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Soviet Occupation, 1982-89

By mid-January 1980, the entry of the main forces of the Soviet 40th Army into the country, which received the official name "Limited contingent of Soviet troops in Afghanistan" (OKSV), was completed. Three motorized rifle units and one airborne division, a separate airborne assault brigade, a separate motorized-track and a separate parachute paratroop regiments were introduced into the territory of the DRA. In the future, the combat strength and strength of the OKSV varied from year to year. In the first half of 1980, the grouping was reinforced by another motorized rifle division and two separate regiments. Its total number at that time was 81,800 people (of which 79.8 thousand military personnel). According to the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation, the highest number of OKSV reached in 1985 (108,800, including 106,000 military personnel).

The overall management of the OKSV activity was carried out by the operational group of the USSR Ministry of Defense (in 1979 it was headed by Marshal of the Soviet Union Sergey Sokolov) and representatives of the General Staff of the USSR Armed Forces. In 1984, the head of the General Staff, Army General Valentin Varennikov, took over the leadership of the task force. The direct control of OKSV was carried out by the commander of the 40th Army as authorized by the USSR Government for the affairs of the Soviet troops in Afghanistan.

In January 1980, OKSV units secured the main Afghan highways, airfields, and facilities on which Soviet specialists worked. Training courses for junior officers and specialists for the DRA armed forces were organized. Despite the ban on engaging in hostilities, as early as the beginning of January 1980, several OKSV units were involved in suppressing the anti-government insurgency of the 4th artillery regiment of the DRA army in the Nakhrin district.

In February 1980, mojaheds attacked mechanized columns and garrisons of Soviet troops, at the end of the month mass anti-government demonstrations took place in Kabul, the Soviet embassy was shot at. After that, the leadership of the USSR decided to start active military operations with the DRA army to defeat the armed opposition.

According to estimates by the USSR Ministry of Defense, in different years, the number of militants who opposed Soviet and Afghan government forces in Afghanistan varied from 47,000 to 173,000 people.

From March 1980, Soviet troops carried out military operations in the country, a single plan of which was approved by the USSR Ministry of Defense. At the same time, with the help of Soviet military specialists, the reorganization and strengthening of the Afghan armed forces was carried out. Later, in April 1985, OKSV switched from active large-scale hostilities to supporting the operations of the Afghan government forces with aviation, artillery and, if necessary, demining units. Soviet special forces continued to fight the opposition caravans.

In 1985, there was a real concern that the [mujahideen] were losing, that they were sort of diminishing, falling apart. Losses were high and their impact on the Soviets was not great, Morton Abramowitz, a director of the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research in the 1980s, said in 1997.

In total, in 1979-1989, 416 large-scale operations were carried out to crush highly dangerous groups of the Mujahideen and their large bases. These include the so-called Panjer operations against militants by field commander Ahmad Shah Massoud in Panjer Gorge (19801985), the Kunar operation in areas bordering Pakistan (1985), the operation to defeat the base area of Jawar (1986), Operation Highway The release of the city of Khost (1987-1988) and others.

Soviet troops also almost continuously participated in unscheduled hostilities against the detected units of Islamic militants. In the years 1984-1987, a plan of activities "Curtain" operated on the Pakistan-Afghan and Iranian-Afghan borders, within which the OCRF soldiers arranged daily 30-40 ambushes against Mujahideen caravans. In the spring of 1987, the Barrier system was introduced - the eastern and south-eastern parts of the DRA were blocked with ambushes and units that guarded road junctions and controlled mountain gorges from the heights.

However, after the return of Soviet and Afghan government forces to the points of deployment, the Mujahideen often regained control over the territory they had previously lost. The armed Islamic opposition did not have enough forces to overthrow the PDPA regime, At the same time, even with the assistance of OXW, government troops could not completely eliminate the Mujahideen troops supported by the United States and Arab countries. In general, the war showed that Soviet troops could not effectively fight against the enemy, relying on guerrilla tactics.

A major principle of Soviet military doctrine was the use of heavy air offensives to stun and disorganize resistance operations. In Afghanistan this mainly took the form of helicopter assault, although there, as elsewhere, the Soviet Army depended on the helicopters of the Soviet Air Force. Normally these Frontal Aviation units were attached either to a front level army command or, as independent mixed=helicopter squadrons, to selected motorized and tank divisions. The extent to which Soviet Frontal Aviation forces in Afghanistan were operationally integrated with the Afghan air force was unknown. The overall force disposition appeared to be under Soviet command.


Estimates of the number of Soviet helicopters in Afghanistan ranged from 500 to 650, and, of these, it was estimated that up to 250 were the Mi-24 Hind gunship - the signature helicopter of Afghanistan, as the Huey was the signature helicopter of Vietnam. The Hind, with up to 192 unguided rockets under its stub wings and machine guns or cannon in the nose turret, had room for eight to 12 soldiers and their equipment. The Hind was used not only for search and destroy missions but also for close air support, assaults (sometimes along with fixed wing aircraft) on villages, and armed reconnaissance missions against guerrillas.

Hind helicopters had been deployed in Afghanistan since before the 1979 invasion; but Soviet tactics in using them changed over time. Up to as late as 1985 several Hind helicopters would be used in a circular pattern to engage guerrillas directly, attacking in a dive from 1,000 meters with 57mm rockets and with cluster and high explosive 250 kilogram bombs. In 1985, with the advent of American Stinger missiles, Soviet use of Hinds began to change somewhat, and a wider variety of tactics began to be employed: using helicopters (either Hinds or Mi 8 Hips) as scouts; running in from 7,000 to 8,000 meters away, rising to 100 meters and drawing fire, and having other aircraft waiting behind a ridge to attack whomever opened fire; and using helicopters in mass formations.

The Hip is armed with 57mm rocket pods or (in the Hip E version) with a single barrel 12.7rnm gun. The drawbacks of the Hip, however, are the exposed fuel system, the relatively short rotor life (1,500 hours), and the time required for an engine change.

Two other Soviet helicopters used in combat in Afghanistan were the Mi 4 Hound and the Mi 6 Hook. The Hound was used in what appeared to be a forward air-control role for ground based artillery attacks. It was also deployed in conjunction with the Hind, usually to commence an operation and then to circle while the Hinds attack, dropping heat decoys to ward off hits by hand held SA 7 heat-seeking missiles. The big Mi 6 Hook, which can hold up to 70 soldiers and their combat equipment and which has a range of 370 kilometers, was attached principally to the 181st Independent Helicopter Regiment in Jalalabad and to the 280th Independent Helicopter Regiment in Qandahar and Shindand.

Fighter Bombers

Soviet fighter bombers were deployed primarily for air to ground assault in Afghanistan. They were used in terror bombing, scorched earth bombing, and carpet bombing. Fighter bombers were deployed against guerrillas and against settlements and cities; for example, half of thw city of Herat was reportedly destroyed in a 1983 assault.

Early in the war the Soviets relied primarily on the MiG-21 Fishbed, with generally poor results. The MiG 21 is armed with one twin barrel 23mm gun (with 200 rounds of ammunition in a belly ,pack), four 57mm rocket packs, two 500 kilogram bombs, and two 250 kilogram bombs or four 240mm air-to surface rockets. The MiG-21 proved ineffective in combat in Afghanistan for several reasons: rockets were often fired from as far as 2,000 meters, which rendered them inaccurate; many bombs failed to explode on impact; the aircraft was best suited for air to ground combat situations; in a guerrilla war the early warning provided by fighter bomber attack tended to negate the effects of the strike; and the mountainous terrain where guerrilla resistance was concentrated has made air-to ground fire from fixed wing aircraft less effective, and the high altitudes, mountain peaks, and narrow valleys have made movement difficult for most fixed wing aircraft.

Because of the poor performance of the MiG 21 Fishbed, the Soviets introduced the other fixed wing aircraft, the Su-25 Frogfoot and the Tu-16 Badger. The Frogfoot is a close support aircraft designed for the same uses as the American made A-10. Carrying up to 4,500 kilograms of ordnance and used primarily to hit point targets in difficult terrain, the Frogfoot operated in loose pairs in combat in Afghanistan: At least one squadron of Frogfoot aircraft operated from Bagrami Air Base.

The other fixed wing aircraft introduced by the Soviets was the Tu-16 Badger, a medium range bomber that can carry up to 8,950 kilograms of ordnance and fly more than 12,000 meters above sea level. Before April 1984 Badger units were deployed on the Soviet border. The Badgers were first used in the bombing campaign against the city of Herat, and in April 1984 they were used for high altitude carpet bombing of guerrilla bases in the Panjsher Valley, during which a reported 36 Badgers were used and 30 to 40 strikes made per day.

Although there appeared to be little threat to Soviet bombers because their guerrilla adversaries had no weapons that could reach fighter bomber altitude, the Soviets appeared to remain worried about anti-aircraft fire, as manifested in their bombing tactics. Nelson, observing five Soviet air attacks; noticed that bombs were dropped from too high an altitude and rockets fired from too far away, with visibly inaccurate results. Thus the Soviets appeared to be increasingly dependent on helicopter forces as a vital part of their overall strategy in Afghanistan.

Air Bases

As of mid 1985 seven air bases had been built or significantly improved by the Soviets: Herat, Shindand, Farah, Qandahar, Kabul International Airport, Bagrami, and Jalalabad. Airfields at Mazar a Sharif, Konduz, Ghazni, and Pol a Charkhi also were improved somewhat. All were turned into all weather, jet air bases (although: Jalalabad continued to be principally for helicopters). The two most important air bases, where the sensitive technical support and maintenance capabilities were located, were at Bagrami and Shindand the former serving as the supreme local headquarters for the entire Soviet military operation in Afghanistan. Most military aircraft were not permanently based at any one field, for maintenance and support were concentrated at these two fields. No Afghans were permitted on the Shindand Air Base.

Chemical Warfare

The Soviet Union was believed to have an 80,000 man chemical and biological warfare establishment with specialist chemical defense units attached to divisions, battalions, and companies. Although the Soviets described the main role of these forces as defensive, there were many and varied reports of chemical weapon attacks by Soviet troops against guerrilla forces in Afghanistan. The United States Department of State reported that chemical bombs supplied by the Soviet Union were used against guerrillas in November 1978, even before the Soviet invasion. The State Department received reports of 47 different chemical attacks between mid 1979 and mid 1981, resulting in a death toll of more than 3,000. Thirty six of these reports were from Afghan army deserters, guerrillas, journalists, and physicians. Another serious report came from an Afghan army defector who gave the Far Eastern Economic Review details of Soviet supplied chemical and biological agents being used by Afghan army units. Although the veracity of the report was supported by its extensive detail, a number of questions remained.

Other reports by foreign journalists abound, and they suggested that the Soviets had used chemical weapons from helicopter units to drive guerrillas from caves or other dwellings in order to attack them with conventional weapons. In general, the numerous reports of chemical and biological agents being used against Afghan guerrillas, from a wide variety of sources, suggested that Soviet use of such materials may have been extensive but remains highly selective. There were reports by Afghan resistance leaders of decreased use of such agents, and, although a State Department report of February 21, 1984, charged the Soviets with more uses of chemical weapons, it did state that, contrary to previous years, the Soviet use of chemical weapons in 1983 "could not be confirmed as valid."

New Soviet Weapons

Several new weapons, which had not been seen outside the Soviet Union, were introduced in combat in Afghanistan since the 1979 invasion. Most of these new weapons were for ground forces.

One weapon that appeared to have been specifically designed for use in Afghanistan was the "butterfly" mine with a "wing" that makes it look like a butterfly or a sycamore seed and allows it to spin slowly to the ground when dropped from the air. Made of green or brown plastic and powerful enough to blow off a foot or a hand, these mines seem to have been designed to blend in with the terrain and to maim rather than kill, although the inaccessibility of medical facilities means that many victims of these mines die of infection or loss of blood."

"Butterfly" mines were used effectively against the guerrillas. Spread by Mi 8 Hip helicopters or large caliber artillery, they enabled the Soviets to sow a minefield very quickly. According to Jane Ps Defence Weekly, a Hip usually carries two mine dispersal units and can lay 144 mines. When released, the mines are scattered by airflow or on impact. The use of these "butterfly" mines was banned by the Geneva Convention, which specifically forbids combatants to use mines that cannot be detected by normal means and that have an unlimited lifespan. In 1981 John Fullerton witnessed an incident in which a guerrilla lost a hand and much of his face when washing his hands in a ditch in an area that had not been the object of mine laying operations for nine months. Fullerton says that there was "little doubt that mines could last a decade and were a threat to children and livestock especially."

Four other weapons noted for the first time outside the Soviet Union included a new automatic, 81mm mortar, the AGS-17 automatic grenade launcher, the AK-74 high velocity rifle, and the new RPG 16 antitank weapon. The new mortar was capable not only of rapid and continuous fire but also had a high trajectory, which, although not normally advantageous, proved useful in mountainous Afghanistan in support of infantry operations. The AGS 17 automatic grenade launcher could either be mounted on a vehicle or used from a helicopter. Fired by two persons, it launched 30mm grenades from a drum that contains 30 rounds. In conjunction with the grenade launcher the Soviets have also used "flechette" rounds, which are small, razor sharp, steel slivers contained in 152mm artillery shells. The AK 74 high velocity rifle, a 5.45mm caliber weapon equipped with an image intensifying sight, resembled the standard AK 47 rifle. This new rifle fired a hollow core bullet that was very damaging to the human target. The RPG 16 antitank weapon replaces the RPG 7 and represented an improvement both in range and in accuracy.

The Soviets also used an improved APC in Afghanistan. The BMP 2, a variant of the BMP 1, was essentially an improved version of the standard BRT 60 APC, with which most Soviet and Afghan motorized units were equipped. Armed with an automatic 30mm cannon, the new APCs had an improved hatch for safer evacuation and are considered to have better mobility.

Despite the use of improved weaponry in Afghanistan, the Soviets continued to have logistical problems in 1985. Very long supply lines and the impossibility of depending solely on aircraft for resupply of the outlying areas have necessitated continuous repairs on the roads, bridges, and bypasses that were the targets of guerilla attack.

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Page last modified: 16-02-2019 19:17:46 ZULU