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Soviet Airpower in Afghanistan. Could ISAF have learned a lesson?

By Frank Douglas Aigner

In the annals of airpower, the Soviet air campaign in Afghanistan is curiously little-studied. Given its length, 1979-1989, its place as part of a major conflict during the Cold War, and not least that it was also predominantly a counterinsurgency air campaign, it should have been of particular interest in the last decade. Yet, still, nothing of book-length exists. In English, that is; several Russian authors have spilled an entire book’s worth of ink on the subject, most notably Vyzhennoye Nyeba Afganistana: Voyennaya Aviyatsiya v Afganskoy Voyiny (Burnt Skies of Afghanistan: Military Aviation in the Afghan War) by Viktor Markovsky, and Vozdushnoye Voyina v Afganistanye (Air War in Afghanistan) by Vladimir Gagin. Analysis of these resources, coupled with works by others, for instance, Mark Urban’s War in Afghanistan, and Rodric Braithwaite’s Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-89, one can glean lessons the United States and its NATO/ISAF allies could have learned from the Soviet effort there, as well as implications for future ‘small wars’.

One lesson that VVS (Voyenno-Vozdushnoye Sili, the Soviet Air Forces) experience in Afghanistan could have foretold for NATO/ISAF use of airpower there involves the use of heavy (or so-called ‘strategic’) bombers in a counterinsurgency campaign. Indeed, the lesson is far older. In his counterinsurgency airpower study ‘Unnecessary or Unsung?: The utilization of airpower in Britain’s colonial counterinsurgencies’, Andrew Mumford terms their use ‘political dynamite’. Either they were ineffective, using a ton of bombs per insurgent killed, ran the risk of alienating the loyal indigenous population, or created civilian casualties that were untenable. The Soviet’s Long Range Aviation (Dalnaya Aviatsiya, or DA) would find this to be true in Afghanistan, as well: perhaps RAF Air Vice-Marshal Timo Anderson put it best when he quipped, “You can’t do COIN from 30,000 feet”.

Long Range Aviation was not employed to any great extent in Afghanistan, in contrast with the American use of long-range bombers, like the B-52, in Vietnam: As the BBC’s Mark Urban, who spent time with the Mujahedeen in the 1980s, pointed out in his book, “It is also true that the bombing in rural Afghanistan is, in terms of the estimated tonnages used, light when compared to the B-52 raids carried out in certain parts of Indo-China”. Occasions when the Soviets used strategic bombers were limited to the Panjshir offensive in 1984, conducted after the cease-fire with Ahmed Shah Massoud broke down, and on the outskirts of Herat; in April of 1983 the Mujahedeen had “seized much of Herat”, and that the Soviets employed Long Range Aviation aircraft as part of their effort to drive them out. Aerial bombardment against insurgents units does not work or is even counterproductive. It has been shown to potentially alienate the loyal indigenous population in a counterinsurgency environment, as well as simply be ineffective and poor ‘bang for the buck’ – the inexpediency of firing a several million dollar missile at a potentially empty, $10 tent – against an insurgency, its use can be shown to be problematic along several axes.

Perhaps Emile Simpson puts it best when he points out how well one is doing combating an insurgency is “generally measured in bazaar chatter, not body counts.” Had NATO/ISAF heeded Russian experience in Afghanistan, it could have had a strategic effect; in Talibanistan: Negotiating the Borders Between Terror, Politics, and Religion, Anand Gopal asserts that interviewed Taliban frequently list indiscriminate B-1 and B-52 airstrikes that killed non-combatants as a major impetus for rejoining the fight against NATO/ISAF forces and the central government in Kabul.

Another lesson, relevant in these heady days of shrinking military budgets, is around the utility of the weapons on which one decides to spend the nation’s treasure. Despite having been designed to fight NATO tanks and soldiers in the Fulda Gap, the Soviets fielded two superb counterinsurgency aircraft in Afghanistan: the Mi-24 ‘Krokodil’ (Crocodile) helicopter, and the Sukhoi Su-25 ‘Grach’ (Crow) close-support aircraft. The Mi-24, which the Mujahedeen dubbed ‘Shaitan Arba’, the ‘Devil’s Chariot’, was the Soviet’s battlefield workhorse of the war. Armed with a chin turret containing a 12.7mm machine gun, rockets, incendiary munitions and mines, the Crocodiles worked in mutually supporting pairs in close air support, flying escort for truck or transport helicopter convoys, reconnaissance, and interdiction missions. The Su-25 was considered the most effective Frontal Aviation combat aircraft in Afghanistan, which Soviet authors attribute to its nature as a ‘shturmovik’, a Russian word which has no translatable equivalent in English, the nearest being ‘attack’ or ‘assault’. The Su-25 was upgraded continually during the Afghan War, including the addition of armour plating for the pilot and steel plates between the engines to isolate them in case of a MANPADS (surface-to-air missile) strike. The Su-25 was also equipped with an FM radio to allow the pilot to converse directly with ground troops during close air support missions, which was novel for the time. Lastly, in terms of being an aircraft well-tuned for a counterinsurgency environment, the Su-25 could run on gasoline, diesel or kerosene, and possessed good short- and unimproved-field performance. Attesting to its ruggedness and durability, each Su-25 flew between six and ten sorties a day. One wonders whether the F-35, now one of the most expensive weapons systems in history, would be able to perform as well, or keep that pace. Even if it could, given their expense and stealth technology, would a NATO even risk their loss against guerrillas?

Accepting that, statistically, the conflicts that UN members and NATO are going to be called on to participate in will be insurgencies, or as U.S. General Raymond Odierno termed them, the types of military-political tasks that are “…more of an operation, not a war”, and that, as David Kilcullen asserts, these conflicts will be increasingly fought in an urban environment, aircraft capable of performing counterinsurgency tasks and doing it well should be a matter of course. Military and political officials should keep this in mind as they plan for, and design and acquire aircraft for, another bloody century, sure to be comprised of predominantly small wars, to come.

And, leave the bombers at home.

Frank Douglas Aigner completed his MA in International Security & Terrorism at the University of Nottingham. 

Image credit: Wikipedia Commons

Published inConflict & Security

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