The airborne troops comprise five airborne divisions and eight air assault brigades. They were designated as a separate service in 1991, at which time the air assault brigades were reassigned from ground forces units and military districts to Airborne Troop Headquarters, with direct responsibility to the Ministry of Defense. The justification for this reorganization was that airborne troops could not respond as quickly to an emergency under ground forces command as they could as a separate command. Experts believe that the decision to reorganize came mainly in response to internal politics rather than military necessity; at that time, the Russian national leadership did not want airborne troops under the control of the General Staff or the ground forces. In early 1996, four of the eight independent airborne brigades and two of the five airborne divisions were placed under the command of their respective district commanders, and the remaining three divisions became part of the strategic reserve. The command adjustments constituted a return to the pre-1991 arrangement.
The reason given for the transfer of authority was that the military districts already controlled the helicopter, fixed-wing, and other resources needed to support the air assault brigades, and that historically air assault brigades were created to operate in an operational-tactical role attached to a high-level headquarters. They were never intended to be a strategic asset. In the case of the Novorossiysk Division engaged in Chechnya, a chain of command running back to Moscow allegedly proved unworkable. However, the reassignment of the airborne units brought interservice charges that the move was an attempt to rein in a service branch perceived as having a dangerous combination of independence and mobility. The chief of the General Staff, General Mikhail Kolesnikov, characterized the decision as purely operational.
The mission of the airborne forces is to make possible a quick response to national emergencies. The airborne troops are considered an elite force because they are individually selected from volunteers based on physical fitness, intelligence, and loyalty. By traditional military standards, the airborne troops are not a powerful force. Each division is assigned about 6,000 lightly armed troops with lightly armored vehicles. Their value is that they have special training and have operational and strategic mobility provided by long-range aircraft. Their parachute assault capability means that they can be deployed anywhere within airlift range in a matter of hours without the need for an air base in friendly hands. However, resupply and support by heavy ground troop formations are necessary in a matter of days because the airborne troops lack the self-sustaining combat and logistical power of regular ground forces.
All of the airborne divisions are based in European Russia. One division is based in the Northern Military District, two in the Moscow Military District, and one each in the Volga and North Caucasus districts. The division in the North Caucasus Military District has taken part in the Chechnya conflict.
The eight airborne assault brigades are smaller than divisions, and they lack the armor and artillery assets that give conventional divisions ground mobility and firepower. Once the airborne brigades are on the ground, they can move no faster than walking speed. Their role is primarily focused on helicopter operations, but they also are trained for parachute assault from fixed-wing aircraft.