Zapad watch – summary of day two

Day two of Zapad saw Russian forces continue to fight off air attacks and incoming cruise missiles, but logistics units were getting in place to enable force flow into Belarus. As the adage goes, amateurs talk tactics while professionals talk logistics. Day 2 events include:

  • engineers setting pontoon bridges
  • communications arrays going up to establish a common operating picture
  • smokescreens to cover ground movements
  • air power coordinated with ground based air defense in covering the ground force
  • the Navy practicing ASW, air defense, and counter sabotage
  • numerous live fire drills with artillery, armor, air defense and combat aviation

Western MD

Joint drills started in earnest between Russia and Belarus today. Armored and motor rifle battalions engaged in live fire exercises, tactical aviation and bombers flew overhead. A lot of ammo expended into targets at firing ranges. Belarus Air Force helped provide air cover for Russian ground units and armored formations moving into theater, run by a combined staff composed of officers from both countries. Part of the mission included recon flights over enemy formations.

Most of the action right now is at the Luga (south of St Petersburg) range which is seeing lots of artillery fires. From self-propelled and towed artillery to TOS-1A and Grad MLRS, Russia’s artillery units are letting loose. The combat aviation brigade is practicing at the same range, Ka-52s along with other helicopters.

(autobots assemble – activate tree camouflage)

tanks and BREM.jpg

Logistics

Pontoon bridges are going up for armor to roll into Belarus. Engineers and sappers are building trenches, fortifications and setting up the logistics for ground forces to move in. CBRN troops put up an aerosol smokescreen at medium altitude near the Luga training field in an effort to cover troop movements. The screen covered a bridging operation (TMM-3 mechanical bridge) to defend against enemy air attack while forces were on the move.

Comms troops setup a high bandwidth comm systems running around 1000km between Russia and Belarus. This part is particularly interesting, since it reflects how Russia plans to maintain command and control, shield communications, and create a common operating picture of the battlefield. So far the coverage shows systems that go down to the battalion rather than company/squad level.

engineer troops.jpg

VKS – Aerospace Forces

Su-35s fighters escorted Tu-22M3 bombers to their forward airbases and have now arrived in Leningrad Oblast. Western MD’s lead in air power for this exercise seems to be 6th Air Force and Air Defense Army. As mentioned yesterday one Tu-22M3 ran off the runway and crashed.

VDV – VDV units in Rys light armored vehicles conducted recon in force missions around Pskov. The 76th is supposed to deploy in Leningrad Oblast and Kaliningrad later on during this exercise.

VDV on Rys.jpg

Central MD – This district is not only taking part in Zapad but prepping for joint exercises with Uzbekistan in early October. Interestingly air defense units with S-300 are shifting to the far east, Telemba range in Buryatia, to conduct live fire exercises as part of Zapad.

Eastern MD – Air defense units are headlong into live fire drills at Telemba, with 10 combat launches of later generation S-300 systems. Meanwhile Su-34 bombers from Khabarovsk are training in night time operations. Further east the air units based in Kamchatka have been raised on alert, with about 30 planes including Tu-142M3s, Mig-31BMs, and Il-38s conducting sorties.

Puski-550-5.jpg

Southern MD – Marines from the Caspian Flotilla held the line against enemy forces on the coast of Dagestan in time for airborne reinforcements. Not much info coming out of this district so far.

Around the Fleets

Northern Fleet – Units of the 14th Army Corps in Pechenga near Murmansk deployed several battalions from its motor rifle brigades for live fire exercises, defending against land and air attacks. This drill ran the gamut from T-72B3 tanks, artillery, MLRS, and infantry in trenches defending against an attacking ground force. About 1,500 troops were involved with 300 pieces of equipment. Peter the Great (Kirov-class) and Admiral Ushakov (Sovremenny-class) spent their time taking out incoming cruise missiles together with Mig-29K fighters operating from land.

shoot em in the face.JPG

Baltic Fleet – High speed boats and patrol ships worked with PDSS special diver units to battle enemy diversionary forces all day. Some PDSS divers stood in for the enemy, no doubt Navy SEALS, while the rest worked to defend against them. Corvettes were busy with air defense against incoming enemy aircraft.

Pacific Fleet – A project 971 Akula SSN (Kuzbass) and project 667BDR Delta III SSBN (Ryazan) ran a mock torpedo duel. The Delta was looking to handle an attack by an adversary SSN penetrating the SSBN bastion. The Pacific Fleet will also hold drills with China September 26 after Zapad, both in Sea of Japan and Sea of Okhotsk off the coast of Hokkaido. This is the second part of a naval exercise held in the Baltic Sea in July.

On the lighter side

It can’t be all gloom and doom. If you’re busy fighting NATO at the Luga firing range south of St. Petersburg then there’s good news, Russian armed forces setup a 100 person field movie theater to boost morale. I saw a photo of it and now can’t find it to post. And yes, there’s wi-fi so you can selfie every aspect of the exercise. There’s also a store to buy various Army kitsch – not sure what it looks like but probably “I defeated NATO in glorious existential battle for the motherland and all I got was this t-shirt.”

Notable photos:

Gerasimov calling SACEUR. (good photo for a ‘caption this’ contest)

Gerasimov doing Gerasimov things.jpg

CBRN troops totally covered, except the part between his gloves and sleeve. That guy is probably going to die to chemical weapons NATO doesn’t have.

pxb troops

 

Zapad watch – summary of day one

Zapad is here! Well it actually arrived some days ago, as there were an awful lot of command post exercises and live fire drills already in recent weeks. Officially though this is the first day of Russian military armageddon –  so here is a quick and unvarnished roundup of some of the events taking place.

On the 14th Russian armed forces were roused out of bed to fight an advanced conventional adversary with a pretty solid global force at their disposal. Phase one was supposed to be about handling diversionary groupings in Belarus, but suffice it to say things escalated pretty quickly. Day 1 activities include:

  • defending against air attack and numerous cruise missile strikes with ground based air defenses and tactical aviation
  • airlifting engineers and support crews to forward airfields ahead of aviation
  • getting armor loaded at rail hubs for transportation to Belarus
  • airdropping VDV units to defend against enemy recon elements
  • deploying screens and getting ships underway under incoming enemy fire
  • numerous live fire exercises for artillery units, air defense units, and the navy

BLUF: As Russian forces prepared to deploy to the region they got hit with a sizable aerospace attack. Day one was about logistics, defending against a capable air power on different fronts, and engaging lead elements of the enemy force near Belarus.

A word on sourcing: the information comes from official MoD briefings, releases, photos. The analysis is my own, listing what happened and explaining what it means. It is not derived or borrowed from other analysis. Occasionally I also found good photos from blogs of journalists who were physically at the exercise.

VDV – Airborne

The Airborne units involved so far include battalions from Pskov (76th), Tula (106th) and Ivanovo (98th). They were alerted Thursday morning, grabbed gear and fell out to meet airlift. So far maybe 2-3 battalions out of three airborne divisions are engaged. One battalion of 76th Pskov VDV, along with 10 BMD vehicles, had been airdropped into combat near Pskov. They prevented ‘diversionary groups’ from penetrating Russia’s borders in the region. This is supposed to be a vanguard action, taking out enemy recon units, and conducting reconnaissance-in-force. It’s unclear if the baddies are Latvian or Estonian, but supposedly the Russian airborne did a great job sabotaging the advance of their recon elements and reporting on larger formations behind enemy lines. Later on Russian airborne is supposed to deploy to Belarus and perhaps reinforce Kaliningrad as well.

Airborne drop.jpg

VKS – Aerospace Forces

Tactical, combat, and long range aviation in the Western MD is preparing to rebase to forward airbases to participate in Zapad. This will include airfields in Belarus. About 20 flights so far on Il-76MD delivered engineers and support crews to forward air bases ahead of the actual aviation expected to arrive soon. Meanwhile much of the VKS is busy repelling air attacks and cruise missile strikes across Russia. Air defense units around St. Petersburg, most likely in the 6th CAA, were already conducting live fire drills to defend against an aerospace attack. Systems involved include S-400, S-300, and Pantsir-S1 short range air defense. Air defense units around Moscow were similarly engaged to repel air strikes and cruise missiles. This thing escalated rather quickly it seems. Russian radar crews practiced against enemy aircraft simulated by a range of Russian platforms, including: Su-34, Su-35, Tu-134, An-26, Mi-8 and Ka-52 helicopters.

One Tu-22M3 was already lost in a crash in Kaluga Oblast near Belarus. They were clearly shifting long range aviation from Irkutsk, an airbase named Belaya to ‘forward base’ Shaikovka by Belarus and something went wrong upon landing. Photo at the end.

A lot of stuff coming at VKS all day

Pantsir.jpg

Navy

Some of the Northern Fleet’s principal surface combatants, including the nuclear powered missile cruiser Peter the Great and a Sovremenny destroyer (Admiral Ushakov), put to sea to escape incoming strikes. Several missile boats and minesweepers deployed to Kola Bay to fight diversionary groups. Russian ships used aerosol sprays to hide key naval facilities, although more than likely this was practice to cover the preparation and departure of other ships from satellites. Supposedly 20 or so surface combatants will take place in this week’s maneuvers, including up to 10 submarines and 20 support vessels. One task force of ships departed for the New Siberian Islands. Overall the Northern Fleet’s drills will involve approximately 5,000 personnel.

The Baltic Fleet was in some serious danger, defending against an enemy who was conducting cruise missile strikes at a rate of seven hits per minute (this seems oddly slow actually). In defense of their comrades at sea the tiny naval aviation component launched Su-27s to shoot down incoming missiles and aircraft. Meanwhile S-300s and S-400s were providing long range air defense. The navy was also practicing air defense and simulating fires electronically. Russian Su-34s stood in for adversary aviation, and the exercise conditions were based around electronic jamming degrading the effectiveness of Russian air defense units.

Army

Elements of 1st Tank Guards Army began their march towards firing ranges in Belarus. The 6th Independent Tank Brigade, expected to participate in this exercise, was raised on alert and moved to a rail hub for loading. No official word on other regiments but elements of 2nd and 4th divisions are definitely expected to participate in this event. Once they’re moved by rail to Belarus the brigade’s first job is to arrive at a designated staging area and group with other regional forces into a task force.

Other Military Districts

Eastern MD – taking off from Khabarovsk Su-35s destroyed an enemy field camp and supplies. Not sure where this camp and supplies were, but this thing escalated horizontally pretty fast. As part of the operation they practiced evading enemy air defenses at different altitudes. An Iskander unit moved out to conduct live fire exercises at the Kaputsin Yar firing range. The day before artillery units were already in live fire training with self-propelled artillery (2s1 and 2s3) along with Tornado-G MLRS. VKS units are practicing with S-300 at a firing range in Telemba, jointly with Su-30SM fighters from Khabarovsk.

Gvozdika firing line.jpg

Central MD – More than 500 soldiers from special designation units, including Spetsnaz were raised on alert in Samara and moved out to hold exercises near Novaya Binardka. This particular set of drills will be observed by officers from Uzbekistan’s general staff. The day before it seems Caspian Flotilla marines were practicing at firing ranges in Dagestan. Their task is chiefly interdiction of enemy marine forces landing from the Caspian.

CMD Spetz.jpg

Southern MD – there was a large command post exercise on the 12th and several live fire exercises by ships of the BSF on September 7th. Not much news coming out of Southern MD but it will undoubtedly get more active. Some info coming out of Ukraine about bridging equipment being moved about in DNR/LNR territory – hard to nail down details though.

Meanwhile in Syria

Two project 636.3 Kilos fired Kalibr land attack cruise missiles into Syria. Combat firing at fixed targets in Syria seems to be the standard induction procedure for new Kilos arriving for service in the BSF. More surface combatants decamped from Sevastopol, heading to join the squadron in the Eastern Med.

Notable photos:

This guy doesn’t look like he’s having fun yet. (76th airdrop near Pskov)

BMD drop.jpg

These guys had too much fun already. (Tu-22M3 bomber in lawndart configuration)

Tu-22M3.jpg

Comments and corrections are welcome. This is meant to be a rough summary of some of the activities taking place.

 

 

Russian Military Buildup in the West: Fact Versus Fiction

A short article looking at the focus of Russian military modernization, the original appeared on the Russia Matters site of Harvard’s Belfer Center.

As Russia’s annual strategic exercise, titled Zapad-2017, approaches, media reports (and plenty of Western officials) have contended that Moscow is engaged in a military buildup along NATO’s borders, with particular trepidation over security considerations in the Baltics. Ironically, Russia’s military modernization and force structure expansion had been ignoring the Baltic region until only recently. Despite provocative air and naval activity concentrated in the area, Russian forces based there are principally defensive, and aging to boot. There are indicators that a change in the size and strength of Russian forces is inevitable, but it will be gradual, in part informed by what forces NATO chooses to deploy.

Moscow’s chief fixation of late has been establishing large unit formations along Ukraine’s borders, an expansion of the footprint in Crimea and upgrades to military equipment distributed across the country’s five military districts. Having achieved some success under the previous state armament program, the Russian General Staff is shifting its attention to the Baltic region, slowly but surely upgrading the antiquated forces based there and deliberating a larger military presence.

Russia’s military has been undergoing transformation since 2008 to compensate for a prolonged period of divestment and rot in the armed forces after the collapse of the USSR. This process was driven by military reforms launched in late 2008 and a modernization program begun in 2011 (a new one is due to be announced soon for 2018-2025). Russia’s force structure continues to evolve and expand, and the armed forces steadily acquire modernized or new capabilities. Change is a constant—new formations and a hurricane of announcements, only a fraction of which are ever implemented.

The modernization program launched in 2011 focused investment on Russia’s air force, navy and strategic nuclear forces, to the detriment of the army. Until 2014 Russia was not procuring like a Eurasian land power and was largely reducing the number of deployed formations on Ukraine’s and NATO’s borders to position them elsewhere. The war with Ukraine turned these initial plans upside down and has subsequently proven the driving factor behind changes in Russia’s force posture. (Nonetheless, today the Southern Military District, encompassing the North Caucasus, still maintains greater readiness than any forces abutting NATO.)

Conflict with Ukraine reawakened the national leadership to the likelihood of a large-scale war on the western front in the medium to long term. To deal with a constant rotation of forces in Ukraine, and to maintain conventional superiority over Ukrainian forces in the long term, Russia refocused its energy to that border or what Russian leadership calls the “southwest strategic direction.” Russia’s General Staff began to bring back all the units originally moved off Ukraine’s borders during the early years of the reforms. This included the 20th Army, along with other units. The next step was reestablishing the 1st Tank Guards Army west of Moscow and setting up the headquarters for a new 8th Combined Arms Army in the Southern Military District.

Spanning an arc from the border with Belarus to Rostov-on-Don in the south, Russia is setting up three new divisions, each of which is formally to have six regiments and an ultimate end strength toward 10,000 (although they will likely be undermanned for years to come). Supporting these divisions are several brigades, airfields and combat aviation. The 8th Army is there to be the primary threat to Ukrainian armed forces, and perhaps to coordinate troop rotation in support of separatists in the Donbas if the conflict continues several years out.

The current wave of modernization is similarly prioritizing units near Ukraine, especially Crimea, which saw a substantial expansion of Russia’s military presence after Moscow annexed and absorbed a significant percentage of what were previously Ukrainian forces on the peninsula. Russian planning is driven by a strategy to deter Ukraine from believing it can retake the Donbas, looking chiefly five to 10 years into the future. The intent is to keep the country in a vise with permanently garrisoned forces along its borders running north to south. Russian forces may even withdraw entirely from Ukraine once this much larger force just across the border is complete.

In the interim, the Baltic region was given only a modicum of attention, with few forces, terrible readiness and fairly dated equipment. Indeed, as recently as last summer the entire Baltic Fleet and ground force command staff was fired, and with seemingly good cause.

There has been, and remains, little to indicate that Russia is especially concerned with the Baltic region when compared to the situation further south. Despite bombastic rhetoric about NATO aggression, hostility and the like, Russia’s military has not prioritized the Baltic relative to other areas. Remarkably there is much more attention and energy being spent on expensive military infrastructure in the Arctic with a dubious cost-benefit proposition, as opposed to the supposedly existential struggle between Russia and its historic Cold War adversary to the West.

That being said, in 2017 the bow wave of modernization across Russia’s armed forces is steadily making its way from the units positioned around Ukraine to those in the Baltic region, and further north. New fighters, missile regiments, air defense systems and combat aviation are either in the process of being deployed or will be in the coming years. Meanwhile, the force structure continues to expand, with plans to add two tank battalions to the airborne division in Pskov, near Estonia, for example, while other adjustments may see the military footprint of the 11th Army Corps in Kaliningrad grow, along with the 14th Army Corps in the Northern Fleet. Although Russia remains fixated on building divisions around Ukraine, it is trying to balance this with the need for manpower to fill other units. The state armament program is pumping out equipment such that slowly but surely even lower-priority areas receive upgraded capabilities.

Russia’s vision for dealing with U.S. military power is less ground-force-based and more founded in integrated air defenses combined with long-range conventional strike power and nuclear weapons. Here Russia is working on improving its arsenal of cruise missiles and the capacity to inflict conventional damage at standoff ranges, rather than build large formations bordering NATO. Moscow understands that the U.S. has an incredible technological advantage in aerospace power, and thus has prioritized air defense, electronic warfare and other capabilities intended to deny NATO its preferred way of waging war from the air.

The various units around Ukraine can of course travel if need be to Belarus and the Baltic, and in the upcoming exercise some of them will demonstrate exactly that—their ability to move into Belarus as part of a planned operation. The logistics and resources available to realize such plans on a large scale do require some time, preparation and practice. In reality these units can only generate a percentage of their strength on short notice, especially if the maneuver forces are composed of contract-staffed personnel.

When it comes to its force posture in the Baltic region, Moscow is playing it slow—moving about capabilities to threaten and engaging in military activity that generates headlines, while the actual presence remains largely defensive in nature. This too will change in the coming years. More S-400s, Iskander-Ms, better tanks, tactical aviation, logistics units and everything else Russia’s state armament program has to offer has either begun arriving or will deploy to the Baltic region by 2020.

The Russian plan is perhaps much less a buildup and more a slow cooking of the overall military presence. Arguably NATO is doing the very same thing along its eastern flank. Gradualism is the name of this game, and if it is not carefully managed, nobody should be surprised if some years from now the Baltic region finds itself host to a force bidding contest.

 

Why the Russian Navy Is a More Capable Adversary Than It Appears

New article originally appearing in The National Interest on Russia’s Navy. Co-authored with my colleague Jeffrey Edmonds.

Russia still depends on the remnants of a blue-water navy inherited from the Soviet Union, but a new force is slowly rising to take its place both above and beneath the waves. This navy will be different, with a strategy of its own. The United States should not fear the Russian Navy, but it should respect and study what Moscow is trying to do with its naval forces. Failure to understand an adversary’s capabilities, and the logic behind them, is a good way to someday become unpleasantly surprised by them. Learning from that kind of experience usually comes at the expense of lives.

Imagine in a not so distant future a group of Russian Kalibr missiles closes in on a U.S. destroyer at supersonic speed, sprinting to target in their terminal phase. In this moment the captain will find little comfort in the stack of articles behind him arguing that the Russian Navy is no more. That Russia had spent so little on the corvettes that fired this salvo, and the United States so much on the ship about to receive it, will leave a great deal to reflect upon in the aftermath.

Analysis of Russian military capabilities tends to either portray the Russian military as a giant or as though it were on the verge of disappearance. These narratives trend towards the factually incorrect and profoundly unhelpful. This is why we study adversaries: to understand their strategy, doctrine, and the capabilities they’re investing in so as not to speak nonsense to power, but instead offer sound analysis and perspective.

The modern Russian Navy is not designed to compete with the U.S. Navy, but instead to counter it, and to support the strategy of a twenty-first-century Eurasian land power. Russia may be far less powerful than the Soviet Union, but it remains a great power nonetheless, with a military capable of achieving overmatch on its borders. Russia’s armed forces are strong enough to impose substantial costs in a conflict, and the country fields a capable nuclear arsenal that it won’t shy from using. The Russian Navy plays an important role in that strategy, and should not be overlooked despite its shortcomings.

The Russian Vision

Things would be simpler were Russia engaged in a futile attempt to compete with U.S. Navy, overspending on ships it can’t afford, pursuing missions that make little sense given the country’s geographical position and economic constraints. The recently signed Russian Naval Doctrine through 2030 makes bold claims about Russia’s desire to maintain the status of the world’s second naval power. While the Russian nuclear submarine force still holds second place in capability, and its ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) fleet in particular, there is no shipbuilding plan to turn the navy into a global competitor with the United States or China.

Such pronouncements reflect the tradition of Russian leaders looking to the navy for status projection on the international arena, as a prominent symbol that Russia is a great power, able to show the flag far from its geographical confines. We need to look skeptically at official statements designed to make the Russian Navy feel more secure about its relevance (and budget), instead analyzing the strategy and procurement driving changes in the force. The Russian Navy is coalescing around four principal missions: defense of Russia’s maritime approaches and littorals, long-range precision strike with conventional and nuclear weapons, power projection via the submarine force, and defense of the sea-based nuclear deterrent carried aboard Russian SSBNs.

Alongside these missions is the traditional requirement for naval diplomacy for which Russia will always keep a few capital ships, even if they are as unlucky and unreliable as the Admiral Kuznetsov carrier. Upholding Russia’s status in international politics is one of the Russian Navy’s most important roles. Status projection might rank on par with power projection. Indeed, during the hard times of the 1990s and 2000s, the Russian Navy did little other than flag waving trips and ports of call. Naval diplomacy, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region, remains one of its chief tasks.

The Russian vision is to build a navy that can successfully keep the United States at arm’s length and integrate with layers of defenses, long-range anti-ship missiles, ground based aviation, submarines, coastal cruise-missile batteries and mines. In this manner Russia wishes to deny the United States access from the sea and make forced entry operations costly. Next, the Russian Navy is increasingly positioned to conduct long-range attacks with conventional weapons against fixed infrastructure targets, and plays an important role in nuclear escalation if called upon. The latest doctrine explicitly states the navy’s role in both long-range conventional fires and nonstrategic nuclear-weapons delivery as a means of deterring adversaries and shaping their decisionmaking in a crisis. While the numbers of current cruise-missile shooters may be relatively small, the next state armament program, GPV 2018–2025, intends to spend more on the missile count.

Russia’s demands for power projection are quite low. Its armed forces don’t play away games, and are geared towards fighting just across the street. That’s where Russia’s core interests and priorities lie. As such, long-range aviation can handle missile strikes at considerable distances from the country’s borders. The submarine force, however, simply has to help defend SSBN bastions and present a credible threat to the United States. This is of course easier said than done, but Russia is probably by far the most technologically sophisticated adversary the United States faces in the undersea domain. Incidentally it also has the world’s second largest nuclear-powered submarine force.

How the Russians Plan to Get There

Russia began with a corvette and frigate construction program—in part because it’s what the shipyards could reliably build—in the hopes of moving on to larger ship classes later. This was a logical approach to reviving the shipbuilding industry, the worst of Russia’s defense-industrial enterprises.

That said, there’s much more to these ships than meets the eye. One thing the Russians have learned is that one does not need a lot of tonnage to pack a potent missile system. The surface combatant force is not being organized around platforms, but around an integrated family of capabilities. These include vertical launching system (VLS) cells with Oniks (SS-N-26), Kalibr (SS-N-27A/30), Pantsir-M for point defenses, Redut VLS cells for air defense, and Paket-NK anti-torpedo systems. Larger ships will carry Poliment-Redut air defense, phased array radar and be more versatile in the roles they can perform. A Russian corvette comes with a seventy-six-millimeter gun or a one-hundred-millimeter gun, close-in weapon systems (CIWS) and typically eight VLS cells. These ships tend to be low endurance, but the firepower-to-price ratio is a bargain, and they can comfortably do their job while just outside port.

Russian frigates, both the Admiral Grigorovich-class (four thousand tons) and the new Admiral Gorshkov-class (5,400 tons) ran into trouble because they depended on Ukrainian gas turbines. Cut off in 2014, Russia was set back five to seven years with engines for just three Grigorovich frigates and two Gorshkovs. Since then, Russia’s defense industry has already restored the ability to repair gas turbines and built the testing facility to develop its own design. The delay cost Russia’s shipbuilding program about five years, but it spurred a crash effort to produce an indigenous gas turbine, which seems to be making rather good progress.

Similar problems encountered with the cutoff of German MTU diesel engines, used in some of the new corvettes, were worked around with domestic analogues or Chinese variants. Russia’s shipbuilding program is through the worst of the delays caused by sanctions and the breakdown of defense cooperation with Ukraine. The shipbuilding industry as a whole has been going through a difficult recovery period, having taken a twenty-five-year hiatus, but it would be wrong to assess this unpleasant past as inherently representative of the future. For example, Russia has been building a large new shipyard in the east, called Zvezda, with the assistance of the Chinese. Intended for commercial production, this shipyard just installed a 1,200-ton crane, which is a necessity for modular construction and no small leap for Russian shipbuilding.

Older Ships Can Kill Too

Currently held views on Russia’s naval capabilities are decidedly dated. In reality, Russia’s Navy has probably not seen operational tempo and readiness levels like this since the mid 1990s. Russian ships, including notoriously unreliable ones like the Sovremenny-class destroyer, are conducting increasingly longer voyages, while the force as a whole is spending much more time at sea than in the two preceding decades. A large part of the fleet is still Soviet inheritance, requiring tug boats to escort small groups, but this supposedly rusting navy is maintaining presence while the submarine force is also no less active. Nowhere is that more visible than in the resurrection of the Black Sea Fleet after the annexation of Crimea and the constant rotation of ships through the Eastern Mediterranean. The oft-unacknowledged truth is that the Russian Navy is a lot more operational now than it has been in many years.

The surface combatant force remains an eclectic mix of legacy Soviet platforms serving alongside new frigates and corvettes. Over 30 percent of the Soviet-era ships are receiving major modernization programs, but a good deal will be phased out in the 2020s. Russia will likely keep the Kirov-class and Slava-class cruisers for quite longer, as flagships and status bearers, especially when Admiral Nakhimov completes its expensive modernization. Beyond that, much of the inherited Soviet force is expendable, especially the ancient tank landing ship (LST) fleet, which is hardly required for expeditionary operations and needs little to no modernization. Russia supplied the bulk of the tonnage for its operations in Syria with four used Turkish cargo ships that it probably bought at a pittance—so much for the Russian Navy being unable to sustain expeditionary operations without dedicated capacity. Necessity is not always the mother of procurement, sometimes organizations innovate.

Russia couldn’t get the frigates it wanted, and so it is doubling down on larger and larger corvettes until the engine problem is solved. When it comes to ship classes much can get lost in translation. Often when Russians say “corvette” they mean the firepower of a frigate, and when they say “frigate” they mean the firepower of a destroyer. There are also signs that older Soviet ship classes, like Udaloy-class anti-submarine destroyers, will be armed with Kalibr VLS cells. This would adapt Soviet hulls to better serve the strategy and vision behind the new navy Russia is trying to build, and thus extend their utility.

However, the Russian surface force still suffers from “distributed classality,” a disease inherited from the Soviet Union. Its chief symptom is building too many different ship classes with too few ships in each class. This, of course, is not a problem but a feature of Russian procurement, since it allows the Ministry of Defense to keep shipyards busy and employed building countless corvette variants, most of which will feature the same families of weapon systems. Part of the problem is also that the Russian Navy is learning what it wants—and what works—by building three to four ships in a class and then determining that changes should be made. The transition, like all remodeling jobs, is messy and will continue to look this way into the 2020s.

The Russian Navy Looks Best Underwater

Like the Soviet fleet, the Russian Navy’s best ships are submarines. This force is perhaps one fifth the size of its Soviet predecessor. Russia’s SSN roster includes ten Akulas, eight Oscars, three Victor IIIs, and perhaps three Sierras. The SSBN fleet has six Delta IVs and three Delta IIIs, along with three of the eight new Borei-class being built. The diesel-electric force consists of fourteen Project 877 kilos, six improved Project 636.3 kilos in the Black Sea Fleet, with another six being built for the Pacific Fleet.

While some of these submarines will begin to age into the 2020s and 2030s, several have had life extension and modernization packages already applied, and most have seen little in terms of operations through much of the 1990s and 2000s. Currently, a number of Russia’s SSNs and SSGNs are sitting in slipways receiving upgrades. Many of these subs have not been ridden very hard, and given Russian naval strategy centered on defending maritime approaches, they don’t have to venture far from home. Some believe that Russia’s submarine fleet is quickly approaching the end of its collective life span by 2030 and can’t be replaced in time. On the off chance they’re completely wrong, anyone thinking about forced-entry operations, or an easy trip into a Russian SSBN bastion, should probably bring life rafts.

Russia plans to upgrade some Akulas and Oscars, perhaps half, with new systems and missiles. In the case of the Oscar SSGNs, the conversion will produce a seventy-two missile package, with Kalibr or Oniks loaded. The rest will be retired, probably leaving Russia with four to six Akulas, four Oscars and no Victor IIIs by 2030. Sierra-class submarines will stay on since their titanium hulls are likely to outlive most of the readers of this article. Meanwhile Russia is building five more Borei-class SSBNs, and is completing the second ship of the Yasen-class SSGN (known in the United States as Severodvinsk-class), the Kazan. The Kazan (Project 885M) is an improved version of the Severodvinsk and the true lead ship in this class. Five more have been laid down, although given the submarine’s high cost, Russia is unlikely to build all of them, and might cap the class at a total of six or seven.

Despite the problems in Russian shipbuilding, submarine construction has actually fared quite well. Russia can produce a diesel-electric Kilo in about eighteen months, and can complete an order of six quite quickly. The entire diesel-electric fleet could be replaced with upgraded Project 636.3 submarines in eight to ten years. These submarines are cheap, quiet and can range much of the critical infrastructure in Europe with their Kalibr missiles. Success with air-independent propulsion continues to elude Russian engineers, but the 677 Lada-class is still going ahead in limited production as a tentative improvement on the Kilo.

The eight new SSBNs are due to be completed by 2021, and seven Yasen-class SSGNs by 2023. Assuming these deadlines slip to the right, as they always do, it would probably still leave Russia with eight new SSBNs and six advanced SSGNs by the mid-2020s. The refit packages on Akulas and Oscars will make Russia’s submarine fleet more multipurpose and versatile, allowing the same ships to perform new missions.

In the interim, Russia is designing a fifth-generation submarine that will serve as the base for a new SSN, SSGN and follow-on SSBN. These ships are intended to be modular, and the SSN variant particularly cheap to produce. Russia currently has twelve nuclear-powered submarines in construction or laid down. Not all are being worked on, but it’s evident that Russia can build quite a few nuclear-powered submarines at the same time. Assuming the first fifth-generation submarines are laid down by 2023–2025, Russia could begin recapitalizing retiring Soviet submarines by early 2030s. Most likely the Russian Navy will have thirteen less SSNs and SSGNs by 2030, made up for by six new Yasen-class SSGNs along with whatever additional submarines are built between 2025–2030.

The Yasen-class is of special note, since it is integral to Russia’s strategy of holding the U.S. homeland at risk in the event of a conflict. According to official statements, the submarine is the most technologically advanced adversary the United States faces in the undersea domain. Yes, Russia can only afford to build a handful, but this should bring little comfort and no cause for cheer. A single Yasen-class in the Atlantic can deliver thirty-two nuclear-tipped Kalibr missiles to the east coast. This is not a submarine one needs to have in large numbers.

Russia also has another navy, the one less heard from, called the General Directorate of Undersea Research (GUGI). This fleet has special purpose submarines based on modified Soviet designs, like the Podmoskovye Delta-stretch SSBN. Some are meant as motherships for smaller submarines, others perhaps to deploy drones, new weapon systems, or engage in innovative forms of undersea interdiction. Belgorod, a modified Oscar II, is currently under construction for this fleet as well. You may not spend much time thinking about GUGI, but GUGI is probably thinking about you.

Looking over the Horizon

The Russia’s defense industry still has plenty of problems to work through, from dysfunctional air-defense systems that struggle with integration, to air-independent propulsion that refuses to work. Nevertheless, there are interesting trends afoot based on the past several years of shipbuilding. Russian ship classes are staying the same in name, but the ships themselves are getting bigger. Note the Stereguichy corvette started at 2,200 tons when it was Project 20380, then it became 2,500 tons as Project 20385 (Gremyashchiy), and then it was laid down for 3,400 tons when modified to Project 20386 (Derzky). Similarly, rather than build some obscene nuclear-powered seventeen-thousand-ton destroyer, the Russian Navy seems set to expand the Gorshkov frigate class into a “super” Gorshkov. This might become a pocket destroyer, with one thousand to two thousand additional tons of displacement and more firepower. Corvette designs are also shifting towards “heavy” corvettes in the 3,500–4,000 ton range.

At first glance the Russian Navy appears to be the loser in the upcoming state armament program, soon to be announced in September. In reality, it will lose fairly little. The inane super projects like nuclear-powered destroyers and LHDs were unfunded, saving the Russian Navy from its occasional indulgence of maritime power megalomania, and instead focusing it on more pragmatic spending. Russia’s frigate program will continue once the gas-turbine problem is solved, but likely with a substantial redesign. The countless new systems introduced with the Gorshkov class all need to be worked out anyway.

In the interim the Russian Navy will remain a mess, but one that is slowly being cleaned up. The “kalibrzation” of the Russian Navy will continue, more Kalibr missile shooters, larger magazines and higher missile counts in storage. Russia will continue pumping out diesel and nuclear-powered submarines and refitting some of the existing Soviet platforms with current generation offensive systems as a cost-saving measure.

While the coming years will be spent on system integration and working out the problems in shipbuilding, new generation weapon systems—like hypersonic missiles—are already in development. For all its woes, the Russian Navy is actually in better shape than it ever has been in the post–Cold War period. Today ships and submarines are staffed entirely by contract servicemen, with conscripts used for shore duties. On the whole this is a service trying to recover from some of the worst decades in its history, but the Russian admiralty has room for cautious optimism.

There are still plenty of deficits to point to, but the Russian Navy isn’t going anywhere; when you look at the trend lines over the near to midterm, they are actually positive. Russia is building a navy that makes sense for its strategy. It is transitioning to a green-water force by design, while retaining and investing in capabilities that will allow it to deter or threaten stronger maritime powers for decades to come. So the next time you hear that the Russian Navy is disappearing, Russia is running out of people, out of money, or out of business, and want to test this theory, just remember to pack a life raft.

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.

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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.

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