In military forces of any country, major “showpiece” exercises are designed more to show off the capabilities of the nation’s armed forces than to truly test these capabilities in any focused way. Articles about such exercises, whether they take place in Russia, in the West, or in Mozambique, follow a common pattern. First, a month or two before the exercise, journalists publish descriptions of the coming exercise based on officially-announced plans. Then, during the exercise, there are slightly breathless accounts of the wonders of modern weaponry and tactics. If an important political dignitary (such as the president or the defense minister) visits to observe the exercise, this is covered in minute detail. Afterward, there are some official pronouncements about how all of the exercise’s goals have been fulfilled and everyone happily goes home.
Coverage of the recent spate of major Russian military exercises (Kavkaz-2009, Zapad-2009, Ladoga-2009) followed this model perfectly right up until the end. But over the last month, a number of critical articles have appeared, and not just in the independent press. This culminated in open discussion in the press of discontent among top generals with the state of military procurement and Russia’s defense industry in general that resulted in a widely publicized meeting between President Medvedev, top government officials, and defense industry chiefs.
One of the main topics that has emerged in criticism of the exercises is the gap between public statements and reality on the topic of advances in precision weapons and command and control (C2) systems. General Makarov, the chief of the general staff, was widely quoted as having stated that the main goal of the exercise was to “examine the transition to a new control system for the armed forces, based first of all on the transition to a system of network-centric warfare.” Given the list of key weaknesses of the Russian military that was published recently, this focus makes sense.
(This list includes weak intelligence and communications capabilities, low level of “automatization” in control of troops and weapons, lack of an adequate system for providing information to troops in the field, and low levels of defensibility for some types of platforms and weapons.)
One of the main goals of the Ladoga-2009 exercise, conducted in the northwestern part of Russia in September, was to test a new command system. The effectiveness of this system apparently left much to be desired. The Russian military still lacks modern electronic communications equipment. One report noted that a new personal communications system (R-169P-2) that was demonstrated at Ladoga was just coming out of testing and was not used by the actual troops participating in the exercise. (Moskovskii Komsomolets, 10/9/2009)
In many cases, soldiers did not have any kind of radios, much less advanced electronic ones. Currently, the Russian military provides one radio for each section (i.e. 10-12 soldiers). General Meichik, the Deputy Chief of the General Staff for Communications, recently promised that each Russian soldier would have his own personal communications device by 2011. In the meantime, many Russian soldiers continue to use mobile phones for transmitting information. According to General Meichik, these phones have special encryption equipment, but it is far more likely that they are actually just the soldiers’ personal mobile phones.
One indicator of just how far behind Western militaries the Russian military is on the communications front is that General Meichik announced that the military is about to begin developing its own internet. This announcement took place more or less on the 40th anniversary of the first message sent on Arpanet, the US military communication system that led to the development of the internet.
There is a similar lag in electronic targeting systems. The newly modernized Su-24M and Tu-22M3 bombers, which participated in the Zapad-2009 exercise, are equipped with a “specialized computer subsystem, automated targeting system, and satellite navigation.” However, this system merely doubles the targeting accuracy of regular unguided bombs. No provision for guided munitions was made in this modernization. Furthermore, this modernization has taken a very long time, as it was first introduced in 2001.
Even more interesting is the description provided by Olga Bozh’eva of an encounter at Ladoga-2009 between General Boldyrev, the head of Russia’s surface troops, and the head engineer of Izhmash — Unpiloted Systems. Looking over the engineer’s shoulder as the latter received information from a UAV on a computer, Boldyrev asked for the coordinates of a group of people visible on the screen. The response: “The program does not allow for the analysis of information while [the UAV] is in flight. Once it lands…” In other words, the latest in Russian UAV technology still does not allow for the instant transmission of targeting information to commanders on the ground — a tactic whose effectiveness was demonstrated by US forces in Afghanistan back in 2001. (Moskovskii Komsomolets, 10/9/2009)
Despite the stated focus on network-centric warfare, UAVs were not integrated into the exercise in either an intelligence or targeting capacity. In other words, they were just there for show. The newest mobile C2 systems, such as the KShM-149MA, which provides real-time information for commanders and allows for tactical control of troops and weaponry, also seem to have not been used in either Zapad-2009 or Ladoga-2009, though one was shown to President Medvedev in Kaliningrad. At the Kavkaz-2009 exercises last summer, brigade level control systems supposedly broke down.
The fact that all of these problems were described openly in the Russian press, and that President Medvedev has responded by publicly chastising the Russian defense industry as a whole, is a sign that the issues that have prevented the revival of that industry (despite an increase in orders in recent years) have finally come to the forefront. It is possible that Medvedev’s criticism is a signal and the next year will be devoted to reforming the Russian defense industry, much like the past year has been devoted to reforming the structure of the military. This may turn out to be a harder task, as private and semi-private companies will undoubtedly prove less willing to follow orders and even a revitalized industry will find it difficult to find the expertise to build new high-tech weapons as quickly as it may be desired by top leaders.