Soviet and Russian special forces – seventy years old

Domestic army special forces celebrate this year’s anniversary – 70 years since its official foundation. On October 24, 1950, the Minister of the Armed Forces of the USSR, Marshal of the Soviet Union, Alexander Mikhailovich Vasilevsky, signed a directive classified as “secret.” The directive spoke about the creation of special purpose units (SPN) (deep reconnaissance, or special purpose reconnaissance) within the Soviet armed forces. The subunits being created were planned to be used in the rear of a potential enemy.

It is for this reason that on October 24, the Day of Special Forces Units and Formations (SPN) is celebrated in our country. This is a professional holiday for servicemen of various special forces of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation. At the same time, since 2015, the Day of Special Operations Forces (February 27) has been annually celebrated in Russia.

Harbingers of modern special forces

Do not think that until 1950 there were no special units in the domestic armed forces. Special detachments for operations in the rear and on enemy communications were created earlier. For example, in 1701, by order of Peter I, a special flying corps, the corvolant, was created in Russia. The purpose of the corps was to fight the enemy on the supply routes of his army, that is, attacks and sabotage behind enemy lines.

They returned to the tactics of partisan actions and the creation of flying detachments in the 19th century – during the Patriotic War. A well-known example is the activity of a detachment under the command of Denis Davydov. Davydov’s partisan detachment was formed during the Patriotic War of 1812 on the initiative of the lieutenant colonel himself, who turned his thoughts to Prince Peter Bagration. Bagration approved the decision and reported on the plan to the commander-in-chief of the Russian army, Field Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov, who, although he was skeptical about the initiative, allowed the formation of the detachment, having allocated 50 Akhtyr hussars and 80 Don Cossacks. With these forces, Lieutenant Colonel Davydov began his famous raids.

Soviet and Russian special forces - seventy years old

An important difference from the partisan detachments spontaneously formed by the peasants was that Davydov’s detachment was formed from among the military personnel of the regular army. The detachment’s soldiers possessed the necessary combat skills, and the officers, primarily Davydov himself, had rich combat experience. Very soon, Davydov’s detachment, which was continuously growing at the expense of adjoining peasants and liberated Russian prisoners, became for the French something like a tooth in the nose. The detachment operated on enemy communications, intercepted carts with provisions and fodder, attacked small detachments of the French and artillery parks. In the period until October 23, Davydov’s detachment captured approximately 3.6 thousand soldiers and officers of the Napoleonic army.

In the future, special formations were used in other wars waged by Russia. Cossack plastun units were often used for operations behind enemy lines and for sabotage. In those years, the best shooters, as well as the most enduring fighters, were recruited into the plastuns. At that time, they played the role of modern army special forces units, conducting sabotage, reconnaissance, deep raids in the rear of enemy troops. Most often, Plastun units were used in the Crimean War (1853-1856) and the Turkish campaign (1877-1878).

Creation of the Soviet special forces

The Great Patriotic War showed that special forces units are necessary for the armed forces. It was in the first post-war years in the Soviet Union that they began their full-scale construction. According to the directive of October 24, 1950 in the USSR, it was proposed as soon as possible to create special-purpose units prepared for operations deep behind enemy lines. The creation of special forces units was ordered until May 1, 1951. In accordance with the directive, it was planned to create 46 separate spetsnaz companies within the armed forces with a regular payroll of 120 people in each. Special Forces companies were to be formed in all military districts of the USSR, groups of forces, as well as in the navy.

These companies were formed at the direct request of the Chief of the GRU of the General Staff, General of the Army Matvey Zakharov, and the Chief of the General Staff, General of the Army Sergei Shtemenko. The formation of the spetsnaz companies took place normally. By May 1, 1951, the Soviet armed forces already had the first special forces units with a total staffing of more than 5.5 thousand people. The personnel of separate companies of the Special Forces were recruited then from the soldiers of the army intelligence, many of whom went through the Great Patriotic War and had real combat experience. In preparing the spetsnaz companies, the experience of reconnaissance and sabotage activities accumulated by that time was very widely used. First of all, the experience of saboteurs and Soviet partisans during the war. It is noteworthy that initially, in the company staffing table, the position of privates was even registered as a “partisan”.

All created separate companies of the Special Forces were directly subordinate to the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) of the General Staff. The subunits created within the Soviet armed forces in military conditions were to be involved in solving the following main tasks: organizing and conducting reconnaissance behind enemy lines, opening the location of important objects; destruction of enemy nuclear weapons and other important military installations or infrastructure; organizing and conducting sabotage actions in the enemy’s rear; the creation of insurgent (partisan) detachments; fulfillment of special tasks of the command; search and destruction of enemy saboteurs.

In 1957, separate special-purpose battalions were already formed in the USSR, and in 1962, the formation of separate special-purpose brigades began as part of the districts. Throughout the entire period of Soviet history of our country, the composition and structure of special forces units changed many times, while the tasks solved by the units, and the very essence of their existence, remained unchanged. On a permanent basis, special forces units were widely deployed under the auspices of the GRU General Staff. At the same time, by the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union, their special-purpose units were at the disposal of the ground forces, airborne troops, the GRU, the Navy and the Air Force.

In total, in the 1970s-1980s, there were 13 special forces brigades in the army. During the same period, special forces were used most actively, including in real combat work outside the country. Soviet special forces were present in Angola, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Nicaragua, Vietnam, as well as Cuba. The units of the Soviet special forces also acted actively in Afghanistan during the war. As part of the Soviet contingent of troops introduced into this country, up to 8 special forces detachments operated, brought together into two separate brigades.

The total number of personnel of special forces units in the USSR Armed Forces at the peak of their greatness by the beginning of the Afghan war numbered 8039 people. According to the historian Sergei Kozlov, who is studying the Soviet and Russian special forces, at that time there were 23 special forces units and formations in the USSR Armed Forces. In wartime, the number of units and formations could be increased to 66, and the total personal strength to be brought to 44,845 people.

State of the art

Today, like 70 years ago, special forces units are the elite of the armed forces. In modern conditions, most of the personnel of such units are contract soldiers. As in the USSR, the largest special forces units in the Russian armed forces remain separate special-purpose brigades. Many of them already have the status of the Guards, for example, the 16th Separate Guards Special Forces Brigade in Tambov. The honorary name “Guards” was given to this brigade by the decree of the President of Russia quite recently, on January 26, 2019.

A distinctive feature of special forces units remains the best training and equipment with the most modern types of weapons, military and special equipment. Today, Russian special forces are equipped with promising sets of individual combat equipment; modern mine explosives, including remote detonation; multichannel optoelectronic observation devices, allowing to operate in night conditions and conditions of poor visibility; modern air reconnaissance systems, primarily unmanned aerial vehicles; special small arms.

The personnel of individual special forces brigades of the Russian armed forces every year practice airborne landing from helicopters and airplanes, including parachute jumps at night, into water, from high altitudes with special oxygen devices and gliding along the horizon, followed by an exit to the target of attack or to the destination. The commandos jump a lot. According to the official website of the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation, in 2019, servicemen of a separate special forces brigade in Togliatti from the Central Military District had to perform more than 10 thousand parachute jumps in a year. Jumps are performed from Mi-8 army aviation helicopters in the altitude range from 600 to 4000 meters and from Il-76 military transport aircraft. At the same time, when performing jumps, the special forces use modern Russian parachute systems D-10, as well as “Crossbow-2”.

As noted in the Ministry of Defense, physical training is still of particular importance for the special forces. Much is being done to improve the stamina, agility and strength of the fighters. At the same time, each special forces soldier must perfectly master the techniques of hand-to-hand combat, which is based on the elements of combat sambo, as well as such areas of martial art as jiu-jitsu and karate. Also, special forces should be fluent in the techniques of throwing cutting and stabbing objects.

Today the special forces are armed with modern Russian armored vehicles “Tiger” and “Typhoon”, drones “Orlan-10”, elements of equipment for the new generation of military personnel “Ratnik”. At the same time, during the exercises, the special forces soldiers are still working out the tasks that faced their predecessors decades ago. So, as part of the exercises held in June 2020, the special forces of the Central Military District repulsed an attack by a sabotage and reconnaissance group on a military equipment convoy. We also worked out in the field conditions the destruction of a simulated enemy using a VSS Vintorez sniper rifle, an AS Val submachine gun and a single Pecheneg machine gun. Also, the special forces of the Central Military District worked out the organization of an ambush on a car with the capture of secret documents and a raid on the command post of a conditional enemy.

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