Articles

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.

A Russian-made BMP with the Polish army.

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.

(DoD photo by Eddie McCrossan)

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.

(U.S. Army photo by Sgt. David N. Beckstrom)

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.

History

This pilot shot down an enemy fighter at Pearl Harbor in his pajamas

Comfort is important when doing a hard job. If it's hot on the work site, it's important to stay cool. If it's hazardous, proper protection needs to be worn. And comfort is apparently key when the Japanese sneak attack the Navy. Just ask Lt. Phil Rasmussen, who was one of four pilots who managed to get off the ground to fight the Japanese in the air.

Rasmussen, like many other American GIs in Hawaii that day, was still asleep when the Japanese launched the attack at 0755. The Army Air Forces 2nd Lieutenant was still groggy and in his pajamas when the attacking wave of enemy fighters swarmed Wheeler Field and destroyed many of the Army's aircraft on the ground.

Damaged aircraft on Hickam Field, Hawaii, after the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

There were still a number of outdated Curtiss P-36A Hawk fighters that were relatively untouched by the attack. Lieutenant Rasmussen strapped on a .45 pistol and ran out to the flightline, still in his pajamas, determined to meet the sucker-punching Japanese onslaught.

By the time the attack ended, Wheeler and Hickam Fields were both devastated. Bellows Field also took a lot of damage, its living quarters, mess halls, and chapels strafed by Japanese Zeros. American troops threw back everything they could muster – from anti-aircraft guns to their sidearms. But Rasmussen and a handful of other daring American pilots managed to get in the air, ready to take the fight right back to Japan in the Hawks if they had to. They took off under fire, but were still airborne.

Pearl Harbor pilots Harry Brown, Phil Rasmussen, Ken Taylor, George Welch, and Lewis Sanders.

They made it as far as Kaneohe Bay.

The four brave pilots were led by radio to Kaneohe, where they engaged 11 enemy fighters in a vicious dogfight. Even in his obsolete old fighter, Rasmussen proved that technology is no match for good ol' martial skills and courage under fire. He managed to shoot down one of the 11, but was double-teamed by two attacking Zeros.

Gunfire and 20mm shells shattered his canopy, destroyed his radio, and took out his hydraulic lines and rudder cables. He was forced out of the fighting, escaping into nearby clouds and making his way back to Wheeler Field. When he landed, he did it without brakes, a rudder, or a tailwheel.

There were 500 bullet holes in the P-36A's fuselage.

Skillz.

Lieutenant Rasmussen earned the Silver Star for his boldness and would survive the war, getting his second kill in 1943. He retired from the U.S. Air Force in 1965, but will live on in the Museum of the United States Air Force, forever immortalized as he hops into an outdated aircraft in his pajamas.

(U.S. Air Force photo)

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