Mobilised at short notice, to penetrate a defence base, troops are parachuted at night into a desolate region – such as Siberia – and are pursued by motorised infantry over vast distances. But the target is prepared for an attack and, during the raid, it is not unknown for young conscripts to be killed. The government of the Soviet Union was not answerable for deaths in realistic exercises, even in peacetime. This was the experience of troops on exercise as members of the Spetsnaz, the world’s largest special forces organisation.
Special forces are by no means exclusive to the western powers. The Soviet Union had a number of elite units in the army, navy and marine branches of the military. These certainly survive in some form within the forces of the former Soviet countries, very possibly in virtually the same form. The account given below refers to the elite of the old Soviet elite, the Spetsalnaya Naznacheniya – the Spetsnaz.
Spetsnaz, the Soviets’ special purpose troops came under the direction of the GRU and consisted of 16 Spetsnaz brigades, four Spetsnaz naval brigades, 41 independent Spetsnaz companies and the Spetsnaz regiments – the latter being available for senior commanders to use as the situation demanded. In peacetime, Spetsnaz numbered some 30,000 men; in the event of war or crisis those ranks could be expanded to 150,000.
The conscript collecting centres took in newcomers twice a year – in the winter period or the summer period. Your birthday dictated which one you attended as you were liable for service immediately after your 18th birthday. Women were not subject to compulsory military service, but were selected through KOMSOMOL and DOSAAF if they were interested in joining the Armed Forces.
At the centre, the conscript was interviewed and his documents scrutinised. Everything about a person was recorded. How did he do at school? Was he loyal to the communist system? Was he a party member? The all-important KOMSOMOL and DOSAAF reports gave details of his fitness, military skills and determination.
At the top, the best were selected for the KGB, airborne, missile and intelligence units. A small number were selected for a unit they had never heard of – the Spetsnaz.
For the conscripts there were no weekends, and their day began at 06.00 hours with reveille, followed by strenuous exercises and an inspection before breakfast. Fit, strong, elite soldiers need food and they were well fed. Training then began in earnest, with the teaching and honing of military skills, including assault courses where the Soviet obsession with live firing tested the new soldier’s mettle. From the very beginning live ammunition was used and accidents, even fatal ones were considered acceptable.
Those who fail to pass Spetsnaz training are sent to other units to complete their military service, knowing nothing of the elite unit they almost joined. At the end of the basic selection training course about 20 recruits were left from the original hundred in each group. The conscript was now a Spetsnaz soldier – but still with much to learn. He was constantly scrutinised by officers and senior NCOs.
The very best were selected for officer training, at a special Spetsnaz faculty at the higher airborne command school at Ryazan. They began four years gruelling training, which continuously tested them. Those who did not make the grade were re-assigned to airborne VDV units or the air assault troops.
Naval Spetsnaz consisted mostly of combat swimmers, supported by mini-submarines and specialist parachute troops. Based among Soviet naval infantry, each brigade had approximately 1,300 men (and an unknown number of women), which made the Soviet navy’s Spetsnaz by far the largest amphibious special force in the world. Within the overall Spetsnaz organisation the naval brigades were far more active than their army counterparts.
The Spetsnaz were well blooded in Afghanistan. From the numbers of them reported in action, it seems that they were often rotated to ensure that most special forces soldiers will have seen active service at some stage. It was difficult to distinguish Spetsnaz from Airborne troops in Afghanistan, but Mujahideen reports did identify Spetsnaz from their numbers and from the fact that they operate by local command decisions rather than waiting for higher authority to give orders.
In action, Spetsnaz proved themselves to be hard and well-trained troops, and were the only ones that the Mujahideen encountered who thought for themselves. They were even known to kill their own wounded rather than let them fall into the hands of the enemy. But this has been a common practice among opponents of the Pathans for many years – the fate of captured wounded was usually beyond description.
In both Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan the first Spetsnaz units on the ground were from the “anti-VIP” companies, whose ruthless, systematic murder showed them to be a formidable force. Follow up units were from army Spetsnaz who took the war to the Mujahideen in the mountains.
Entry to the “anti-VIP” companies was for those soldiers who decided to remain in the Spetsnaz after their two years of conscription. They underwent additional training, with languages a priority. These units could be expected to make use of enemy uniforms and weapons and in many cases, especially in the preparatory phase before a formal declaration of war, they were intended to operate wearing civilian clothes.