I gripped the phone, inhaled deeply and crafted an acceptable response to my commander’s comment. “Well, Nikolai Vasilyevich Kalinin, today will either bring a historic victory, or forever be remembered as a day of shame for the VDV. It is now up to my men to determine which it shall be.” –Taken from VDV At War, a three-part article published in the Sunday Times Magazine, April 1990.
The snippet of conversation above took place between Lieutenant General Nikolai Kalinin, commander of Soviet Airborne Forces, and Major General Viktor Surokin, the commander of the 104th Guards Airborne Division not long after 0000 hours on D+12. It typifies the nature of airborne operations perfectly. There is only either clear-cut victory or defeat, no draws or deadlocks. History has provided many cases in support of this idea, and practically none opposing it. From the Allied airborne drops at Normandy to the German airborne operation at the start of the invasion of the Low Countries in May, 1940 it was entirely clear what operations had been won, and lost.
The same would be said in future history books about the upcoming mission. Surokin believed historians, who would enjoy benefit of hindsight, will regard the mission as either the most daring in the history of airborne operations, or the most foolish. Like the general had told his superior, the men of his division’s 328th Guards Regiment would decide which label was to be attached.
The forthcoming mission was codenamed Tarantul. An operational level mission, it would be conducted in conjunction with front-level operations. The main objective of Tarantul was seizure of the Dhahran Airbase in eastern Saudi Arabia by the 328th Guards airborne regiment. The base was located just south of the city of Dhahran, and some of the largest oil fields in eastern Saudi were in the vicinity. Once the airbase was secure, the remainder of the 104th Guards Airborne Division would be airlifted in direct from the Soviet Union, the oilfields and ARAMCO facilities in Dhahran would be seized and from that point on the Soviet paratroopers were to hold their objectives until relieved by Iraqi Republican Guard divisions.
On paper the plan for Tarantul seemed viable. In reality, a series of potential difficulties had been overlooked, or minimized. The first one was air movement of the regiment to its objective target. Traditionally, this is the most vulnerable phase of any airborne operation and Tarantul was no exception. The 30+ Il-76 transport aircraft carrying the 328th Guards and its equipment would be flying into airspace defended by US and Saudi fighters, and Saudi HAWK missile batteries. The transports would be escorted by twenty four Soviet MiG-29 Fulcrums, and twelve Iraqi MiG-25s. The mission of the MiGs was to open and hold a threat-free air corridor for the Il-76s. Iraq was initially reluctant to hand over some of its more capable fighters, and best pilots to the Soviet operation but constant prodding by Moscow convinced Saddam Hussein it was in his nation’s best interest. Southern TVD had informed Surokin that missions against enemy ground based air defenses would also be conducted but his superiors did not reveal exactly who would be flying those sorties or from where.
Then there was the airdrop itself. Three separate drop zones had been predesignated for the operation. Drop Zones Ilya and Vasily were located on the western fringes of Dhahran Airbase. DZ Misha was located on the Rolling Hills Golf Course just to the north of the base. Rolling Hills was part of the ARAMCO residential camp, essentially a small westernized township setting for the oil company’s foreign workers and their families. The area was largely void of workers and dependents. Most governments had evacuated their citizens in early July when it had appeared that war was imminent. Now only a skeleton crew of essential workers remained. Surokin’s concern here was that if his troops failed to achieve surprise, the US paratroopers defending Dhahran could strike the drop zones before the 328th Guards was fully on the ground and assembled.
The opposition on the ground was Surokin’s greatest fear. A brigade of paratroopers from the US 82nd Airborne Division was tasked with defending Dhahran Air Base. Another brigade was on the way from Egypt, according to intelligence reports from Baku. The US airborne brigade was larger, and had more firepower than its Soviet counterpart. Therefore, it was essential for the 328th Guards to maintain the element of surprise for as long as possible. The longer the Americans remained in the dark, and unaware, the better the 328th Guards chances were to seize the airbase.
0200 Hours. Takeoff time was set for 0220 hours. Surokin stood in his hastily set up headquarters in an unused hangar at Al-Taqaddum Airbase watching a line of transport aircraft sitting motionless with engines idling on the nearby taxiway. He had just received a note from his communications officer informing him that Iraqi tanks were crossing the Kuwaiti border right now. There was no going back. Operation Tarantul would not be cancelled.
Surokin only wished he was on one of those Il-76s and leading men under his command into battle.