The Soviet Naval Infantry fought during the Second World War, but was then transferred from the navy to the coastal-defence forces before being disbanded in the mid-1950s. On 14 July 1958, however, the president of Lebanon requested urgent aid from France, the UK and the USA to counter a threat by the USSR to deploy Soviet ‘volunteers’ to support pro-Nasser rebels. The US Sixth Fleet was able to land three Marine battalions the very next day, and the threat from the Soviet ‘volunteers’ immediately disappeared. The Marine battalions withdrew on 21 August after what had been a classic exhibition of the value of sea power and amphibious capability.
The Soviet leadership, never slow to learn from such experiences, responded by re-establishing the Naval Infantry, which rapidly became a corps d’élite. in 1961 the Naval Infantry was resurrected; the Soviet Army came to recognize the utility of specialized marine forces for conducting amphibious landings, and each of the fleets was allotted such a unit. Essential to this new policy was the development of amphibious warfare ships, notably the new tank-landing ships (LSTs) of the Alligator class.
The Naval Infantry was divided among the four fleets. From 1961 the Black Sea, Northern and Baltic fleets were allotted a naval infantry regiment, while the Pacific Fleet deployed a brigade. US intelligence assessments from the 1980s indicate that these formations were larger by that time, with brigades deployed by three fleets, and a division with the Pacific fleet.
Each naval infantry regiment comprised three naval motor rifle battalions and a naval tank battalion. The motor rifle battalions each had about 33 BTR-60 amphibious armoured troop carriers, while the tank battalion had a mixed complement of 34 PT-76 amphibious tanks and ten T-55 or T-72 tanks. In battalions with the T-55 tank, three of the ten were often the TO-55 flamethrower type. A naval infantry brigade had two tank battalions and five battalions of naval motor rifle troops, making it nearly double the size of the 2,500-man regiments.
The naval infantry troops, like most Marine forces, were of a higher calibre than normal motor rifle troops of the Soviet Ground Forces. They were better trained than their Ground Forces counterparts, and an increasing percentage were parachute qualified and trained in helicopter-landing operations. There were apparently specialized teams in these regiments trained to employ atomic demolition munitions (ADMs). Soviet ADMs are believed to have been available in several types, weighing 32-36kg each, with an explosive force of 0.1-0.5 kilotons. They would have been used to attack major port or seaside facilities.
The Soviet Naval Infantry force was quite small. It was intended for use on a tactical level as a raiding force, and on an operational level as the spearhead of an amphibious-landing force. Once a beachhead had been seized, further troop landings would be provided by Ground Forces units. For this reason, the Soviet Naval Infantry numbered only about 18,000 troops – compared to the US Marine Corps, which was more than ten times its size. Likewise, the Soviet Fleet’s amphibious warfare ships were inferior in number and sophistication to those of the US Navy. The Soviet Naval Infantry also differed considerably from the US Marines in its approach to amphibious warfare. While the US Marines relied on specially designed armoured, amphibious tracked vehicles (amtracs) for landing operations, the Naval Infantry used the normal Ground Forces BTR-60, which had only marginal performance in the open water. This policy was due in no small measure to the difference in the experiences of the two forces. The US Marines had a tradition of preparing for hotly contested beach assaults, such as those of World War II in the Pacific. In contrast, Soviet wartime experience was mainly against targets without formidable beach defences. Current areas where the Naval Infantry might be used, such as the Danish or Norwegian coasts, were not heavily fortified.
Yet the Soviet Naval Infantry was ahead of the US Marines in the adaption of hovercraft for beach-landing operations. The Soviet fleet deployed over 60 hovercraft in classes, most notably 35 of the AIST class, which was capable of carrying four PT-76 tanks, two T-72 tanks or 220 troops; a fourth class of hovercraft, the Uterok, began entering service in the 1980s. Hovercraft have obvious attractions over armoured amphibious vehicles: against lightly defended beaches, they can quickly land an assault force, and return rapidly alongside the ships of the assault fleet to load up for renewed missions to the beachhead.
Judging by the Soviet Navy’s shipbuilding programmes of the 1980s, the Naval Infantry remained central to Soviet strategic thinking. The construction of further Ivan Rogov-class landing ships, for example, made the Naval Infantry more suitable for employment outside traditional Soviet waters. The Naval Infantry was no longer confined to LSTs alone: the Ivan Rogov class had habitable berths on board, thus permitting long voyages to more distant destinations.
The force expanded, peaking in size and effectiveness around 1988, when it was some 18,000 strong. It fielded:
• one division (7,000 men) of three infantry regiments, one tank regiment and one artillery regiment;
• three independent brigades (3,000 men), each of three infantry battalions, one tank battalion, one artillery battalion and one rocket-launcher battalion;
• four spetsnaz (special forces) brigades, each of three underwater battalions and one parachute battalion.
The Naval Infantry was transported by a growing number of amphibious-warfare ships. Largest were two Ivan Rogov-class dock landing ships, displacing 13,100 tonnes, which carried one Naval Infantry battalion and forty tracked or larger numbers of wheeled vehicles, plus helicopters and surface-effect ships. Fourteen Alligator LSTs were similar in many respects to the British Sir Galahad-class logistics landing ships (LSLs); with a large cargo capacity and bow and stern doors, these were intended for follow-up operations rather than the assault wave. Principal assault vessels were the thirty-seven Ropucha LSTs, which were built in Poland. Smallest were forty-five Polnocny-class small tank landing ships (LCTs), also built in Poland, which displaced some 1,000 tonnes and had a payload of six battle tanks.
The Naval Infantry seized on the surface-effect ship (SES) as an effective way of transporting marines ashore, and developed a number of types including the Pomornik, which could carry three battle tanks, and the Aist, which carried two. Under development at the end of the Cold War was the Orlan-class wing-in-ground-effect (WIG) vessel, designed to transport up to 150 troops at speeds of up to 300 knots. Both the SES and the WIG vessels were very fast compared with normal amphibious shipping, and were designed for short ‘hooks’ in support of a ground advance, or for lightning attacks on crucial targets in the Baltic and Black seas, both types of operation having precedents in the Soviet experience in the Second World War. These craft were another example of the flexibility of thought in the Soviet forces, which produced some novel solutions to the problems facing them.
The Soviet Naval Infantry (marines) numbered some 12,000 during this period, organized into regiments (one each stationed with the Northern, Baltic, Black Sea, and Pacific Fleets.) These forces were tailored for amphibious assault, but were largely directed to support the activities of the fleets to which they were assigned. However, as the Soviet-Syrian exercise in 1981 showed, they did have the capability to operate in a power projection role, as did the presence of Soviet amphibious forces in the Indian Ocean during this time. A total of 83 amphibious ships supported these forces. Supply could have been provided by the Soviet merchant marine, numbering some 1,723 ships by mid-1982.
In displaying American geopolitical will vis a` vis the USSR, the US Navy increasingly revealed the weaknesses of its Soviet counterpart. The Soviet Navy was never able to match the wide-ranging exercises of the Americans during the 1980s, as its Okean maneuvers in 1970 and 1975 had done. This is not to say that the Soviet Navy was idle. A major amphibious exercise was undertaken in July 1981 by Soviet and Syrian forces in the Eastern Mediterranean involving over 1,000 Soviet Naval Infantry. In September of that year, the Soviet Navy deployed 60 ships and landed more than 6,000 Naval Infantry and Army troops as part of Zapad ’81, a major combined-arms exercise conducted in the Baltic near the Polish border. The size of the exercise (the Soviets officially declared that some 100,000 personnel took part) and its political significance (it occurred three months before martial law was imposed in Poland as a result of the challenge of the Solidarity movement) meant that the Navy could still be seen as important to Soviet foreign policy. Nonetheless, when it is considered that the US Navy was able to participate in a plethora of combined-arms exercises that achieved such impressive results, Soviet activities are put into proper perspective.
The Marine Infantry (MI) is an Arm of the Coastal Troops of the Navy, designed and specially trained for combat operations in amphibious landings, as well as for defending naval bases, important parts of the coast and coastal facilities.
The marines in amphibious operations can operate on its own for capturing stationing sites of the enemy’s navy, ports, islands, non-integrated parts of the enemy’s coast. In the cases, when the landing basis is represented with the Land Force’s units, the marines land within advanced units to seize seashore points and parts and to support landing on them of the main landing forces.
The MI’s armaments: waterborne combat equipment, portable anti-tank and anti-aircraft systems and automatic small arms.
The Marine Infantry’s formations and subunits are landed on the beach from amphibious ships and boats, as well as from shipborne and shore-based helicopters with fire support of ships and aircraft. In some cases, the marines can surmount water spaces under their own power aboard amphibian vehicles (in most cases, armoured personnel carriers).
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 armored 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.