Map from Strategic Geography: NATO, the Warsaw Pact, and the Superpowers; by Hugh Faringdon; 1989
NON-SOVIET WARSAW PACT ARMIES
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.
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.
WARSAW PACT PARACHUTE FORCES
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, 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.