06/19/14

The story of the SdKfz 250

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The story of the SdKfz 250 segues neatly into the institutional development of the armored force in the second half of the 1930s. On March 15, 1936, a Weapons Office memorandum allocated three missions to the armored force: supporting the infantry attack, providing antitank defense, and carrying out independent operations in cooperation with other motorized troops. But other ideas were also percolating through the military system. The cavalry in particular had been hemorrhaging men and talent. Five of its eighteen regiments had already been transformed into tank, motorized, or motorcycle units. The rest were shedding squadrons for the new antitank and reconnaissance battalions. The Wehrmacht had plans to retain horse cavalry on mobilization, but it would take the field assigned by squadrons to infantry divisions. Small wonder that increasing numbers of talented and/or ambitious junior officers were seeking their future in the mechanized units.

The cavalry had been the army’s social elite since the days of the Great Elector. Even in the Reichswehr years its officer corps included a high proportion of landed gentry: vons and von und zus. Its continuing influence had been highlighted by Maximilian von Weichs’s seamless move into command of the Wehrmacht’s first and only armored division. To respond to the march of progress was one thing; to fade ignominiously away was quite another.

Military considerations shaped the cavalry’s behavior as well. German strategy was, as noted above, still predicated on the defensive. In that context there seemed to be a valuable operational role for a modern force able to perform a screening function, initially engaging and channeling an enemy while the panzer divisions lurked in reserve as a final argument. And should, as expected, the national strategy eventually require a military offensive, then mechanized reconnaissance, screening, and pursuit would be even more necessary. The argument was sufficiently persuasive that in August 1937 the Army Command informed Lutz that instead of creating additional panzer divisions, it planned to create the first of three “light divisions” in the fall of 1937.

The short lives and undistinguished careers of these formations has somewhat obscured their intended character. Though used as such in the Polish campaign, they were not panzer divisions manqué. Nor, as is sometimes asserted, were they a direct response to the French army’s new light mechanized divisions. Their closest analogs are the armored cavalry regiments introduced in the US army’s order of battle during the Cold War era to provide mobility, firepower, and shock action at the operational-level cutting edge. The missions were strikingly similar: reconnaissance and screening, plugging gaps in the line, conducting delaying actions, quickly occupying vital sectors, and, finally, pursuit and overtaking of retreating enemy forces.

The light division’s norm was three “cavalry rifle battalions” and a “cavalry motorcycle battalion,” one or two reconnaissance battalions built around motorcycles and armored cars, and a three-company light tank battalion eventually to be equipped with the later, fast models of the Panzer II. Internal signs of the division’s mission were the transporter vehicles issued to the tank battalion to facilitate operational mobility and save wear on the tanks. The number of machine guns in the rifle battalions was about double that of standard infantry—a useful tactical force multiplier in either defense or attack. Externally, no one could mistake the light divisions’ retention of the cavalry’s yellow branch color as opposed to the pink of the panzer divisions. Nor could anyone mistake the creation of a separate corps command to supervise their training and development.

At the other end of the spectrum, the infantry was also brought under the mobile-warfare tent. It was increasingly clear that mechanization as such was having to compete with a broad spectrum of other rearmament initiatives, in the context of a regime that considered “prioritization” something of a swear word. The three authorized panzer divisions risked being submerged in a growing sea of foot- marching, horse-powered infantry—the exact kind of mass army the Reichswehr’s institutional mentality was conditioned to avoid.

On January 30, 1936, Beck recommended motorizing four infantry divisions. It was quick, it was cheap, and it was doable in the contexts of industrial production and manpower procurement. Beck described motorized divisions as necessary for rapid- approach marches and surprise movements, to provide mobile reserves for the high command, and as a counter to aerial interdiction of rail transport. Significant as well was the French army’s 1935 decision to motorize no fewer than seven of its first-line divisions. Armies resemble the fashion industry in their susceptibility to trends, and health aficionados in their quest for symmetry.

The Lutz/Guderian pressure persisted, and the heritage of fifteen years’ worth of theoretical consideration on the prospects of large-scale mobile war remained active. In May the General Staff described motorized divisions as having the same capacity as their standard counterparts, but with an added capacity for rapid movement and maneuver. Suitable as mobile reserves, presumably for defensive purposes, motorized divisions could also be concentrated in mobile armies, presumably for offensives at the operational level in combination with the light and panzer divisions.

Like the light divisions, the new motorized divisions received their own corps headquarters. They also kept their original branch color: white. Otherwise, they were not exactly given a lot of thought. Four standard infantry divisions simply turned in their horses for trucks, motorcycles, and a dozen armored cars. They did have one tactical advantage over their French counterparts. For mobility, the French division’s infantry depended heavily on a Groupement of trucks attached for each move. The German trucks were organic down to company/platoon level—a major difference in flexibility even if the trucks were essentially road-bound and highly vulnerable even to small-arms fire.

06/18/14

Second Chechen War

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The BMP-1 is a Soviet amphibious tracked infantry fighting vehicle. BMP stands for Boyevaya Mashina Pekhoty 1, meaning “infantry fighting vehicle”. The BMP-1 was the first mass-produced infantry fighting vehicle (IFV) of USSR. It was called the M-1967, BMP and BMP-76PB by NATO before its correct designation was known.

The Soviet military leadership saw any future wars as being conducted with nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and a new design combining the properties of an armored personnel carrier (APC) and a light tank like the BMP would allow infantry to operate from the relative safety of its armoured, radiation-shielded interior in contaminated areas and to fight alongside it in uncontaminated areas. It would increase infantry squad mobility, provide fire support to them, and also be able to fight alongside main battle tanks.

BMP-1 and BMP-2 series vehicles share a major drawback with many Soviet tanks. Ammunition is stored near or even inside the fighting compartment which makes them more vulnerable to a hit from an anti-tank round or a missile across the side arc. If that happens, the ammunition often explodes, killing everyone and completely destroying the vehicle. During the fighting in Afghanistan and Chechnya, hits by rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) penetrated the BMP-1′s armor in 95% of cases. This often resulted in the vehicle burning until the ammunition exploded. Due to these limitations, Soviet/Russian soldiers customarily rode on the outside of the BMP-1, sitting on top of the hull while in combat zones.

The problem most often cited by western analysts is the design of the main fuel tank. Due to the low profile of the vehicle the designers have had to place the fuel tank between the two rows of outward-facing seats, meaning that the infantrymen sit very close to the bulk of the vehicle’s fuel storage, extra fuel is carried in the hollow armored rear doors. Therefore a hit by an armor-piercing incendiary round would set the fuel contained there (especially, if kerosene is used instead of diesel), on fire. The burning fuel would move into the crew compartment, resulting in the death or injury to the infantrymen (if they are unable to leave the vehicle via the roof hatches), and a possible explosion. However, the rear door tanks are almost always empty when the BMP goes into combat as they are only meant to increase the road travel range of the vehicle. In intense war areas where the BMP sees action often and it is relatively near to its base of operations, instructions highly recommend detaching the rear door tanks from the fuel system, filling them with sand as additional protection of the troop compartment and adding fuel to the internal main fuel tank from other sources when the need arises. This was not practiced by some crews of BMP-1s during a number of local conflicts, e.g., in Chechnya, which resulted in frequent attempts by the enemy to hit the rear doors of the BMP-1s. The inner fuel tank is more vulnerable than that of many modern IFVs – the thin side armor means that penetration is likely to occur to the inner fuel tank as well.

The BMP-1 was first tested in combat in the 1973 Yom Kippur War where it was used by Egyptian and Syrian forces. Based on lessons learned from this conflict and early experiences in the Soviet War in Afghanistan, a version with improved fighting qualities, the BMP-2 was developed. It was accepted into service in August 1980.

In 1987, the BMP-3, a radically redesigned vehicle with a completely new weapon system, entered service in limited numbers with the Soviet Army.

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The Russian military’s conduct of the Second Chechen War learned much from the first. In the initial stages of the war, the Russian army sealed off Chechnya’s borders and concentrated on controlling the open terrain north of the Terek River, avoiding hills and built-up areas. Russian forces sought to establish secure zones governed by loyalist Chechens to demonstrate the advantages of Russian rule and win acceptance from the Chechen population. The military also did a much better job of managing the Russian media. Some key Russian journalists had been kidnapped for ransom by Chechens between the wars and no longer had much sympathy for the Chechen cause.

Tactically, the Russian approach was to use overwhelming firepower to reduce losses among Russian troops, though this naturally increased civilian casualties. Standard tactics involved using artillery (quicker to respond than aviation) to pulverize suspected Chechen strongholds before ground troops approached. This extended to the use of fuel-air explosives in built-up areas. Groznyi, which had been badly damaged during the first war, was leveled in the second. For all these improvements, the Chechen conflict is still not over. At a cost of perhaps 25,000- 30,000 Russian soldiers dead, and 100,000 or more Chechens, any stability in Chechnya under Moscow-backed Chechens is exceedingly fragile. Horrific terrorist attacks continue, within Chechnya and outside it.

SECOND CHECHEN WAR

This pattern can be generally applied to Putin’s presidency, and the specific case of the Russian military. Putin has brought with him the perception of decisive action, stability, and competence. The question, with regard to Chechnya, economic reform, or the Russian military, is whether that perception is matched by reality or is only a well-crafted image. As Russia’s economy is propped up by lucrative oil and gas revenues, and Russia’s independent media are gradually brought under Kremlin control, the difference between reality and illusion is increasingly difficult to determine.