Russian policy on nuclear deterrence (quick take)

This is my quick take on the recently released Russian policy on nuclear deterrence. Others like N. Sokov or O. Oliker had good posts that I would recommend.

This policy clarifies some points, but I found it misleading at the same time. The document is self-contradictory in places, and inconsistent with other authoritative writing on this subject, with more uncertainties than clarifications. I see the military doctrines as more useful. The policy on nuclear deterrence they released is best read as the foundations for Russian thinking in the context of strategic nuclear weapons and nuclear war (not local, regional, large-scale war or non-strategic nuclear weapons). This policy offers clarity on Russia’s strategic nuclear force posture, which was not particularly controversial, but in my view is intentionally ambiguous or uncertain on the more interesting questions. It will not settle any debates.

This document speaks about ‘sderzhivanye’ (containment, typically translated as deterrence), and steps gingerly around views on the role of nuclear weapons in silovoye sderzhivanye (forceful deterrence), ‘ustrashenie’ (fear inducement) and ‘prinuzhdenie’ (compellence). This is a less nuanced version of language in other documents, and what is commonly found in authoritative military sources/writings. According to colleagues, this seems to be a redacted and simplified version of the 2010 policy which was never publicly released.  I recommend the exec summary of CNA’s escalation management study for those who want to get an accurate and fairly comprehensive picture of Russian military thinking on this subject.

Declaratory policies offer some useful information, but they need to be taken in the context of other doctrines/policies, military concepts guiding escalation, force structure, posture, exercises, etc. Those who do not have access to those other sources of information are going to base more of their thinking on what is in a declaratory policy which is at best a half-truth, meant for signaling, with normative language disguising the nature of the conversation taking place inside buildings without windows. They are ambiguously worded, intended to cover the range of nuclear employment scenarios, and for that reason different communities can interpret this document to support what they already believed to be true.

Also, policy documents like this are not actionable military plans (even if it claims to be a planning document), and nobody is going to say in a conflict “quick get us the 2020 state policy on nuclear deterrence, we need to read what we wrote there to make sure we are intellectually consistent with the fundamentals of that document.” Although people spend a great deal of time word-smithing what is in these documents, defense establishments often don’t believe what is in them because they have access to a panoply of other sources of information that are likely to be more convincing.

Some brief points:

Paragraph 4. states that the policy bears a defensive character, nuclear potential must be at a level sufficient to guarantee sovereignty, territorial integrity, deter direct aggression against Russia or allies, and in the event of aggression preclude escalation + cease the conflict under acceptable conditions. This reads as the MoD’s standard formulation, much of it imported from 2014 Military Doctrine, intended to cover the spectrum of nuclear deterrence applications in escalation management and war termination stratagems. I suspect the Russian MFA did not want to include those last sentences because those familiar with Russian escalation management strategy know what they mean. Notably, the standard formulation of cease hostilities on terms favorable to Russia (or Russian interests), was changed to ‘conditions acceptable’ to Russia & allies, which is a more fair reading of the escalation management strategy (often misconstrued as just escalate to win, or attain capitulation, which it is not).

Paragraph 5. states that Russia sees nuclear weapons exclusively as means of deterrence, that they are to be used in extreme circumstances and as a forced measure. I don’t think that is a very honest portrayal of how nuclear weapons are viewed by the Russian military, but the purpose of this document is to position Russian views as defensive only via normative language, and to counter the claims of those who say Russia has an escalate to de-escalate strategy. To me this bit was misleading, and that is one of the reasons why I find many of these declaratory documents meaningless. Yes nuclear weapons are seen as instrument to be used in exigent circumstances, not to attain offensive measures with wanton nuclear escalation, but they feature prominently in Russian thinking on escalation management, and in nuclear warfighting roles at the level of regional war (NSNW), or large-scale war (NSNW+SNF).

Paragraph 10 on unacceptable damage is a simplification. It should be “up to and including” unacceptable damage, which is the thinking on the damage assigned to be inflicted by strategic nuclear forces in a retaliatory strike. That is not the story for other forms of nuclear employment, especially with non-strategic nuclear weapons. The bulk of what is known in Russian mil debates/discourse on damage levels focuses on deterrent damage, ranging from reversible effects to unacceptable damage. Most Russian military thought is currently debating tailored and limited, or calibrated, forms of damage – not unacceptable damage. Note Paragraph 15 does a better job discussing this than p.10 in points В and Г by stating that nuclear deterrence is adaptable to military threats, will be uncertain for the adversary in terms of scale, time, and place of use. Sounds very flexible and scalable, not quite the absolute predetermined threshold of unacceptable damage.

Paragraph 11 claims that sderzhivanye takes place continuously in peacetime, during a threatened period of aggression, and in war time up until nuclear weapons are used. That’s true, but not true. Sderzhivanye yes, but intra-war deterrence continues once nuclear weapons are used as ustrashenie or prinuzhdenie. That is because when nuclear weapons are used demonstratively, or threatened, it is ustrashenie (fear inducement), and when they are used to compel an adversary either in a limited fashion via single or grouped strikes, or for war fighting purposes, it is prinuzhdenie.

Paragraph 17 on conditions for use of nuclear weapons. The phrasing pegs nuclear use to when nuclear weapons are used against Russia and its allies, or conventional weapons in the event ‘when the very existence of the state is under threat.’ That of course is an ambiguous trigger open to Russian political leadership’s interpretation, but it is a restatement of the long established formulation in military doctrine. Comments on sub-sections for paragraph 19, which lists conditions under which nuclear use is possible:

  1. Point а speaks to launch on warning, which codifies what Putin has been saying for some years now. This is one of the supposed reveals of this document. Nothing exciting here, and also, there’s is not commitment to this posture since it discusses the possibility of nuclear use without any confirmation that this is indeed how Russia will respond if it has confirmation of launch. 
  2. Point б  speaks about retaliation in the event nuclear weapons or weapons of mass destruction are used – unclear how weapons of mass destruction are defined, some Russian military writing posits conventional capabilities as having strategic effects similar to nuclear weapons. Would this include, or not include, a massed cruise missile strike against critical economic and military infrastructure? What about weapons based on ‘new physical principles’ which are mentioned in the military doctrine as having effects similar to those of nuclear weapons? Likely the formulation under p.17 speaks to this – ‘when the very existence of the state is under threat.’
  3. Point в is an attempt to deter cyber attacks on NC3. It mentions adversary actions affecting critically important infrastructure, state and military, which if disabled could disrupt retaliation by Russian nuclear forces.. The challenge is that it does not say strategic nuclear forces, so when picturing the panoply of units and critical infrastructure related to Russia’s strategic and non-strategic nuclear arsenal which could be attacked or destroyed in the course of combat operations this raises big questions. Hopefully that is just lazy language, which is commonplace throughout this document.

In general I found this to be an over simplified and poorly written document. This policy does clarify some useful points, the ones that were least in question that is, but it is full of holes and brings the information together incompletely. Specific attention paid to the role of non-strategic nuclear weapons, which are mentioned in the foundations of state policy in the field of naval operations until 2030, are missing here. My favorite is paragraph 23 which states that the national security council formulates the ‘military policy in the area of nuclear deterrence’, undoubtedly that is a series of documents that will not be published anytime soon.

In conclusion, I did not discover anything especially revelatory in this text.

Here are some Russian definitions, especially from the encyclopedia of RVSN, that analysts should explore in studying this subject matter.

https://encyclopedia.mil.ru/encyclopedia/dictionary.htm

 

Сдерживание ядерное
Согласованная система действий ядерных сил, направленная на недопущение агрессии, либо, в случае её развязывания, на предотвращение (недопущение, прекращение) эскалации военного конфликта или войны; одна из мер силового характера сдерживания стратегического, основанная на уникальных свойствах ядерного оружия.

С.я. осуществляется в мирное и в военное время на всех этапах подготовки и ведения военных действий вплоть до массированного применения ядерного и других видов оружия массового поражения в крупно-масштабной войне. Осуществление С.я. основывается на принципах либо «недопущения победы», либо «обесценивания победы» («неотвратимости возмездия»).

С.я. осуществляется в рамках известных форм применения ядерных сил различными способами и их сочетанием. В основу любого из способов положено поддержание боевой готовности ядерных сил, обеспечивающее их применение в любых условиях обстановки в соответствии с планами. К основным способам применения ядерных сил при осуществлении С.я. относят: демонстрационные действия, демонстрационно-ударные и ударно-демонстрационные действия.

Сдерживание стратегическое
Согласованная система мер несилового и силового характера, предпринимаемых последовательно или одновременно одной стороной (субъектом, коалицией сторон) в отношении другой стороны (объекта, коалиции сторон) с целью удержания последней (последнего, последней) от каких-либо силовых действий, наносящих или могущих нанести ущерб стратегического масштаба первой (первому, первой). К числу таких силовых действий относятся: силовое давление или стремление к силовому давлению объекта на субъект, агрессия объекта или её подготовка в отношении субъекта, эскалация объектом военного конфликта. Осуществление С.с. основывается, как правило, на принципе «недопущения победы». При определённых условиях С.с. может основываться на принципе «обесценивания победы». С.с. направлено на стаби-лизацию военно-политической обстановки. В качестве объектов воздействия в ходе осуществления С.с. могут выступать военно-политическое руководство и общественность государства (коалиции государств) потенциального противника (агрессора).

В отличие от мер сдерживания военно-политического, предпринимаемых государством (коалицией государств) для предотвращения агрессии, угрозы мирному развитию или жизненно важным интересам, меры С.с. предпринимаются субъектом постоянно, как в мирное, так и в военное время, и не только для предотвращения каких-либо силовых действий, наносящих или могущих нанести ущерб стратегического масштаба субъекту, но и для удержания объекта в определённых рамках, а также для деэскалации воен-ного конфликта.

К мерам несилового характера относятся: политические, дипломатические, правовые, экономические, идеологические, научно-технические и другие. Они проводятся постоянно федеральными органами исполнительной власти РФ в тесном взаимодействии с международными организациями, усиливаются на этапе зарождения, развития и в ходе разрешения различных конфликтов (военных, боевых действий – вплоть до массированного применения ядерного и других видов оружия массового поражения в крупномасштабной войне). Эти меры осуществляются с целью достижения успеха субъекта при ведении (обеспечении) переговоров с субъектом по дипломатическим каналам; выполнении мероприятий по укреплению межгосударственных связей; выходе из международных договорных обязательств или их разрыве и др.

К мерам силового характера относятся: разведывательно-информационные действия; демонстрация военного присутствия и военной силы; действия по обеспечению безопасности экономической деятельности государства; миротворческие действия; действия по ПВО, охране и защите государственной границы в воздушном пространстве, на суше и на море; военное присутствие; демонстрационный перевод войск (сил) с мирного на военное время (приведение их в высшие степени боевой готовности); существенное наращивание (развертывание) группировок войск (сил); демонстрационная подготовка выделенных сил и средств (в том числе оснащенных ядерным оружием) для нанесения ударов; нанесение или угроза нанесения одиночных ударов (в том числе ядерных) и др. Они осуществляются Вооружёнными Силами РФ и другими войсками на всех этапах подготовки и ведения военных действий: в мирное время – в целях предотвращения угроз и недопущения агрессии; в военное – в целях предотвращения (недопущения) эскалации, или деэскалации, или скорейшего прекращения военного конфликта на выгодных для России условиях, вплоть до массированного применения ядерного и других видов оружия массового поражения в крупномасштабной войне.

В мирное время С.с. осуществляется в интересах предотвращения угроз и недопущения агрессии (каких-либо наносящих ущерб стратегического масштаба действий) в отношении субъекта, в военное – в интересах предотвращения (недопущения, прекращения) эскалации (или в интересах деэскалации) военного конфликта или в интересах его как можно более раннего прекращения на выгодных для субъекта условиях.

В нынешних условиях и на ближнесрочную перспективу Россия вынуждена при принятии мер силового характера С.с. опираться в основном на ядерные силы в целом и на РВСН как их важнейшей составной части – в частности.

В условиях зарождения, развития и разрешения межгосударственных (межкоалиционных, одно- и многосторонних) конфликтов различного характера С.с. осуществляется, как правило, сочетанием несиловых и силовых мер в разных сферах деятельности государства: политической, экономической, правовой, дипломатической, идеологической, военной и др., а в условиях военного конфликта – с опорой (превалированием) на военную силу, с обязательным соблюдением двух основных принципов: адекватности реакции и непровоцирования угроз или агрессии.

С.с. осуществляется по замыслу и под управлением высшего военно-политического руководства государства (непосредственным руководством Верховного главного командования) как в мирное, так и в во-енное время.

Сдерживающие действия Ракетных войск стратегического назначения
Специфическая форма применения Ракетных войск стратегического назначения в условиях мирного времени и войны с применением обычных средств поражения; организованное действие военных формирований РВСН и группировки РВСН в целом для решения задач сдерживания противника (см. Сдерживание военно-политическое, Сдерживание стратегическое). Включает: боевое дежурство, демонстрационные действия, демонстрационно-ударные действия и др. Основным содержанием боевого дежурства является поддержание постоянной готовности частей и соединений РВСН к немедленному проведению пусков ракет в соответствии с приказами (сигналами) Верховного Главнокомандующего. Основное содержание демонстрационных действий заключается в демонстрации противнику элементов изменения состояния войск (сил), определяющих их готовность выполнять боевые задачи. Основным содержанием демонстрационно-ударных действий является преднамеренная демонстрация противнику непосредственной подготовки войск (сил) к нанесению и нанесение ракетно-огневых и ракетно-ядерных ударов. Специфическая особенность С.д. заключается в преднамеренном открытом характере (при соответствующих условиях военно-политической обстановки) заблаговременно объявленных противнику мероприятий по их подготовке и осуществлению.

С.д. РВСН начали практически осуществляться в конце 50-х гг. прошлого столетия с постановкой на боевое дежурство первых ракетных полков. Ярким примером С.д. РВСН явилась операция «Анадырь», осуществленная ВС СССР в 1962. Наиболее интенсивно теория С.д. РВСН начала разрабатываться в 90-х гг. прошлого столетия в рамках теории сдерживания стратегического и сдерживания ядерного.

Сдерживание военно-политическое
Система мер военно-политического характера, предпринимаемых государством (их коалицией) с целью предотвращения угрозы агрессии или ее эскалации, а также угрозы жизненно важным интересам на основе косвенного, опосредованного использования военной силы в качестве политического средства убеждения противника отказаться от агрессии под угрозой неприемлемых для него последствий в ответных действиях, приводящих к срыву планируемых военно-политических целей. Главным средством С.в.-п. является военная мощь государства. Меры сдерживания политического характера опираются на военную силу как на свою материальную основу, а военная сила имеет политическую направленность. Единство материально-силовой и политической составляющих является базисом С.в.-п. Первая составляющая определяется способностью ВС нанести противнику неприемлемый ущерб в любых условиях. Вторая составляющая обусловлена твердой, решительной позицией политического руководства государства в выборе адекватной меры вооруженного возмездия в случае развязывания агрессии.

Особую роль с середины XX века в межгосударственных отношениях играет сдерживание ядерное, которое провозглашено (ноябрь 1995) основой военной политики России в ядерной сфере. Ядерное сдерживание является формой С.в.-п, средством которого выступает угроза применения ядерного оружия (угроза ядерного возмездия). Система мер, направленных на предотвращение реализации угрозы агрессии, а также ее эскалации путем убеждения противника (агрессора) в том, что на его агрессивную акцию будут осуществлены ответные действия с использованием ядерного оружия, приводящие к неприемлемым для противника последствиям.

По масштабу угрозы, реализацию которой прихо¬дится сдерживать, выделяют сдерживание стратеги-ческое. Цель стратегического сдерживания – недопу¬щение силового давления и агрессии против РФ и ее союзников – в мирное время, а также деэскалация аг¬рессии и прекращение военных действий на приемле-мых для РФ условиях в военное время. Основу страте¬гического сдерживания составляет способность стратегических сил сдерживания в ответных действиях нанести ущерб, размеры которого поставили бы под сомнение достижение целей возможной агрессии (неприемлемый или сдерживающий ущерб, т.е. ущерб, обладающий сдерживающим эффектом).

Russian Strategy for Escalation Management: Key Concepts, Debates, and Players in Military Thought

CNA’s Russia Studies Program recently produced two reports that discuss in depth the main concepts comprising Russia’s strategy for escalation management or intrawar deterrence, their origins in military thought, and the current state of concept development. The first is titled Evolution of Key Concepts, covering essential deterrence concepts, current stratagems for escalation management, the role of nuclear and nonnuclear weapons, types of damage, views on targeting, etc. The second, key debates and the players within Russian military thought, provides an intellectual road map to the conversation among Russian military analysts, strategists, and the players involved. To better socialize the findings from these research products I’ve decided to post their respective abstracts here, though I suggest those interested download the reports from the CNA Research site.

The first report on evolution of key concepts assesses the evolution in Russian military strategy on the question of escalation management, or intra-war deterrence, across the conflict spectrum from peacetime to nuclear war. Russia’s overarching approach to deterrence, called “strategic deterrence,” represents a holistic concept for shaping adversary decision making by integrating military and non-military measures. Key concepts in Russian military thinking on deterrence include deterrence by fear inducement, deterrence through the limited use of military force, and deterrence by defense. These approaches integrate a mix of strategic nonnuclear and nuclear capabilities, depending on the context and conflict scope. In a conflict, Russian escalation management concepts can be roughly divided into periods of demonstration, adequate damage infliction, and retaliation. Russian strategic culture emphasizes cost imposition over denial for deterrence purposes, believing in forms of calibrated damage as a vehicle by which to manage escalation. This so-called deterrent damage is meant to be dosed, applied in an iterative manner, with associated targeting and damage levels. Despite acquiring nonnuclear means of deterrence, Russia continues to rely on nuclear weapons to deter and prosecute regional and large-scale conflicts, seeing these as complementary means within a comprehensive strategic deterrence system. The paper summarizes debates across authoritative Russian military-analytical literature beginning in 1991 and incorporates translated graphics and tables. The concluding section discusses implications for US and allied forces.

Russian Strategy for Escalation Management – Main Concepts

The second report on key debates and players offers an overview of the main debates in Russian military thought on deterrence and escalation management in the post-Cold War period, based on authoritative publications. It explores discussions by Russian military analysts and strategists on “regional nuclear deterrence,” namely the structure of a two-level deterrence system (regional and global); debates on “nonnuclear deterrence” and the role of strategic conventional weapons in escalation management; as well as writings on the evolution of damage concepts toward ones that reflect damage that is tailored to the adversary. Russian military thinking on damage informs the broader discourse on ways and means to shift an opponent’s calculus in an escalating conflict. The report concludes with summaries of recent articles that reflect ongoing discourse on the evolution of Russia’s strategic deterrence system and key trends in Russian military thought on escalation management.

Russian Strategy for Escalation Management – Key Debates and Players in Military Thought

 

Russia’s armed forces under Gerasimov, the man without a doctrine

Reposting this Riddle piece that I hope some of you will find of interest, thanks to Riddle for getting it out so quickly – and no it was not an April fool’s article but the title worked.

Valery Gerasimov, Chief of the Russian General Staff, turns 65 this year and is likely to stay on as long as Sergei Shoigu remains minister of defense. Gerasimov looms large over the current era of Russian military reform and modernization, though both processes were initiated by his predecessor, Nikolai Makarov. During his tenure, the Russian military has also been bloodied in two conflicts, Ukraine and Syria, with the lessons learned subsequently integrated into exercises at home. Gerasimov is more the representative of Russian military officialdom than the author of any of its key doctrinal tenets, but under him the Russian armed forces have undergone noticeable improvements in capability, mobility, readiness, force structure, and combat experience.

Ironically, of the things Gerasimov has done to leave an imprint on the Russian armed forces, he is uniquely famous for something that he never authored, and which does not exist — namely, the “Gerasimov Doctrine.” In 2014 an erroneous belief of almost mythic proportions emerged in the Western press some Russia watchers; it centered on the notion that in February 2013, Gerasimov authored an article laying out the Russian military blueprint for actions in Ukraine and war with the West.

The “Gerasimov Doctrine” was a clever name coined by Mark Galeotti on his blog, though he never meant it to be taken literally that Gerasimov had a doctrine. In 2018 Galeotti published a mea culpa rebuffing any notion that Gerasimov had a doctrine, given the extent to which this term “acquired a destructive life of its own.” Unfortunately like a creature in a horror film it escaped, growing stronger, running amok in political and military circles, and forcing years of efforts among Russia analysts to beat it into submission. That effort proved a Sisyphean task;  entire theories subsequently emerged proclaiming a Russian “chaos theory” of political warfare against the West, based on the erroneous belief that the Chief of the Russian General Staff is in a position to dictate Russian political strategy in the first place.

Military strategy, and operational level planning in conflict, support the strategy set by political leadership, but they are not one and the same. Strategy in a particular conflict is quite different from political strategy writ large. The military is a stakeholder, offering inputs into Russian political strategy, but it does not determine it. The deciding votes sit in the Kremlin. Military writing is quite useful for reflections of the thinking amongst political leadership, but what the military plans to do doctrinally, or debates doing, is not necessarily representative of political designs. It is the job of a military to plan for all sorts of unlikely contingencies, and at the end of the day it is an expensive solution in a bureaucratic search for problems it might help solve.

The Russian annexation of Crimea in March 2014 led to a scramble for information on the Russian armed forces, its military thought, and its doctrine. At first, this yielded faddish terms and malformed interpretations. Over the years the “Gerasimov Doctrine” has become somewhat a professional joke among Russian military analysts, who see it as a litmus test separating those with bona fide expertise from the ever-growing field of self-proclaimed experts on Russian information or political warfare.

Gerasimov's typical look
resting Gerasimov face

That infamous 2013 piece, titled the Value of Science in Prediction, was derived from Gerasimov’s annual speech at the Military Academy of Sciences, undoubtedly kluged together by a few officers into an article with a chart. Gerasimov laid out the general sentiments in Russian military thought on how the U.S. conducts political warfare via “color revolutions,” eventually backed by the employment of high precision weapons, with many of the observations derived from the Arab Spring.

That article represented the Russian military interpretation (or more correctly misinterpretation) of the U.S. approach to conducting regime change, combined with a bureaucratic argument designed to link the budget of the Russian armed forces, consuming trillions of rubles each year, to an external challenge defined largely as political.

In short, it was a kitchen sink of the salient inputs into Russian military thought at the time, summarizing the emerging trends in modern conflicts: wars are not acknowledged or declared when they start, asymmetric and non-military measures had grown relative to traditional military ones, the role of information warfare and irregular formations or proxies had grown in prominence, though high end conventional capabilities equally colored Russian military thinking, especially mass employment of precision guided weapons against a country’s critical infrastructure. Prior to Galeotti’s commentary, Gerasimov’s February 2013 article was completely ignored, and ironically, so were subsequent articles or speeches encapsulating further evolution in Russian military thought since 2013.

That line of thinking on the character of modern conflict has only further congealed under Gerasimov into what the Russian military has come to term “New Type Warfare.” This term represents the Russian view of how non-military instruments can affect a country’s information environment, internal political stability or economy, but are coordinated with conventional military capabilities that inflict strategic damage, such as long-range precision guided weapons and massed aerospace attack. Just last year Gerasimov restated this belief, alleging the U.S. has a ‘trojan horse’ strategy of sorts integrating political warfare and information warfare to mobilize the protest potential of the population, combined with precision strikes against critical infrastructure.

Given the almost complete absence of ‘deterrence by denial’ in Russian strategic thinking, doctrine has evolved around what Gerasimov has termed to be “active defense.” This is a set of preemptive nonmilitary and military measures, deterrence and escalation management approaches based on cost imposition. The Russian armed forces are geared towards being able to preemptively neutralize an emerging threat or deter by showing the ability and willingness to inflict unacceptable consequences on the potential adversary. As Gerasimov said, “acting quickly we must preempt our adversary with preventive measures, identify his vulnerabilities in a timely manner, and create the threat that unacceptable damage will be inflicted.” In practice this includes a range of calibrated damage, from single and grouped conventional strikes against economic or military infrastructure, to massed employment of precision guided weapons, followed by non-strategic nuclear weapons, and at the outer edges theater nuclear warfare.

Much hay has been made of Russian military thought on political or information warfare, but Gerasimov has always made clear that the thrust of military strategy is conventional and nuclear warfare. Use of military power remains decisive. Confrontation in other spheres, where non-military measures dominate, is handled by other ‘strategies’ and organizations with their own resources. The military sees itself as coordinating the two types of measures, as opposed to overseeing the various non-military lines of effort.

Gerasimov shooting things
Better reflection of military thought on preference between nonmilitary and military measures

The Russian military response can be seen in the creation of inter-service combat grouping in each strategic direction, with relatively high readiness, and their ability to move across the Russian landmass to the point of conflict as tested in the Vostok 2018 Strategic Maneuvers. Mobility, readiness, and the ability of different services to work together grew in emphasis under Gerasimov’s tenure, along with attempts to engender flexibility at the tactical level, or what Gerasimov has termed the ability of commanders to come up with “non-standard solutions.” The Russian armed forces have also begun to articulate concepts for future expeditionary operations, called “limited actions,” and institutionalizing the experience in Syria.

Russia’s military continues to invest in capabilities and operational concepts to conduct non-contact warfare, able to engage with standoff weaponry, based on real-time intelligence and reconnaissance. The latest State Armament Program 2018-2027 places emphasis on quality and quantity of precision guided weapons, plus enabling technologies for recon-strike and recon-fire loops. Too much has been made of the discourse on non-military means, when in practice the Russian military has bought a tremendous amount of hard conventional military power and spent considerably on nuclear modernization. Since 2011 one could count close to 500 tactical aircraft, over 600 helicopters, to more than 16 S-400 regiments along with countless air defense systems for the ground forces, 13 Iskander brigades, thousands of armored vehicles, ballistic missile and multipurpose nuclear powered submarines, i.e. the list is extensive. Indeed, roughly 50% of the sizable Russian defense budget is spent on weapons procurement, modernization and R&D.

Despite the advancements in the Russian armed forces, doctrinal deterrence by defense is still seen as cost prohibitive, unattractive compared to approaches that actively limit damage to the homeland or the armed forces. Hence key capabilities, such as long-range precision guided weapons, have been integrated into strategic operations in the initial period of war that are just as offensive as they are defensive in nature. Gerasimov has served during a critical time between the 2014 military doctrine, and a forthcoming one, where some of the more relevant doctrinal developments in Russian military strategy have been in the application of limited force for the purposes of escalation management and war termination.

The Role of Nuclear Forces in Russian Maritime Strategy

This text is from a chapter published in the edited volume: THE FUTURE OF THE UNDERSEA DETERRENT: A GLOBAL SURVEY by Australian National University, titled The Role of Nuclear Forces in Russian Maritime Strategy. I highly recommend you read the book, as there are many wonderful sections on other countries. Also the footnotes and references can be found there, as I’ve yet to figure out how to port them into this type of medium.

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Although Russia is one of the world’s preeminent continental powers, Russian leaders have historically rendered considerable attention to sea power. Through sea power, Moscow could establish Russia as a great power in international politics outside of its own region. Sea power served to defend Russia’s expansive borders from expeditionary naval powers like Britain or the United States, and to support the Russian Army’s campaigns. With the coming of the atomic age, the Soviet Navy took on new significance, arming itself for nuclear warfighting and strategic deterrence missions. The Soviet Union deployed a capable nuclear-armed submarine and surface combatant force to counter American naval dominance during the Cold War. The modern Russian Navy retains legacy missions from the Cold War, but has taken on new roles in line with the General Staff’s evolved thinking on nuclear escalation, while adapting to the inexorable march of technological change that shapes military affairs.

The Russian Navy has four principal missions: (i) defense of Russian maritime approaches and littorals (via layered defense and damage limitation); (ii) executing long-range precision strikes with conventional or non-strategic nuclear weapons; (iii) nuclear deterrence by maintaining a survivable second-strike capability at sea aboard Russian nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs); and (iv) naval diplomacy, or what may be considered to be status projection. Naval diplomacy in particular rests with the surface combatant force, chiefly the retinue of inherited Soviet capital ships (cruisers and destroyers), which while ageing remain impressive in appearance. Meanwhile, the Russian Navy, like the Soviet Navy before it, is much more capable beneath the waves, arguably the only near-peer to the United States in the undersea domain.

Regionally, Russian policy documents convey a maritime division in terms of the near-sea zone, the far-sea zone, and the ‘world ocean,’ while functionally the Russian General Staff thinks in terms of theatres of military operations. The Navy is naturally tasked with warfighting and deterrence in the naval theatre of military operations, defending maritime approaches, and supporting the continental theatre. Russia’s navy remains a force focused on countering the military capabilities of the United States, and deterring other naval powers with conventional and nuclear weapons. Over time, it has also acquired an important role in Russian thinking on escalation management, and the utility of non-strategic nuclear weapons in modern conflict.

Continuity in Naval Strategy: The “Bastion” concept endures

Bastion Defense

Russian naval strategy has proven to be evolutionary, taking its intellectual heritage from the last decade of the Cold War. Nuclear and non-nuclear deterrence missions are deeply rooted in concepts and capabilities inherited from the Soviet Union; namely, the bastion deployment concept for ballistic submarine deployment, together with the more salient currents in Soviet military thought derived from the late 1970s and early 1980s, being the period of intellectual leadership under Marshal Ogarkov, Chief of Soviet General Staff at that time.

Strategic deterrence and nuclear warfighting in theatre proved anchoring missions for the Soviet Navy during the Cold War. In the 1970s-80s it had become widely accepted that the Soviet Union adopted a “withholding strategy,” as opposed to an offensive strategy to challenge US sea lines of communication. The Soviet Northern and Pacific Fleets would deploy ballistic missile submarines into launch points in the Barents Sea and the Sea of Okhotsk, protected by attack submarines, and a surface force geared around anti-submarine warfare (ASW). US analysts termed these protected ballistic missile submarine operating areas “bastions,” and the name stuck.

The merits of the strategy were always questionable, since the Soviet Union was geographically short on unconstrained access to the sea, unlike the United States, while having a plethora of land available for land-based missiles. However, the Soviet Navy deployed a sizable ballistic missile submarine force (more than 60 strong) as part of a nuclear triad. Defending these bastions to maintain an effective survivable deterrent drove shipbuilding requirements for a surface combatant force, and a large submarine force to fend off penetrating US attack submarines. Consequently, ballistic missile submarines proved the linchpin in Soviet naval procurement, and capital ships were designed to defend the SSBN bastions rather than simply enhance anti-carrier warfare or forward strike missions.

Although from a competitive strategy standpoint it might have made sense for Russia to walk away from SSBNs, leveraging road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) as a cheaper survivable nuclear deterrent, this was not the direction elected by the Russian General Staff. Russia’s military clings to a sea-based nuclear deterrent that is incredibly expensive, arguably indefensible from adversary counterforce attacks, and makes little strategic sense in light of the country’s current nuclear force structure. Russia’s current ballistic missile submarine force includes three Delta III-class (only one of which is operational), six Delta IV-class and three of the newer Borei-class SSBNs, for a total of ten operational SSBNs.  The likely deployed warhead count at sea is somewhere in the range of 600–800. The bulk of the force, nine submarines, are stationed in the Northern Fleet, while three submarines are currently assigned to the Pacific. The Borei-class SSBN program, together with the newer Bulava SLBM, is the single most expensive item in Russia’s State Armament Program. Russia is set to procure eight to ten Borei-class submarines by the early 2020s, first phasing out the ageing Delta III-class, and subsequently the Delta IV-class.

The problem with this strategy is that in the 1990s the Soviet Navy melted away, reducing in strength from approximately 270 nuclear-powered submarines in the late 1980s to about 50 or so today, at an operational readiness that likely cuts those numbers further in half. Similarly, the large surface combatant force has declined precipitously, transitioning to a green-water navy, with limited ASW capability. Russia’s submarine force is less than twenty per cent the size of the late Soviet Union’s, and the surface combatant force is much smaller, to say nothing of maritime patrol aviation. Russia’s focus on the Arctic is driven in part by a desire to better secure this vast domain from aerospace attack, and provide the infrastructure to better defend SSBN bastions, especially as passage becomes passable for surface combatants.

It is worth noting that Russian submarine operations have re-covered after declining precipitously in the early 2000s. Since then, the Russian Navy has been buoyed by a sustained level of spending on training and operational readiness, military reforms leading to almost complete contract staffing in the Navy, along with procurement of new platforms. Senior Russian commanders frequently issue pronouncements about increased time at sea, training, and patrols, though a high operational tempo eventually inflicts a cost to readiness.

Russia continues to modernize its existing ballistic missile submarines, and field new ones, as part of a legacy strategy inherited from the Soviet Union. Continuity in the “bastion” strategy may provide the Navy with an argument for spending on Russia’s general-purpose naval forces, more so than it provides a survivable nuclear deterrent. Comparatively, Russia now fields a large force of road-mobile ICBMs, including RS-24 YARS (SS-27 Mod 2), and Topol-M (SS-27 Mod 1), with two regiments still upgrading to this missile. Despite the fact that a growing share of Russian nuclear forces is becoming road-mobile, reducing the need for sea-launched ballistic missiles, the Navy retains a prominent strategic deterrence mission, enshrined in key documents outlining national security policy in the maritime domain.

New Roles: Non-Nuclear Deterrence and Escalation Management

Russian ship launch

Relatively unchanged operational concepts for deploying SSBNs disguise tectonic shifts in Russian thinking about nuclear escalation, and the role of naval forces in strategies aimed at escalation management and war termination. There are profound changes occurring at present in Russian military strategy stemming from the debates in Russian military thought as far back as the Nikolai Ogarkov period of 1977–1984. In the 1980s, the Soviet General Staff began focusing on the rising importance of long-range precision-guided weapons, particularly cruise missiles, and their ability to attack critical objects throughout the depth of the adversary’s territory. Ogarkov, the Chief of the Soviet General Staff at the time, advocated for the belief that precision conventional weapons could be assigned missions similar to that of tactical nuclear weapons from the 1960s-1970s. These were the fountainhead of present-day Russian discourse on non-contact warfare, the dominance of precision-guided weapons on the battlefield, and their ability to decide the conflict during an initial period of war.

Observing modern conflicts in the 1990s and 2000s, the Russian General Staff came to adopt the need to establish “non-nuclear deterrence,” premised on the strategic effect of conventional weapons, and the consequent shift of non-strategic nuclear weapons into the role of escalation management. Nuclear weapons originally meant for warfighting at sea, and in Europe, were hence valued for their ability to shape adversary decision-making, by fear inducement, calibrated escalation, and management of an escalating conventional conflict. Non-strategic nuclear weapons were subsequently incorporated into strategic operations designed to inflict tailored or prescribed damage to an adversary at different thresholds of conflict.

The Soviet Navy was never designed to fulfill this vision, but the modern Russian Navy seeks to centre its role along these doctrinal lines as part of joint operational concepts called strategic operations. Soviet naval forces retained a strong nuclear warfighting mission, seeing tactical nuclear weapons as a critical offset to US naval superiority, and contributing land attack nuclear-tipped cruise missiles to general plans for theatre nuclear warfare in Europe. However, by acquiring the ability to conduct precision strikes on land with cruise missiles, along with other types of multi-role weapons, the Russian Navy could now contribute to both the conventional deterrence and the non-strategic nuclear employment mission.

Official statements by Russian military leaders, and doctrinal documents, emphasize the importance of precision-guided weapons in the Russian Navy, and the belief that under “escalating conflict conditions, demonstrating the readiness and resolve to employ non-strategic nuclear weapons will have a decisive deterrent effect.” According to different estimates, Russia retains roughly 2,000 non-strategic nuclear weapons, a significant percentage of which appear assigned for employment in the maritime domain, either by the Russian Navy or land-based forces supporting the naval theatre of military operations. The means of delivery are decidedly dual capable, with the same types of missiles being able to deliver conventional or nuclear payloads with fairly high accuracy.

Russian strategic operations envision conventional strikes, single or grouped, against critical economic, military, or political objects. These may be followed by nuclear demonstration, limited nuclear strikes, and theatre nuclear warfare. To be clear, theatre nuclear warfare is not new to Russian nuclear doctrine, but was always the expected outcome of a large-scale conflict with NATO during the Cold War. For much of the 1960s through to the 1980s, the Soviet Union anticipated at best a two to ten-day time window for the conventional phase of the conflict. However, unlike the nuclear weapons of the Cold War, precise means of delivery, together with low-yield warheads, have rendered nuclear weapons more usable for warfighting purposes with a substantially reduced chance for collateral damage. Scalable employment of conventional and nuclear weapons leverage the coercive power of escalation, whereby strategic conventional strikes make the actor more credible in employing nuclear weapons in order to manage escalation. In the context of an unfolding conflict, these weapons are not necessarily meant for victory, but to break adversary resolve and terminate the conflict.

The Russian Navy, although limited in the number of missiles it can bring to bear due to constrained magazine depth, retains a prominent role in the execution of these missions, particularly in the early phases of conflict. In this respect, submarines like the Yasen-class, and others able to deliver nuclear-tipped cruise missiles to distant shores, should be considered as important elements of sea-based nuclear deterrence at a different phase of conflict, and perhaps no less consequential than SSBNs.

Again please check out the edited volume for other great works on undersea nuclear deterrence, by other authors, and for references.

The Russian Navy in 2019 (year in review)

Posting here the contents of an article recently published in the March 2020 edition of the USNI Proceedings, titled A Year of Challenging Growth for Russia’s Navy.

The Russian Navy had an interesting 2019, and while it did not turn out to be the year the service hoped for in terms of procuring major combatants, there certainly were activities and exercises of note, as well as incidents that drew their fair share of negative publicity.

On the exercise front, August’s Ocean Shield 2019 proved to be Russia’s largest naval exercise in 30 years, followed by a sizable sortie of Northern Fleet submarines in October. The reports of the death of Russia’s submarine force, which occasionally crop up in Western media, appear to have been greatly exaggerated. A small task force, led by the frigate Admiral Gorshkov, circumnavigated the globe between February and August. The Russian Navy hopes such trips and the growing number of multinational exercises with countries like China will become regular occurrences.

The most prominent incident at sea occurred in June, when a Russian Udaloy-class destroyer passed within 100 feet of the guided-missile cruiser USS Chancellorsville (CG-62) during a helicopter recovery operation in the Philippine Sea. Judging by how 2020 has begun, that 2019 episode is unlikely to prove to be an isolated incident.

Admiral Vinogradov in operation yolo

The year’s most dramatic news came in July, when a fire killed 14 crewmen on board Russia’s special-purpose “nuclear deep-sea station.” AS-31, nicknamed Losharik, is a deep-diving nuclear-powered submarine that belongs to the Russian Defense Ministry’s Main Directorate of Deep-Sea Research (GUGI)—that is, Russia’s “other navy” that conducts special projects. It appears a fire broke out in the submarine’s battery compartment while it was docking with its mothership, BS-64 Podmoskovye, leading to an explosion. Losharik was saved, but much of the crew, consisting of senior officers (captains first rank), perished.

Russia’s unluckiest ship, the aircraft carrier Kuznetsov, continued its historical streak of incidents and accidents when it caught fire in December while pierside undergoing repairs. The Kuznetsov had been damaged in 2018 when the drydock it was in, PD-50, sank dramatically, almost taking the carrier with it. Not only did Russia lose its only drydock in the Northern Fleet capable of hosting the Kuznetsov, a crane from PD-50 fell onto the flight deck, causing further damage. The December 2019 fire appears to have caused minimal damage, much to the disappointment of many analysts and defense officials in Russia who have come to see the ship as an albatross around the Navy’s neck. Despite everything the carrier has endured, many doubt if it will ever return to service as anything other than a floating museum.

Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier on fire in Murmansk, Russia

At first glance procurement in 2019 appears to have disappointed, but the lack of tonnage being launched disguises some positive shipbuilding trends for the navy. Russia’s defense industry turned over one improved-Kilo-class submarine for the Pacific Fleet, and launched a second, out of a total order of six expected to be built. The Oscar-II nuclear-powered guided-missile submarine (SSGN) Omsk appears to have completed its overhaul and been restored to service. Several corvettes and guided-missile boats were launched, including the: Vasily Bykov–class Dmitry Rogachev, Karakurt-class Sovetsk, and Buyan-M Ingushetia. It appears that two previously inactive amphibious warfare ships (LSTs) were repaired for the Black Sea Fleet. Meanwhile others were undergoing overhaul, including the Akula-class nuclear-powered attack submarine Vepr, the diesel-electric Kilo-class submarine Alrosa, and the frigate Neustrashimyy.

The list of submarines that had been expected to enter service in 2019, but were pushed to 2020 includes the first Borei-A nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarine Knyaz Vladimir, the Yasen-M SSGN Kazan, and the new diesel-electric Lada-class submarine Kronshtadt. Of these, the Knyaz Vladimir is still expected early in 2020, while the Kazan appears to have a number of issues discovered in spring 2019 that need addressing; she may not enter service in 2020 at all.

Among the navy’s procurement successes was news that the Belgorod, a heavily modified Oscar-class SSGN intended for GUGI’s use, was launched as expected in 2019. She is likely the longest submarine currently in existence, intended to deploy Poseidon (also known as “Status 6”) nuclear torpedoes and various unmanned undersea systems. Meanwhile, another Yasen-class submarine, the K-573 Novosibirsk, quietly left the slipway at the end of the year, two years faster than its cousin Kazan.

K-573

Among surface combatants there was disappointing news. The second Admiral Gorshkov–class frigate, Admiral Kasatonov, failed to complete trials and enter service. The same was true for the new heavy corvette Gremyaschy, and the large LST Petr Morgynov. On the one hand, these delays seem consistent with the country’s shipbuilding industry’s longstanding pattern of missing deadlines. On the other, 2019’s delays were mainly with ships expected to lead serial production in their classes and are expected to be shorter than in the past (such as the notorious periods of dolgostroi—Russian for “unfinished”— when ships languished for years awaiting completion). In fact, many of the ships in question have already undergone some testing, sea trials, and live-fire exercises. Consequently, 2020 may prove to be a big year for Russian ship acquisition.

There was other news of note, as two more Admiral Gorshkov–class frigates were laid down, along with modified Ivan Gren–class LSTs and another pair of improved-Kilos for the Pacific Fleet. The Ministry of Defense also signed contracts for two more Yasen-M submarines, bringing the total expected to nine, and two additional diesel-electric Ladas. The Navy announced its intention to lay down two large amphibious assault ships (LHDs) in 2020, with expected displacement of about 20,000 tons. Finally, the 37-year-old guided-missile cruiser Moskva, flagship of the Black Sea Fleet, was spared a much-debated retirement.

Moskva 121
Slava-class Moskva

Despite ongoing delays and complications in what is Russia’s worst performing defense-industrial sector, the Ministry of Defense continued to spend on naval procurement. Russia’s total annual modernization, repair, and research budget is almost 1.5 trillion rubles (almost $60 billion in PPP). Russia’s military expenditure remained flat in 2019, but its purchasing power still equals perhaps $180 billion. The past year demonstrated that constraints on the Russian Navy remain tethered to industrial capacity, technical, and operational limitations, rather than financial resources.

Originally published in U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings. Reprinted with permission.

Russian Maritime ‘A2/AD’: Strengths and weaknesses

This is a follow up post to the A2/AD discussion dealing with Russian VKS and PVO-SV air defense, it is also meant to flog the discussion in this WOTR article on whether Russian A2/AD is a really a problem from a maritime perspective. Anti-access/area-denial has some purchase as a concept in the maritime domain, but it was meant to be a conversation about China. The term has been lackadaisically applied to Russia because defense ‘strategists’ group similar capabilities into a common functional problem. This then allows them to say ‘Russia and China’ = problem X, and even worse, if we buy capability Y to deal China then it will definitely work for Russia because we have now declared these to be the same problem set.

This post is not about operational concepts, but again the tactical side of things, as there has been some debate on the efficacy of Russian A2/AD systems. Hence I hope to tease out a conversation on how things work, or don’t probably work, and areas where I think we don’t necessarily know (or maybe just I don’t know).

In the Russian case what gets touted as A2/AD capabilities are just land based coastal defense systems, which for Russia is somewhere between Plan C or Plan D in order of echelonment for dealing with a blue water navy. It mostly misses the plot of Russian thinking about maritime strike. The Russian Navy has historically pursued a damage limitation strategy, starting with forward deployed guided missile ships/submarines, land based aircraft with anti-ship missiles, then offensive/defensive mining and CDCMs.

However, for littoral NATO states in the Baltic/Black Sea with small navies the missile batteries pose a pretty big problem, quite relevant for those who start within the alleged range rings. Think tanks and defense industry advocacy organizations often offer us these scary circles, but does starting within range of these systems equal automatic attrition? The answer is depends.

a2ad rings
map of very scary a2/ad things

How capable are Russia’s coastal defense cruise missile batteries? (A2/AD things) Precision strike in the maritime domain depends heavily on queuing, and having a workable kill chain, because unlike buildings ships move around. This means having to address technical things like over the horizon targeting, satellite targeting, etc. Being able to find and fix the actual target is most of the problem. The range rings drawn based on missile flight range don’t mean anything, plus they probably don’t reflect the actual ranges anyway. Second, the most important leg in this supposed A2/AD chain is still land based aviation, both for queuing with maritime patrol aircraft, and the ability to conduct strikes against maritime targets.

The bulk of the Russian coastal defense force includes the BAL, which fires 8 x Kh-35E subsonic missiles per TEL. This system delivers a salvo of up to 32 missiles per battery, with subsonic anti-ship missiles at a max range of 260km. The Bastion-P fires the P-800 Oniks, which is advertised at 450/500km on a high trajectory, 300km combination medium-low, and 120km with a low-low flight profile. It is possible that P-800 Oniks actual range could be further than officially stated given some of the statements that occasionally come out of India about the capability of their Brahmos. Of course ships have numerous countermeasures, defenses, and can use geography to hide, so one should not presume that the Russian ability to hit a ship guarantees that a missile will connect with the target.

These CDCM batteries come with their own Monolit-B targeting radars. Russia’s defense export sites claim that they have an active radar mode (35km), over the horizon radar using waveguide (90km), over the horizon using refraction (250km) passive targeting mode to detect emitting radars  (450km). We can take that with a grain of salt, but the numbers listed don’t seem especially fantastical. It comes in a pair of transmitting and receiving vehicles. They can receive targeting data via data link from airborne units, like Ka-31 helicopters, reconnaissance aircraft like Su-24MR or MP, or potentially the much longer range Il-38N and Tu-142 (Bear F). Russian forces also use larger over-the-horizon radar (OTHR) arrays, such as the high frequency surface wave Podsolnukh-E (OTH-SW) systems found based around Russian fleets (200-450km), or the much bigger Container (OTH-B) array located deep in Russia with a range of 3000km+.

Podsolnykh-E
Podsolnykh-E OTH-SW

One of the questions occasionally raised is whether they can they hit anything using the OTHR? It has been alleged that using OTHR is basically just firing blind, and I don’t think that’s the case. I’m not an expert on OTHR systems, but it would be a really poor investment to buy such long range missiles without investing in a viable targeting system for them, and to pair them with so many unhelpful mobile OTHR systems. The battery’s organic Monolit-B radar is relatively short range, but it is supposed to not only detect targets beyond the radar horizon, but also classify them, and one wonders whether that is all a big lie. OTHR has a lot of problems, but with modern signal processing technology the current generation of OTH-SW and OTH-B systems could be much better. I would not bet the ship on the proposition that Russian OTHR systems cannot effectively see and classify targets over the horizon.

Monolit-B2
Depiction of Monolit-B and Ka-31 used for targeting

Given the various forms of civilian traffic control, ship automatic identification systems, it may also be possible to easily cross reference signals to separate military from civilian traffic. In a Russia v NATO fight, most of the traffic will belong to combatant nations, and might be considered fair game by the adversary. ELINT based targeting seems to be another functionality of the Monolit-B, and is useful for space-based targeting, which we will get to late. The extent to which a target is cooperative makes a significant difference.

Of course coastal defenses often rely on Su-24MR or Ka-31 helicopters to confirm targets at longer ranges, and while these can be shot down, the numbers game doesn’t look great. Also the act of shooting down an aircraft with ship based air defense system means becoming a cooperative target that identifies you to passive means of detection. Coastal defense units are shifting to drones for recon-strike targeting, like much of the Russian ground force, which means there are simply going to be too many cheap ISR platforms in that tactical-operational range of 100-300km. There is a panoply of means to classify a target, from a guy with a radio on a fishing trawler, to an AGI, to drones, aircraft, and helicopters.

The second half of the package is the missile. Russian anti-ship missiles are advertised as having a sophisticated seeker with active radar, home on jam, ability to de-conflict with other missiles, and a complex flight profile. Soviet missiles were known to be quite smart, able to de-conflict with each other, execute search patterns to actively scan for targets. There is no reason to assume modern Russian missiles can’t do the same, but better. The missile can do quite a bit of the work of classifying and differentiating targets, i.e. it will figure out which one is a fishing boat and which one is an AEGIS destroyer on approach.

P-800 Oniks

What about land based naval aviation?

The Russian A2/AD discussion often overlooks the fact that coastal defenses are just a backup for other defensive layers, from ships and submarines to the Russian air force, which is partly what makes it unworkable as an alleged strategy. It’s the last layer of defense for Russia’s maritime approaches, not the primary one. Against a blue water navy it is near useless since there is no reason cruise missile carrying platforms, or carriers, need conduct operations within range of Russian ‘A2/AD’ capabilities.

The USSR began to think along these lines in the early 1960s once carrier based aviation got longer legs, hence the damage limitation strategy. Basically the A2/AD business doesn’t solve any of Russia’s central problems with U.S. naval power projection, which is again why there is no strategy just based on these capabilities. They are a relatively close-in layer for defending Russian littorals and maritime approaches but not the basis of Russian strategy. (More on that in this article.)

Russian long range aviation took the Tu-22M3s from the Navy back in 2011, then got converted into the VKS Aerospace Forces in 2015. This means that part of the maritime strike mission is in the possession of the long range aviation component (LRA) of the VKS. We can add to this the Su-34 bomber, Su-24M2 tactical bomber, and the Su-30SM heavy multirole fighters assigned to naval aviation regiments. It is hard to know what might be operational from the Tu-22M3 force, but it is safe to assume that what’s left is a relatively small force compared to the heyday of Soviet naval aviation –  a couple regiments strong at best. Tu-22M3s, even in small numbers, pose a challenge because of the range of their Kh-32 missiles.

The Su-34s are worth looking at, because the Russian VKS has received 125 of them and they have increasingly been practicing anti-ship strikes with Kh-31 and Kh-35 in exercises. The Su-30SM is also suitable for this role with 114 delivered, although a relatively small portion of these went to naval aviation regiments. Land based aviation is becoming more of a player in maritime strike and I think this space is worth watching. I will skip the Mig-31K because it’s not clear right now where it will get the queuing from to target the Kinzhal ALBM against high value naval platforms.

Su-34 with Kh-35
Su-34 with Kh-35 in Syria

The main limitation on Russian naval aviation is the availability of Il-38N and Tu-142 long range maritime patrol aircraft. This means that Russian aviation looks good at the operational range of 300-500km, but anything beyond that starts to get problematic given the limited availability of long range ISR platforms. Limited availability is sometimes used as a euphemism for ‘they can’t do it,’ but what it translates into is intermittent coverage, or a high chance of running out of assets due to attrition.

Can space based means be used to target at sea? It depends.

The Soviet Union used two space based ISR systems for targeting: Legenda for maritime reconnaissance and targeting, and Tselina for radio-technical reconnaissance (ELINT). These constellations used nuclear powered, and solar powered satellites of the «УС-А» (active radar) и «УС-П» (passive detection). They provided targeting information at sea and transmitted it to ships or guided missile submarines, like the Oscar-II armed with Granit missiles.

However, both space based recon systems are considered to have ceased functioning some time ago, to be replaced by the Liana system which has had trouble getting off the ground. Liana was meant to consist of two Lotos electronic signals intelligence satellites, and two Pion-NKS radar reconnaissance satellites. Lotos had problems in development, consistent with much of Russia’s space program, but the first satellite went up in 2009. It was followed by three Lotos-S1 satellites, though none of the Pion-NKS satellites have been launched. Izvestia reported last year that both Pions were supposed to be launched by January 2020. Given I’m writing this on January 28, it’s safe to say that’s probably not going to happen this month.

According to numerous public sources a Russian constellation of ELINT satellites designed to listen for cooperative targets does exist (possibly 3x Lotos-S1), but the two Pion-NKS radar satellites do not. Once the Pion-NKS are launched though, which could be this year, the Liana system will be working with satellites able to see ships on the ocean’s surface and transmit that data to Russian forces. This will make a difference in kind when it comes to the Russian forces’ ability to target ships via any land based or sea based platform.

Lotos-S1 model
Lotos-S1 model (from Russianspaceweb.com)

Wrapping up

There are limitations to Russian A2/AD capabilities, but they were never meant as a strategy. The strategy was and remains damage limitation, which in part is based on layered defense, but also preemptive destruction of long range strike platforms. Coastal defense is about covering the littorals and key maritime approaches. The challenge began to loom because missiles got better, radars got better, and NATO expanded – so now what was a layer of coastal defenses has become an A2/AD capability affecting sea denial in much of the Baltic and Black Sea.

This places the emphasis on the wrong capabilities. The focus should be on ISR, and the potential for land based strike aviation to make an impact. I also think offensive and defensive mining gets overlooked as one of the most effective means of denying an entire area to an adversary because its not as flashy as modern missiles. Limitations in ISR make ‘a2/ad’ rather dodgy beyond tactical-operational ranges, and there are legitimate questions about what Russian OTHR can actually deliver without additional sources of target identification. That sets up a somewhat bifurcated threat, as the Russian ability to see is pretty good at tactical-operational ranges, and not so good beyond them.

These complexities of course do not stop defense intellectuals from trotting out theories that Russia has an ‘A2/AD strategy’ and will terribly coerce NATO in a crisis with shiny missiles. A real interdiction strategy would involve sea lines of communication. During the first half of the Cold War it was long held that the USSR had a SLOC interdiction strategy before the navy eventually conceded that actually it was chiefly a withholding strategy for SSBN bastion defense. There is no evidence that anything has changed on the Russian side, besides having far fewer operational submarines available to pursue SLOC interdiction.

However, we should not tilt towards cavalier or overly dismissive assessments. Russian forces are getting more eyes, buying more aircraft, drones, missiles, and upgrading maritime patrol aviation – so the trend line is clear. I think the extent to which ships become cooperative targets as they maneuver will have a significant impact on the ability of these various systems to detect and classify targets at longer ranges. That’s probably not a revelation, but it is interesting how much passive detection plays a role in the efficacy of Russian anti-ship targeting systems.

Feedback and comments welcome –

 

Russian A2/AD: It is not overrated, just poorly understood

There were several articles in 2019 attempting to address the Russian anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) problem set, in my view an unfortunate term that got transported from the China watcher community and slapped onto Russia, even though it has preciously little application in Russian military strategy or doctrinal thought. In a late 2019 WOTR article, which proved quite long, I sought to tackle the operational level thinking in the Russian military for how different capabilities listed under the A2/AD umbrella are likely to be used, illustrating that no A2/AD defensive doctrine or strategy exists. Russian forces are organized around offensive/defensive strategic operations which do not suggest the intention to sit back in a defensive bubble and get eaten by a U.S. led aerosopace attack.

However, this post is about the tactical side of things, and a series of claims made by colleagues about Russian A2/AD capabilities being overrated that I think need addressing. Technology fetishism and threat inflationism seems to be giving way to a dismissive attitude in some circles which is equally problematic. In my view these capabilities are misunderstood. I will briefly tackle air defense and a couple items I think it’s useful to consider on this subject. Just to be frank, this is going to be fairly rudimentary because I’m not an engineer and math is not my preferred language – on the other hand readership dramatically declines with each math formula or table you include in a post.

The first challenge with Russian air defense is the almost wanton confusion between Aerospace Forces (VKS) fielded systems, ground forces fielded air defense systems (PVO-SV), and the Russian air force within the VKS, which is often missing from this picture. Basically, much of the writing presumes that Western forces can fight the S-400 on its own, and you have a number of reports from well meaning countries that attempt to simulate the battle of NATO versus Kaliningrad, as though Kaliningrad was a country and not a tiny grouping of Russian forces relative to the whole. Given Russian framing of any conflict with a coalition of states as a regional war, we need to think about how Russian forces organize for large-scale warfare in the TVD (theater of military operations), and in a geographical span running roughly from Norway to Turkey rather than some contrived pinky fight in the Baltics.

IADS belonging to VKS

Integrated air defense systems under VKS include the S-300 line of S-300PMU1/2, S-400, S-350 and point defense systems like Pantsir-S1. These systems are used to defend Russian critical infrastructure and ‘strategic deterrent forces’ assigned to execute strategic operations. They may cover Russian ground forces, but are not necessarily vested in defending them since the army has its own air defense component. While the S-400 may be ‘overrated,’ the echelonment of these systems creates layers of defenses at different ranges, but most importantly with different types of missile seekers. These systems provide overlapping coverage for maximum attrition, but what they really do is defend critical civilian and military objects at operational or strategic depths.

The 200km 48N6E2 and the 250km 48N6E3 is semi-active, but the much shorter range 9M96 series (60-120km) is active radar homing. The extended range 40N6 400km missile appears to have achieved initial operating capability, and also comes with an active radar seeker, although I’ve never seen the container for it. These systems excel at medium-high altitude, while the active radar homing missiles pose a challenge for pop-up attacks, low-flying aircraft, or helicopters. We will touch on low altitude penetration a bit later.

Although there have been claims that you can simply take out one engagement radar and thereby neutralize an entire battery of 6-8 TELs, it’s not clear that this is remotely true. That would somewhat defy the concept of integrated air defense and it’s probably not quite that simple given the proliferation of automated systems of command and control at all echelons of the Russian armed forces. It would be safer to assume the Russian VKS thought of that and there’s a Plan B + Plan C to ensure redundancy.  This assumes that TEL #1 can only talk to fire control radar A, but cannot communicate with fire control radar B assigned to TEL #9, even though there are dedicated C3 vehicles deployed with them to enable high bandwidth communication.

Typically these systems are co-located with Pantsir-S1 batteries which provide defense against cruise missiles, and missiles intended to take out the S-400. There will also be plenty of EW systems to make life more complicated and effect disorganization on the incoming aerospace strike.

Pantsir-S1

The main problem for Russian air defense is stealth and saturation. The former can offer considerable standoff relative to the effective engagement range, and the latter can simply overwhelm with munitions, decoys and drones. Low observation characteristics substantially reduce the effective range of fire control radars, which means that most of the range rings shown as ‘angry circles of death’ are meaningless. This is part of the reason why there is no Russian strategy based around bubble defense, because it’s not really possible against 5th gen, and even less so against cruise missiles. Hence there is no area denial, and not necessarily anti-access either – think more attrition, disorganization, and deflection.

However, statements about the advantage of low observation aircraft should come with caveats. Stealth does not mean invulnerability. The proliferation of increasingly mobile low-frequency Russian radars, like Nebo-M, which operate in the L-band, VHF, and UHF, means that stealth aircraft can be seen, just not necessarily engaged. These radar systems used to be quite large and clunky due to the antenna aperture required, but are now far more portable with shorter setup times. That said, any air defense network starts to develop gaps once you take down enough radars.

Most of the arguments about a Russian A2/AD strategy based on zonal defense amount to defense intellectual gobbledygook attempting to portray Russia as 1973 Egypt (limited offense followed by area defense). Here is a good example of how Russian writing depicts the problem of deflecting and attriting an aerospace attack. Note the emphasis is on the stack of threats in the aerospace domain, from low-altitude to space based assets, and the ability of Russian air defense to defense critical infrastructure/strategic deterrent forces.

Arsenal Otechestva Effektivnaya Razvedka Protivnika
Arsenal Otechestva – Effektivnaya Razvedka Protivnika

Militarizatsia Kosmosa Neisbezhna
Militarizatsia Kosmosa Neisbezhna

Reading Russian military thought articles on the problem of U.S. massed aerospace assault, and the damage that numerous long range precision guided munitions could inflict, one gets the impression that they understand where things stand perfectly well – and they don’t like it.

That leads us to the second problem, the air force component of the Aerospace Forces, which is probably somewhere in the range of ~800 tactical aircraft. The majority of these have been modernized or replaced with new variants 2011-2019. These fighters are an integral part of the Russian air defense network, and will be looking to engage any aircraft penetrating it, which will be seen on low frequency search radars whether they are 5th gen or 4th gen.

A fair bit of writing presumes that one can perform a SEAD or DEAD mission, tackling VKS owned IADS separately, while the entire Russian air force sits parked and waits for its turn to fight, which is unlikely. Russian fighters will naturally fill the corridors or gaps between Russian air defenses, and will be guided by radar systems that can see low observation aircraft. The Su-57 seems well suited for that role. The limited availability of AWACS aircraft (A-50U) in the Russian air force is an enduring issue, but Russian fighters are primarily guided to intercept via ground control stations utilizing ground based radar. The air defense system as a strategic network is really a combination of radars, integrated air defense, tactical aviation, and missile defense.

Here is a list of aircraft deliveries I pulled from BMPD’s recent update.

Aircraft deliveries

My sense is that the 5th gen versus modern IADS + air force is the sort of thing that will either go really well, or quite poorly, without a lot of in between. Either way the Russian air force is likely to preemptively conduct its own aerospace assault, as part of the strategic aerospace operation, and together with long range aviation wipe out as many air assets as possible on the ground (covered in the WOTR article). Cruise missiles don’t really care if you have 4th gen or 5th gen on the runway. Remove air refueling and AWACS from the picture, things start to get less rosy.

What about Low-Altitude?

It has been asserted that one could simply negate the range of many of these systems with low altitude penetration, going in old school to negate the advantage of long range radar air defense systems. One can understand the visual appeal, complete with Kenny Loggins’ Danger Zone playing in the background. There are a few problems with this theory. The first is that 5th gen aircraft are optimized for the medium-high altitude penetration mission – stealth loses a lot of its value if you can literally see the plane and shoot it down with almost any type of short range system (SACLOS/IR/SPAAG/bow and arrow).

It’s not clear to what extent any Western air force, with the exception of Israel, spends much time training for low-altitude penetration, and while the aircraft can do it, many pilots probably cannot. Without training, nap-of-the-earth flight is likely to result in disaster before Russian air defense can even have a chance to shoot something down.

The second problem is that it’s not a cure-all given many Russian radars are found raised on masts, plus most Russian systems carry a shorter range active radar seeking missile variant. As the S-350 proliferates in the VKS, and the Buk-M3 in PVO-SV, this will become even more of a problem. Naturally the earth’s curvature dramatically affects radar range against a low flying target, but there is a great deal of complexity that goes into assessing a radar’s effective targeting range over the horizon – especially since atmospheric conditions and terrain play an important role. I’m an expert on none of these things, but Russian search and fire control radars frequently come mounted on 24 or 40 meter masts. We should ask why.

5N66+5N63-40V6MD-Mast-1S

Some basic calculators I found online show that all things being equal against a target flying at 100 meters your targeting range from a 5 meter height is only 27km, but from a 24 meter height you get 62km and from a 40 meter height 67km (hopefully I got those right). I’m not a radar expert, but the Russian military likes to put them on telescopic masts for a reason. If you can see the air defense radar in a 4th gen aircraft then it can probably see you. This problem might be solvable by pop-up attacks when dealing with semi-active radar missiles, but then you have a batch of 9M96 active seeking missiles to deal with because the radar only needs to see you for a brief amount of time and the missile seeker will figure out the rest of the problem.

s-300pmu-battery-ll

It is also worth mentioning that the proliferation of Russian over the horizon radar systems pose a challenge for launching an aerospace attack undetected at any altitude. The relatively short range Podsolnukh-E, which uses the ocean as a conducting surface can see 450km out and being deployed with every Russian fleet. Strategic OTH systems like Container are located deep inside Russia and can see most of Europe’s airspace at ~3000km range. This simply means that Russian VKS will see an aerospace attack coming whether it is high, medium, or low altitude and without that element of surprise you get more attrition.

The last problem is that by avoiding VKS IADS an aircraft may quickly become best friends with Russia’s PVO-SV.

The PVO-SV problem for low or medium altitude

Air defense units belonging to the Russian land forces (PVO-SV) do not need VKS IADS, because they carry a thicket of their own air defense systems to cover the maneuver formations. These include Tor-M1, Buk-M2, various radar assisted gun systems, and MANPADS. The problem with attempting low altitude penetration or close air support against Russian ground forces is that they have a very high density of short range air defense systems able to reach to medium altitude.

Newer systems add to the challenge. Buk-M3 is much more capable than its predecessors, with active radar homing missiles (70km on 9R31M), a separate radar that can be raised on a retractable mast, and a containerized missile for quick reloads. These more capable systems are to be found in air defense brigades include S-300V4 and Buk-M3, while M2 is probably going to stick around in air defense regiments/brigade. Almost anything in the PVO-SV arsenal can shoot down cruise missiles, although that’s not their primary mission.

Bukm3
Buk-M3

Meanwhile S-300V4 is really the mobile missile defense system for the Russian ground forces, designed to provide standoff capability against high value aerial assets like AWACS, or jammer aircraft. In terms of capability this has always been a more interesting system than the S-400, because of its ability to engage ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and maneuverable aerodynamic targets. This system was deployed to Syria, and largely unnoticed given the fixation on the S-400. Antey fielded a 400km missile against low maneuverability targets, 9M82 ‘Giant’, well before the 40N6 went into development for the S-400. The 9M83 ‘Gladiator’ missile is comparable to the 48N6 line, and the system components are tracked which makes them quite mobile. S-300V4s are due for an upgrade, and will be bought in increasing numbers for Russian air defense units assigned to fleets. I would watch this space – PVO-SV is going to get a lot more capable in the coming years.

S-300v4
S-300v4

Wrapping up

So Russian A2/AD is overrated in large part because of our own technology fetishism and terrible understanding of how Russian forces are actually organized. It does not exist as a doctrine, or a military strategy, but we should not over simplify the discussion in attempts to debunk the tactical capabilities of Russian military technology. All you have to do to achieve air dominance is eliminate the VKS radars, the low-frequency radars, and the Russian air force – then you’re largely ok right after dealing with the countless PVO-SV air defense systems. Assuming you don’t run out of munitions early on into this process, or aircraft, and all the high value enabling platforms do not get attrited, then it’s a manageable problem.

In some respects Russian IADS are a sort of McGuffin plot vehicle. As long as time and munitions are spent on them, Russian critical objects are safe, and one way or another the IADS end up executing their mission – which is not to defend themselves but to defend that which is strategically significant for the success of operations in the TVD.

In my view the balance of aerospace assault vs air defense remains offense dominant (I understand offense/defense dominance is not a thing because Keir Lieber says so), but  that is probably not enough to offer confidence in the initial period of war. The problem is that Russia’s military has always seen defense to be cost prohibitive, and there for focused on an offensive damage limitation strategy + functional defeat of the adversary. So whether you think Russian A2/AD systems are amazing, or overrated, just remember – there is no such doctrine or term in the Russian military and the conversation misses the plot on how Russian forces actually organize at the operational-strategic level.

For a better, but longer explanation on operational level organization in the TVD, and Russia mil strategy check here.

Mystery explosion at Nenoksa test site: it’s probably not Burevestnik

Update September 2: If one believes CNBC’s story here then the cause of the incident was a failed recovery attempt of a prior Burevestnik missile test from 2018. In recovering the missile from the bottom of the bay something exploded under one of the vessels, which also damaged the missile’s reactor, leading to the radiation release. So there was no missile test, no reactor test, no launch, and equally there was no RTG or some other device responsible. I will leave the rest of the text below without updates so you can see my thought process, right or wrong, early on in this episode before much information was available.

I was going to stay away from this because there simply was not enough information to tell what happened, and the hot take factory had already run away with the story on the basis of close to nothing. Here is the most likely scenario as I see it. The explosion was not a missile launch test, and it was not Burevestnik, no matter how much arms control wonks want to think it was. It’s just unlikely based on the scant information available about the incident.

I have a different view from Jeffrey Lewis here. The notion that Russian Burevestnik program was in major trouble after moving from Novaya Zemlya test site is also probably incorrect. I think Lewis’ own commercial satellite imagery confirms the story that VNIIEF, the Russian nuclear research institute in charge of this work, basically tried to tell but couldn’t get out in time because people already piled in with speculation.

Jeffrey Lewis paid for this image
courtesy of Jeffrey Lewis and his institute who paid for this lovely image

They were testing the system on a platform at sea. According to some accounts the explosion blew the scientists into the water, which is why it took time for an accurate casualty count to come in as they were looking for their own people. It was not a missile launch, as such launches are easily detected by national technical means, and it was not on a rail launcher since we can clearly see one affixed on land at the test site. Why would they rail launch it from a platform at sea when they can fire it over the bay from the coast?

Update August 26: Looks like its not a RTG based on the isotopes detected, and instead a nuclear reactor. Also unlikely to have been a missile, and the initial explosion may have taken place underneath the platform rather than above it.

Let’s ask first order questions. Why did five leading researchers die? If it was a nuclear powered missile test why would they be near the missile? I know I’m always standing next to experimental missiles I’m testing, it’s the best way to see the explosion. If it was an experimental nuclear reactor (unshielded), why were they standing next to it at the time of the mishap? I know I always stand next to experimental nuclear reactors I’m testing. Typically when people stand around things, it is because they don’t expect them to explode or massively irradiate them.

The explosion was caused by a liquid fueled engine – why would there be a liquid fuel engine in Burevestnik? Subsonic cruise missiles have solid fuel as their boost phase. Ok here is the last question for Burevestnik theory enthusiasts. Imagine they are conducting a missile test on a small platform out at sea, and you believe that this is a missile powered by an unshielded reactor. I mean, kind of hard to shield a reactor on a relatively small cruise missile. In this theory Russia’s leading nuclear researchers are standing around an unshielded nuclear reactor on a barge, with the intent to turn it on. Forgive my skepticism.

I know you’re thinking, well maybe they lied about the platform and were testing it at the rail launcher site. So why were the scientists next to it then, and another question, why are there all these ships positioned in the flight path of the missile from the rail launcher? Wouldn’t the radiation from the reactor be a problem for them, the entire bay, maybe the towns?

Some in Russia have combined the two theories, suggesting that Burevestnik has a nuclear power component, but there is a separate liquid fueled engine for maneuverability. While interesting, its still unclear how either system actually powers Burevestnik and why a subsonic missile with maneuvering surfaces would remotely need liquid fueled thrusters or jets to maneuver. I’m raising this here to dismiss it because it doesn’t make much technical sense. We will get back to Burevestnik later.

VNIIEF’s statement, in classic Russian style, alluded to two types of projects without saying exactly what it was, a novel Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator or a novel reactor type akin to U.S. Kilopower project. In my view they were indeed testing a novel Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator with a liquid fuel engine combo. (That turned out untrue after it became clear that the different nuclides produced could only come from nuclear fission).

The idea being to use the RTG as a long term electrical heating solution to maintain thermostatic temperature inside the various components of a liquid fueled engine, either in a booster phase, or the canister itself, of a missile that needs to get up to speed very quickly from launch. Basically an atomic battery for a liquid fueled engine where the components have to be kept at a certain temperature in prolonged storage, otherwise the weapon has to be permanently connected to a power source. This is certainly not as sexy as a nuclear powered missile, but it’s much more probable as the real story behind what happened. That’s the story IZ eventually went with and (I believed it was closer to the truth than all the Burevestnik mania, but it turned out not to be a RTG)

RTG wikimedia
RTG design from wikimedia commons

Some of my musings on alternate explanations:

If we ask which secretive missile the Russian military is working on, that is principally for the Russian Navy, has most likely a high power liquid fuel engine – it’s could well be Tsirkon. Since Tsirkon has to be canister stored, and quickly sprint to a high velocity for its scramjet to work, most likely this missile could benefit from a RTG. It could be part of the canister storage system, or fall off as a booster. Some have also suggested Skif, a SLBM designed to be fired from the ocean seabed, even though that would violate a treaty banning such weapons. If its a liquid powered engine, then I’m skeptical on Skif and leaning towards Tsirkon, because the latter is likely to have a powerful liquid fueled engine/scramjet combo, and is actively being worked on whereas I’ve really not seen evidence of Skif being a thing. (it was none of these things either)

While we’re in the speculation business on RTG use, it might also be a maneuvering satellite. That sort of weapon could use a sustained power source, in space, and possibly have liquid fueled thrusters. Just working through the non-Burevestnik list here. If the radiation emitted sounds too high for a RTG, and I’m not an expert here so I don’t know how much radiation you get if you blow one up, I suppose it varies considerably depending on the type of material used and how much of it they were using. RTGs are fairly simple in design, but perhaps this RTG was novel and therefore more powerful.

Equally likely it was a novel nuclear power source, but again it begs the question as to the cause of an explosion, and why leading researchers would ever be standing around such a thing on a platform at sea. The obvious answer is they were setting up equipment, but I don’t see them testing an unshielded reactor off the coast of a town near Severodvinsk.

Now let’s imagine that the RTG story is a canard meant to distract us (which it turned out to be in retrospect). It could be a novel nuclear power source, but for what? Well, probably 10-20 different projects, at least those that I can think of. I’m not ruling out a component related to Burevestnik, but saying that something was tested with infrastructure associated with Burevestnik tests is like going to Kaputsin Yar and just guessing which missile was involved at a range testing 10 different missiles.

The scientists, the explosion and a source of radiation were all co-located which suggests they were working on something with explosive potential and a source of radiation. The radiation released seems quite small for a reactor, just my impression based on commentary from people who follow the nuclear side of things but perhaps too high for a typical RTG. So the circumstances  suggest it was something other than an unshielded reactor, involving an engine with liquid fuel propulsion, which should point us away from Burevestnik.

Moscow Times released a story from the hospital talking about exposure to Cesium 137 isotope, which while a byproduct of fission, is a source of gamma radiation. The thing is Cs-137 is total junk for power level and is basically one of the weakest isotope sources you can use for a RTG. Good PDF here with comparisons for those interested.

RTG isotopes 2RTG isotopes

So after initially leaning towards the RTG story, it seems that was a distraction and instead we are dealing with a nuclear reactor. There are several options for nuclear reactor tests with military applications at sea, from Poseidon torpedo to various types of ATGU’s, undersea atomic power stations, to of course our reactor for Burevestnik. However, to release these different isotopes it is likely that fission might have had to take place at the site, whereas in a missile the reactor would not turn on until after boost phase, which creates obvious problems since the explosion and material was released from the platform.

Back to Burevestnik

I wonder why people assume that Burevestnik is an open air flow reactor/ramject powered missile? Just because in 1960s U.S. project Pluto used this combination on a large supersonic missile does it make sense to assume that’s what Russia is working on as well? The U.S. tried to build 1957-1964, and it doesn’t make much sense that it is what Russia would try to build in 2019. Pluto was a large supersonic missile, with rocket boosters and multiple warheads designed as a supersonic low altitude missile (SLAM), while Burevestnik is a single warhead cruise missile shaped for subsonic or perhaps transonic flight. Its certainly not a mach 2 weapon.

project pluto
This is project Pluto in concept

Burevestnik clearly doesn’t look like a supersonic low altitude missile with those wing surfaces.

Burevestnik 2

Burevestnik-nuclear-powered-cruise-missile.
this is burevestnik

Given Burevestnik appears to be a subsonic, or a transonic missile, not meant for supersonic flight and therefore not utilizing a ramjet which is better suited for mach 2+ it is probably not an open air flow system. Ramjets are highly inefficient at slower speeds and the wings on the missile don’t exactly look like a mach 2+ weapon. Burevestnik is going to have probably one of two propulsion types, direct air cycle or indirect air cycle. Direct air cycle just throws the air into the reactor and out the back. Highly radioactive. Indirect cycle is probably liquid metal cooled. Air makes contact with a heat exchanger that’s carrying the liquid metal from the reactor and goes out the back, much less radioactive. Of course maybe there is a nuclear power source just powering a turbojet and they’re not using the air for propulsion at all.

Also I don’t think its index is 9M730, although it was initially reported as such. There are still too many assumptions here about an experimental weapon without enough images or information, so in my view it is best to hold back on the guesswork.

Comments and feedback as always welcome. If you have alternative explanations please send them in. I do not know what it was, but there’s enough information to suggest that the hot take factory is wrong on this one.

The Ogarkov Reforms: The Soviet Inheritance Behind Russia’s Military Transformation

Reposting this article from Oxford’s Changing Character of War Programme latest Russia issue brief, just released this week. I encourage taking a look at the article compliation in these briefings, because CCW’s work typically includes some of the best analysis on Russian defense, strategy, economic or energy issues.

Since late 2008, the Russian military has undergone a period of sustained reform, and modernization to compensate for almost twenty years of divestment which took place after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Much has changed during the initial reform period under the then combination of Minister of Defense Anatoly Serdyukov and Chief of General Staff from 2008 to 2012, and again subsequently under the new tandem of Sergei Shoigu and Valery Gerasimov since 2013. Implementing reforms to previous reforms is a Russian tradition, but the vision being executed is born of a deeper intellectual pedigree. The modern Russian armed forces owe a great deal to the current generation of military leadership, which disbanded the remnants of the Soviet mass mobilization army. But, in truth, it owes far more to the intellectual heritage inherited from the late 1970s through to the mid 1980s when Marshal Nikolai Vassilievich Ogarkov served as Chief of the Soviet General Staff.

The most recent decade of military transformation would be better known as the “Ogarkov reform inheritance”, since it represents the successful implementation of a vision he had for the Soviet armed forces in the early 1980s, which was only partly realized during his tenure. Looking across the changes implemented in the Russian armed forces, from the flattening of the command and control structure, to the execution of complex exercises with combined or inter-service groupings from different military districts, the deployment of recon-strike and reconfire loops, the integration of combat branches and arms around strategic operations in the theater of military operations, and the increasing emphasis on non-nuclear strategic deterrence, we can see that Ogarkov’s intellectual children have come home. This is not to dismiss the lasting influence of Mikhail Tukhachevsky, Alexander Svechin or Georgii Isserson, whose writing is also used to underpin modern military thought. But none of those men lived through the Cold War, and many of the current ideas or concepts take their heritage from the Ogarkov period.

Ogarkov was a technologist at heart, arguing for a revolution in military affairs in 1982, to reshape the Soviet armed forces with a new generation of technology. Many of the latest weapon systems deployed in the Russian military date back to the 1980s in terms of design, and were conceived as answers to the capabilities then being deployed by NATO. More important, though, is the doctrinal thought that the Russian General Staff has visibly inherited from him, which drives the development of capabilities and concepts of operations for their employment, i.e. the Russian way of war. The goal is to establish a balanced force, consisting of general purpose forces for warfighting, a non-nuclear conventional deterrent, a capable non-strategic nuclear force for escalation management, and a credible strategic nuclear deterrent.

ogarkov-2.jpg

It was Ogarkov’s vision to establish high readiness combat groupings of mixed forces, able to conduct defensive and offensive strategic operations in a theatre divided along strategic directions. This was the model for large-scale combat operations that has so heavily influenced latter day Russian planning for Joint Strategic Commands (OSK), combined arms armies as operational level headquarters, and the formation of high readiness combat groupings along said strategic vectors.

In his time, Ogarkov sought to reform how the military approached war at the operational and strategic level, unifying the work of the service headquarters and the general staff. His goal was to integrate services that they could create operational level groupings composed of combined arms units, which today is realized best at the level of the combined arms army. According to Makhmut Gareev, Deputy Chief of General Staff at that time, Ogarkov centered the General Staff as the ‘brains’ of the Soviet military. He sought the integration of air defense and the air force, seeing air power as decisive in the initial period of war, without which ground forces cannot effectively advance. Seeing the U.S. way of war as aerospace blitzkrieg, the Russian military has made air defense a strategic operation, unifying air defense, missile defense, and tactical aviation under the Aerospace Forces (VKS). In his own time, Ogarkov lost the fight internally to combine air defence and the air force as institutions, but, in the end, he served as progenitor for a reorganization of Russian air power and air defense around strategic operations to deflect U.S. aerospace attack (the Russian air force and aerospace defence forces were merged in 2015 to create the Aerospace forces).

It was Ogarkov who, together with other notable Soviet military leaders, such as Viktor Kulikov, Sergei Akhromeev, and Valentin Varennikov, restored operational-strategic and operational level training at the General Staff, with large scale command-staff exercises designed to explore operational art, and develop military strategy. Of particular note were Zapad-81, Vostok-84, Dozor-86, and Osen-88, testing concepts such as the Operational Manoeuvre Groups, reconnaissance at the tactical-operational level, destruction of enemy formations with fires and electronic attack through the depth of their lines.

Zapad 1981
Zapad 1981

Under recent Russian Chiefs of General Staff, including Yuri Baluevsky, Makarov, and Gerasimov, there has been a resurrection of the influence of annual strategic exercises, together with a robust annual training cycle, to work out questions of operational art, mobility, mobilization, service integration, and so on. Consequently, today the Russian armed forces, while not the largest they have ever been, are at their highest state of readiness in decades, beyond that of the Soviet military in the 1980s.

Ogarkov is equally notable for what he opposed. For example, he argued against the USSR’s habit of spending large sums of money on civil defence. In his view, the USSR was burying its money in the ground by arming civil defense units with vast quantities of obsolete equipment. Instead, he wanted to rearm the Soviet military with the next generation of conventional weapons, thus restoring its conventional military power after Khrushev had invested heavily in nuclear weapons in a bid to reach parity with the United States.

Like any good land force officer, Ogarkov was critical of the Soviet Navy’s megalomania, especially its desire to build a vast surface combatant force without the infrastructure to support operations. He singled out the Navy’s desire to waste money on aircraft carriers in an effort to match the United States. Although the Russian Navy may never be cured of such aspirations, in practice it is transitioning to a capable green water force with a more practical set of missions and a host of new capabilities to implement them. Still, if Ograkov had had his way, the Admiral Kuznetsov heavy aircraft cruiser, perhaps the unluckiest ship in the Russian Navy and notorious killer of naval aviation, would never have been built.

Perhaps most importantly, Ogarkov understood the chief problems of the Soviet military, which in the 1980s had fallen behind in communications, reconnaissance, battle space management, targeting, automated systems of command and control. These problems were demonstrated repeatedly in Chechnya, and finally in the RussiaGeorgia War of 2008. The modern Russian military has worked to solve the hereditary blindness of the Soviet Union, and is increasingly able to find, fix, and finish targets at tactical and operational depths, while implementing new systems of command and control across all echelons.

Ogarkov observing 1981.png

Although Russia retains its traditional military strengths in firepower, mass, and warfighting at the operational level, the Russian General Staff has now come a long way towards implementing Ogarkov’s vision of conventional warfare driven by information, real-time integration of fires and strike systems with intelligence and reconnaissance assets. From this, one can see the evolution of Russian combined arms maneuver enabled by noncontact strikes, fires, and a growing share of precision guided weapons added to the legacy heavy firepower mix.

Ogarkov’s view held that the military should not be employed to resolve cases that were principally political crises, demanding political solutions. He was publicly opposed to the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. This characteristic hesitancy to employ conventional military power has to some extent stayed in the Russian political and military leadership, typically exhausting other instruments of national power to achieve political objectives, and methods that fall short of war, prior to the introduction of high end conventional military power.

Nikolai Vassilievich was also one of the first senior Soviet leaders to conclude publicly that political victory in a nuclear war was impossible, instead seeking answers to what Soviet leadership at the time called the ‘independent conventional war option’. Under his leadership, the USSR began to develop concepts for a high intensity conventional war without depending on nuclear weapons, as a riposte to similar developments taking place in the U.S. establishment that culminated in the development of the AirLand Battle concept. As Ogarkov pursued this military transformation, however, his vision proved to be a costly strategy at a time when the USSR was in economic crisis instead seeking to reduce the unsustainable costs of military competition.

The present day Russian General Staff envisions a capable general purpose force, together with a non-nuclear deterrent that is able to deliver tailored or prescribed damage against critical objects of political, economic, or military significance. Rather than compete with NATO in long-range conventional weapons, an unwinnable contest not only for Ogarkov’s Soviet Union but also today’s Russia, the military has chosen an approach based more on reasonable sufficiency. Where Ogarkov had the right idea but wrong scope and execution plan, was in seeking to match U.S. technological might in a large-scale conventional war. It was overly symmetric, and economically ruinous. It also made less sense given that the USSR never believed that a war between nuclear powers could be kept conventional.

Given an asymmetry of interests at stake, in most crises the Russian military thinks it can meet the requirements of strategic operations with a much cheaper ‘strategic’ conventional deterrent, because its coercive impact would be greatly magnified by the presence of a capable non-strategic nuclear force. The latter can be employed as part of scalable nuclear operations in theatre, from demonstration employment to escalation management, or warfighting. This vision evolved from the early 1980s debates of Ogarkov’s General Staff, with an important caveat: while Ogarkov did not believe that nuclear weapons could be used as an instrument of policy in practice, it is unclear that the current Russian military leadership shares such views given the somewhat different nature of the stakes in the contest.

The Russian General Staff has made considerable progress in building a military to answer the technological advancements and the concepts of operations developed by the United States in the 1980s and 1990s, i.e. what they perceive to be the modern character of war. It was largely Ogarkov’s answer – a military transformation envisioned by the USSR General Staff in the 1980s, even as the Soviet Union itself hurtled towards state collapse. Albeit fitful and perhaps incomplete, the restoration of Russian military power was decades in coming, and now it is here. Whether the United States will be able to successfully adapt to these developments, innovate, invent, and evolve where necessary, remains the open-ended question for our generation of analysts and strategists.

There’s a great deal more that could be said of Ogarkov’s influence, ideas and legacy, so this is an abridged exposition. Comments and feedback are always welcome.

Fire aboard AS-31 Losharik: Brief Overview

Thoughts and a quick overview of what is known about the fire that took place aboard AS-31 Losharik (referenced as AS-12 in most stories). Also some clarifications since there are conflicting media narratives and facts surrounding this developing story.

BLUF: On July 1 the Russian special purpose submarine project 10831, AS-31 ‘Losharik’, designated as a nuclear deep-sea station (атомная глубоководная станция) suffered a catastrophic fire killing 14 crewmen, with 4 survivors (at first I heard 5 were rescued). The submarine itself seems to have been not far from its base and was towed back. The now official version as I understand it suggests that the fire occurred at fairly shallow depths (at 280m), originating in the battery compartment of the submarine. The cause was a short circuit in the electrical system. Details are unclear but the gist of it is that while the fire started in the battery compartment, the cause was electrical. Supposedly Losharik was conducting bathymetric surveys in the Barents (that’s the official story anyway). Most of the crew died from inhalation of noxious fumes/smoke attempting to save the submarine – this story retold in IZ.

Update as of July 10th: Fontanka which does great investigative journalism ran a story based on several sources claiming that the cause of the fire, and subsequent explosion, was a lithium-ion battery aboard the submarine. Losharik was docking at the time with the carrier submarine, though according to this story it was BS-136 Orenburg (this bit is unlikely since Orenburg is out of service). The battery was used to power  Losharik’s maneuvering systems (this bit kind of made sense, still unclear why the energy from the reactor was not sufficient). According to Fontanka, the submarine recently received a lithium ion battery, which experienced a short circuit during docking operations. This in turn led to a rapid discharge, overheating, and an explosion in the battery compartment. The resulting fire killed all crew members in the first three compartments of the submarine.

Apparently, having little prior experience with lithium ion batteries on submarine, beyond project 677 Lada, which is yet to undergo serial production, they put a Li-ion battery onto Losharik. The advantage of this battery type is that it does not produce hydrogen gas, which must be contained and removed on diesel-electric submarines. BMPD blog ran a great commentary as to the ridiculousness of placing this type of battery onto a submarine so early into development, compared to the Japanese who invested decades into this technology. I’m no expert on batteries so will withhold judgment as to whether or not installing this type of battery, without extensive testing on other submarines, made sense.

Barents Observer ran a story based on sightings by some fishermen as retold in a local news paper, they claim the submarine surfaced near Ura Bay around 9:30 pm (northwest of the entrance to Kola Bay), although this sighting may have been of the carrier submarine BS-64 Podmoskovye. They of course didn’t want to be identified because they were out fishing illegally. I’m skeptical of first hand accounts from fishermen late at night. Media tend to jump on these eye witness tales, but such stories tend to be of questionable veracity.

Most of the versions of this narrative I’ve heard suggest Losharik was quite close to its base, operating near home waters. A subsequent story indicates that there was a civilian on board, and this individual was evacuated prior to the crew’s decision to close the hatch to prevent the fire from spreading – supposedly the died not from the fire but noxious gas inhalation.

On July 5th Putin met again with Shoigu, where Shoigu reported that they are still assessing the timelines and scope of work required to carry out repairs, but given the nuclear reactor compartment was not damaged, he was optimistic the submarine could be made operational within a fairly short time. He further confirmed the fire began in the battery section of the ship and spread from there. In his characteristic style Shoigu said that repairs were not only possible but absolutely necessary. We will see how long it actually takes to get AS-31 operational again.

Electrical fires are not uncommon aboard submarines, as are fires stemming from battery compartments. This problem plagues the Russian submarine service more so than Western counterparts. Of course it is also possible that the Russian MoD has come up with a straightforward explanation for what caused the fire in order to give the media a plausible story to run with, while we do not know what actually happened given the nature and mission of this submarine. Hence the story of some sort of short circuit or electrical arcing leading to a fire makes sense, but at the same time should be taken with some skepticism. Russian submariners carry gas masks and personal life saving kit on them at all times specifically for such incidents.

At first glance the crew complement for that voyage appears unusually composed of senior officers. This is not that unusual for GUGI which is a small, officer heavy service, with technical and engineering specialists. Everyone aboard such a vessel could be an officer given the technical or scientific expertise required, and it could be that such a large number of captains are actually detailed to AS-31.

However it is difficult to believe that the typical compliment, 20-25 crewmen, would consist of 7 Captains first rank, including two who had been awarded as heroes of the Russian Federation (Filin and Dolonsky), unless they were conducting some important research mission or perhaps test. Standard complement or not, either way, the deaths of these senior officers are likely to be a great loss not just for the Russian Navy, but also for GUGI’s technical efforts.

The official casualty list can be found here. It shows a loss of 7 captains first rank, 3 captains second rank, 1 Lt Col from the medical service, two captains third rank, and a captain-lieutenant. I think comparisons to Kursk are unhelpful, and out of place here, but it is a significant tragedy for the Russian submarine service. The crew belongs to GUGI’s military unit 45707 based in St. Petersburg. The two captains who held Hero of the Russian Federation honors earned them as part of earlier research missions in the Arctic and Antarctic. Captain 1st Rank Dolonsky was the actual captain of the submarine.

The nuclear deep-sea station

AS-31 is an unarmed submarine designed for special missions, examination or installation of infrastructure along the ocean floor, research, measurement, and the like. It’s an ideal undersea salvage craft to pick up various bits of technology, munitions, or sensors that sink to the bottom. Yes it can locate or probably cut undersea cables. The submarine has retractable arms to manipulate objects, but is not designed for advanced weapons testing. There is a different set of GUGI subs that perform this mission. The name Losharik is a nickname derived from the visual appearance of its specially designed pressure hull, composed of interlinked spherical compartments made of titanium.

HI Sutton does good cutaways and 3D models, although I fear that this resource is overused as a single-source of visuals on Russian special purpose subs. There’s a strong chance that the interior might not quite match what people imagine it to be. Still the cutaways are quite useful to get a general sense of what it might look like.

HI Sutton cutaway

Rough specs based on conflicting sources, none of which especially agree with each other:

  • approximate length 74 meters (or 69)
  • 2100 tons displacement when submerged
  • composed of 7 spherical compartments (some show as 6)
  • crew 20-25
  • diving depth 3000m + (perhaps up to 6000m)
  • speed 6 knots submerged

Losharik 2
I like this profile diagram – taken from globalsecurity.org

I doubt the submarine’s voyage had anything to do with the timing of NATO’s ASW exercise in the Norwegian Sea, Dynamic Mongoose, though it is possible this submarine would be sent to pick up anything interesting left on the ocean floor – it is capable of such missions. It does not appear the submarine was operating anywhere near the Norwegian Sea.

Losharik was developed during 1988-1990 by the Malakhit design bureau, built at Severodvinsk during the 1990s. Delayed due to financing, it entered service in 2003, and according to some sources was considered operational some years later. The submarine made a well known research voyage to chart the outer edges of Russia’s continental shelf at the Lomonosov and Mendeleev Ridges. According to one story Losharik sustained damage to its manipulable arms during this mission and underwent repair. The submarine then went through sea trials in 2017, together with BS-64 Podmoskovye, which was just launched in 2016.

Although BS-136 Orenburg is often cited as the carrier mother ship for Losharik, a modified Delta III SSBN, BS-136 is probably not operational and most expect this submarine to be officially retired. There was news as far back as 2013-2014 that BS-136 Orenburg was going to be written off in the near future. The submarine is too old to merit life extension, and is likely to be scrapped. Therefore the carrier is most probably BS-64 Podmoskovye which has been operational since 2017. I will edit this post later with links.

New photos from TASS show clearly it was BS-64 involved, as it is now parked at Severomorsk with a tent over the hatch, and vehicles surrounding it.

BS-64 unloading something

BS-64 in Severomorsk

GUGI and the 29th Submarine Division

AS-31 belongs to GUGI, the Defense Ministry’s Main Directorate of Deep-Sea Research (10th Department). This is a specialized service that is not part of the regular Russian Navy, but answers directly to the Ministry of Defense as an intelligence and special missions organization. GUGI operates special purpose submarines, ocean going research ships (for example Yantar-class), and divers known as ‘hydronauts.’ Often media accounts conflate the work of GUGI, and its ships/submarines, with that of the regular Russian Navy, and it’s submarine force, which is not the case.

Olenya Guba modded

project 1910 2
Depiction of project 1910 Kashalot (UNIFORM)

Losharik belongs to the 29th Submarine Division (previously listed as a separate brigade). This is a separate division in the Northern Fleet, based at Olenya Guba next to the town Polyarny. It is often erroneously reported as being at Severomorsk, or headquartered there, neither of which is true. The bay is near the main Northern Fleet submarine base of Gadzhiyevo on the Kola Peninsula. Other submarines of the 29th include the smaller special-purpose diesel-electric classes and larger modified motherships, based on reconfigured SSBN or SSGN hulls.

GUGI dock
project 1910 Kashalot in front of GUGI’s floating dock

Submarines belonging to GUGI include:

  • 1-3 project 1910 Kashalot (UNIFORM) atomic deep-diving station
  • 1-3 project variants of 1851/1 Nelma (X-RAY) and (PALTUS) carried atomic deep-diving stations
  • BS-64 Podmoskovye (modified Delta IV SSBN), mother ship for AS-31
  • BS-136 Orenburg (modified Delta III SSBN) non-operational, expected to be written off
  • K-329 Belgorod (modified Oscar II) recently launched from shipyard. Multipurpose platform able to carry smaller submarines, drones, nuclear powered torpedoes, etc.

Other special purpose submarines that may be associated with the service:

  • B-90 Sarov diesel-electric submarine, appears to be a systems development/testing platform (not part of the 29th)
  • Project 09851 Khabarovsk, laid down in 2014, currently under construction – may be just a dedicated Poseidon carrier, or a GUGI submarine with different functions

A brief slideshow of GUGI’s various children

 

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Concluding thoughts: It’s natural to ask what this tells us about the state of the Russian Navy or the submarine service, and the fair analytical answer is fairly little. GUGI and its ships are not part of the regular navy, they are not subject to the op tempo of exercises, patrols, etc. What we can see is that fires remain a problem aboard Russian submarines, even the most specialized ones with crews that consist entirely of experienced officers. This problem is more characteristic of the Russian submarine service. Other countries’ submarine services are great at crew training and maintenance, but have a tendency to run into things (no names). Unfortunately we’re not going to find out if the official story on the source of fire is true, or if some piece of boutique tech was the real cause.

Comments or suggested edits are welcome