Soviet Naval Infantry and Air Cushion vehicles

Soviet Naval Infantrymen in 1985.

Cold War

Following the Russian revolution in 1917 and during the ensuing Civil War of 1917 to 1922 the first Soviet naval infantry units were formed. This Force was disbanded at the conclusion of the Civil War and not re-established until 1939. The peak force level reached was around 500,000 during World War ll; afterwards the force was reduced in size and numbers until it was disbanded sometime in the mid-1950s. No indication of its third re-establishment was noticed until after 1964. By 1977 the new Naval infantry had expanded to its present strength of 12,000 men; these are organized into five regiments, which are operationally subordinated to the Soviet Navy fleet commanders. One regiment is attached to each of the Northern, Baltic and Black Sea Fleets, whilst the remaining two form a divisional grouping in the Pacific Fleet The 2,000-man strong regiments follow the triangular organization of the Soviet army motorized rifle regiment, with the exception that its tank battalion has a company of medium tanks in addition to three companies of PT-76 light amphibious tanks. ln 1982 the regiments underwent a reorganization programme to increase their organic firepower. Additional medium tanks, BM-21 multiple rocket, launchers, and anti-tank guided missiles were added, together with the first tube artillery in the form of the M1974 122-mm self-propelled gun. Before this artillery support was limited to that provided by naval gunfire, plus BM-21 and amphibious ship rocket fire.

Battalion Assault Force

As with all Soviet forces, the Naval infantry can be quickly expanded in wartime by the mobilization of trained reserve personnel and stockpiled reserve equipment. The basis of the regiment is the battalion, made up of three infantry companies, a mortar platoon. and supporting supply and maintenance, medical and communications units. When reinforced the battalion constitutes the main amphibious assault unit, the Battalion Assault Force (BAF) The company is divided into a small headquarters unit and three platoons, each of which has three squads carried in BTR-60 APCs. The medium tanks are usually assigned on the basis of one platoon of three tanks to support a naval infantry company. The medium tanks usually disembark in shallow water behind the PT-76 and BTR-60 first or second assault waves. One platoon of medium tanks is believed to be equipped with the flamethrower version of the T-54/55 MBT for reduction of strongpoints.

The primary mission of the Naval infantry is the amphibious assault. This is divided into several categories depending upon the scale and mission of the landings. The categories are, firstly, strategic landings which are conducted in support of theatre forces lo open up a new front of operations (though the Soviets are believed not to have developed this capability as yet and probably will not for the foreseeable future). Secondly, there are operational landings to assist ground or naval forces in coastal areas to surround and destroy enemy ground or naval units, or to capture major objectives within the area (usually a regimental-sized operation). Thirdly, there are tactical landings to strike at the rear or flank of enemy units along a coastline or to capture specific objectives (a battalion- or regimental-sized operation). Fourthly, there are reconnaissance and sabotage landings to reconnoiter areas. to inflict significant material and installation losses, and to create diversions (a battalion-, company- or platoon-sized operation).

The secondary role assigned to the Naval infantry is to participate in coastal defence-operations. However, in practice this is rarely likely to occur as it is a waste of a valuable combat resource.

One unique feature of the operations is the extensive use of amphibious assault air-cushion vehicles. There were four types available. The smallest of these is the ‘Gus’ class, of which there are some 33 in service with the Baltic, Black Sea and Pacific Fleets. The ‘Lebed’ class is in service with the Baltic and Pacific Fleets for initial assault and logistic support duties; around 12 are in service with more being built. Both the ‘Gus’ and the ‘Lebed’ (in a preloaded state) can be used from the ‘lvan Rogov’ class LPD. The largest ACV in use is the ‘Aist’ class, of which some 13 are in service with the Baltic-and Black Sea Fleets. Additional units are under construction, together with the new ‘Tsaplya’ class which is the follow-on to the ‘Gus’ class. Some four ‘Tsaplya’ are currently in service.

In 1961, the Naval Infantry was re-formed and became a combat arm of the Soviet Naval Forces. Each Fleet was assigned a Naval Infantry unit of regiment (and later brigade) size. The Naval Infantry received amphibious versions of standard armoured fighting vehicles, including tanks used by the Soviet Army.

By 1989, the Naval Infantry numbered 18,000 troops, organised into the 55th Naval Infantry Division (ru) at Vladivostok and at least four independent brigades: the 61st Kirkenneskaya Brigade at Pechenga (Northern Fleet), 175th at Tumannyy in the North, 336th Guards Naval Infantry Brigade at Baltiysk (Baltic Fleet), and 810th at Sevastopol (Black Sea Fleet).

By the end of the Cold War, the Soviet Navy had over eighty landing ships, as well as two Ivan Rogov-class landing ships. The latter could transport one infantry battalion with 40 armoured vehicles and their landing craft. (One of the Rogov ships has since been retired.)

At 75 units, the Soviet Union had the world’s largest inventory of combat air-cushion assault craft. In addition, many of the 2,500 vessels of the Soviet merchant fleet (Morflot) could off-load weapons and supplies during amphibious landings.

On November 18, 1990, on the eve of the Paris Summit where the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty and the Vienna Document on Confidence and Security-Building Measures (CSBMs) were signed, Soviet data were presented under the so-called initial data exchange. This showed a rather sudden emergence of three so-called coastal defence divisions (including the 3rd at Klaipėda in the Baltic Military District, the 126th in the Odessa Military District and seemingly the 77th Guards Motor Rifle Division with the Northern Fleet), along with three artillery brigades/regiments, subordinate to the Soviet Navy, which had previously been unknown as such to NATO. Much of the equipment, which was commonly understood to be treaty limited (TLE) was declared to be part of the naval infantry. The Soviet argument was that the CFE excluded all naval forces, including its permanently land-based components. The Soviet Government eventually became convinced that its position could not be maintained.

A proclamation of the Soviet government on July 14, 1991, which was later adopted by its successor states, provided that all “treaty-limited equipment” (tanks, artillery and armoured vehicles) assigned to naval infantry or coastal defence forces, would count against the total treaty entitlement.

Modern

The Russian Naval Infantry have been gradually phasing out PT-76 amphibious tanks, and started to receive a number of T-80s. A full-strength Naval Infantry Brigade may have up to 70-80 Tanks. The APCs used by the Naval Infantry are either wheeled BTR-80s (in Assault Landing Battalions) or tracked MT-LBs (in Marine Battalions). While Naval Infantry units were supposed to receive BMP-3 IFVs, BMMP (bojevaya mashina morskoj pekhoti) fitted with the turret of the BMP-2, few have been delivered, and it is far from certain such re-arming will take place. BMP-3s may equip one company per Marine battalion.

According to Defense Ministry statement published by RIA Novosti (November 27, 2009), “All units of Russia’s naval infantry will be fully equipped with advanced weaponry by 2015.” Included in this upgrade would be T-90 tanks, BMP-3 IFVs, 2S31 120mm mortar/artillery tracks, wheeled BTR-82A armoured personnel carriers, air defense equipment and small arms. All Naval Infantry units were equipped with Ratnik infantry combat gear and all Northern Fleet naval infantry units were equipped with BTR-82A APCs as of November 2016. Naval Infantry and Navy units also receive new-technology binoculars. The Naval Infantry have started to receive a modernized version of Strelets reconnaissance, control and communications system and completed receiving D-10 parachutes. All Pacific Fleet and Caspian Flotilla naval infantry units were equipped with BTR-82A APCs as of May 2018.

In late February 2014, at least one Black Sea Fleet assigned unit (at company level) was apparently using Tigr armoured cars near Sevastopol during the 2014 Crimean crisis. During the crisis in March 2014 imagery emerged of some Naval Infantry personnel carrying what appeared to be the OTs-14-1A-04 7.62×39mm assault rifle with an under-barrel GP-30 40mm grenade launcher; a bullpup design normally associated with the Russian Airborne Troops, as well as Combat Engineering and Spetsnaz units.

The Soviet Union was the world’s largest developer of military hovercraft. Their designs range from the small Czilim class ACV, comparable to the SR.N6, to the monstrous Zubr class LCAC, the world’s largest hovercraft. The Soviet Union was also one of the first nations to use a hovercraft, the Bora, as a guided missile corvette, though this craft possessed rigid, non-inflatable sides. With the fall of the Soviet Union most Soviet military hovercraft fell into disuse and disrepair. Only recently has the modern Russian Navy begun building new classes of military hovercraft.

The Gus class was a military version of the Soviet Skate class 50 passenger hovercraft, and was designed to transport infantry and light equipment. Between 1969 and 1974 32 Gus class assault hovercraft were constructed. They were deployed to all Soviet naval fleets except the northern fleet, and were used extensively along the Amur River border with China. Three Gus class LCAC could be carried by the Ivan Rogov class assault transport. They were replaced by the larger Tsaplya class LCAC and more recently the smaller Czilim class ACV. All Guss class hovercraft were believed scrapped in the early 1990’s.

The Aist class was built to roughly the same size as the British SR.N4 commercial channel ferry. The Russian name for this class is “maly desantny korabl na vozdushnoy podushke” meaning “small air cushion vehicle”. The Aist class prototype was built in 1970 and the type entered production in Leningrad in 1975. It was produced there at a rate of about six every four years. By the early 1990s twenty to twenty four had been produced. They began to be withdrawn following the fall of the Soviet Union, and by 2004 only six remained, in two levels of configuration. A modified main engine intake was installed on all Russian Navy Aists in service with the Baltic Sea fleet. These intakes are believed to include special filters to reduce the ingestion of salt water, sand and dust particles into Aist’s engines and machinery, limiting the effects of salt water corrosion. The Aist have suffered from high cushion pressure, and produce exceptionally heavy cushion spray, especially at low speeds.

The Lebed class is the Russian Navy equivalent to the U.S. Navy LCAC, thought the U.S. version entered service seven years later. The Lebed class entered service in 1975, and by the early 1990’s twenty had been produced. The ship has a bow ramp with a gun on the starboard side and the bridge to port. The Lebed class can be carried by the “Ivan Rogov” class assault transport ships. The type began to be withdrawn following the fall of the Soviet Union, and by 2004 only three remained. 533 is in the Northern Fleet, while 639 and 640 took part in the Caspian Sea exercises of 2002.

The Zubr class (Project 1232.2, NATO reporting name “Pomornik”) is a class of air-cushioned landing craft (LCAC). This class of military hovercraft is, as of 2012, the world’s largest, with a standard full load displacement of 555 tons. The hovercraft is designed to sealift amphibious assault units (such as marines and tanks) from equipped/non-equipped vessels to non-equipped shores, as well as transport and plant naval mines.

There are ten Zubr-class hovercraft in service. There are two vessels in the Russian Navy and four with the Hellenic Navy. In 2009, China placed an order for four vessels from Ukraine [order transferred to Russia now] as part of a deal worth 315 million USD. Two updated versions of the vessels were built by Crimea’s Feodosia Shipbuilding Company, followed by two advanced models of the surface warship.

The purchase of HS Cephalonia (L 180) for the Hellenic Navy marked the first time a Soviet-designed naval craft had been built for a NATO member.

In June 2017, Russia announced it was restarting production of the Zubr-class craft. Representatives from the Russian shipbuilding industry soon after responded by stating production could not possibly resume in 2018 and would only be possible by 2019–2021, refuting the government position. Representatives cited the lack of availability of and inability to mass-produce components, notably gas turbine engines and reduction gears as the main obstacles.

NPO Saturn (ODK GT) and Turboros developed marine gas turbine M70FRU (D090), FR RU, M70FRU2 (DP/DM71) along M90FR, M75RU, E70RD8 and Elektrosila, AO Zvezda, Metallist, Samara and others developed reductors and gears. Fan and Turboprop provided by NK Kuznetsov, Aerosila, among others (perhaps some like Aviadvigatel, Salut, AMNTK, UMPO, KMPO, having high and long experience and production).

The Zubr-class landing craft has a cargo area of 400 square metres (4,300 sq ft) and a fuel capacity of 56 tons. It can carry three main battle tanks (up to 150 tonnes), or ten armoured vehicles with 140 troops (up to 131 tonnes), or 8 armoured personnel carriers of total mass up to 115 tonnes, or 8 amphibious tanks or up to 500 troops (with 360 troops in the cargo compartment).

At full displacement the ship is capable of negotiating up to 5-degree gradients on non-equipped shores and 1.6 m (5 ft 3 in)-high vertical walls. The Zubr class remains seaworthy in conditions up to Sea State 4. The vessel has a cruising speed of 30–40 knots (56–74 km/h; 35–46 mph).

Current Strength: 15 LCAC (incl 4 Pomornik, 3 Aist, 3 Tsaplya, 1 Lebed, 1 Utenok, 2 Orlan WIG and 1 Utka)

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