Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
High-desert Ambush: Hard Lessons Learned the Hard Way
Foreign Military Studies Office, Fort Leavenworth, KS.
|This article was originally serialized in
Red Thrust Star
July and October 1995
Kandahar province (Map 1) by Major V. I. Pavlenko6
FRUNZE COMMENTARY: The success of this combat was determined by the rapid decision to employ the ambush; the short time taken to organize the action; the rapid, concealed movement into the ambush site; the initiative and bravery displayed by all commanders, the uninterrupted control of the subunits and their fires, and the support and continual coordination with the subunits which were carrying out the block and sweep of the village.
AUTHOR'S COMMENTARY: This particular ambush seems to set the conditions for fratricide. Forces on low ground are positioned across from forces on high ground. The forces on the high ground fired through the convoy and maybe into friendly forces. The account states that the mujahideen return-fire was wild and disorganized, yet the Soviets lost one killed and five wounded. Some of these Soviet casualties were probably from fratricide. Further, if the mujahideen had entered the ambush at night, the force on the low ground would have fired into the force on the high ground, since night firing is inevitably high unless bars and elevation blocks are constructed at each firing position. These field firing aids are hard to put in at night.
(Map 2) by LTC V. P. Gladishev7
FRUNZE COMMENTARY: The successful accomplishment of all these ambushes was due to the careful selection of the personnel for the mission, the well-thought-out training, the clearly defined duties during the organization of the ambushes, the detailed coordination between the subgroups, the superb physical conditioning of the troopers and the use of specialized clothing and shoes.
AUTHOR'S COMMENTARY: The Soviets did not stress unit integrity to the same degree as in the west. Time and again, scratch units were assembled without any apparent regard for maintaining unit integrity and habitual relationships. This ambush group was apparently drawn from throughout the battalion.
(Map 3) by Major V. N. Popov8
FRUNZE COMMENTARY: The positive points of this example are the training given to the soldiers on a site similar to the actual site, but at a place removed from enemy observation, the development of variants of the ambush plan for the ambush party, and the undetected movement of the subunit to the ambush site. On the other hand, they did not develop a variant plan to deal with a possible larger force than they expected. Further, it is not always a good idea to demand that your enemy surrender. Surprise, sudden, close-range fire demoralizes an enemy and significantly lessens your own casualties.
AUTHOR'S COMMENTARY: This is a successful ambush by a regular motorized rifle force. But, true to form, the platoon employed is from the 7th MRC--which has a secondary reconnaissance mission. The platoon's mission was to kill or capture the enemy force. Why they would challenge the enemy and demand their surrender is puzzling. Their specific mission did not require prisoners, and yet, if they wanted prisoners, combat experience shows that there are usually prisoners (wounded or otherwise) left at the end of any ambush. There seems to be no reason to challenge the enemy and lose surprise. To challenge a force that is roughly equal in size seems foolhardy and a risk to your own force.
in the Loy-Karez region (Map 4) by Major A. V. Van'yants10
FRUNZE COMMENTARY: The ambush was successful for the following reasons: the thorough reconnaissance of the enemy forces and terrain; the precise planning of the group's actions; the skillful siting of the company in ambush using the terrain features; the uninterrupted and resolute control of the subunits during the fight; and the support of helicopter gunships.
AUTHOR'S COMMENTARY: The Soviet Army seldom left a clean bivouac area or fighting position. They dug field latrines, but the troops were as likely to defecate and urinate around their area as to use the latrines. Trash was strewn everywhere. Apparently this sloppiness extended to their ambush sites and alerted the mujahideen to their presence. In this case, however, there apparently was not enough trash to reveal the true size of the ambush force and the company commander turned this to his advantage.
(Map 5) by Major A. A. Tolkachev11
FRUNZE COMMENTARY: The airborne subunit enjoyed success as a result of the correct, skillful organization of the ambush; the well-constructed and camouflaged firing positions; the skillful employment of mines; the use of close fire; and the control of night fire by an officer using illumination flares and tracer ammunition.
AUTHOR'S COMMENTARY: The force went out for seven days with rations for ten. They stayed in the same spot with the same routine for four days before they had contact. Local inhabitants had been through the area, and although the commander was sure that they had not been detected, that possibility existed. Is it a good idea to remain in the same position for so long, or is this a good way to set up a force for counter-ambush?
northwest of Surubi (Map 6) by Major I. V. Solonin15
FRUNZE COMMENTARY: This combat experience shows that conducting a successful ambush is very hard work. Up to 90% of our ambushes were without result. There were several reasons for this. First, our units did not always get to the ambush site undetected. Second, the high command issued regulations on ambushes which specified that no fewer than 25 men had to go on every ambush and that every ambush must contain heavy crew-served weapons. These precautions were not always justified. The composition of every ambush party depended on the actual situation. Third, regulations require an inordinate number of radio reports--departure for the ambush site, arrival at the ambush site, readiness of the ambush site for battle, hourly radio checks and the return of the subunit. As a result, the enemy discovered our intentions and did not move through these areas during the time our ambushes were out. Equipment for ambush was a particular problem. Practically all the officers and soldiers equipment and uniforms were unsatisfactory in that they were uncomfortable and inhibited movement. Army boots are totally unsuited for ambushes. They are uncomfortable and too heavy for mountain climbing and the mujahideen could readily determine our ambush sites from our boot tracks.
AUTHOR'S COMMENTARY: The Soviets and Afghan government forces apparently did little to contest the mujahideen ownership of the night. Night patrols and ambushes were a singular planned event, not a routine mission. Battalions and companies moved into their bunkers at their base camps at night for protection from mujahideen mortar and rocket attacks. Consequently, mujahideen supply caravans routinely passed by base camps unmolested. Squad-sized ambushes were prohibited by 40th Army regulations, yet a platoon-sized ambush is frequently too cumbersome. The Soviets did not allow squad-sized ambushes in Afghanistan since their NCOs were not professional and perhaps not trusted. Yet, squad-sized ambushes, as well as platoon-sized ambushes, were part of the training program for Soviet forces not deployed in Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, two officers usually accompanied every ambush. This successful ambush still did not accomplish its mission--the interception of supply caravans from Pakistan.
in the area of Khanabad (Map 7) by LTC A. M. Tangaev17
FRUNZE COMMENTARY: The success of this ambush was due to the following factors: the use of intelligence generated by radio-intercept; the undetected deployment to the ambush site; the well-organized ambush on unfamiliar ground; the excellent employment of OPs, a support group, and a snatch group; the use of surprise; and the excellent combat training of the personnel. Further examination of the vignette, however, shows that the company commander could not adjust mortar fire effectively.
AUTHOR'S COMMENTARY: This is the second example of the use of a bronegruppa in an ambush. In the first example (vignette 3), the bronegruppa sneaks the ambush party closer to the ambush site. Then, the rest of the company mounts these vehicles. Later, when the Soviets spring the ambush, this mounted company drives to the ambush site to support by fire and cut off the enemy escape. In this vignette, the bronegruppa provides fire support from the same direction as the ambush party and provides a rapid, relatively safe exit for the ambush party. Since ambush parties are frequently counter-ambushed on their way back to base camp, this appears to be a reasonable solution.
northwest of Jalalabad (Map 8) by Major V. P. Podvorniy19
FRUNZE COMMENTARY: It proved advantageous, in this situation, to have a motorized rifle company with four motorized rifle platoons.20 The company was able to cover three possible caravan routes simultaneously. After they destroyed a caravan on one route, they did not abandon their positions, but continued to perform their mission. As a result, the company destroyed yet another caravan on another route that same night. It follows that one should note the skillful organization of troop control by the company commander.
AUTHOR'S COMMENTARY: Poor artillery adjustment by company-grade officers was a constant problem in Afghanistan. They solved this problem by putting Forward Observers (FOs)down to company and platoon level, but this was only a temporary answer. This suggests a training deficiency for what should be a universal skill for professionals.
(Map 9) by Major V. A. Stolbinskiy21
FRUNZE COMMENTARY: In this vignette, special attention should be given to how the commander got his platoon into the area from which to move out on his ambush. This area was constantly observed by the enemy, so he deceived the enemy by smuggling his platoon into the security outpost, while members of a different subunit rode back on his BTRs to his base camp. The platoon moved on foot to the ambush site under the cover of darkness. This is also a fine example of excellent coordination between lookouts, the snatch group and the fire support group. Finally, the brave, daring and decisive actions during the assault need to be noted.
AUTHOR'S COMMENTARY: This is an interesting approach, but putting both officers in the snatch group is questionable. Granted that recon troops are better trained and motivated than the average, but these are conscript soldiers and NCOs. Who would take command and get the platoon out if the snatch group were destroyed? The support group was 800 meters from the snatch group. That is a long way to support and cover, particularly if it had to be done at night.
(Map 10) by Major V. N. Syemin23
FRUNZE COMMENTARY: This vignette shows the use of artillery to provide battlefield illumination for an ambush. Uninterrupted communication and coordination with the artillery battalion insured the success of the subunits in the ambush. The company commander correctly determined the probable enemy route of withdrawal and selected this site to emplace his minefield.
AUTHOR'S COMMENTARY: Again, reconnaissance forces are used for combat and not reconnaissance. Reconnaissance seems to be a secondary function. Yet, the lack of good tactical reconnaissance seems to have been a weakness of Soviet forces in Afghanistan. Once again, the Soviets use the bronegruppa for extrication of the force. The ambush party used a good covered approach through the woods and gully to the ambush site. The question is why the ambush site was located where it was, if the mujahideen had three possible routes in the area and the route junction was near at hand. Why didn't the commander put the ambush there, or at least put some observers at the junction and plan some RDM fires on the site? The Soviets established ambush positions on both sides of the woodline. This seems like a good idea. Were all positions fully manned or were they merely sited so that forces could shift between them?
(Map 11) by LTC V. I. Korotkikh24
FRUNZE COMMENTARY: In this example, the bravery and initiative displayed by the battalion commander should be noted. He skillfully evaluated the situation, made the decision to change ambush sites, and in a short time organized it in another area. He constituted a special illumination group to provide light so that aimed fire could be placed on the enemy at night.
AUTHOR'S COMMENTARY: The commander took both a surgeon and a medical assistant along on the ambush. The Soviets rediscovered that slight wounds at high altitude can rapidly turn fatal. Medical evacuation by helicopters in these areas was problematic and often wounded soldiers had to be carried to lower altitudes for MEDEVAC helicopters to pick them up. Wounded soldiers sometimes could not survive the hours needed to reach treatment centers.
1. For information on the tank ambush, see the author's "Absorbing the Initial Attack: The Security Zone in the Contemporary Russian View of Defense", Ft. Leavenworth: FMSO, 1992, Annex B. The Soviets also had air ambushes and air-defense ambushes, but these are not included in this study.BACK
3. For information on the Soviet struggle for their Afghanistan LOC, see the author's "Road Warriors of the Hindu Kush", Ft. Leavenworth: FMSO, 1995 and "Convoy Escort in Guerrilla Country", The Military Police Journal, Summer and Fall 1995.BACK
4. Spetsnaz are "forces of special designation" who are highly-trained, physically-hardened, long-range reconnaissance soldiers. The Soviets deployed eight battalions of these soldiers in Afghanistan. Many of their functions are similar to western commandos and special forces.BACK
5. These vignettes are from Chapter 6 of the author's The Bear Went Over the Mountain: Soviet Tactics and Tactical Lessons Learned During Their War in Afghanistan which is scheduled for publication by the National Defense University Press in 1995.BACK
6. V. I. Pavlenko served in the Soviet Forces in Afghanistan from 1980 through 1982 as a motorized rifle company commander in the 70th Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade. He was awarded the medal "For Bravery"--a medal reserved for enlisted men and junior lieutenants.BACK
7. V. P. Gladishev served in the Soviet Forces in Afghanistan from February 1982 through June 1984. He served as the deputy commander and then the commander of an airborne battalion in the 103rd Airborne Division. He was awarded the "Order of the Red Star".BACK
8. V. N. Popov served in the 3rd Motorized Rifle Battalion, 122nd Motorized Rifle Regiment, 201st Motorized Rifle Division from February 1984 through March 1986 as the assistant to the chief of staff of a motorized rifle battalion.BACK
9. The bronegruppa (armored group)is a temporary grouping of 4-8 tanks, BMPs or BTRs-or any combination of such vehicles. The BMPs (tracked combat vehicles) or BTRs(wheeled combat vehicles) are deployed without their normally assigned infantry squad on board and fight away from their dismounted troops. The grouping has a significant direct-fire capability and serves as a maneuver reserve.BACK
10. A. V. Van'yants served in the 70th Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade from 1982 to 1984 as a platoon leader and company commander. He had a second tour in Afghanistan from 1987 to 1988 as a battalion chief of staff. He was awarded the "Order of the Red Star".BACK
13. The MON (minna oskolochnaya napravlenogo deistvie)series of mines are directional, anti-personnel mines similar to the U.S. claymore mine. They can be command detonated or rigged for trip-wire detonation.BACK
17. A. M. Tangaev served in the 201st Motorized Rifle Division from 1985 to 1987 as the Senior Assistant to the Chief of Division Reconnaissance. He was decorated with the "Order of the Red Star", the order "For Service to the Fatherland in the Armed Forces" Third Class, and the Republic of Afghanistan's "Order of the Star" Second Class.BACK
19. V. P. Podvorniy served in the 2nd MRB of the 66th Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade from March 1985 through March 1986 as the Senior Assistant to the Chief of the Operations Section of a separate motorized rifle battalion. He was awarded the "Order of the Red Star". An operations section at battalion level is remarkable and must have been a particular feature of this battalion which was garrisoned in Asadabad, Kunar province some 70 kilometers from the brigade headquarters in Jalalabad, Nangahar province.BACK
20. Usually a MRC has three MRPs. During the first half of the 1980s, a MRC had three MRPs and a machine gun/anti-tank platoon in BTR-mounted units or three MRPs and a machine gun/automatic grenade-launcher platoon in BMP-mounted units. This is not the case here. A separate motorized rifle battalion had four MRPs per MRC as well as other reinforcements.BACK
21. V. A. Stolbinskiy served in the 70th Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade from March 1985 through May 1987 as the commander of an air assault company. He was awarded the "Order of the Red Banner" twice.BACK
25. N. Utkin, "Zasady v sovremennykh usloviyakh" [Ambushes in modern conditions], Voyennyy vestnik [Military herald], August 1993, 20-23. Most of the data for the contemporary issues section is taken from this article.BACK