Half-hearted military assistance to Ukraine will only make things worse

recent report by the Atlantic Council think tank advocating the provision of lethal military assistance to Ukraine highlights the threat posed by Russia to neighboring states.

But the key question missing from the Atlantic Council report is what the West’s overall goal in the conflict should be. The possible goals could range from helping Ukraine restore control over the Donbass, to implementing a cease-fire along the current line of control, to simply deterring Russia from similar adventures elsewhere.

The Atlantic Council report assumes but does not prove that Russian efforts to dominate its neighbors pose a grave threat to international security in general because success in Ukraine will embolden President Vladimir Putin to take similar actions elsewhere.

Click here to read the rest of the op-ed.

No, the Russian Navy isn’t going to collapse

Is the Russian Navy about to collapse? In a recent article on War is Boring, David Axe made this argument largely based on data from my recent articles on the Russian shipbuilding program and the Russian Navy’s priorities. While the information I provided is sound, Axe’s overall interpretation is not.

The Russian Navy is investing in a time-phased recapitalization of its navy over the next 20 years. Submarines are the first phase, already well under way, followed by smaller surface combatants, then increased amphibious capabilities. The navy is letting recapitalization of cruisers and destroyers slip into the next decade. As such, the availability of large combat ships will decrease in the near term but begin to increase in the medium to long term.

The Russian Navy has historically had four main missions: 1) strategic deterrence, 2) coastal defense, 3) protection of sea lanes of communication, and 4) out-of-area deployment.

Click here to read the rest of the article.

Russian Air Force capabilities and procurement plans

And here is the last installment of my three Oxford Analytica briefs on Russian military procurement plans. This one was originally published on October 20, 2014. As with the others (on the Navy and Ground Forces), I have not updated the content, though I have restored some material that was cut from the published version due to space constraints.

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As part of the State Armament Programme (SAP-2020), the Russian Air Force is set to receive a large number of new aircraft and to modernise at least half of those aircraft that are not being replaced. The service is strongest in combat aircraft, while transport and refuelling aircraft remain a weak point. Russia was relatively late in starting to develop unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), though some progress is now being made in this area. Increases in transport capabilities will increase the mobility of the Russian military, though they will continue to lag well behind those of NATO competitors and will only be sufficient to make part of the Russian military a mobile force capable of rapid response.

Impacts

  • The next generation of Russian combat aircraft will be broadly comparable to fifth-generation US fighter planes
  • Russian long-range bombers will continue their recently increased deployment patterns, patrolling near the borders of NATO states
  • Greater in-air refuelling capabilities will extend bomber ranges but will be insufficient fully to meet all Russian tactical aviation needs
  • Violations of NATO and other Western airspaces to test response times and radar/intelligence capabilities of host countries will increase

ANALYSIS: Despite the decay of the 1990s and early 2000s, the Russian Air Force remains the second largest in the world. It has approximately 2,500 aircraft in service, 75-80% of which are operational. Since the 2009 reform, the Air Force has been divided among over 60 bases, each of which reports to one of four operational strategic commands. The Russian Army and Navy are undergoing similar rearmament/reform programmes.

Fighters

Throughout the post-Soviet period, Russia’s air combat forces have consisted primarily of six types of aircraft:

  • The venerable Su-24 strike aircraft was introduced into the Soviet Air Force in 1974. It is gradually being replaced by the Su-34, though approximately 100 remain in service.
  • The Su-25 close air support aircraft was introduced in 1981; about 150 are in service.
  • The fourth-generation Su-27 fighter was introduced in 1984; about 350 are in service.
  • A modernised version of the Su-27, the Su-30 was introduced in 1992; about 45 are in service.
  • The fourth-generation MiG-29 fighter was introduced in 1983; about 250 are in service.
  • The MiG-31 interceptor was introduced in 1982; about 130 are in service and operational.

New aircraft have been received as well, primarily 35 Su-35 ‘fourth-plus-plus-generation’ fighters and 46 Su-34 strike aircraft. These planes will remain the primary combat aircraft in the Russian Air Force for the next decade.

Bombers

The current inventory of long-range bombers consists of three types:

  • The 16 Tu-160 strategic bombers are supersonic long-range bombers designed in the 1980s that have been in limited service since the 1990s. They have a maximum speed of Mach 2 and a range of over 12,000 kilometres (km). They can be armed with either conventional cruise missiles or nuclear missiles.
  • The 32 operational Tu-95MS strategic bombers are turboprop planes that have been in service since the 1950s, though the version currently in service was built in the 1980s. These have a maximum speed of 920 km/hour and a range of 15,000 km. They are armed with conventional cruise missiles.
  • The 41 operational Tu-22M3 long-range supersonic bombers, built in 1970s and 1980s, have a maximum speed of 2,000 km/hour and a range of 6,800 km.

Bombers’ resurrection 

Russia’s bombers were virtually inactive until 2007, when continuous patrols resumed. Since then, they have averaged 80-100 hours’ flying time per year. Overall, Russia’s existing long-range bombers can be expected to continue to operate for at least the next two decades.

Currently, 4-6 Tu-95s and 2-3 Tu-160s are being modernized each year, primarily including improvements in targeting and navigational systems. Overall, Russia’s existing long range bombers can be expected to continue to operate for at least next two decades, so the air force certainly has time on its side in developing a new design for a next generation long range bomber.

Military transports

The transport aviation branch has been expanded in recent years. In addition to its traditional transport function, it now operates airborne warning and control system (AWACS) planes and is responsible for transporting airborne troops. The mainstay of the existing transport fleet is the Il-76, with approximately 100 operational. These still have 2-3 decades of life, so there is no need for wholesale replacement, especially with a planned modernization that will include new engines and improved electronics. Thirty-nine modernized Il76-MD aircraft are on order. Transport aviation also operates a variety of Ukrainian-built Antonov planes, largely left over from the Soviet days. Plans to replace them with more modern variants have been in flux over recent years and are likely to be canceled given the suspension of military cooperation between Russia and Ukraine.

Transport aviation now operates 18 A-50 AWACS aircraft, including three that have been modernized. In the medium term, the military plans to produce a new generation A-100 AWACS plane based on the Il-76MD body.

Refuelling shortage

The big problem is a severe shortage of refuelling planes, with only 20-25 Il-78 tankers available. Most of these planes are committed to serving long-range aviation, which limits their ability to train with combat and transport aircraft. An additional 40 planes are on order, which will help somewhat to reduce this limitation.

Procurement plans

SAP-2020 contains an ambitious agenda for modernising Russia’s military aircraft, allocating over 4 trillion rubles (130 billion dollars) to re-outfitting the Air Force. The investment would result in the acquisition of more than 600 modern aircraft, including fifth-generation fighters, as well as more than 1,000 helicopters and a range of air defence systems.

Over the last four years, Russia’s aircraft industry has been relatively successful in meeting the targets set by SAP-2020 for combat aircraft. In just the last two years, it has built 28 Su-35S and 34 Su-30 fighters, as well as 20 Su-34 strike aircraft. Future plans call for the production of an additional 13 Su-35S and 83 Su-34 aircraft over the next six years, as well as the start of serial production of the T-50 fifth-generation fighter.

If all plans are carried out, by 2020 Russia will have 50 T-50, 90 Su-35 and over 60 Su-30 fighters, as well as 120 Su-34 strike aircraft. This will allow the Russian Air Force to retire all of its old Su-27 and Su-24 aircraft. Russian analysts believe that 50-55 MiG-35 fighter jets may also be ordered, starting the replacement of aging MiG-29s.

Sukhoi’s T-50 fifth-generation fighter

Russian strike aircraft are of fairly high quality, with the main problems revolving around the age of the air frames rather than their capabilities. Although it is a formidable aircraft, some questions have been raised about the feasibility of the development time-lines for the T-50 and how genuine are the capabilities of its fifth-generation technology. Nevertheless, the Russian military will have a fifth-generation strike fighter in serial production sometime in the next decade.

Ending cooperation with Ukraine

More significant is the revitalisation of less glamorous parts of the aviation industry, especially transport and refuelling aircraft. The construction of new production lines for these types of aircraft will go a long way towards the government’s stated goals of making the Russian military more mobile and extending the range of its attack aircraft through aerial refuelling.

However, gaps in both transport and refuelling capacity will remain a problem well into the next decade, due in part to the end of military cooperation with Ukraine.

UAV development

The military is also likely to benefit from relatively rapid growth in UAV capabilities as new designs reach the production stage. However, Russia’s UAV capabilities are likely to remain well behind those of its Western competitors for the rest of the decade.

CONCLUSION: Future development will focus on a new long-range bomber, which may be capable of hypersonic speeds, with production expected to start around 2020. Serial production of the T-50 fighter jet will continue to expand, with expectations that a total of 250 aircraft of this type will be produced over the next 15 years. Finally, Russian aircraft designers are currently developing a strike UAV that they hope will be ready to enter production by 2020.

Russian naval shipbuilding plans: Rebuilding a blue water navy

Since I wrote my previous post for Oxford Analytica several months ago, additional information has come out about what is contained in Russia’s shipbuilding program — which reportedly includes a naval development plan going out to 2050. Today, Konstantin Bogdanov at Lenta.ru has published a major update on these plans. The following is based on his article and on conversations with other Russian naval experts.

Submarines

Strategic nuclear deterrence will remain the number one mission of the Russian Navy. As the three remaining Delta IIIs will be retired in the next five years and the six Delta IVs in the 2020s, Russia expects to replace them with a total of 12 Borei SSBNs. Eight are already contracted to be built in the next few years, with another four expected to be ordered in the next decade. The new subs are likely to be an updated version of the current Borei II subclass, with improved electronics and other updated components. The navy plans to locate six in the Northern Fleet and six in the Pacific Fleet.

There has been a great deal of controversy over the Yasen SSGN class, which was initially expected to replace both Oscar class SSGNs and various classes of smaller multi-purpose SSNs. Eight have been ordered so far and there is some debate on whether an additional four Yasen subs will be ordered for construction after 2020. This will depend on whether the cost of serial production can be brought down and on the success of the just started modernization of Oscar class SSGNs (which is expected to extend these subs’ lifespan by 15-20 years). The goal is to have a total of 12 SSGNs, again with six each in the Northern and Pacific Fleets.

However, there is now a plan to develop a new multi-purpose nuclear submarine class, with the goal of building something cheaper and smaller than the Yasen class. This would be an attack submarine with decreased missile armament, comparable to the American Virginia class. The navy hopes to begin construction of these subs as early as 2016, with the goal of building a total of 16-18 of them, with at least 15 completed by 2035. These submarines would be armed with 16 (4×4) VLS, 4-6 torpedo tubes, updated Kalibr missiles and Tsirkon missiles (which will replace Oniks).

As far as diesel submarines, no more Improved Kilo class submarines will be built after the current contract of six for the Black Sea Fleet is completed. Instead the navy is planning to order a new class of diesel-electric submarines that will in essence be a modernized version of the Lada class, with air-independent propulsion. The goal is to build 14-18 of these subs over a 15 year period, though mainly in the 2020s. These subs will have armaments analogous to the Lada class, though some may be optimized for special operations, with airlocks for swimmers. They will be build primarily at Admiralty Shipyards, though Krasnoe Sormovo may also be involved in the project. The second and third Lada hulls will also be completed, most likely in 2017.

Surface ships

The community of Russian naval experts has in recent months yet again been consumed by the question of whether the navy should build aircraft carriers and, if so, what kind? Bogdanov writes that construction of a carrier could begin no earlier than 2020 and would carry substantial financial and technical risks. The prospective carrier would be a descendant of the never finished Ulianovsk class aircraft carrier, with a deadweight of 65,000-80,000 tons and could carry 55-60 aircraft. The planes would probably be a naval version of the T-50 fifth generation fighter plane, as well as some long-range AWACS aircraft that would be more effective than existing Ka-31 helicopters. The prospective carrier would have air defense and ASW capabilities, but no strike armaments of its own.

Russian experts have noted that Russian shipyards could build a 60,000-70,000 ton carrier in 4-5 years, but could have difficulties if the military decides to build a larger supercarrier. One problem is the lack of a suitably large drydock, as Soviet carriers were built at Nikolayev, Ukraine. A small carrier (less than 60,000 tons) could be built at Baltiiskii Zavod, but the military does not want such a design. If the navy wants to avoid the delays that would come from having to build new construction facilities,  one option that has been floated for building a large carrier is to build two halves at Baltiiskii Zavod and the Vyborg shipyard, and then connect them afloat at Sevmash.

The navy is likely to build eight more Admiral Gorshkov class frigates, in addition to the eight already under contract, as well as a total of 20 corvettes of various versions. Three Admiral Grigorovich class frigates may also be built, in addition to the six currently under construction for the Black Sea Fleet. All of these ships are being armed with Oniks anti-ship missiles and Kalibr multi-purpose missiles, which can both be fired through universal vertical launch systems. The main question here is the extent to which the program for construction of these ships will be delayed due to the shift in turbine production that has resulted from the end of military industrial cooperation between Russia and Ukraine. Most Russian experts believe that two years will be sufficient to set up production of turbines in Russia, though the actual extent of the delay is likely to be clear by the middle of this year. In any case, Russia is believed to have already received turbines for the first four ships of each of these classes.

The navy is planning to begin production of large destroyers (15,000 tons) that some consider to be essentially missile cruisers in all but name. It has not been decided whether these ships will have nuclear or gas turbine propulsion systems. They will have a wide range of both offensive and defense armaments, including Tsirkon hypersonic cruise missiles and a naval version of the S-500 long-range air defense system, both of which are expected to be ready by the mid-2020s. The hope is to have the first ship of this class ready by 2023-25 and to eventually build a total of at least 12 (though other analysts believe that construction of these destroyers won’t begin before 2023).

A number of modernization projects are also in the works. Cruiser modernization is now under way, with the Admiral Nakhimov Kirov class cruiser scheduled to be ready for active duty in 2018 after the replacement of all of its armaments and electronic components. The Peter the Great cruiser may be modernized in a similar fashion once the Nakhimov’s refit is complete. Two or three Slava class cruisers will also be modernized in the next few years. Five to seven Udaloy class destroyers may also be modernized, with new armaments and universal vertical launch systems, while the largely useless Sovremennyi class destroyers will finally be retired as replacing their defective propulsion systems is considered unrealistic.

Regardless of the final resolution of the saga with the procurement of Mistral class amphibious ships from France, the navy is also planning to replace all existing amphibious ships with new classes. Specifically, it plans to build a new LPD type amphibious ship, similar to the Dutch Rotterdam class with a displacement of 14-16,000 tons and able to carry 500-600 naval infantry, six helicopters, and various amphibious vehicles. The goal is to have 2-3 such ships each in the Northern and Pacific Fleets, with construction to start late in this decade. In addition, progress is being made in the long-running construction saga of the Ivan Gren amphibious ship, with the lead ship expected to be commissioned in 2015 after more than ten years of construction. Previous delays were caused by irregular financing and frequent changes in design specifications. With the latter now pretty much set, subsequent ships can be expected to be built much faster as long as the financing is available. The goal is to have eight such ships, four each in the Baltic and Black Sea Fleets.

A brief assessment

As always with Russian military construction plans, this program sounds quite grandiose. And if it is fully implemented, the Russian navy will be back as a full-fledged oceangoing force by the end of the next decade. However, it seems to me that given their current capacities Russian shipyards will not be able to carry out the entire plan in the expected timelines. Furthermore, there is a big question over the ability of the Russian state to finance such a program given the economic difficulties that it is likely to face in the next several years. Over the last several years, we have seen repeated delays with the construction of new ship types even when the economic situation was much more positive and the ships being built much smaller and simpler than destroyers and aircraft carriers. The recently-completed long-running saga with the modernization of the Vikramaditya aircraft carrier for the Indian Navy shows the problems that Russia may face as it starts to build larger and more complex ships.

Nevertheless, it is clear that while the Russian Navy has resigned itself to focus on strategic deterrence and coastal defense missions in the short and medium terms, it still has ambitions of restoring its blue water navy in the long term.

 

Russian naval capabilities and procurement plans

Another Oxford Analytica brief. This one originally published on October 3, 2014. There have been some changes since this was written, but I’ve largely left it as is, except for restoring some material cut by the editors due to space constraints.

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The Russian navy’s missions and procurement plans indicate that it is going to focus primarily on strategic deterrence and coastal defence, while allowing ‘blue-water’ capabilities — its ability to operate in areas far away from home territory and coastal support bases — to deteriorate in the short term. For many years the Russian navy has been in serious decline — the Kursk disaster in 2000 being the most significant manifestation of this — with underfunding that has led to the decay of many older platforms. While Russia still has the strongest navy in the former Soviet Union, Moscow’s out-of-area naval capability is in overall decline.

ANALYSIS: Impacts

  • Russia will procure a new generation of vessels that will position the navy as a formidable coastal defence force.
  • A new generation of large combat ships is more than a decade away, leading to the erosion of the navy’s blue-water capabilities.
  • Submarine-based strategic deterrence will remain a primary mission.

The Russian navy is still primarily a Soviet legacy force. There are relatively few new warships in service at present and the ones that have been commissioned in recent years are all relatively small. In terms of large surface units, the navy only operates what it was able to save during the years when it received virtually no funding.

Naval capabilities

The Northern Fleet has historically been the most important, but the emphasis is now more on the Pacific Fleet.

Changes in Northern Fleet

In the past this has had the most large ships and now consists of ten large surface units, no more than seven of which are operational. The fleet operates a relatively small number of smaller ships, although this may change as the fleet begins to focus on Arctic coastal defence and offshore energy platform protection missions.

It expects to get more frigates and corvettes for these missions in coming years. Of the current ships, only the Peter the Great cruiser, the Kuznetsov aircraft carrier, two Udaloy-class destroyers, five corvettes, two landing ships and five smaller ships are considered deployable.

The Northern Fleet has historically been the main base for Russia’s submarines. The active ship submersible ballistic nuclear (SSBN) contingent includes six Delta IVs, one Borei-class which is just out of sea trials, and one Typhoon-class SSBN used as a testing platform.

Non-strategic submarines include one new Yasen-class currently undergoing sea trials, three Oscar II-class submarines with cruise missiles, 14 multi-purpose nuclear submarines of various classes and seven Kilo-class diesel submarines. About half of the non-strategic submarines are on active duty, while the rest are in various stages of modernisation or repair.

Overall, somewhere between 40-70% of the Northern Fleet’s ships and submarines are not fully operational.

Pacific Fleet rising

The Pacific Fleet is likely to become Russia’s largest fleet over the next decade in recognition of the region’s increasing geopolitical importance and the concentration of naval powers in the region. The fleet consists of ten large surface units (of which six are operational), four amphibious landing ships and approximately 34 operational small ships, missile ships and minesweepers.

The fleet’s Udaloy destroyers and Varyag cruiser are very active, frequently deploying to the Indian Ocean. The fleet’s submarines include four SSBNs and ten other nuclear submarines (three operational), as well as eight Kilo-class diesel submarines (five operational).

Black Sea Fleet 

The Black Sea Fleet has some of the oldest ships in the navy. It is considered critically important to future Russian naval strategy, as it is best positioned to provide ships for Russia’s Mediterranean squadron. However, the cruiser Moskva is the only large ship capable of regular out-of-area deployments.

In the new geopolitical environment in the Black Sea, coastal defence is becoming a priority. An extensive rebuilding programme is under way and the uncertainty over the status of the main base in Sevastopol clearly played a role in Russia’s decision to annex Crimea. The fleet is expecting to receive new frigates, corvettes and diesel submarines.

Baltic Fleet

The main role of the Baltic Fleet is coastal defence plus testing new ships, as it is near all the major shipyards. It has been the first fleet to get new ships — a frigate and four coastal defence corvettes.

Caspian Flotilla

The Caspian Flotilla is seen as important in securing the volatile southern region. The fleet’s primary tasks include efforts to eliminate poaching, protecting trade and petroleum exploration, and counter-terrorist activities. The flotilla has received a number of new ships, including two Gepard missile frigates and five Buyan corvettes.

Procurement plans

Russia’s shipbuilding industry is not in good shape, as the delays in refitting the Admiral Gorshkov aircraft carrier as the Indian Vikramaditya showed. The United Shipbuilding Corporation has had integration problems and some shipyards have not been modernised since the Soviet period. Additionally, certain elements of the rearmament programme could be delayed as a result of the ending of defence cooperation with Ukraine.

While the industry is not likely to meet the targets set by the current armament programme, it will probably be able to produce 50-70% of the weapons and equipment required by 2020.

Russia intends to restore its navy’s global reach, but given the time needed to renovate shipyards, develop new designs, and build large ships, the effort will not be fully launched until the 2020s. The earliest that Russia could built a new aircraft carrier is 2027, while new destroyers are still on drawing board, with the first unlikely to be commissioned for ten years.

Shipbuilding plans address the most immediate priorities, but will result in further decline of blue-water capabilities, as Soviet-era cruisers and destroyers are retired. One stopgap measure is to modernise existing Kirov- and Slava-class cruisers and Sovremennyi-class destroyers. However, the feasibility of this is questionable because of reactor problems on two of the three Kirovs and unreliable propulsion systems on the Sovremennyi ships.

The current shipbuilding focus is on several types of small surface warships designed primarily for coastal defence and sea lane protection, rather than expeditionary operations:

  • Admiral Gorshkov-class frigates: 1 in sea trials, 3 under construction, 5-6 likely to be commissioned by 2020.
  • Krivak IV-class frigates: Given slow pace of Gorshkov construction, building 5-6 for the Black Sea Fleet, and possibly 3 additional ships for other fleets.
  • Steregushchii-class corvettes: 4 already in active service, 4 under construction; total of 18 planned by 2020. The initial project was considered relatively unsuccessful. Modernized versions are now being built with better armaments. Construction is moving quickly, but the total number built may be limited as the class is superseded by project 22160.
  • Project 22160 corvettes: 6 contracted, including 2 under construction. Plans now calling for 6 more to be built. Will have greater range and be more self-sufficient than their predecessors. They can travel 6000 miles and 60 days without refueling, versus 3,500 miles and 15 days for the Steregushchii.
  • Buyan and Buyan-M class corvettes for Caspian Flotilla and Black Sea Fleet: 5 in service, 1 in sea trials, 5 under construction, 1 more contracted.
  • 6 Ivan Gren amphibious ships: construction started in 2004, little progress to date, first ship due in 2015, will be difficult to get more than 2-3 built by 2020.
  • Mistrals: one in sea trials, one under construction in France, option for two more. Transfer may be held up due to EU sanctions. Could be used as either command ships or for amphibious attack.

Russia plans to build a total of ten Borei-class strategic submarines, with five already built or currently under construction. These will be armed with the Bulava submarine-launched ballistic missile system. While eight Yasen-class multi-purpose attack submarines are planned — with one already in service — only 3-4 are likely to be completed by 2020.

Diesel submarine plans include six improved Kilos and as many as 14 Ladas. The Kilos should not present much of a problem, while construction of Ladas was suspended in 2011 because of problems with propulsion systems and hydroacoustic sensors. Construction was recently resumed with a completely new engine. Though 14 is not a realistic target, 5-6 could be built by 2020 if the problems have actually been solved.

CONCLUSION: The Russian navy will see modest improvements in capabilities by the end of the decade, with a shift in focus away from large surface units and nuclear attack submarines, and towards frigates, corvettes and diesel submarines. This emphasis shows that Russia does not see NATO as a realistic potential maritime opponent. Whereas the Soviet navy focused on building ships designed to take on carrier groups, the new Russian navy will be primarily focused on defending against smaller adversaries closer to home, at least in the short term.

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.

Ukrainian military capabilities

After a bit of a break, I’m resuming posting my briefs for Oxford Analytica, as always with a three month lag. This was written in early September, just after the conclusion of the ceasefire. (Note that this version is not identical to that published by Oxford Analytica, as I have removed some material that was added by the editorial staff.)

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SIGNIFICANCE: At the start of the conflict in Donbas, the Ukrainian military appeared to be almost completely incapable of defending its territory. Kiev’s forces were unprepared for Russia’s annexation of Crimea and seemed powerless to prevent it. In recent months, it has become a somewhat more effective war-fighting force, though not one that is powerful enough to withstand a full-scale future Russian military invasion. If the current ceasefire fails and Russia intervenes fully in Donbas, the Ukrainian military will not have the capability to defend the country.

Impact

  • Ukraine has made significant improvements to its military capabilities, compared to their state at the start of the conflict.
  • However, the Ukrainian military is not capable of defeating the insurgency in eastern Ukraine.
  • Russia will increase military assistance to the extent necessary to prevent the elimination of separatist Donbas enclaves.

ANALYSIS: 

At the start of the conflict, Ukraine’s military appeared on paper to be a fairly sizeable force, with almost 130,000 active military personnel, over 1,000 tanks, 370 combat aircraft and helicopters, and almost 2,000 artillery pieces. At the same time, it was notoriously underfunded and in disarray as a result of a recent political decision to end conscription and shift to a fully professional manning model. The total number of usable troops and equipment in the ground forces amounted to 80,000 personnel, 775 tanks, 51 helicopters, fewer than 1,000 artillery pieces and 2,280 armoured personnel carriers.

Military dispositions

These troops were positioned in a manner that showed the Ukrainian military’s history as a legacy Soviet force, with the vast majority of units stationed in western Ukraine and along the southern coast. No units were located in the Luhansk or Donetsk regions. Only a single mechanised brigade was located in neighbouring Kharkiv region, while the largest concentration of Ukrainian troops in eastern Ukraine was based in the Dnipropetrovsk region.

Yanukovich’s neglect of military

Some reports indicated that the size of the combat-ready force was even smaller, with only 6,000 troops fully prepared to fight when the conflict broke out. Other units were not considered combat-ready because of a combination of lack of training and inadequate and poorly maintained equipment.

The Ukrainian military received limited funding throughout the post-Soviet period. This tendency became even more pronounced during Viktor Yanukovich’s presidency. He was more concerned about internal unrest than external threats and therefore increasingly shifted the country’s limited security budget towards internal security forces at the expense of the regular armed forces. As a result, the military budget remained very low, at just over 1% of GDP, throughout Yanukovich’s presidency.

Political chaos hampered military response

In addition to underfunding, Ukrainian forces were initially unprepared to deal with the crisis because of a combination of political chaos and internal subversion. The initial Russian intervention in Crimea took place immediately after the chaotic final stage of the ‘Maidan’ revolution. The newly formed acting Ukrainian government had not yet established its authority in Kiev, much less in the eastern and southern regions that had largely opposed Maidan. It was not prepared to act in response to Russia’s immediate and fast-paced operation in Crimea.

Russian infiltration

Widespread infiltration of the Ukrainian government, military and security services by Russian agents also contributed to disorganisation and poor performance. It appears that these agents were able to provide Moscow with detailed information on Ukrainian government and military planning for responding to the conflict. Highly placed military officers whose sympathies were with Russia and the east Ukrainian separatists may also have played a role in disrupting military planning. At the local level, unit commanders who sympathized with the separatist cause withdrew their personnel and turned their equipment over to the insurgents on several occasions. These surrenders provided the means for separatist forces to receive their first parties of heavy weapons and armored vehicles.

Lack of counter-insurgency training

The Ukrainian military was trained to respond to an invasion and to participate in peacekeeping operations abroad. It had neither plans nor training to fight an insurgency.

For all of these reasons, Ukraine’s military and security forces were unprepared to counter either the Russian military occupation of Crimea or the subsequent emergence of armed separatist forces in eastern Ukraine.

Partial resurgence

The Ukrainian military used a unilateral ceasefire in late June to rebuild its command structure, develop new tactics and recruit personnel. Most of the senior military leadership was replaced, with incompetent and compromised generals being forced out in favour of those who had shown the most initiative and/or were seen as loyal to Kiev.

Around this time, the government decided to use military tactics against the separatists. This led to an escalation of the conflict and an increase in civilian casualties, but also allowed it to use regular military units against separatists.

Irregular battalions

Kiev determined that it did not have enough regular military personnel to counter the insurgency in Donbas while simultaneously maintaining a standing force to face potential Russian aggression from Crimea. Kiev began to organise irregular militia battalions. A number of territorial defence battalions, special purpose police battalions, national guard battalions and other independent units have been formed through the recruitment of volunteers. These include several units that have gained some notoriety in the fighting, such as the Azov and Donbas battalions, as well as independent units associated with the Right Sector and the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists.

Oligarch armies

Some of these battalions are sponsored by wealthy Ukrainians such as Igor Kolomoisky, the governor of Dnipropetrovsk region, who allegedly spent millions of dollars organising and arming fighters from Dnipropetrovsk.

Ideological and political battalions

Some of the new battalions are organised around nationalist ideology such as the Azov battalion, while others comprise people who participated in the Maidan protests (the Maidan and Aidar battalions). Additionally, there are some tied to political parties (the Batkivshchyna and Right Sector battalions).

However, the vast majority of the battalions were initially organised as territorial defence units and were only later sent to fight in eastern Ukraine. As of late June, the total approximate strength of these battalions was estimated at 5,600, with the Donbas Battalion the single largest with almost 1,000 fighters. Several of the units suffered major losses in battles in July and August, although in some cases they have also been able to recruit reinforcements.

Popular support for war effort

The parlous state of Ukrainian government finances and the reluctance of Western governments to provide financial and military assistance have necessitated efforts to raise money and provide basic supplies for government forces and especially for irregular pro-government fighters through donations from the Ukrainian population and from the diaspora abroad. To this end, a number of websites and social media resources have been organised to raise money for fighting the conflict.

These efforts have been primarily useful in providing basic supplies for military units, especially the irregular battalions. Such supplies, detailed in frequent reports on assistance websites, consist primarily of medicines, spare parts and maintenance, rather than the purchase of weapons or major equipment. They are not a replacement for regular procurement and recruitment, but have played a role in spurring the government to speed up resupply and increase the financing of regular military units.

Ukrainian internet crowdsourcing efforts have expanded beyond financial assistance. The website Stop Terror in Ukraine has used crowdsourcing to report separatist attacks, troop movements, roadblocks and the seizure of buildings throughout the country. The effectiveness of such efforts remains unclear but they do show that the war effort has widespread popular support.

Military unable to withstand increased Russian assistance

As a result of the improvements in capabilities described above, Ukrainian forces scored substantial victories against the separatists throughout July and in early August. By August 15, separatist forces had lost more than half of the territory they controlled prior to the ceasefire, were divided into several enclaves and had come close to losing the ability to transfer forces among strongholds. Ukrainian military and political leaders believed that they could defeat the separatists and retake all of the territory in eastern Ukraine not under government control within a few weeks.

However, their continued success depended on static levels of Russian assistance to the separatists. The Ukrainian leadership gambled that Russia would not seek to escalate its involvement in the conflict. However, Russia proved them wrong, first by providing greater levels of heavy weapons and volunteer fighters to separatist forces, then by shelling Ukrainian forces from Russian territory in order to prevent the latter from blocking separatists’ access to Russian assistance via the common border and finally by opening a new front in territory previously under the firm control of government forces — around Novoazovsk and Mariupol.

“Ceasefire in name only”

This escalation in Russian military assistance has in recent weeks caused a major shift in the path of the conflict, with Ukrainian forces taking heavy casualties throughout Donbas and losing control of approximately half of the territory they had gained over the summer. The current ceasefire is holding — although Supreme Allied Commander Europe General Philip Breedlove of the US Air Force commented in Vilnius recently that the ceasefire was a “cease-fire in name only” — and a return to serious fighting is a distinct possibility. Russian support for the Donbas separatists will remain.

Prospects for Ukrainian forces

As shown by recent events, despite modest improvements in capabilities since the spring, Ukrainian forces are not currently capable to withstand attacks by even small numbers of well-trained regular Russian forces for any length of time. In part, this is the result of the disparity in training received by Ukrainian forces compared to elite Russian forces.

Yet the greater role in Ukrainian forces’ weakness comes from the disparity in equipment. The use of powerful air defence weapons provided by Russia largely negated Ukraine’s air superiority throughout the summer.

CONCLUSION: The Russian government has made clear that it will take steps to ensure that the Ukrainian military does not defeat separatist forces in eastern Ukraine. It will use as much force as it deems necessary to ensure that the separatist enclaves in Donbas remain functional. There is no way for the Ukrainian government to end the conflict through a military victory. Should the ceasefire fail and Ukrainian forces overcome their setbacks and renew their advance into separatist territory, Moscow is likely further to escalate the extent of its direct military assistance.