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The Soviet Airborne Forces (the VDV, or the Воздушно-десантные войска, or the Aerial Descent Force as a more precise translation) were one of the more prestigious units in the Soviet military (see 'basis' for this below). This development seems to have been contradictory to many Allied and Axis operational outcomes from World War 2 (Market Garden, Crete, etc). Similarly, almost none of the Allied/Western forces established a separate branch of their military for airborne operations (I don't know of any, but leaving this open in case Belgium or someone did this), but this was perhaps a small though specialized unit amongst the wider system. Yet, the Soviets established a whole branch, including developing specialized heavy equipment, for their Airborne Forces. Why did this come about?


While I make the statement that the VDV was 'highly prestigious' without much concrete supportive evidence as the majority of it is anecdotal (stories, etc...) but it also got the (perhaps natural) first position in combat in many theatres such as Afghanistan. Also, however, WP specifically notes it as such (also without further evidence):

... was a 'prestige service' in the armed forces of the USSR and Russia to reflect its strategic purpose. [here]


Yet, the specific article on the VDV doesn't note any "strategic purpose" but says its building was all up to one man, Vasily Margelov:

The creation of the post-war Soviet Airborne Forces owe much to the efforts of one man, Army General Vasily Margelov, so much so that the abbreviation of VDV in the Airborne Forces is sometimes waggishly interpreted as Войска дяди Васи or "Uncle Vasya's Forces".

Margelov's article says (emphasises mine):

In May 1954, he became commander of the Soviet airborne. After an incident in the airborne forces, which Schofield describes as encouraging a sergeant to wrestle a bear during a birthday party, Margelov was demoted to deputy commander in 1959. In July 1961, he became the airborne forces commander again. He initiated the mass production of parachute systems and helped to introduce the An-22 and Il-76 into service. During his tenure in command of the VDV, the PP-127 parachute was developed, which allowed BMD-1 infantry fighting vehicles to be airdropped. On 28 October 1967, Margelov was promoted to general of the army. He organized the Soviet airborne operations during the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia.

While the italicized part sounds thrilling, the bold emphasises his later services to the VDV and elaborates some on the heavy equipment dropping capacity. Yet, it doesn't describe what arguments Margelov used to enhance the prestige of the service or how he 'create[d] much of it'.

Further, one would think that the other service branches were opposed to the creation of another that would take away parts of their own funding. Given this also had to pass party hoops it sounds like a relatively complex process which should have instigated much debate at (some) levels of the Soviet government.

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First of all, if you go by the USA definition of "branch of the military", the Soviet VDV were not one. Until the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, they were a part of Ground Armed Forces branch — a quite independent one, but still less independent than, for example, the US Marine Corps. Moreover, due to the difference in how budget was allocated in the USSR and in the USA, the Soviet Armed Forces did not see the same degree of inter-branch competitiveness as American ones.

EDIT: A bit of explanation on structure of Soviet military in the relevant period (1946 to 1970s): The whole military was officially called "Armed Forces of the USSR" ("Вооружённые Силы СССР"). This structure included:

  1. Central military administration ("Центральные органы военного управления") - besides administration, this branch included military intelligence service (the now-infamous GRU), military topographic service and military political department (that's department responsible for political officers);

  2. Soviet Army ("Советская Армия"):

    • Ground Troops("Сухопутные войска") - that's the part relevant to this question;
    • Air Armed Forces ("Военно-воздушные силы");
    • Anti-Air Defence Troops ("Войска ПВО");
    • Strategic Missile Troops ("Ракетные войска стратегического назначения");
    • Civil Defence Troops ("Войска Гражданской Обороны") - civil militia in support roles.
  3. Navy of USSR ("Военно-морской флот СССР") - note that while this branch was directly included in main structure, it was more analogous in organisation to single component of Soviet Army, for example Ground Troops; it included submarine forces, surface forces, naval aviation, marines and coastal defence forces but these were not separated in command structure as, for example, Ground Troops and Air Forces were, but were divided amongst regional Fleets, each of which would have every type of troops - same as Ground Forces.

  4. Logistics of Armed Forces ("Тыл Вооруженных Сил") - training facilities, railroad and automobile transport troops, medical service;

  5. Border Troops of KGB of USSR ("Пограничные войска КГБ СССР") - these were a part of KGB and usually administrated by KGB, but in case of war command would be transferred to the military;

  6. Internal Troops of Ministry of Internal Affairs of USSR ("Внутренние войска МВД СССР") - same as above, but with MVD instead of KGB.

Only the entries denoted by numbers would be referred to as "branches of military" in Russian, the rest would be "types of troops". Ground Forces of Soviet Army included:

  • motorized infantry — these would be just "infantry" pre-1957;
  • airborne ("воздушно-десантные войска") — VDV. Under direct command of Defence Minister from 1964;
  • landing-assault troops ("десантно-штурмовые формирования") — air-mobile, but not airborne;
  • tank troops — these included armoured transports until 1954;
  • artillery and rocket/missile (both guided and unguided missiles are called "ракета" in russian) troops;
  • comms troops;
  • engineering troops;
  • Ground Forces anti-air troops;
  • chemical troops;
  • logistics units.

As you might notice, this structure is not designed for independent actions of different types of troops (or even branches, as it would be in U.S. military), but rather for their interaction. For example, VDV did not have their own aircraft (not even helicopters!) - they would have embedded troops from Air Force for that purpose; or navy marines were not supposed to conduct operations other than base patrol on their own, but rather would be, for example, spearheading landing operations while supported by Army troops in second wave, or supplementing coastal defence and attached Army troops in defensive operations. So where USMC would be mostly autonomous as soon as the troops were deployed from the ships, unless a specific mission called for outside expertise - VDV would be expected to constantly act in tight cooperation with other forces.

END OF EDIT.

Secondly, while you are rightly pointing out that neither Crete nor Market Garden — I'd also add soviet Vyasma airborne operation to this list — saw the airborne troops perform as expected, that did not lead either the Axis or the Allies to abandon the concept. They just changed the way these troops were used. Same with the Soviets — they learned from their mistakes. And Margelov, as the first post-WW2 commander of VDV had a significant role in this reformulation of the role of airborne forces.

Drawing on his World War 2 experience, he insisted that since airborne forces have to fight the enemy in isolation, they need to have the whole array of options ground troops would have. Thus, to be successful, airborne forces have to be mechanized — both to be able to quickly move into positions after deployment, and to have enough firepower to defeat the opposing forces. He consistently pushed for development of air-mobile vehicles. As a result, VDV evolved from an infantry force supported by a few light vehicles to a fully mechanized force complete with APCs, self-propelled artillery, command and engineering vehicles — less powerful and armored than their purely land-based counterparts, but instead capable of being dropped along with the infantry. And, of course, VDV still had its traditional first pick of new recruits.

This produced a force that could be quickly moved and deployed anywhere its aircraft could reach, and powerful enough to hold its own against a conventional army. That led to an interesting result — most VDV operations did not involve airdrops. Instead, they were used as a quick-response troubleshooting units, deploying from already-controlled airstrips or via helicopter insertion.

And there you have it — a force that due to its quick response time will be the first to face the enemy; that has its own unique toys; that only gets the best people. I'd say the prestige was the natural product of this combination.

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    @gktscrk basically, russian force classification has what is translated as "branch" - i.e. Ground Forces, Air Forces (Airspace Forces now =)) and so on; and "type of troops" (also sometimes translated as "branch"). Ground Forces branch included motorized infantry, artillery, some other stuff - and VDV. Their command structure was separated - VDV got their orders from the Defense Minister directly, but Ground Forces always treated them as "our guys". – Danila Smirnov Jun 1 at 11:31
  • @gktscrk Naval Infantry was a part of the Naval Forces branch, and their deployment methods did not allow them to be transported as quick across USSR as air-mobile troops, simple as that. – Danila Smirnov Jun 1 at 11:32
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    @Relaxed I feel that it might be somewhat misleading in the case of USSR, as "Soviet Army" was the official name of the military structure that governed all forces that were not the Navy or KGB troops (Border Guards and Internal Troops). I think I'll write in a bit of an explanation of USSR military structure in my answer... – Danila Smirnov Sep 2 at 9:18
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    @Relaxed that's why I said that an explanation is needed. Soviet military organisation as a whole was called "Soviet Armed Forces". That structure was composed of "Soviet Army", "Soviet Navy" and some other stuff. In turn, "Soviet Army" was composed of "Ground Armed Forces", "Aerial Armed Forces" and a lot of other stuff. So while numerically "Soviet Ground Armed Forces" comprised the majority of "Soviet Army", translating "Ground Armed Forces" as "Army" would be incorrect in this context. – Danila Smirnov Sep 2 at 11:27
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    @gktscrk short answer: you are correct that "морской" usually means "blue water" but in this case it's more of a "main purpose" thing than a comprehensive description. And I couldn't fit the long answer in two comments, so if you are still interested you probably should ask that as a separate question. – Danila Smirnov Sep 5 at 3:35

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