Warsaw Pact Deployment on the Central Front Redux

T-64 MBT

The T-62’s larger cousin, the T-64, appeared in the mid-1960s, but only about 8,000 were built and none were ever exported. The first prototype was finished in 1960 with the second three years later. The first production run was completed in 1966 with about 600 tanks that were all armed with the 115mm smoothbore gun. These suffered problems with the automatic loader, power pack (particularly the transmission) and the suspension. As the T-64 featured an automatic loading system, the crew could be reduced to three men, helping to keep the size and weight of the tank down.

Another innovation on the T-64 that was less successful was the suspension. All Soviet medium tanks from the T-34 on had used five road wheels without any return rollers, so why the change was made to six very small road wheels and four return rollers on the T-64 is not readily apparent, though it was known that the T-62 had a habit of losing its tracks. The T-64’s design features appear to have failed, as the T-72 employed a completely different system, while modified T-62s were seen with the T-72-style suspension, not that of the T-64.

Confusingly the T-64 was very similar in appearance and layout to the T-72. The suspension consisted of six small dual road wheels (though these were notably smaller than the six used on the T-72) and four track return rollers (the T-72 only has three), with the idler at the front and the drive sprocket at the rear. The tracks were narrower than the T-72’s and the turret was slightly different. The driver sat at the front in the centre, while the other two crew were located in the turret, with the commander on the right of the gun and the gunner to the left.

The follow-on T-64A sought to iron out the early design faults and included the 125mm 2A26M2 smoothbore gun fed by an automatic loader. This went into service in 1969 and was first seen publicly the following year during the Moscow Parade. The 125mm gun was stabilised in both elevation and traverse with the barrel fitted with a thermal sleeve and flume extractor. It could fire up to eight rounds a minute and had a sighted range out to 4,000m employing the day sight and 800m employing the night sight. The 2A26 gun had vertical ammunition stowage, while the T-72 and T-80 are armed with a 125mm 2A46 gun with a horizontal ammunition feed system. The gunner selected the type of ammunition he wished to fire by simply pushing a button. This was the separate loading type, in that the projectile is loaded first followed by the semi-combustible cartridge case; all that remains after firing is the stub base of the cartridge which is ejected. The 125mm ammunition is common to the T-64, T-72, T-80 and T-90 tanks.

Whereas the Soviets had gone for ease of mass-production with the T-54/55 and T-62, the latter’s counterpart was much more advanced. As a result, the T-62 was assigned to the motor rifle divisions while the newer T-64 only served with the armoured divisions. Somewhat ironically, the T-64 entered production only slightly earlier than the T-72, which was intended to replace the T-54/55 and T-62. The T-64, while being a superior tank, suffered numerous teething problems that eventually consigned it to the scrap heap.

Although the T-64 served with the Soviet Groups of Forces stationed in the Warsaw Pact countries, it only ever saw combat against Chechen separatists. Only the Soviet Army employed it and with the break-up of the Soviet Union, the Russian Federation kept 4,000 of them while Ukraine ended up with 2,000. By 2013 Russia had scrapped all its T-64s, although Ukraine modernised some and kept them in service. None seem to have ever been exported.


Lessons learned from the BMP-1 inevitably led to a BMP-2. This first appeared in November 1982 in the Red Square parade, though it is believed to have already been in service for a number of years before that. While visually the BMP-2 is almost identical to its predecessor, a clear difference is the long thin barrel of the main armament that consists of the 30mm Model 2A42 cannon. This is housed in a two-man all-welded steel turret with the commander seated on the right and the gunner on the left. The gunner has a single rectangular hatch, which opens to the front with an integral rear-facing periscope and three fixed periscopes, with two to the front and one to the left side. A total of 500 rounds are carried for the main gun.

From the late 1980s onwards a number of enhancements were carried out to production BMP-2, most of which were retrofitted to earlier BMP-1 and BMP-2. The latter was supplied to the Iraqi Army and was manufactured in India as the Sarath and in Czechoslovakia as the OT-90. The BMP-3, which features redesigned road wheels and a higher hull profile, appeared just as the Soviet Union was collapsing. This is an upgunned BMP that has a turret-mounted 2K23 weapon system that comprises a 100mm 2A70 gun, a coaxial 30mm 2A72 cannon and a coaxial 7.62mm machine gun.

In addition the BMP-2 has an AT-5 ‘Spandrel’ anti-tank missile launch tube mounted on the turret roof between the gunner and commander’s hatches. As well as the infantrymen’s small arms, the BMP-2 also normally carried an anti-tank grenade launcher and two surface-to-air missiles. The infantry compartment at the rear only has two roof hatches compared with the four fitted on the BMP-1, though access is normally via the two rear doors. It only carries six infantrymen compared to eight in the BMP-1.

Like its predecessor, the BMP-2 is fully amphibious. Just before entering the water a trim vane stowed on top of the glacis plate is erected, the bilge pumps are switched on and the driver’s centre periscope is replaced by the TNPO-350B. The upper part of the tracks has a sheet metal covering that is deeper than that on the BMP-1 as it is filled with a buoyancy aid.

At the height of the Cold War the Soviet Union exported billions of dollars worth of arms to numerous developing countries. Intelligence analysts watched with a mixture of alarm and awe as cargo ship after cargo ship sailed from Nikolayev in Ukraine stacked to the gunnels to ports such as Assab in Ethiopia, Luanda in Angola, Tartus in Syria and Tripoli in Libya. Much of this equipment came from strategic reserves and was very old or had been superseded by newer models, as in the case of the T-55 and T-62 MBTs, which were all but obsolete by then. Soviet armoured vehicle exports also included the 4×4 wheeled BTR-60 APC and the tracked BMP-1 IFV.

In many cases Soviet weapon shipments were funded through generous loans, barter-deals or simply gifted, and Moscow’s arms industries rarely saw a penny in return. The net result was that during the Cold War Moscow fuelled a series of long-running regional conflicts that lasted for decades. Ultimately the West was to spend the Soviet Union into oblivion, but the legacy of the Cold War was one of global misery.

SA-4 Ganef Tracked Mobile Surface-to-Air Missile System

This self-propelled anti-aircraft missile system, bearing the NATO codename SA-4 Ganef, appeared publicly in the Moscow Red Square parade in 1964. It was a medium-to long-range air defence weapon that could reach targets up to 75km. It comprised two large missiles on a launcher mounted over the hull of a specially designed tracked carrier. Unlike the normal redesign and conversion of existing armoured vehicles, this vehicle had its engine and transmission at the front, thereby freeing the rear of the hull for the launching equipment. This was also air portable. The launch platform could be rotated through 360 degrees with a maximum elevation of 70 degrees.

The missile itself was about 9 metres long and, after being lifted off by four solid propellant boosters mounted externally, was propelled by an internal kerosene-fuelled ram jet. The Ganef operated with a scanning radar and with what NATO called the Pat Hand target acquisition and fire control radar carried in separate vehicles. The SA-4 was deployed at army level in SAM brigades consisting of three battalions each with nine launchers.

As with that of the Americans, British and French, the long-term Soviet deployment on the Central Front was, in the main, a direct result of where the Red Army stopped in 1945, although there were some minor adjustments during the forty years of the Cold War. The forces permanently stationed in East Germany were designated Group of Soviet Forces Germany (GSFG), with their headquarters at Zossen-Wünstorf, 30 km south of Berlin, and comprised five armies, most of which were approximately equivalent to a NATO corps in size.

The Soviet army believed that the basic form of military strategy was the offensive, and all its (and the Warsaw Pact’s) planning, organizations and exercises were devoted to this end. The 1945 organizations lasted for only a short time, and from 1947 infantry regiments began to be mechanized, using BTR-40P wheeled trucks. This process gathered pace in the 1950s, until 1957, when a major re-equipment programme began to bear fruit and new-style tank and motor-rifle divisions were introduced, which were smaller, easier to control and much harder hitting than their predecessors. These were organized into two types of army: a ‘tank army’, in which tank divisions normally predominated, and a ‘combined-arms army’, in which motor-rifle divisions predominated, the number and type of divisions depending upon the army’s combat mission.

The history of GSFG included some major equipment milestones, which marked a significant increase in tactical capability. The first of these was the fielding of T-62 tanks and BTR-60 eight-wheeled armoured personnel carriers in the early 1960s, while in the early 1970s the Mi-24 (NATO = ‘Hind’) helicopter gave a totally new capability to the Soviet air force’s Frontal Aviation command. The changeover in artillery from wheeled to tracked self-propelled guns, which came in the late 1970s, was also of major significance, although it was made considerably later than in NATO. The final stage was marked by the fielding of the new T-80 tank, which joined the front line facing NATO in the mid-1980s.


In war the Warsaw Pact forces in central Europe would have come under the Western Teatr Voyennykh Destiviy (Theatre of Military Operations (TVD)), which would have been subdivided into fronts, each composed of a number of armies, and an air army. The commander-in-chief Western TVD controlled all Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces in Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary and Poland, as well as the second-echelon armies which would have been generated by the western military districts in the USSR.


In 1945 East Germany was occupied by six armies: the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th Guards Tank Armies; the 3rd Shock Army; and the 8th Guards Army. Of these, the 4th Guards Tank Army was gradually withdrawn to the USSR in the 1950s, followed by the 3rd Guards Tank Army in 1960–61. This appears to have overstretched the headquarters that remained, since, in the aftermath of the 1961 Berlin crisis, a new headquarters unit, the 20th Guards Tank Army, was formed. The other army was Frontal Aviation’s 16th Air Army, which remained in East Germany from 1945 to the end of the Cold War.

From the 1960s onwards, GSFG comprised the following.

  • The 2nd Guards Tank Army, the northernmost formation, occupied an area near the Baltic south of Rostock, with its peacetime headquarters at Fürstenberg–Havel, 60 km north of Berlin. Despite its title of ‘Tank Army’, it actually consisted of just one tank division, plus two motor-rifle divisions.
  • The 3rd Shock Army was located in the centre and, in view of its intended role of thrusting across the North German Plain, it consisted of four tank divisions and a single motor-rifle division, making it, at least on paper, the most formidable fighting formation in any army. The title ‘Shock’ was conferred in 1945, but the name changed to 3rd Mechanized Army in 1947, before reverting to 3rd Shock Army in 1957–8. The headquarters was at Magdeburg, conveniently close to the IGB and just off the E8 autobahn, which would have been the main axis of the army’s advance into West Germany in the event of war.
  • The 8th Guards Army was located in the south and, as its intended role would take it through primarily infantry country, it consisted of one tank division and three motor-rifle divisions. Its headquarters was at Nohra, 10 km south-west of Weimar.
  • The 20th Guards Army was located just west of Berlin, effectively in the rear of the 3rd Shock Army. It consisted of three motor-rifle divisions, and did not have an integral tank division. Its headquarters was at Eberswalde-Finow, some 40 km north-east of Berlin.
  • The 1st Guards Tank Army was virtually identical to the 3rd Shock Army, with four tank divisions and one motor-rifle division. Its headquarters was at Dresden, in the south-east corner of the GDR.

GSFG also included considerably more supporting units (artillery, engineers, aviation, communications and logistic services) than other similar organizations in the Soviet armed forces. Thus, for example, GSFG was supported by 34 Guards Artillery Division, which was three times the size of a normal artillery division.

The offensive nature of GSFG’s wartime missions was underlined by a further six reinforced bridging regiments and six amphibious river-crossing battalions, whose wartime mission was to ensure that the many rivers in West Germany and Denmark were crossed quickly. There were also two assault-engineer regiments, specially trained in urban clearance tasks, whose wartime missions would have been in cities such as Braunschweig and Hanover and in the Ruhr. Two aviation regiments were equipped with Hind attack helicopters, which established such a fearsome reputation in Afghanistan. There were also eight spetsnaz battalions for employment in NATO’s rear areas, and one integral airborne regiment, although GSFG had priority call on one or more of the airborne divisions back in the USSR, which were normally under centralized Ministry of Defence control.

The peacetime strength of GSFG amounted to some 380,000 men, with 7,000 tanks, 3,000 infantry fighting vehicles, 300 helicopters and a vast amount of artillery. All were manned at Category-A levels, which was usually well in excess of 90 per cent of their wartime figure.


Situated in Poland was the Soviet Northern Group of Forces (NGF), with its headquarters at Legnica. In peacetime its troops consisted of two motor rifle divisions and an air army. In war its position astride the lines of communication from the homeland would have been absolutely vital to the success of the offensive, and it would have been reinforced by units from the USSR.

The third element, in addition to GSFG and NGF, was the Central Group of Forces (CGF), which was formed in 1968, in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. The headquarters was located at Milovice, Czechoslovakia, some 30 km north-west of Hradec Králové, and after a rapid build-up in 1968–71 the CGF was composed of two tank and three motor-rifle divisions.



Czechoslovakia had two armies: the 1st (Czech) Army (comprising one tank and three motor-rifle divisions), with its headquarters at Příbram, and the 4th (Czech) Army (two tank, two motor-rifle divisions) at Písek. Each of these Czech armies had a larger than normal engineer component, with one engineer brigade, one bridging brigade and one construction brigade in each army, with more under central control. Total strength of the Czechoslovak army (1984) was 148,000, of which approximately 100,000 were conscripts.

East Germany

The German Democratic Republic’s Nationale Volksarmee (NVA) was considered to be both the most efficient and the most loyal of the satellite armies, and fielded two armies: the 3rd (NVA) Army, with its headquarters at Leipzig, and the 5th (NVA) Army at Neubrandenburg. Both consisted of one tank and two motor-rifle divisions, all of which were maintained at Category A (90–100 per cent strength) in peacetime and were backed by a very efficient mobilization system. The total peacetime strength of the NVA was some 120,000 (1984), of which 71,500 were conscripts.


Poland provided three armies, which in peacetime were based in each of the three military districts, and virtually all of which were scheduled to come under direct Soviet command in war:

  • Silesian Military District – one army of three tank and two motor-rifle divisions;
  • Pomeranian Military District – one army of two tank and two motor-rifle divisions;
  • Warsaw Military District – one army of three motor-rifle divisions but no tank divisions.

The 6th Airborne Brigade was stationed in the Pomeranian Military District, and the 7th Sea Landing Brigade was stationed on the Baltic coast, from where it would have taken part in amphibious operations against Denmark in war. The Polish army did not have the specialist engineer brigades found in the Czech and East German armies. The total strength of the Polish army in 1984 was 210,000, of which 153,000 were conscripts.

Unlike their opponents in NATO, where commonality ceased at corps level, the non-Soviet Warsaw Pact forces were all organized on Soviet lines and used mainly Soviet equipment, some of which, such as tanks, was manufactured locally under licence. The equipment was not, however, exclusively Soviet, and Czechoslovakia, for example, produced armoured personnel carriers and self-propelled guns to its own designs, some of which were also used by Poland.


Soviet Airborne Forces

Throughout the Cold War the Soviets maintained by far the largest airborne forces in the world, and, as in most armies, these enjoyed an elite status, with special equipment and special uniforms (including a sky-blue beret). Their importance was further emphasized by the fact that they were not part of the normal army chain of command, but were subordinated direct to the Ministry of Defence. There were seven airborne divisions, all of which were maintained at Category A in peacetime, each consisting of three airborne regiments, an artillery regiment and an air-defence battalion, together with communications, engineers and logistic units – a total of some 8,500 men. In war they would have been tasked directly by the Ministry of Defence for a major strategic mission or allocated to lower headquarters for specific operations, possibly on a scale of one airborne division to each major front, or probably more than one in the case of the Western TVD.

Soviet airborne forces were equipped with a large range of lightweight equipment, which was specially designed for the airborne role. Such airborne items ranged from self-propelled guns and tracked personnel carriers to lightweight folding saws, and airborne troops were always the first to receive new standard weapons, such as 5.56 mm rifles.

Soviet airborne units were particularly intended for desantnyy missions – a Russian term denoting operations in enemy rear areas, carried out in co-ordination with the forward elements of the ground troops, and with the aim of maintaining the high momentum and continuity of the offensive. Such missions would almost certainly have included the traditional airborne task of seizing vital ground or crossings in advance of major thrusts by ground troops, possibly as the opening move in a war in western Europe. Probable missions would have included seizing bridgeheads across major rivers, such as the Elbe, Weser and Rhine; capturing forward airfields; and attacking nuclear-supply points, communications centres and major logistics concentrations. This was confirmed by Marshal Sokolovskiy:

In the last war, airborne troops were used chiefly for support of ground troops in defeating enemy groupings, while now they must also perform independently such missions as [the] capture and retention or destruction of nuclear missile, air force and naval bases, and other important objectives deep within the theatres of military operations.

The airborne troops had a flexible organization, being designed to conduct operations in divisional, regimental or battalion strengths, depending upon the requirement. The normal tactic was for pathfinders to form the first wave of the assault, arriving in the battle area by parachute, with the aim of securing the drop zone (DZ) and marking it for the main assault force, which arrived after a minimal interval and dropped together with its heavy equipment. In most larger operations securing an airfield or creating an airstrip would have been a high priority, to enable later troops and heavy equipment to be air-landed rather than air-dropped. Soviet airborne troops’ tactics were always very aggressive, and as soon as sufficient men were available they began a rapid expansion to link the DZs to each other, coupled with raids and assaults on any enemy units encountered.

The fixed-wing aircraft were provided by Voyenno-Transportnaya Aviatsiya (Military Transport Aviation (VTA)), which comprised some 1,700 aircraft, providing sufficient lift for the assault elements of two airborne divisions simultaneously. From the mid-1970s onwards three basic aircraft were used, the smallest being the four-turboprop Antonov An-12 (NATO = ‘Cub’), which carried eighty paratroops or an equivalent load of equipment and was equivalent to the USAF’s Lockheed C-130 Hercules. The second and larger aircraft was the Ilyushin Il–76 (NATO = ‘Candid’), powered by four turbojets, which carried 150 paratroops. Largest of all was the Antonov An-22 (NATO = ‘Cock’), which was capable of air-dropping either men or equipment, although it seems unlikely that this would have been done in any but the most benign environment, the aircraft depending instead upon the early capture of an airfield. The VTA was reinforced by further transport aircraft from the Soviet state airline, Aeroflot, which were intended to be used virtually straight away for air-landing operations, although they required lengthy preparations before undertaking parachute drops.

The VTA took part in all major exercises, but also obtained valuable operational experience in conducting the airlifts to Prague in 1968, to Egypt and Syria during the 1973 Middle East War, to Ethiopia in 1978 and in the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.

Soviet airborne doctrine was that objectives should be a maximum of 400 km from the front line for a divisional operation and a maximum of 100 km for a battalion operation. Relief by ground troops was intended to take place between two and seven days after the landing, although experience by all armies in the Second World War suggested that such a meeting seldom went according to plan.

Unless there was a reasonable expectation of total surprise, an airborne assault would be preceded by intense air and artillery operations to destroy enemy air defences along the line of the proposed route. Following that, the transports would fly across friendly territory at medium height before descending to low level to cross the front line for the approach to the assault area. The aircraft formed into a stream for the actual drop, which took place at a height of between 400 m and 1,000 m and a speed of 330 km/h, with intervals between the waves. Divisional operations used between four and six DZs, each approximately 4 km long and 3 km wide.

Other Warsaw Pact Airborne Forces

The other Warsaw Pact countries all maintained a parachuting capability: East Germany, Poland and Romania each had a brigade-size force; Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia a regiment; while Hungary had one battalion. All were organized along Soviet lines and used Soviet equipment, methods and tactics.


According to NATO’s 1984 assessment,2 the Central Region (and the southern part of the Northern Region) was faced by some ninety-five divisions from the Soviet, East German, Polish and Czechoslovak armies. Of those, some sixty-one divisions (16,620 tanks and 10,270 artillery pieces and heavy mortars) were either deployed in the forward areas or held at a high state of readiness and could have attacked within a few days of mobilization. There were also seven airborne and two air-mobile divisions, based in the USSR, which could have been allocated specific missions within the Central Region, and a division-sized amphibious force in the Baltic. They were armed with some of the finest equipment in the world, and the three forward Soviet armies were positioned much closer to the IGB than were their opponents, adding to the Alliance’s fear of a ‘bolt from the blue’. But they never attacked.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.