A COMPARATIVE GUIDE TO RUSSIA’S USE OF FORCE: MEASURE TWICE, INVADE ONCE

My latest article examining Russian use of force, published on War on the Rocks.

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In the 20th century, the Soviet military’s penchant for area of effect artillery and armored firepower had earned it the reputation of a large hammer always in search of nails.  This popularized impression stuck with Russia long after the Soviet Union’s demise, but today’s Kremlin employs military power in a much more nuanced manner to pursue its objectives.  In recent conflicts, Russia has demonstrated a keen understanding of how to apply this instrument of national power to achieve desired political ends, doling out force in prescribed doses in the quest for decisive leverage.  Although Russian military power remains a blunt force instrument, the state wields it more like a rapier, demonstrating discretion and timing.

In a previous article on the key pillars of Russian strategy, I argued that Moscow favors an emergent strategy based on “fail fast and fail cheap” approaches. The Russian military itself has a long way to go in terms of modernization, but conversely, America’s political leadership needs to reexamine how great powers, with far fewer resources, use the so-called “big stick” to get the job done.  The unipolar world order appears to be rapidly melting, while great powers are back on the agenda.  When it comes to use of force by peer rivals contesting America’s interests, it is only going to get harder from here on out.

The United States may not wish to emulate Russian approaches, but American strategists should certainly study then.  Those who fail to learn from the experience of others must inevitably gain it at personal cost.  As Mark Twain  is said to have remarked, “The man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read.”  To take another step along the journey of understanding Russian strategy, I explore how Russia changes facts on the ground, compels its adversaries, and achieves much of this on the cheap.  The goal is to examine Russian use of force and draw lessons for an era when American use of power must become judicious, timely, and better married to something that resembles political objectives.

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Russian Navy Part 3: Impressive Beneath the Waves

Third installment in my article series with Norman Polmar on the Russian Navy for the USNI Proceedings Magazine.

The modern Russian Navy, similar to its Soviet predecessor, looks best underwater. Russia’s fitful attempts to revive its surface fleet could leave some observers unimpressed, but such criticism misses the point that the country’s current naval power largely resides in its subma­rine force.

Russia has retained the industrial ca­pacity and knowhow to produce capable submarines. Today the navy is recapital­izing its nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) force, which has the highest naval priority, modernizing its nuclear-powered guided-missile and at­tack submarine (SSGN/SSN) force, and still pumping out venerable diesel-electric submarines (SS), which are upgraded to launch land-attack missiles.

In 2015, the commander-in-chief of the Russian Navy, Admiral Viktor Chirkov (now retired), lauded a 50 percent in­crease in submarine patrols, but this fresh life comes from a force that had been largely missing from the world’s oceans in the preceding 15 years. Russia’s op­erational submarine force consists of an estimated: 12 SSBNs, 8 SSGNs, 11 SSNs, and 20 SSs. There also are several spe­cial-purpose nuclear and diesel-electric submarines.

While this undersea force is but a frac­tion of the Soviet strength during the Cold War—which approached 400 (largely die­sel) submarines in the 1960s—the current emphasis on submarine development and construction is readily evident.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, submarine production slowed and then came to a halt. The first prototype Yasen-class SSGN—the Severodvinsk—was laid down in 1993 and the first Borey-class SSBN—the Yuri Dolgorukiy—in 1996, but construction on both ceased soon after. In the decade or more of that hiatus, both sub­marines were extensively redesigned, and when they belatedly went to sea they were very different from their original designs.

Prior to the arrival of the first Borey, Russia’s sea-based deterrent consisted of three Delta III and six Delta IV submarines plus one Typhoon in limited service as a missile test ship. The Delta IIIs, completed between 1979 and 1982, are outdated and have seen relatively little time at sea com­pared to their U.S. counterparts.

Three Borey-class SSBNs have been completed. The Aleksander Nevskiy and Vladimir Monomakh are now in the Pa­cific Fleet, while the Yuri Dolgorukiy is in service with the Northern Fleet. Five additional Borey SSBNs are under con­struction, all scheduled to enter service by 2021, although construction delays are common. These ships each carry 16 solid-fuel Bulava missiles, given the NATO des­ignation SS-N-32. The missile itself had a troublesome development history largely due to production quality issues, but de­spite several test failures it has been de­clared operational since 2013. The Bulava is reported to sacrifice range and warhead payload for increased survivability against ballistic missile defenses.

Russia has not announced the scrapping of any Delta IIIs, but its strategic forces are now significantly above the 1,550 de­ployed nuclear warhead count agreed to under the 2010 New Strategic Arms Re­duction Treaty. This limit must be met by February 2018, and likely will require the decommissioning of several older SSBNs.

The lead unit of the Yasen class SSGNs—the Severodvinsk—represents the most advanced undersea adversary now faced by the U.S. Navy. Launched nearly two decades after being laid down, she was extensively redesigned and is Russia’s first truly multipurpose submarine. The Severodvinsk is capable of antisubmarine, antiship, and land-attack missions. Among the more interesting features are a large bow sonar dome for the Irtysh-Amfora sonar system and an amidships battery of eight vertical-launch cells that can carry 32 Kalibr (SS-N-27/30 Sizzler) or Oniks (SS-N-26 Strobile) cruise missiles. These antiship and land-attack weapons are par­ticularly significant after Russian surface ships and submarines fired long-range mis­siles into Syria in 2016.

The Severodvinsk, lead ship of Yasen-class

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The Severodvinsk spent more than two years on sea trials, reportedly hav­ing significant propulsion and noise-level problems that delayed her commission­ing. Subsequent submarines of this design have been modified with changes said to include a different sonar arrangement. Six are reported to be under construction.

Russia’s older SSGNs—the Oscar II se­ries—are receiving facelifts, with several undergoing modernization. Some of the Oscars will have their existing 24 missile tubes for the P-700 Granit (SS-N-19) mis­sile refitted to carry 72 Kalibr or P-800 Oniks missiles. The Granit missile was principally an anticarrier weapon. Armed with the latest missiles, the Oscar II will be more versatile.

Now in development is a new Rus­sian “hunter-killer” submarine. This SSN will have the primary role of countering Western SSBNs. The new SSN is prob­ably a significant program, but very little is known about it other than construction is slated to begin in the near future.

An Oscar-II class SSGN

oscar-ii

While all nuclear submarine construc­tion is now undertaken at the massive Severodvinsk shipyard in northern Russia, four other shipyards are producing diesel-electric Kilo submarines. There are sev­eral variants of the Kilo, first completed in December 1980. More than 20 were built for Soviet/Russian service, and about 40 units were built for export to Algeria, China, India, Iran, Poland, Romania, and Vietnam. An improved version, known as Project 636.3, is one of the defense in­dustry’s most popular exports, carrying the export variant of the Kalibr antiship and land-attack missile. Russia recently completed an order of six for Vietnam.

Six improved Kilo submarines are being added to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, which is being revived at a remarkable pace. An identical squadron has been promised to the Pacific Fleet by 2021. One Kilo fired Kalibr missiles at targets in Syria as part of the Russian air-ground-naval interven­tion in the Syrian civil war.

The construction of modernized Kilos continues in part because of the Russian failure to produce a submarine with an ef­fective air-independent propulsion (AIP) system. Three submarines of the Lada class were begun, but after difficulties with the AIP plant only the lead unit, the Sankt Peterburg, was completed in 2010—with conventional diesel-electric propulsion. She now is in the Northern Fleet. The two unfinished Lada-class sub­marines are scheduled for completion in 2018 and 2019, but the class as a whole has been a failure. It is unclear what Rus­sia ultimately will do with Sankt Peter­burg’s sister ships once finished. Hopes for an AIP submarine now are being placed on the Kalina class, a new design likely to employ AIP, about which little is known publicly.

The continuation of non-nuclear sub­marines offers several benefits to Russia: the ability to conduct operations in re­stricted waters where nuclear submarines are impractical (Baltic and Black seas); coastal defense missions; and special op­erations where larger, nuclear submarines are not required and could be considered a liability; as well as ease of production compared to nuclear submarines. Armed with land-attack missiles, cheaper diesel submarines can range the European and Asian theaters while staying relatively close to home waters. They also are easy to produce and a good source of hard cur­rency for Russia’s shipbuilding industry.

Beyond combat submarines, there is another Russian submarine force that answers to its own command. The Navy’s General Directorate of Under­sea Research (GUGI) maintains several special-purpose undersea craft. Some are conversions of older submarines, such as the Delta “stretch” SSBN designs, while others are new construction units. These special-purpose submarines—nuclear and diesel-electric—are employed in several roles, including supporting submarine weapon and systems development; con­ducting deep-ocean antisubmarine proj­ects; and mapping and possibly interdict­ing seafloor fiber-optic cable networks. Some of GUGI’s submarines serve as mother ships for deep divers such as the “Losharik” special-purpose subma­rine. Others may deploy underwater drones with nuclear warheads such as the recently revealed “Status-6” weapon, which will be carried externally. Many press reports credit the Status-6 with incredibly high speed, long range, and a multi-megaton warhead—claims that likely are unrealistic. But even if those performance figures are off significantly, it still will be an innovative weapon and need to be countered.

Podmoskovye, a modified Delta-stretch SSBN, designed to dock smaller submersibles in the bottom half of the hull.

podmoskovye

Russia’s submarine fleet may be a dwarf force compared to its Soviet predecessor and even its contemporary U.S. Navy adversary, but it is still the heart of the navy’s combat capability. Its SSBN replacement program con­tinues apace, while new SSGN/SSN designs promise to test the dominance the U.S. Navy has grown accustomed to in the undersea domain. Given the troubled state of the Russian economy, it is difficult to predict how long the country can sustain the current levels of construction and readiness, but for now this force has been imbued with fresh life. Russian submarines produced in this decade will shape the underwater military balance well into the 2030s.

Reprinted with permission from the U.S. Naval Institute. Copyright U.S. Naval Institute.

The ABCs of Russian Military Power: A Primer for the New Administration

My latest article in TNI summarizing key aspects of Russian military power and the balance in Europe.

The current confrontation in U.S.-Russia relations, and increasing antagonism in the relationship, makes it difficult to separate structural changes in the European security environment from politically charged sources of conflict. Yet these changes have been profound, dating back to Russian military reforms launched in late 2008. They have serious implications for the new U.S. administration. The principal factors are Russia’s revival of the military as an instrument of national power, the unsettled war in Ukraine, and NATO’s changing posture to counter a perceived threat from Moscow’s machinations.

Seeking an improved, or perhaps simply more stable, relationship with Russia from a “position of strength” requires understanding the new military balance in Europe, the evolution of Russia’s military capabilities, and its evolving force posture. Independent of whether the proximate causes of hostility in U.S.-Russian relations are resolved, or there is a change in the broader atmospherics of the relationship, the United States must develop a strategy and policy for dealing with Russia, grounded not in optimism but in hard military realities. The previous administration suffered from a severe rhetoric-to-strategy gap, contesting Russia politically but losing strategically.

It would be safe to assume that distrust will continue to dominate NATO-Russia relations, and that even if interactions on the whole may improve—arguably, they cannot worsen—they may not produce concrete results in short order. A fact-based approach to the security situation in Europe should inform further changes in U.S. force structure and posture. Unfortunately, for the past two years discourse on this subject has been only marginally informed by reality, with policy advocacy and agendas driving analysis of the Russian military threat. Debate has often taken place either in a fact-free zone, or with new information overconsumed by a policy establishment long unaccustomed to dealing with Russia as a serious adversary. The United States has not been winning the geopolitical confrontation with Russia of late; nor has it come up with a vision for how to change the dynamics in this adversarial relationship.

Like its predecessor, the new administration will have to formulate its Russia policy in the aftermath of a crisis in European security; this is an opportunity either to make fresh mistakes, or to get things right. To succeed, the administration must base its strategy not on individual capabilities that Russia has, the individual concerns of proximate NATO members, or the designs of different constituencies within the U.S. policy establishment, but on a coherent understanding of the security dynamics in Europe and Russian military power.

Russia Has Been Busy

The Russian military that the United States faces in 2017 is not the poorly equipped and uncoordinated force that invaded Georgia in August of 2008. This is why the magnitude and potential impact of the current crisis is far greater than that inherited by the Obama administration in 2009. Following reforms launched in October 2008, and a modernization program in 2011 valued at $670 billion, the armed forces have become one of Russia’s most reliable instruments of national power. Russia disbanded the useless mass-mobilization army of the Soviet Union, consolidated what was worthwhile, and reconstituted a much smaller, but more capable force. The overall size of Russia’s armed forces continues to increase, numbering over nine hundred thousand today, while the state armament program continues to replace aging equipment throughout the force with new or modernized variants.

The reform process and a stable infusion of much-needed capital have restored war-fighting potential to the Russian military, though incomplete, and unevenly applied to the force. Moscow’s ability to sustain this spending is very much in question, faced with low oil prices, economic recession and Western sanctions. However, Russia has made the choice to defend defense spending and enact cuts elsewhere. Reductions will be made to the procurement program, but Moscow will maintain spending on nuclear modernization and long-range standoff weapons, trying to sustain the force at current levels In reality, loss of access to key components from Ukrainian and European defense industries created the most serious setbacks to Russian defense modernization (delays of about five to seven years in 2014).

Russia’s defense budget steadily climbed from to a peak of 4.2 percent of GDP in 2015. Since then, it has been in relative decline, though likely to remain above 3.7 percent, well beyond the spending levels of America’s European allies. This level of expenditure is probably unsustainable for the Russian budget, inevitably forcing its leadership to choose between weapons procurement, operations and the quality of personnel. However, the inertia of the current modernization program will have lasting effects well into the 2020s.

Bottom line, Russia can sustain this military with judicious reductions, and even if the funding base collapses, the dramatic turnaround in its armed forces is not a temporary bounce that the United States must ride out. Russia’s General Staff has been focused on drilling the force with snap readiness checks, joint exercises, large movements and annual operational-strategic exercises. From its air force to the nuclear-powered submarines of its navy, the Russian military has quickly clawed back operational readiness not seen since the 1990s.

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