What if a Soviet mechanized infantry battalion had tried to start World War III?
The Fulda Gap is not well known outside military planners and wargamers.
But if World War III happened, that would be where one of the first battles would be fought between the United States Army and the Soviet Red Army.
Who would come out on top?
Let’s go away from the big picture – and instead take a more tactical look at this scenario.
We’ll put a troop from the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment (nine M1A2 SEP Abrams tanks, 13 M3A3 Bradley Cavalry Fighting Vehicles, two M1064 120mm mortars, and a M577 command track) against a battalion of Soviet mechanized infantry (42 BMP-2 infantry fighting vehicles, plus 3 BRDM-2 reconnaissance vehicles and eight 120mm mortars).
The American cavalry troop’s nine M1A2 Abrams tanks feature the M256 120mm gun, and each tank carries 40 rounds for that weapon. While the M256 is able to fire a number of rounds, the primary two we will look at are the M830A1 High-Explosive Anti-Tank (HEAT) round and the M829A3 armor-piercing “sabot” round.
The HEAT round uses a shaped charge to create a jet of molten metal to penetrate armor. The latter is, essentially, a dart of depleted uranium weighing about 20 pounds.
But let’s not sell the weapons on the 13 M3A3 Bradleys short — the Bradley Cavalry Fighting Vehicle has the M242 Bushmaster, a 25mm chain gun with 1,500 rounds of ammunition and a two-round launcher for the BGM-71 Tube-Launched Optically Tracked Wire-guided missile, with a dozen rounds.
The M3A3 has a crew of three and can carry two cavalry scouts.
The primary opponent that the Americans will face is the BMP-2. BMP is short for Boyevaya Mashina Pekhoty, or “infantry combat vehicle.”
The BMP-2 has a 30mm 2A42 autocannon with 500 rounds, and a launcher for the AT-5 “Spandrel” anti-tank missile with five rounds. It has a crew of three and carries a squad of seven infantrymen.
The BRDM-2 is a four-wheeled armored car that has a 14.5mm KPV machine gun and carries a crew of four.
You may ask, why mechanized infantry and not tanks?
Believe it or not, it’s due to Soviet doctrine. As Viktor Suvarov pointed out in “Inside the Soviet Army,” the doctrine of the Red Army was “the maximum concentration of forces in the decisive sector.” The Soviets would not be sending their tanks first, but instead, mechanized infantry to probe and find a weak spot. Once found, then more and more reserves would be sent to punch through the hole.
So, these 42 BMP-2s and the three BRDM-2s make their way through their sector of the Fulda Gap, probing to find a weak point in American lines, they happen on the American cavalry troop.
So, how does this fight go down? The real answer depends on who sees whom first. Here, the Americans will have an advantage due to their thermal sights and their advanced fire-control systems. Furthermore, the BRDM-2 is not exactly what one would call “well-protected,” having less than half an inch of armor.
The Americans, on the other hand, would likely be fighting from positions that are somewhat prepared – providing both cover and concealment.
The BRDMs may find the Americans, but the announcement will likely be marked by the BRDMs turning into bonfires. That will give the Red Army battalion commander an idea of where the Americans are – but he won’t have much more information. He may send one of his companies (consisting of 12 of his BMP-2s) forward, at which point, the best he can hope for is to get some fragmentary information as that company is wiped out.
Meanwhile, the American cavalry troop is re-positioning itself for the next round. When the remainder of the Soviet battalion attacks, there will be a longer firefight.
This is where the Russian battalion finds itself in a world of hurt. The 30mm autocannons won’t be able to beat the armor on an Abrams tank, but in order to use the one weapon they have that can defeat an Abrams tank (the AT-5 missiles), they have to hold still – making them sitting ducks. The Soviet battalion will likely be quickly wiped out, even as it uses its mortars to try to suppress the American units.
After that engagement, the American cavalry troop would probably pull back to another set of positions. It will have suffered some losses – probably among its Bradley Fighting Vehicles — but it will likely have most of its strength, ready for the next attack.
Even though they won the skirmish, it is very likely that they would have needed to pull back anyhow – the Soviets would have used their numerical superiority to find a gap, and NATO would have had to adjust their lines to avoid a decisive breakthrough. But the Americans could take some small comfort in knowing that they gave the Soviets a very bloody nose in the first round.