Eastern command exercises completed

A week ago, the Russian military completed the largest spot check exercise it has conducted since 1991. The MOD has put out some information on the scale and units involved. The slides were helpfully reproduced by Ruslan Pukhov in his blog.  They are done in the usual Russian style — it’s all about how many planes flew, how many tons of equipment were moved, etc. Nevertheless, there are some interesting tidbits. Here are some highlights.

The exercise involved 160,000 personnel from all three military branches. Ground forces from all four Eastern district armies and the 41st army of the Central district were involved, including 9 infantry brigades, the 18th artillery division (based in the Southern Kurils), a tank brigade, 2 air assault brigades, a naval infantry brigade, 5 signal brigades, 2 artillery brigades, 2 rocket brigades, 1 MRLS brigade, 2 air defense brigades, 2 NBC defense brigades, 4 logistics brigades, and 2 equipment storage bases. 12,000 vehicles were activated.

The air force activated 130 aircraft and helicopters from four commands (Long Range Aviation, Military-Transport Aviation, 2nd Air and Air Defense Forces Command — Yekaterinburg, 3rd Air and Air Defense Forces Command — Khabarovsk). The specific air force units involved were the 6952nd LRA Base from Amur Oblast, the 6955th MTA Base from Tver, the 6980th aviation base from Chelyabinsk, and the 6983rd aviation base from Primorskii Krai.

Naval participation included 70 ships from the 36th surface ship division, 165th surface ship brigade, 10th and 25th submarine divisions, 19th submarine brigade, 100th assault ship brigade, 114th coastal defense ship brigade, and the 520th independent coastal missile-artillery brigade.

One infantry brigade arrived by sea, while 30 transport aircraft moved 8,500 personnel over 167 flights. 1000 reservists were involved, from Primorsky Krai. 45 field control centers were activated, most at the brigade level. 8 UAVs completed 22 flights. One of the 12 long range aviation planes failed to complete (or maybe to start?) its flight.

The overall assessment of these exercises from the military has been largely positive, though some areas did come in for criticism. Yuri Borisov noted that 3-4% of vehicles broke down during the exercise, either because of errors made by the  operators or because the equipment was old. This is not ideal, but is certainly a better statistic than in the bad old days a decade ago. Shoigu criticized the state of the communications system, noting that military communications are only 18% effective. It’s not clear what that number actually means, but it’s clearly not good. Marksmanship also came in for criticism, in part because of a lack of practice.  He was pleased with military transportation, highlighting in particular that railroad transportation functioned at almost double the allotted rate of travel (1000km/day vs 600km/day). He also noted that changes may be made to the structure of the air force, primarily by dividing up the air bases that were created a few years ago and and re-opening some of the military airports closed by Serdyukov.

UPDATE: Aleksei Nikolskii wrote to say that Shoigu’s statement on the communications systems being 18% effective referred to R&D efforts on C2 systems not producing results, rather than the systems’ effectiveness during the exercise itself.  He also notes that the actual number of troops involved was much lower. For each infantry brigade, only battalion-size tactical groups were mobilized, for other brigades, composite detachments were formed to represent each brigade. About 15,000 troops were moved by rail and aircraft (8,200 of these by air). Cooperation across military branches was problematic, with the naval infantry unit getting an unsatisfactory rating. The problems with firing accuracy were mostly among conscripts, who also were responsible for the lion’s share of technical problems with equipment.

 

The Russian Navy’s role in the Mediterranean

The Russian Navy has just concluded its largest exercise in the Mediterranean in many years. The ships involved represented all three of Russia’s European fleets and included the missile cruiser Moskva, the  Udaloy-class destroyers Marshal Shaposhnikov and Severomorsk, the Yaroslav Mudriy and Smetliviy frigates, six large landing craft (the Kaliningrad, Novocherkassk, Alexandr Shabalin, Saratov, Nikolai Filchenkov, Azov), two submarines (one nuclear and one diesel-powered) and various support vessels. The total number of ships involved was over 20. In addition to the ships, the exercise included at least 20 aircraft. The exercise is being overseen by two senior MOD officials, deputy chief of the General Staff Aleksandr Postnikov and deputy Chief of the Navy Staff Leonid Sukhanov.

The timing and location of the exercise, as well as the heavy representation of amphibious ships, have raised questions about the Russian Navy’s goals in the Mediterranean. To my mind, this is another case of the Russian military trying to kill many birds with one stone. During the second half of the Cold War, the Soviet Navy had a virtually constant presence in the Mediterranean. Its squadron had a number of simultaneous tasks — ensuring the security of critical sea lanes to the Black Sea, deterring the United States Navy, ensuring continued access to the Suez canal for Soviet shipping, and engaging existing and potential allies in North Africa and the Middle East were probably the most significant of these.  The Russian military has long sought to restore its presence in the region and has in the last 5-6 years taken numerous opportunities to send ships to the region to engage in exercises and conduct port visits. This exercise, first and foremost, is simply an expansion of this effort.

Second, the exercise is designed to prepare the navy for possible future operations in Syria. Discussions about the possibility of the Russian fleet seeking to have a deterrent effect on potential US or NATO intervention efforts in the Syrian civil war seem to me rather misguided. The assembled Russian forces are no match for the NATO forces that would be assembled in the region in the event of an intervention. The Soviet navy was always exceedingly cautious to only get involved in conflicts (even just with show of force operations) only in circumstances where the balance of forces was favorable. While those days were a long time ago, the current leaders of the navy were trained in that tradition and are unlikely to get involved in adventures of this type. Furthermore, the composition of the task force indicates that the navy wants to be prepared for a potential evacuation scenario. Such an evacuation may be focused on Russian citizens living in Syria, or (less likely) it may be part of a bid to rescue defeated Alawite leaders from their coastal stronghold down the road. The presence of a large number of surface combatants may be an indication that the navy wants to be prepared to undertake such an evacuation even in circumstances where its ships may come under fire from hostile forces (presumably the victorious Syrian rebels).

The final goal, for the navy, is just to increase preparedness. The Northern Fleet likes to send its ships to exercise in the Med during the winter months. The weather is nicer, allowing for more complicated maneuvers. Official reports indicate that the exercise covers a wide range of naval operations, including counter-piracy and convoy operations, ship defense from small boat attacks, coordination with both naval and long-range aviation, ASW, opposed amphibious landing, and search and rescue. The navy has conducted exercises in the Med pretty much annually since 2008. The fact that this is the largest is in part a reaction to the geopolitical circumstances in the region and in part an indication that the Russian navy is gradually gaining confidence and increasing its capabilities.

 

Center-2011 begins today

The most important event of the Russian military’s annual training calendar begins today. Major fall exercises have a long history in the Russian military, but in recent years they have begun to attract more and more publicity. In large part, this is because top military commanders have sought to publicize them to a greater extent than in the past, when exercises were surrounded by a veil of secrecy.

The current exercise is entitled Center-2011 and will take place primarily in the Central Unified Strategic Command and in several Central Asian states. The active phase of the exercise begins today and will continue through September 27, though some phases of the exercise began several weeks ago. Participation will include 12,000 soldiers from Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. Events will take place in all four countries, including a tabletop command-level exercise in Tajikistan for the CSTO’s rapid reaction force that will simulate an effort to stop an attempted coup. The rapid reaction force will concurrently conduct tactical training in Kyrgyzstan. There will also be a naval component: the Caspian Flotilla will work with the Kazakhstani military and security forces to secure offshore energy infrastructure of the Kazakhstan coast. Concurrently, a Russian-Belarusian bilateral exercise called Union Shield-2011 will activate another 12,000 soldiers for roughly similar goals.

For the first time in at least several years, the exercise is focused on fighting local wars, with a major emphasis on defeating irregular combatants and terrorists. Part of the scenario will include the liberation of a town captured by terrorists or rebels. The high command has described the exercises as focusing on the action of small combat units, the use of precision guided munitions and the ability to use automated command and control systems at the tactical level. Of course, high weaponry and equipment is still quite sparse in the Russian military and completely absent among the other participants in the exercise. While the Russian military is planning to use its Israeli UAVs during the exercise, these UAVs are designed for reconnaissance and are not capable of launching missiles or otherwise attacking targets.

Russia and its CSTO partners are becoming increasingly concerned about the possibility of an influx of Islamic terrorists from Afghanistan after NATO withdraws most of its troops over the next several years. A second factor is concern about internal instability, fanned both by revolts throughout the Arab world over the last year and by events in Kyrgyzstan last summer. Russian and CSTO leaders view that episode with a fair bit of embarrassment, given that they could not respond to the Kyrgyz government’s request for assistance in large part because of a lack of troops trained in quelling rioting and other forms of internal conflict.

This exercise scenario shows that the Russian high command’s talk in recent years about shifting the army’s emphasis from preparing for large scale conventional warfare to local conflicts has now gone beyond just talk. The shift  has led to a change in training at the local command level. While last year’s Vostok-2010 exercise was described by officials as also focused on local conflicts, descriptions of the events conducted during the exercise showed that the possibility of a large scale conventional war with a major East Asian power (read: China) was a major (though unstated) part of the exercise scenario.

Of course, for the moment these are just declarations. As the exercise’s active phase progresses over the next week, we shall how events actually square with the stated goals outlined above. I’ll have some initial thoughts on this toward the end of the week, and more next week.

Further discussion of Vostok-2010

Raymond Finch published the following response to my Vostok-2010 post on Johnson’s Russia List. For those readers who don’t read JRL, here’s the comment and my response.

After watching much of the TV coverage on the Vostok 2010 war-games, I would respectfully disagree with Dr. Gorenburg that “the Russian military has a clear vision of the kind of army they would like to build and that they are making progress in achieving that vision.” (“Vostok-2010: Another step forward for the Russian military,” DJL #138).  From my analysis, manning, training, and equipping the armed forces remain a muddle.  Similar to the detailed and highly publicized military parade to celebrate the 65th anniversary of the victory in the Great Patriotic War, the Vostok 2010 exercises were choreographed to remind the Russian people of both the country’s military prowess (highly questionable) and their dear leader’s concern to defend against external threats (equally dubious).  At another level, the scenes of river-crossing tanks, exploding rockets, and mid-air refueling were just so much ammunition to justify further defense expenditures. The closer you study the various scenes of this pokazyka, the more they appeared to be merely sophisticated PR exercises for the various branches to show off their product-lines (and hopefully claim a larger share of the defense appropriation pie).  Most Russians likely shake their head in disbelief at this Soviet-era thinking, and how these stage-managed field exercises do little to address the real threats that Russia confronts today (Islamic radicalism, endemic corruption, collapsing infrastructure, frightening demographics, etc…).  These exercises may indeed be a ‘step forward for the Russian military,’ yet the direction of this step is anything but clear.

Ray Finch argues that the exercise was just a show and therefore cannot indicate that the Russian military has a clear vision of the kind of army they would like to build. I don’t disagree that there are elements of show in this exercise, as there are in all large-scale military exercises, regardless of what country is conducting them. I have said as much in past articles. But I disagree with the statement that the exercise is nothing more than that. This exercise, unlike most other major Russian exercises of the recent past, actually sought to address many of the real potential conflicts that Russia might face in the near future — including low intensity warfare. Of course there were some big show pieces, but the goal, if you read the discussion of the exercises in the media (both government and independent) was to focus on maneuverability, logistics, and command structure much more than on the big showy set pieces of the past. Obviously, TV coverage of the war games has other purposes, primarily PR-related. But one should not confused what’s shown on TV for public consumption with the actual purposes being served by the exercise. To conclude, I would reiterate that the Russian military leadership has a clear vision of the kind of military they would like to have. That doesn’t mean that they know exactly how they will achieve that vision. There are many issues, especially related to personnel and equipment, on which the Russian leadership is not at all clear how to get from here to there. But I still believe that Vostok-2010 was a step, however small, in the right direction, as are the various reform moves that have been made over the last 20 months.

Vostok-2010: Another step forward for the Russian military

The recently concluded Vostok-2010 exercises showed that the Russian military is making progress in achieving its goals of major structural reform. This was the first major Russian military exercise in recent memory that did not involve a scenario consisting of a major frontal battle. As Alexandr Golts pointed out in his analysis, this sort of scenario is very convenient for public relations purposes, but does not contribute much to improving military preparedness. Instead, the exercises consisted of a number of smaller episodes, consistent with the announced scenario of fighting irregular armed formations, counter-terrorism and (for the Navy) anti-piracy operations. The exercises focused on mobility, with a particular emphasis on ensuring success in the logistical sphere. According to General Nikolai Makarov, the Chief of the General Staff, the location of the exercise in Siberia and Russia’s Far East was selected specifically in order to make the transport of troops and their resupply relatively difficult, due to the large distances, sparse population, difficult climate, and poor state of transportation in the region.

Testing a Force Projection Capability

The exercises showed that the Russian military is capable of projecting force over long distances relatively quickly. For this purpose, a large number of bomber (SU-24) and fighter-bomber (SU-34) aircraft were sent directly from central Russia to the Far East on what was supposedly the longest non-stop flight for these types of planes. This was made possible through multiple in-flight refueling operations. Furthermore, an infantry brigade was sent from Ekaterinburg to Primorskii Krai, though it was transported without heavy weaponry, such as tanks and artillery, all of which it received from a local base upon arrival.  Golts notes that this was the first time in his memory that the Russian army had conducted such an operation.

It was carried out successfully and in the assigned time period, though Golts also points out that the weapons provided for the brigade had been selected in recent months especially for this purpose. Had this been a real emergency and the brigade forced to make do with randomly chosen stored equipment, they would have almost certainly faced severe problems due to mechanical failures. But this is a known problem for the Russian military, and one that is to be addressed over the coming decade through a rearmament program. The important takeaway from this exercise is that Russian military planners are seriously preparing for contingencies that require the rapid transfer of troops from one region to another. Golts is right in arguing that if this capability becomes widely developed, there will be no need for the military to maintain a million-man army in order to protect Russia’s gigantic territory. Instead, planners will simply need to make sure that they have well-maintained supply depots located in all likely zones of potential conflict and be prepared to send brigades to those regions in the event a conflict suddenly broke out.

Simplifying the Command Structure

The new simplified command structure was the second aspect of the reform that was tested by Vostok-2010. The replacement of divisions by brigades was the first step of this effort, and it was successfully completed last year and tested to some extent in last falls major exercises. The current exercises went further, examining the possibilities provided by the recently announced transition to a joint command system, where four geographically-based strategic operational commands (SOCs) control all of the troops on their territory, including ground forces, the air force, the navy, and assorted support staff. The goal is to reduce the levels of command from 13 to three. In the previous system, in addition to the command system “center-military district-army-division-regiment,” troops also received commands from their service headquarters and various central General Staff commands. The current system will consist of three levels — SOC – operational command – brigade. This reform will lead to the elimination of thousands of officer positions in various headquarters in Moscow and around the country. According to General Makarov, this transition will be completed in early 2011 and will mark the end of the military’s structural transformation.

The new system received a preliminary test in Vostok-2010, with a single SOC commanding troops from the Siberian and Far Eastern military districts, as well as the Pacific Fleet and assorted air force units, including those from other districts brought in specifically for this exercise. Initial reports indicate that the system performed according to expectations. At least, there have been no indications so far of problems with the command system during the exercises. Furthermore, whereas electronic command systems were present only for show during Zapad-2009 and the other major exercises last fall, this year for the first time such systems started to play a role (though still only limited) in the actual conduct of the exercise. These included (according to media reports about the exercise) videoconferencing equipment used in decision-making, computer modeling used in targeting anti-aircraft missile systems, and digital analytical systems.

Not a big deal for most armed forces, but certainly an advance for a military that is still not able to provide each soldier with his own analog radio, much less any kind of modern electronic communications system.

A Step in the Right Direction

One item that was noted repeatedly by generals discussing the conduct of the exercise was that conscripts who had only been in the service for 1-2 months exceeded all expectations of their performance. It was made clear that they did not do as well as contract soldiers or those conscripts who had been inducted last summer, but it was clear that the military leadership was trying to emphasize that the army could continue to function despite its problems with attracting a sufficient number of contract soldiers to fill the new brigades.

Overall, the Vostok-2010 exercise made it clear that the leadership of the Russian military has a clear vision of the kind of army they would like to build and that they are making progress in achieving that vision. One aspect of that vision is a significantly reformed logistics and supply system, a topic I will discuss in detail in my next post. Once this system is restructured and the new Strategic Operational Commands are stood up next year, we will likely see the end of the constant organizational changes that have marked the first two years of reform. The period of structural reorganization appears to be drawing to a close and the next steps are likely to be focused primarily on solving the manpower problem and endowing the newly restructured military with new weapons and equipment.

Another round of reorganization

According to Viktor Litovkin, the Russian military is about to undergo another around of reorganization. The current system of six military districts and seven armies will be replaced by four “operational-strategic directions,” broken down as follows:

  • The Western direction will include the current Leningrad and Moscow military districts, the Kaliningrad special district, and the Baltic and Northern Fleets.  It will be headquartered in St. Petersburg next door to the Admiralty.
  • The Southern direction will include all of the North Caucasus and part of the Volga-Urals military districts, the Black Sea Fleet, and the Caspian Flotilla. Its headquarters will be in Rostov.
  • The Northern direction will include the Siberian and the rest of the Volga-Urals military districts and will be based in Ekaterinburg.
  • The Eastern direction will include the Far Eastern military district, the Kamchatka special district, and the Pacific Fleet. The headquarters will be in Khabarovsk.

In each case, the direction headquarters will control all troops in their area, including naval and air force units and air defenses, with the exception of Strategic Rocket Forces, which will remain under separate command. At the same time, the headquarters of each of the separate services (i.e. the ground forces, navy, air force, and air defenses) will be transformed into structural divisions of the General Staff.

The transformations are to occur imminently, as there are already plans to test this system in the Vostok-2010 exercises, scheduled for July-August 2010. The main goal of these exercises is to test the integration of all military command and control systems.

These exercises will involve the entire Far East from Lake Baikal to the Pacific Ocean and will consist of a “modern combined arms operation,” including airborne and amphibious landings in hostile territory, counter-terrorism operations, and rocket and artillery attacks. The air force and navy will both have prominent roles, with the Navy in particular involving two cruisers — the Peter the Great and the Moskva.

The goal of all these transformations is to reduce the number of layers of command from sixteen to three, hopefully thereby increasing the speed and accuracy of military decision-making. The idea is that with this new simplified command system and improvements in communication equipment, “the chief of the general staff will be able to call any company or platoon commander” and vice-versa.

Litovkin argues that given the current condition of the Russian military, the goals of this exercise sound like science fiction, rather than anything that could actually be accomplished. I too am skeptical of the military’s ability to implement the reorganization and train people to use all this new communications equipment in the 2-3 month window prior to the start of the exercises. But even if these moves are delayed, they are at least signs that the military is continuing to head (albeit slowly) in the right direction.

Network-centric Warfare?

In military forces of any country, major “showpiece” exercises are designed more to show off the capabilities of the nation’s armed forces than to truly test these capabilities in any focused way. Articles about such exercises, whether they take place in Russia, in the West, or in Mozambique,  follow a common pattern. First, a month or two before the exercise, journalists publish descriptions of the coming exercise based on officially-announced plans. Then, during the exercise, there are slightly breathless accounts of the wonders of modern weaponry and tactics. If an important political dignitary (such as the president or the defense minister) visits to observe the exercise, this is covered in minute detail. Afterward, there are some official pronouncements about how all of the exercise’s goals have been fulfilled and everyone happily goes home.

Coverage of the recent spate of major Russian military exercises (Kavkaz-2009, Zapad-2009, Ladoga-2009) followed this model perfectly right up until the end. But over the last month, a number of critical articles have appeared, and not just in the independent press. This culminated in open discussion in the press of discontent among top generals with the state of military procurement and Russia’s defense industry in general that resulted in a widely publicized meeting between President Medvedev, top government officials, and defense industry chiefs.

One of the main topics that has emerged in criticism of the exercises is the gap between public statements and reality on the topic of advances in precision weapons and command and control (C2) systems. General Makarov, the chief of the general staff, was widely quoted as having stated that the main goal of the exercise was to “examine the transition to a new control system for the armed forces, based first of all on the transition to a system of network-centric warfare.” Given the list of key weaknesses of the Russian military that was published recently, this focus makes sense.

(This list includes weak intelligence and communications capabilities, low level of “automatization” in control of troops and weapons, lack of an adequate system for providing information to troops in the field, and low levels of defensibility for some types of platforms and weapons.)

One of the main goals of the Ladoga-2009 exercise, conducted in the northwestern part of Russia in September, was to test a new command system. The effectiveness of this system apparently left much to be desired. The Russian military still lacks modern electronic communications equipment. One report noted that a new personal communications system (R-169P-2) that was demonstrated at Ladoga was just coming out of testing and was not used by the actual troops participating in the exercise. (Moskovskii Komsomolets, 10/9/2009)

In many cases, soldiers did not have any kind of radios, much less advanced electronic ones. Currently, the Russian military provides one radio for each section (i.e. 10-12 soldiers). General Meichik, the Deputy Chief of the General Staff for Communications, recently promised that each Russian soldier would have his own personal communications device by 2011. In the meantime, many Russian soldiers continue to use mobile phones for transmitting information. According to General Meichik, these phones have special encryption equipment, but it is far more likely that they are actually just the soldiers’ personal mobile phones.

One indicator of just how far behind Western militaries the Russian military is on the communications front is that General Meichik announced that the military is about to begin developing its own internet. This announcement took place more or less on the 40th anniversary of the first message sent on Arpanet, the US military communication system that led to the development of the internet.

There is a similar lag in electronic targeting systems. The newly modernized Su-24M and Tu-22M3 bombers, which participated in the Zapad-2009 exercise, are equipped with a “specialized computer subsystem, automated targeting system, and satellite navigation.” However, this system merely doubles the targeting accuracy of regular unguided bombs. No provision for guided munitions was made in this modernization. Furthermore, this modernization has taken a very long time, as it was first introduced in 2001.

Even more interesting is the description provided by Olga Bozh’eva of an encounter at Ladoga-2009 between General Boldyrev, the head of Russia’s surface troops, and the head engineer of Izhmash — Unpiloted Systems. Looking over the engineer’s shoulder as the latter received information from a UAV on a computer, Boldyrev asked for the coordinates of a group of people visible on the screen. The response: “The program does not allow for the analysis of information while [the UAV] is in flight. Once it lands…” In other words, the latest in Russian UAV technology still does not allow for the instant transmission of  targeting information to commanders on the ground — a tactic whose effectiveness was demonstrated by US forces in Afghanistan back in 2001. (Moskovskii Komsomolets, 10/9/2009)

Despite the stated focus on network-centric warfare, UAVs were not integrated into the exercise in either an intelligence or targeting capacity. In other words, they were just there for show. The newest mobile C2 systems, such as the KShM-149MA, which provides real-time information for commanders and allows for tactical control of troops and weaponry, also seem to have not been used in either Zapad-2009 or Ladoga-2009, though one was shown to President Medvedev in Kaliningrad. At the Kavkaz-2009 exercises last summer, brigade level control systems supposedly broke down.

The fact that all of these problems were described openly in the Russian press, and that President Medvedev has responded by publicly chastising the Russian defense industry as a whole, is a sign that the issues that have prevented the revival of that industry (despite an increase in orders in recent years) have finally come to the forefront. It is possible that Medvedev’s criticism is a signal and the next year will be devoted to reforming the Russian defense industry, much like the past year has been devoted to reforming the structure of the military. This may turn out to be a harder task, as private and semi-private companies will undoubtedly prove less willing to follow orders and even a revitalized industry will find it difficult to find the expertise to build new high-tech weapons as quickly as it may be desired by top leaders.