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.