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Old 03-14-2010, 09:52 PM
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Default The Sino-Soviet War, Pt 2.1

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The Sino-Soviet War, Pt 2.1

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In the summer of 1995, the forces available to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics were lesser in number than the legions available in 1989. Nevertheless, the USSR still disposed awesome combat power. As a result of the draw down in the early 1990’s and the ongoing modernization efforts in every branch of service, the Soviet conventional forces arguably were better equipped and more effective than they had been in 1989.

The Soviet Army disposed 3.5 million men organized into the equivalent of 185 divisions, not including separate tank regiments held at army level and above. The overwhelming majority of these divisions were heavy—either tank or mechanized (motor rifle). Only a fraction normally were maintained at full readiness, but replacements could be drawn from all the reserve formations.

The Soviet Army retained the basic characteristics that had marked it a decade before: balance in combined arms, a high degree of mechanization, a tremendous strength in artillery, a respectable combat support capability, and a highly professional officer corps. The Soviet fighting concept emphasized the operational level of planning and execution, with the army being the centerpiece of action. Offensive action was at the heart of Soviet thinking, combining speed, shock, fire, and maneuver into a doctrine designed to bring Soviet forces to their assigned stop line within a very short period. At the same time, the Soviet Army retained significant weaknesses from the 1980’s: a logistical capability that was much less than what was required, an inflexible battlefield behavior stemming from the operational-level mindset, and poor quality among the enlisted personnel of all ranks.

Soviet equipment was of mixed quality and characteristics. At the top end of the scale were excellent fighting vehicles like the T-90 and late T-80 MBTs. The most advanced Soviet anti-tank missiles were capable of defeating any tank in the Chinese inventory. The latest self-propelled artillery enjoyed long ranges, a high rate of fire, and good accuracy. Soviet electronics had improved significantly since the 1980’s, and the Soviets enjoyed a clear advantage over the Chinese in the electronic warfare arena.
In the early 1990’s, the Soviet Army undertook a major reorganization to bring divisional equipment issue in line with existing inventories and doctrine. The best Soviet tanks were also the ones in the shortest supply. The same was true of almost every other major end item. In order to maximize the ability of the tank forces to strike deeply and decisively into the enemy rear, tank formations were given the best hardware available within their mobilization category. T-90s, T-80s, late-model T-72s, and T-64s were stripped from the motor rifle divisions and given to tank formations that were not considered to have adequate numbers of the most modern tanks. Next in priority were the motor rifle divisions attached to tank armies. Last in priority were motor rifle divisions assigned to combined arms armies and those in reserve. In the same fashion as tanks, other armored fighting vehicles, transportation, electronics, and the rest of the panoply of war was redistributed among the armies, divisions, and separate regiments of the Soviet Army. As a result of the reorganization, the Soviet divisions invading Manchuria possessed some of the most modern equipment in the Soviet arsenal, which gave them a substantial advantage over the Chinese defenders.

The Soviet Air Force of mid-1995 was somewhat smaller than it had been in 1990. Frontal Aviation and the Air Defense Force between them disposed slightly less than 7000 fixed-wing and rotary-wing combat aircraft in 1995, versus 7700 in 1990. However, combat power was actually increased vis-*-vis the maintenance load. The Soviets had decided to completely retire and sell off their Su-15 inventory, removing from service about 520 aircraft of dubious combat value. Half the 1990 inventory of Su-17 was removed, taking another 500 obsolescent aircraft out of service. Substantial numbers of MiG-21s, along with some MiG-25s and other aircraft, were taken out of service. Replacing them were smaller numbers of MiG-29s, MiG-31s, and Su-27s. Despite the higher maintenance requirements of the newer aircraft, their presence in smaller numbers served to decrease the overall maintenance hours by about three percent while improving air-to-air and air-to-ground combat performance by about ten percent.

Even more than their counterparts on the ground, the latest Soviet aircraft possessed impressive capabilities. The MiG-31 was one of the finest air superiority weapons in the world. Capable of tracking and attacking multiple aircraft at ranges greater than 30km, the MiG-31 presented a challenge of the first order to Western aircraft, to say nothing of the generally antiquated aircraft of the PLAAF [People’s Liberation Army Air Force]. The shorter range MiG-29 capably filled the role of fighter-bomber, playing much the same role in the SAF as the F-16 Fighting Falcon did in the USAF. The Su-27 was another late-model airframe that gave the Soviets a high-performance fighter and attack platform.

Older Soviet aircraft were not nearly as impressive, though most of the airframes in the Soviet inventory in 1995 were very serviceable. The MiG-27 and MiG-23 were the Soviet equivalent of the USAF F-4 in its air superiority and ground attack roles, respectively. The MiG-25, a high-speed, high-altitude interceptor, had no counterpart in any Western air force. Its capabilities, though impressive, largely were wasted against the Chinese, who never attempted a high-altitude penetration of Soviet airspace with bombers. The MiG-21 was a basic fighter design dating from the 1960’s but which had seen regular upgrades. Its performance was modest compared to Western designs of the same vintage, but the design represented a modestly capable fighter nevertheless. The Su-24 and Su-25 were attack aircraft comparable to the USAF F-111 and A-10, albeit with somewhat lesser overall capability.

Soviet air operations were characterized by centralized command, generally from the ground. Pilots enjoyed significantly fewer flying hours per annum than their Western counterparts, though their training was in line with what the PLAAF provided its pilots. Soviet pilots were not expected to show much initiative. Operations were planned and controlled centrally, and there was little latitude for pilot interpretation. The emphasis was on massive air battles that would make the most of the Soviet advantage in numbers and result in high attrition of enemy aircraft. Since the SAF enjoyed numerical superiority over NATO and China, the same operational concept would be employed in either theater.

The ground crews were a weakness. Most of the support personnel were draftees serving a three-year term. They required most of that time to become proficient. Thus the SAF was chronically short of experienced support personnel. This would have real effects on the turn-around time and overall availability of Soviet aircraft. Whereas Western aircraft could expect an extended sortie rate of two per day, at the beginning of the invasion of Manchuria the SAF might be able to coax a single sortie per day out of its aircraft over the long haul.

Overall, the SAF had matured greatly since the 1970’s. The SAF had become a multi-dimensional air force in the Western sense, capable of providing close air support, reconnaissance at every level of operations, strategic bombing, dedicated air superiority, and the other missions assigned to Western air forces. The best Soviet aircraft were among the best in the world. All Soviet aircraft were robust and capable. Operational doctrine was good. Where the Soviets fell short was in the quality of its air and ground crews.

The Soviet Navy was intended to play a marginal role in the Sino-Soviet War. Though the Soviet Pacific Fleet possessed more than 180 ships--including two 40,000-ton carriers, twenty-two ballistic missile subs, nearly sixty nuclear and non-nuclear attack subs, and twenty other major surface combatants—the Kremlin did not see much of a role for the Soviet Navy in the conflict. The ability of the Navy to offer direct support to operations in Manchuria was quite limited. Though raids by special operations and naval infantry along the Chinese coast south of Manchuria might beneficial effects, Danilov felt that large-scale attacks on Chinese installations and territory outside the war zone might be counterproductive by making the Chinese believe that Soviet war aims were greater than they really were. The tremendous ship-sinking capability of the Pacific Fleet was only useful if the Soviets intended to wage total war on China’s economy. Since the war was supposed to be over in ninety days or less, there was no point in bringing international condemnation down upon the Soviet Union by sinking ships engaged in trade with China.

One area that caused concern among the more cautious Soviet planners was logistics. Danilov’s draw down in the early 1990’s had made literally thousands of trucks available for distribution among the remaining divisions, armies, and fronts. The ability of a modern army to consume supplies—especially fuel and ammunition—had grown so greatly since the Great Patriotic War that some planners felt even the windfall in trucks might not serve to keep the Soviet Army moving forward as doctrine demanded. What use was it for the motor rifle divisions to blast gaps in the enemy’s defenses if the tank formations could not exploit them for want of fuel, they asked. However, the prevailing mood at the higher echelons was that the Soviet Army and its comrades in the air were so superior to the People’s Liberation Army that any logistics problems could be solved as they arose.


The People’s Liberation Army, the ground forces of the People’s Republic of China, disposed the equivalent of about 90 divisions in mid-1995. Two million men were organized into seven Military Regions, which were further broken down into twenty-eight Military Districts and three Garrison Commands. The main combat forces included eighty infantry divisions (including six mechanized and nine motorized), ten tank divisions, three artillery divisions, fifty independent engineer regiments, and numerous independent air defense and artillery regiments. In addition, the PLA Air Force disposed four airborne divisions, plus supporting troops.

In the mid-1990’s, the PLA was in the midst of remaking itself. Like the Soviets, the Chinese traded mass for quality by drawing down some of their forces in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. About a quarter of the divisions on the books in the early 1980’s were gone, and nearly a million men had been released as a result.

Man-for-man, the PLA was a better force than the Soviet Army. Though highly politicized, the Chinese troops were somewhat more professional than their Soviet counterparts. The PLA had a much higher proportion of long-term soldiers. However, doctrine and weapons were outdated. There was no recent experience in warfare. The Army had not made the transition from an infantry force oriented towards attrition warfare to a mechanized force trained and organized for mobile warfare. Most of the equipment used by the Chinese was outdated. Though the PLA had an impressive inventory of tanks (more than 7,500 MBTs, versus about 10,000 MBTs in the Soviet arsenal), few of them were modern tanks like the Type 85. Comparatively little of the artillery was self-propelled. Infantry fighting vehicles and armored personnel carriers, amounting to about 2,000 vehicles, were sufficient to mechanize the infantry in ten tank and six mechanized infantry divisions; however, this meant that the bulk of the PLA’s infantry was essentially foot-mobile.

Like the PLA, The People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) was organized along Soviet lines. The quantity of aircraft was impressive: more than 5,000 combat aircraft of all types. However, most of the Chinese airframes were, in 1995, badly antiquated. Nearly half the force was made up of J-6 fighters, which were essentially Chinese copies of the MiG-19. The J-7 fighter, a MiG-21 clone, made up about a tenth of the force, while about 600 J-8 variants gave the PLAAF its teeth. Roughly the equivalent of an early-model Mirage III, the J-8 was an indigenous design with some promise. However, against the state-of-the-art MiGs and Sukhoi fighters of the SAF, the J-8 was badly outmatched.

Like the SAF, the PLAAF emphasized mass over quality and centralized control from the ground over pilot initiative. The Chinese pilots did not get many more flight hours per annum than their Soviet counterparts. Electronics and missiles generally were as outmoded as the airframes. One area where the Chinese enjoyed an advantage was in ground crew quality. Because retention of first-term technicians was higher, the ground crews supporting Chinese aircraft were markedly superior to those of the SAF.

The People’s Liberation Navy (PLAN) had undergone a major expansion in the 1970’s and 1980’s. The PLAN had more than 800 ships, though the overwhelming majority of them were patrol-craft under a thousand tons. Nevertheless, these ships were generally armed with missiles, torpedoes, or sufficient gunnery to give the Chinese a powerful presence in their territorial waters. China only had a handful of nuclear subs, but the PLAN disposed more than a hundred diesel-electric boats. Here again, long-term service resulted in a significantly higher level of professionalism than enjoyed by the Soviet Navy. Counterbalancing this was the fact that the technology employed by PLAN generally was outdated by Soviet standards.

Overall, the PLA (including its aerial and naval counterparts) was a large force in transition. Professionalism was on the rise, as was the level of mechanization. However, the PLA generally lacked the technology and degree of mechanization of the Soviet Army. Accordingly, the Chinese had a much lesser capability in terms of logistics, mobility, communications, and electronic warfare (EW).


In short, the Soviet plan was to destroy the forces of the Shenyang Military Region, which encompassed Manchuria, as close to the border as possible and then occupy Manchuria. A supporting thrust out of Mongolia aimed at Beijing would tie down the forces of the Beijing Military Region while the main effort was underway in Manchuria. If the Chinese had not called for a cease-fire and negotiations by the time the Soviet Army had secured Manchuria, the Soviet forces in Manchuria would strike southwest and seize Beijing.

The Far Eastern TVD disposed twenty-three divisions, a tank corps, and four separate airmobile brigades in two fronts, 1st Far East and 2nd Far East. By nightfall on August 18, these forces were more-or-less arrayed along their start lines. 1st Far East Front was the main effort. Seventeenth Army, with one tank and three motor rifle divisions, occupied positions northwest of Vladivostok. Fifth Army, also with one tank and three motor rifle divisions, was deployed southwest of Khabarovsk. Nineteenth Army, disposing one tank and three motor rifle divisions, was in position around Blagoveshchensk. Held under front control was Eighth Tank Corps, comprised of four tank brigades and a motor rifle brigade. Each of the armies also had a separate air assault brigade attached. 2nd Far East Front, with Fifteenth Army and Thirty-Ninth Army under command, was to provide the secondary effort. Fifteenth Army, with two tank and two motor rifle divisions, was standing by just across the river from the Chinese city of Manzhouli. Thirty-Ninth Army, with two tank and two Mongolian motor rifle divisions, was moving southeast from Ulaan Baatar during the night of August 18-19.

Facing the four Soviet armies and independent tank poised to invade Manchuria were the five group armies of Shenyang Military Region, plus several border guard divisions. Opposite Seventeenth Army was Fifth (Mountain) Group Army with four infantry divisions. Arrayed against Fifth Army was Twenty-Fourth Group Army with one mechanized, one motorized, and two infantry divisions. Deployed south of Nineteenth Army was Thirty-Fifth Group Army with one tank, one motorized, and two infantry divisions. In position around Hailar to block any advance by Fifteenth Army along the pre-1905 Trans-Siberian Railroad was Twenty-Third Group Army with one tank, one mechanized, and two motorized divisions. In the center of the ring was First Armored Group Army with two tank and two mechanized divisions, positioned to move in any direction to thwart any Soviet breakthrough. Protecting the national capital of China was the Beijing Military Region, which disposed three tank, seventeen infantry, one airborne, one artillery, and three border guard divisions in six group armies.

The Chinese defensive plan was to combine the combat power of the Shenyang Military Region, which possessed the lion’s share of China’s armored and mechanized forces, with the traditional Chinese defensive strategy of trading space for time and the use of citizen’s militia in the invader’s rear areas. The forces in place would give ground as necessary until sufficient reinforcements could be brought up from the vast interior of China to launch a decisive counterattack.

Against the impressive numbers of the Chinese, the forces committed to the invasion seemed inadequate to many in the Kremlin and, indeed, to many in the Soviet armed forces. The Shengang Military Region had a 1.5:1 advantage in manpower over the aggregate of Soviet forces invading Manchuria. The forces available in the Beijing Military Region would give the Chinese a huge manpower advantage. The Chinese enjoyed interior lines of communication, and all they had to do was avoid being defeated.

The Soviets were banking on their superior mobility and air power to overcome their numerical deficiencies. The four invading Soviet armies had more tanks than the five group armies defending Manchuria, and the Soviet tanks generally were superior to those of the Chinese. The Soviets enjoyed a tremendous advantage in mobility, especially in terms of light armored fighting vehicles and artillery. The SAF was confident that they could take control of the skies over Manchuria quickly and provide decisive support to the ground forces. Sauronski was confident that provided the diversionary attack by Thirty-Ninth Army and air action could prevent the main body in the Beijing Military Region from intervening in Manchuria, the Army could bring the campaign in China to a close quickly and successfully.


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