Observations on Center-2011

The Center-2011 exercise is officially concluding today. What follows are some observations culled from the Russian newspapers, not necessarily all connected. I’ll try to put together an assessment of the exercise in a few days, once more reports from the field come in.

1. There was an interesting article in Moskovskii Komsomolets that addressed the question of threat, as in “who is this exercise really aimed at?” The author argued that the exercise planners’ internal documents show that the part of the exercise conducted in Kazakhstan near Aktau and on the Caspian Sea was aimed at Iran. The exercise storyline was based on a hypothetical decision by Iran’s leadership to respond to an American airstrike by targeting oil fields in Kazakhstan’s Mangystau oblast that are operated by American corporations (especially Exxon-Mobil). The idea was that since Kazakhstan would not be able to singlehandedly repel an Iranian attack, it would request assistance from Russia through CSTO channels and together the two armies would repel the Iranian land and sea attack. Of course, military and government officials in both countries have rejected the notion that Iran is the opponent in the exercise, sticking to the usual storyline that the opponent is fictitious and represents no specific country.

A second, and more publicly acknowledged, opponent for the exercise as a whole is “international radical Islamic terrorism.” Various parts of the overall exercise are designed to counter Islamist radicals seeking to overthrow various Central Asian governments. The concern here is clearly to prepare for the withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan in 2014. Central Asian and Russian leaders fear that this withdrawal will be followed by a Taliban takeover and the spread of radical Islam into Central Asia, possibly with Iranian assistance. They hope to make sure that CSTO is prepared to counter any future moves of this type.

2. One of the goals of the exercise is to get the military to use new regulations that call for much more initiative on the part of battlefield commanders than the old regs left over from the Soviet era. According to Viktor Litovkin, the new rules require each brigade, battalion, and company commander to make his own decision on how to deal with specific situations, reporting to higher-level commanders but not waiting for them to make all decisions, as used to be the case.

At the same time, communication between field commanders and headquarters remains a weak point, with little information coming out about the use of automated tactical control systems. Given the publicly acknowledged efforts to increase C2 automation, it seems virtually certain that lack of information about the use of these systems means that they are not yet in widespread use among the troops. Without such systems, the use of UAVs and other high tech weaponry will remain quite limited.

3. Dedovshchina remains a problem, despite all sorts of efforts to stamp out hazing. An article in Rossiiskaia Gazeta reflects on a rash of suicide attempts in one unit involved in the exercise. While commanders sought to hide the extent of problems, it appears that most of the attempts were the result of conflicts among soldiers who were in the same draft cohort. In the past, hazing occurred primarily across cohorts, so this is perhaps a disturbing new development. Although the article did not discuss the ethnicity of the soldiers involved, many recent incidents of hazing in the military were the result of tensions within units along ethnic lines.

4. The military’s shift to civilian contractors for logistics, including food, has caused some problems of its own. While the quality of the food served on base has improved, civilian contractors by and large do not provide the food when units are deployed or out on exercise. This means that the military has to continue to train cooks, who make the food when the unit is away from its base. However, this food remains poor in quality and furthermore, the cooks have nothing to do the rest of the time, when the unit is on base. In addition, the continued training of cooks increases costs.

During Center-2011, some units are being fed by contractors, so this may be a temporary problem. However, so far there have been no signals that the training of soldier-cooks will be eliminated.



Center-2011 begins today

The most important event of the Russian military’s annual training calendar begins today. Major fall exercises have a long history in the Russian military, but in recent years they have begun to attract more and more publicity. In large part, this is because top military commanders have sought to publicize them to a greater extent than in the past, when exercises were surrounded by a veil of secrecy.

The current exercise is entitled Center-2011 and will take place primarily in the Central Unified Strategic Command and in several Central Asian states. The active phase of the exercise begins today and will continue through September 27, though some phases of the exercise began several weeks ago. Participation will include 12,000 soldiers from Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. Events will take place in all four countries, including a tabletop command-level exercise in Tajikistan for the CSTO’s rapid reaction force that will simulate an effort to stop an attempted coup. The rapid reaction force will concurrently conduct tactical training in Kyrgyzstan. There will also be a naval component: the Caspian Flotilla will work with the Kazakhstani military and security forces to secure offshore energy infrastructure of the Kazakhstan coast. Concurrently, a Russian-Belarusian bilateral exercise called Union Shield-2011 will activate another 12,000 soldiers for roughly similar goals.

For the first time in at least several years, the exercise is focused on fighting local wars, with a major emphasis on defeating irregular combatants and terrorists. Part of the scenario will include the liberation of a town captured by terrorists or rebels. The high command has described the exercises as focusing on the action of small combat units, the use of precision guided munitions and the ability to use automated command and control systems at the tactical level. Of course, high weaponry and equipment is still quite sparse in the Russian military and completely absent among the other participants in the exercise. While the Russian military is planning to use its Israeli UAVs during the exercise, these UAVs are designed for reconnaissance and are not capable of launching missiles or otherwise attacking targets.

Russia and its CSTO partners are becoming increasingly concerned about the possibility of an influx of Islamic terrorists from Afghanistan after NATO withdraws most of its troops over the next several years. A second factor is concern about internal instability, fanned both by revolts throughout the Arab world over the last year and by events in Kyrgyzstan last summer. Russian and CSTO leaders view that episode with a fair bit of embarrassment, given that they could not respond to the Kyrgyz government’s request for assistance in large part because of a lack of troops trained in quelling rioting and other forms of internal conflict.

This exercise scenario shows that the Russian high command’s talk in recent years about shifting the army’s emphasis from preparing for large scale conventional warfare to local conflicts has now gone beyond just talk. The shift  has led to a change in training at the local command level. While last year’s Vostok-2010 exercise was described by officials as also focused on local conflicts, descriptions of the events conducted during the exercise showed that the possibility of a large scale conventional war with a major East Asian power (read: China) was a major (though unstated) part of the exercise scenario.

Of course, for the moment these are just declarations. As the exercise’s active phase progresses over the next week, we shall how events actually square with the stated goals outlined above. I’ll have some initial thoughts on this toward the end of the week, and more next week.