In 1991 when Ukraine became independent from the Soviet Union it retained much military equipment, some military units, and many of the troops stationed in the Ukraine. Among those units that remained were one airborne division and three airborne brigades of the elite VDV (Vozdushno-Desantyne Vojska). Soviet airborne forces have a tradition dating prior to World War II, and the VDV today remains one of Russia’s primary intervention units. Ukraine has continued this tradition with its airborne forces. As the European country with the second largest land area, Ukraine saw the need for a highly mobile striking force. Its airborne troops perform that mission.
Currently, the Ukrainian units are designated as airmobile forces since they may be inserted by parachute or helicopter. Between 1994 and 1996, all parachute jumps were actually carried out from Mi-8 helicopters, but Il-76 aircraft have been primarily used from then on. The current Ukrainian airmobile force consists of the 25th Airmobile Brigade, the 79th Airmobile Brigade, the 95th Airmobile Brigade, and the 80th Airmobile Regiment, plus the 28th Training Battalion.
Airborne brigades are broken down into three battalions, each with a headquarters company, mortar battery, antitank platoon, antiaircraft platoon, and three airmobile companies. Separate brigade troops include a supply battalion, recon company, chemical platoon, combat engineer unit, artillery battalion, supply company, field signals unit, firefighting platoon, and antitank company.
I was intrigued by the inclusion of the firefighting platoon and have been trying to find out if they serve as smoke jumpers since Ukraine has vast forested areas. However, I have not yet determined their mission.
As with the VDV in the era of the Soviet Union, Ukrainian airmobile troops still use the specialized light armored vehicles developed for Soviet airborne forces. As closely as I can determine, the 25th Airmobile Brigade has BMD-1 and BMD-2 armored fighting vehicles, the 95th Airmobile Brigade BMP-2 armored fighting vehicles, and the 79th Airmobile Brigade and 80th Airmobile Regiment BTR-80 armored fighting vehicles.
The BMP-2 used by the 95th Brigade is an impressive vehicle that can travel on roads at up to 65 kilometers per hour (kph) and in water at up to 7 kph. It has a 30mm main gun, 7.62mm machinegun, and a Spandrel antitank guided weapon. Six airmobile infantrymen may ride inside of the BMP-2.
Ukrainian airmobile forces do not really rely on the airborne fighting vehicles to the extent that the Soviet airborne forces do but since their vehicles are not really well suited to non-airmobile units, they remain on the airmobile TO&E (Table of Organization and Equipment). The Ukrainian paratroops seem to use them quite a bit when deployed for peacekeeping missions.
Artillery used by the Ukrainian airborne includes D-30 122mm howitzers, 120mm 2S9 Nona-S self-propelled mortars, and ZSU-23-2 dual 30mm antiaircraft gun. The ZSU-23-2 is an effective antipersonnel weapon when mounted on a truck or towed for airmobile usage.
Ukrainian airborne troops have been deployed in peacekeeping missions to the Balkans, Kuwait, Lebanon, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ethiopia, Georgia, and the Congo. Note that unlike some troops assigned to UN missions, the Ukrainian airmobile troops have a reputation, which has usually caused “insurgents” to give them a wide berth. Ukrainian paratroopers have served as members of the 81st Tactical Group, the unit that was created based on the 80th Airmobile Regiment, in Iraq as well. The 13th Battalion of the 95th Airmobile Brigade has served in Kosovo. This battalion is considered an especially elite unit since it is composed entirely of professionals, while other elements of the Ukrainian Airmobile forces have a substantial number of conscripts. It is also noteworthy that the Ukrainian airmobile forces have female soldiers serving who are airborne qualified. The 95th Airmobile Brigade alone has around 100 female paratroopers.
Keeping everyone fully parachute qualified has been a problem due to lack of funding for parachutes and aviation support. Despite the fact that the airmobile units are deemed the Ukraine’s rapid response forces, there is not a streamlined command structure to send them into action. While the US 82nd Airborne Division can have a battalion wheels up and on its way in hours, the Ukrainian airborne forces as of 2006 would have taken weeks to be ready to deploy.
Ukrainian airmobile troops continue to use weapons from the Soviet era. The primary rifle is the folding stock AKS-74, a rifle well proven with Soviet airborne forces over decades of use. Some of the SMG versions of the AKS-74, the AKSU, are also in use. The RPK-74 remains the primary light machine gun. The Dragunov SVD sniper rifle remains in use among Ukrainian snipers. Though not as precise as some Western sniping rifles, the SVD is very durable and as a semi-auto with a 10-round box magazine allows Ukrainian snipers to get off a lot of well-placed rounds quickly in support of an operation. The 4x scope has an illuminated reticle to aid in night operations. Some Russian snipers have told me that the SVD actually shoots better with the bayonet mounted due to barrel harmonics. The GP-25 and GP-30 under barrel grenade launchers are mounted on some AKS-74s. The AGS-17 automatic grenade launcher has been in use with the airmobile forces, but it may be replaced by the AGS-30 or another system. Those Ukrainian paratroopers armed with a pistol will normally still use a Makarov PM.
Members of both the Russian and Ukrainian VDV are trained to believe that the individual paratrooper (Desantniki) is the ultimate weapon. As a result, great stress is put on martial arts training and use of the entrenching tool, bayonet, and fighting knife in close combat. Kizlyar fighting knives are particularly prized by Ukrainian airborne troops.
Ukrainian airmobile troops have a justified reputation for individual toughness; however, a tight defense budget and cumbersome military bureaucracy keeps them from reaching maximum effectiveness. Still, Ukrainian airmobile troops take great pride in their elite status. I think a good example of the image of the Ukrainian paratrooper is portrayed in a recruiting video for the Ukrainian Army that is on YouTube.
In the clip, some beautiful Ukrainian girls are gathered around a rich guy with a new car begging him to take them for a ride. Down the road comes a group of handsome, fit paratroopers riding on their armored fighting vehicle. After a short chat with the girls, the paratroopers head on down the road, with the girls following them!