Russia’s ‘Black Berets’—From Tactical Landings to an Expeditionary Force
Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 161
Like all other branches of the Russian Armed Forces, the Naval Infantry, popularly called the “Black Berets,” suffered from the effects of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Starting in the 1990s, units were disbanded, the number of their exercises declined, and the introduction of new equipment essentially ceased. Additionally, their firepower was reduced by removing tanks from the force’s table of organization and equipment (TOE). The initiation of drastic military reforms in 2008 also ended up negatively affecting the branch, with the 55th Naval Infantry Division downgraded in 2009 to the 155th Brigade (Vk.com, July 19, 2016; Army-news.ru, November 6, 2018).
All in all, by 2010, the once-elite force had been reduced to a shadow of its former self. This was likely why the beleaguered status of the Black Berets was highlighted during an October 2013 meeting of the Russian state’s Military-Industrial Committee, in Kaliningrad Oblast. The participants deplored the funding levels allocated to the Naval Infantry as well as its lack of amphibious tanks and obsolete combat vehicles. As a result of the discussions, the Committee produced a report and a letter addressed to the minister of defense, asking him to pay attention to the status of the equipment of Russia’s coastal defense forces (Vpk.name, November 11, 2013). Whether or not Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu actually took the letter to heart, apparently the situation around the Naval Infantry began to change for the better starting in 2014, when the 61st Naval Infantry Regiment was upgraded to a full brigade with the addition of a battalion, a sniper company and logistics units (Vesti, November 28, 2014). In 2018, a new Naval Infantry regiment was also added to the 177th Regiment, based in Kaspiysk, Dagestan (Bmpd.livejournal.com, November 23, 2018).
Russia’s Naval Infantry is finally receiving new equipment again. As of 2017, its old combat vehicles are being replaced with BTR-80As. Moreover, the number of exercises during that same year increased by 3.5 times compared with 2012 (Ekho Moskvy, November 25, 2017). Tanks will also be reintroduced into this branch. In 2018, the Ministry of Defense decided to add a tank battalion equipped with T-72B3s or T-80BVs to each Naval Infantry brigade (Izvestia, March 21, 2018; Topwar.ru, March 23, 2017). The T-80BVs would equip the 61st and the 40th brigades, both garrisoned and intended for use in the Artic, where this main battle tank model is a better option than the T-72B3 due to its gas turbine engine (Izvestia, March 21, 2018). Of interest in this context is an interview from late 2017 with the then-commander of Russian forces in Kamchatka, two-star Admiral Sergei Lipilin. Specifically, he mentioned that the 40th Naval Infantry Brigade had already received T-80BV tanks (https://bmpd, December 5, 2017), thus suggesting that the decision to introduce tank battalions into Naval Infantry units must have been taken earlier than 2018. Since then, the tanks have continued to arrive: in addition to the 40th Naval Infantry Brigade, T-80s are also equipping the 61st and the 155th brigades (Bmpd.livejournal.com, September 11, 2019; Arms-expo.ru, May 18, 2018).
In hindsight, the upgrading of the 61st Naval Infantry Brigade in 2014 may have been an experiment and a forerunner of what Izvestia revealed this past October. According to the article in question, all Naval Infantry brigades will be radically strengthened with two additional Naval Infantry battalions, one tank battalion, one reconnaissance battalion, as well as a sniper and an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) company (Izvestia, October 22, 2019). In this context, the Izvestia report also mentions dedicated aviation assets. This restructuring of the Naval Infantry brigades, said to be a result of Russia’s experience in Syria, apparently aims to turn the Black Berets into a true expeditionary force. In other words, these redesigned units should be able to undertake both military and political tasks—for example peace keeping or evacuating Russian citizens—anywhere in the world. This process of restructuring is already also having an impact on the training of Naval Infantry officers, which, as of 2019, is being prolonged from four to five years (Izvestia, October 19).
What is taking place in the Naval Infantry shows striking similarities with what the Russian top brass is attempting in the Airborne Forces (Vozdushno-Desantnye Voyska—VDV). Namely, Russia has also introduced tanks and UAV units to the VDV; and it reorganized the 31st Air Assault Brigade into an airmobile one, with two of its battalions transported via helicopter (Rossyiskaya Gazeta, April 16; Agitpro.su, August 2). Indeed, the two branches are increasingly becoming quite similar in terms of organization at the brigade level, with the main difference now the color of their berets—light blue instead of black.
It remains unknown when the above-described reorganization of the Naval Infantry brigades is completed, but most likely it will not be in the near term. It is also an open question whether the task can even be accomplished fully given how much additional manpower (contract soldiers), equipment and logistics will be required. Whenever Russia’s Naval Infantry has had to compete with other branches of service for new equipment or recruitment of contract soldiers, the Black Berets never met the targets set for them by the defense ministry. The reorganization of the Naval Infantry and what is simultaneously taking place in the Airborne Forces will give Russia one airborne and one seaborne expeditionary force and, thus, more potent rapid reaction capabilities. However, both of these branches still lack the means of transportation, which is taking time to remedy. Only four new Ivan Gren–class landing ships are presently planned for the Naval Infantry, with the final two in the series not expected to enter service until 2023 and 2024, respectively (Bmpd.livejournal.com, April 24). Whether a Russian equivalent of the French Mistral-class amphibious helicopter-carrier assault ship (which Moscow unsuccessfully attempted to purchase in 2015) can be built is uncertain; but the media recently mentioned the possibility that two such ships would be built at a yard in Crimea (Izvestia, September 16, 2019). A month later, Russian outlets confusingly referred to a shipyard in Tatarstan, thus further clouding the issue (Vpk.name, November 4).
Besides their transformation into expeditionary forces, there is another important implications of the upgrading of Naval Infantry brigades. Their increased capability means Russia will have a more potent force to use for amphibious landings in, for example, the Baltic Sea or the Arctic Ocean. As such, the implementation of changes in the Naval Infantry brigades’ TOE, such as the renewal of the landing fleet, deserves much closer examination.