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.