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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 USA definition of "branch of the military", Soviet VDV were not one. Until dissolution of USSR in 1991, they were a part of Ground Armed Forces branch - a quite independent one, but still with less independence than, for example, US Marine Corps. Moreover, due to the difference in how budget was allocated in USSR and USA, soviet armed forces did not see the same degree of inter-branch competitiveness as american ones.

Second - 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 Axis or Allies to abandon the concept, they just changed the way these troops were used. Same with the soviets - they learned on their mistakes. And Margelov, as the first post-WW2 commander of VDV had a significant role in this reformulation of airborne's role.

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 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 to be 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 of 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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  • Could you expand on the "not a branch of the military"? I sense there's some 'definition' speak at play here; for example, on the ET Wiki page for the Red Army, it says that the VDV was not part of this but independent, while all of the Wikis for the Soviet Armed Forces don't bring the VDV out as a branch, but some still assert that it was "independent" under the Ministry of Defense. Otherwise, I think you should expand on whether the entire Soviet leadership thought that the VDV was the way to go (clearly they didn't on Naval Infantry). – gktscrk Jun 1 at 10:06
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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
  • The comment on the Naval Infantry related to this topic which described the strategic reasons for disbanding and re-establishing those brigades. – gktscrk Jun 1 at 13:31

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