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Tank desant ( ) is a military combined arms tactic, where infantry soldiers ride into an attack on tanks, then dismount to fight on foot in the final phase of the assault. Desant (from ) is a Russian general term for airborne or parachute drops, and naval infantry amphibious landings operations.

The tactic was used as an expedience by the Soviet Red Army during the Second World War. Tank desant troops ( ) were infantry, trained in the tactic in order to offer small arms support in suppression of enemy anti-tank weapons, or enemy infantry using anti-tank grenades. After the Second World War the T-55 and T-62 tanks were built with hand-holds for this purpose. In the northern winter, similar tactics were used by Soviet infantry riding the skids of aerosans, or towed behind them on skis.

Use of tank desant

The idea of employing tank desants is, as with the more conventional airborne and amphibious operations, to achieve fundamental goals of the manoeuvere theory - "surprise, leverage, simultaneity and interchangeability."

The use of tank desant was only prescribed within the initial 1km of the forward edge of combat area's depth, with only the simplest of tactical mission objectives being given to troops that would necessarily operate in difficult circumstances.

Riding on tanks during actual combat is very dangerous; soldiers are very vulnerable to machine gun and high explosive fire, and the high silhouette of most tanks would draw enemy fire. Smoke and covering fire may be used to reduce the hazards, but this tactic is mostly used by forces with a shortage of motor transport or armoured personnel carriers, as it enables troops to move about the battlefield faster than on foot.

Usually the allocation of infantry troops, including their heavy weapons, was made well before the execution of the mission to allow troops familiarisation and training with the tank troops, and affixing of any support platforms for the heavy weapons to allow firing on the move, as well as ropes to provide troops with hand-holds during the movement. The allocation depended on the class of the tank, and was in general applied as:

  • Heavy tank, 10-12 soldiers
  • Medium tank, 8-10 soldiers
  • Light tank, 5-6 soldiers

When they were use, the tank desant would be used in such a way as to ensure surprise, approaching during a snow storm, mist, or employing either smoke grenades or a smoke screen prepared by sappers or laid down by artillery.

Today, tank desant is considered a wasteful and human-costly improvisation, which in the opinion of some writers was adopted by the Red Army because they failed to appreciate the problem of tank–infantry co-operation.Zaloga, 1999. However, this is not supported by historical analysis, and there is evidence that tank desant was used as early as 1937 during the Spanish Civil War. On the 13 October, the 1st independent tank regiment (Republican Army), using BT-5 tanks, attached to the 15th International Brigade during the Aragon Front advance in the area of the Fuentes de Ebromarker conducted a tank-desant mission with the attached 24th Spanish infantry battalion (24ta de Voluntarios , commanded by Captain Aquilla), but lack of coordination and communication between the Soviet crews that had just completed a 630km march, and their Spanish infantry resulted in 16 tanks being either destroyed or disabled (some salvaged) and 37 tank crews becoming casualties. Analysis of Red Army's doctrine developed during the 1930s and documented in the 1936 Field Manual shows that the cavalry arm was expected to perform in the role of the supporting dismounted infantry, and this was repeatedly displayed during the operations on the Eastern Front through use of the Cavalry mechanized groups. The idea of using infantry tank desant was however retained in the 1942 Field Instructions for the infantry (battalion)

Almost universal mechanization has rendered this tactic mostly obsolete among the more advanced armed forces, with infantry riding special-purpose armoured personnel carriers or infantry fighting vehicles into battle. The uses of explosive reactive armor, which creates a danger zone around an armoured vehicle by detonating an explosive charge when the tank suffers a serious hit, and gas turbine engines, with extremely hot exhaust, makes tank desant a dangerous and undesirable alternative.

Riding armoured vehicles

Other military forces, including U.S. troops in Vietnam, Soviets in Afghanistan, and Russians in Chechnya have chosen to ride atop their carriers while on patrol or routine movement, rather than inside them.

In contrast to the offensive Soviet tank desant tactics of the Second World War, these were troops who wanted to be able to quickly move from their vehicles in case of ambush (which often turned their transports into death traps). Fearing land mines and rocket-propelled grenades widely used by guerrillas, these servicemen refused to stay inside the personnel carriers—contravening normal standing orders for several reasons:
  • The infantrymen on the outside represented more eyes and rifles at the ready to locate and fire upon a small force or single ambusher.
  • Explosive concussion inside the personnel compartment, caused by a rocket propelled grenade or the land mine hitting the armour, was said to be more dangerous than enemy fire on the personnel mounted outside. Many of these soldiers wore body armour, which reduced their fear of small arms fire. Spall liners have only recently become common.
  • Wounded soldiers trapped inside were very unlikely to be extracted safely until after the battle, especially if the vehicle was on fire.

Soviet troops also adopted the tactic of riding the roofs of their BTR (armoured personnel carriers), BMPs, BMDs and, rarely, tanks. Recently, during the Chechen War and other local conflicts of post-Soviet era, the units of the Russian Army and law enforcement acquired the tactic, making it a routine. However, riding outside the vehicles is still prohibited by Russian army doctrine, so it is not used during training and maneuvers.


  1. p.55, Simpkin
  2. Voyenny Vestnik, No.2, 1944 (Military Herald) [1]
  3. Voyenny Vestnik, No.2, 1944 (Military Herald) [2]
  4.] Combat use of BT-5 in Spain (Боевое применение танков БТ-5 в Испании)
  5. p.177, Simpkin
  6. [3] Combat regulations for infantry of the Red Army, Part 2 (battalion, regiment), Moscow, Voenizdat NKO USSR, 1942 (Боевой устав пехоты Красной Армии. Часть 2 (батальон, полк). — М.: Воениздат НКО СССР, 1942.)


  • Simpkin, Richard, Erickson, John, Deep battle: the brainchild of Marshal Tukhachevskii, Brasseys', London,1987
  • Zaloga, Steven J. (1999). Soviet Tank Operations in the Spanish Civil War, in Journal of Slavic Military Studies vol 12, no 3, September 1999.

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