Zapad watch – summary of day six

We’ve almost made it, only one day to go. What could possibly go wrong? Seriously speaking though, other exercises starting up in the Far East suggest that some drills will continue past the September 20th date. Key activities:

  • VDV conducted air drop, raiding, and airbase assault
  • Kaliningrad repelled an enemy attack with a task organized BTG
  • Russia’s Navy fought off surface action groups and amphibious landings in the Barents with ship borne, submarine, and CDCM launches
  • Ground forces employed Iskander-K (R-500)
  • Eastern MD went on alert in preparation for a larger ground force exercise while Central MD’s Tajikistan base also began to run drills
  • VKS were busy intercepting enemy airpower and incoming cruise missiles

BLUF: Russian forces transitioned from simulated to actual strikes and offensive operations. R-500 GLCM was launched from Leningrad Oblast in Western MD. All in all, there was a healthy demonstration of Russia’s long range precision guided munitions, submarine, ship, coastal defense and ground launched. Horizontal escalation could be seen in the Eastern and Central MD. Scenarios unfolded expecting strikes in Central MD, and Eastern MD troops prepared for a large scale exercise in their district to repel ground forces.


Osipovichsky range – Russian and Belarusian ground forces stopped NATO’s advance at the range, 4th Division’s newest motor rifle regiment continues the fight with T-80BV tanks. Artillery units engaged with Tornado-G, MSTA-S, Giatsint, BM-21 Grad. Belarus used Mi-8MTV-5 to ferry Russian airborne units onto the battlefield. Mi-28Ns provided air support in repelling the enemy. Belarusian drones Busel and Berkyt were employed to recon and target enemy positions for their MLRS detachments using BM-30 Smerch and Polonez. Not all went to plan – the weather was terrible and there was a 30 minute operational pause between defense and counter-attack – apparently someone important had to arrive to see the latter part.

T-80BV of 4th Division MRR

Borisovsky – Various combined groupings including VDV, artillery and combat aviation had a day of fighting. Here 6th Tank BDE from 1st Guards Tank Army. Spetsnaz units were shown for the first time, and they highlighted the employment of KRUS ‘Strelets’ systems for navigation, reconnaissance and communication.

Spez Borisovsky

Western MD, where a lot of the action continues (and the occasional live fire accident)

Luzhsky range – Everything was going well, until it wasn’t. A Ka-52 fired S-8 rockets near a crowd of observers. Unclear if it was a weapon malfunction or a judgment malfunction. Three people were hurt, plus a Leer-3 EW vehicle designed to command specialized Orlan drones.

Here is a video of the stike:

There’s a site with the helicopter’s gun camera

Here is the Leer-3 afterwards.

damaged Kamaz after Ka-52 strike

Pantsir-S1 air defense units practiced against low flying targets, with a An-2 simulating enemies at 50m altitude and 200km speed. Aerosol and smoke cover provided by specialized CBRN support troops. MTO troops continued to do MTO things, lots of fascinating stats were provided on number of mobile kitchens setup, etc.

Luzhsky range 2

Iskander R-500 cruise missile launches. As promised, they went from electronically simulated strikes to actual launches of cruise missiles today. Luzhsky range same some solid escalation.


R-500 launch 3.jpg

Electronic Warfare – Apparently for the first time in exercises EW troops deployed the RB-109A Bylina automatic control system that greatly increases the effectiveness of EW systems, and more importantly eliminates EW fratricide in terms one’s own comms systems. There’s not been much talk about what EW systems are actually being used, although Leer-3 drone EW system has been show multiple times.

VKS Aerospace Forces – Mig-31BMs were busy intercepting incoming cruise missiles fired by enemy planes. They were also engaged in a large air defense operation, intercepting 30 enemy targets approaching the practice ranges in Leningrad Oblast.

VDV Airborne – Another parachuting exercise took place at Strugi Krasniye near Pskov, conducted by the 76h Division based there. Looks like they dropped again near the range, perhaps a different battalion though – since this one had BMD-4Ms in it. Poor weather notwithstanding the drop was made at 800m, with about one battalion of 400 troops and 10 vehicles. After  landing they assaulted an enemy airfield. Then the units conducted a raid with BMD-4M and BTR-MD Rakushka, crossing a some water obstacle in the process (perhaps a small river), and overcoming the muddy ground in the area.

VDV landing

Yep that’s mud

VDV raiding party

Northern Fleet – Peter the Great (Kirov-class) launched five SS-N-19 anti-ship missiles in the Barents Sea at a simulated adversary, together with Admiral Ushakov, which fired a Moskit missile. Alongside the surface action group the live fire exercise was joined by Voronezh and Orel, two Oscar-II SSGNs. Ships in different positions converged missiles on targets at 200-300km range. The goal was to integrate a surface action group, SSGNs, and maritime aviation to service an enemy SAG at sea.

Bastion-P complexes back at the tip of Teriberskiy also fired on enemy forces at sea – range 400km. Yes, that’s right, according to them it was 400km for a complex that officially has a range of 350km in anti-ship  roles 🙂 Bastion goes up to 450km but this supposedly is against surface targets in high-high flight profile trajectory which is not what they were testing. From Kotelniy Island, Rubezh fired two Termit missiles (vintage shorter range systems) at 50km range. An Udaloy class destroyer also conducted live fire drills in the same area. This was the “Arctic defense” part of the exercise. Official numbers for Northern Fleet participation are 5,000 troops and 300 pieces of equipment.

Baltic Fleet/Kaliningrad – Pravdinsky range where most of the Baltic Fleet’s 11th Army Corps is drilling had its largest day of battle. BMD-2 vehicles suggest VDV was present in support of motor rifle units together with artillery. Orlan-10 and Grusha drones were employed throughout training, while naval aviation provided  support (Su-24 + Su-34). They also had Platforma-M combat UGVs. The mission was straightforward, they found a ‘diversionary group’ and had to march 60km to engage it. The forces were task organized with units from the motor rifle regiment, reinforced by artillery, and airborne units. After forcing a retreat, with Mi-24 helicopters and MLRS systems the enemy was chased down and destroyed.  Weather continued to be poor, nothing but rain.

Baltic Fleet.jpg

Bal coastal defense units engaged enemy ships with anti-ship missiles along with those fired by a Steregushchiy corvette. The coastal defense missile battery hit a target at sea, while one of the corvettes fired a Uran missiles (sea based variant of same Kh-35). Enemy forces  supposedly had jamming and EW. Unclear how that was simulated, perhaps another ship since they were also practicing EW at sea.


Black Sea Fleet – Admiral Grigorovich frigate and the fleet’s newest corvette, Vyshniy Volochek, put to sea for some sea trials and practiced air defense. Turks are visiting Novorossiysk with a LST for some sort of port of call.

Southern MD – Logistics units in Abkhazia, at the Tsabal range, trained in deploying a modern mobile communications system (Redut) in mountainous terrain which allows one to setup a unified radio communications network. They practiced setting up 32m antenna masts to establish a 2 mbps/sec network. This is much lower bandwidth than what’s up at Western MD but still quite interesting. The soldiers worked to setup communications at different frequencies and video conferencing (wonder how well their VTC technology works, and if its anything like ours…). Around 300 servicemen and 100 pieces of specialized equipment took part. Some named pieces of kit include Artek station mounted on a BTR-80, satellite communications Liven on an Ural base, radiorelay L1 on Kamaz.

southen MD Redut setup

Eastern MD – About 3000 troops and 500 pieces of equipment are deploying various drills on Sakhalin. Their large scale exercise is just beginning it seems. The war finally spread to the far east, and they too must find enemy recon groups and prepare to defend against enemy ground forces. T-72B tanks, BM-27 Uragan, BM-21 Grad and Giatsint-S systems will be deployed. Drone support includes Orlan and Zastava, while air support consists of Su-25s and Mi-8AMTSh helicopters. Supposedly various flamethrower units will be used as well.  In Zabaykalsky Krai (borders Mongolia) Russian S-300 units began drills in defending key MoD infrastructure. About 200 servicemen and 40 pieces of equipment involved.

Far East MD troops

Central MD -Tajikistan suddenly came alive. Seems Russian soldiers from 201st based there were airlifted to seize the command post of enemy bandits/diversionary groups. CBRN troops deployed heavy smoke and aerosols to cover movement of forces. Meanwhile in Republic of Khakassia railway forces began training in bridge laying 4 bridges with a cumulative length of 1000m across a river.  The scenario is quite interesting, some naughty adversary fired PGMs and destroyed the railway bridge over the river Enisey. Hence about 1500 servicemen and 550 pieces of specialized equipment have been raised on alert to restore the railway link across the river. Interesting assumption that Russian interior lines of communication could be severed at this stage of the conflict and railway troops are ready to be summoned in order to restore them (could be US or China really that’s to blame).

railway troops CMD

Notable photos:

Spetsnaz kill (element of surprise possibly ruined by photographer standing right there)

the surprize attack might have been ruined by the photographer being present.jpg

Foreign observers (is that a selfie moment in progress?)


Zapad watch – summary of day five

With phase two in full swing and Vladimir Putin now observing, there is action almost everywhere. The past few days have been lively, and somewhat hard to cover so in this post I’m summarizing some other MD’s events that were glossed over earlier.

BLUF: Russian forces are having a conventional high end fight across a 600km front in the Western MD, fleets are defending against enemy amphibious landings, airborne units are doing more drops, missile regiments have started live fire exercises with you guessed it – missiles. So we have horizontal escalation to different fronts and vertical escalation with Russian forces launching SRBM/Cruise missile strikes. The Russian Navy is defending littorals and maritime approaches as expected, recons strike complex is being tested in support of artillery, while airborne and ground forces are working together in defeating concentrated enemy formations. Special designation and special purpose units are also quite active across the districts.


Osipovichskiy Range: The new Motor Rifle Regiment (423rd) of the 4th Division (1st Guards Tank Army) is training here with armor, motorized infantry, artillery, and air defense units. Seems this regiment was snapped together with a T-80BV battalion supporting it (4th DIV still has T-80 variants). My understanding is that a 3rd maneuver regiment was added to this division as of last year and is slowly being manned and equipped. MTO and engineering units are busy with camouflage and fortifications, meanwhile the T-80s are running a tank carousel, i.e. shoot and scoot drills.T-80

Another participant at this range is Belarus’ 120th Separate Motor Rifle Brigade, they fielded armor, artillery and air defense in support of Russian forces. (4th Tank Division also seems to be in Syria supporting the push outside Deir-ez-Zor with pontoon bridges and logistics, so this unit is basically everywhere right now).

smerch 2

Borisovsky range is active too, but I gave it lots of coverage during the last post. Suffice to say they’re still winning over there and no doubt NATO forces are dying left and right.

Western MD

Luzhsky range (outside Luga) – As expected Putin came to Luzhsky range in Leningrad Oblast for the main event. There he took some lazy photo ops pretending to hold binoculars without looking at them, because they had large monitors setup in front of the glass showing the events, which were also taking place right in front of the window. Russian MoD brought out newer T-90M, T-80BVM upgrade and BMPT to show off in front of the leadership.

Large monitor screens in front of the window somewhat block the binoculars, he’s just holding them seemingly annoyed for the photographer to take this photo op

Putin and crew

Not even faking it

Putin and Gerasimov.JPG

Su-24Ms did a large bombing run at the range, while Su-25s were busy killing enemy convoys. Su-24MP recon variants provided targeting data, along with drones. Mi-28Ns, Ka-52s and Mi-35M helicopters all had a busy day.

Mi-28N at Luzhsky.JPG

Russian forces practiced employing drones as part of a recon strike complex, including artillery recon systems such as Aistenok, targeting and communications system Strelets, along with artillery systems MSTA-B, MSTA-S, BM-21 Grad, and Sani. The goal was to practice command and control of different types of forces, together with EW and air defense units in support, while recon assets fed targeting data in real time. Seems they were using precision munitions too, Krasnopol and Smelchak.

Lots of different types of units drilling at Luzhsky today and Strugi Krasniye (where the 76th Pskov seems to be). Sprut and Shturm-S tank destroyers got to do live fire exercises, along with Kornet ATGMs and Shmels with thermobaric rounds. Engineers practiced demining with UR-77 systems, while combat medics trained in evacuating the wounded from the field of battle. Russian and Belarusian MP units are guarding field command posts, defusing enemy IEDs and the like.

Bridging and MTO

At Kaputsin Yar in Astrakhan, news read that Iskander-M units ran combat launches at 480km range, hitting Makat fire range. In reality it seems to have been R-500 cruise missile variant.

Units named so far as participating include 25th Separate Motor Rifle Brigade, 138th Motor Rifle Brigade and 2nd Tamanskaya Division. About 600km wide front in terms of engagement according to Col-General Kartapolov, cdr of Western MD.

T-90M and BMPT at Luzhsky

T-90M and BMPT

VDV (Airborne) – The big day has basically arrived, VDV Divisions from Tula, Ivanovo and Pskov which had been first raised on alert on the 14th began marches to training ranges and loading onto Il-76s. 76th had already been engaged and doing combat drops, while 98th was getting ready for a drop yesterday. Looks like they did an air drop in bad weather later during the day, rain and low altitude cloud cover. I would expect 400-450 troops per air drop + 9-10 vehicles based on the preparations reported previously. About 10 Il-76s employed, seems the drop zone was Luzhsky range. One battalion from each division is likely to do an air drop during this exercise.

Before drop

vdv airborne

At the range


VKS (Aerospace Forces) – 6th Air and Air Defense Army had a lively day. Weather was bad, but Su-35s escorted Il-76s with VDV onboard to the drop zones. Combat aviation supported the airborne during their drop. Meanwhile Tu-22M3s practiced bombing runs against targets.

Northern Fleet – Peter the Great’s (Kirov-class) surface action group with a Sovremenny destroyer ran live fire exercises defending against enemy forces attempting to land marines on Sredniy Peninsula (just north of Murmansk). Enemy marines also tried to land on Ribachi peninsula to seize strategically vital terrain, where they were met with Russian naval infantry. Apparently Russian units, formed as a reinforced battalion, had to travel 100km to engage the assaulting marines with Su-24Ms and Mi-8 helicopters in support. About 600 naval infantry, 12 BTR-82As, and several artillery  units  were involved. Drones were use to correct ship artillery fire.

North Fleet Naval Inf.JPG

Baltic Fleet – Russian naval infantry and special designation units were busy at Khmelevka range and defending against enemy landings. Some of Baltic Fleet’s naval infantry took positions on the beach, holding ground in Kaliningrad. They dug in with T-72B1 tanks, BMP-2s, tank destroyers and other hardware. Naval infantry also conducted an amphibious landing from LST’s with BTR-82As swimming ashore and Ka-27 helicopters unloading infantry on the beach. Seems to have been a lively scene, Mi-35Ms were overhead, lots of flares and smoke. Photos suggest some units were practicing mine laying just off the beach as well. At Pravdinsky range Spetz units were busy with tactical exercises taking out diversionary groups and ‘illegal armed formations,’ basically urban assault against  infiltrators in buildings. Everyone seems to be complaining that the weather was bad. CBRN troops were working on fighting chemical weapons on a floating platform just off the beach.

Baltic Naval Infantry landing

LST landing.jpg

Defending force

more naval infantry photos

You can tell its raining (looks like B1/BA mix)

Pravdinsky in the raine.jpg

Black Sea Fleet – Outside Novorossiysk, in Tsemes Bay, the BSF nailed an enemy submarine (sorry Turkey). Apparently it tried to sneak in while enemy high speed boats were distracting the defending ships. The enemy submarine manage to land enemy divers, but specialized Russian PDSS diver units found them, meanwhile a small anti-submarine ship (Povorino) sunk the enemy submarine with depth charges. Situational awareness provided by Orlan-10 and Electron drones. BSF minesweepers and small missile boats (about 2) were also involved in various drills outside Sevastopol, minesweeping, artillery and missile fires, etc. Be-12 maritime patrol craft and Su-30SMs supported the operations.

Eastern MD – In Khabarovsk the Eastern MD began some sort of ‘special tactical training’ with Spetz units. Seems they did an air drop by parachute and via Mi-8AMTsh helicopters at night. Probably a Spetsnaz unit. In Primorye, at Turgenevsky trange, specialized units in CBRN trained in dealing with chemical warfare. Apparently enemy diversionary groups got this far and had chemical weapons with them. Although part of the exercise seems to be dealing with potential chemical or ammonia leaks from a factory, evacuating civilians, clearing gases and chemicals, so it is perhaps oriented towards consequences of damage to industrial facilities. A host of specialized equipment being used: RHM-6, TMS-65U, ARS-14KM, and smoke machines for cover TDA-3 (the latter part is to cover the movement of ground forces). About one battalion, 500 men and 100 vehicles involved in this exercise.

eastern md.jpg

Southern MD (catching up on this one) – 8th Combined Arms Army, the latest CAA setup with Ukraine as its primary contingency, concluded its exercise at the Prydboi (Volgograd oblast) training range. The news is odd, says concluded but other info suggests the exercise is still ongoing. A mix of units including T-90A, BMP-3, MSTA-S, Tornado-G, and 120mm Hosta were involved. Drones were also an important part of the exercise, providing real time situational awareness to commanders, reconnaissance of routes for armored columns, etc. About 2000 men and 500 pieces of equipment were involved from motor rifle detachments of the Southern MD based in Rostov and Volgograd regions. Artillery units participating counted 500 men and 100 various systems.  Seems they’re wrapping up as the main piece  of Zapad is just launching, likely offset so as not to scare neighboring countries too much.

Fairly large scale exercise with elements of the 49th CAA taking place, including Stavropol, Krasnodar regions, and Abkhazia. Motor Rifle units from a mountain brigade in Karachay-Cherkessia (Stavropol) had been drilling since September 15 at Zalenchyski range. Seems about 1300 men and 250 pieces of equipment listed, drilling with Olran-10 drones, EW companies, Spetz units, and specialized logistics detachments. They even used horses from the logistics unit, which apparently has 80 of them, to drag a Podnos mortar unit onto one of the mountains at 4000m altitude.

Central MD – Air Defense Units have been practicing at Ashylyk in Astrakhan throughout the Zapad exercise, but it is somewhat co-mingled with the ‘Combat Commonwealth 2017’ exercise done with CIS members. A bit hard to tell which is which 🙂  Anyway in Tuva a mountain motor rifle brigade was concluding its exercises. They fielded a BTG against an enemy equipped with drones, EW, and other high end equipment. About 1000 men, 100 pieces of equipment were involved. This seems to be the light brigade in Central MD, based on Tigr vehicles.


Earlier on during the exercise at Totsk range in Orenburg artillery and armor units from Central MD ran live fire exercises with T-72B3 tanks and MLRS systems, about 2000 men and 400 pieces of equipment listed for that one. I hadn’t mentioned it earlier because those units in Orenburg were raised on alert 12th September, before Zapad started (sneaky sneaky) and hence was never part of my coverage. Meanwhile about 1000 men from an air defense units were drilling at Kaputsin Yar, with Tunguska, Buk-M2, Tor-M1 and Strela-10.


Notable photos:

Russian psychological eval unit torturing soldiers in preparation for exercise (looks like they’re picking out wall paint colors)

physchological preparation

Deputy commander of 3rd MRR 4th Division and his command kit (lots of colors)

here is the tank battalion deputy commander

Baltic Fleet CBRN unit (this looks like fun)


Teenage angst in T-80BV

not having the best day.jpg

Zapad watch – summary of day four

Phase Two of Zapad is upon us, i.e. the main stage of the exercise. Most of the designated forces have arrived at their ranges, dug in and started exercises. At sea simulated electronic fires took place, but will turn into actual launches in the coming days. Putin is coming on Monday to the live fire exercises in Leningrad Oblast (Luzhsky range outside Luga) so everyone has to look really good at whatever they’re doing tomorrow. Odds are the big show really kicks off when he gets there.

BLUF: Russian ground forces spent the day fighting NATO formations, airborne units, and leveling things with artillery. Logistics units were busily setting up fuel dumps, comm systems, forward command posts and the like. Engineers and sappers worked on demining. The Navy got really busy, sinking NATO submarines in the Baltic and wiping out surface action groups in the Barents, while VKS and combat aviation provided close air support.


Borisovsky Training Range (right outside Borisov in Belarus): Latest T-72B3s from 1st Guards Tank Army continued practice at the range, this is likely 6th Separate Tank Brigade and maybe elements of the 4th Kantemirovskaya Division. They wiped out remaining diversionary groups and of course crushed the enemy’s main forces. Other ranges, including Luzhsky, Pravdinsky, and Strugi Krasniye had similar tasks.

T-72B3 + BMPs

The Western MD’s independent MTO brigade (material technical support) setup a fuel dump at Borisovksy supposedly big enough for 120 tanker trucks (600 cubic meters of different fuel types).

If you want to see what real maskirovka looks like when done by professionals, you have to check out the situation around Borisovsky. It’s quite impressive.

BRM-1K recon vehicle (gold medal for camo job)

BRM-1K recon

Forests around the range full of polite looking people


Waiting for NATO (sorry Veishnoria or whatever)

Osipovichskiy Training Range (outside Asipovichy in Belarus): Russian detachments began taking up defensive positions, while sapper units practiced demining. Seems things are just getting started at this range, but probably will host live fire exercises from airborne and ground units in the coming days.

(hope this photo is right, it’s what the MoD posted but that’s no guarantee of accuracy)

BMDs at Osipovichskiy

Western MD

Luzhsky Training Range (at Luga): MSTA-S artillery and mortar units spent the day in live fire exercises at Luga. These appear to be from the artillery regiment assigned to the Tamanskaya Division (1st Guards Tank Army). Other equipment included MSTA-B and BM-21 Grad.

Judging from the photos the weather was uncooperative.

looks like rain

Motor rifle units are practicing here as well, apparently they engaged and wiped out enemy airborne units after drawing them into a kill zone. In this scenario the NATO airborne units were mounted on high mobility but lightly armored equipment, meanwhile Russian forces consisted of a tank battalion and self-propelled artillery in support. It sounds like Operation Market Garden all over again and Russian forces got to play the role of the Panzer division.

2nd Division practicing fires

UAV units are also training at Luga, supposedly more than 30 systems have been employed for recon and ISR, particularly to provide targeting coordinates for artillery. Apparently aerostats, or unmanned balloons are also being used. Su-25s were overhead as well destroying enemy armored columns with Su-35s providing air cover. Seems mostly unguided rocket and gun fire.


Combat aviation took out over 20 enemy vehicles, helicopters training include Ka-52 and Mi-28N. Their job was recon and close air support. Same as Su-25s, training only listed unguided weapons – possibly saving money given there are three more days. Su-24s did some bombing runs at a range in Kaliningrad to wipe out enemy command points and other fixed targets.

Some new command and control equipment is being tested out this time at Zapad, including a high bandwidth system (1MB-20GB). There was news early on a few days ago of logistics units setting up this communications system.

VDV Airborne – VDV were busy setting field command posts and communications equipment for encrypted comms. Their range seems to be Strugi Krasniye near Pskov where the 76th is based.

Raining here too


VKS Aerospace Forces – Ground based air defense and air superiority fighters were busy defending against enemy air strikes. S-400, S-300, Pantsir-S1 were working with radar systems Nebo, Kasta and Podlet, along with command and control system Fundament. Air cover provided by Mig-31, Su-35s, and Su-27 variants. Enemy forces as usual were simulated by Russian forces, including combat aviation. Apparently Tu-22M3 bombers practiced attack runs at low and high altitude. Seems this is taking place by Kaliningrad and likely the range near Luga.

Northern Fleet – A surface action group led by Peter the Great (Kirov-class guided missile cruiser) launched anti-ship missiles at an amphibious landing group in the Barents Sea (the actual enemy stand ins were tugs SB-523 and Nikolay Chiker). Targeting support provided by Il-38 from naval aviation and it seems a SSN was also around to finish off the enemy with torpedo attacks. For now strikes are being simulated electronically but supposedly live fire missile strikes are yet to come in the next 3 days.

Two Oscar II SSGNs (Project 949A) ventured out and sunk an enemy surface action group in the Barents Sea. Scouting was first done by a diesel-electric Kilo (877) from the Kola Flotilla together with a Tu-142 long range maritime patrol aircraft. These were simulated fires with live fire exercises still to come, but the setup was interesting.


Baltic Fleet – The Baltic Fleet had a good day, seems their Ka-27PL helicopters found and sunk an enemy submarine with depth charges – and then they supported the rest of the fleet in sinking another one. That’s two NATO submarines sunk in a day’s work.

Southern MD – Ashylyk range near Astrakhan is hosting various air defense exercises although it’s unclear if they’re part of Zapad or another multinational event that’s supposed to take place called Combat Commonwealth 2017. Su-34s are also drilling overhead. Combat Commonwealth 2017 began on September 4th, with countries of the CIS including Belarus, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyz Republic and Armenia. These will feature air defense, aerospace forces and combat aviation.

Eastern MD – PLA Navy ships arrived in Vladivostok in preparation for upcoming naval exercises with the Pacific Fleet which will take place 18-26 September. Phase one will be coastal defense and phase two at sea north of Hokkaido with 11 ships involved altogether.

Notable photos:

BMP-2 (someone went pro at maskirovka olympics)

best maskirovka ever

Artillery fire near Luga

Luga artillery live fire

MSTA-S being camouflaged (really strange looking trees)

ugly trees

T-90M and BMPT are making an appearance at the training range by Luga


Zapad watch – summary of day three

Well the good news is that phase one ended today and we’re all still here. The bad news is that means phase two starts tomorrow. Phase one is best summarized as the defensive component of the exercise. Russian forces spent their time sorting out command and control, deploying forces to theater and forming a regional combat grouping out of the different types of forces under their command, along with planning out strategic operations. I guess phase two is when they’re going to do NATO rotten.

In phase one the VKS spent its time defending key civilian infrastructure, conducting reconnaissance, escorting rebasing long range aviation and taking down enemy cruise missiles in coordination with ground based air defense. Borisovksy and Osipovichesky practice ranges saw lots of action today, where  enemy diversionary groups were successfully taken out.

The results of phase one are in: Russia and Belarus successfully defended against an attack from NATO members and inflicted high costs during the enemy’s advance. Phase Two will involve maneuver warfare and offensive operations to destroy adversary forces, along with a strong focus on logistics. The ranges hosting most of the live fire exercises include Borisovsky in Belarus and Luga in Leningrad Oblast (south of St Petersburg)

BLUF: Russian forces spent their time conducting strikes with fixed wing and rotary aviation, armor and artillery units engaged the enemy, VDV was busy shooting down drones, logistics units and engineers had a lot of work supporting operations, and the Baltic Fleet sortied out to fight.

VKS (Aerospace Forces) – Su-35s escorted Su-34s on strike missions. The Su-34s hit targets at Kingisep practice range, wiping out enemy armored formations and mechanized infantry. Su-24MPs did the recon ahead of the Su-34 strike package (which is odd given there are plenty of drones now to do this type of job). Seems this was an exercise chiefly with dumb unguided bombs, leveraging SVP-24 Gefest system for more accurate bombing with unguided munitions. Other VKS units spent their time dogfighting and striking enemy logistics units. Su-27s and Su-24s stood in for enemy forces. The Russian air superiority team included Su-27s, Su-35s, Su-30SMs and Mig-31s. Their target set ranged from enemy aircraft to cruise missiles.

VDV (Airborne) – Detachments from the three divisions involved in Zapad were busy with air defense against enemy drones, namely the 76th at Pskov. Seems they shot down more than 40 drones with Strela-10M, Igla MANPADS and ZU-23 artillery. Other VDV units focused on command and control, setting up field units with Polet-K and Andromeda-D systems (based on BTR platforms). Supposedly 30 command vehicles were deployed during this phase, setting up comms in the 500-2000km range. VDV detachments from 106th Tula Division tried out new gear for the first time during an exercise, seems BMD-4M and BTR-MDM (Rakushka). No word on what the 98th was doing, but no doubt they’re winning somewhere.

VDV command and control.jpg

Seems another battalion of VDV is getting ready for airdrop, 400 soldiers and 10 vehicles aboard 10 Il-76s are getting ready according to the MoD.

Meanwhile in Belarus

At the Borisovsky range MSTA-S self-propelled artillery took up positions, while armored columns from 1st Tank Guards Army (likely 6th BDE) arrived to shoot things. Most of the action was at Osipovichsky and Borisovsky ranges, where diversionary-reconnaissance groups were being killed all day long. Supposedly the weather is less than amenable, but elements of the 1st Tank Army are at the training ranges as planned. Seems this is the first exercise where the latest variants of T-72B3 tanks are being tried out, presumably this is the upgrade with a better engine and sidescreens.


MTO units (material-technical support) were busy setting up repair fields to restore damaged equipment at the live fire ranges in Belarus. Their job is to train in evacuating and repairing damaged tanks and mechanized equipment. The unit in question is the Western MD’s independent MTO brigade. Some of the gear includes KET-L, BTS-4, along with BZEM-K and TPM, along with MTO-UB-2 Ural. The MTO brigade brought mobile repair shops with it, equipped with BAKM 1040 BK cranes.

MTO units.jpg

Russian military police on BTR-82As practiced receiving surrenders of wounded enemy soldiers. NATO diversionary groups had a rough day at several points and had to give up.


Western MD

2nd Tamanskaya Division (1st Guards Tank Army) finally showed itself. It’s artillery regiment was at Luga  firing from MSTA-B towed artillery and BM-21 Grad MLRS. Iskander-M and older Tochka-U missile units were busy simulated electronic fires in Leningrad Oblast, presumably these are missile regiments from Kaliningrad which still has Tochka-U and Leningrad Oblast which was upgraded to Iskanders a long time ago. Their targets were massed enemy armor formations in the 30-100km range. Other artillery and mortar units involved in this live fire exercise employed 2S12 Sani mortars, 2B14 Podnos mortars, and Tornado MLRS.

Engineer-sapper units were supplying drinking water using SKO-10 purifying stations, along with three square meals a day. This is apparently an accomplishment. Others were busy clearing mine fields ahead of the ground forces’ advance.  Meanwhile MTO units in Leningrad Oblast were practiced extraction and repair of damaged armor and mechanized equipment near the Luga firing range. Other duties included your run of the mill setting up field bases, ammo dumps, repair and overhaul facilities. They spent the day repairing T-72B3 tanks, BTR-82A APCs, and BMP-2 IFVs.

Mi-35M, Ka-52, and Mi-8AMTSh helicopters from the combat aviation brigade were also at the Luga training range destroying enemy armor and equipment. S-400, S-300 and Pantsir-S1 systems were deployed to provide air defense in the region.

Mi-35 at luga.jpg

Not much word from other districts, somewhat drowned out by all the inane awards from the Army 2017 games. It seems Russia’s info operation sees Zapad 2017 and the Army games as on par in importance.

Central MD – S-400 units moved out to Ashylyk range in Astrakhan near the border with Kazakhstan.

Central MD S-400.jpg

Baltic Fleet – 11th Army Corps had a lot on their hands in Kaliningrad. Some practiced urban assault and retaking positions held by diversionary groups. The T-72B1 equipped tank battalion rolled out to engage enemy forces supported by artillery detachments with 2S3 Akatsya, BM-21 Grads and towed artillery. The 11th Army Corps has somewhat antiquated equipment but it’s good enough.

The Baltic Fleet’s minesweepers ventured out, including two project 12700 and three older project 10750s, to practice clearing contact and non-contact mines. Four Steregushchiy-class corvettes were busy with air defense drills. Russian Su-24s and Ka-27 helicopters served as simulated enemy targets. The corvettes ran short range live fire exercises and over the horizon drills against enemy coastal defenses that were beyond visual sight. About 20 ships of various classes sortied out from the Baltic Fleet, including the bigger corvettes, missile boats and minesweepers.

Notable photos:

Russia’s MoD started the day off by tweeting ‘good morning’ with this photo

good morning vietnam.jpg

Sappers clearing mines (I don’t know why but spacemen with flyswatters look funny)

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


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.


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



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.


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)


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.


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.


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)


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