The Tanks Are Coming: Russia Introduces Tank Units to Airborne Forces and Naval Infantry

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 15 Issue: 51

Russian T-72 tank (Source: Sputnik News)

The Airborne Troops (Vozdushno-Desantnye Voyska—VDV) have been much less affected by the military reforms initiated in 2008 than any of the other services in the Russian Armed Forces. Unlike the Ground Forces, the VDV has pointedly retained its divisional structure, despite plans to move toward a brigade-centric model in both 2009 and 2012 (Vzglyad, May 27, 2009; April 9, 2012). That said, however, the VDV’s units have undergone certain notable changes regarding their number and organization, as well as concerning the provision of new equipment. For instance, in 2013, three air-assault brigades were resubordinated to the VDV (The 11th, 56th and the 83rd); and in 2014, the former 45th Spetsnaz (special forces) regiment and the 38th Signals regiment were reorganized into brigades under the airborne forces (, October 21, 2013; TASS, January 1, 2015;, June 4, 2015). Additionally, the VDV’s reconnaissance companies are being reorganized into intelligence battalions, with the introduction of electronic warfare (EW) and unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) companies. Originally meant to be completed by 2014, the deadline for this had since been pushed back to sometime in 2018 (, August 6, 2013; Krasnaya Zvezda, March 7, 2018).

Also of interest has been the introduction of new equipment to VDV units: first and foremost the BMD-4M amphibious infantry fighting vehicle and the BTR-MDM Rakushka armored personnel carrier, both of which began arriving in 2015. So far, five battalion sets, 31 BMD-4Ms and 16 BTR-MDMs, have been delivered (, February 2). In 2016, the 106th Airborne Division received two sets, followed by two sets to the 31st Air Assault Brigade in 2017, and one set for the 76th Air Assault Division in February 2018 (, February 7).

Additionally, the Russian defense ministry is introducing T-72B3 tanks to six airborne companies. In July 2015, the then-commander of the VDV, Colonel General Vladimir Shamanov, said the equipping process would be complete before the end of that year (RT, July 29, 2015). And indeed, his statement appeared to be supported by an Estonian source from early 2016, which claimed that the Russian 76th Air Assault Division had received 10–12 T-72s. (, February 2, 2016). The six VDV tank companies will reportedly be expanded into battalions by the end of 2018 (Vzglyad, May 24, 2016;, August 1, 2016). Since that announcement in 2016, however, the further expansion of the tank companies into battalions has obviously met with financial difficulties (Krasnaya Zvezda, August 1, 2017;, July 31, 2017; TASS, May 24, 2016). So far, only three such battalions have been filled out, and all in 2018: one tank battalion each in the 7th and 76th air-assault divisions, respectively, and one within one of the VDV’s air-assault brigades (TASS, July 31, 2017).

Reportedly, earlier planning foresaw the use of the 2S25 Sprut-SD self-propelled tank destroyer by the VDV tank battalions. But that idea has apparently since being shelved because the Sprut-SD was found to be too lightly armored. The tank destroyer has, therefore, been replaced by the T-72B3. Of the six VDV tank companies formed in 2016, one was equipped with Sprut-SDs in order to test them against other armored vehicle options. The outcome most likely decided the fate of the Sprut-SD (Izvestia, March 22, 2018). A final decision with regard to the introduction of tank battalions into the Airborne Troops has clearly not been taken yet. Presently, two tank battalions are being organized and tested, and the outcome of those trials will decide whether the VDV’s top brass goes through with the plan. That said, it is worth pointing out that the introduction of tanks is not a wholly new phenomenon within Russia’s airborne forces. They appeared already in the 1930s as well as Moscow’s more recent wars in Afghanistan and Chechnya (, accessed April 3).

Besides the VDV, Naval Infantry units are also set to receive tanks. According to the Russian newspaper Izvestia, a tank battalion equipped with T-72B3s and T-80BVs will be organized in each naval infantry brigade (Izvestia, March 22, 2017;, March 23, 2017). In total, Naval Infantry will receive 150 of these machines. The introduction of tank battalions appears driven by a perceived need for more firepower, which was demonstrated during an exercise in Kamchatka last year. The drills, held around October 2017, involved the 40th Naval Infantry Brigade, which included a tank company equipped with T-80BVs (Krasnaya Zvezda, December 3, 2017). The use of tanks by Russian naval infantry units is also not entirely novel. During the Soviet era, tank battalions were, indeed, part of Naval Infantry brigades, but these heavy armored battalions were disbanded following the collapse of the Soviet Union. By 2009, however, the Russian Navy stated that the service’s infantry forces would receive T-90s within the framework of the armament program for 2007–2015 (, October 28, 2013). For not entirely clear reasons, this never happened. But the latest announcement could be part of a belated response to the worries expressed by members of the State Duma in 2013, when Russian parliamentarians raised the material status of Naval Infantry forces, including their lack of tanks (Izvestia, October 28, 2013).

The introduction (or reintroduction) of tanks in the Airborne Troops and Naval Infantry undoubtedly increases these services’ firepower and presents new challenges for their adversaries. At the same time, it creates a different challenge for these services: how to bring the tanks to the battlefield? Importantly, their logistical options are not unlimited. T-72B3s cannot be airdropped and are transportable by air only aboard An-124 Ruslan strategic airlift jets, of which Russia has a limited number. Meanwhile, Russian landing ships are old and not particularly numerous either, with few new vessels expected to enter service in the near future. Furthermore the number of tanks intended for the VDV and Naval Infantry is roughly equal to the number of tanks Russia is able to modernize in one year—about 20 tanks per month (, June 22, 2016). This fact could, thus, have an impact on the rate at which the Ground Forces will be equipped with modernized tanks. Nevertheless, the introduction of tanks underscores the important role airborne and naval infantry units clearly play as part of Russia’s rapid reaction forces. Though it remains to be seen if, when, and to what extent heavy armor is actually introduced in their divisions and brigades.