Today we’re pitting the American soldier head to head versus the Russian soldier, and looking at the different capabilities, training, and equipment that each brings to bear. With tensions starting to heat up between the two former Cold War superpower adversaries, what would a showdown between east and west actually look like from the average soldier’s perspective, and who would fare best in a war that would surely be more catastrophic than both World Wars put together? That’s what we’ll find out, in this episode of the infographics show, American Infantryman vs Russian Infantryman.
First though let’s look at the background and recent history of both nation’s armed forces.
Though no longer the juggernaut that threatened Western Europe with its endless hordes of armored battle tanks, Russia still retains a formidable military. Unlike most nations on earth and perhaps with its rival, America, being the only other exception, Russian troops have faced ongoing combat action since the end of World War II, albeit at a much lower intensity than the United States. The largest conflict in modern times that Russia engaged in was the invasion of Afghanistan in December of 1979. Acting in support of a communist Afghan government, the Soviet Union soon found itself in a similar quagmire as the United States in its own invasion decades later. Ultimately a strategic failure, the Soviet Union finally pulled out of the country almost ten years later in February of 1989.
The United States by comparison has been involved in high-intensity combat action nearly every decade since the end of World War II. From Korea, to Vietnam, Grenada, Iraq, and then the double invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, America has fought wars in nearly every climate and continent on earth. Ultimately though, it would be the US’s own invasion of Afghanistan that would best highlight the key differences in American and Russian combat doctrine and capabilities.
When Soviet troops entered Afghanistan, they did so much like America, with overwhelming force spearheaded by columns of tanks and infantry fighting vehicles, overwatched by tremendous air support. Also like America, the initial Soviet invasion saw little resistance from the Afghan Mujahideen, who could not hope to match Soviet military power on a 1 on 1 basis. Much like the United States, Soviet troops had been trained to fight a conventional war against a conventional enemy- NATO- where enemy soldiers were clearly identifiable by their uniforms, and battlelines clearly drawn across each side. The Mujahideen would exploit this Soviet warfighting doctrine by instead fighting a guerilla, or asymmetric, war, wherein they would launch lightning raids before retreating into the countryside or melting into the local population, thus denying the Russians a chance to bring their formidable firepower to bear on any discernible enemy.
Exactly like America’s own war two decades later, each element of the Soviet armed forces would come into play, but the bulk of the war effort would be executed by small groups of soldiers. The small-unit-action nature of both the American and the Russian Afghan war thus gives us the best comparison point for the two nation’s infantry forces. So how well exactly did each nation’s soldiers perform?
Both nations entered the guerilla war phase of their Afghan campaigns at major disadvantages. Russian and American infantrymen had both trained for decades to face each other on European battlefields, and thus each nation’s infantry were primarily trained in mass-unit tactics and combined arms warfare wherein they would work in cohesion with other ground, air and fire-support elements. Trained to defeat columns of armored tanks and hordes of enemy infantry, the intimate, door-to-door nature of both nation’s Afghan war proved a steep learning curve.
The very first, and greatest, weakness exploited by the Afghan Mujahideen was both nation’s lack of training and experience in close quarters combat. During the Afghan-Soviet war, Russian infantrymen became notorious for their extremely poor performance once the enemy closed in to within 50 meters- once even breaking and retreating when a token force of Mujahideen surprised a superior Russian force by popping up from sewer tunnels within mere meters of their position. Just a few years into the war, Russia’s performance in close quarters was so poor that troops were mostly kept in fortified garrisons and would rarely engage in routine security patrols.
American troops would initially face the same challenges, with similar poor performance. While poor Russian performance was due to a variety of reasons such as low morale, unwilling conscripts forced to fight, and varying quality of training, American troops instead became a casualty of their own superiority. With unmatched air and ground-based fire support, American infantry had become accustomed to hunkering down when engaged, and calling in for overwhelming fire support to destroy the enemy, a luxury that Russian troops did not always enjoy.
However, faced with a door-to-door war and an enemy that struck from amidst the civilian population, the Americans were forced to forgo their fire-support advantages and would have to fight soldier-to-soldier like their Soviet counterparts had two decades prior. During the first two years of the war, this proved to be a very painful lesson, however within the first six months of the invasion, American basic training and Infantryman training programs had already begun to incorporate CQB, or Close Quarters Battle training. Within years, the United States had completely revamped its training programs and begun fielding an infantry force with great expertise in door-to-door urban combat.
Though other factors such as technology and more advanced equipment would play a role in minimizing US casualties versus their Soviet counterparts, it is American flexibility that would ultimately see them perform far better than the Soviet Union’s soldiers had decades earlier. Not only did the United States exhibit greater flexibility in its national training structure, but this adaptability has for a long time been a hallmark of American warfighting doctrine. Unlike their Russian counterparts who were trained to obey orders from very much a top-down command structure, US troops have for a long time been encouraged to act with a degree of autonomy, allowing small-unit commanders with on-the-ground situational awareness to make command decisions that a Russian unit would need much higher authority for.
This allows American troops to react much more quickly to the chaos of war, and though the US and Russia have thankfully never faced each other in combat, the difference between the two military doctrines was shockingly clear in the first American invasion of Iraq in 1990. Following a rigid, Russian-style, top-down command structure, Iraqi forces who at the time commanded one of the world’s largest and most formidable militaries, were utterly decimated by a fast-acting American-led invasion that outpaced Iraqi military leadership’s ability to relay orders in a timely manner to troops that needed them.
But what about the capabilities of each nation’s individual soldier? On a strictly one-on-one comparison, how does each nation’s infantryman stack up against the other?
The best place to start is by looking at the primary armament of each soldier. Though modernizing to a new battle rifle, the bulk of Russian ground forces still utilize the tried and true AK-47. Called “the greatest rifle ever made”, the AK-47’s legendary fame is not without merit. Seeing action in nearly every battlefield around the world since its invention in 1949, the AK-47 has proven reliable in every environmental condition possible. Firing a 7.62mm round at 715 meters per second, the AK-47 has major stopping power and penetration both, and is easily capable of the much-vaunted ‘first contact kill’, or ability to neutralize an enemy with the first round-on-target.
By comparison, the United States fields the M-4 carbine, a rifle that many, even within the US armed forces themselves, have for a long time considered inferior to the Russian AK. An evolution of the American M-16, it is also a reliable and proven rifle, but suffers from a lower mass bullet as it utilizes the smaller 5.56mm round.
While this lighter bullet gives the M-4 greater accuracy at greater range than the AK-47, it has been very loudly criticized for lacking in stopping power. In fact, one of the greatest complaints about its performance in the recent Iraq-Afghan war was that it would take multiple hits-on-target to neutralize an enemy, with the lighter round propelled at a whopping 910 meters per second often zipping straight through an unarmored opponent and leaving little physical damage behind. This criticism has plagued the M-4 nearly since inception, and many American servicemen lament that the one area the US military has always lagged behind their Russian counterparts in is the main battle rifle.
Though the American M-4 affords greater range and accuracy, in today’s urban, door-to-door wars it is the Russian AK-47 that has a clear advantage. Yet history has proven that it is the men, and not the weapons that win wars. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russian forces have suffered from long years of neglect, while American forces have continued to build on their hard-earned battlefield expertise, adding to a rich tradition of proficient warfighters. Yet Russia is a nation that has faced annihilation repeatedly throughout its troubled history at the hands of superior foes, and has emerged battered, bloodied, but triumphant from each challenge.
So who would fare better against the other, the American infantryman or his Russian counterpart? Let us know in the comments. Also, be sure to watch our other video called American Soldier vs British Soldier. Thanks for watching, and as always, don’t forget to like, share and subscribe. See you next time!
- The Terrorists of Iraq: Inside the Strategy and Tactics of the Iraq Insurgency; Malcom W. Nance