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Old 03-14-2010, 09:52 PM
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Default The Sino-Soviet War, Pt 2.2

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The Sino-Soviet War, Pt 2.2

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In the hours before dawn on August 19, 1995 the Soviets set in motion their invasion of the People’s Republic of China. Spetznaz teams attacked critical assets throughout Manchuria. Fighter-bombers and bombers struck targets throughout the Shenyang Military Region and as far away as Tianjin, concentrating their efforts on knocking out the Chinese air defenses. In the pre-dawn gloom, Soviet guns and multiple rocket launchers delivered a frightful bombardment on the Chinese border divisions.

By sunrise, Seventeenth, Fifth, Nineteenth, and Fifteenth Armies were rolling across the border. Preceded by light ground forces and by aerial attack groups, the four armies invading Manchuria smashed through the border divisions of Shenyang Military Region. During the next day, advanced elements of Seventeenth Army came in contact with units of Fifth (Mountain) Group Army quite near the border. CINC Shenyang Military Region had opted to locate this infantry-pure group army further forward than any of his other commands because the light forces were optimized for the rough terrain of the Wanda Shan. Elsewhere, the Soviets advanced against Chinese covering forces.

In the air, the SAF demonstrated its superiority from the start of operations. Attacks on Chinese airfields by strike aircraft and by surface-to-surface missiles carrying persistent chemical agents caused enormous disruption. Despite reasonable precautions, the Chinese had dozens of aircraft destroyed on the ground, while hundreds more were grounded by damage to their runways. Soviet MiG-31s and MiG-29s shot down dozens more in the first few hours of the war. Strike craft and theater ballistic missiles struck radar sites and SAM batteries throughout Manchuria and around Beijing, badly degrading the Chinese ground-based air defenses on the first day of combat. Long-range interdiction and strike missions dropped bridges and attacked logistical hubs throughout southern Manchuria to impede the flow of supplies and reinforcements from the main body of China.

China’s response was swift. The Politburo called the nation to full mobilization immediately. Within hours of the initial attacks, Chinese bombers were en route to targets inside the Soviet Union. Plans for resistance movements behind enemy lines were put into effect as Soviet forces began their advance into Manchuria. The movement of reinforcements to the Shenyang Military Region was stepped up as much as possible.

On the diplomatic front, China called for the UN to denounce the Soviet invasion. The Chinese ambassador introduced a resolution calling for the Security Council to guarantee nuclear support for China. The measure failed, but most Western nations issued stinging rebukes of the Soviets for resorting to force to settle the “border incident”.

There was no use of nuclear weapons at this point, though the nuclear forces of the USSR and the PRC remained at maximum alert. The Soviets saw no advantage in their deployment. Traditional Soviet thinking notwithstanding, the Soviet Politburo concluded that the dangers of Chinese retaliation and of international opinion more than counterbalanced any battlefield benefits that might be derived from the use of nuclear weapons. The Kremlin therefore issued a statement that the Soviet Union would not initiate nuclear warfare, though the USSR absolutely reserved the right to retaliate in kind to any Chinese use of nuclear weapons.

For their part, the Chinese leadership was not keen to escalate to a nuclear contest. China was horribly outmatched in the nuclear arena by the USSR. Even if China launched a successful first strike against the Soviet Union, the Soviets would have more than enough warheads and delivery systems left to destroy China as a nation. Beijing was not about to be the first to cross the nuclear threshold. Publicly, China issued a statement mirroring that of the Soviet Union: though China pledged against first use of nuclear weapons, she would retaliate if the enemy used them.

Over the days immediately following the outbreak of hostilities, 1st Far East Front and Fifteenth Army made good progress. Seventeenth Army, faced with an intransigent defense in restricted terrain by Fifth (Mountain) Group Army, skillfully employed its integral air assault brigade and the 106th Guards Air Assault Division—sent down from theater control for the operation—along with plentiful close air support by Mi-8 and Mi-24 helicopters and Su-24 and Su-25 fixed-wing attack aircraft to split the Chinese defense into three components no longer able to support each other. With Soviet airborne troops in key positions and Soviet aircraft roaming the airspace above Fifth (Mountain) Group Army, the rough terrain turned against the Chinese. Two infantry divisions were shattered in as many days. The remainder of the army fell back in some disorder.

Striking south through the Lesser Khingar Range, Nineteenth Army encountered Thirty-Fifth Group Army in the rough ground near the dividing line of the range. The Chinese were defending two main axes with their light infantry divisions forward and mobile divisions behind them. Making the most of their mobile firepower, the Soviets concentrated the bulk of their artillery on a single axis and broke through the defenses. Though Thirty-Fifth Group Army was able to inflict losses on the attackers, the Chinese were forced to give ground over several days of hard fighting.

Having dispatched the border guard division opposite Khabarovsk, Fifth Army moved through the marshy terrain on either side of the Sungari River. Badly outmatched in tanks and self-propelled artillery, Twenty-Fourth Group Army had been assigned to defend as far forward as possible. The Chinese reasoned that the soft ground would prevent the Soviets from making good use of their mobility. As the only good roads in the area were two single-lane strips along either side of the Sungari, the Chinese intended to force the Soviets to attack down a single heavily-defended slot. Here again, however, Soviet air power played a crucial role. Fixed- and rotary-wing assets roamed behind the Chinese front lines, attacking command-and-control assets and artillery units. However, Fifth Army was forced to move fairly slowly through a Chinese defense that managed to leapfrog backwards with great difficulty but fair success.

Fifteenth Army advanced through Hailar and towards Qiqihar with minimal opposition. Twenty-Third Group Army was waiting on the eastern side of the Greater Khingar Range. CINC Shenyang MR chose to defend there because Twenty-Third Group Army enjoyed roughly the same level of mobility as Fifteenth Army. A defensive battle just west of Qiqihar would give the Chinese the advantage of shorter lines of communication and additional proximity to friendly air bases.

Fifteenth Army and Twenty-Third Group Army met west of Qiqihar on August 27. Several days of hard fighting and maneuver ensued. By the end of the month, the two forces were deadlocked.

The Chinese were discovering that the combination of mechanized and non-mechanized forces in their group armies was working against them. The attacking Soviets were able to concentrate their forces for decisive local superiorities almost at will. The non-mechanized divisions among the Chinese formations were unable to respond to rapid changes on the battlefield, resulting in many formations being bypassed or surrounded and annihilated. On some occasions, the foot mobile infantry was able to establish static defenses in depth and thus repulse a Soviet attack. However, the Soviet second echelons often found a way around the static defenses. Chinese attempts to use their mechanized forces to intercept the second echelons typically resulted in meeting engagements where the Soviet air superiority and superiority in tanks gave the invaders a significant advantage.

Soviet use of chemical weapons was widespread in this phase of operations. The Chinese replied as best they could, using low-flying aircraft, multiple rocket launchers, and short-range ballistic missiles to deliver persistent and non-persistent agents on Soviet troop concentrations. Both sides suffered significantly from chemical use. However, the Chinese generally fared worse because use of persistent agents tended to hamper their foot-mobile formations more than the mechanized formations of the Soviets. Also, civilian casualties were many times those of the military. As one advisor pointed out to Zhu, there could be no citizens’ militia in the enemy’s rear if chemical weapons killed everyone.

Anxious to find some way of limiting the use of chemical weapons, the Chinese used surface-to-surface missiles to attack railheads and other important logistical sites in Khabarovsk and along the Trans-Siberian Railroad with persistent agents. The effect was two-fold: military traffic was disrupted, and casualties among the Soviet citizenry skyrocketed. Soon thereafter, the Chinese ambassador to the UN delivered an offer to the Soviet ambassador. China would cease its use of chemical weapons if the USSR would.

By the end of August, the Soviets had achieved most of what they wanted through the use of chemicals. Air bases that had nearly been shut down by use of chemicals in the opening days of the war had been hit repeatedly by more conventional means. Ruined runways and dead repair crews obviated much of the need for an ongoing chemical bombardment of the airfields in Manchuria. After an initial spike of casualties, the Chinese had learned the appropriate protective measures. Chinese losses continued, but they were much less than they had been. The Soviets were losing troops to chemicals, too. More importantly, the overall effect of an ongoing chemical exchange was to slow the tempo of combat. Communications were hampered, and the need for chemical reconnaissance and decontamination was robbing the advance of its momentum. Use of chemical weapons was costing the USSR something on the international diplomatic front as well. For all these reasons, the Soviets accepted the Chinese offer of a mutual moratorium on the use of chemical weapons on August 30.

By August 30, Nineteenth Army had pushed Thirty-Fifth Group Army nearly back to Hailun. The Chinese light infantry was nearly gone, having been left behind during several forced withdrawals. Where possible, the Soviets had bypassed masses of defending infantry and had bottled them up with smaller detachments of motor rifle troops. As a result, Nineteenth Army was in decent shape as it prepared to enter the flatter, lower terrain north of Harbin. Coming up behind Nineteenth Army was Eighth Tank Corps.

CINC Shenyang Military Region decided to use First Armored Group Army to parry Eighth Tank Corps in the Hailun area. He hoped to smash the tank corps, thereby bringing the enemy’s penetration in the north to a halt. Then he intended to shift his armored combat power west to Qiqihar, where Fifteenth Army and Twenty-Third Group Army were still tearing into each other.

The Soviets were able to observe the movement of First Armored Group Army with aerial reconnaissance and satellites. With Seventeenth Army now more-or-less in control along its axis of advance, the SAF switched its main attack effort to the area north of Harbin. First Armored Group Army received substantial damage from air attack and SSM attack along its march route.

Nevertheless, CINC Shenyang Military Region threw First Armored Group Army into combat against Nineteenth Army on September 3 and put the much-damaged Thirty-Fifth Group Army on the counterattack. Almost simultaneously, though, Eighth Tank Corps arrived and slammed into Thirty-Fifth Group Army on its left flank. The badly weakened Thirty-Fifth Group Army collapsed under the onslaught of hundreds of late-model T-80s, while Nineteenth Army just managed to hold its own against First Armored Group Army. The fighting continued for three more days, during which time First Armored Group Army inflicted serious damage on Nineteenth Army before being compelled to turn its focus to Eighth Tank Corps. At the end of the third day, First Armored Group Army and the remnants of Thirty-Fifth Group Army were withdrawing towards Harbin.

During the fighting at Hailun, Seventeenth Army changed its axis of advance from Jilin to Harbin. The army detached a single division which drove straight north and into the operational rear of Twenty-Fourth Group Army. Threatened by envelopment, Twenty-Fourth Group Army fell back before Fifth Army. The mobile formations simply abandoned their light infantry and any broken-down vehicles. Fifth (Mountain) Group Army, straggling back towards Jilin, could do nothing.

Pulling itself together, Nineteenth Army pursued First Armored Group Army south towards Harbin. Eighth Tank Corps moved west to take Twenty-Third Group Army from behind at Qiqihar. The Chinese here began to disengage from Fifteenth Army and head south.

Fifth Army kept up its pressure on Twenty-Fourth Group Army, which was rapidly disintegrating at its retreat westward became a rout. The presence of Seventeenth Army’s 95th Tank Division astride the principal line of communication for Twenty-Fourth Group Army threw the group army into a panic. CINC Shenyang Military Region wanted to use First Armored Group Army, now absorbing replacements and resupplying in the Harbin area, to break out Twenty-Fourth Group Army; but the bulk of Seventeenth Army was now approaching Harbin from the southeast. The Chinese opted instead to attack Seventeenth Army with First Armored Group Army and use the PLAAF to help Twenty-Fourth Group Army break out. Harbin’s defense would be entrusted to the remnants of Thirty-Fifth Group Army and the recently-arrived Ninth Group Army, which had moved north from the Beijing Military Region with its three infantry divisions.

In the event, the PLAAF was unable to give decisive support to Twenty-Fourth Group Army. The SAF had been waiting for just such a move. MiG-31s, MiG-29s, and Su-27s ripped the attacking flights of J-8s, J-7s, and J-6s to shreds. Though some Chinese aircraft were able to deliver their ordnance against 95th Tank Division, the air effort generally was thwarted with heavy losses. The Chinese fared no better on the ground, where the Type 69 tanks used by Twenty-Fourth Group Army were massacred by the late-model T-64s of 95th Tank Division. By nightfall on September 9, Twenty-Fourth Group Army had ceased to exist, and the Soviets would collect a bag of nearly 50,000 prisoners.

Though hit hard by First Armored Group Army southeast of Harbin, Seventeenth Army retained its balance by giving ground. The situation was precarious for the Soviets because their stocks of fuel, ammunition, and spares were low, as was vehicle readiness. Had the Chinese been able to muster more combat power, they might have inflicted a serious defeat on Seventeenth Army. However, First Armored Group Army was itself in poor shape. The Chinese attack ran out of steam in the afternoon of September 10, whereupon the Chinese mechanized force withdrew to Harbin.

Further west, Fifteenth Army and Eighth Tank Corps closely pursued Twenty-Third Group Army as the Chinese withdrew south towards Tao’en. With Soviet columns slashing at them, the Chinese were forced to abandon hundreds of damaged and broken-down vehicles. The group army managed to get across the Tao’er River and establish a defense on the right bank that discouraged the Soviets from pursuing them for the time being.

Having eliminated Twenty-Fourth Group Army and having badly damaged Twenty-Third, Thirty-Fifth, Fifth (Mountain), and First Armored Group Armies, CINC Far Eastern TVD began to tighten the noose at Harbin. First Armored Group Army had withdrawn to Harbin, where Ninth Group Army and the rump of Thirty-Fifth Group Army were in defensive positions. Nineteenth Army was probing the city’s defenses from the north. Seventeenth Army was still collecting itself, but the army was capable of swinging to the south and cutting off the enemy’s supply lines and escape route from Harbin. Fifth Army, which was still in quite good shape, was mopping up Twenty-Fourth Group Army along the Sungari River northeast of Harbin and would be available for action at Harbin soon. Eighth Tank Corps received orders to begin moving east from Tao’en along the right bank of the Sungari to block the Chinese escape from Harbin.

Recognizing the danger, CINC Shenyang Military Region ordered First Armored Group Army and the remnants of Thirty-Fifth Group Army out of Harbin and across the Sungari on September 12. Ninth Group Army with its three light infantry divisions would remain in Harbin to deny the Soviets use the logistical hub and Harbin’s industry. Soviet air power descended on the southward-moving columns like thunderbolts. In a scene strongly reminiscent of the so-called “Highway of Death” from Operation Desert Storm, Soviet aircraft kept up a terrible bombardment of Chinese forces withdrawing along the roads south out of Harbin. Vehicle losses tolled in the thousands. Chinese casualties soared into the hundreds of thousands. Despite a spirited defense by the PLAAF and ground-based air defense units, Soviet strike craft severed the main bridges across the Sungari. Hundreds of vehicles had to be abandoned on the right bank of the Sungari as Chinese troops swam across—many without any weapons or equipment. By September 15, Eighth Tank Corps and Seventeenth Army had sealed off the north bank of the Sungari River. First Armored Group Army had established a weak defense on the left bank of the river, and the Soviets were not at this point inclined to push onward.


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