Capabilities of the Russian ground forces

Here’s the first of a series of Oxford Analytica briefs I wrote last fall analyzing the modernization prospects of the Russian military. This one was originally published on September 29, 2014. I’ll post similar updates on the Navy and Air Force over the next few weeks.

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SIGNIFICANCE:The military is undergoing a process of equipment modernisation and tactical innovation. These changes will not solve all its problems, particularly regarding manpower, but will make it a much more effective fighting force in the next 5-10 years. As the Ukraine crisis has shown, the Russian military has improved significantly from the Russo-Georgian war of 2008, and is significantly stronger than its Ukrainian counterpart.

ANALYSIS: Impacts

  • A new generation of tanks and armoured vehicles will provide greater protection and mobility for ground forces units.
  • Improvements in targeting will provide artillery and rocket forces with the ability to carry out precision strikes.
  • Military planners are now developing strategies predicated on rapid response to small regional and local conflicts.
  • These changes will increase the potential threat to hostile neighbouring states.
  • Military effectiveness in fighting Islamist extremist forces in the event of state collapse on Russia’s southern border will grow.

The ground forces are the largest element in the Russian military, including infantry, tanks, artillery and rocket troops, as well as such specialised units as engineers, signals, reconnaissance, air defence and chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) protection.

There are currently just under 300,000 personnel serving in ground forces units, the vast majority of whom are conscripted soldiers. As of 2013, the ground forces consisted of about 80 brigades. Until recently, they represented a fairly low priority for Russian military procurement.

This led the army to institute a five-year moratorium on procurement of new tanks and armoured vehicles, while pushing its suppliers to produce qualitatively new designs that will be more reliable, better armoured and more mobile than the previous generation equipment. In 2012, military leaders announced that they would no longer accept modified versions of Soviet-era designs and instead invest in research and development to produce fully modern types of equipment within five years.

Elite forces — and below-par conscripts

Meanwhile, Moscow has invested heavily in creating an elite force comprised of rapid reaction units that are highly professional and well trained. While they are not at the level of the most elite Western forces, they are far superior to the best Russian forces available before the current military reforms began in 2009 — or the vast majority of foreign forces in countries bordering Russia.

These forces have been on display in recent action in Ukraine, where they showed their ability to avoid provocations in Crimea and their capacity quickly to defeat Ukrainian forces in Donbas. However, they comprise no more than 25% of total Russian ground forces.

Airborne Forces

The Airborne Forces play a particularly important role in these elite units. In August, a 5,000-strong peacekeeping force was organised on the basis of the 31st Airborne Brigade, coupled with a battalion in each of another five airborne divisions and brigades. These units are to be composed entirely of professional contract soldiers and are expected to be able to serve abroad in both UN- and CIS-sponsored peacekeeping missions.

Poorly trained units

However, the rest of the force consists of relatively poorly trained forces, composed primarily of conscripts serving one-year terms. These regular units still lack discipline and are often commanded by low-quality officers. Many positions remain unfilled owing to a lack of conscripts and the unwillingness of sufficient numbers of men to sign contracts for professional military service.

Rearmament plans

From 2016, the army plans large-scale purchases of tanks and armoured vehicles, with the goal of replacing 70% of infantry and tank brigades’ equipment by 2020. The goal is to produce universal combat platforms based on a single chassis that can be modified to serve as tanks, infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs), armoured personnel carriers (APCs) and self-propelled artillery.

New designs are expected to have better armour and to be based on this modular concept that will make them easy to modify for different uses — and to upgrade further in the future. However, ending defence cooperation with Ukrainian suppliers will cause problems and delays for some elements of the rearmament programme.

Armata platform

The Armata platform will serve as the basis for heavy fighting vehicles: it has a revamped engine, new transmission and improved chassis strength. Plans call for the procurement of 2,300 Armata battle tanks by 2020. The tank will be closely compatible with the Kurganets tracked IFV.

The Boomerang family of wheeled APCs is scheduled for production from 2015, with approximately 2,000 to be procured by 2020. The new design will also serve as a platform for other types of vehicles that could be used as air defence missile launchers, mortar carriers or fire support vehicles, and for reconnaissance.

Artillery and missile systems

Russian artillery and missile systems are also being modernised.

The Tornado multiple rocket launcher is replacing relatively inaccurate Smerch systems. In addition to possessing greater accuracy as a result of better positioning systems, its lightweight nature makes it more mobile than Smerch.

The Iskander mobile theatre ballistic-missile system has proved highly effective in exercises and in combat operations in Georgia. Its range of 400 kilometres has made it particularly threatening to East European NATO members, which are concerned about possible deployment in Kaliningrad.

Overall, the new generation of Russian missile systems compares favourably with similar NATO systems.

New tactics

In addition to new armaments, the Russian military is also developing new tactics to function in a limited-war environment. The long-held Russian insistence on being prepared to fight a large-scale frontal war is now being downplayed. Russian military planners have responded to recent experience in fighting in Georgia and Ukraine, as well as the types of threats seen as most likely to develop in Central Asia.

As a result, the role of rapid reaction forces — especially the Airborne Forces — will grow. Additionally, the role of military intelligence in supporting elite units will become increasingly important.

Airborne units are better suited for the types of conflicts that the Russian military is most likely to face in the foreseeable future, as they can be deployed quickly and have the capability to engage opposing forces immediately upon arrival in theatre.

CONCLUSION: The military will continue to focus on developing new armaments for its ground forces. The capabilities of its defence industry will vary widely from sector to sector. In general, Russian procurement timelines are over-optimistic, but the industry is able to achieve 70-80% of the announced targets by the stated deadlines. However, the manpower shortage will further widen the capability gap between fully professional, elite rapid response units, and regular ground forces staffed primarily by conscripts.

3 thoughts on “Capabilities of the Russian ground forces

  1. I agree, but I am not as worried as you on the below.
    With regards to conscripts:
    When it comes to a major war between Russia and NATO, If nuclear weapons for some odd reasons were not deployed, conscripts will be called upon from either side anyway … .
    Contract soldiers:
    Induction numbers are keeping up with yearly targets and will be more then adequate to deal with CI (Chechnya, central Asia), covert (Ukraine) and peace keeping (Georgia) operations. I am not as worried as you on this point.
    The main worry now is developing Russian military and economy while keeping social spending in light of falling oil prices. How the Russian Elite plans to tackle the front where the real war is being waged remains to be seen.

  2. Pingback: RU SzS spējas saskaņā ar Gorenburgu | vara bungas

  3. Pingback: Not So Scary: This Is Why Russia’s Military Is a Paper Tiger | Nwo Report

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