginning of 1994.

Russia initially designated a special division in the Volga Military District for peacekeeping (the 27th MRD redeployed in 1992 from east Germany) and a second division, the 45th MRD (from the Leningrad Military District), was also assigned to peacekeeping missions. Planned light Mobile Forces of about five division equivalents could in principle be centerd on units from the 76th Pskov and 106th Tula Airborne Divisions (ABDs) plus a number of special units. The Volga and Urals Military Districts emerged as the central base for the Mobile Forces, which need to be located in the centre of Russia and capable of being airlifted anywhere there is a threat (though the 76th and 106th ABDs are not centrally located).

By 1996 plans were developed under which the Mobile Forces would total some 100,000 men and be based largely (60%) on airborne troops, but they will include some motor rifle formations, equipped with light weapons, which can be airlifted, naval infantry, military transport aircraft and logistic units.

In early 1996, four of the eight independent airborne brigades and two of the five airborne divisions were placed under the command of their respective district commanders, and the remaining three divisions became part of the strategic reserve. The command adjustments constituted a return to the pre-1991 arrangement. The reason given for the transfer of authority was that the military districts already controlled the helicopter, fixed-wing, and other resources needed to support the air assault brigades, and that historically air assault brigades were created to operate in an operational-tactical role attached to a high-level headquarters. They were never intended to be a strategic asset. In the case of the Novorossiysk Division engaged in Chechnya, a chain of command running back to Moscow allegedly proved unworkable. However, the reassignment of the airborne units brought interservice charges that the move was an attempt to rein in a service branch perceived as having a dangerous combination of independence and mobility. The chief of the General Staff, General Mikhail Kolesnikov, characterized the decision as purely operational.

In late 1996 Defense Minister Igor Rodionov order the disbanding of two of Russia's remaining five airborne divisions (the USSR had seven airborne divisions) by the middle of December 1996. Rodionov's order stemmed from an earlier one issued by then Defense Minister Pavel Grachev in December 1995 that turned over two paratrooper divisions and four independent airborne brigades to the control of the military district commanders where they were based. These two measures would bring the strength of the airborne forces down from 64,300 to 48,500. The lower figure is probably an accurate reflection of the size of the force at the time. The the 237th Air Assault regiment, attached to the 76th Airborne Division based in Pskov, apparently was also slated for elimination.

In May 1995 paratroopers from the 106th Guards Airborne Division, who had recently returned to their Tula garrison from Chechnya, were arrested when they attempted to sell plastic explosives, grenade launchers, and ammunition to Chechen fighters. The famous 331st Guards Regiment of the 98th Guards Airborne Division took part in combat operations in Chechnya between 17 September 1999 and 20 March 2000. In June 1999, the regiment also formed and sent to Kosovo the 2nd Airborne Battalion to be included into the multinational peacekeeping forces.

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