Wednesday, 15 March 2000


Published in Analytical Articles

By Dr. Theodore Karasik (3/15/2000 issue of the CACI Analyst)

BACKGROUND: An important building block of Chechen combat capabilities are Chechen social structures that consist of tribal/clan formations divided between low-land inhabitants and the mountaineers. When threatened by outside forces Chechens have traditionally used intertribal fusion to confront invaders. Indeed, the Chechens have been in their present geographical area for hundreds of generations and are fiercely independent.

BACKGROUND: An important building block of Chechen combat capabilities are Chechen social structures that consist of tribal/clan formations divided between low-land inhabitants and the mountaineers. When threatened by outside forces Chechens have traditionally used intertribal fusion to confront invaders. Indeed, the Chechens have been in their present geographical area for hundreds of generations and are fiercely independent. Chechens "commute" from their homes to the field of battle allowing them to share communications from the battlefield and provide moral support. While home, they share their latest experiences with other clan units, offering advice about how to fight the Russians or how to alter grenade launchers with saws to provide them with more velocity.

Chechen clans, called taip, identify member descent from a common ancestor twelve generations removed. A particular taip might consist of two to three villages of 400 to 600 people each and supply 600 fighters. For combat purposes, these groups are broken down into units of 150 and further subdivided into squads of about 20 for combat operations that work one-week shifts, one after the other. Islam influences the Chechen clan system and also strongly influences Chechen military culture. The prominence of Sufi orders such as the Naqshabandiya or Qadiriya have provided the ideological basis and organizational form to fight Russian control in the Northern Caucasus. These groups are numerous, having more than fifty subgroups that deeply influence family and society. Many Chechen field commanders trace their roots to these types of religious groups.

The Chechen’s tribal/clan structure provides an ideal organizational structure for the war the Chechens are fighting. Their basic combat group consists of fifteen to twenty personnel, subdivided into three or four-man fighting cells. These cells are deployed as anti-armor hunter-killer teams consisting of an antitank gunner, a machine or sub-machine gunner, and a sniper. The sniper and machine gunner pin down Russian supporting infantry, while the antitank gunner engage the armored target. Normally, five or six hunter-killer teams attack an armored vehicle in unison and can force serious delays in Russian actions.

IMPLICATIONS: Innovations in combat tactics by Chechens fighters have proved effective against traditional Russian military organizations and structures. In fact, Russian forces seem to be overpowered by clan-based military tactics. In cities, Chechen hunter-killer teams strike Russian forces by knocking out lead and rear vehicles on streets, trapping the rest in a firefight. Chechen fighters use the tactic of "vertical pincers." Chechens hold the third floor and above of a building, while the Russians hold the first two floors, and perhaps the roof. The Chechens move troops down and attack the Russian units below through the second floor ceiling, sometimes in conjunction with Chechen cells that had holed up in the basement, who would open fire from below. Entire battles are fought through building floors, ceilings, and walls without visual contact.

Chechen military effectiveness is, in great part, a function of the demonstrated combat power of very small units to maneuver when properly organized. With their small, highly mobile clan-based team, Chechens hold Russian helicopters at risk with surface to air missiles (SAMs) and give their small units great mobility by deploying each in a small truck or passenger car. Chechen mobile air defense weapons are controlled by radio and change positions constantly, hampering the Russians’ ability to detect and destroy them. The Chechen forces also lure Russian air assets into specially prepared "kill zones." Chechen forces jam Russian radio transmissions and use radio direction finding equipment to hunt and kill Russian controllers that guide Russian forces to targets. When Chechens knock down Russian helicopters, they swarm their small combat teams to Russian landing zones hitting them with machine gun, sniper and RPG fire.

The Chechens have also employed diverse psychological operations, such as deception, perception management and electronic warfare to a powerful effect. One proven tactic involves hanging Russian wounded and dead upside down in the windows of defended positions forcing the Russians to fire at their comrades in order to engage rebels. Chechen fighters dress in Russian uniforms to get through hostile checkpoints allowing them to strike repeatedly behind Russian lines. At a more technical level, the Chechens send false radio messages intended to be intercepted in order to confuse Russian forces. The Chechens also transmit their own, personal taped messages using small, mobile television platforms with radio and television equipment to override Russian television programming.

CONCLUSION: Chechen military tactics represent an innovative way to approach warfare in broad, non-linear terms against large, bulky militaries. This is part of a century-long trend toward the increasing empowerment of small groups with useful weaponry, good communications, and knowledge of battle space. Beyond the size of combat units, organizational issues impel an examination of command and control questions. The Chechens have a very robust capability to disseminate functional information. They take advantage of this fact by allowing a high degree of tactical decentralization of authority for their many small maneuver units. Confronted by a dire Russian threat, the Chechens are sharing important insights with other clans based on their combat experience in Abkhazia, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, and Georgia.

Moscow’s inability to move outside a linear, sequential approach to seizing control of Chechen territory, with emphasis on the capital Grozny, bodes ill for future conduct of the war. Chechen social networks form the basis for their military organizational structures, imbuing the latter with much flexibility and the sort of durability under stress that has been required in the war with the Russians. Chechen tactical success and Russia’s inability to counter them may indicate that the level of violence in the war will continue to rise. Russia’s destruction of urban and rural areas illustrates that all property and citizens must be destroyed to obtain concrete military objectives. But the Russians are still trapped in hierarchical, Cold War-era institutional structures that are preventing Moscow from a "final" victory. The experience of Chechnya is a crucible for Moscow in that the Russian military must reform and innovate —or face collapse.

AUTHOR BIO: Dr. Theodore Karasik is a Resident Consultant with the RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, California. He is editor of Russia and Eurasia Armed Forces Review Annual from Academic International Press.


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