Air University Review, November-December 1986

Soviet Innovation in Special Forces

Robert S. Boyd

Many press articles about SPETSNAZ (Special Purpose Forces) concentrate on their glamorous and sensational aspects, such as assassination missions and masquerading in the West as athletes. Sensationalism and concentration on issues of relatively minor importance impede readers seeking a balanced understanding of SPETSNAZ capabilities and limitations. The purpose of this article is to provide such an understanding.

Soviet special purpose forces are called by several names, including reydoviki (from the English word "raid"), diversionary troops, and reconnaissance/sabotage troops, but they are most popularly known as SPETSNAZ, an acronym from the Russian spetsialnoe naznachenie, meaning special purpose. SPETSNAZ are controlled by the Soviet General Staff's Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU-Glavnoe Razvedyvatelnoe Upravlenie). The Soviet Union's Warsaw Pact allies maintain similar forces.

The mission of the SPETSNAZ is to conduct what the Soviets call Special Reconnaissance (Spetsialnaya Razvedka). According to the Soviet Military Encyclopedia, Special Reconnaissance is defined as,

Reconnaissance carried out to subvert the political, economic and military potential and morale of a probable or actual enemy. The primary missions of special reconnaissance are: acquiring intelligence on major economic and military installations and either destroying them or putting them out of action, organizing sabotage and acts of subversion; carrying out punitive operations against rebels; conducting propaganda; forming and training insurgent detachments, etc. Special reconnaissance is ... conducted by the forces of covert intelligence and special purpose troops.

More simply, the chief missions of SPETSNAZ are reconnaissance and sabotage. The missions of punitive action and forming insurgent groups are holdovers from World War II. Currently, the only insurgent training conducted by SPETSNAZ consists of advisory efforts in Africa and possibly Cuba. Soviet emphasis on a short war probably precludes any serious plans to organize partisan detachments in Western Europe in the event of war.

SPETSNAZ operate up to 1000 kilometers behind enemy lines, with emphasis on enemy nuclear delivery means, either locating them for attack by other forces or, if necessary, attacking by themselves. Typical SPETSNAZ targets include mobile missiles, command and control facilities, air defenses, airfields, port facilities, and lines of communication. In addition, specially trained SPETSNAZ elements have the missions of assassinating or kidnapping enemy military and civilian leaders.

The basic SPETSNAZ unit is a team of eight to ten men. The team is commanded by an officer, may have a warrant officer or senior sergeant as deputy, and includes a radio operator, demolitions experts, snipers, and reconnaissance specialists. Team members have some degree of cross-training so a mission can continue if a specialist is lost.

Each Soviet front or fleet would have a brigade with a wartime strength of up to 1300 men and capable of deploying about 100 teams. A SPETSNAZ brigade consists of three to five SPETSNAZ battalions, a signal company, support units, and a headquarters company containing highly skilled professional soldiers responsible for carrying out assassinations, kidnappings, and contact with agents in the enemy rear area. The organization of a naval SPETSNAZ brigade reflects its emphasis on sea infiltration, with up to three frogman battalions, one parachute battalion, and a minisubmarine battalion, as well as the signal company, headquarters company, and support elements. Many Soviet armies have SPETSNAZ companies of 115 men and can deploy up to 15 teams. The companies are organized similarly, with three SPETSNAZ platoons, a communications platoon, and supporting units. Besides the SPETSNAZ units at front and army, there are additional ones directly subordinate to the GRU.1 Total Soviet SPETSNAZ strength in peacetime is about 15,000.2

There are stringent standards required of all conscripts assigned to SPETSNAZ. Potential reydoviki must be secondary school graduates, intelligent, physically fit, and, perhaps most important, politically reliable. Parachute training with a paramilitary youth organization is naturally a plus. Upon induction, a SPETSNAZ conscript will be asked to sign a loyalty oath in which he acknowledges death will be his punishment for divulging details about his service.

After induction, some of the conscripts will be selected for an arduous, six-month-long noncommissioned officers school. Anticipating a high washout rate, commanders may send as many as five conscripts for each available NCO slot. In the event more NCOs graduate than there are slots available, the lower ranked graduates are assigned to positions as private soldiers. This excess of trained NCOs provides a ready pool of leaders to replace casualties in the field.3 Washouts and those conscripts not selected for NCO school receive training in their units. In addition to basic military training, they will be trained in the following specialized skills:

Training in foreign language, etc., is geared to the SPETSNAZ unit's wartime target area. The team leader is expected to be nearly fluent in one of the languages of a target country, while enlisted personnel are expected to know the alphabet and basic phrases. This specific training relating to a foreign country is intended not only to facilitate operations there but also to enable the teams to conduct missions while wearing enemy uniforms or civilian clothing.

Parachute training begins with static line jumps, but many soldiers will progress to high altitude low opening (HALO) jumps using steerable parachutes. Jumps are made day and night, in all kinds of terrain and weather.4

The technical training schedule leaves time for rigorous physical training involving obstacle courses and forced marches, which are often conducted in gas masks. Some units also provide strenuous adventure training like mountain climbing and skiing. Up to half the year is spent training out of garrison. Once or twice a year, selected teams engage in extremely realistic exercises carried out under battle conditions. Teams are provided little in the way of rations and are forced to forage for food. Exercise objectives are often operational installations guarded by regular troops or soldiers of the Ministry of Interior.

Further indications of the realism of SPETSNAZ training are elaborate brigade training areas containing full-scale mockups of enemy weapon systems and facilities. Brigades opposite NATO typically have models of Lance, Pershing, and, ground-launched cruise missiles, as well as airfields, nuclear storage sites, air defense sites, and communications facilities. These mockups are used for both equipment familiarization and demolition training.5

SPETSNAZ careerists are well compensated for the strenuous training. Each year of service with a SPETSNAZ unit counts as one and one-half years for pension purposes, and there is an incentive pay of 50 percent of salary.6 As in other types of airborne units, SPETSNAZ receive jump pay, which varies with the total number of jumps, e.g., the fiftieth jump pays more than the fifth. A conscript's jump pay can exceed his regular salary.

In keeping with their behind-the-lines missions, SPETSNAZ are lightly equipped. Each soldier will have an AK-74 assault rifle or SVD sniper rifle, a silenced 9-mm pistol, ammunition, a knife, up to eight hand grenades of various types, and rations. In addition, every team member carries a portion of the team's gear, which will normally include an RPG-16 grenade launcher and rounds, an R-350M burst transmission radio capable of communicating over a range of 1000 kilometers, directional mines, and plastic explosives. If the mission demands it, the team can also be assigned special weapons such as the SA-7 or SA-14 surface-to-air missile. The load per team member is approximately 40 kilograms (88 pounds).

Provisions of up-to-date intelligence is critical to the success of SPETSNAZ missions. The second directorate of the front staff is responsible for intelligence. It includes separate departments for reconnaissance, agent intelligence, signals intelligence, information processing, and SPETSNAZ. Under the SPETSNAZ department are both the SPETSNAZ brigade and a dedicated SPETSNAZ intelligence unit.7 The latter is tasked with recruitment of "sleeper" sabotage agents and peacetime collection of information on potential targets and enemy military personnel.

SPETSNAZ sabotage agents are rare in comparison to ordinary intelligence agents. A sleeper might have no other mission than to wait for the order to commit sabotage in preparation for war. He might also be tasked to acquire safehouses to support the eventual deployment of SPETSNAZ teams. Besides the sleepers, the SPETSNAZ intelligence unit controls legal and illegal agents for collection of information. Potential SPETSNAZ agents include attachés, soldiers aboard ships on trips to the West, and truck drivers crossing international borders. There is a European customs agreement that allows trucks marked "T.I.R." (Transports Internationaux Routiers) to cross borders with minimum customs formalities. These vehicles can (and do) travel near sensitive installations and through areas off limits to formally accredited military personnel.8 Information is also exchanged with the agent intelligence department. Thus, intensive peacetime collection efforts probably keep SPETSNAZ target folders full.

The SPETSNAZ agent network will be particularly important in the days immediately preceding hostilities. As tensions rise, the professionals of the headquarters companies will infiltrate enemy territory, often through legal entry points with false papers or as members of Soviet legations. They will contact in-place agents if necessary and prepare for the arrival of the ordinary SPETSNAZ teams.

The majority of SPETSNAZ teams will infiltrate by fixed-wing Aeroflot aircraft once hostilities have begun, using Soviet offensive air operations as cover. Once in the target area, the teams will bury their parachutes and organize a base. Routes into the base camp will be booby-trapped to provide warning of discovery, and the location of the base camp will be shifted periodically.9 If the mission demands mobility, SPETSNAZ will steal enemy vehicles or use transportation acquired by the agent network.

Most SPETSNAZ missions will have the primary objective of reconnaissance, so they will use camouflage to avoid contact with enemy patrols. They will attack if ordered to do so by the brigade or in the event a nuclear missile is ready for firing. In that case, the team will try to destroy the missile by fire and, if not successful, will mount an all-out attack. As a general rule, SPETSNAZ commanders operate independently. Once missions are given to the teams, army and front headquarters keep interference to a minimum, relying on the initiative and skill of the team leaders. Sufficient coordination is maintained to be able to order the teams out of the way of other Soviet attacks, particularly nuclear strikes.10

SPETSNAZ are not particularly well known within the Soviet military, and they tend not to publicize their existence and capabilities. Their uniforms are not distinctive, with ground forces SPETSNAZ usually wearing airborne or signal troops' uniforms and naval SPETSNAZ wearing naval infantry or submariners' uniforms. Their ethnic makeup is likewise not distinctive and to some degree reflects the ethnic characteristics of the intended target. For example, SPETSNAZ units in the Far East are alleged to have available North Koreans and Japanese from Manchuria and the Kuril Islands.11

There were special purpose groups in World War II whose primary mission was to parachute into an area and form the nucleus of a partisan group to be fleshed out with area residents.12 SPETSNAZ as we know them today were probably not formed until the midsixties, perhaps as a response to increased U.S. emphasis on unconventional warfare, exemplified by President Kennedy's support for the U.S. Army Special Forces. Some insight into SPETSNAZ capabilities can be gained from reviewing reported past actions.

In the late sixties, four-man SPETSNAZ teams were clandestinely inserted into Vietnam to test the then-new SVD sniper rifle in combat.13 In May 1968, a reconnaissance-sabotage group attached to the 103d Guards Airborne Division seized Prague Airport to enable the division to land. Prior to the operation, the officers and men were familiarized with the airport and its defenses. They embarked on a plane that received permission to land at Prague based on a fictitious claim of engine trouble. As the aircraft touched down and slowed, they jumped out, seized guard posts, and helped to set up a control team to bring in the division.14

In December 1979, SPETSNAZ, in company with the Committee for State Security (KGB), surrounded President Hafizullah Amin's palace in Kabul, Afghanistan, and proceeded to execute Amin and virtually everyone in the palace. In the words of an Afghan survivor, "the SPETSNAZ used weapons equipped with silencers and shot down their adversaries like professional killers."15 After this, the SPETSNAZ secured Kabul Airport in preparation for the mass airlanding of airborne troops. Subsequent operations in Afghanistan have included attempts to ambush the rebel leader Ahmed Shah Massoud, infiltration of rebel-held territory, and heliborne ambushes of rebel units.16

There was midget submarine activity within territorial waters in October 1982 in Sweden and in August 1983 in Japan. The midget submarines probably belonged to naval SPETSNAZ and may have been delivered to the target area by specially equipped India-class submarines. Discovery of tracks from the submarines also coincided with reports of unknown divers appearing on shore, leading to speculation that SPETSNAZ were conducting penetration exercises in foreign countries.17 The true reasons for this activity may never be known, but the boldness of the operations had the undeniable effect of enhancing the reputation of SPETSNAZ.

One must be on guard in concluding from the more extreme articles in the open press that the average SPETSNAZ soldier is ten-feet tall. Despite their qualifications, tough training, and demonstrated value, the fact remains that the majority of SPETSNAZ are conscripts on two-year tours of duty. Consequently, there is limited opportunity for cross-training in specialties, and soldiers may lack the degree of motivation that characterizes Western unconventional warfare forces, such as the U.S. Army Rangers, Special Forces, and the British Special Air Service. In comparison to Western unconventional warfare forces, SPETSNAZ lack specialized infiltration aircraft such as the U.S. Air Force MC-130E Combat Talon. This lack severely limits SPETSNAZ capabilities for clandestine insertion, particularly prior to the start of hostilities. As a result, SPETSNAZ must rely on the brute force of the Soviet air operation to cover most infiltration. If Soviet fighter-bombers and other means do not inflict the necessary damage to NATO air defenses, unarmed transports could prove sitting ducks, with the result of heavy SPETSNAZ losses before teams arrive on target.

Despite these limitations, SPETSNAZ pose a formidable wartime threat to NATO's rear area. From the Soviet side, a force of several thousand highly trained soldiers is a small investment with the potential layoff of neutralizing NATO's nuclear delivery capability and degrading air defense and communications systems, not merely through the efforts of SPETSNAZ, but by enhancing the effectiveness of aircraft, missiles, and ground forces through accurate target location. The size and quality of the SPETSNAZ establishment point out the need for good security of key installations, a fact that is increasingly taken to heart by Western planners. Continued awareness of the SPETSNAZ threat is necessary for making further tangible improvements in both rear area combat doctrine and installation defense measures.



1. Viktor Suvorov, "Spetsnaz—The Soviet Union's Special Forces," International Defense Review, September 1983, pp. 1209-l6.

2. Estimates of SPETSNAZ strength range from 15,000 to 60,000. Based on known units and Soviet manning practices, it is quite likely that the lower figure more accurately reflects the peacetime strength. An additional 10,000 to 15,000 would probably be required to fill out brigades and independent companies.

3. Suvorov, p.1212.

4. Captain Reinhold Neuer, "Paratroops of the National People’s Army: Specialists in Combat behind Enemy Lines," Truppenpraxis, July 1983, pp. 515-20. This discussion is mainly about East Germany recon-sabotage troops, but it probably applies also to SPETSNAZ.

5. Soviet Military Power 1985 (Washington: Government Printing Office), p. 73.

6. Suvorov, p. 1213.

7. Ibid., p. 1211.

8. Washington Times, 23 December 1982.

9. Suvorov. p. 1215.

10. Ibid.

11. Japanese newspaper Sankei, 3 January 1984.

12. Major General V. Andrianov, "The Organizational Structure of Partisan Formations during the War Years, " Soviet Military History Journal, January 1984, pp. 38-46.

13. Ross S. Kelly, "Spetsnaz: Special Operations Forces of the USSR," Defense and Foreign Affairs, December 1984, pp. 28-29.

14. Aleksei Myagkov, "The Soviet Union’s Special Forces." Soviet Analyst, 9 January 1980.

15. French newspaper Figaro, 6 September 1984.

16. Kelly, p.28 and p.29.

17. Suvorov, p. 1212; CBS Evening News, 15 November 1983; Figaro, 6 September 1984; and Sankei, 10 February 1984.


Robert S. Boyd (B.A., Dickinson College) is an Intelligence Research Specialist for the General Threat Division, Directorate of Estimates, Hq USAF. He has been an intelligence research specialist at the Defense Intelligence Agency and military intelligence officer for the U.S. Army with assignments in Arizona, Germany, and Vietnam.


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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