Does the United States Stand a Chance Against Russia in a Ground War?
Let’s just hope the two sides never meet.
Here's What You Need to Know: In a matchup between American and Russian infantry forces, American forces have a decisive advantage in firepower.
The United States and Russia field two of the most powerful armies in the world. Heavily mechanized and salted with combat veterans, the U.S. Army and Russian Ground Forces have spent the better part of the last fifteen years not only chasing guerrillas from Afghanistan to Syria, but also fighting conventional-style wars in Iraq and Georgia. Now, as tensions between the NATO and Russia place U.S. and Russian ground pounders in the same country (Syria) or just across the border from one another (the Baltics), the question is: in a head to head matchup, which side would prevail?
The backbone of U.S. Army infantry is the infantry squad. In light infantry—including air assault, airborne and mountain units—a squad consists of nine soldiers that further divide into a squad leader and two fire teams. Each fire team of four soldiers consists of a fire team leader, rifleman, grenadier, and an automatic rifleman equipped with two M4 carbines, an M4 carbine equipped with the M320 underbarrel grenade launcher and the M249 squad automatic weapon. Individual soldiers will carry single-shot AT-4 light antitank weapons as issued.
In mechanized infantry units, the nine-man squad consists of the two- or three-man Stryker interim combat vehicle or M2 Bradley Fighting Vehicle crew, plus six soldiers that dismount to fight on foot. A mechanized infantry squad can put fewer soldiers on the ground, but it also has the benefit of vastly increased mobility and firepower in the form of the Bradley’s 25mm M242 Bushmaster autocannon, TOW antitank missiles, and 7.62mm coaxial machine gun. Strykers are currently armed with M2 .50 caliber machine guns but Europe-based units are receiving a new turret upgrade that includes a 30mm cannon or Javelin antitank missile. The mechanized dismount team also has its own M4 carbines, a M320 grenade launcher, one M249 squad automatic weapon and a Javelin shoulder-fired medium range antitank missile, capable of defeating the heaviest Russian armor at ranges of up to 2,187 yards.
Mechanized infantry platoons consist of three mechanized squads without additional firepower, although a Stryker platoon will have a weapons squad with two M240B machine guns. Each platoon has four M2s or four Strykers. Light infantry platoons consist of three infantry squads and add additional firepower via a weapons squad. The weapons squad is made up by a squad leader and nine soldiers armed with two M240B machine guns and two Javelin antitank missiles, and allows the platoon commander, typically a lieutenant, to parcel out this firepower to the squads that will likely need it the most. A new addition to the weapons squad is the 84mm M3 “Carl Gustav” recoilless rifle, versatile antipersonnel, antifortification, and antiarmor weapons system first introduced in 1946. The result: an infantry platoon with two antipersonnel and two antiarmor weapons, and a fifth weapon that can function as both.
The Russian fields motor rifle (mechanized) squads and light infantry equivalent squads in the airborne forces. A typical Russian motor rifle squad will consist of a BMP-2/3 infantry fighting vehicle or BTR-82A wheeled armored personnel carrier, a three man crew, and a seven man dismount team armed with AK-74M assault rifles, two PKM machine guns and a RPG-16 short range antitank weapon. The GP-30 grenade launcher, the Russian equivalent of the M320, is fitted to some AK-74Ms. The PKP “Pecheneg” will eventually replace the PKM but for now the Russian army has plenty of the older weapons.
The Russian motor rifle squad is nearly identical to the U.S. Army mechanized infantry squad except it does not have a medium range antitank guided missile launcher in the same category as the Javelin. Just like in American squads, single shot, disposable RPG-18 light antitank weapons are issued as needed.
Russian airborne infantry squads are similar to motor rifle squads, built around a BMD-3, BMD-4, BTR-D airborne armored vehicles. Airborne squads are smaller owing to the smaller personnel carrying capacity of BMD and BTR-D vehicles. Despite having fewer troops, Russian airborne forces are much more mobile than their American counterparts. The BMD-3, which has a 30mm autocannon and BMD-4, which has a 30mm autocannon and 100mm cannon, are both armed with the Konkurs antitank missile system.
At the platoon level, Russian motor rifle forces add no additional firepower except for a single designated marksman armed with a SVD rifle, nor does it add additional vehicles. A motor rifle or airborne platoon of three squads consists of three vehicles plus dismounts.
Russian infantry have some advantages over their American counterparts. Three vehicle platoons means the Russian Ground Forces, man for man and vehicle for vehicle, can field twenty five percent more platoons than the U.S. Army. Theoretically this gives a commander more tactical options on the battlefield. Russian airborne forces, owing to their mechanization, have much greater tactical mobility than foot-mobile American paratroopers. Moscow’s parachutists can also airdrop farther from their objectives, making their way to them in their vehicles, helping keep vulnerable air transports loaded with soldiers at a distance from lethal enemy air defenses.
Still, U.S. Army infantry have a decisive edge over their Russian counterparts. One reason is organizational resiliency: if a Russian platoon loses a vehicle, it loses one third of its combat power. If an American platoon loses a vehicle, it only loses a quarter of its firepower. A Russian platoon that loses two vehicles is reduced to a single vehicle.
U.S. mechanized vehicles are also superior to their Russian counterparts. While both the Bradley and the BMP can carry seven soldiers, mount a 25 to 30mm autocannon and are armed with antitank missiles, the Bradley is better armored, has a digital battle management system, and carries twice as many antitank missiles ready to fire. The BMP is inferior in all respects. The American Stryker and Russian BTR-82A wheeled armored vehicles, on the other hand are roughly the same. Both are set to receive updates, the Stryker with a 30mm autocannon or Javelin turret and the BTR-82A a turret with a 57mm gun.
Dismounted firepower is where U.S. forces truly shine. Against armored threats, an American platoon can bring three Javelin missiles, a M3 recoilless rifle, and numerous AT4 short-range antitank rockets to bear against enemy armor, engaging enemies at ranges of up to 2,000 yards. Their Russian comrades-in-arms could bring only unguided RPG-16 and RPG-18 rockets against enemies at a maximum effective range of about 300 yards. Against infantry, American forces bring six light and two medium machine guns and a M3 recoilless rifle to bear, versus three medium machine guns and a SVD designated marksman rifle for the Russians.
American and Russian infantry would never fight alone. Both would fight as part of an integrated team with armor, mortars, heavy artillery, air support, and electronic warfare all contributing to win the battle. Still, in a matchup between American and Russian infantry forces American forces have a decisive advantage in firepower. Let’s hope the two sides never do meet.
Kyle Mizokami is a defense and national-security writer based in San Francisco who has appeared in the Diplomat, Foreign Policy, War is Boring and the Daily Beast. In 2009, he cofounded the defense and security blog Japan Security Watch. You can follow him on Twitter: @KyleMizokami.
This article first appeared in December 2017.
Image: REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin