River Crossing Operations
“Ain’t no river wide enough / To keep me from getting to you”
Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell from “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”
Today, June 14, 2022, is D+110 in the Russian Invasion of Ukraine. This blog post does a deep dive into river crossing operations, Russian bridging equipment, and Russian bridging losses over the last four months. It also continues the crowd sourced Battle Damage Assessment update of the entire Russian Invasion of Ukraine.
River Crossing Operations
Creeks and rivers are natural lines of defense. They are also exceptionally challenging to cross during offensive military operations. Since there are approximately 23,000 rivers in Ukraine, they have become defensive lines for the Ukrainian Army to defend and challenging obstacles for the Russian Army to cross. In May, the Russian Army failed twice in its attempt to cross the Seversky Donets River. Ukrainian military forces were able to anticipate Russian crossing sites (both near-side and far-shore lodgment) and then used artillery to destroy the Russian bridging equipment as it was being put into the river. You can see the remnants of one of the Russian Army’s failed river crossing operations below.
Why are river crossings so tough? River crossings against a determined enemy are one of the most difficult combined arms operations possible. Reconnaissance, close air support, artillery, direct fire weapons, securing the near and far sides, the building of the bridge, and continuing the attack all have to be well-planned and then tightly synchronized. Momentum and initiative must be maintained throughout the operation. Units must plan and execute five sequential combined arms attacks (Remember, combined arms attacks are the combination and synchronization of tanks, infantry, artillery, engineers, aviation, and joint capabilities (think Air Force or Navy fighters, bombers, and UAVs) to defeat enemy ground forces and to seize, occupy, and defend terrain.) while simultaneously attacking deep targets to prevent the enemy from counterattacking the crossing site or lodgment. River crossing operations are generally done in five phases:
- Advance to the River (Phase I). Ground forces attack to seize the nearside objective. The nearside objective will be where one end of the bridge is emplaced or boats/rafts load people and vehicles to the far-shore. Simultaneously with the advance to the river, artillery, helicopters, drones, and close air support are attacking targets on and near the far-shore, the exit-bank and bridgehead objectives. Other forces may feint towards a different location on the river to deceive the enemy on where the crossing will occur. See the diagram below to understand the phases and objectives of the operation better.
- Assault Across the River (Phase II). Units assault across the gap to seize the far-shore lodgment, eliminating direct fire into the crossing sites. The far-shore lodgment is where the other end of the bridge is emplaced or boats/rafts disembark people and vehicles. Helicopters can move infantry to the far-shore while boats or rafts can move soldiers and heavier equipment across the river. As part of this phase, the attacker suppresses the far side with direct fire and artillery, while obscuring the crossing site with smoke and/or electronic jamming. Simultaneously with the assault across the river, artillery, helicopters, drones, and close air support are attacking targets on and near the exit-bank and bridgehead objectives.
- Advance From the Far Shore (Phase III). During this phase, the engineers construct the bridge across the river. More forces cross the river. Once organized on the far-shore lodgment, infantry, tanks, and artillery rapidly conduct combined arms attacks to secure the exit bank and intermediate objectives that eliminate direct and observed indirect fires into the crossing area. Simultaneously with the advance from the far shore, artillery, helicopters, drones, and close air support are attacking targets on and near the bridgehead and final objectives. The failed Russian Army bridging operation in the picture above was disrupted and destroyed during Phase III. I am basing this on the observation that there are destroyed vehicles on both river banks and the bridge appeared to have spanned the river before being destroyed.
- Secure the Bridgehead Line (Phase IV). As friendly forces continue to build combat power (Remember, the US Army defines combat power as “the total means of destructive, constructive, and information capabilities that a military unit or formation can apply at a given time.”) on the far-shore, units conduct a combined arms attack to secure the bridgehead objectives to protect the bridgehead against a counterattack. This gains additional time and space for forces to buildup to attack out of the bridgehead. Simultaneously as the bridgehead line is secured, artillery, helicopters, drones, and close air support are attacking targets on and near the “final” objective.
- Continue the Attack (Phase V). Finally, forces conduct a combined arms attack out of the bridgehead to defeat the enemy at a “final” objective. This is a phase of the river crossing operation because the timing and initiation of this phase is typically dependent on the success of the other four phases of the river crossing. It also gets the attacking unit to avoid “tunnel vision” on the crossing and think beyond the river.
Using these five phases as an example, a hypothetical river crossing would be a two battalion (or Battalion Tactical Group (BTG)) operation (A BTG has 700 soldiers, 10 tanks and 30 infantry fighting vehicles organized into four companies). Throughout the operation artillery, mortars, and aviation would support the river crossing. An infantry/tank company team (100+ people and 10-15 tanks and infantry fighting vehicles) would seize the nearside objective.
An infantry company would seize the far-shore lodgment by either floating across the river or using helicopters to land on the far-shore. Another infantry/tank company team (100+ people and 10-15 tanks and infantry fighting vehicles) would secure the exit-bank and intermediate objectives by floating across the river on rafts or waiting until the bridge is constructed by an engineer company. Another infantry/tank company team (100+ people and 10-15 tanks and infantry fighting vehicles) would secure the bridgehead line. Once the bridgehead line is secure, a second battalion (or BTG) would be passed through the first BTG and continue the attack to the final objective.
Most armies have two types of bridges. The first are bridges which can do dry gap crossings, or crossings in which the bridge is supported only by the abutments. The bridge doesn’t touch the water, hence a “dry gap.” Second, armies have bridges which can do wet gap crossings, or crossings in which the bridges is supported by the water.
Recently, I had the opportunity to take a ride on the German-designed M3, a self-propelled, amphibious bridging vehicle for wet gap crossings. For those who aren’t familiar — the M3 is the world’s most modern and fastest to deploy amphibious bridge and ferry system in terms of loading capacity, assembly time, and cross-country and in-water maneuverability. It is currently used by Germany, the United Kingdom, Singapore, South Korea, and other countries to do wet gap crossings.
Russian Dry Gap Capabilities and Losses
The Russian Army’s primary dry gap bridging capabilities are provided by the TMM-3 and the MTU-72.
- The name TMM stands for “Tyazhelo Mekhniznrovanny Most,” which is Russian for “Heavy Mechanized Bridge.” The TMM remains in use but is no longer in production. The TMM-3 is a 10 meter long bridge that is carried on a truck. The bridge can hold up to 50 tons (a T-90 tank weighs 45 tons). Four bridges can be linked together to cross a gap of up to 40 meters. Since the war began, the Russian Army has lost 23 TMM-3s according to the Oryx Web Site.
- The name MTU-72 stands for “Mostoukladchik-72” which is Russian for “Bridge-Laying Vehicle-72.” The MTU-72 is a 20 meter long bridge mounted on a T-72 tank hull. When the bridge is erected, it can hold vehicles up to 50 tons. Since the war began, the Russian Army has lost 1 MTU-72.
Wet Gap Capabilities and Losses
The Russian Army has two types of wet gap bridging capabilities — the older PMP Floating Bridge System and the more modern PP-2005 Floating Bridge System.
- The PMP Floating Bridge System was designed after World War II. PMP stands for “Pontonno-Mostovoy Park” or “Pontoon Bridge Park.” The PMP Floating Bridge System uses 50 trucks to haul 12 BMK tugboats, 32 floating sections, and 4 abutments to the crossing site. It can be assembled into a group of rafts which can ferry equipment across a wider river or into one pontoon bridge that can span a 382 meter wide river. The bridge can hold up to 50 tons. The tugboats are used to either ferry the rafts across the river or put the bridge into place on the river.
- The PP-2005 Floating Bridge System was designed after the break-up of the Soviet Union. PP stands for “Pontonno Park” or “Pontoon Park.” The PP-2005 Floating Bridge System uses 54 trucks to haul 12 BMK tugboats, 32 floating sections, and 8 abutments to the crossing site. It can be assembled into a group of rafts or into one pontoon bridge that can span a 268 meter wide river. Bridges of 60, 90 and 120 tons as well as ferries with a carrying capacity from 90 to 360 tons can be created with the bridge system. Once again, the tugboats are used to either ferry the rafts across the river or put the bridge into place on the river.
Since the war began, the Russians have lost 12 boats (4 BMK-130/150s and 8 BMK 460) and 53 sections (9 PMP, 23 PP-2005, and 21 unknown) of floating bridge according to the Oryx website. In essence, the Russians have lost an entire floating bridge and a half.
For context, the US Army has 26 floating bridges in both the active duty (4) and reserve (22). I was unable to find the Russian Army’s number of bridge companies. I suspect the Russian Army has a similar inventory. If so, they have lost 10% of their bridging capacity since the war began.
Total Russian BDA (As of June 13, 2022 at 15:00 EDT) the Oryx Website
Russian forces have lost since the war began:
- 774x T-64/72/80/90s Tanks damaged, destroyed, abandoned and captured
- Average of 6.9x tanks damaged, destroyed, abandoned and captured per day
- 1,104x BMPs/BTRs/BMDs (Armored Personnel Carriers) damaged, destroyed, abandoned and captured
- Average of 10x BMPs/BTRs damaged, destroyed, abandoned and captured per day
- 164x Engineer Vehicles (Including the 89 different bridging capabilities described above) damaged, destroyed, abandoned and captured
- 251x 152 mm 2S19 Msta and BM-21 122mm MLRS (Field Artillery) damaged, destroyed, abandoned and captured
- 86x Air Defense Artillery Weapons or Surface to Air Missile Vehicles damaged, destroyed, abandoned and captured
- 91x MT-LB ACRV (Command and Control) damaged, destroyed, abandoned and captured
For More Information on the Conflict:
Invasion of Ukraine, D+103 SITREP, Invasion of Ukraine, D+89 SITREP,Invasion of Ukraine, D+75, SITREP,Leading During the Crisis in Ukraine and D+67 SITREP,BTGs, OoB, and Crowd Sourced BDA in Ukraine, D+11
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River Crossing Operations