WHAT TO EXPECT WHEN YOU’RE EXPECTING ZAPAD 2017

My latest article on the upcoming Zapad 2017 exercise on War on the Rocks

Don’t be surprised if in the coming days you increasingly hear the word Zapad echoing across media outlets and the blogosphere as though it were a category five hurricane, or an apocalyptic event approaching. Zapad, meaning “West” in Russian, is the Russian military’s annual strategic exercise, scheduled to commence on Sept. 14. Such capstone training events have been held on a quadrennial rotation since 1999 between four strategic directions, including Vostok (Eastern), Tsentr (Central), and Kavkaz (Caucasus). As anticipated, Zapad 2017 will take place in the Baltic region, held jointly with Belarus, and led by forces based in Russia’s Western Military District.

The ongoing confrontation between Russia and the United States, together with the exercise’s geographical focus, makes this a particularly significant event. Large-scale Russian exercises have always imparted a sense of foreboding, yet the reaction to Zapad 2017 is especially sensational this year. The Center for European Policy Analysis has even created a dedicated website with a countdown clock as though awaiting doomsday. Ahead of Zapad rolls a strong wave of anxiety among NATO members, senior officials, and the Russia-watcher community. Such exercises call for vigilance and caution, but panic is unwarranted.

Ironically, much as the leaders of NATO members dislike Russia’s deployment of forces along their borders, the exercise should be treated as an opportunity. Zapad 2017 is happening whether NATO likes it or not, and Russia will keep holding this exercise every four years, just as the Soviet Union had a penchant for running major exercises in the fall. In truth, Western observers are bound to learn much from this event about Russia’s ability to deploy combat formations to the region, the current state of Russia’s armed forces, and how Moscow intends to leverage military power to shape Western decision-making in the event of a crisis. The conduct of the exercise may even help validate, or invalidate, some of the current thinking in NATO on how to deter Russia.

Ultimately the exercise is a test of what  Russia calls  “strategic deterrence,” an integration of military, non-military, and nuclear capabilities to shape adversary decision-making from crisis to actual conflict. Although small countries are naturally anxious when large neighbors flex their muscles, in reality this entire affair is about Moscow establishing coercive credibility with Washington, and in that respect it is quite effective. Zapad is part of one long conversation on deterrence and compellence facilitated by the Russian General Staff.

Read more on the site.

Shipbuilding updates from Russia’s naval salon (МВМС-2017)

Last week Russia concluded its annual international naval salon in St. Petersburg. Below I offer some quick takes on the likely implications for Russian shipbuilding, new classes, modifications to current ship classes, etc.

First the shipbuilding illness that Russia’s Navy inherited from the USSR, which I call ‘distributed classality,’ looks set to continue. This is a procurement disease whose symptoms include building numerous ship classes, in small batches, with similar missions and displacement. Project numbers are produced in series of 2-4 ships prior to radically changing the ship design, or launching a new ship class of similar type. The Russian Navy’s frigate and especially corvette construction program has honorably continued this tradition.

Russia’s corvettes and frigates are set to get bigger in order to accommodate larger magazines and more weapon systems. The general direction is heavier corvettes and frigates, with modifications in existing designs and some new ‘heavy’ variants afoot.

Corvettes:

There is a new ‘heavy corvette’ design in the works (project 23800) displacing well over 2000 tons, probably more towards 3500-4000. This is probably the consequence of a general dissatisfaction with the performance and characteristics of the Steregushchiy-class corvette (project 20380) which began at 2200 tons. We should recall the current trajectory of this corvette design. The first ship of the modified project 20385 Gremyashchiy, originally meant to use German MTU engines, was just recently launched at around 2500 tons. Meanwhile project 20386 Derzky which includes substantial redesign and a ‘stealthy’ look was laid down for an estimated 3400 tons displacement.

Derzky render:

The debate on whether Russia needs any more ships in the 2000 ton displacement range continues, and while the experience of ship designs from early and mid-2000 may indicate that it clearly does not, Russian shipyards need to build something. Keep in mind current smaller corvette/missile boat classes in the 800-1500 ton range include Buyan-M, Bykov large patrol ships, and the more promising Karakurt (project 22800).

Karakurt looks like a better and more compact design of what Buyan-M was supposed to be, with two currently under construction, and yet Zelenodolsk is still building 4 more Buyan-Ms.

Apparently Krilovsky design bureau presented a fantastical design for yet another 2000 ton corvette called Briz. This ship would make 30 knots, pack a 100mm gun, 32 short + 16 long air defense missiles, and 24 Kalibr/Oniks land attack missiles in VLS tubes, along with Paket anti-submarine torpedoes. There’s nothing to dislike except that its somewhat impossible to have all these features, and a helicopter to boot, in a 2000 ton displacement corvette. The ship design is no doubt based on new physical principles to have so many capabilities and a displacement smaller than the base Steregushchiy-class.

‘Briz’ corvette infographic (because Russia needs another corvette)

Frigates:

Just as the current corvette classes are too small, and are getting bigger, the same goes for frigates. The absence of gas turbines from Ukraine stalled out Gorshkov-class frigate production at two, and created an opportunity for further expansion of the design to the ‘Super-Gorshkov.’ That suggests there will be 2-4 Gorshkov-class frigates in this series, and then something new that’s at least 1000 tons larger. The Gorshkov redesign is a problem turned into a feature in Russian naval procurement. Super-Gorshkov is moving forward as a reality, perhaps going up as high as 7000-8000 tons in displacement.

This would substantially expand the current Gorshkov design and raise questions as to whether or not Russia really needs a new destroyer. In truth, the upcoming state armament program GPV 2018-2025 is probably not going to fund a single Leader-class, but it may pay for several ‘super-Gorshkovs’ which could be considered a cheaper, more practical, and less exuberant platform that will still have potent capabilities (once they get air defenses to work).

Gorshkov Frigate (Poliment-Redut air defense doesn’t work yet)

Amphibious model ships:

It seems the Navy is narrowing its prospective fleet of amphibious ships, all of which currently exist in plastic model form, down to two amphibious variants: a 15,000 ton LPD that will be able to operate in the Arctic, and a larger up to 35,000 ton universal amphibious assault ship. Several variants have been disclosed, including ‘Priboi’ and ‘Lavina’ as a sample of the potential projects proposed. Priboi is expected to cost 40 billion RUB, displace 14,000 tons, and have a deck capable of carrying 8 helicopters. Meanwhile Lavina is larger in the 23,000-24,000 ton range, carrying 16 helicopters. However it’s unclear whether either of these designs are in the final two being examined by the Russian Navy.

Lavina LHD model

[Warship] Russia's own 'Mistral' Amphibious Assault Ship, complete with Blackjack and Hookers: Introducing the "Lavina"-class LPD Concept. - [1417 x 812]

Officials continue to announce that something will be laid down and built towards the end of GPV 2018-2025. My suspicion is that work on these ships is backloaded towards the mid-2020s and at best something would be laid down five years from now.

Info above gathered from several blogs and accounts of what was presented at the salon, including from Constantin Bogdanov’s at Lenta.ru

DIA’s ‘Russia Military Power’ – A Missed Opportunity

DIA’s recently released report on Soviet Russia Military Power is an interesting offering. In the 1980s, it’s forerunner titled Soviet Military Power served two purposes: first highlight the Soviet threat (typically exaggerating it to make a strong argument for defense spending) and second inform the public discussion on Soviet capabilities. This report does some of the former, and a bit of the latter. Disappointingly it is of lower production quality, lacking many of the maps, graphics, and photos that Soviet Military Power came with (my favorites among the old graphics were big manly Soviet ICBMs drawn next to very small American ICBMs). Thus, the report already achieves a part of it’s mission: demonstrating why we need more funding for higher quality reports on Russian Military Power.

Soviet Military Power 1983 (this is how you do it right)

missile envy capture

Soviet Military Power had no footnotes, and did not identify which agency had produced it, while this report has hundreds of footnotes to Russian authors, journalists, and even wikipedia. In this respect it is not distinguishable from other think tank products on the Russian military, and some respects compares poorly to Sweden’s FOI reports titled “Russian Military Capability” in terms of information offered. Below I discuss the better parts of the report, what it gets wrong, and key issues to consider when thinking about Russian military power.

On the whole the report seems a misspent opportunity. It offers some interesting bits of knowledge on the contemporary history of Russian armed forces, reforms, and current thinking on doctrine. However, one cannot read this product and walk away with an appreciable knowledge on the size, disposition, or capabilities of Russian armed forces. Those worried about a high end fight in the Baltics, or anywhere else for that matter, are best off reading FOI’s work or that of informed blogs in order to understand Russia’s order of battle, force posture, and the like.

The report presents vignettes, deep dives into subjects like Russia’s gas turbine production, yet nothing in terms of a functional order of battle. You may learn that a VDV division now has a company of T-72 tanks, but not how many troops are in the VDV and where they’re based. What can Russia really do? What does it plan to do? Does it have the forces to realize these ambitions, etc. remain open ended questions. This report has a a lot of sporadic information on what is happening, but is quite poor in explanations for why any of these changes, procurement, or deployments have taken place.


The Good:

  • The report does a great job summarizing Russian threat perceptions, much of which is established knowledge, but nonetheless there is a solid review of recent doctrines, statements, etc. Here we can read about the besieged fortress mentality, general perception that the U.S. is trying to conduct regime change in Russia’s near abroad, and looking for the opportunity to do so in Moscow, along an acknowledged state of confrontation. Russia sees the U.S. as seeking to contain it and punish it for pursuing an independent foreign policy.
  • There is a decent review of the transition which Russian armed forces underwent after the collapse of the USSR, reforms of 2008-2012, and some of the concepts discussed from the 1990s into the early 2000s and today. Unfortunately, much of the information seems dated, and the report’s coverage stops being actual as we get to 2014-2015 in terms of delving into important changes ongoing in the Russian military and identifying the factors driving them.
  • Capabilities and doctrines are covered in an informed manner. It is difficult to find this gamut of information brought together elsewhere in terms of other publications, and without a panicky tone, which has become customary in any discussion on Russian doctrine.

 


The not-so-good:

  • One can find little on the actual size of Russian armed forces, and ground force numbers cite IISS annual Military Balance publication, which is notoriously wrong in terms of order of battle. Hence this is a report on Russia Military Power that offers a dearth of information on the basic size and disposition of Russian armed forces today. The nature of Russia’s military power, where it is concentrated, and against whom, remains an open question at the end of this report. There are no ranges for capabilities, forces marked on the board, or much else that demonstrates what has changed in recent years.

Where are the ranges of things? (from 1981)

Capture IRBM now we're cooking.JPG

  • There is no discussion of Russia’s tier one special forces (KSO) and the addition of this SOF toolkit in 2012 to Russia’s military, while the overall numbers on current Spetsnaz appear greatly inflated at 20,000-30,000, when there are better figures out there in publications. Other trends in the expanding force structure, such as addition of logistics units, are glossed over.
  • Important information that would prove quite useful to anyone trying to understand the current state of Russian armed forces is missing across the board. One cannot discern from the writing what Russia’s main battle tank actually is (hint it’s the T-72B3), how many tanks they have today, or the current numbers in terms of Su-30SM, Su-35S, or Su-34 acquisition for the air force. The true disposition of Russian air defense, meaning how many units have S-400,or upgraded S-300PMU2, or S-300V4 variants, is also missing. Indeed the entire air defense section is quite glib for a military that depends so much on integrated air defense in order to operate, and potentially counter what it sees as the U.S. preferred way of war.

Here is what this info might look like based on the 1981 edition:

production numbers capture

  • How sustainable is Russia’s force? What is the share of conscripts to contractors? The relevance and impact of demographic trends over the medium and long term on the available pool of manpower is notably absent. Russia has been successful in increasing the share of contract servicemen in its armed forces relative to conscripts, at an overall force size somewhere between 900,000-930,000 today depending on figures – these are the more important indicators to observe in terms of Russian military power. However there is also plenty of statistical cheating, so it would be useful for DIA to offer some sort of data point not footnoted to wikipedia or IISS on the state of Russian armed forces.
  • Defense budget is given short shrift, and some of the information is poorly interpreted. From the allegedly ‘real 30% cut in defense spending’ 2016-2017 which was covered extensively on this blog and by others (this 30% cut is not a thing), the budget went from 3.16 trillion to 2.84 trillion, and the endless propensity to count Russian spending in 2017 USD. For example Russia’s original state armament program 2011-2020 was listed at ~660 billion USD (in 2011 figures), but looking backwards with the much devalued currency exchange rate of today, it is converted into less than half that. This is a terrifyingly common mistake, going back in time to recalculate Russia’s defense spending in dollars. Of course the USD figure is irrelevant either way, since Russia does not buy its equipment from the U.S., and given spending adjusted for PPP the purchasing power of that budget is much higher than what Western countries get out of their budgets.
  • The conversation on deterrence generalized thinking in Russia and equally in the West. There is no history offered on the evolution of Russian views of deterrence, coercion, or escalation. The information presented lacks context, particularly in recent years. What is the reason for adoption of one particular strategy or another, and the driving factors in Russian thinking on this subject moving forward? What’s missing: a conversation on current Russian thinking on deterrence in conflict, escalation control, and which U.S. capabilities influence their decision making, etc. Why does Russia have the strategy it does, and how is it evolving?
  • The section on indirect action and strategic deterrence is a confounding mix of jargon, terms, and buzzwords, i.e. it reads like it was written by a government agency. “Indirect action is a component of Russia’s strategic deterrence policy developed by Moscow in recent years. Its primary aim is to achieve Russia’s national objectives through a combination of military and non-military means while avoiding escalation into a full blown, direct, state-to-state conflict. Drawing on a combination of facets from Russia’s whole-of-government or interdepartmental strategy and overt or covert military means, indirect action seeks to exploit weaknesses and fissures in target countries in order to fulfill Moscow’s desired national goals.” We need to get ‘whole of government’ out of the government lexicon in terms of describing either our own or someone else’s approaches.

Things that are kind of wrong (a few samples):

  • Report describes Russia’s space program as formidable when in reality it is one of the biggest disasters in Russia’s industry, in terms of production quality, number of launches, ability to sustain satellite networks, etc.  The early warning satellite network went down years back and they’ve only just managed to get a second launch detection satellite up in recent month out of a desired ten – this is just one example. Note all Proton-M rockets grounded over defective engines back in January. The coming state armament program GPV 2018-2025 intends to address some of these well publicized problems in Russia’s space program.

Numbers without context are difficult to analyze. Is this number of satellites how many they need to sustain a functional network? How are recent launches doing? What is the average number of years a Russian satellite can stay up? Oh, and how is the new satellite early warning network going? (figures from the report below)

Capture 2

  • Report suggests Russian acquisition is investing in out-of-area operations. There is nothing to substantiate that besides long range strike capability. Russia is not investing in the sea lift, logistics sustainment, a blue water navy, or other capacities for combat operations distant from its borders. Equally there is nothing to indicate a preparation for the occupation of other countries, an operational reserve, or other capacity to operate “out of area” – of course we should note that Russia’s area is quite vast but in general the armed forces are clearly setup for fights ‘across the street’ more so than anything else.
  • There is no coverage of ground force restructuring from brigades to divisions, including three new divisions based around Ukraine, one across the border from Kazakhstan, a new Combined Arms Army in the Southern Military District, etc. Information on brigades, and battalion tactical groups seems woefully dated in terms of the lessons Russian ground forces learned in Ukraine and how they intend to fight a high-end contingency. Is Russia really going to use battalion tactical groups in a fight with a peer adversary, or are the new divisions an indicator of larger formations to come? Also the new divisions seem to have different TOE depending on which ones you’re looking at, some are bigger than others.
  • Report’s numbers are internally inconsistent in terms of order of battle, for example long range aviation is listed as 16 Tu-160, 60 Tu-95, and 50 Tu-22 bombers (this adds up to 126) and on the same page the report lists Russia as having 141 bombers. It’s hard to cite a report that can’t keep its numbers straight. There is no mention of Su-34 or Su-24 bombers and the air force ORBAT section is literally incomprehensible. Another example: report says there are 40 active reserve and maneuver brigades + 8 divisions for a total of 350k ground troops. At 4,500 per brigade as suggested in the report (which is wrong but ok), that’s about 180,000 troops in brigades which leaves 170,000 in 8 maneuver divisions – a number that is completely impossible. It’s unclear how 40 brigades and 8 divisions add up to 350,000 ground troops – is that counting VDV units or not? Lots of basic math problems in this report (too many for comfort).

Here is a sample page from the new DIA report (note the bomber numbers in text versus table)

DIA mil report numbers capture

This is what ORBATs could look like, from 1981:

this is what ORBATs look like


Things to consider when ruminating on Russian Military Power:

  • The shifting focus first away from Russian ground forces in 2008-2014, and then back to larger ground force formations and the VDV after the conflict with Ukraine, which will  likely be reflected in the GPV 2018-2025, i.e. more cash for ground forces compared to the previous armament program. A trend first away from land power to investing in other services, and then back to land power and larger unit formations after 2014.

Remember all the new divisions and ground force formations being created post-2014, and units shifted back to where they were prior to the 2008-2012 reforms:

  • An understanding of where Russia stands in terms of its ability to conduct non-contact warfare, mass long range fires with precision guided weapons, and some sense of the stockpile. How far is it on the path to achieving non-nuclear deterrence, i.e. conventional deterrence with its forces, both in terms of defense and ability to strike peer adversaries. The role of cyber, EW, information operations in a unified concept of coercion or deterrence, etc.
  • Evolution of Russian air defense and aerospace forces, rhetoric versus reality in terms of capabilities and rate of modernization. How Russia’s General Staff views its ability to defend against Western air power and their confidence level given pace of modernization on air defense being a viable deterrent.
  • Russia’s nuclear arsenal modernization, role of non-strategic nuclear weapons, and emphasis on different elements of the triad, or more honestly ‘quad’ which is a better way to assess Russian nuclear forces.

With DIA’s Russian Military Power out one can only hope that Russia will release its own response, which during the Cold War was called “Whence the threat to peace,” so that we can return to that old familiar publication tit for tat. Bottom line, this is not a bad start, but on the whole DIA’s publication greatly lags it’s predecessor, and raises more questions than answers when it comes to Russian military power.

Lessons from Russia’s Operations in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine

RAND Corporation has published a report for which I was the lead author and principal investigator back in the summer of 2015. The project included contributions from several other researchers. This work has spent a long time in the making since much of the research was done in 2015.  I hope the report will expand existing knowledge on what happened in early months of the conflict in Ukraine, both during the annexation of Crimea and the beginning of conflict in the Donbas. You can find the full report on RAND’s website here.

Abstract and Key Findings from the report’s cover page below

This report assesses the annexation of Crimea by Russia (February–March 2014) and the early phases of political mobilization and combat operations in Eastern Ukraine (late February–late May 2014). It examines Russia’s approach, draws inferences from Moscow’s intentions, and evaluates the likelihood of such methods being used again elsewhere.

These two distinct campaigns overlap somewhat but offer different lessons for participants and observers. The report finds that Russia’s operation to annex Crimea represented a decisive and competent use of military force in pursuit of political ends. Russia’s operations in Crimea benefited from highly favorable circumstances — political, historical, geographical, and military — that limit their generalizability. Analysis of the operation underscores that there are many remaining unknowns about Russia’s military capabilities, especially in the aftermath of its military reforms and modernization program. The report also finds that the campaign in Eastern Ukraine was an ineffectually implemented — and perhaps ill-conceived — effort to achieve political fragmentation of Ukraine via federalization and retain Russian influence. Russia achieved its primary objectives but at a much higher cost than desired and through a fitful cycle of adaptation.

This study thus questions the desirability for Moscow to replicate a course of events similar to the campaign in Eastern Ukraine. Conversely, the operation to annex Crimea was a highly successful employment of select elements within Russia’s armed forces, making it an attractive use of military power, but the structural and operation factors contributing to its success raise doubts whether it can be repeated elsewhere.

Key Findings

Russia’s Operation to Annex Crimea Represented Decisive and Competent Use of Military Force in Pursuit of Political Ends

  • Russia was able to seize the territory of a neighboring state with speed and mobility.
  • The political maneuvering on the peninsula during the invasion suggests that it may have been launched without a predetermined political outcome in mind.
  • Russia likely sought to seize Crimea, and then evaluated its political options depending in part on how the intervention was received at home and abroad.

Russia’s Operations in Crimea Benefited from a Series of Highly Favorable Circumstances That Makes It Difficult to Replicate

  • These included political, historical, geographical, linguistic, and military advantages in the region that have only partial analogues elsewhere in the former Soviet republics.
  • The confined geography of the peninsula, the proximity of Crimea to Russia, and its existence as a separate political unit within Ukraine gave Russia leverage.
  • Russia’s Black Sea Fleet was nearby, with legitimate transit routes that could be leveraged for a covert operation.

Russian Leaders Are Likely to Consider Eastern Ukraine to Be a Strategic Success but an Unsuccessful Operation

  • Russia’s efforts in Eastern Ukraine proved to be a series of improvisations in response to resistance and friction when the initial political warfare effort foundered.
  • The lessons of Eastern Ukraine are rather mixed, demonstrating the limits of low-cost asymmetrical approaches even against a relatively weak and vulnerable state.
  • Russia achieved its primary objectives but at a much higher cost than desired and through a fitful cycle of adaptation.

U.S. Cruise Missile Strikes in Syria – Brief Analysis

I’m going to skip the policy analysis and work on the facts of this strike and the Russian response. The al-Shayrat airbase was chosen because according to U.S. sources on April 4th a Syrian Su-22 deployed some kind of munition with chemical weapons.  On April 6th two U.S. destroyers fired 60 Tomahawk cruise missiles at the base, although technically it was 61 since one failed to launch and had to be replaced, while another missile ditched into the sea (60 planned – 1 launch fail, + 1 replacement, -1 malfunction resulting in sudden conversion into torpedo). The official story is that 59 hit targets.

What did the missiles hit? This base hosted two squadrons of Su-22M3/M4 bombers and one squadron of Mig-23ML/MLD fighters. For those who don’t know, these are legacy aircraft from the Soviet Union, long retired in Russia. If memory serves Su-22s were taken out of service in the Russian air force back in 1998, but are still flying in Poland.  These squadrons were distributed in three different parts of the airbase, and it looks like the missiles hit two out of three sectors. As a consequence they got 5 Su-22M3s, 1 Su-22M4, and 3 Mig-23ML fighters for a total of 9 aircraft destroyed (Pentagon claimed 20, but so far we can only count 9, then subsequently in a recent press release the Pentagon changed the story to 20% of Syrian air power destroyed.) The squadron of Su-22s located in the northwest of the base seems largely untouched, which is why one of the planes was shown on video launching from the base within the same day.

Photo of Syrian Air Base with markings for the three squadrons (found on BMPD)

Additionally the missiles took out a SA-6 radar site (Kub), some ground equipment, and what was first described as a M-600 missile launcher (Iranian produced SRBM). Bunkers, fuel, ammunition and general stores were also hit. Although there were early rumors on twitter suggesting that there were visible containers of chemical weapons, these proved to be nonsense, and were actually generic containers for cluster munitions and other types of ordnance (twitter experts best experts). The runway was left untouched since it is quite long, simple to repair, and plugging cruise missiles into runways is not the most efficient use of the weapon.

What wasn’t there? Su-24Ms that Russia had recently handed over to Syria, which are much more capable than the aging Su-22 bombers, and actual Russian aircraft. Back in April 2016 this base was being used as a forward operating strip for Russian attack helicopters during an earlier phase in the campaign. Supposedly some Russian personnel were at this facility, but that story increasingly sounds like a guesstimate.

Destroyed Mig-23ML

Russian air defense

The short answer is that their air defenses were meant to defend Russian forces, not Syrian assets, and probably not armed to take on a 60 cruise missile salvo anyway. The primary Russian fear was that a country like Turkey or someone else might hit concentrated Russian assets in Latakia. From their positions these air defenses probably had little to no chance of hitting cruise missiles meant for a different airbase, and the U.S. likely routed the strike package in such a way so as to make it impossible.

There is an often spotted S-400 system at Hmeimim Air Base in Latakia, together with Pantsir-S1 short range air defense and medium range point defense Buk systems (not many photos of the Buk but supposedly its there). The common depiction of the S-400s capabilities is also pretty inaccurate.  For one, it does not have a 400km range missile (the 40N6). That long range missile has never been seen in operation, nor a new canister for it, which suggests it’s still not ready for prime time. So the actual maximum range is 250km, which still makes it a great system, but cuts down on the imaginary 400km firing ring. Furthermore the system is at the airbase, and there is a mountain range running north to south just east of Latakia, so naturally the radar is going to have a hard time seeing most of eastern Syria – and the Russians have admitted as much in their own press.

S-400 at al-Hmeimim Airbase

Last year Russia deployed a S-300v4 to Tartus (often confused for S-300VM or Antey-2500). This system is designed for intercepting missiles and large aircraft at long ranges. Unlike the S-400, which does not have a 400km range missile, this one actually does though it’s not designed for cruise missile interception. However, unlike the S-400 which is regularly seen in pictures and satellite imagery, the S-300v4 remains elusive, either because nobody is looking at Tartus or because it’s moving about.  Either way it was doubtfully well placed to do anything about this strike.

In either case, these systems and their attending short range brethren might do well if cruise missiles were fired at them or close to them, but not at some other facility, especially if they hug the ground and use terrain masking. It’s possible Russian electronic warfare systems might have affected the guidance system, but these would have to have powerful ranges and why give away many of the system’s technical capabilities on behalf of the Syrians? Hence Russian air defenses, despite being painted as a giant red circle in news coverage are actually quite limited in what they can do against cruise missiles fired from an unknown point, headed on an unknown trajectory and towards a target they’re not intended to defend.

Update: posted flight path of cruise missile strike from Russia’s Izvestia – not vouching at all for veracity, but good map showing how the strike package may have been directed specifically away from air defenses. I would not use this as a hard source on the flight path.

No automatic alt text available.

Closing out with a Fateh-110/M600 missile launcher at the airbase that’s seen better days. There is some debate on whether its really a Pantsir-S1. Syrian mod Fateh looks very similar in chassis to the Pantsir-S1, but on Pantsir jacks are behind 2nd wheels set whereas Fateh 1st, and the destroyed vehicle’s jacks are clearly behind the first axle.

C84KgDBWsAE0rYj

Thanks to coverage from diana_mihailova and BMPD blogs, also easiest place to get access to damage photos.

Submarine Operations of Russia’s Northern Fleet 2016 (press release)

Below is a condensed translation of a press release from the Commander of the Northern Fleet timed for March 19th, submariner day in the Russian armed forces. This release contains quite a few useful public figures, which anyone working on submarines knows is a distinct rarity. I also reorganized the text, grouping the data in a manner that makes more logical sense, while deleting a lot of extraneous information (the typical this is great, and that is also great, etc).

According to  Vice-Admiral Nikolay Evmenov (CDR NF):

The Northern Fleet has long abandoned the use of conscripts to crew its submarines, pay has markedly improved, together with the perceived prestige of service.  The net result is a boost in fleet performance and professionalism, with fewer breakdowns or accidents, etc. Staffing level for current submarines is at 97%-100%. Nuclear submarines currently under construction already have crews formed for them, including those planned to be accepted into service 885 Kazan (Yasen-class) and 955 Knyaz Vladimir (Borei-class).

Submarine crews continue to undergo training and further advance their qualifications in between deployments, this was the case for 12 crews in 2016 and is expected to increase to 15 crews in 2017.  Improvements to existing training centers were made in 2016 for points Delta, Kama, GKP-67, and Bars. These facilities are for training in ship handling, navigation, torpedo employment, etc.

The Arctic represents the primary zone of responsibility for the Northern Fleet, and therefore training is oriented around the special conditions and circumstances of operating in sub-polar regions. In 2016 two SSBNs conducted training in the conduct of operations beneath the polar ice cap. Equally notable is that in 2015 the Borei-class SSBN, Yuri Dologorukiy, conducted her first voyage and training exercise for that submarine class in the Arctic.

654005490

The training tempo continues to intensify year on year. In 2015 the fleet’s submarines conducted 70 deployments, for a total of 1050 days, having traveled 176,000 nautical miles. Then in 2016 the same number of crews made 75 deployments traveling 184,000 miles. According to the Northern Fleet commander’s official statistics, the average time at sea per crew has been 40 days, for a total of 350 exercises and training missions. In 2017 they plan for 400.

I would note these figures are oddly round and probably represent some statistical creativity, as all such releases do, but they give us a sense of Russian submarine operations in the country’s largest fleet.

In 2016 the Northern Fleet’s submarines conducted more than 30 combat exercises involving torpedo or missile test firing. The best SSBN for the year was K-51 Verkhoturye (Delta IV), best SSGN in cruise missile tests K-119 Voronezh (Oscar II), and best in torpedo practice K-480 Panther (Akula I).  In total, more than 50 submariners received government awards, and more than 800 marks of distinction.

The diesel-submarine grouping within the fleet, consisting of Kilo-class submarines, spent roughly 280 days at sea, for a much smaller total of 28,000 miles in training.  Submarines B-808 Yaroslav, B-471 Magnitogorsk, B-177 Lipetsk, completed 15 exercises with high qualifying marks. Each of them put on more than 3,000 nm in training.  Apparently the crew of B-471 got an award in combat exercises while operating on a different Kilo, the Vladikavkaz. Crews of the new diesel submarine squadron being deployed in the Black Sea (improved Kilo project  636.3) also had undergone training in the Northern Fleet. Best crew among the diesel squadron overall in 2016 was that of B-471 Magnitogorsk.

kilo-class_subs

Along with receiving new submarines, the Northern  Fleet is also modernizing the base infrastructure for submarine forces, and building new housing for submarine crews. This includes a plan for 8 new buildings for a total of 492 apartments, which when built will resolve all the issues of housing for submarine crews (implies there are probably still some issues in terms of housing for the sailors). Piers in Gadzhiyevo are receiving new equipment intended for the newest Borei-class SSBNs, meanwhile construction is in progress for additional weapons storage.

On the whole this is an interesting round up, and in terms of statistics gives us an impression of measurements they feel comfortable releasing. The data is public, and one can work through the figures to see increases in activity/operations, particularly if they do a similar release next year. No doubt a good deal of the numbers released are ‘true lies’ – stat padding, and there is only good news here, but it’s still quite helpful of the Northern Fleet’s Commander to offer up this information. Since the Pacific Fleet was left out of this press release, we can only hope that their commander decides to do one of his own, offering more information.

The Russian Defense Budget and You

IHS Janes’s story “Russia announces deepest budget cuts since 1990s” got a lot of attention this week, claiming the Russian defense budget will be reduced by $1 trillion rubles or 25%. It is also wrong and has a bombastic headline to boot.  Here is a concise assessment of Russia’s defense budget, the cuts, and the reasons.

Bottom line, the Russian defense budget is going from 3.09 trillion RUB in 2016, to 2.84 trillion RUB in 2017, a reduction of ~7%, which about 1-2% harsher than announced in October of last year. The original estimate for the 2017-2019 budget plan was a 6% reduction over that period of defense spending. The cuts amount to about 250 billion RUB. Including planned cuts for the coming two years, the 3 year average is still a ~6% reduction.

The Russian defense budget is undergoing a sequester to tamp down growth, but is not experiencing large scale cuts, especially relative to other federal departments who were dealt 10% reductions.

The defense budget in 2016 was 3.09 trillion RUB. However, Russia had a problem with debt in the defense industrial complex. Manufacturers had been withdrawing commercial loans to cover the costs of production (i.e. they must have been producing on IOUs from the MoD), but this resulted in financing costs, and those costs were being carried over into the price of equipment being produced. This was no small issue, the interest rate + inflation resulted in some notable costs to the manufacturers, and financing this debt was having a waterfall effect on the state armament program.

Eventually the ministry of finance had to pay them down, so in December 2016 they made a onetime payment of 700 billion RUB to clear this debt (though some sources average it up to 800 billion). Added to 3.09 budgeted, this brought the overall amount spent on national defense to ~3.9 trillion RUB in 2016. Statistically, that resulted in a spike of spending to 4.7% of GDP, but in reality an important chunk was this singular debt payment.

The budget figures announced for 2017 reduce the budget by 7%, to 2.84 trillion. Janes did the following math, 3.9 trillion – 2.84 = 1 trillion RUB reduction or -25%.  To put it mildly, that is not the right interpretation of what is happening. The annual planned reduction is really just north of 200 billion RUB.

The future planned reductions are much smaller at 3.2% in 2018, and 4.8% for 2019. This would amount to 3% and 2.8% of GDP respectively, and perhaps 17% of the government budget. Though the figures do not include other spending on national security. My understanding is that these were based on really low oil prices of 40/barrel as well.

However, based on the past two years the defense budget is probably going to be reduced by less. 2015 saw only a 3.8% reduction, and 2016 a 5% reduction, relative to much louder announcements. Meaning, we should expect MoD to claw back some % points from Ministry of Finance planning. Here IHS Janes also seems to indicate that the 2017 defense budget is the first significant reduction after a period of extended growth, when in reality it is the 3rd straight year of budget reductions, and when everything is reconciled, the degree to which it is a reduction is debatable.

We should note there is always inflation, which is a tax on everything, and it is steadily eating away at the budget. The real sequester is the inflation rate that the budget must absorb.

I would add that by spending to reduce the defense sector’s debt, the MoD in reality has also reduced its procurement costs for the future so it’s unclear how the 7% reduction in the budget plays out relative to likely lower purchase prices since the budget is no longer forced to absorb financing costs for these debts. In conclusion, the Russian defense budget will remain very much alive, while the state armament program will continue to truck along with reduced expectations.

NOTE: I edited this article from originally saying the 2015 budget was 3.07 tril to 3.09 tril – with minor adjustments that follow, but the conclusions remain.

Because budget and spending figures are not that exciting, below I offer a photo of our chief budget analyst, my dog Ivan.

Ivan

Russian Special Forces

Below is a Q&A I did with the Cipher Brief that outlines much of what we know about the Russian special operations community.  The rest is on their website. 

The Cipher Brief: How are Russian special operations organized within the military?

Michael Kofman: The best way to parse through a myriad of Russian special designation units is to break them into three categories: elite infantry primarily for reconnaissance in ground, airborne, and naval services (Spetsnaz GRU), special purpose units belonging to intelligence agencies (Alpha and Vympel), and the Special Operations Command (SSO or KSSO). The last one is of particular note as a recent development and arguably the most interesting of all, since it represents a Russian special forces capability that featured prominently in Crimea and Syria.

Spetsnaz GRU are sometimes shorthanded as Russian special operations forces, but this is a common misnomer. Spetsnaz are elite infantry intended to support conventional unit formations. These units consist of eight Spetsnaz brigades, one Spetsnaz regiment (25th), four naval infantry Spetz units, and the 45th VDV (Airborne) brigade with a total complement of 9,000-10,500.  Currently the Russian armed forces are integrating Spetsnaz units into brigades and divisions, adding a company to each reconnaissance battalion. These units are almost invariably under the purview of the main intelligence directorate for Russia’s General Staff, the GRU.

Meanwhile the FSB, Russia’s domestic intelligence service, fields two specialized units for counterterrorism and defending strategic infrastructure at home, named Alpha and Vympel respectively. Less mentioned is the FSB’s Directorate S (Smerch), a special reconnaissance outfit founded on the basis of the FSB’s economic counter-intelligence unit, and likely larger than Alpha or Vympel.

The rest of the discussion focuses on KSSO.

Russian Navy Part 4: Naval Aviation Taking Flight Again…Slowly

This if the fourth and final installment of my article series with Norman Polmar, the last issue focuses on Russian naval aviation.

Naval aviation is perhaps the component of the Russian Navy most frequently ignored and difficult to analyze. The air group aboard Russia’s sole aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, which recently conducted combat sorties over Syria, is only a small part of the country’s overall naval aviation force. While the carrier’s deployment to the eastern Mediterranean in late 2016 made world-wide headlines, the rest of Russian naval aviation is undergoing a revival.

Russian carrier aviation currently is based on a single ship, the Admiral Kuznetsov. When she sailed from the Northern Fleet to the Mediterranean last fall with several major surface combatants in company, the carrier’s air group consisted of: ten Su-33 Flanker- D’s, five newer MiG-29 Fulcrums, and an assortment of Ka-27 Helix antisubmarine helicopters and Ka-31 Helix airborne early warning helicopters. Several of the new naval variants of the Ka-52K Katran attack helicopters also were on board the carrier during operations off Syria. The Su-33 Flanker-D is primarily an air superiority, all-weather fighter, capable of carrying a variety of unguided bombs. The MiG-29K multirole fighter, meant to be the Su-33’s replacement, carries laser and electro-optical-guided precision munitions.

The Admiral Kuznetsov’s combat debut off Syria in November went relatively poorly. The ship has a notoriously faulty pressure-fired boiler system and is underpowered, belching black smoke as she sails. As a consequence of her limited top speed and ski-jump design, aircraft takeoff weights were constrained. The carrier air group’s greatest limitation, however, is not technical but human. Russia reportedly has more planes than carrier-qualified pilots. Early in operations off Syria, a MiG-29K reportedly suffered an engine problem, lost power, and crashed into the sea. The pilot survived. Three weeks later a Su-33 broke an arresting cable on landing and rolled off the deck for a second aircraft loss. The air group subsequently transferred to the Russian air base in Syria. While the Russian Ministry of Defense claimed that more than 400 sorties were flown from the carrier while off Syria, more realistic estimates place the number closer to 150.

The Admiral Kuznetsov’s main role has always been “status projection” or political presence rather than power projection. Russia retained the ship and sustained a nascent carrier aviation component for the appearance of being a major naval power. The aircraft carrier, with embarked fixed-wing fighter/attack aircraft, is a type of capital ship that few countries possess, conferring a degree of prestige on any nation able to send one to sea.

Kuznetsov on its Syrian deployment

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After her Mediterranean deployment, the Admiral Kuznetsov entered a multiyear overhaul and modernization at the massive Sevmash shipyard at Severodvinsk in northern Russia. While in the yard, the carrier will receive a modernization package, focusing on the flight deck, arresting gear and air craft handling components of the ship. Speculation remains on whether or not more serious problems will be addressed such as the ship’s notoriously troublesome propulsion.

The Russian government periodically announces plans for new carrier construction. Beginning in 1967, when the missile cruiser-helicopter carrier Moskva joined the fleet, the Nikolayev shipyard on the Black Sea produced a second ship of that type, followed by four vertical/short take-off and landing carriers of the Kiev class, and then two “conventional” aircraft carriers of the Riga class, one of which is the Admiral

Kuznetsov. Although only one of those eight ships today remains under the Russian flag, a Kiev-class carrier now serves as India’s Vikramaditya, and the Admiral Kuznetsov’s sister ship serves as the Chinese Liaoning. Any future Russian carrier construction is expected to take place at the Sevmash yard in northern Russia, as Nikolayev is now in Ukraine.

The real “teeth” of Russian naval aviation are land-based aircraft, and this is where interesting changes are in progress. Each of the four Russian fleets has a dozen or more Su-24 Fencers—variable-swept-wing attack aircraft intended for the maritime strike role and capable of carrying Kh-31 and Kh-35 air-to surface missiles. These workhorses are being replaced by a new generation of strike aircraft: the Su-30SM, a heavy, multirole fighter attack aircraft, reportedly with a six-ton payload. Already in service with the Black Sea Fleet, the aircraft began to be delivered to the Baltic and Northern Fleets in late 2016. These planes will likely be configured to carry the air launched versions of the advanced SSN-26 anti-ship missile as well as older anti-ship missiles now in service, offering substantial advancement over previous strike aircraft.

The Su-34 Fullback will also take part in the naval strike role. Derived from the Su-27 Flanker airframe, it is a capable, long-range aircraft, perhaps better classified as a medium bomber.

Russia’s principal aircraft in the strike role are the 60 or more Soviet-era Tu-22 Backfire medium bombers. During tumultuous military reforms in 2009, the Russian General Staff transferred the Tu-22 Backfires from the Navy—where they probably were not being well maintained—to the Long-Range Aviation (LRA) component of the Air Force. They remain under LRA control although still are assigned the anti-ship maritime strike role. They carry the infamous truck-size Kh-22 (NATO AS-4 Kitchen) missile and its upgraded variant, the Kh-32. Backfire bombers carried out combat missions over Syria in 2015 and 2016,dropping unguided bombs, a secondary role for which they were not well suited, but one that nonetheless shows there is still a functioning LRA component in the Russian air arsenal.

Tu-22 with Kh-22 missiles

tu-22-backfire-c

In addition to strike aircraft, Russia retains several large Tu-142 Bear-F long-range, antisubmarine aircraft, derived from the venerable Tu-95 Bear platform. The Tu-142s are undergoing modernization, as only a few remain operational in the fleets. They occasionally have been spotted over Syrian coastal waters. Similarly, Il-38 May maritime patrol and submarine hunting aircraft are being upgraded to the    Il-38N configuration with the Novella system, a high-resolution radar, and other new equipment. The Mays are being prioritized for the Pacific Fleet along with the updated Tu-142s. From ships, the antisubmarine role is conducted by Ka-27 Helix helicopters carried on Russian cruisers and destroyers that remain operational, along with newer frigates designed to replace them.

It is difficult to discuss Russian naval aviation without mentioning the saga of Russia’s 2010 deal with France to buy two large, Mistral-class amphibious assault ships. These would have been highly capable, multirole ships for the Russian Navy, modified for larger Ka-27 and Ka-52K helicopters. The deal was scuttled in 2014 following the Russian annexation of Crimea, which resulted in Western sanctions and a political climate that made going forward with the deal impossible for France. After more than a year of discussions, Russia and France amicably parted ways, with the ships being sold to a mutually acceptable third party—Egypt—with funds provided by Saudi Arabia. Moscow made out like a proverbial bandit, recouping its initial deposit of 800 million Euros and doubling its money in rubles when converting at the 2015 exchange rates. Meanwhile Russian funds invested in developing the Ka-52K also were recovered because Egypt bought the Russian helicopters separately for its new ships.

One element of Russian naval aviation often overlooked by Western analysts is its non-strategic nuclear arsenal. Post-Soviet Russia inherited some 20,000 non-strategic nuclear weapons. While that number has been reduced by more than 75 percent, according to Russian statements, it still leaves a notable number of tactical nuclear weapons in the hands of the Russian Navy and Air Force.

Overall, Russian naval aviation might be a small force, but it too is benefiting from a bow wave of modernization across the Russian military. Though mainly shore based, it retains viable capabilities for conventional and nuclear combat.

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