The Battle of Grozny in 1995 lasted over three months resulting in heavy casualties. It was a Russian Pyrrhic victory. This is case study of network tactics in an individual battle. Timothy Thomas wrote a good history of the battle here. As Thomas points out, cities will become primary battlefields for 21st century insurgencies.

The Russian Army battled Chechen separatists in the early 1990s in the first of the recent Russian-Chechen wars. On December 31st, 1994, the Russian military forces began their invasion of Grozny, a city of 500,000. Grozny is situated in the open territory north of the mountains and was originally built as a regional stronghold.

The Russians attempted to put down the emerging separatist movement and restore Russian control over the province. The Order of Battle listed 24,000 Russian security forces well supported by helicopters, artillery, and armored vehicles. Chechen irregulars estimated strength was at most 10,000, mostly with hand-held infantry weapons. The Russian Defense Minister expected the Army to capture the city within a week.

The Russians security forces combined the Army and Internal Ministry security forces in an unwieldy command system for a rushed operation. The Russian Army consisted of poorly trained conscripts, all of whom were green (no combat experience).
The Russians expected the Chechens to use a traditional linear defense strategy using concentric rings, with an outer perimeter, a main battle line, and a finale circle of reserves.

The Russian strategy called for linear penetration of these defensive lines. Units would penetrate the outer perimeter and capture key transportation hubs to deny enemy movement. Linear penetration of linear defenses would overwhelm the Chechens, seize critical locations and gain rapid control over the city. Russian forces entered the city from three directions and seized critical locations such as bridges and railroad stations. The plans called for invasion from four directions, but units failed to coordinate and arrive on time. Weather conditions prevented the Russians from using their air power.

This is not what happened.

The Chechen guerrillas trained in the Soviet military, spoke fluent Russian and understood Russian weapons and tactics. A number of Chechens were veteran fighters as well. They could communicate openly through radio because the Russians did not speak Chechen and could not translate at the pace needed to act on any intel. Some Chechen regular soldiers used mechanized equipment, but most units were loosely organized militias armed with AK assault rifles, RPG-7s and light 82mm mortars. They were amongst the best guerrillas in the world in the 1990s – and the Russians deeply underestimated them.

Chechens used non-linear defenses based on squads networking together on a local basis. They understood they were outnumbered and outgunned so they could not adopt a linear defense to defend any section of the city. Chechen organized their forces into mobile squads and companies.

  • Squads of 6-12 men. One sniper, One RPG, rest with assault rifles.
  • Observation teams, Kill teams, Reserve teams, Ambush Teams
  • Squads formed 25 man platoons and 75-100 man companies
  • Autonomous company command

These small units were self-sufficient and could operate without complex coordination. They used swarming tactics. Perimeter units observed Russian Army movements and relayed intelligence. Multiple Chechen mobile companies swarmed and destroyed isolated Russian units. Chechen forces used sewers and house-to-house combat to delay or evade Russian troops. Booby-traps, suicide bombings and mines extracted a toll on the Russians.

“the Chechens also had a fixed method of conducting ambushes. The ambush was based on the 25-man group, composed of three mobile squads of two heavy machine gunners, two RPG gunners, one sniper, and three riflemen. Three of these 25-man groups (supported by an 82mm-mortar crew with two tubes) would conduct an ambush as a 75-man unit. Three of the eight-man squads would serve as a “killer team” and set up in three positions along the ambush route. They would occupy the lower level of buildings in the ambush zone to prevent being wounded by incoming artillery. The remaining fifty men would occupy blocking positions to ensure the entrapped Russians could not escape and to prevent reinforcements from entering the ambush area.”

The Chechen Strategy looked like this:
The defense was fluid. Russian columns could not make kinetic contact with any Chechen units. They were forced to disperse to engage. Chechens observed and ambushed isolated Russian units.

The 131st Maikop Brigade, roughly 1,000 men supported by AFVs and APCs, faced no resistance on entering the city and advanced to railroad station in the city center. Colonel Savin assumed, like most Russians, that the Chechens routed and fled.

“Later in the day, however, Savin’s communication chief reported that he had heard the phrase “welcome to hell” through his head set. Savin did not know if this was some type of joke or a warning. Suddenly, without warning, some Chechen fighters appeared behind the train station, and all hell broke loose. The Russians did not understand initially what had happened. Since the situation appeared so calm, they had gone into the train station, hardly securing their vehicles or even bothering to post guards. In the meantime, Chechen mobile units had fallen back on the city center and had surrounded them at the train station. They began methodically to destroy the Soviet BMPs with RPG fire.”

The Chechens surrounded and massacred the 131st over the next three days. The Maikop Brigade lost its commanding officer, 800 men, 20 of 26 tanks, and 102 of 120 armored vehicles. The 81st Motorized Rifle Regiment took massive casualties as well. A number of isolated Russian companies and platoons suffered heavy losses.

The initial assault from December 31st to January 3rd was an unmitigated disaster. It is a case study of everything going wrong. Russian intelligence failed to assess Chechen strength and organization. The commanders failed to coordinate their units. Russian troops were poorly trained and unprepared for urban combat. Troops poorly maintained their equipment and brought inadequate supplies. The list goes on. The Chechens were similarly incompetent, but their tactics were better suited to modern urban warfare. Chechen unit autonomy meant some units were highly effective killers while some where poorly led and easily destroyed.

The Russians responded with a massive artillery bombardment of the city. Artillery hit the city with up to 4,000 rounds an hour. The Russians tried to disrupt Chechen mobile defenses with in-depth bombardment to suppress movement and destroy fortifications. It took until January 15th to finally encircle the entire town and cut off Chechen resupply and reinforcements. Chechens resorted to terrorist strikes and suicide attacks to demoralize and further confuse Russian forces. Throughout February, Chechen mobile squads continued to harass and ambush Russian forces at night.

The Russians only drove the Chechens out of Grozny through brute force and with massive civilian casualties. The Chechen “President” Dudayev fled the city after the defeat and found refuge in the mountains. The Chechens set up similar mobile defenses throughout Chechen towns and cities along with traditional mountain guerrillas. So began the Chechen independence wars that continued until 2004.

The Chechens used civilians and non-combatants to collect intelligence, deceive Russians, supply rebels and on occasion as human shields and hostages. The international media reaction to massive civilian casualties was an unexpected bonus for Chechen rebels. The Chechens bore responsibility for militarizing civilians and civilian property, yet the Russians suffered the blame. Experiences like this in Chechnya, Israel and elsewhere convinced Islamists that the Information War is winnable, even when the battlefield is not. Their objectives shifted to using civilians to limit the firepower available to Nation-States.

Information Warfare amplifies the relative power of militant networks
-Create a false perception of reality
-Demoralize the enemy public
-Prevent modern armies from using Air and Artillery power
-Destroy enemy political will to continue the struggle

Islamist insurgents studied the Chechen strategy and adopted their tactics in other battlefronts in Afghanistan, Somalia, and Iraq. The loose and flexible command structure works well for dispersed and poorly trained militias.

Al-qaeda-led insurgents used Grozny-style mobile defensive tactics in the Battle of Fallujah in 2004. The low-casualty American victory is all the more extraordinary if compared to Grozny or other urban battles. If the Islamists studied Grozny, then the Americans, Israelis, Europeans, Chinese, and Indians are now studying Fallujah.