Moscow International Security Conference 2016 edition

Last week, I was once again in attendance at the Russian MOD’s Moscow Conference on International Security (MCIS). This was the fifth such conference and the third that I’ve attended. In the past, I’ve summarized all the key speeches by Russian participants. That seems less necessary this year as video from the entire conference has been posted online, both in Russian and in English.  I do have the slides from most of the speeches, which have not been posted online by the organizers, and will post them over the next few days. Other than that, it seems more valuable to write up my general impressions, rather than focusing on the specifics of what was said.

The overall tone was less hostile toward the United States than last year. Last year, the speakers were quite open in declaring that the United States was creating threats to international security by undermining governments of states that refused to go along with U.S. “diktat.” This year, the formulations were much more indirect, along the lines of “some [unnamed] states are continuing to have a negative impact on international security by promoting exclusive military blocs, establishing military bases around the world, and dictating their will through the use of their military superiority.” While the target of such formulations is of course entirely transparent, the mere fact that the United States is not being mentioned by name is a sign that the Russian government is at least making an effort to shift its rhetoric to a less hostile stance.

The desire to reestablish a relationship with the United States was made clear when the topic turned to the threat of terrorism, the primary theme of this year’s conference. Here, the Russian officials made sure to argue that the ability of the United States and Russia to cooperate in Syria shows that the two countries can work together and stated that they hoped that such cooperation could be expanded to a broader range of issues. This line was prominent in all the speeches, and particularly in those of Nikolai Patrushev, Sergei Shoigu, and Valery Gerasimov.

Of course, the unspoken subtext underlying this call for cooperation was predicated on the notion that Russia and the United States could solve all the world’s security problems if only the United States followed Russia’s prescriptions on how to act. This was most openly stated by Sergei Lavrov, who said that what the West needs to do is to drop its anti-Russian policies.

While Russia’s relationship with the West was still one of the primary topics for discussion, it was certainly less central than at any of the past conferences. The majority of the non-Russian plenary speakers were from Asian states, and one of the two initial substantive plenary sessions was on military cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region. After the usual opening lineup of Russian government heavy-hitters (Patrushev, Shoigu, Lavrov, Bortnikov), the first plenary on the threat of terrorism included the defense ministers of China, Pakistan, and Iran, as well as Hamid Karzai. The Asia-Pacific panel included more Asian defense ministers, this time from India, Indonesia, Vietnam, Singapore, and Laos. The most striking thing about this panel was the lack of any participation by Russian officials. Unlike the first panel, where Valery Gerasimov presented the Russian government’s view on the threat posed by international terrorism, the Russian government chose not to present its view on Asian security issues. The only Russian on the dais for this session was conference host and panel moderator Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov, who said little of substance on the topic at hand.

It seems to me that the Russian government’s lack of participation in the Asia-Pacific discussion was quite deliberate. Russia is in a bit of a bind in the region. One the one hand, it is dependent on its “strategic partnership” with China, especially since the deterioration of relations with the West. On the other hand, it is looking to develop security and especially economic ties with a number of Southeast Asian states — most particularly Vietnam and Indonesia — and to deepen its existing relationship with South Korea. The disputes between China and its Asian neighbors, particularly the maritime border dispute in the South China Sea, places Russia in a difficult position. I would not be surprised if the absence of a Russian speaker on the Asia-Pacific panel was a deliberate decision taken so as to avoid having to make the hard choices about how to thread the needle on the sensitive issue of China’s security relations with its neighbors.

Finally, a few words about the general atmosphere. The conference was much better organized than last year, when panels repeatedly ran over time and the agenda had to be modified on the fly. Shoigu was not visibly unhappy, as he was last year. The conference was also much larger than in the past. The plenary sessions took place in the large Congress Hall, rather than in the meeting rooms of the Radisson Ukraina hotel as in the past. The increase in size was also notable in the addition of breakout sessions and the expansion to a second day of panels.

While in the previous two years, one had a sense of being at a conference that was an opportunity for a wide range of representatives of rogue (and quasi-rogue) states to get together, this was largely absent this year. Sure, the Iranian Defense Minister took the opportunity to go on about “Zionist terrorism,” but this was the exception, rather than the rule. The 2016 list of speakers notably excluded senior officials from countries such as North Korea and Cuba, who had prominently featured in past years. They were replaced by representatives of countries such as Argentina, the Phillippines, and Chile. In addition, the presence of senior officials from South Africa and most major Asian and Middle Eastern states highlights the global nature of the event. The absence of Western officials, which looks set to continue as long as military cooperation between Russia and NATO remains frozen, prevents MCIS from becoming a truly global conference. But even absent the West, the high level of representation from a wide range of countries from around the world is a clear indication that the MCIS has become a regular stop on the global international security conference circuit.

 

Impact of the economic crisis on Russian military modernization

The Cipher Brief asked me to write a short piece on the impact of Russia’s economic downturn on prospects for the Russian military, as part of a series on Russian military modernization.

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The drop in Russian state revenues has affected Russian military modernization to some extent, though the Russian government has made an effort to insulate the military from budget cuts. Although the 2015 military budget was cut by five percent mid-year, the total allocation was still 25 percent higher than the previous year’s budget. This allowed the military to continue its modernization process, conduct operations in Syria, and fulfill its training and exercise programs.

With oil prices remaining low, the military is facing a more difficult financial picture in 2016. In November, the Finance Ministry announced that the total 2016 defense budget would be largely the same as in 2015. However, last month, an additional five percent cut was announced, which will result in the first annual net decline in Russian defense spending since Vladimir Putin became president in 2000.

As a result of the deteriorating financial outlook, the fulfillment of the 2011-2020 State Armament Program is now in question.

Click here to read the rest of the article.

Russian planes in Syria

Recently, Michael Kofman and I published an article arguing that Russia’s claimed withdrawal from Syria is not really a withdrawal, but rather a public relations move to normalize Russian military presence in Syria for the long term. Events over the last 10 days have confirmed our analysis and also provided more details on the air forces that Russia is continuing to maintain in Syria. A photo made by the French Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales and distributed via IHS Jane’s shows that as of March 20, there were still 12 Su-24M bombers at Hmeymim, as well as four Su-34 bombers, three Su-30SM fighters and three Su-35S fighters. Zero to three additional aircraft may have been out conducting airstrikes, for a total of 22-25 remaining Russian fixed-wing strike aircraft in Syria. There were also 14 helicopters, including two Mi-28Ns and two Ka-52s.

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This means that in the first week after the withdrawal was announced, Russia pulled out three Su-24Ms, four SU-34s, all 12 Su-25s, and four Mi-35M helicopters, while adding at least two Mi-28N and two Ka-52 helicopters. The photo also shows IAI Searcher Mk2 Forpost UAVs.

In other words, the current size of the Russian air presence at Hmeymim is comparable to what Russia had at the start of the operation, minus the Su-25s, but with the addition of Su-35s.

 

There is no Russian withdrawal from Syria

With characteristic deadpan delivery, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the sudden withdrawal of Russian forces from Syria earlier this week, declaring their campaign a success.  Before the day was through, Russian aircraft and crews were already departing from Hmeymim air base in Latakia.  Since this announcement, the media has been alight with speculation on the meaning of Russia’s sudden departure, its political and military implications, and the reasons for this seemingly unexpected move.  Much of the discussion has thus far missed the mark.  There is no Russian withdrawal from Syria, but rather a drawdown of the air contingent present in Latakia. Putin simply moved pieces on the board, without altering the equation.

This maneuver is more about political perceptions than military reality. It constitutes a political reframing of Russia’s intervention in order to normalize Moscow’s military presence in Syria, and make it permanent, while convincing Russians at home that the campaign is over. Putin’s statement is yet another successful effort to achieve a domestic and international publicity coup.

The “withdrawal” announcement is not about how Russia leaves, but about how it stays in Syria.

Click here to read the rest of the article, which is co-authored by myself and Michael Kofman.

What Russia’s military operation in Syria can tell us about advances in its capabilities

PONARS Eurasia has just published my memo on Russia’s military  operation in Syria from our February policy conference in Istanbul. I’m reposting it here. Lots of other very interesting memos are available on the PONARS website.

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As Russia begins to wind down its military operation in Syria, it is time to assess what it has taught us about how the Russian military operates. Although relatively small in scale, the operation in Syria has highlighted some major improvements in Russian military capabilities. Compared to the 2008 Georgia War, which was the last time the Russian Air Force operated in a combat environment, the Russian military appears to have made great strides in operational tempo and inter-service integration. The operation has also showcased Russia’s recently developed standoff strike capability and demonstrated significant advances in its ability to carry out expeditionary operations.

Russia’s initial air campaign in Syria successfully targeted weapons and equipment depots that opposition forces had captured from government forces. After eliminating these targets, Russian air forces began coordinating with Syrian and Iranian ground forces against opposition fighters in the northwestern part of the country, though this part of the operation took time to have an appreciable impact.

High Operational Intensity and Improved Inter-Service Coordination

The operational tempo of Russian air operations in Syria was quite high from the start. In October, an average of 45 sorties per day were carried out by a total of 34 airplanes and 16 helicopters. The pace of the operation also increased over time, rising from approximately 20 sorties per day at the start of the operation to around 60 per day at its initial peak on October 8-9. It then declined, most likely because the easiest and most obvious targets had all been hit and opposition forces adapted to Russian air attacks by ceasing to operate out in the open.

The Russian operation further expanded in November 2015, in the aftermath of the bombing of a Russian civilian airliner in the Sinai and again after Turkey shot down a Russian Su-24 that infringed on Turkish airspace. In mid-November, the Russian government announced the addition of 37 Su-34 and Su-27 aircraft, which allowed it to increase the number of daily sorties to 127.

The overall average between the start of the operation on September 30 and the end of December was 60 sorties per day, with a maximum of 189 strikes on December 24. This high operational tempo is especially surprising considering the rash of crashes that Russian military aircraft suffered earlier in 2015. Experts blamed the crashes on Russia’s over-used and aging aircraft fleet. While unconfirmed rumors circulated that the operational tempo and harsh desert conditions resulted in maintenance problems for many Russian aircraft, the Russian Air Force’s ability to maintain the high frequency of sorties for over three months speaks to a more resilient force than expected.

The operation in Syria has also highlighted advances in integration among the branches of Russia’s military. This was one of the goals of military reform undertaken after notable failures were revealed during the war in Georgia. In order to improve inter-service coordination, the Russian military reorganized its regional command structure so that all non-strategic military units in each military district were placed under the direct authority of that district’s military commander. In the past, cooperation across services in a particular region had to be coordinated through the service headquarters in Moscow; the new structure allowed this coordination to take place at the regional level. This innovation has had the effect of greatly improving the speed of decisionmaking in regional conflicts.

In November 2014, the Russian Ministry of Defense also established the National Defense Control Center (NDCC), which acts as a major communications hub and advanced data analysis center for the military. The activation of the NDCC has led to more rapid information transfer between the theater of operations and military leaders in Moscow. Information from all types of military assets around the world is collected and analyzed in one location. As a result, the NDCC has reduced the number of steps in military decisionmaking, resulting in increased speed and higher reliability in adjusting military actions to changes in the operating environment.

In addition, Russia’s air force has demonstrated an ability to work with both other services and foreign forces. The Russian Navy, for example, provided sealift for the Syria campaign, as well as long-range air defense with the S-300 system, which was situated on the Black Sea Fleet’s flagship Slava-class cruiser Moskva in the first half of the operation. Having a ship-based, long-range air defense system allowed Russia to provide defense against potential attacks while avoiding tensions with Israel, which would be unhappy if Russia provided such systems to Syrian forces.[1] Although Russian ground forces played a relatively limited role in the conflict, they were important for providing area defense for the Russian air base at Hmeymim.

More significantly, the Russian air force showed an ability to coordinate its operations with Syrian and Iranian ground forces, which conducted offensives against Syrian opposition positions under Russian air cover. While these offensives were not as effective at regaining territory as Russian leaders might have hoped at the start of the operation, they did eventually succeed in driving anti-government forces out of several key areas and placed the Assad government in a stronger position for potential peace negotiations.

Advances in Weaponry

Russia’s operation in Syria tested and highlighted advances in Russian weaponry while revealing the limitations of its new capabilities. For the first time, Russian aircraft used precision-guided munitions (PGMs) in combat. Only about 20 percent of strikes used such modern weaponry, however, while the rest were carried out with older, unguided gravity bombs. According to Russian analysts, the air force achieved better accuracy with its unguided munitions by using modern onboard targeting equipment and by more intensive training of its pilots. As a result, Russian aircraft were able to hit multiple targets in a single sortie for the first time. The vulnerability of Russian aircraft to enemy attack was reduced by decreasing the amount of time spent in areas vulnerable to anti-aircraft fire from the ground and by the widespread incorporation of technology that allows Russian strike aircraft to fly at night. Finally, the Russian Air Force also used for the first time unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to provide targeting information to strike aircraft and to collect data on the effectiveness of bombing sorties in hitting targets.

At the same time, the Russian military sought to limit the amount of new weapons expended. These munitions are relatively expensive when compared to unguided bombs. Moreover, the air force has limited quantities of PGMs in its arsenal and did not wish to expend them on targets when the use of such weapons is unnecessary.

The land-attack cruise missile (LACM) strikes against Syrian targets, launched in October 2015 from relatively small missile ships in the Caspian Sea, were primarily intended to serve as a demonstration of Russia’s capabilities. The attacks were launched from three Buyan M-class corvettes and a Gepard-class frigate and flew over Iranian and Iraqi territory on their way to their targets. They were not necessary for the success of the operation, which could have been carried out perfectly well by Russian aircraft already in Syria. By launching missiles from the Caspian, Russia demonstrated that it could launch strikes from ships well inside Russia’s air defense perimeter. The real goal was to show NATO military planners (and neighboring states) that Russia has a new standoff land-attack missile capability that can be difficult to neutralize.

Russia’s demonstration of new naval strike capabilities continued in December 2015 when Kalibr LACMs were launched against targets from a recently constructed diesel submarine operating in the Mediterranean Sea. This launch of LACMs from hard-to-track submarines further highlighted the potential threat posed by Russian naval vessels against Russia’s potential opponents. These strikes were closely coordinated with the air force, which sent out a sizeable percentage of its long-range aviation to conduct strikes against the Islamic State. This force included five Tu-160, six Tu-95MS, and 14 Tu-22M3 long-range bombers, which launched Kh-555 and Kh-101 cruise missiles and also dropped gravity bombs on targets in Raqqa. These cruise missiles, with a range of approximately 2000 kilometers, had never been used in combat. While a number of analysts dismissed the tactics used by the long-range aviation as outdated, the goal of the operation was to highlight the combat readiness of the aircraft rather than the kinds of tactics the service would actually use in combat against an adversary that can defend against strikes by strategic aviation.

Unexpected Ability to Deploy and Sustain Operations out of Area

Until last September, most analysts (including myself) argued that Russia was not capable of conducting a military operation away from its immediate neighborhood, as its military lacked the ability to transport significant numbers of personnel or equipment to remote theaters of operations. However, the Russian military was able to transport the necessary equipment and personnel by pressing into service the vast majority of its large transport aircraft and almost all naval transport ships located in the European theater. Furthermore, it reflagged several Turkish commercial cargo vessels as Russian navy ships and pressed them into service to transport equipment to Syria. While Russia remains almost completely dependent on its rail network for military transport, the operation in Syria has shown that it has sufficient sea- and airlift capability to carry out a small operation away from its borders and that it can increase that capacity in innovative ways.

Russia’s initial planning for its Syrian operation assumed that it would continue for three to six months. The slow initial progress by Syrian government forces in retaking territory combined with the perception of an increased threat to Russian interests from both ISIS and Turkey, resulted in an expansion of operations. Russia began to use at least two additional Syrian airbases more conveniently located for providing air support for Syrian government offensives in the southern and eastern parts of the country. Each base used by Russian aircraft requires protection, which led to the deployment of additional artillery batteries. Despite an increase in forces, the Russian military has not had problems resupplying its troops and was ready to continue operations in Syria for the indefinite future.

The recent announcement that Russia would begin to withdraw its forces from Syria does not necessarily mean that the operation is ending. In the same announcement, President Vladimir Putin ordered Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu to keep all existing bases in Syria open and operating at present levels. Russian air defense systems and some aircraft are likely to remain in Syria. This will allow for a quick return of Russian forces to Syria if the political and military situation warrants it.

Conclusion

Russia’s operation in Syria sought to accomplish multiple goals. Apart from its geopolitical objectives, it was designed to test improvements in Russian military capabilities resulting from military reforms carried out over the last seven years and to highlight these improvements to potential adversaries. Although the Russian operation was initially slow in helping the Syrian government turn the tide against its opponents—and the impact of recent offensives and the subsequent ceasefire remains to be seen—it is clear that these reforms have resulted in a significant increase in Russia’s warfighting capability.

Threatening Russia Will Not Bring Pro-Western Forces to Power in Moscow

There is a fairly universal consensus in Washington that Russia presents a potential geopolitical threat to the United States. The threat derives from Vladimir Putin’s desire to reshape the international order by restoring his country’s position as a great power and his willingness to modernize and wield Russia’s military forces in service of this aim. However, there is no such consensus on how to deal with this threat. Some experts argue for more robust U.S. and NATO policies aimed at deterring future Russian adventurism, including positioning significant military forces in Eastern Europe, providing lethal military equipment to Ukraine and Georgia, and starting preparations to deploy intermediate-range nuclear forces to Europe. They say that these measures, in combination with Russia’s economic travails, will strengthen the position of those in Moscow officialdom who are opposed to Russia’s military adventurism.

This argument is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of how humans react to threats.

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Originally published by War on the Rocks. Click here to read the rest of the article.

Russian shipbuilding still in trouble

A couple of recent announcements indicate that Russian shipbuilders are continuing to struggle with construction of new types of ships. First came the announcement, right at the end of 2015, that the commissioning of the Admiral Gorshkov frigate was being delayed for another year, until the end of 2016. At the same time, the navy announced that the Admiral Grigorovich frigate will be commissioned in the first quarter of 2016. It had previously been expected to be commissioned in May 2015, before being repeatedly pushed back. In addition, commissioning of the lead ship of the Alexandrit class (Project 12700) of minewsweepers has been pushed back yet again, to May 2016. It was originally planned to be in the fleet back in 2013. And sea trials of the Ivan Gren amphibious ship were also delayed until the first quarter of 2016. As a result, in 2015 the Russian Navy received no new blue water surface ships.

On the other hand, it lost the services of several ships, including the Steregushchiy corvette that suffered a fire in April and both Neustrashimyi class frigates. The latter ships are waiting to be overhauled at Yantar shipyard, but the overhaul will take a long time since Ukraine will not supply replacement engines for the ships. The lack of engines will delay construction on most of the larger classes of surface ships, including Project 22350 (Admiral Gorshkov class hulls 3-4), Project 11356 (Admiral Gorshkov class hulls 4-6), and Project 20385 (Stereguschiy class variant, replaced by Project 20380 with less reliable Russian-built engines).

Submarine construction may seem better on the surface, with the commissioning of two Improved Kilo class ((Project 636) diesel submarines and the return to active service in 2015 of the Akula class submarine Gepard and the Sierra class submarine Pskov after length overhauls. While there is no doubt that Russian submarine construction is in much better shape than the construction of ocean-going surface ships, there are problems here as well. First of all, despite being commissioned back in 2013, the Severodvinsk SSN remains in sea trials for the third year.

But more importantly, development of a new class of diesel-electric submarines appears to be in trouble. Problems with propulsion systems have long delayed commissioning of the lead vessel of the Lada class, resulting in the decision taken several years ago to build six Improved Kilo class submarines for the Black Sea Fleet. The Russian Navy appeared to be moving on in announcing the successor Kalina class, which was to have air-independent propulsion systems (AIP). Russian experts argued that AIP would be ready by 2017-18, and the new submarines could be built relatively quickly after that. However, the Russian Navy recently announced, with quite a bit of fanfare, that it had ordered another six Improved Kilo class submarines for the Pacific Fleet. These are very good submarines, which undoubtedly be equipped with Kalibr cruise missiles that will give them a potent anti-ship and land-attack capability. But the implication of this announcement is that the Russian Navy does not expect to receive any of the new Kalina class submarines any time soon, and is therefore ordering the tried and true submarines to fill the gap.

All in all, it seems that Russian shipbuilding is continuing to “tread water,” successfully building ships that it has already built in the past but having serious problems with delays in the new projects that were expected to form the core of the Russian Navy in the 2020s.