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.