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.

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The State of the Airborne Troops

A few days ago, NVO published a lengthy interview by Viktor Litovkin with General Vladimir Shamanov, the  commander of Russia’s airborne troops. Litovkin got answers to some questions that have long been circulating among observers of the Russian military.

Maintaining the old organizational structure

First of all, he addresses the issue of why the VDV was the only service (other than the strategic nuclear force) to retain a divisional structure, rather than shifting over to brigades. He argues that the divisional structure was kept because it was tried and true practice. While the ground forces, air force and navy were all undergoing wholesale restructuring, there was a need to retain one combat force that would be prepared for combat while these changes were going on.  Shamanov goes on to say that the VDV was able to react quickly to the Georgian attack on South Ossetia at a time when the ground forces were being shifted to a brigade structure. This is an odd response, both since the shift to brigades was announced in October 2008, three months after the Georgia War, and because the ground forces’ 58th army was  very involved in that conflict. Airborne troops did arrive first, but rapid response is their job, isn’t it?

Furthermore, if the main reason that the division structure was retained had to do with keeping one combat force stable while the others were being reformed, wouldn’t the airborne troops have been shifted to a brigade structure once the organizational transformation of the ground forces was complete? There are two possible implications: either the military’s top commanders are not yet satisfied with the combat readiness of the ground forces’ new organizational structure or Shamanov is not giving the real reason for the VDV’s retention of the divisional structure. Perhaps the rumor that Shamanov simply had enough pull to shield the VDV from the organizational reform is the real story, but obviously not one that can be shared by an official source.

In any case, Shamanov notes that some organizational changes are coming to the VDV. Instead of regiments, in the near future the VDV divisions may be comprised of brigades. Also, each division now includes an anti-aircraft missile regiment, armed with 9K35 Strela-10 short range SAM systems, 9K38 Igla man-portable SAM systems, and ZU-23-2 autocannons. The VDV and the General Staff are currently working out whether the airborne troops might have their own helicopter regiments in the future. Another option is to have army aviation regiments or brigades that operate as part of the VDV without being formally included in VDV command structures. The incorporation of helicopter units will first be tried out by the 7th VDV division in the Caucasus, with the first test to come in the Kavkaz-2012 exercises this fall.

Shamanov also briefly addresses the question of the VDV’s position in the overall military chain of command. The VDV is still subordinate directly to the Chief of the General Staff, but in some situations its units could be commanded by the commanders of individual operational strategic commands. Furthermore, the 98th division and 31st brigade are also part of the CSTO rapid reaction force and subordinate to that organization.

Manpower and social needs

Manpower is the second major topic of discussion in the interview. Shamanov notes the increasingly important role that professional soldiers are playing in the VDV. Currently, contract soldiers make up 40-45 percent of the troops across all services. He believes that the official goal of reaching 80 percent by 2016 is eminently reachable. He points out that since military salaries were increased in January, the army has been able to be selective in choosing who serves in the military. At the same time, conscription will be retained in order to maintain some mobilization potential and to socialize one segment of the country’s youth. This all sounds great, but I’d like to see some specific numbers on recruitment of contract soldiers in the last 2 months. Otherwise, it just sounds like more of the type of empty generalities we’ve all heard too many times before.

Shamanov also talks extensively about the role of sergeants in the VDV. Currently, most of the sergeants serving in the airborne troops are technical staff (i.e. former warrant officers), who are currently being trained in 10-month  courses in Omsk according to the old warrant officer training program. There are also some technical sergeants trained in other specialized schools in fields such as communications and servicing anti-aircraft weapons. But this summer, the VDV will receive the first cohort of sergeants graduating from the three year training program in Riazan that is designed to train sergeants to command troops. While this first class will be just over 200 people, they will form the basis of the new corps of command sergeants. Again, this sounds great, but the Russian military will need a lot more of these sergeants before there will be much effect on overall discipline in the force.

Shamanov briefly addresses the question of officer housing, as well. Since VDV units are mostly located in large cities, they have fewer problems with housing and spousal employment than other services do. They tend to attract contract soldiers who already live in the city and need neither housing nor jobs for their wives. Instead, the service focuses on creating comfortable conditions for service within the VDV. They have also pretty much resolved the issue of wait lists for apartments for retiring personnel. The one exception is those who want an apartment in Moscow — they have a choice of waiting for a long time or accepting an apartment well outside the city.

New technology and training

Shamanov notes that the VDV is increasing its participation in multi-national and bilateral exercises, including a two week counter-terrorism exercise in Colorado with US Special Forces coming up in May 2012. During this calendar year, the VDV will also participate in CSTO rapid reaction force exercises in Armenia, the SCO exercise Peace Mission 2012 in Tajikistan, and an exercise with Ukrainian paratroopers on Russian territory.

As far as new equipment, Shamanov focuses primarily on UAVs. VDV is currently using domestically produced Grusha UAVs for reconnaisance, though he is not fully satisfied with the quality of the device’s optics. Nonetheless, its use has improved artillery accuracy by 20 percent. He would also like to receive attack UAVs, with a range of 50-100 km. For now, there are no such domestic UAVs in production and there are no plans to buy foreign UAVs for the VDV.

To conclude, Litovkin asks Shamanov about the biggest unsolved problems facing the service. Shamanov lists two — increasing the amount of modern equipment used in the service and improving the quality of conscripts drafted to serve. He pins his hopes on Rogozin’s energy in speeding up production of new equipment and military-patriotic clubs in schools increasing the physical preparedness of young men before they are called up. I’m not sure which is more likely — Rogozin creating an effective and efficient Russian defense industry or a new DOSAAF turning Russian teenage boys into models of physical fitness.

Structure of Russian Airborne Troops

Continuing my series on the structure and locations of the Russian Armed Forces. Today, it’s the turn of the airborne troops. A bit late for VDV day (August 2), but close enough. Once again, the information comes primarily from ryadovoy.ru, with cross-checking at warfare.ru.

Note that the airborne troops are the one part of the military that was not shifted to brigade structure in the reform. Most analysts attribute this to the power and influence of General Shamanov, the VDV commander.

Altogether, the airborne troops consist of four divisions and one brigade, with an additional two brigades that are mixed airborne and infantry and were listed in the earlier Ground Forces postings. All locations for subordinate units are the same as for the division, unless otherwise noted.

Russian Airborne Troops

  • 7th Airborne Division (Novorossiysk, Krasnodar Krai, North Caucasus MD)
    • 108th Airborne Regiment
    • 247th Airborne Regiment (Stavropol)
    • 1141st Artillery Regiment (Anapa, Krasnodar Krai)
    • 3rd Air Defense Regiment
    • 162nd Reconnaissance Company
    • 309th Engineering Company (Temryuk, Krasnodar Krai)
    • 743rd Communications Battalion
    • 6th Maintenance Battalion
    • 1681st Logistics Battalion
  • 76th Airborne Division (Pskov, Leningrad Military District)
    • 23rd Airborne Regiment
    • 104th Airborne Regiment
    • 234th Airborne Regiment
    • 1140th Artillery Regiment
    • 4th Air Defense Regiment
    • 656th Engineering Battalion
    • 728th Communications Battalion
    • 7th Maintenance Battalion
    • 1682nd Logistics Battalion
  • 98th Airborne Division (Ivanovo, Moscow Military District)
    • 217th Airborne Regiment
    • 331st Airborne Regiment (Kostroma)
    • 1065th Artillery Regiment (Kostroma)
    • 5th Air Defense Battalion
    • 661st Engineering Battalion
    • 674th Communications Battalion
    • 15th Maintenance Battalion
    • 1683rd Logistics Battalion
  • 106th Airborne Division (Tula, Moscow Military District)
    • 51st Airborne Regiment
    • 137th Airborne Regiment (Ryazan)
    • 1182nd Artillery Regiment (Naro-Fominsk, Moscow Oblast)
    • 107th Air Defense Regiment (Naro-Fominsk, Moscow Oblast)
    • 173rd Reconnaissance Company
    • 388th Engineering Battalion (Plavsk, Tula Oblast)
    • 731st Communications Battalion
    • 1060th Logistics Battalion
    • 43rd Repair Battalion, (Plavsk, Tula Oblast)
  • 31st Airborne Brigade (Ulyanovsk, Volga-Urals Military District)
  • 45th Special Forces Reconnaissance Regiment (Kubinka, Moscow Oblast)
  • 38th Communications Regiment (Moscow Oblast)

The Hunt for General Shamanov

The Russian press was consumed last week with the case of General Vladimir Shamanov, the commander of Russia’s airborne troops. According to reports first published in Novaia Gazeta, Shamanov ordered special forces based near Moscow to stop a prosecutor from carrying out a search of a factory owned by his son-in-law, who is wanted for attempted murder and is currently in hiding abroad.

The story was based on wiretaps of cell phone conversations between Shamanov and one of his subordinates. (Shamanov, naturally, claims that the recordings were edited to create a false impression of what actually took place. He notes that the special forces never actually arrived at the factory and the search was carried out without incident.) These recordings were leaked to Novaia Gazeta, which published an expose on September 21. The next day, the Ministry of Defense launched an internal investigation of the incident. As several Russian commentators have pointed out, this is very unusual — such incidents are almost always swept under the rug.

Writing for RFE/RL, Mark Galeotti argues that the investigation, and the concurrent distancing of top brass from Shamanov, is the result of poor timing on his part. In Galeotti’s words, “He drew attention to the misdeeds of the officer corps at the very time that they are looking forward to a boom time for corruption.” Furthermore, this occurred at a time when the military is trying to shed its image (if not the reality) of being a highly corrupt organization.

I would argue that while this is certainly a part of the story, there is more to it than that. As Russian media sources have pointed out, the order for a wiretap on top airborne troops officers had to have come someone highly placed in government. Furthermore, both the leak and the rapidity with which the decision to launch an investigation were taken point to a desire to remove Shamanov by someone highly placed either in the government or in the Defense Ministry.

As is so often the case in Russian politics, the key question is who would benefit from Shamanov’s disgrace. Writing in the weekly newsmagazine Profil, Elena Mel’nichuk argues that the most likely cause of the scandal is an effort to discredit defense minister Anatoly Serdiukov by forcing him either to defend a subordinate publicly exposed as corrupt or to remove him, thus costing him a valued ally in his efforts to reform the military.

I think the likeliest source is actually the opposite. I would not consider Shamanov a Serdiukov ally. He certainly was politically savvy enough not to oppose military reform outright. For this reason, he kept his position and was not forcibly retired like so many other top generals. At the same time, he used his direct connections with Prime Minister Putin and other top government officials to prevent Serdiukov from applying the restructuring measures to the airborne troops. This supposition fits with the speed with which the military high command agreed to investigate Shamanov after the initial publication of the story.

It may be that this whole scandal is an effort to destroy a general who, despite his outward show of loyalty to Serdiukov and the Chief of the General Staff Nikolai Makarov, is seen as too independent to be controlled. If in coming weeks Shamanov is removed and the airborne troops then subjected to the same restructuring as the rest of the armed forces, this  may prove to be the reason behind the whole story.