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.

Shipbuilding constraints drive downsized but potent Russian navy

Official announcements related to naval shipbuilding give the appearance of a Russian Navy that is undergoing a rapid revival. However, the reality is that many projects have faced lengthy delays and cost overruns. As a result, some of the most prominent naval procurement projects have been scaled back, while others have been postponed for years at a time. The delays and cost overruns are the result of a long-term decline in naval research and development, an inability to modernize the shipbuilding industry made worse by Western sanctions, and pre-existing budgetary constraints that have been exacerbated in recent years by Russia’s economic downturn. However, the Russian Navy has developed a strategy that compensates for these gaps by utilizing its strength in submarines and cruise missile technology to fulfill key maritime missions such as homeland defense and power projection in the face of a failure to build an adequate number of large combat ships.

Originally published by CIMSEC. Click here to read the rest of the article.

Russia’s Syria operation reveals significant improvement in military capability

Although relatively small in scale, Russia’s military operation in Syria has highlighted some major improvements in Russian military capabilities.

Beyond its purely geopolitical goals, Russia’s operation in Syria has been designed to test improvements in Russian military capabilities that have resulted from the military reform carried out over the last seven years and to highlight these improvements to potential adversaries. While the jury is still out on how successful the operation will be in helping the Syrian government turn the tide against its various opponents, it has already shown that the military reform has resulted in a significant increase in Russia’s warfighting capability.

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 increasing operational tempo and improving inter-service integration. It has also made significant advances in its ability to carry out expeditionary operations and showcased its recently developed stand-off strike capability.

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Originally published by the Lowy Institute Interpreter. Click here to read the rest of the article.

Russian stealth fighter will enhance air force capabilities

In June 2015, I published a short article in the Oxford Analytica Daily Brief discussing the capabilities of new Russian aircraft. Here’s the text, as usual with no edits other than restoring some cuts made for space reasons.

SUBJECT:The Russian T-50 fighter and PAK DA bomber.

SIGNIFICANCE:In early June, a series of high profile crashes involving Russian military planes led to Moscow grounding the Tu-95 ‘Bear’ bomber fleet. Additionally, on June 4, a Su-34 strike fighter crashed near Voronezh and a MiG-29 crashed near the Caspian. Military leadership is hoping that the air force’s reliance on old systems will be solved by two new programmes: the Sukhoi T-50 PAK FA and the PAKDA bomber.

ANALYSIS: Impacts

  • Russia will continue high frequency of air activity over Baltic and North Sea regions.
  • Increasing numbers of European air forces will look to procure fifth-generation fighters to maintain approximate parity with Russia.
  • Shortage of refueling planes will be a concern for the Russian air force and may prove to be an Achilles’ heal.
  • One of the primary targets of the air force is a stealth fighter, in order to to maintain parity with the United States, a role which is sought for the T-50.

PAK FA T-50

The Russian Air Force has been developing a fifth-generation fighter aircraft since the late 1980s. The PAK FA T-50, has been under development at Sukhoi for about 15 years. The first flight of a prototype aircraft took place in January 2010. A total of five prototype aircraft have been delivered over the last five years. It is expected that the jet will enter service in 2016.

Stealth abilities

This aircraft will be the first operational stealth aircraft operated by Russia. It is expected to be built at least in part out of composite materials, highly manoeuvrable, with supercruise capability and advanced avionics. It will initially use a variant of the Saturn 117 engine currently installed on the Su-35S. A new engine, Product 30, is to be ready for production no earlier than 2017 and will become the standard engine in the 2020s. This engine is supposed to provide 17-18% more thrust, improved fuel efficiency, and higher reliability than the existing engine.

While recently constructed prototypes have been equipped with advanced avionics, reports indicate that the T-50’s electronic components are likely to be upgraded further before serial production begins. The need for continued work on avionic equipment and engines means that the initial production run of the aircraft will retain fourth-generation characteristics and will be comparable to earlier US F-16/18s. The Russian air force will therefore not have a complete fifth-generation fighter until 2020 at the earliest.

F-22 and F-35 comparison

Russia generally compares the T-50 to the F-22, rather than to the F-35. The T-50 has cruising (Mach 1.7) and top (Mach 2.5) speeds that are comparable to the F-22, though it is designed to be significantly faster than the F-35, which has been tested to a top speed of Mach 1.6. The maximum range without refueling is also comparable to the F-22, at 2,000 kilometres, and slightly inferior to the F-35’s 2,200 kilometres. Service ceiling is also relatively comparable, at 20,000 metres for the F-22 and T-50 and over 18,000 metres for the F-35.

There are extensive debates among aviation specialists regarding the relative merits of the three aircraft. These debates are complicated by the lack of reliable information on the characteristics of final versions of various T-50 components, including in such key areas as engines and avionics. At the same time, there is some consensus that the T-50 is more manoeuvrable but less ‘stealthy’ than the F-35 and F-22. Because of this characteristic, the T-50 is expected to be slightly superior to US aircraft in air battles but less successful in attacking ground targets. However, these comparisons are being made based on real data about Western aircraft but only statements regarding the T-50. Given Russian officials’ track record of hiding problems and exaggerating the capabilities of new technology, it is possible, perhaps likely, that the T-50’s performance may not match expectations.

Cooperation with India has stalled

Since 2007, the T-50 project has included a two-seater version designed for the Indian Air Force and commonly known as the FGFA (Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft). Original plans called for the production of 500 aircraft, with serial production to begin in 2015. Disagreements between the two sides have resulted in serious delays. The Indian side has complained that the aircraft’s engine is underpowered and unreliable, that problems with the airframe reduce the aircraft’s stealth features, that radar and other electronic systems are inadequate, that construction quality is poor, and that as a result of these defects the per unit cost is too high. As a result of these delays, India is expected to receive only three prototypes by 2017.

Procurement plans

Original plans called for the air force to receive 52 T-50 aircraft by 2020 and a total of 250 by 2030. However, officials have announced that due to the deteriorating economy, only twelve of these aircraft will be procured during the next five years. Four planes are expected to be produced during 2015, though these will still be considered prototypes. Therefore, the T-50 will not become a mainstay of the Russian air force in the foreseeable future.

Overall, it is unclear whether the Russian defence industry will be able to produce some of the advanced features on this aircraft, particularly in the areas of stealth technology, avionics and fifth-generation engines. Furthermore, the cost of the aircraft, estimated to be at least 50 million dollars per unit, may make large-scale procurement unaffordable given Russia’s current economic problems.

PAK DA bomber

Development of what is known as the PAKDA bomber began in 2007. Tupolev won the initial tender to design the new long-range bomber. By 2009, company officials were anticipating that the research and development phase would be complete in 2012, the engineering phase would be finished in 2017 and the Russian air force would have 100 PAK DA aircraft by 2027. Subsequently, there have been debates regarding the need for such a plane and its capabilities. In August 2012, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin stated that any new strategic bomber will need to possess hypersonic technology to avoid falling behind the United States. This idea was later rejected in favor of a subsonic flying wing design with a long range and the ability to carry a heavy payload of weapons.

Long range

Given the lack of a prototype, there is little certainty about the plane’s design features. Experts believe that it is likely to have an initial weight of around 120-130 tons and a range of approximately 12,000 kilometres. Early indications that the two aircraft (T-50 and PAK DA) may also share engines appear to have been rejected in favour of an updated version of the engines found on the Tu-160. Last year, Russian Air Force Commander Lieutenant General Viktor Bondarev said that the miltiary would start receiving the PAK DA in 2023. However, there have been indications that the timeline for developing a new bomber could possibly be pushed back, with some air force officials stating a potential in-service date range for the new plane of 2025 to 2030. The project is currently at the prototype design and construction stage.

CONCLUSION: The requirements of the air force will provide further stimulus to Russia’s defence industry import substitution scheme. As a result of Western sanctions and broken defence cooperation with Ukraine, Russia is embarking on an ambitious programme to make its defence industry self-sufficient within three years. However, increasingly the defence industry may be forced to retrench, returning to old designs and recycling components as it is unable to meet this ambitious target. The high cost of the T-50 fighter will eat into the overall budget, sapping chances for full-spectrum reforms.