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.

8 thoughts on “Vostok-2010: Another step forward for the Russian military

  1. This is encouraging news for the Russian military. I appreciate that Mr. Medvedev has a lot to occupy him, but a highly visible and professional armed forces is an expression of national pride. Progress toward an all-volunteer military is probably not achievable in the short term, as wages would have to be significantly higher to compel young men and women to sign on for a career – but this, too, must be a goal.

    It will be interesting to see how the ground forces adjust to a sealift capability when the MISTRAL class ships arrive. It’s surprising how little movement is necessary to inspire seasickness in landsmen who know little of the sea; you wouldn’t think it in such a large vessel, but underestimating it would be a mistake. Soldiers who are giddy with illness are not much use in establishing and holding a beachhead.

    I don’t have much respect for Golts, if we’re talking about the same Golts, because he’s constantly touted as a military expert despite having no military background I was able to discover, and he never says anything good in print about the Russian Armed Forces.

  2. Mark,
    Aleksandr Golts spent more than twenty years as a reporter for Krasnaya zvezda. His knowledge of the Russian military is outstanding. If you believe that a military background is a requirement for being an expert on military affairs, you would dismiss someone like Tom Ricks and other American defense reporters and analysts. And, if you follow the Russian debate, few knowledgeable people there have anything good to say about the Russian military.

  3. I have to agree with Misha on this. One doesn’t have to have served in the military to qualify as an expert on it. In my 10 years working at CNA, I have met many people who are intimately familiar with various aspects of both US and foreign militaries without having served a day in any of them. One of our country’s best experts on counter-insurgency operations is a CNA civilian. I suppose you can call me biased because I fancy myself at least somewhat an expert on the Russian military, without having any military background myself.

    • Perhaps you’re both right, although I’m not talking about general comments related to the need for reform, or overall success of a particular maneuver or exercise. I’m talking about comments directly related to a new aircraft design, for example, that it’s a piece of junk and doesn’t do anything it’s supposed to do. Russophobes love to seize on such statements as proof that Russia can’t build anything that isn’t garbage, when in many cases it is something that was deliberately constructed to be simple and easy to operate by a conscript military, such as a tank or an infantry personnel carrier. Golts is a favoured source for La Russophobe, who often uses his reviews to illustrate how pathetic Russian military equipment is when compared with brilliantly designed American technology – much of which cannot withstand the rigours of combat or an operational environment without extensive redundancy.

      There are certain aspects of the military that you can never properly understand unless you have some military service, but you’re quite correct that they probably don’t contribute significantly to an understanding of the overall design purpose and intended scope of a nation’s armed forces, or an objective assessment of their comparitive readiness.

      To be fair, these are the only sort of pieces I’ve ever seen by Golts, although I’ve seen quite a few of those. If he’s ever said anything positive about the Russian military, I haven’t seen it.

  4. Mark,

    I generally share your attitude toward La Russophobe — I’m very much opposed to reflexive Russia-bashing. At the same time, as I have written in various posts over the last year, Russia’s military industrial complex is just not very good any more. We should be careful not to fall into the reverse trap of claiming that everything Russia does (or builds) is just fine. Russia is a country that does many things well and many other things badly. We should take each situation at face value, without ideological blinders (either positive or negative).

    For example, I absolutely cannot trust anyone who claims that Russia is a functioning democratic state. I believe that there is very convincing evidence out there that this is simply not true. I also disagree with those who believe that Russian leaders are planning to invade Europe just as soon as they rebuild their country’s military. Again, because I see convincing evidence that Russia is not interested in restoring its Soviet boundaries or East European sphere of influence.

    But in both cases, I look at the evidence. In this case, Golts is right — Russia’s military has until recently been in very bad shape. There simply wasn’t much positive to say about it. Even now, when it seems to be on the right track, the good news is more aspirational. They still have almost no new equipment, they are having great problems building the new equipment they’re trying to build, and their manpower system is a disaster. But at least they have a plan now, which they didn’t until 2008. From what I’ve read, Golts is a realist, I think — I’ve never spoken to him personally. He sees the positive aspects, but he also describes the problems as they really are, unlike Krasnaia Zvezda, which has a tendency to say everything is wonderful. I wouldn’t hold that against him, nor would I hold against him the fact that La Russophobe uses his reporting to try to support her point of view.

    • Sigh. I suppose you’re right. The whole raison d’etre of my blog is to counter the odious russophobia of La Russophobe, and if you can’t attack the data, you attack the source. I couldn’t find any military background for Golts, and was therefore inclined to suggest, “He’s just a reporter; what the hell does he know?” I really know only the navy side of it well myself, and although Russia is a true blue-water seapower, it is her land forces that have formed the backbone of her defense.

      I don’t think everything is wonderful, defense-wise, anywhere. The United States is the most powerful military nation, but it should be – it spends more than the next ten countries combined, and you get what you pay for. It still often lacks the ability to win decisively owing to misconfiguration of forces for the mission, and its political system was until recently so disliked that it couldn’t spin its achievements positively.

      Russia didn’t need much of a military to trounce Georgia, but it certainly has to improve on that capability. I’d not like to see it rise once again to be a world menace, but I don’t like to see it laughed at, either. I agree with you that any suggestion Russia plans to invade and dominate Europe with its military is nonsense. However, I believe Russia will not tolerate further encroachment on its present sphere of influence, and is adamantly opposed to BMD with its long-range radar that could see hundreds of miles inside Russian airspace.

      I thank you for your most courteous and informative reply; thanks also to Mr. Tsypkin for the benefit of his enlightenment. I believe I gained a great deal, and that’s what I come here to do.

  5. Pingback: In the News « PONARS Eurasia

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