The Battle of Grozny: Deadly Classroom for Urban Combat
By Timothy Thomas, Lt Col
Best policy in war – thwart the enemy's strategy,
Second best – disrupt his alliances through diplomacy,
Third best – attack his army in the field,
Worst strategy – attack walled cities.
– Sun Tzu, Art of War
The battle for Grozny, the capital of the small Russian Republic of Chechnya, took place in January 1995. It pitted a hastily assembled and unprepared Russian force against a Chechen force of regulars and guerrillas equipped with Russian weapons and a belief in their cause. The Chechens held their own for three weeks but eventually lost the city to the Russian armed forces in late January (the Chechens retook the city in August 1996).
Both sides learned or relearned many lessons of urban combat, most of them the hard way. This article examines the most important of those lessons, the interesting and perhaps surprising conclusions drawn by the Russians about modern urban warfare, and their implications for US soldiers and urban warfare theory.
A "weapon" of choice for both Russians and Chechens was the sniper, who caused panic and havoc with just a few well-placed shots. There are reports that the Chechens employed female snipers from the Baltic region. Snipers were extremely effective in slowing a convoy's movement and forcing a column to take another route. One observer wrote:
One experienced sniper is capable of doing what will prove to be beyond the capability of a tank, gun, or entire infantry subunit: disable a commander, destroy a gun or mortar crew, control one or two streets… and, most important, instill in the enemy a feeling of constant danger, nervousness, and expectation of a sudden shot. Everyone fears the Chechen snipers in Grozny…. There are many cases where a sniper wounds a serviceman, and then kills the wounded person and those who come to his aid.
The sniper could also use an RPG in conjunction with a sniper rifle. A real problem for Russian troops was identifying snipers who shot at them and then donned a Red Cross armband and mingled with the local populace and the Russian soldiers he was killing. To counteract this, Russian checkpoints began forcing the Chechen men to take off their shirts. Soldiers would look for bruises on the shoulder from weapon recoil, for powder burns on forearms, or for a silver lining around cuffs (from mortar or artillery propellant bags). They also smelled clothing for gunpowder and looked for traces of it under fingernails or on arms or legs. Russian forces also employed snipers, but not with the same degree of success as the Chechens. A March 1995 article decrying the neglect of sniper training attests to this fact.
The correct mix and employment of weapons in the city were also important. Grozny was a three-tiered fight (upper floors of buildings, street level, and subterranean or basement), and the weapons had to fit. Russian tanks could not lower their main gun tubes and coaxial machine guns low enough to shoot into basements harboring Chechen fighters. To correct this problem, the Russians put ZSU-23-4 self-propelled, multi-barreled, antiaircraft machine guns forward with columns to fire at heights and into basements. [Note: Thomas is wrong about the ZSU-23-4 firing into basements; it cannot depress its guns anymore than the T-80 (used in Grozny) or the more modern T-90 can. It was brought forward in Grozny because it can elevate its guns higher (85° compared to only 14°) and can more quickly engage multiple targets.]
The use of artillery and air power in the city was counterproductive in many instances. Indiscriminate bombing and shelling turned the local population against the Russians. The locals included some Russian citizens who were inhabitants of Grozny (and who found it incomprehensible that their own leaders had such disregard for the lives of civilians). Most of the Russian population of Grozny lived in the center of the city. Since this is where the most severe fighting took place, Russian civilian casualties were high.
The principle Chechen city defense was the "defenseless defense." They decided that it was better not to have strong points, but to remain totally mobile and hard to find. (Some strong points did exist but were limited to dug-in tanks, artillery, or BMPs to engage targets head-on.) Hit-and-run tactics made it difficult for the Russian force to locate pockets of resistance and impossible to bring their overwhelming firepower to bear against an enemy force. Russian firepower was diluted as a result and could be used only piecemeal. Chechen mobile detachments composed of one to several vehicles (usually civilian cars or jeeps) transported supplies, weapons, and personnel easily throughout the city. Chechens deployed in the vicinity of a school or hospital, fired a few rounds, and quickly left. The Russians would respond by shelling the school or hospital, but usually after the Chechens had gone. Civilians consequently viewed this action as Russians needlessly destroying vital facilities and endangering their lives, not realizing who had initiated the incident. The Chechen mobility and intimate knowledge of the city exponentially increased the effect of their "defenseless defense."
The slaughter of the Russian 131st Brigade was a result of this tactic. Russian forces initially met no resistance when they entered the city at noon on 31 December. They drove their vehicles straight to the city center, dismounted, and took up positions inside the train station. Other elements remained parked along a side street as a reserve force. Then the Chechens went to work. The Russian lead and rear vehicles on the side streets were destroyed. The unit was effectively trapped. The tanks couldn't lower their gun tubes far enough to shoot into basements or high enough to reach the tops of buildings, and the Chechens systematically destroyed the column from above and below with RPGs and grenades. At the train station, Chechens from other parts of the city converged on the station and surrounded it. The commander of the Russian unit waited until 2 January for reinforcements, but they never arrived. His unit was decimated.
The most lethal Chechen force in those early days of January was led by one of President Dudayev's most trusted warriors, Shamil Basayev. Basayev's "national guard" force consisted of some 500 men who had fought in Abkhazia against Georgians in 1992-93. Battle-hardened, they moved in groups as large as 200 at times, showing up in cars with guns blazing. The more typical Chechen combat group was a three- or four-man cell. Five of these cells were usually linked into a 15- to 20-man unit that fought together.
Some Chechen soldiers pretended to be simple inhabitants of Grozny, volunteering to act as guides since it was so difficult to navigate in the city. They subsequently led Russian convoys into ambushes. Russian forces tried to counter Chechen ambush tactics by using a technique called "baiting," in which they would send out contact teams to find Chechen ambushes. In turn, the Chechens used a technique called "hugging," getting very close to Russian forces. This technique eliminated the Russian use of artillery in many cases, and it exposed baiting tactics.
The Chechens were proficient at booby-trapping doorways, breakthrough areas, entrances to metros and sewers, discarded equipment, and the bodies of dead soldiers. Some command-detonated mines were also used, but this weapon found greater use in other cities the Chechens defended. (A detailed 1998 Russian article about the importance of initially using plenty of expert engineer-reconnaissance forces in MOUT was published to teach how to counteract such threats.)
Russian forces became wary of moving into a building and learned to proceed methodically. They began taking one building at a time, and moving block by block instead of rapidly moving into the city center as they had at the beginning of the intervention.
Another significant Russian problem was the delineation of boundaries between units owing to the nonlinear nature of urban combat. For the Russian force, this problem was complicated by four factors: poor communications that prevented units from knowing where other units were; the absence of an integrated communications system tying together different units from the Ministry of Internal Security, the army, and the other services; different operational tempos in different parts of the city that caused one unit to get ahead of another; and dealing simultaneously with both vertical and horizontal boundaries within a building. This difficulty in ascertaining boundaries resulted in several incidents of fratricide and instances in which units were pinned down by friendly fire for up to an hour. Aware of these problems, the Chechens exploited boundary conditions whenever possible. To help overcome such difficulties, a Russian expert recommended that units wear pagers and use a map display system known as Cospas-Sarsat during future operations. (Cospas-Sarsat is a system of geostationary satellites that act as a global positioning system, especially for search and rescue.)
A final tactical issue was the Russian use of assault detachments and tanks to seize buildings and drive the Chechens from the city. Initially the Russians relied heavily on tanks in Grozny, but this approach was soon abandoned, with infantry and marines then becoming paramount. The initial instruction pamphlet issued to Russian soldiers in Grozny noted that a tank platoon should move at the head of the column, covered by motorized riflemen and flame-throwers. Reserve teams advancing in armored personnel carriers behind the tanks would fire against second and third floors. Three months later conflicting advice appeared in Russian army magazines. Tanks were advised to seal off city blocks, repel counterattacks, and provide cover. In providing supporting fires along streets, tanks were expected to occupy covered positions or operate only in areas controlled by motorized rifle units. During movement, tanks would move behind infantry at a distance beyond the effective range of enemy antitank weapons, but close enough to support the infantry with grazing fire from machine guns. The same principle was to be used for calculating the follow-on distance for other armored vehicles. Additionally, metal nets and screens were mounted 25 to 30 centimeters away from the armor to create protection from Chechen antitank rounds.
Excerpt from Parameters, summer 1999, pp. 87-102.
Do Not Blame Chechnya for Boston Bombings – Nadia Vancauwenberghe
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