Germany ’87 vs Ukraine ’22: Airmobile Forces

Here we are almost three days into the 2022 Russia-Ukraine War and similarities between the Soviet Army in 1987 and the Russian Army of 2022 are already appearing. Some of the problems facing Russian air and ground forces in Ukraine today closely resemble the challenges that the Red Army and its Warsaw Pact allies would’ve faced in Central Europe back in 1987. A reason for this is the state of complacency that’s ruled the development of weapons, tactics, and military doctrine since the end of the Cold War. At the dawn of the 21st Century, the focus of armies shifted to potential conflicts and opponents in geographic regions better suited for light forces. Potential adversaries changed too, away from the tank heavy forces of 1987 and towards insurgents and terrorists, armed with far less firepower.

Overall, it was a shift from conventional, force-on-force warfare to a enhanced counter-insurgency. This remained the case until the mid-teens when the prospect of force-on-force fighting against a near peer opponent became real again. Rather then simply rewrite the book, Russia turned to the past and the doctrines of the later Cold War years for guidance. This wasn’t the result of archaic thinking on the part of the Russians. Their land and air doctrine from the 1970s and 80s was sound….in theory at least…..and could be modified to meet the capabilities and needs of the 21st Century Russian military.

The first surprise was in the way Russia used its airmobile forces during the opening hours. On the first morning of the war, Russian airmobile forces conducted an operation in daylight to seize Hostomel Airport outside of Kiev. Unfortunately, the Ukrainian air defenses on the ground were not fully neutralized before the attack came in. Losses were suffered but the Hip pilots managed to get the airmobile troops (most of them at least) onto the ground. The airport was secured, but the effort was for nothing. Before an airhead could be established, a Ukrainian brigade launched a counterattack and retook Hostomel later in the day. Not to be deterred, the next morning saw a far larger Russian airmobile effort to seize control of the airport. This one was successful and now the Russians have a potential airhead on the northwest outskirts of the Ukrainian capital. Textbook airmobile operation.

If war had broken out in Central Europe back in 1987, Soviet doctrine called for widespread use of airmobile forces to disrupt the NATO rear areas, conduct raids on headquarters and nuclear weapons sites and of course, to seize bridges and airbases intact. Soviet airmobile units were trained to conduct these missions successfully and then hold out against NATO forces until their comrades in tanks and BMPs could rush to their rescue. Losses were anticipated, but it was widely believed that NATO air defenses would largely be neutralized by airstrikes before the airmobile missions were launched.

What was expected to work in 1987 was also expected to work in 2022, and it did. Just at a higher cost in men, helicopters and material. Two factors to consider in the comparison are: The Russians had ample forces available to conduct a second attack against the airport. In 1987, this was not going to be the case for the Soviets. Every airmobile company and/or battalion in East Germany had its own specific target to hit. There were not going to be reinforcements available to support any units encountering heavy resistance.

When I gamed out the 1987 conflict initially, I gained an idea on how much damage SAM and AAA crews based around an airport could cause to incoming helicopters filled with paratroopers, BMDs, fuel and ammunition. I discussed it in some of the pre-war and D+0- D+1 entries and on Thursday morning, I got to see with my own eyes how closely a modern-day airmobile operation mirrored a hypothetical one from 1987. Pretty damn closely, to be honest.

Monday’s entry will talk a bit more about other similarities. Specifically, some of the problems Russian units are having on the ground in Ukraine compared to what they might’ve dealt with back in ’87.

27 Replies to “Germany ’87 vs Ukraine ’22: Airmobile Forces”

  1. Indeed. Watching that airfield seizure op took me back to the mid 80’s and Army training films we had of the Soviet threat capabilities, as well as experiences during REFORGER 84, when the Orange team did such things. Looking at all of the photos and footage coming out of Ukraine now, so much of the equipment in use is just newer versions of stuff from that time. And some still looks to be very much the same. Strange Days we are seeing there.
    So that is what happened at the Anatov plant airfield? I’ve seen footage, claims and counter claims, but little solid information. First assault was defeated after the seizure, but another bigger wave went in the next day and were successful? Yikes. Crete 2022. I was somewhat surprised by the apparent lack of AAA and MANPADS to defend such an important location.

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    1. Man, it was a page straight out of the 1980s Red Army playbook. Still would work too, as we saw.
      Anatov Airfield is the same as Hostomel Airport. First wave of Russian airmobile seized the airport, but the follow on paratroopers never made it in. Ukes counterattacked and retook the field. Next day the Russian sent a bigger force and they seized the airport once and for all

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  2. I was pretty surprised to see a daylight air assault. Still, the lift itself got in. Maybe the defenders were surprised too. Once the d-day lift got in it seems like the plan de-synchronized. I’m not sure if follow on forces were frustrated by recovering air defenses, or called off due to the ground tactical situation.

    It does seem that there were no follow on lifts to bring in additional troops and equipment that couldn’t be carried 8n HIPs to expand the airhead following the effort. If this was planned to be an effort to seize an airhead for exploitation that would be a logical sequel to the seizure. Not having their Nona’s, BMDs, etc put the troopers at a disadvantage vs the Ukrainian reaction force.

    If this was a single effort, the ground force relief plan seems like it was overly ambitious. Hostomel is over 60 straight line miles from the border. That’s three hours in an out of contact march. Once you throw in enemy contact, double that easily. Every delay was more time to mobilize Ukrainian reserves against the ground relief force and the air assault force.

    A lighter force, inserted as a tactical element to facilitate envelopment of enemy forward positions or seize key terrain of immediate tactical value makes sense. A heavier force inserted to seize the airfield as an operational level objective enabling seizure of a key objective (Kyiv) makes sense. This seemed to be neither fish nor fowl.

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    1. I suspect they never planned for ground relief, given the quality of the road from the NW that would be the direct link. My guess is that air relief was the plan here. Seize the airfield, fly in reinforcements. Maleme, Crete 1941.

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  3. It is interesting also to note the ‘somewhat’ practical application of anti missile tech in terms of steel fabrications. The advent of the folded steel around the turrets on T72s etc. but the wierdest lloking has to be the steel fabricated ‘shed’ that sits on top of turrets. I’m guessing this is to stop NLAWs (and I suspect drones) in the same manner that cages worked on US vehicles in Afghanistan

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    1. I think you’re right, or at least close to being right. The shed is to stop top attacks I presume, so yeah, anti-tank missiles and drone attacks.

      One thing I have not heard about is Russia’s tank countermeasures being used successfully to counter any missile attacks. In fact, I’ve heard nothing at all about them.

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  4. It is interesting to see the twitter intelligentsia comments* concerning Russian aircraft losses and losses in general. It’s been nearly 20 years since the west has seen air operations against an enemy with dedicated air defense and longer since they’ve seen them against an IADS- look at the Package Q strike in ODS. Likewise, the west has become accustomed to two decades of fairly low cost (unless you were personally involved) COIN ops, and have forgotten the cost of high intensity ground combat- see loss rates in Hue City 68.

    I’m pretty sure both sides had plans made going into this conflict. Of course, as seen on d-day they tend to not survive first contact. It looks like the Ukrainians either reacted quickly and violently or they had a pre-rehearsed anti-landing plan. Not surprising given the Russian attack was long anticipated; it would be gross negligence not to have prepared a defense. It also looks like the Russians failed to weight their initial landing with sufficient combat power to retain their initial gains. Seemingly they’ve learned from that error.

    *Probably some of the same “experts” who circa 2003-2004 expressed dismay that the AQ/TB/Iraqis would have the temerity to shoot down an Apache or defeat a US ground unit.

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    1. These ‘experts’ whether real or imagined, have been wrong the majority of the time. But like cockroaches, they survive every conflict and keep giving us their opinions….even when we don’t want ’em

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    1. It really hasn’t aged gracefully. Entertaining book, but a lot of Peter’s insights about the Soviet style of warfare were far from accurate

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      1. that would be because Ralph is a God Of All Things Military in his own mind…. (and read that with the intended sarcasm, please….)

        The book was enjoyable when I read it…. but in looking back at it now, it kinda was too Red-Rooting and as I recall, he didn’t have the Americans as opponents until the end when it was too late for the West. He savaged the West Germans and the English in the book…. and I have doubts *that* would have happened. Especially to the Germans.

        I’m sorry… but when you are fighting for your home, it tends to strengthen spines. And we are seeing this being played out real time in Ukraine.

        I’m sure he was considered a smart fella and capable while he was in. Since, I don’t know…. and I’ve seen his views/writings ripped to shreds elsewhere. But he fits *someone’s* narrative so he continues to get air-play.

        Much like those twitterverse experts..

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  5. I look forward to reading this.

    You and I have discussed the current situation quite a bit and reasons for lack of meeting objectives in anything near expected time frames… and what appears to be a gross underestimation of the Ukrainian will/resistance.

    87 Germany might have played out slightly similar in some aspects… how much is anyone’s guess.

    I don’t know if 1987 Germans would have been flocking to the Resistance like 2022 Ukrainians have. Someone who lived there in that time frame would be a far better judge- I didn’t get there until summer of 1990.

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    1. Good point, I wonder about the resistance back then. It would’ve been a little better organized than Kiev/Ukraine is now. Stay Back units would’ve made sure of that

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    2. I doubt it, having lived through the time (Luftwaffe 1988/89). There just isn’t the same history as between Ukraine and Russia, and the example of Eastern Germany, while undesirable, wasn’t so bad that you would necessarily consider dying to avoid it.

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  6. It’s a bit too early to know if the Russian attack works or not, we have too little info from both sides, and many people are taxking anecdotes (tanks getting lost and running out fuel) for signitficant events. The airmobile assault to secure a bridgehead is similar to the occupation of the Prague airport in 1968, and it has been successful enough in fixing Ukraine’s units on it while leaving an open corridor down from Belorussia. The decisive points are the South and Kharkov, and in both, the Russians are advancing.

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  7. It doesn’t look good for Ukraine this morning. From what I’ve read, it seems like the bulk of the Ukrainian army might get encircled in the east. The only thing holding it up appears to be the logistical issues that the Red Army is experiencing. That in itself seems really odd since they had so much time to build up and prepare. I think someone on the Russian side isn’t doing their homework.

    “Amateurs discuss tactics, the Professionals discuss logistics”

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    1. I’m hearing the same thing. Seems like the Russians are getting their supply problems fixed though, so if the Ukrainians in the east do not move fast, they will be cut off.

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