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Published Airpower Journal - Summer 1988

The Soviet Spetsnaz Threat to Nato

Capt Erin E. Campbell, USAF

The Spetsnaz are the only Soviet troops who can think for themselves and take quick decisions.

-Abdul Haq, Afghan rebel leader

IN recent years, Soviet military doctrine has increasingly emphasized the use of conventional forces in conducting military operations. As a result, Soviet tacticians have stressed the need to wage a blitzkrieg-style attack to defuse NATO's military might before a war could escalate to a nuclear level. Traditionally, however, westerners examine future wars primarily by focusing their attention on thermonuclear weapons and conventional forces while granting scant attention to a third dimension of Soviet military operations--saboteurs, secret agents, and special forces.1 This third dimension of warfare essentially entails the use of military active measures that are special operations involving surprise, shock, and preemption in the enemy's rear echelons with the ultimate goal of winning a quick victory by producing conditions conducive to the rapid advance of the main Soviet force.2 The Soviet troops entrusted with fulfilling these preemptive actions are "special purpose" or "special designation" (spetsnaznacheniya) troops, more commonly known as Spetsnaz forces. Because of Soviet military doctrine's focus on the need for surprise and preemption of the use of nuclear weapons, Spetsnaz forces could play a prominent role in the successful implementation of overall Soviet war strategy. Moreover, current evidence indicates the Soviets are fortifying and preparing their Spetsnaz apparatus to decimate the capabilities of NATO's military and political organizations in the opening phases of a potential surprise attack against Western Europe.

Strategy for a War Against NATO

The Soviet Union is none too eager to engage in an overt armed conflict against Western Europe. Nonetheless, one cannot discount that in the future extraordinary events may error simultaneously which, collectively, could precipitate a crisis situation between NATO and the Soviet Union/ Warsaw Pact nations. C.N. Donnelly (head of the Soviet Studies Research Centre, Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, England) suggests that two phases would precede the outbreak of hostilities: the preparatory phase, and the crisis phase, both designed to employ all measures to exploit NATO's weaknesses and to reduce its combat potential.3 During the preparatory stage, the Soviets' primary aim is to weaken the West's capacity to wage nuclear war either by preventing the development or the deployment of new weapon systems or by depleting the political will to use them. This is accomplished via Soviet political active measures--for instance, propaganda campaigns, disinformation, and the sponsoring of Western peace movements. From the Soviet point of view, it is most desirable to operate exclusively at this level, whereby Soviet influence and power gradually grow in Europe and US power declines until the states of Europe are effectively "Finlandized" and the United States becomes isolated.

Should these political active measures fail, however, the prewar crisis phase would ensue. This phase is likely to commence only if some aspect of Soviet policy fails and it then becomes apparent to the Soviet Union that a war is either inevitable or that war is the only means by which the leadership can achieve a vital policy objective. At this juncture, the Soviets would initiate unconventional warfare methods (i.e., military active measures) to degrade NATO's fighting capability, creating favorable political and military circumstances for a successful follow-on campaign, The Soviets define unconventional warfare as a variety of military and paramilitary operations which include partisan warfare, subversion and sabotage (conducted during both peace and war), assassination, and other covert or clandestine special operations.4 These missions are assigned to special units of the Committee of State Security (KGB--Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopusnosti), to the Soviet General Staff's Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU-Glavnoe Razvedyvatelnoe Upravienie), and to airborne, ground, and naval forces, all of which possess Spetsnaz forces.

At this crisis stage, the Soviets will put these forces into play. From the outset, the ultimate Soviet objective will be the total political collapse or neutralization of key NATO governments.5 Because frontal military assaults would be less effective in accomplishing this, Soviet strategy emphasizes the need for initial operations in the enemy's rear echelon, the domain of Spetsnaz forces whose operations are intended to sow the seeds of a political-military collapse. Indeed, the Soviets' aim is to prevent the formation of a static, frontline war with NATO on one side and Warsaw Pact forces on the other.6 Therefore, the Soviets intend to infiltrate NATO's rear area before the outbreak of hostilities to begin eroding NATO's political and military structure from within.

In the late 1970s, the Soviet army redeveloped its doctrine for the "deep operation" in conventional conditions, and it determined that the sine qua non of success is surprise.7 While the Soviets do not expect total surprise, they do believe that, if a sufficient degree of tactical surprise is achieved, then NATO deployment should be patchy and incomplete, and some corps would still be moving toward their defensive positions when open hostilities begin. Thus, the primary concern of Soviet strategists and tacticians is to launch low-visibility operations that ensure surprise, induce operational paralysis, and obstruct enemy mobilization and deployment.

Spetsnaz activity thus would be initiated prior to the advancement of main army forces at the front to ensure surprise. The Soviets believe that creating such disruption would assure the advancing main forces of a rapid, uninterrupted, and hence successful advance. The actual damage that a small team could accomplish would be moderate at best; however, the shock to national morale resulting from such acts as the assassinations of senior politicians, industrialists, financiers, and the like on the eve of the war would be disproportionately great in comparison to the small cost of attempting such an operation. It is essential to bear in mind that these Spetsnaz operations are not designed in themselves to result in a Soviet victory since their task is merely to reduce the enemy's resistance; rather, their function in the overall Soviet war plan is to enable the main army to conclude war operations in a more abbreviated and less risky fashion.

Wartime Missions

Prior to the employment of combat airborne and naval Spetsnaz units, the Soviets would preposition other Spetsnaz forces within enemy territory. In preparation for a war, the Soviets would post to their embassies and consulates a certain number of Spetsnaz officers and warrant officers in the guise of technical personnel, guards, gardeners, drivers, and so forth.8 Similarly, groups of professional Spetsnaz agents posing as tourists, delegations, sports teams, or as passengers on merchant ships, civil aircraft, or commercial trucks would attempt to infiltrate into enemy territory.9 Finally, on the eve of war, Spetsnaz units, employing various pretexts and covers, may concentrate in neutral states and enter enemy territory once fighting has commenced. Also at this time, various Spetsnaz elements would covertly deploy and link up with their indigenous agent assets to set in motion operations in the target area. It is expected that KGB agent assets would likewise emerge to conduct their special operations and that local Communist, Leftist, and possibly terrorist elements also might be activated to implement these operations.10 In short, Soviet Spetsnaz forces would then be poised and ready to strike when necessary.

As the Spetsnaz missions are but one element of an integral war plan, the Soviets believe Spetsnaz objectives can be successful only if they take place on a massive scale concurrent with operations conducted in the enemy's rear areas by airborne troops, naval infantry, air assault brigades, divisional deep reconnaissance units, KGB teams, and similar groups from the Warsaw Pact. Therefore, the main Spetsnaz forces will be dropped simultaneously on all fighting fronts while the professional "athletics" regiments will operate within range of capital cities, regardless of their distance from the front-line.11

Soviet Spetsnaz forces entering their operating area in Western Europe would first pursue the following primary objectives listed in descending order of importance:

Finally, in the wake of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) signed in December 1987, allied air assets and air bases would likely become a much higher priority target for Spetsnaz forces after ground-based assets have been dismantled.

Indications of Current Spetsnaz
Preparations Against NATO

In recent years reports emanating from Great Britain and Sweden indicate that the Soviets may be positioning and preparing Spetsnaz elements for possible wartime use against Western Europe. In Great Britain, Soviet defectors have disclosed that the Soviet Union has established a covert detachment of female Spetsnaz personnel in the area surrounding Britain's Royal Airfield at Greenham Common since the deployment of the US Air Force land-based Tomahawk cruise missiles there in December 1983.13 According to these defectors, three to six trained agents from Warsaw Pact and West European countries--including Great Britain--infiltrated women's protest groups at Greenham Common and were present "at all times." These agents claim to have trained in camps situated in the Carpathian military district and the Ural and Volga military districts in the western Soviet Union. Realistic, full-scale replicas of cruise missile launchers and mock-ups of the Greenham Common defenses have been built at these secret camps to help train Spetsnaz teams.14 Using these mock-ups, the women were trained to attack the missile sites under war or surprise conditions in a preemptive strike. Additionally, the defectors claim that the terrain features of these camps mirror those at various British and French nuclear installations" to enable hit-and-run Spetsnaz raids to be rehearsed in an environment simulating actual conditions as closely as possible.15 Furthermore, the infiltrated agents are said to be tasked to act as "beacons" for other Spetsnaz and airborne troops who would be used to attack the missiles in war.16

Since the early 1980s Sweden has suffered from a steady bout of violations of its territorial waters by foreign submarines that have been determined to belong to the Soviet Union. The reports issued by the Swedish navy were granted but passing attention by both the Swedish public and the international media until 27 October 1981, when a Soviet Whiskey-class submarine ran aground in a restricted area of the Karlskrona archipelago in an incident generally referred to as "Whiskey on the rocks."17 While the Swedish government issued a strong formal protest, the Soviets sloughed off the intrusion as an unintentional navigational error. In yet another incident, in October 1982, alien submarines entered the Stockholm archipelago--another military restricted area--and part of this force even penetrated Harsfjarden, which is the main base of the Swedish navy. Despite an extensive month-long hunt, Swedish armed units were unable to catch any submarines. Photographic evidence released later revealed prints and sea tracks made by these vessels.18 Three submarines had penetrated inshore to the sea walls of the residence of King Carl Gustaf XVI.

After this public disclosure of Soviet violations of Sweden's territorial waters, Soviet submarine incursions continued despite the public embarrassment and, in fact, increased and became more brazen. Before 1981, Soviet submarines had departed from Swedish waters as soon as they realized their presence had been detected; ill the ensuing years, they have behaved more arrogantly, remaining within the restricted area despite increasingly strenuous Swedish naval activities to curtail their operations.19 During the 1970s the submarine violations had numbered between two and nine per year. In 1981 they rose to 10 and in 1982 to 40. In 1983 the Swedish defense chief could report 25 certain violations and at least all equal number possible. The figures listed do not refer do not refer to mere observations but to fully analyzed incidents, given the final characterization of certain, probable, or possible violations.20

Numerous tentative explanations have emerged to account for these Soviet submarine incursions. A variety of military missions have been suggested--for example, gathering intelligence on defense installations and navigational conditions in the vicinity of the Swedish naval bases; shadowing the trials of new weapons; and observing military exercises. It has been proposed that the intrusions might reflect a significant change in the USSR's operational strategy in the Baltic, based on its naval predominance in the area.21 Some speculate that the Soviets are attempting to seek out safe havens for their nuclear missile submarines in times of crisis where they will be difficult to find and where Western forces would be highly reticent to attempt destroying them so close to allied or neutral shores.22 However, the idea also has been seriously entertained that these missions entail dropping off or retrieving Spetsnaz teams or agents, training and familiarization exercises in Swedish waters, and testing Swedish military capabilities and crisis management techniques.23

A Swedish commission tasked with investigating these submarine incidents agreed that preparation for the landing of Spetsnaz forces is a possible explanation. One of the several signs pointing in this direction is the increase in submarine incursions in the vicinity of permanent defense installations on the Swedish coast; in earlier years, the activity appeared directed at Swedish navy exercises and testing of materiel. Furthermore, Carl Bildt, a prominent member of the Swedish Submarine Commission, has emphasized the importance in today's Soviet strategy of diversionary Spetsnaz forces that would likely land via submarines to undertake sabotage raids against crucial command targets as well as vital political and military installations.24 Thus, it is not unlikely--particularly in light of Sweden's apparent lack of success in controlling Soviet underwater intruders--that the Soviets would be practicing contingency Spetsnaz operations when the consequences of getting caught appear to be so negligible.

Finally, there is a disconcerting political and military consequence resulting from these continued submarine incursions: the Europeans seem to have become desensitized to the territorial violations, which have been relegated to the sphere of everyday occurrences. The publicity surrounding the sensational report of the Swedish Submarine Commission has subsided and is now nearly forgotten, and new incursions are treated quite routinely.25 As one observer of these incidents laments, "If Sweden permits the intruders to operate freely in sensitive waters, the first step will have been taken psychologically toward subservience to the Soviet Union."26

Red Dawn for NATO?

With the increasing emphasis in Soviet military doctrine on winning a war under either nuclear or nonnuclear conditions, the Soviet Union seems more inclined to wage a blitzkrieg war, employing surprise and shock that would be facilitated through the use of their Spetsnaz forces. It is significant, however, that a congressional report titled NATO and the New Soviet Threat, presented to the Committee on Armed Services in 1977, made no mention of the potential use of such military active measures. While open acknowledgment of Spetsnaz operations has finally emerged in Western military planning in the early 1980s, greater consideration must be given to these forces in estimating the Soviet threat to NATO.

For the Soviets, NATO vulnerabilities further enhance the desirability of using Spetsnaz forces against Western Europe. As a collection of independent nations, NATO would likely require greater time to reach unified action in the event of a Soviet attack on Europe. Thus, preemptive operations--taking out military and political targets--might prove tempting because the Soviets may perceive they will encounter little initial resistance as West European leaders determine what course of action to pursue. Additionally, since the Soviets and their

Warsaw Pact allies have a considerable edge over NATO in numbers of conventional forces, they may deem it imperative to take out NATO's nuclear forces prior to any overt military assault, leaving NATO highly weakened and vulnerable to Soviet demands.

In sum, it appears the Soviets ,are most likely to continue their current ploys to undermine Western Europe from within-for example, by infiltrating and manipulating organizations opposed to Western government policies and by bullying susceptible nations into passive acquiescence of Soviet actions. However, there are indications that the Soviets currently are continuing to reinforce their Spetsnaz capability against Europe. Thus, while open warfare in Europe does not seem imminent, Western military planners must be prepared to contend with the presence of Spetsnaz forces if war should occur.


1. Aleksei Myagkov, "The Soviet Union's Special Forces," Soviet Analyst, 9 January 1980, 5.

2. Stephen Seth Beitler, "Spetsnaz: The Soviet Union's Special Operations Forces" (MS thesis, Defense Intelligence College, 1985), 4.

3. C.N. Donnelly, "The Soviet Operational Maneuver Group: A New Challenge for NATO," Military Review, March 1983, 45.

4. Foreign Intelligence Directorate, Office of the Assistant Chief of Staff for Intelligence, "Soviet Use of Unconventional Warfare," Military Intelligence, October-December 1982, 3.

5. John J. Dziak, "Soviet Intelligence and Security Services in

the Eighties: The Paramilitary Dimension," Orbis, Winter 1981,786.

6. C.N. Donnelly, "The Development of the Soviet Concept of Echeloning," NATO Review, no. 6, December 1984, 15.

7. C.N. Donnelly, " Operations in the Enemy Rear," International Defense Review 13, no. 1 (1980): 14.

8. Viktor Suvorov, "Spetsnaz: The Soviet Union's Special Forces," Military Review, March 1984,43.

9. Ibid.

10. John J. Dziak, "The Soviet Approach to Special Operations," in Special Operations in US Strategy, ed. Frank R. Barnett, B. Hugh Tovar, and Richard H. Shultz (Washington, DC: National Defense University Press, National Strategy Information Center, Inc., 1984), 112.

11. Suvorov, 43.

12. Donnelly, "Operations in the Enemy Rear," 36.

13. Yossef Bodansky, "Soviet Spetsnaz at Greenham," Jane's Defence Weekly, 25 January 1986, 83.

14. "Greenham Defenses 'Copied for Spetsnaz Training,'" Jane's Defence Weekly, 25 January 1986, 84.

15. Ibid.

16. Bodansky, 83.

17. Kirsten Amundsen, "Soviet Submarines in Scandinavian Waters," The Washington Quarterly, Summer 1985, 113.

18. Edgar O'Ballance, "Underwater Hide-and-Seek," Military Review, April 1984, 71.

19. Thomas Ries, "Soviet Submarines in Sweden: Psychological Warfare in the Nordic Region?" International Defense Review 6 (1984): 695.

20. Amundsen, 113-14.

21. Ries, 695.

22. Lynn M. Hansen, Soviet Navy Spetsnaz Operations on the Northern Flank: Implications for the Defense of Western Europe (College Station, Tex.: Center for Strategic Technology, Texas Engineering Experiment Station, Texas A&M University System, 1984), 29.

23. Ries, 695.

24. Carl Bildt, "Sweden and the Soviet Submarines," Survival, July/August 1983, 168.

25. Amundsen, 120.

26. Ibid., 121.


Capt Erin E. Campbell (BA, Wake Forest University; MA, Naval Postgraduate School) recently completed work as an AFIT student at the Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California, where she studied national security affairs, specializing in Soviet studies. Her next assignment will be with the Soviet awareness team at Bolling AFB, Washington, DC. Captain Campbell has published articles on the Soviet Union in SAC Intelligence Quarterly and has written for Aviation magazine. She is a graduate of Squadron Officer School.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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