Vostok-2010: Another step forward for the Russian military

The recently concluded Vostok-2010 exercises showed that the Russian military is making progress in achieving its goals of major structural reform. This was the first major Russian military exercise in recent memory that did not involve a scenario consisting of a major frontal battle. As Alexandr Golts pointed out in his analysis, this sort of scenario is very convenient for public relations purposes, but does not contribute much to improving military preparedness. Instead, the exercises consisted of a number of smaller episodes, consistent with the announced scenario of fighting irregular armed formations, counter-terrorism and (for the Navy) anti-piracy operations. The exercises focused on mobility, with a particular emphasis on ensuring success in the logistical sphere. According to General Nikolai Makarov, the Chief of the General Staff, the location of the exercise in Siberia and Russia’s Far East was selected specifically in order to make the transport of troops and their resupply relatively difficult, due to the large distances, sparse population, difficult climate, and poor state of transportation in the region.

Testing a Force Projection Capability

The exercises showed that the Russian military is capable of projecting force over long distances relatively quickly. For this purpose, a large number of bomber (SU-24) and fighter-bomber (SU-34) aircraft were sent directly from central Russia to the Far East on what was supposedly the longest non-stop flight for these types of planes. This was made possible through multiple in-flight refueling operations. Furthermore, an infantry brigade was sent from Ekaterinburg to Primorskii Krai, though it was transported without heavy weaponry, such as tanks and artillery, all of which it received from a local base upon arrival.  Golts notes that this was the first time in his memory that the Russian army had conducted such an operation.

It was carried out successfully and in the assigned time period, though Golts also points out that the weapons provided for the brigade had been selected in recent months especially for this purpose. Had this been a real emergency and the brigade forced to make do with randomly chosen stored equipment, they would have almost certainly faced severe problems due to mechanical failures. But this is a known problem for the Russian military, and one that is to be addressed over the coming decade through a rearmament program. The important takeaway from this exercise is that Russian military planners are seriously preparing for contingencies that require the rapid transfer of troops from one region to another. Golts is right in arguing that if this capability becomes widely developed, there will be no need for the military to maintain a million-man army in order to protect Russia’s gigantic territory. Instead, planners will simply need to make sure that they have well-maintained supply depots located in all likely zones of potential conflict and be prepared to send brigades to those regions in the event a conflict suddenly broke out.

Simplifying the Command Structure

The new simplified command structure was the second aspect of the reform that was tested by Vostok-2010. The replacement of divisions by brigades was the first step of this effort, and it was successfully completed last year and tested to some extent in last falls major exercises. The current exercises went further, examining the possibilities provided by the recently announced transition to a joint command system, where four geographically-based strategic operational commands (SOCs) control all of the troops on their territory, including ground forces, the air force, the navy, and assorted support staff. The goal is to reduce the levels of command from 13 to three. In the previous system, in addition to the command system “center-military district-army-division-regiment,” troops also received commands from their service headquarters and various central General Staff commands. The current system will consist of three levels — SOC – operational command – brigade. This reform will lead to the elimination of thousands of officer positions in various headquarters in Moscow and around the country. According to General Makarov, this transition will be completed in early 2011 and will mark the end of the military’s structural transformation.

The new system received a preliminary test in Vostok-2010, with a single SOC commanding troops from the Siberian and Far Eastern military districts, as well as the Pacific Fleet and assorted air force units, including those from other districts brought in specifically for this exercise. Initial reports indicate that the system performed according to expectations. At least, there have been no indications so far of problems with the command system during the exercises. Furthermore, whereas electronic command systems were present only for show during Zapad-2009 and the other major exercises last fall, this year for the first time such systems started to play a role (though still only limited) in the actual conduct of the exercise. These included (according to media reports about the exercise) videoconferencing equipment used in decision-making, computer modeling used in targeting anti-aircraft missile systems, and digital analytical systems.

Not a big deal for most armed forces, but certainly an advance for a military that is still not able to provide each soldier with his own analog radio, much less any kind of modern electronic communications system.

A Step in the Right Direction

One item that was noted repeatedly by generals discussing the conduct of the exercise was that conscripts who had only been in the service for 1-2 months exceeded all expectations of their performance. It was made clear that they did not do as well as contract soldiers or those conscripts who had been inducted last summer, but it was clear that the military leadership was trying to emphasize that the army could continue to function despite its problems with attracting a sufficient number of contract soldiers to fill the new brigades.

Overall, the Vostok-2010 exercise made it clear that the leadership of the Russian military has a clear vision of the kind of army they would like to build and that they are making progress in achieving that vision. One aspect of that vision is a significantly reformed logistics and supply system, a topic I will discuss in detail in my next post. Once this system is restructured and the new Strategic Operational Commands are stood up next year, we will likely see the end of the constant organizational changes that have marked the first two years of reform. The period of structural reorganization appears to be drawing to a close and the next steps are likely to be focused primarily on solving the manpower problem and endowing the newly restructured military with new weapons and equipment.

Changing the Military’s Decision-making Culture

The Russian military leadership seems to have finally caught on that the way it commands troops is not adequate for dealing with modern opponents. Historically, the Russian military is known for making even the most minor decisions at absurdly high levels. Field officers have traditionally been expected to clear battlefield decisions with commanders at headquarters, unless doing so would place them under immediate threat. Similarly, since soldiers were traditionally conscripts, they were expected to simply follow orders. Attempts to exhibit initiative were generally frowned upon (notwithstanding the acts of personal heroism from World War II which were glorified in Soviet ideology).

It seems that one of the lessons learned from the Georgia war is that this model is no longer an efficient way to conduct warfare (if it ever was). Top brass is now talking openly about developing a new model, where much more authority is delegated to field officers. As part of this change, training regimens at the military academies have been adjusted to emphasize practical training in the field over lectures on military theory.

Furthermore, the change in mentality is being tied to the recent restructuring of the North Caucasus military district. This restructuring brought the Black Sea Fleet and the Caspian Flotilla under the command of the district military commander. It appears that this change was caused, at least in part, by the recognition that the military’s command and control system functioned too slowly to be effective in combat situations. The hope is that by giving control over all military forces in the region to local commanders, decisions can be made more quickly in response to events on the ground.

This is a good start, but it would be naive to think that delegating authority to a regional commander could speed up decision-making on the ground during an actual conflict. In order to achieve that, the Russian military will need to continue on a path toward a fundamental transformation of its culture, where field commanders and even individual soldiers will be allowed, and perhaps even encouraged, to take initiative in combat, rather than passing the buck to higher-ups.

This would be a big change for the military, and it will take a long time to achieve. But recognizing the problem is a necessary first step on the road to its solution, and the military is taking some initial steps by modifying training programs and focusing its future on professional soldiers rather than conscripts. It will take some years, but it’s at least possible that the Russian army of the future will treat its soldiers as more than cannon fodder and give its field officers more authority to make decisions.