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How to Read Russian Army Battle Maps

Updated: Oct 6, 2023


New video on the basics of Russian military map symbology. This is meant to be a primer to teach you the most common symbols used on Russian Army maps and training manual graphics. There may be a follow-up in the future that breaks down a real Russian map, because I simplified it for ease of learning.


Transcript:

For anyone who studies military topics, you may vaguely know that there are symbols to denote military units, tactical actions, and some other things. The most common system is NATO’s, which is highly standardized. But the Russians have their own system, which is very different from the NATO standard and can be kind of confusing at first glance.


This video will teach you how to interpret the symbols on Russian Army maps, with practical examples. It won’t be all encompassing, because that’d take forever and you won’t remember it, but it will cover the most common and important symbols the Russians use on maps and in their training manuals. I’ve linked some resources in the description that you can reference in the future.


Unit Command Posts

First, the units themselves. The Russian symbology differs significantly from NATO in that there isn’t a self-contained symbol format to represent all unit types. Generally speaking, battalions and larger units are usually depicted as a flag or pennant representing their command post. Red always means a Russian unit, while blue is used for the enemy.


A triangular pennant represents a battalion or smaller detachment command post. A rectangle is a regiment. A rectangle with a slanted edge, long side on top, is a brigade. A rectangle with a swallowtail, that’s a flag with a V cut on the edge, is a division. A rectangle with two vertical lines towards the edges is a corps. A rectangle with two horizontal lines is an Army. And a big stylized waving banner is a front or military district, which would control a broad geographical area. If multiple unit command posts are in the same location, these flags can be stacked on top of each other on the same pole with the larger units on top.


Note that Russia’s combined arms and tank armies typically don't have corps between them and their divisions and brigades. The Army Corps terminology in the modern day usually refers to army formations under the command of Navy fleets, acting as coastal defense forces or ground force reserves to the more prestigious Naval Infantry.


The names of specific units will be printed on the flag for units larger than battalion, and as an annotation for battalions. So you kind of have to know a very small amount of Russian to know what they are, but here are some very common abbreviations.

  • MS, which looks like a Latin MC, means Motor Rifles, which is their most common type of infantry

  • DSh means Air Assault and PDP means Parachute or Airborne Regiment. These are VDV formations

  • In many cases, unit names will start with an “O”. It depends on the exact abbreviation, but this often means “separate” or “independent”. Most Russian maneuver brigades have the “separate” modifier because they aren’t part of a division. So OMSBr is a separate motorized brigade.

  • Meanwhile, BTGr means battalion tactical group.


When stationary, these flags don’t really represent what kind of unit they are, only its size. To understand what kind of unit it is, you have to look at the smaller units.


Unit Types: Vehicles

Units from battalions all the way down to a single squad can be depicted by the type of vehicle or weapon system they employ. As an example, a diamond depicts a tank or tank unit on the march. In this format, the unit’s size is represented by perpendicular lines on a shaft. Three lines is a battalion, two lines is a company, one line is a platoon, and no line is a squad or section. This symbol can also depict the commander of the unit when mounted, although when dismounted they are usually depicted as a triangle. If the graphic is going as low as individual soldiers, squad leaders and everyone else in the squad are normally circles or dots.


In terms of vehicles, like I’ve mentioned, tanks are depicted as diamonds. Armored personnel carriers or BTRs are a sort of rectangular pentagon, while infantry fighting vehicles or BMPs add a line to the base. That line gets filled in solid when it’s a BRM, which is essentially an infantry fighting vehicle used as a recon vehicle. And the point gets rounded off for a BRDM, which is a sort of scout car. Just a plain rounded rectangle is normally some sort of truck or at least based on a truck chassis.


The exception to these more standard shapes is this rhombus looking thing, often with a PMP written on it, which is a truck carrying a pontoon bridge segment. Two lines superimposed over a tank is an armored bridgelayer.


Modifiers depict a specialty function. If you add a little lightning bolt with an arrow, that means the vehicle is a radio station—a command vehicle, normally acting as the command post for units battalion-sized and larger. If you add a little hook on the tail, it’s a recovery vehicle. The diamond normally depicts a heavy recovery vehicle like a BREM-1, a pentagon is a tracked vehicle like the BREM-L, and a rounded rectangle is truck-based.


A straight line at the base means the tank is amphibious. A bracket at the front means it’s equipped with a mine-clearing plow, and a slanted line at the front means it has a bulldozer blade. A little square attached to the rear means the vehicle is towing a trailer, and a cross of course means it’s an ambulance.


For self-propelled weapons, a specific weapon can be added to these vehicle symbols. When they’re not self-propelled, meaning either towed or dismounted weapons, they’re normally depicted in a circle. Luckily for the NATO heads among you, these symbols are pretty similar to the NATO standards.


A generic gun is one straight line with two smaller lines flanking it. Size can be further clarified by the addition of lines at the base. From 122mm, which is normally a regimental gun, to 155mm, calibers over 155mm, and nuclear munitions by adding a circle. While the Russians actually use 152mm in that middle brigade/division fires role, these symbols are used to depict enemy formations as well.


Anti-tank guns are depicted by adding a little upwards facing arrow to the base. Note the Russians still have the MT-12 Rapira anti-tank gun in their active inventory.


An arrow added to the top depicts anti-aircraft artillery. Remove the two flanking lines and add lines at the base and it’s an anti-aircraft missile system, from MANPADS at the lowest to S-400 surface to air missiles at the highest.


To put it together, if you combine a field gun with a diamond, you have an SPG like the Akatsiya. Anti-aircraft missile plus an APC would be something like a Strela-10 and so on. When a half circle is added to the front of a vehicle, like a SAM, it means it has an integral radar.


For dismounted anti-tank guided missiles, the symbol is a square with a straight line out the front and an arrow at the back. For the self-propelled version, they simply add an arrow to the base of a vehicle symbol.


Mortars meanwhile are a circle with two tangential lines facing forward. This one does combine with the tank diamond specifically to make self-propelled variants.


Rocket artillery however doesn’t normally combine with vehicle symbols. Its symbol is a square with the two angled lines out the front and one straight line out the back. It’s almost always depicted inside a circle.


As for purely dismounted weapons, machine guns are a straight line. One horizontal line at the base for a light machine gun, two for tripod-mounted general-purpose types, and a semi-circle for larger caliber heavy machine guns. Grenade launchers are essentially machine gun plus the anti-tank arrow, with one line for types like the RPG-7, two lines for emplaced types like the SPG-9, and the big line penetrating the arrow for automatic types like the AGS-17.


A circle with a straight line out the front and one or two lines bisecting means flamethrower. Although in the context of the Russian army, this means thermobaric rocket launchers.


Map Example: Brigade Defense and Attack

To put this all into context, let’s look at a hypothetical brigade fighting position, arrayed with two BMP-mounted motor rifle battalions forward, one motor rifle battalion in the second echelon, and tank companies attached to each. These bean looking shapes depict the rough location of the battalion fighting positions, with the thick spikey line being in the direction the defense is facing.


On a real map, these positions will often be annotated with the unit’s name and the time and date that they occupied that position. The time, written in a 24 hour format, will be followed by the day and month. For the Americans out there, the day will always come before the month. If the area lines are dotted, it is a position that will be occupied in the future.


The battalion boundaries are separated by this dotted line interrupted by a semi-circle. The line style changes for larger units. For regiments, it’s a dashed line with dots. For brigades and divisions it’s a solid line. For armies its two solid lines, and for fronts or military districts, it’s two solid lines but one is considerably thicker.


In this situation, the brigade’s howitzers and rocket artillery are centrally arrayed. Generally, battalion firing positions will look something like three weapon system symbols connected by an outer line in a triangle. Larger firing positions can also basically look like a bean with two weapon symbols, similar to the maneuver unit fighting positions. Same goes for anti-aircraft units. When they’re not depicted clustered, it implies more of a decentralized, local effect sort of position. So a MANPADS platoon attached to a maneuver battalion, a single ATGM position, and that sort of thing.


In this scenario, there is also a roving tank company acting as a mobile reserve. This sort of S-shaped movement line depicts a nomadic or roving unit, and can apply to anything from a single tank, to an artillery battery, an infantry foot patrol, or aviation. This will be used during patrols, but also so a unit can quickly move between multiple prepared firing positions.


Let’s say one of the battalions is attacking, while the other is defending against an enemy attack. Attacking units will be depicted as basically a frontline with an arrow pointing in the direction of the attack. The size of the unit attacking may be shown as lines on the arrow, three for battalion, two for company and so on. The attack can be depicted as a single large attack, but can also be broken down into subunits. This might be useful if smaller units, like a company or platoon, have a specific task that needs to be shown, or if the battalion isn’t fully committed at once. A phased attack can be shown with different line styles and an annotation stating the time.


Generally, the unit’s immediate objective, such as beyond the enemy’s first defensive belt, will be depicted as a thinner dashed line with an arrow facing forward, while subsequent objectives will be depicted as two dashed lines.


Units may be depicted on lines of deployment, which are essentially the starting line for a maneuver. For mounted units these usually have two vehicle symbols at either end to depict unit type.


If an attack is repelled, it’s depicted after the fact by an arrow doing an about-face. And if a withdrawal is forced, that line continues beyond the friendly frontline. If the unit plans to withdraw from the start, like during a raid where terrain is not held, that withdrawal line can be dashed.


Meanwhile, some notes on the defensive side. Here, outposts are set up in the unit’s security zone, depicted as triangles. Linear minefields and barbed wire are placed to canalize the enemy’s advance into the defense’s field of fire. These boxes with circles denote minefields. Solid black circles are anti-tank mines, while white circles are anti-personnel mines. Mixing them together in the same box shows a minefield with both types.


The boundaries of fire of subunits are depicted by thin lines with an arrow facing towards the enemy and a circle pivot point at the base. A unit that is set up to conduct an ambush by fire will have a semi-circle at the base of its boundaries of fire.


Additional boundaries of fire can be shown with dashed lines. This can cause a map to be very cluttered, which is par for the course with Russian maps.


Alternate fighting positions can be depicted with dashed lines for vehicle symbols and broken up defensive line symbols.


The ranges of certain weapon systems may be depicted as part of the fire plan. A dashed line broken up by arrows shows the range of entrenched anti-tank guided missiles. Straight lines are tank fire, x’s are BMPs, and lines with a base are machine gun fire. Fire concentration areas for direct fire weapons are represented by red boxes which are numbered and annotated with their respective unit.


Artillery Specific

Speaking of fires, let’s go over some artillery-specific markers.


We’ve covered how to identify artillery units and firing positions, but there are also symbols for types of fire missions.


Individual targets are depicted as a circle with the weapon system being targeted and a target number. Absent of an enemy weapon system, like if they just want to hit a specific building or intersection, a dot in the middle can suffice. This would be appropriate for single high-value targets or targets of opportunity.


A fire concentration is a black square with a concentration number. This is a more substantial fire mission, possibly involving multiple firing batteries or battalions firing at the same target box at the same time. This would be more appropriate for destroying an entire enemy unit.


A standing barrage is planned against the enemy’s likely avenue of advance. The aim is to halt an enemy’s advance in a defensive situation, rather than destroy the target. It may be planned as a precautionary, unobserved fire mission to allow for an attack force time to consolidate gains and transition to the defense. To allow for sustained fire, this type of mission is normally conducted by tube artillery.


Multiple standing barrages can be stacked on top of each other, fired at the same time, to hit the attacking enemy along more of their depth. As an example, an artillery battalion firing a deep standing barrage along a 300 meter front might assign each of its batteries to one barrage line.


Adding arrows to the standing barrage symbol facing the direction of travel indicates a moving barrage, where each firing line is targeted sequentially, starting further away from friendly troops and moving in closer. This creates more consistent resistance at the head of the enemy advance specifically to slow their approach to friendly units.


Outro

If you’d like more info on Russian tactics, check out this video on their assault detachments. Units formed to overcome heavily fortified positions. I’ll see you over there.


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