Assessing Vostok-2018

I’d like to close out coverage of Vostok 2018 with a brief summary and analysis of the exercise, which was written for Oxford’s CCW Russia Brief, Issue 3. I strongly recommend the issue briefs from Oxford’s changing character of war program, which feature some of the best experts on the Russian armed forces in the field.

Russia’s annual strategic exercises offer an important window into the evolution of the Russian armed forces, their ability to mobilize, deploy, and command large groupings of forces, together with the latest capabilities. The recently held Vostok-2018 (September 11-17), which as the name suggests focused on the Russian Eastern Military District, offered an important deviation from the typically held command-staff strategic exercise which the Russian General Staff organises every September. In a standard exercise, an operational-strategic command (OSK) takes in forces from other districts and fields them in a particular strategic direction, organizing a hypothetical fight together with the General Staff in the theatre of military operations (TVD). But in 2018, Vostok was changed into strategic manoeuvers. Under this framework two military districts, Central and Eastern, divided into opposing forces to conduct manoeuvers in different strategic directions. China’s official involvement in the annual exercises, which is a first, made the event politically significant in Sino-Russian relations, and a mutually agreed upon political signal send by both sides to international observers.

Unlike previous such exercises, Vostok-2010 and 2014, this event represents more of an “in-progress report” for the Russian armed forces. When he was first appointed Chief of General Staff in late 2012, Valery Gerasimov was dismayed with the Russian armed forces inability to move across the country and effectively engage in drills or training events at ranges distant from their home garrisons. The recently reformed military had become a permanent standing force, but it had little experience or credibility in being able to deploy to Russia’s borders in the event of conflict and successfully engage an adversary. The high tempo of snap readiness checks, drills, joint exercises, together with modernization investments under the State Armament Program, were meant to turn the Russian armed forces into a combat credible force, able to effectively deter large scale conventional conflict. Nowhere is this challenge more difficult than the Russian Far East, a vast region that is sparsely populated and lacks much transportation infrastructure.

Vostok-2018 was also as an opportunity for political signalling, featuring a large review of forces and photo opportunities similar to that of Zapad-1981. Russian pronouncements that the exercise would feature 297,000 soldiers – which would have been fully a third of the entire Russian military – was meant to underscore the state’s resilience and undiminished military potential in the face of political and economic pressure from the United States.

In reality, the exercise was rather smaller, probably not exceeding 50,000 participants (this is a guesstimate, use at your own risk) in the actual exercises, with most of the major events taking place at the Tsugol training range. The official numbers given likely represent the total forces on paper from the Central and Eastern Military Districts: often the Russian General Staff will count an entire brigade or division as having participated even when their contribution is only one unit. A large number of units were raised on alert on August 20th, in advance of the exercise, but few had any connection to the actual events. Official statements by Russian commanders also suggest that the exercise was much smaller in reality: Colonel General Alexander Lapin, commander of the Central Military District (CMD), stated that 7,000 troops participated at Tsugol from his district. Together with aviation and airborne units sent, it is unlikely that the CMD’s involvement exceeded 15,000-20,000 soldiers.

The reason for dramatically inflated figures for every Vostok exercise is straightforward: Moscow is unconcerned that announcing fantastical figures would engender a security dilemma in the region. Moreover, political agreements governing military exercises in Europe such as the Vienna Document have no jurisdiction east of the Ural mountains. As such, the Russian leadership can count unit participation however it likes, without stoking NATO fears. At the same time, including China in the exercise was a prudent measure to alleviate any inherent suspicions Beijing might have that these strategic manoeuvers were aimed at them, or a manifestation of Russian security apprehensions. Since most of the exercise events took place in Zabaykalsky Krai, a land-locked region bordering China and Mongolia, this was an important precaution. Moscow’s effort at engaging the Chinese military is quite clever, intended to foster greater partnership, engendering stronger military ties, while at the same time demonstrating to their strategic partners the capability of the Russian armed forces in an effort to bolster coercive credibility.

Vostok featured elements of both contact and non-contact warfare, from a series of attack, defence and flanking manoeuvers by battalion tactical groups, to blunting massed aerospace attacks, and effecting precision strikes against critical infrastructure at operational depths. Going into the exercise Valery Gerasimov said he wanted to see non-standard solutions practiced, code for the Chief of General Staff not wishing to see Russian units arrive at ranges to execute pre-rehearsed manoeuvers, i.e. put on a five-day bit of military theatre for him and Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu. It remains unclear whether or not he got what he wanted, but Shoigu indicated this type of exercise might be held every five years, pegged to implementation of the State Armament Program, the implication being that strategic manoeuvers would be used as a form of in-process review and reflection on the current state of the Russian armed forces.

Although every strategic exercise is designed to be a stress test for the Russian armed forces and supporting civilian agencies, Vostok had four principal areas of focus: logistics, mobilization, command and control, and tactical innovation. Emphasis was placed on the logistics, combat service support, and combat engineer components of the Russian armed forces. Command and control of forces in combined arms manoeuver, along with integration with other services remains a prominent feature, as does experimentation with the force structure itself. The Russian military continues to work on integrating recon-strike and recon-fire contours, connecting targeting in real time from drones, soldiers or aircraft, with artillery fires at the tactical level or strike assets distributed among the services. There was also a mobilization component aimed at taking in reservists to help fill out combat service support units and integrating civilian authorities into the exercise under the model that ‘everyone fights’.

Vostok was spread across five combined arms ranges, four air and air defence ranges, and several coastal regions in the Russian Far East. Ground force exercises featured large attacks with artillery and MLRS systems with targeting and battle damage assessments done via drone systems. River fording, bridging, masking of units with smoke and aerosol were all parts of the exercise to simulate the logistical difficulty of getting to the battlefield while under fire. Engineers also setup false targets, inflatable dummy units, practicing various forms of deception on the battlefield. The strategic nuclear component of the exercise involved flights by Tu-95MS bombers, which cut through the U.S. air defence identification zone, earning a free F-22 fighter escort before returning to fire cruise missiles at target ranges in Russia.

Efforts at innovation could be seen in the attempt by the airborne forces to create a new type of air assault detachment, together with an airmobile reserve based on heavy transport helicopters and light vehicles. Colonel General Andrei Serduykov, commander of Russia’s airborne forces, was trying new things this year by assembling battalions from three independent air assault brigades to practice large scale heli-borne attacks, some involved as many as 45 Mi-8 helicopters and two large transport Mi-26 helicopters in the action. The Russian airborne also conducted a sizable parachute drop, using 25 transports to deliver 700 soldiers and 51 BMD infantry fighting vehicles, while specialized light utility units were brought in as a ready reserve for the action. Russia’s Northern Fleet similarly brought a new force mix, including naval infantry and specialized units from its Arctic brigade, some of which conducted a raid in depth across as much as 270km of terrain.

China’s participation included some 3,200 soldiers mounted on tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, APCs and self-propelled artillery, together with 6 aircraft and 24 helicopters. Interactions between Russian and Chinese forces at the tactical level, assuming any serious collaboration even took place, seemed of lower import than the utility of this event as a form of political signalling. China’s Minister of Defence, Wei Fenghe, highlighted the importance of Sino-Russian cooperation at the operational and strategic level, while Shoigu announced that they had agreed to hold exercises regularly in the future. In a subsequent interview, Shoigu referred to the Chinese participants as allies. While it is difficult to interpret Vostok, or any other exercise, as a proof of a budding Sino-Russian entente, it is clear the two countries seek to demonstrate that they do not see each other as a threat.

While Western policymakers typically describe alliance formation as some sort of state-level dating, where relationships are formed based on trust, common values, similar political systems and so on, in reality this has little semblance to the history of how powers actually form alliances. Alliance formation behaviour takes place as a form of balancing behaviour in response to threats, therefore the only logical catalyst for a Sino-Russian entente is the threat posed by the United States, and the extent to which the two countries see their respective challenges as worth the risk and liability of closer cooperation. Having identified both countries as great power competitors in the National Defense Strategy, and practical measures to intensify the confrontation in economic and military domains, Washington has taken important steps to further enhance cooperation between its disparate adversaries.

Vostok-2018 strategic manoeuvers illustrate that while much progress remains to be made in improving the capability and capacity of the Russian armed forces, the military as a whole is increasingly greater than the sum of its parts, and certainly much improved from its relatively raw state in 2012-2013. Meanwhile Russian policy has become rather more deft in managing their ‘strategic partnership’ with China, seeking to leverage military events as part of a boarder effort to slowly and incrementally pull the latter into a balancing entente against the United States.

 

Vostok 2018 Day 7 (September 17)

Vostok 2018 – conclusion of strategic maneuvers

Russian forces concluded the exercise and began making preparations for the trip back to their respective bases. Vostok 2018 was designed to test the readiness of Russia’s armed forces and supporting civilian infrastructure to move units over large distances, coordination between ground forces and the Navy. It was also another command-staff exercise where officers could gain experience in combined arms maneuver and joint operations in conjunction with other services. Emphasis was placed on quickly forming groupings of forces in the TVD (theater of military operations), moving units East, setting up communications and logistics, etc.

This will be a brief post, as there’s not much to report on, but the announcements made by Russian generals and press on troops returning were of interest. They revealed the likely numbers behind the exercise as quite smaller. Once the event is over I intend to do a brief recap of what we saw that was of interest. Special thanks to colleagues Kate Baughman and Jeff Edmonds who helped put some of the information together behind this coverage of Vostok 2018.

Motor rifle units getting ready to head back

time to go home.jpg

Russia’s Minister of Defense Sergey Shoigu announced that ‘strategic maneuvers,’ or a similar such exercise, might be held every five years. He linked  it to the five-year implementation of the State Armament Program. The connection is somewhat difficult to understand, since there’s no visible linkage to the SAP (GPV 2018-2027). It may be some internal benchmark being established for performance of new equipment, or simply an idea being pitched to do ‘strategic maneuvers’ every five years. Shoigu also suggested that the MoD would release a performance assessment from the exercise sometime in October.

VKS Aerospace Forces – Russian and Chinese aviation has begun returning to their home airbases. Russian forces list  of aircraft used includes Tu-95MS, Tu-22M3, Il-76, An-12, An-26, Su-35S, Su-30SM, Su-34, Su-24M, Su-25, Mig-31BM + Ka-52, Mi-24, Mi-26, Mi-8 helicopter variants. Chinese forces brought six JH-7A, and an assortment of helicopters including Mi-171, Z-9, Z-19.

Central MD – General-Lieutenant Alexander Lapin, commander of Central MD, gave out medals to 50 officers for their performance during Vostok. During the ceremony he announced that Central MD successfully moved 7,000 troops to Tsugol range for the exercise. Given the exercise consisted of Central and Eastern MD, if Central only contributed about 7,000 in ground forces (this is two brigades or one division’s worth of soldiers), it raises questions as to who brought the other 293,000 to this event – or to put another way, Vostok was clearly several times smaller in scope than advertised.

Here is a small table showing some of the fantastical official figures reported by Russia’s MoD for different exercises over the years. Note Zapad is always tiny because of Vienna Document filing requirements, and Vostok is always outrageously large.

exercise table

 

Other news include a communications brigade belonging to 2nd CAA returning home from Tsugol training range. This unit, consisting of ~1000 soldiers, was responsible for providing encrypted communications during the exercise. The 2nd CAA also fielded about 2000 motor riflemen, with T-72B3 tanks, BMP-2s, BM-21, and other equipment – also coming back from Tsugol.

Note: Southern MD, not to be outdone, is planning to hold an entire series of 30 battalion tactical trainings (BTU) – which seems to be something Col General Alexander Dvornikov is instituting. Exercises will last through October 31st, emphasizing combined arms maneuver, and inter service coordination. Supposedly 45,000 troops will be involved in these drills, the goal of which will be to test all of the BTGs that Southern MD can field. Gen Dvornkikov, who heads Southern MD, has emphasized recon-strike + recon fire contours, and ‘lessons from Syria’ throughout comments and quotes on events taking place in Southern MD (and he’s got comments for almost every press release).

Eastern MD – A battalion tactical group of motor riflemen from the 41st CAA, based near Keremovo Oblast, is heading home. This unit had 1000 soldiers and ~300 pieces of equipment, including BTR-82A APCs and T-72B3 tanks. Again, a BTG or two from 41st CAA sounds about right in terms of participation.

BTR-82As.jpg

Northern Fleet – A surface action group led by Udaloy-class Vice-Admiral Kulakov conducted another amphibious landing exercise near the port Egvekinot on Chukotka. The Arctic brigade detachment they had unloaded earlier, which had conducted a land march to the port, served as an opposing force for Russian naval infantry. Recall the Arctic units made a 270km raid inland and had met up with the fleet at a different point on the Pacific coast. Two LSTs, together with Ka-27 helicopters, unloaded several units of naval infantry on BTR-80s onto the beach. The naval infantry and Arctic brigade units fought each other, simulating amphibious assault and coastal defense. Those unfamiliar with this popular destination for amphibious landings can inspect the map below.

Egvekinot.JPG

naval infantry 2.JPG

Naval infantry Chukotka 2.JPG

Vostok 2018 Days 5-6 (September 15-16)

Vostok 2018 Days 5 and 6

The weekend was relatively quiet. Comparably few activities took place as the forces involved were either taking a break, or perhaps there was a media blackout compared to the information flowing about the first several days. For a brief period the MoD main website was down, which was unusual. However, other news sources which typically cover the exercises reflected a dearth of information for September 15-16. I’ve decided to group the events of both days into one post here. The main exercises over the weekend included another series of bombing raids by Russian aerospace forces, a motor rifle battalion assault at Tsugol, complex river crossing exercises supported by engineer and CBRN troops, and two naval exercises held by the Northern and Pacific Fleets.

VKS Aerospace Forces – Russian Tu-22M3s conducted another series of air raids at a training range in Zabaikal, practicing bombing runs against various targets simulating an enemy air base. It reads like this was another unguided bombing exercise, dropping FAB-500s and 250s. The precision guided munitions tend to be reserved for Syria, so they tend not to waste them on exercises. Ten air crews were involved in the event, though unclear if they all had their own individual platforms, i.e. 10 bombers, or were rotated through a smaller number of aircraft.

Tu-22M3.JPG

Meanwhile Russian Su-30SM heavy multirole fighters took on the role of incoming enemy fighters. They approached the integrated air defenses setup by Eastern MD, and not did not respond to ground control requests for identification. Mig-31BM and Su-35s fighters were scrambled to intercept, simulating air combat at different ranges, including short range dog fighting. The Su-30SMs were defeated by Eastern MD’s air superiority fighters.

Eastern MD – There was another motor rifle and armored assault at Tsugol, with T-62s setup as targets representing the opposing force. Several companies of T-72B1 tanks, in conjunction with BMP-2s conducted an attack across the range.

Motor rifle and armored assault.JPG

Meanwhile Russian military police units, mounted on Typhoon vehicles, detected and captured  a group of infiltrators who sought to gain access to the training range.

MPs.JPG

CBRN units setup smoke and aerosol cover for a river crossing exercise, where T-72 tanks forded the river with snorkels, while other vehicles were transported via specialized amphibious carriers. Engineer and sapper units established a pontoon bridge for tanks and BMPs to drive over. The exercise seems based around a motor rifle battalion, with helicopter support, effecting a river crossing both via bridge and in shallow places with its own means.

Units positioned preparing to cross.JPG

pontoon bridge.JPG

Other exercises of note: Russia’s Ministry of Emergencies held a joint exercise with Chinese counterparts, simulating a ship collision at a bridge being constructed across the Amur River. The exercise consisted of a Chinese passenger ship colliding with a Russian ship working on the bridge. Both sides worked together to put out a fire on the Chinese ship, evacuate passengers, and rescue others from the water. Russian Be-200 firefighting aircraft and Mi-8s  belonging to the Ministry were involved, with about 300 people all together engaged in this exercise. I found the event interesting simply because it reflects another level of cooperation between Russian and Chinese ministries along the border outside of the military dimension.

The Baltic Fleet has also been busy, though their activities doubtfully have anything to do with Vostok 2018. About 25 ships, 30 aircraft, helicopters, drones, and 50 pieces of equipment were involved in conducting an amphibious landing at Khmelevka. Russian Su-24 + Su-30SM fixed wing aircraft and Mi-24 helicopters conducted a strike against enemy positions, so that naval infantry units could then land and seize the beach. Ships involved included LSTs Aleksandr Shabalin, Korolev, Minsk, three smaller landing boats from project 21820, and support by three project 20380 corvettes (Stereguschiy). The landing force consisted of about 30 BTR-82A, which is consistent with what about 3 LSTs can carry, though at the same time they also air lifted several naval infantry units behind enemy lines – presumably via Ka-27 helicopters which is typically how these forces effect an amphibious assault.

Northern Fleet – The Northern Fleet ran an anti-submarine warfare exercise, with its principal combatant Vice Admiral Kulakov (Udaloy-class) leading the submarine hunt. Their scenario involved using different systems to hunt for the submarine, such as onboard sonar and the ship’s Ka-27PL helicopter. Kulakov practiced torpedo and depth charge attacks, along with evading torpedo attacks fired by the opposing submarine.

Ka-27 deploying dipping sonar

dipping sonar.JPG

Pacific Fleet – Naval Infantry conducted an assault to enable a larger amphibious force to land near the Klerk training range on Primoriye. This is an interesting exercise in that they were working together VKS Aerospace Forces, who supported their attack, along with ships from the Pacific Fleet, combat aviation, artillery, sappers, and air defense units. Supposedly the next phase of this exercise will involve an air assault brigade of VDV Airborne conducting a similar type of attack, though it seems things are winding down. The Eastern MD is already looking to an upcoming joint exercise with Mongolian troops under a different title.

Some additional pictures of note:

CBRN units treating tanks

treating tanks.JPG

Tank sanitation checkpoint

sanitizing T-72s.JPG

T-72 snorkeling

Loch Ness T-72.JPG

 

Vostok 2018 Day 4 (September 14)

Vostok Day 4

Most of the exercises are taking place at Tsugol and Telemba, but there was word today of various live fire events from a few of the other ranges. Elements of 5th CAA are at Bikinskiy, and the air force is doing most of its bombing runs at Mukhor-Kondui. More word from the two fleets, the Northern Fleet is exercising in the Bering Sea, while the Pacific Fleet has launched a surface action group together with support ships and a number of smaller vessels. Less news from the airborne on this day, but some interesting simulations among air defense forces, CBRN troops, and engineer units. Across the ranges where most of the forces are staged the day was taken up by artillery and MLRS fires, together with combat maneuvers by motor rifle battalions.

VKS Aerospace Forces – At Tusgol, Russia employed A-50U (AWACS system) in conjunction with Mig-31BM, Su-35S, and Su-30SMs conducting combat air patrols and simulating intercepts. Meanwhile at Mukhor-Kondui, another  range with targets for the air force, Russia’s air force conducted several air strikes with mostly unguided munitions. Including about 30 aircraft consisting of Su-30SM, Su-34, Su-24M, and Su-25s. Their target was a column of enemy armor and artillery on the march. Coordinates and targeting relayed by Su-24MP.

Su-25s about to fire unguided rockets (Mukhor-Kondui)

Su-25s.JPG

Followed by bombing passes from Su-30SM and Su-24 bombers

Su-30sm.JPG

Some word on the earlier air strike with cruise missiles, IZ reported it as 4xTu-95MS and 6xTu-22M3 participating. The Tu-95MS flight in the first two days of the exercise clearly cut through the Alaska air identification zone for the United States, as F-22s were sent up to greet them. The need for air refueling during this flight now makes sense since they seemingly made a large lap before firing missiles at the target range.

F-22 and Tu-95MS.JPG

VDV Airborne – Seems they conducted an airborne drop of one battalion, together with a heliborne assault with soldiers repelling. I honestly can’t say if this took place on the 14th, or if the photos are from the 13th. Part of the problem is some nice people seem to have taken down the Russian MoD website making it a bit difficult to compare announcements and images from the two days.

airborne repelling.jpg

Eastern MD – CBRN troops simulated an emergency chemical cleanup whereby several railcars carrying dangerous/toxic chemicals spilled their load, presumably onto the roadway and the surrounding area. Supposedly about 1,500 CBRN troops, and 300 pieces of equipment are taking part in the exercises, using RHM-6 chemical detector systems, and RPM-2 radiological detectors. Engineer units also simulated a natural and/or man-made disaster, testing their ability to manage flooding, evacuation of the local population, dealing with unexploded ordnance, etc. About 350 soldiers listed for this one, with 80 pieces of equipment including excavators, cranes, floating transports, etc.

At Telemba range, Col Tikhonov, commander of 76th Air Defense division, highlighted the use of air defense targets designed to simulate small radar profiles, i.e. low observation aircraft and cruise missiles. Not only did they use the typical dummy missiles, and conventional targets, but they wanted to replicate a large scale aerospace attack with cruise missiles. The addition of targets with small radar cross sections seems new  compared to previous exercises.

At Tsugol there was a sizable artillery and MLRS live fire exercise, different types of self-propelled and towed artillery involved, together with BM-21 and BM-27 MLRS.

2s3 firing.jpg

Tsugol BM-27 firing.JPG

At Bikinskyi range, in Khabarovsk, a motor rifle unit of the 5th CAA stopped an advancing opposing force. Air defense units assigned to them, including ZSU-23-4 shilka, and Igla manpads, were fired to simulate defending against enemy air power. Artillery units with BM-21 Grad were similarly engaged in supporting the defending motor rifle formation. All together at this range they are listing 200 pieces of equipment, and 1700 troops. The number suggests that this is a battalion tactical group, with short range air defense and MLRS units assigned to it.

Elements of 5th CAA

5th CAA.JPG

This is rather small by the way, and I suspect at the end of all the announcements, if we add up all the troops listed as participating at the individual ranges over the period of these eight days, we’re going to have a hard time coming up not only with 300,000 but probably with anything approaching 50,000-70,000. Recalling we have 5 combined arms ranges, 4 air defense ranges, and two gulfs as the overall area of the exercise.

tanks at Tsugol.jpg

As an aside, there are several exercises, annual certification checks, and live fire drills going on in other military districts. At the same time, the Southern MD is hosting a sizable exercise with about 5,000 troops, including air defense, artillery, missile, and air force units. About 500 pieces of artillery, MLRS, listed, including BM-21, BM-27, BM-30, Tulpan 240mm mortar, Iskander-M, and several ships participating. About 20 fixed and rotary wing aviation involved in this exercise. Black Sea Fleet coastal defense forces (ground forces part of its army corps) held several smaller exercises of their own, simulating defense against diversionary forces attacking its bases. Dvornikov is placing emphasis on working out the recon-strike contour, command and control across his district for employing long range firepower, i.e. cruise missiles and the like at operational ranges. It seems he’s trying to bring experience from the Syrian war to the district.

Pacific Fleet – Several ships from the fleet escorted a Russian squadron near the Sea of Okhotsk. Varyag (Slava-class guided missile cruiser), together with Bystruy (Sov destroyer), two  Udaloy class large anti-submarine warfare ships and other smaller vessels served as escorts to Irtysh, a hospital ship, and several LSTs. The SAG seems to consist of 2x Udaloy, 1x Sov, and 1xSlava-class with a few support ships and LSTs. The exercise involved changing formation, arraying the surface action group for air defense, signaling, C2, and anti-submarine warfare. Ka-27 helicopters carried onboard the larger combatants also participated in the exercise. All together about 15-20 ships from the Pacific Fleet are listed for this exercise. I say 15-20 because Russian MoD announcements can’t agree whether it was 15 or 20, depending on which one you read.

Pacific SAG

Pacific Fleet.JPG

Northern Fleet – Elements of the Northern Fleet’s specialized Arctic brigade, which were dropped off two days ago on Chukotka, marched from their landing point to the Pacific coastline, i.e. they drove 270km on their articulated DT-10P vehicles over the course of two days. Along the way they practiced raiding enemy formations, some live fire drills, etc. This is an interesting exercise, noting that the small surface action group sent by the Northern Fleet has been traveling since August 8th, conducting multiple landings with both naval infantry and the arctic brigade detachment. The rest of the surface action group spent this day in the Bering Sea, practicing search and rescue operations. Their mission was to aid a ship in distress along the northern sea route. Kulakov (Udaloy-class) conducted search operations with its Ka-27 onboard helicopter, which then practiced evacuating individuals from the supposed vessel, together with a rescue party launched from the ship on small high speed boats. Meanwhile their large tug, Pamir, and the diesel-electric ice breaker Ilya Muromets, practiced firefighting at sea.

Kulakov launching Ka-27

Kulakov

Ilya Muromets firefighting together with the large ocean going tug

firefighting.JPG

I would note that today the Russian MoD website appears to be down, and I would bet a good deal of money that it is likely due to a DDOS attack.

Some additional photos of note:

Russian and PLA forces coordinating something

lost in translation

The display signs at Tsugol – this seems to be the Chinese contingent section

best friends forever.jpg

Vostok 2018 – Day 3 (September 13)

Russian and Chinese leadership at Tsygol range opened up Phase 2 of the exercise with a large review of forces. The optics were clearly meant to rekindle the images of Zapad-1981, with numerous vehicles and infantry arrayed in parade formation on the grounds of the range. Indeed the display was quite large, and it seemed clear by the number of Chinese tanks, SPA, wheeled and other vehicles that probably about 3,000 troops and several hundred pieces of equipment did actually come to join Russia in these strategic maneuvers. Judging by the reporting, it is likely most of the drills during Vostok are taking place at Tsygol and Telemba, i.e. it’s quite difficult to picture Vostok being all that large as an exercise. Right now, going off of fairly little (but still a lot more honest than 300,000), around 50,000 seems a much more reasonable number of participants.

DigitalGlobe had good satellite photos of some of the parade grounds at the range and exercises for a different perspective.

satellite

Of course Putin came to look through binoculars, because it wouldn’t be a strategic exercise otherwise. Note unlike in Zapad, where Putin and Lukashenko were not together in the same command center, we can see the Chinese counterparts sitting further along the table.

Putin came.JPG

More photos can be found on BMPD. But here’s s sample of some of the gear Chinese brought with them.

Chinese tanks.jpg

Chinese forces.jpg

As this is the opening of Phase 2, most of the activity was characterized by VDV air assaults, VKS bombing missions, combined arms artillery and motor rifle unit actions. Strong emphasis on employment of drones, integrated C2, and more ‘jointness’ so to speak between ground, airborne, and VKS forces. VDV seems to be conducted several force structure and air assault experiments, including with new light high mobility vehicles, creating a air mobile reserve, etc. Ground units are mostly doing what they do best, lots of artillery and MLRS fire, armored assault, etc.

Vostok 2018 military exercise in Transbaikal Territory, Russia

VDV Airborne – More than 700 soldiers and 51 vehicles (BMD-2) made a parachutte jump at Tsygol range. At the Belaya airfield near Irkutsk, a detachment of the Ulan-Ude air assault brigade loaded 25 Il-76MD transports. They were then air lifted ~1000km towards Zabaikal where they conducted a jump at 600 meters. The scenario was air assault and seizure of an enemy airfield. All together about 6000 VDV  and 900 pieces of equipment are taking part in Vostok, in earlier posts I mentioned these are units from 3 independent air assault brigades, and two additional special detachments.

VDV Ulan Ude assault brigade.JPG

As part of the scenario unfolding at Tsygol range, an air mobile battalion belonging to the 31st independent air assault brigade conducted an air assault on an enemy command center, with air support.  About 40 helicopters of Mi-8AMTSh were used (supposed capacity 26 soldiers), two Mi-26 helicopters, and more than 10 Mi-24 helicopters in support. They are billing this exercise as an experiment of a ‘new type’ of air assault detachment. There was also a mobile reserve in support of this assault, composed of light wheeled high mobility vehicles (pickups). Mi-26s delivered 8 of these light pickups, together with 4 armored Rys light vehicles equipped with Kornet ATGMs and Kord heavy machine guns.

airborne ATVs.JPG

VKS Aerospace Forces – About 40 bombers and strike fixed wing aircraft were used in an attack on opposing ground forces, key infrastructure, and staged reserves. Units involved fielded Tu-22M3, Su-34, Su-24, and Su-25SM strike aircraft. Air cover provided by Su-30SM heavy multirole fighters. Strikes were coordinated via ground based C2 system Strelets, and Orlan-10 drones.

Tu-22M3.JPG

Eastern MD – Other activities of note: CBRN units used smoke and aerosol covers on more than 60 sq km, covering moving units and critical infrastructure – equipment used includes TDA-3K smoke machines, and RP3-8x aerosols. Anti-tank units belonging to a battalion tactical group of motor rifle and artillery units simulated strikes against enemy armor and fortified positions with 130mm Shturm-S ATGMs and Konkurs-M. Sapper units plan to use not only UR-77 Meteorit, BMP-3M, but also Uran-6 and Uran-9 UGVs for demining.

Tsygol Range – Seven artillery battalions created a rolling artillery barrage ahead of an advance, covering a line of ~3000 meters. A motor rifle battalion advanced, and there are photos of host of T-72B1 tanks engaged in a live fire exercise as part of this maneuver. They employed more than 150 pieces of artillery, including 2s3, 2s1, 2s19, Giatsint, and Pion. Meanwhile Iskander-M units fired two cruise missiles at critically important targets, at the same time a large artillery and MLRS barrage hit the opposing force. All together they employed 2 Iskander TELs, 52 MLRS systems, and 72 tube artillery. Targeting for the strike conducted via an air based system called Klever, with Su-24MP recon aviation, and Orlan-10 drones – they used live video feed for battle damage assessment. In one scenario, Russian and Chinese artillery units simultaneously attacked enemy forward command posts. Russian BM-27 Uragan were employed together with Chinese Type-81 MLRS.

Motor rifle bttn.JPG

Artillery units will also practice employing precision guided munitions called Krasnopol, these will be fired by MSTA-S and 2s3 Akatsiya, Granat-4 short range drones are to be used for targeting. Krasnopol is a 152mm semi-active laser guided munition which can be used by most self-propelled and towed artillery.

life fire.jpg

Of course a detachment of Terminator BMPT, heavy tank support vehicles will make another debut at Tsygol, undoubtedly in the hope that someone will buy them. They were first  featured in Zapad 2017 in desert camo paint, undoubtedly marketed towards a certain set of countries that like to buy equipment in such colors.

Interesting photos emerged of drone companies, fielding both Orlan-10s, but also counter drone hand held weapons, that are worth noting.

drone company.JPG

counter drone gun.jpg

Not much from the two fleets today, except that the squadron in the Eastern Mediterranean is still there, and recently concluded a first time joint exercise with Russian VKS. A sizable grouping of ships and a few submarines remains there.

Some additional photos of note:

Parachute jump skeptic

in airborne now.JPG

Of course you can’t assault an enemy airbase without taking a photo first

can't assault an enemy airbase without a photo.JPG

And a time honored tradition emerging from modern exercises, people pointing at screens:

pointing at screens.jpg

 

Vostok 2018 – Day 2 (September 12)

Day two is here, and I’m a bit behind in posting. Usually I get to these the night of. Photo-ops have begun, and there will be a large review of forces ala Zapad-1981 style, which I hope to cover later tonight. However, September 12 is still the preparatory phase. Special thanks for colleagues Kate Baughman and Jeff Edmonds who helped me put some of this together.

So far logistics and VDV seems to have the most interesting roles. The VDV commander is clearly making changes and experimenting with a few items in this exercise. Air defense and aerospace attack are taking place early, as are live fire launches for the navy. Much of the action seems to be planned for Tsygol, but Telemba range is seeing a lot of early activity.

Shoigu and Fenghe – Minister of Defense Shoigu and his Chinese counterpart visited the command point setup by 29th CAA from the Eastern MD, together with the one setup by the PLA. Supposedly Wei Fenghe complimented the Russian side, stating that the Chinese field command point was simple whereas the Russian one was more solid in nature. Shoigu in turn remarked that much of this comes from Russian combat experience in recent conflicts, and they’ve also leveraged the integration provided by the national defense management center.

Shoigu remarked that they’ve had several operations where the General Staff were able to directly control events in real time, and they’ve made great strides in C2 when it comes to controlling forces in a theater of military operations (TVD). The claim being that much of what is taking place in Tsygol can be controlled directly by the GS via the center in Moscow. No less interesting in this exchange is Fenghe’s supposed comment on the importance of Russian-Chinese military cooperation at the operational and strategic level. Shoigu then stated that they’ve agreed to hold exercises  of this sort regularly from now on.

beginning of a beautiful friendship.

VKS Aerospace Forces – Russian Tu-95MS took off from an air base in Eastern MD, launched cruise missiles from an altitude over 5000 meters at the range in Telemba (2000km away). Air cover was provided by Su-35s, and in-flight refueling by Il-78 (at that range Tu-95MS doesn’t need it so probably practice for strategic mission).

ty95MC.png

VDV Airborne – Cadets at Ryazan airborne school practiced loading different types of equipment onto Il-76MD aircraft as part of the strategic maneuvers. Serduykov seems to have included cadets and those in officer school in this exercise, which is a new development. The idea being to give those in late stages of education practical experience. According to the press, about 6000 airborne troops and 900 pieces of equipment from three units (mentioned in a previous post as 3 independent air assault brigades), and two detachments, are participating in Vostok. On Sept. 11 I saw discussion of three battalions being sent in total, one from each of these brigades, together with a separate comms detachment.

VDV praciting loading.JPG

At Tsygol, units from Ulyanovsk VDV air assault brigade will practice three different types of simultaneous assault, low altitude parachute, standard air assault, and assault without parachutes – repelling from helicopters (100-150m). They claim to be using as many as 45 Mi-8 helicopters at the same time in this simulated attack, with two Mi-26 (that will carry quite a few VDV if true), gunship support provided by 8x Ka-52s and 14x Mi-24s. Supposedly Mi-26 helicopters will be used to transport VDV Tigr vehicles, recon ATVs, and in ‘airborne-transport’ configuration can carry about 82 soldiers.

VDV drilling.JPG

Eastern MD – At Telemeba air defense units from both VKS, and ground formations belonging to the Eastern and Central MD practiced air defense against massed aerospace attack, units employed include S-400, S-300, Buk, Tor, and Pantsir-S1. About 500 pieces of equipment and more than 1000 servicemen listed for this one.

Engineer and sapper units – busy setting up pontoon bridges, river crossings, and practicing demining with UR-77 Meteorit, and BMP-3M demining variants. Meanwhile in Zabaikal, CBRN units from Central MD were working to cover air fields with smoke and aerosol to hide them from visual, infrared, and radar based detection. They used TDA-3 smoke/aerosol machines, which create cover at about 15 meters, covering 7 hectares worth of terrain.

Engineers.JPG

River crossing.jpg

Electronic warfare – Russian forces plan to use the latest generation EW and drone systems during the exercise, including Silok-01, Zhitel (the second one is quite old actually). Their objective is to defend against drone attack. Silok in particular is advertised as a system for detecting drones, while Zhitel can jamm their sensors. Supposedly both have been tested in Syria.

Russian Military Police used horses to patrol the area, and defend it from enemy reconnaissance units. Presumably they’re able to move much quieter  on horseback and sneak up on would be ‘diversionary-recon groups’

Central MD – Tactical aviation from CMD rebased to Krasnoyarsk and Perm regions, the exercise simulates them launching on alert to avoid incoming aerospace attack at their air bases and shifting to forward air fields. Mig-31BMs setup a combat air patrol, launching ‘under fire’ and practiced taking out incoming cruise missiles.  Missile brigade units from 41st CAA in Sverdlovsk have moved via rail to Astrakhan, and will be firing Iskander-Ms as part of the exercise. Apparently they’ve already conducted simulated electronic launches in preparation – planned firing range is several hundred kilometers, i.e in that operational-tactical 300-500km range.

Pacific Fleet – About 15 small anti-submarine ships, together Il-38 naval aviation and Ka-27PL helicopters conducted an anti-submarine warfare exercise. Meanwhile 10 minesweeper ships practiced finding and destroying mines with contact and non-contact means. A surface action group consisting of one Sovremenny destroyer (Bystruiy) and two small missile boats launched three Moskit anti-ship missiles (looks like the destroyer did the firing) against a surface target at about 100km range.

Moskit fire

Northern Fleet -Seems to be busy navigating the ice on its way down to meet the Pacific Fleet. Kulakov’s small surface action group was on its way to Kamchatka, with ice breakers in the lead.

nf4.PNG

Interesting photos from this day:

Gerasimov thinking of the choices he made in life that led to this exciting moment, undoubtedly he is paralyzed by the historic moment of a new Sino-Russian entente forming.

Gerasimovn thinking.jpg

Later on, trying to explain something to angry looking Shoigu (this is not possible since Shoigu knows everything).

still angry.JPG

 

Vostok 2018 – Day 1 (September 11)

Vostok 2018 Day 1

In Eastern MD: 5th, 29th, 35th, 35th combined arms armies (CAA) + 11th Air and Air Defense Army from EMD. In Central MD: 2nd and 41st CAAs + 14th Air and Air Defense Army. VDV and VKS are beginning to shift forces to their designated training ranges. In terms of logistics, they activated military and civilian elements of the transport network, including regional infrastructure belonging to the Ministry of Transport, other federal transportation agencies, trains, rail cars, rail beds, etc. 1,500 rail platforms, 50 transport air craft, and 60 or so various military units. The numbers sound incredibly round such that they’re probably ‘stylized’ but it paints a picture.

This year there’s an emphasis on logistics, organizing forces and moving them large distances across Russia, which is sort of the major challenge in the Eastern/Central MD. Lots of distance, not a lot of infrastructure. Exercise announcements highlight efforts at jointness, having ground, naval and aerospace forces work together, along with combined arms maneuver. The picture I offer here is somewhat incomplete, as there are a few exercises taking place elsewhere, but here we will focus on what is being billed as part of Vostok 2018.

Already there is interesting news of VDV experimenting with a new formation and air assault maneuver, whereas the Navy is practicing combined naval infantry and motor-rifle amphibious assault. A lot of information early on about setting integrated air defenses, high bandwidth comms networks, and various engineering preparations such as false targets.

tanks

Training range list:

Combined arms ranges: «Цугол», «Бамбурово», «Радыгино», «Успеновский», «Бикинский»

Air and Air Defense ranges: «Литовко», «Новосельское», «Телемба» и «Бухта Анна»,

Maritime: Берингова и Охотского морей (seas), Авачинского и Кроноцкого заливов (gulfs off of Kamchatka).

Airborne VDV – Not only are strategic maneuvers a deviation from the typical strategic command staff exercise, but there will also be some interesting force structure and combat maneuver experiments taking place. They plan to test an experimental VDV air assault formation during the exercise at Tsygol range, equipped with latest C2, and specialized equipment, to be used in some sort of air mobile assault variant. According to Col General A. Serduykov (head of VDV) this test will determine future tactics and overall development of VDV forces. Who is coming so far? One large battalion tactical group formation, composed of units from Ulan-Ude (11th), Ulyanovsk (31st), and Ussuriysk (83rd), and 38th independent VDV communications regiment. This is an interesting formation, if as reported, it consists of elements of three independent air-assault brigades.

Mi-26 train

Central MD – 2000 Motor riflemen are completing a march to Zabaikal with 500 pieces of equipment, including T-72B3, BMP-2, BM-21 Grad. They will be drilling at Tsygol, the range being used jointly with PLA units. A communications brigade from 2nd CAA Samara is also joining them, including 1000 troops and 300 pieces of equipment. More than 60 fixed wing and rotary wing aircraft are moving to Eastern MD as well, including Mi-26, Mi-24, and Mi-8AMTSH-V + about 30 fixed wing tactical aviation.

Pantsir and targeting radar

Eastern MD – They’ve setup an integrated air defense network, leveraging automated C2, and expect to test their ability to conduct air defense under jamming conditions. So far only mention of Pantsir-S1, S-300 and S-400 units. Communications units have setup more than 150 comm links, including a comm system running 2800km from Vladivostok to Anadyr, 3500km from Ulan-Ude to Petropavlovsk (9800000 sq  km total). Perhaps more interesting, they’ve setup a high bandwidth line running about 900km to connect other federal agencies/civil authorities to ensure closer coordination with the General Staff.

Communications.JPG

Combat service support (MTO) in Eastern MD – Lot’s of exciting statistics, 80 ammo and fuel dumps setup, 100 supply points, more than 2000 mechanics and specialists supporting training at Tsygol, etc. All in all, they claim that 36,000 MTO troops are involved in this exercise (seems inflated but then again what isn’t when it comes to Vostok).

Engineers are busily setting up bouncy castles, otherwise known as the dreaded Russian ‘maskirovka.’ At every field range they will setup false targets, inflatable tanks, IFVs, air defenses, and fake Iskander units.

Pacific Fleet – The Naval Infantry brigade based on Primorskiy Kray have moved to loading points, embarking onto three LSTs. They’re bringing BTR-82A, BMP-2, 2s1, and BM-21s. Their objective is to form an amphibious assault detachment, and of course seize Gotland Island from Primorskiy Kray (just kidding). Their real objective is to practice different types of amphibious landings, supported by smaller surface combatants from the Pacific Fleet.

The Pacific Fleet has also launched a surface action group and what they’re calling a search strike group (might be a naval variant of recon strike). The fleet is fielding different types of strike groupings and anti-submarine groupings of ships. Initial goal is to practice air defense, command and control, and survival skills in the water. However, they expect to be taking out enemy surface action groups and submarines soon.

LST loading gear.JPG

Northern Fleet – Elements of NF have already made it to Chukotka, which means they’re going to be fighting the Pacific Fleet fairly soon. They’ve been traveling since August 8, taking breaks for different drills along the way. It seems they have three LSTs with naval infantry and units from the arctic motor-rifle brigade onboard. Apparently they conducted an amphibious assault on Chukotka, supported by fire from Kulakov (Udaloy-class), whereby the naval infantry first seized the beachead and the main body of forces then arrived via LST. Not much mention of other ships, hope they brought more than Kulakov along, but Eastern Med is probably sucking in a lot of available naval power. Marshall Ustinov (Slava-class) is heading the E. Med squadron instead of participating in these exercises.

Arctic brigade unloading

 

Chinese participation: 24x rotary wing consisting of 6x Mi-171, 9x Z-9, 9x Z-19 + 6  fixed wing aircraft (looks like JH-7) and an unknown number of ground troops at ~3200 total?

Chinese

Fun photos for our caption contest:

Caption contest

If you camo net the front of the TEL then nobody can see the launch tubes

air defenses

Vostok 2018 Strategic Maneuvers: Exercise plan

It seems this year’s annual strategic command-staff exercise has been replaced by Strategic Maneuvers, which depending on your perspective is actually a higher level of exercise in the TVD (theater of military operations). Rather than having a OSK take charge of combat operations in a specific strategic direction, supported by units from other military districts, strategic maneuvers feature multiple military districts, and fleets – these are not held in a single strategic direction. Hence Vostok 2018 is not being done in the format of typical annual exercises rotating between the four main strategic directions.

These pictures are from Gerasimov’s briefing last week – Youtube link to the briefing

breakdown of the exercise East vs West

Instead the participating units will divide into two ostensible opposing forces, divided into an Eastern and Western grouping of forces. Vostok 2018 will thus feature a form of strategic exercise much closer to those practiced in the older days of the Soviet Union, more like 1935-36. For example, in 1936 the Belarus Military District divided into Western and Eastern groupings of forces to practice maneuvers against each other. Those were undoubtedly useful exercises for the Red Army until the officers who learned something got purged 1936-38, but I digress.

The two ‘teams’ so to speak will include the Central Military District + Northern Fleet, against the Eastern Military District + Pacific Fleet. Russia’s Airborne VDV, and Aerospace Forces VKS will have an important role, though unclear on how they will divide those assets between the two groupings. The exercise itself will last 11-17 September, although snap readiness checks have begun well in advance, as have preparations for MTO, and other supporting services. Perhaps best to bracket this as a August 20-September 17 timeline. Most of the action will be at five combined arms training ranges, four ranges for the Air Force and Air Defense units, the Sea of Okhotsk, Bering Sea, Avachinskiy Zaliv and Kronostkiy Zaliv (gulfs off Kamchatka).

Exhibit A from the briefing (we can see units Northern Fleet and Pacific Fleet engaging each other off of Kamchatka)

Exercise scenario 2.jpg

Map of forces involved

District map

In his recent briefing Gerasimov highlighted that these exercises are well within the budgetary scope of funds allocated to the MoD for annual training, and that no additional or supplementary spending was required for Vostok, i.e. people protesting pension reform need not blame the MoD for having large scale strategic maneuvers. This is where the inflated force size ‘297,000’ publicity sought by the MoD runs into the problem of being tone deaf given social spending reforms being protested in Moscow. My suspicion is that the number comes from counting all the units stationed in CMD and EMD, plus Northern and Pacific Fleet, and select airborne divisions participating. For every battalion fielded they will likely count the entire brigade, and for a few regiments an entire division, etc.

Exercise plan

exrecise scenario 3

Phase 1 September 11-12: This phase is for planning and organization of forces to be involved, includes aligning command functions, and logistics.

Phase 2 September 13-17: Exercise begins, and will include: training to conduct large scale air strikes, cruise missile defense, defense, offense, flanking and raiding maneuvers. In the Sea of Okhotsk, and the two gulfs mentioned above, forces will practice defending against aerospace attack, destroying surface action groups, and naval landing forces. Aviation will support offensive ground maneuvers, and coastal defense.

Tsygol is singled out in particular, the scenario there will involve three combined arms formation from Eastern MD, together with Chinese and Mongolian forces, engaging in maneuvers against two combined arms armies from Central MD. At Tsygol they anticipate 25,000 Russian troops, 7,000 pieces of equipment, and 250 fixed wing/rotary wing aviation. Chinese forces we know to consist of ~3,200, 24 helicopters and 6 fixed aircraft. No numbers have been given for the Mongolian forces participating, but presumably they are quite small so there’s not much to boast about in this regard.

Tsygol scheme of maneuver

Gerasimov also highlighted that Vostok 2018 will feature wide scale use of drones, VDV parachute jumps, use of mobile brigades, making ‘non-standard decisions’ which I take to mean planning scheme of maneuver without assembling it from preplanned drills or plays, automated command and control, together with staff planning based on lessons from combat operations in Syria. The whole thing will end with a review of forces in the field, i.e. they plan to do a Zapad 1981 style photo op with all the vehicles and what not lined up, so it will probably seem quite impressive and scary.

Perhaps more interesting is the increasing focus on logistics, mobilizing reserves to help fill out MTO units.

MTO and reservists.jpg

More photos from the brief can be found at BMPD.

Vostok 2018: Pre-exercise review of events

I’m going to try to cover Vostok 2018  this year, and this time will benefit from some help in covering the space. Special thanks to my colleagues Jeff Edmonds and Kate Baughman who have decided to join in the effort, and offer a welcome reinforcement. Vostok is officially listed as September 11-15. This is unlikely as the exercise is typically longer, and probably will be September 11-20 or thereabouts. However, the MoD announcements on exercises and readiness checks right now list dates of August 20-September 15 inclusive. Which suggest that the standard wave of snap readiness checks, units moving out to ranges, and similar such activities began on the 20th. Exercises that are not directly associated with Vostok are already taking place. It’s a bit of a heavy lift to cover all of these, so in the run up to September 11 I think the best course of action is to summarize preceding weeks and offer a few days of focused coverage to illustrate what is going on.

Most of the action so far is in the Southern MD, followed by Central MD. The troops based outside Russia in Abkhazia, Tajikistan, Armenia are conducting drills and various exercises. Greater attention being paid to logistics, communications, and coordination between different combat arms. The Northern Fleet has an exercise in progress, and ships from different fleets are gathering for a large joint exercise in the Eastern Med.

Exercises reflect similar messages: recon-strike contour, combat arms, training between different types of companies, communication, drone and counter drone, integration of ground forces and aviation. There a lot more ‘jointness’ being portrayed than last year.

Also, of course, Chinese participation. About 3200 PLA troops and 30 aircraft are expected to take part.

Chinese tanks crossing the border

Chinese tanks.JPG

Let’s look at August 31st

Eastern MD – Engineering units are training in Zabaikal to obtain, purify, and store water. Some 4,000 troops are training on 10 different ranges in this district according to official announcements. Some exercises were focused on dealing with terrorists, who were really saboteurs, seeking to capture arms and destroy equipment. BMP-2 crews practiced fording water obstacles on a special ‘aquadrome’ in Zabaikal. About 450 troops involved. The exercise also involved evacuating damaged IFVs and rescuing crews.

water.png

Southern MD – Iskander units in Kuban belonging to the 49th CAA conducted simulated electronic launches against coastal targets. The exercise was focused on practicing recon-strike contour. They were targeting a marine landing force attempting to seize beaches along the Black Sea coastline. The intent was to take out concentrated armor and equipment as it was being unloaded unto the beach by landing craft. This exercise is part of an effort to improve combined arms, the ‘division’ marched to a firing range and aligned C2 with a motor rifle company. Supposedly about 6,000 troops and around 2,000 pieces of equipment are conducting exercises and drilling across the Southern MD from 20 August to 15 September.

Artillery units from the district exercised separately as part of a large day of live fire drills, practicing recon-strike contour system between different service components, involving ships of the BSF, Caspian Flotilla, air force, and air defense units. Seems there are four main regions involved in the exercises right now, Dagestan, Kuban, Crimea and Russia’s units based in Abkhazia. Official claims of about 70 live fire exercises – 130 pieces of artillery involved, Torando, Smerch, Uragan, BM-21 Grad, MSTA-S, and Iskander-M. Drones were employed, and units of the 4th Air and Air Defense Army participated (about 20 planes and helicopters), and ~12 ships. Each exercise had its own command post in charge of the event.

About 20 aircraft, including Su-30, Su-27SM, and Su-25s supported the motor rifle units in their exercises across the Southern MD. They too were taking out marines attempting to establish a beach head. Coordination was done by forward observers, not part of the air force, but coordinating from field command points belonging to the CAA units. Supposedly Strelets-VR system was being used to link recon units and air strikes. Col-Gen Dvornikov has placed priority on ground units learning how to coordinate with air power, we know because his personal views are emphasized extensively in press released by Southern MD.

Abkhazia (SMD) – Armored units practiced outflanking the enemy with T-72B3 tanks. The exercise involved two company sized tactical groups practicing against each other, trying ‘non-standard’ and ‘unconventional’ tactics. (author’s note – this may mean deviating from the standard Russian system of piecing combat maneuvers from smaller prepared ‘plays’ or ‘drills’). According to this announcement Russian forces drilling in Southern MD have 6,000 training and more than 1,500 pieces of equipment.

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Engineers and recon units had a busy day. Fording across a water obstacle and taking out diversionary groups. This is an exercise where recon units and engineers worked together, with recon units covering the engineer team. The engineer company’s tasks was demining a  crossing marked it for motor rifle units, and then secured the other side ahead of their arrival.

Russian units based in Armenia, a communications unit, was raised on alert. They trained in establishing a comms link, operating drones, laying down cables, and maintaining lines of communications between other units involved in the exercise. This is another one in the theme of getting different kinds of companies working together in a combined arms exercise.

Armenia comms unit.jpg

Western MD – About 500 troops from 1st Guards Tank Army will start training in a combined arms exercise with artillery and air defense units. The drill is for different types of assault and flanking maneuvers, T-80U, T-72B3, some BMPs and MSTA-S units involved.

Central MD – CBRN units exercised, dealing with a WMD attack, while air defense units with S-400s departed for Telemba to conduct live fire exercises. They’re training against seemingly everything, planes, cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, high and low altitude threats, etc. About 500 troops and 40 pieces of equipment listed for this one. Meanwhile in Samara Spetsnaz units conducted an air assault (parachute) from Mi-8MTV5 helicopters against diversionary groups who were attempting to mine an air field – recon was conducted by Orlan drones.

Tajikistan 201st base (CMD) – Russian air defense units defended themselves from attack by cruise missiles and drones. Seems like a small exercise, about 50 troops firing good old ZU-23, which can take out drones but not exactly your sophisticated cruise missile defense. Mi-8s were used to simulate low flying targets.

Eastern Med

September 1-8 there will be a joint exercise, for the first time, between Russia’s Navy and Aerospace Forces (VKS). They’ve pulled in ships from North, Baltic, Black Sea Fleets and the Caspian Flotilla. They expect about 26 ships to participate, including 2 submarines, and 34 drones. The flagman will be Slava-class Marshall Ustinov. This drill will include sorties by Tu-160 strategic bombers, Tu-142 and Il-38N maritime patrol aviation, Su-33 and Su-30SM from naval aviation (not  sure how Su-33  is going to be a part of this, skeptical on that one).

Northern Fleet

A detachment from the fleet, operating off of the New Siberian Islands, conducted live fire exercises. Seems to be mostly artillery and some Rubezh CDCM fire. This exercise combined units stationed on Kotelny Island with a small surface action group send by the Northern Fleet, this SAG is led by Udaloy-class Vice Admiral Kulakov.

A brief summary of August 29-30th

  • In SCO exercises Peaceful mission 2018, Russian forces demonstrated how they take out shahid-mobiles, together with the ‘tank carousel’ drill. The purpose was to show off experience gained in Syria to other nations who sent troops to participate in the multilateral event.
  • SMD – units specializing in drone defense (they’ve made special mobile detachments for dealing with drones now) practiced taking out drones in Volgograd oblast. This was a combination of EW, R-934BMV, R-330Z Zhitel, for jamming, and then Pansir-S1 + Tor-M2 for taking them out. Meanwhile in Chechnya EW units had something a bit more serious, Borisoglebsk-2, to jam radio communications of a hypothetical opponent. Seems they just got this system in May, and went through retraining for it. There were also sizable artillery drills in counter-battery fire, although the picture showed what looked like Pion 203mm artillery. They expect 5,000 artillerymen to practice in September from SMD.

Borisoglebsk.jpg

  • BSF’s Naval Infantry Brigade set out to destroy diversionary groups. Using drones in advance of their formation they spotted an ambush and took out the enemy instead of driving into them and the part of the road they supposedly mined.
  • In Abkhazia Ka-52 helicopters practiced taking out shahid-mobiles, and coordinating with ground units. Similar training in Armenia, with Mi-24P and Mi-8MTV, learning how to take out targets in mountainous conditions and applying experience gained in Syria.
  • EMD – Iskander-M units in Zabaikal practiced camouflage, repelling attacks, and conducting electronic simulated launches after receiving target coordinates. Their target was an enemy radar station. At the same time Buk air defense units trained at a different range in intercepting targets, including while being jammed by enemy drones/aircraft.
  • At Sea – lots of small ships drilling. Small anti-submarine corvettes from Novorosiysk (BSF) went submarine hunting. They hunt this elusive submarine every year during operational-strategic exercises. One of the Tarantul-class missile boats trained in air defense, with Su-30SM serving as the simulated attacker. More interesting – Tomsk (Oscar II), was practicing in the Sea of Okhotsk, torpedoing several enemy ships. Tomsk approached an enemy surface action group, being represented by Varyag (Slava-class), Bystry (Sovremenny), and several Udaloys. Tomsk fired 4 practice torpedoes without being detected, i.e. Tomsk is really good or ASW detection on legacy Soviet surface combatants is not so good. Earlier on Tomsk fired an anti-ship missile at a surface target on the 27th. There were quite a few simulated electronic CDCM fires in earlier days as well, from Baltic and Black Sea Fleet, including Bal and Bastion systems.

Notes on announcements:

Every exercise announcement from SMD has quotes from Dvornikov along the lines of ‘it is important to do X, and every person should know how to do X, because X is an important thing’ which seems to be a new feature. None of the other military district commanders are offering their wisdom.

A small percentage of the photos are being reused from Zapad 2017, i.e. I’ve seen them before and can tell they’re from a year ago – not showing what is actually going on in the announcement. It seems in cases where the MoD doesn’t have a photo on hand they’ve decided to search the pile and find something that looks like it might be similar from 2017.

 

What actually happened during Zapad 2017

I covered Zapad 2017 extensively on this blog, in a day by day account back in September. The goal was to create a resource for the community, something everyone could look back to in their analysis for background. Recently I’ve been motivated to write a short analysis of Zapad, and why both before and after the exercise a lot of coverage got it wrong. There are important takeaways from this exercise, but as always, sensational accounts muddy the waters, and they regularly lead to people learning things that are not true.

German newspaper Bild recently published an amazing article, claiming that according to ‘two Western intelligence’ sources, Russia sought to invade the Baltics, Poland, Finland, Sweden, Norway, and bomb Germany, along with a host of other unsubstantiated claims. I wish to thank them, since their fantastical account of Zapad 2017 is the inspiration for this actual account of Zapad 2017. While it may be general knowledge that Zapad is historically an exercise aimed at a contingency with NATO, much of what Bild claimed is not only untrue, it simply does not make military sense. However, before we get to Bild’s ‘alternative history’ of what happened that is now being passed around twitter like so much other received wisdom, let’s discuss what truly took place this September.

T-80s of 1st Tank Guards Army

Zapad is typically a two-phase scenario, where the proximate cause of conflict between Russia and NATO is Belarus (since Zapad-1999 when they began running these exercises again). The exercise often features a Russian defense against the supposed intervention, then horizontal and vertical escalation, followed by a substantial counter-attack against NATO. The purpose of the exercise is for the General Staff and national leadership to test the country’s ability to mobilize for a general war, gain experience in training and commanding the newly reformed armed forces, and in the big picture improve its coercive diplomacy vis-a-vis the United States by making clear Russia’s capability and resolve to use force if it’s core interests are challenged.

All those things held true this year, but the actual size of the exercise was much smaller than anticipated, both across Russia, and in the immediate Baltic region. Not 100,000 or any of the other inflated accounts suggesting similar numbers. As Gen. Ben Hodges (just retired), had noted the exercise was somewhere north of 40,000. According to Igor Sutyagin at RUSI 48,000 to be exact, with maybe 23,000 in the areas noted for Zapad exercises. I differ with his account slightly, as I think it was perhaps no more than 45,000 across Russia, while the immediate region should include the Baltic and exercises by the Northern Fleet.

The chief difference is really a narcissism of small differences – whether or not you factor in exercises in the Eastern MD, and foreign deployed troops in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Tajikistan, Transnistria, etc. Subtract 3,000 listed for the exercise on Sakhalin and you’re probably at about 45,000. There were parallel exercises and annual checks scheduled for that time of year and it’s rather debatable what was part of the Zapad scenario versus what coincided. What is clear is that there are no credible sources out there arguing that the exercise was a massive test of a Russian invasion of NATO, or that 100,000 troops participated in the event (note I said credible).

Zapad 2017 was seemingly not only smaller than anticipated, it was likely smaller than expected in Russia as well, judging by the fact that the number of rail wagons ordered seemed to exceed the amount used by a considerable margin. That is, the original planning back in 2016 might have been for a larger event. Some explained this with a theory that Russia’s General Staff intended to send more forces to Belarus and was somehow turned away. There is nothing to support this version of events. Instead it is very likely that canned exercise press releases were pushed out, for units that at some point were nixed in planning, which may reveal earlier variations that never came to pass (along with the logistical planning for them).

For example, it may have been that the entire 1st Tank Guards Army was supposed to show at some point early in the planning (our press informed us of this dreaded army looming), but actually only select units participated in the exercise. The same goes for entire VDV divisions, which actually only contributed a handful of battalions. Unfortunately Russia’s official press is quite terrible, announcing a lot more on the day to Belarus than there actually was, and people frequently attribute malice to what is typically malpractice.

BMPs on railcars.jpg

One possible reason Zapad 2017 was smaller this year is that it did not involve a major counter-attack against NATO forces, with a large scale deployment of 2nd echelon forces into the fight, which might come from Central MD. Although the 90th Tank Division did train as part of the exercise separately, it seems on the whole this event was focused on other matters, and in that way perhaps differs from Zapad 2013. It is also not a general fight against NATO, but a coalition of NATO members backed by the U.S. A distinction with a difference. So the fight was aimed at Poland, Lithuania, and the U.S. in support, based on the lead-in scenario for the exercise (bordering NATO states meddling in Belarus).

I will offer a cursory summary of the phases, although details on what happened during those days can be found in earlier entries on this blog.

Phase One, September 14-16:

  • Airlift of support crews and personnel to forward airbases. VDV Airborne drops to defend against lead elements of NATO forces in Baltic region. VKS movements to forward bases near theater of operations with fighters and long range aviation Tu-22M3. Air defense exercises to defend against incoming enemy aircraft and cruise missiles.
  • Russian ground forces loaded up and got under way by rail, strong focus on logistics and support units to get armor and mechanized units moving.
  • Railway troops, CBRN troops, signal troops, and other supporting units among MTO had a central role in ensuring the movement of Russian forces under simulated fire and cover from adversary ISR.
  • Russian Navy defended against incoming cruise missile strikes. They were tasked with getting out of port under aerosol screens, then deployed for ASW, and air defense. Their mission was to take out enemy submarines, and prepare to defend maritime approaches against surface action groups/amphibious landings.
  • Southern and Central Military District’s held concurrent drills on the essentials, including logistics, communications, air defense, along with artillery, armored warfare, and reconnaissance.

Phase Two, September 17-20:

  • Russia’s General Staff worked to setup a unified battle space 600km wide, under a single combined (or joint) command, that would control the forces in the theater. As they took in units from combined arms armies, the big challenges were coordinating material support, provisions, and communication among these forces, with an effort to establish a common operating picture, along with command and control of different types of forces on the battlefield (combined arms warfare).
  • Russian ground forces sought to integrate combat aviation for close support, drones for ISR, electronic warfare units, and air power on the battlefield, together with the traditional artillery and mechanized warfare.
  • There was a strong emphasis on recon-strike complex, how to connect drones to artillery, working out the kill chain for both area of effect and long range precision weapons. These are new tools in the toolkit, proliferating across brigades, but there’s much work to be done in actually aligning capabilities and learning how to use them on the battlefield.
  • The conflict presumed early horizontal escalation, where Russia would have to defend in multiple theaters against enemy cruise strikes and aerospace attacks (of course only the U.S. global force poses as an opponent with such capabilities). Russian units worked to repair rail bridges, communications, and internal lines of communications assuming that they might be taken out.
  • Russian units formed into BTGs of varying sizes, reinforced with VDV troops. Some focused on defending Kaliningrad, or Pechenga for example to the North. Others conducted raids against the enemy behind their lines. Russian forces simulated pushing a NATO coalition out of Belarus, but the size and scale of this exercise was more modest than anticipated. Probably they planned to punch through to Kaliningrad, but that’s just a general assumption (what else would they do?)
  • Airstrikes against NATO airbases and other key infrastructure are almost a given in the Baltic region, given the size of the exercise and the scenario, but the offensive nature of the exercise seemed limited in scope.
  • The more robust role of the Russian Navy was on display, taking out surface action groups with ships, submarines, and coastal defense cruise missiles. The exercises in the Arctic region were also notable, showing Russia expects enemy forces to be a problem on New Siberian Islands, Kotelny, and other areas under the purview of the Joint-Arctic Command. Zapad featured a lot of counter-sabotage exercises, and defense against raids by enemy special forces.

The exercise demonstrated some core elements of Russian planning for long range conventional strikes with SRBMs and ground launched cruise missiles. This is both part of a conventional warding strike, and likely NSNW employment for escalation control. Russian medium bombers had a role on the last day, but strategic bombers were not involved according to announcements. There may have been a pair of Tu-95MS doing their typical flight past Norway on the last day, but this is not an uncommon occurrence.

I’m highly skeptical that long range aviation had any sort of nuclear attack mission in this exercise, especially since it makes little sense for them, or that the ICBM tests were truly a part of it given the nuclear forces exercise came later in the fall, i.e. all those things were tested and demonstrated to the West on a grander scale after Zapad. The strategic nuclear exercise traditionally follows the combined strategic exercise later in the year. Since Zapad-1999, Russia has on and off included nuclear signaling with strategic bomber aviation, but the intent behind it was to make a point to the United States. This is not a conversation Russia is having with Europe, but one it is having with Washington, since Russia principally sees NATO as a platsdarm for the projection of U.S. military power.

The fables of Russian bombers attacking this or that are often told after Russian exercises, typically by politicians, such as the supposedly simulated Tu-22M3 nuclear strike on Sweden from Zapad 2013, which also never made sense, and was not substantiated by anything. If anyone had a nuclear mission in this exercise it was likely the missile brigades belonging to ground forces.

R-500 launch 3.jpg

Given the fear and panic spread in some circles ahead of Zapad, Russia needed fairly little to bolster its coercive credibility in being willing to use force, and follow through with conventional or nuclear escalation. That being said, the message was quite clear about Russian readiness and resolve were there to be a crisis in Belarus. In this respect Zapad was a success perhaps before it even began.

Now let’s get to Bild. This is what Bild thinks happened according to ‘two Western intelligence analysts.’ We can venture some guesses as to what country they’re from on the basis of how they saw these events unfold. This version of Zapad 2017 seems to be Putin’s operation #YOLO

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Unfortunately Bild’s account can only help further bolster Russia’s credibility and the mythologized capability of it’s armed forces. Here is what Bild wrote on the basis of mysterious intelligence sources:

  • Russian Tu-95MS bombing runs around Norway to strike Germany. Why would bombers with long range ALCMs have to fly anywhere near Europe to launch at Germany and Netherlands? They can fire from behind Moscow. That’s what 2,500km+ range cruise missiles are for. Actually they can hit Germany just fine without bombers too. In any case, there were stories of RAF Typhoons scrambling to intercept Russian planes off of Scotland but its unclear what they were, and it is very unlikely if they were bombers, that their mission was to “bomb” Germany (they don’t carry bombs). Russian bombers and other aircraft visit that part of airspace rather frequently, and are regularly intercepted by NATO aircraft.
  • Russian units from Kaliningrad invading Poland. The BTG formed here with VDV reinforcements focused on defense, although it would be interesting to see the op plan for invading all of Poland with 1200 men. The same goes for Sweden and Finland. The 6th Army is basically a defensive Army Corps, so it’s somewhat dubious as to what it has on hand to invade Finland with. Russian units in Pechenga (Northern Fleet) formed a large BTG for defense, but its somewhat incredible to imagine an invasion of Scandinavia with a handful of soldiers, and no actual objective. There’s nothing strategic there to invade (no offense Scandinavian colleagues).
  • Russian amphibious landings to seize harbors and ports. Russian Naval Infantry does practice landings, but with an old LST fleet and tiny lift capacity, it’s hardly in the cards nor is it truly their mission. If you can capture a Baltic city with 8 APCs then they have a good chance of doing it, otherwise its problematic. Amphibious assault is not really something Russian forces are well setup to do. Frankly, amphibious anything is not really their forte. Meanwhile the VDV airborne had a much more humble presence than expected, perhaps 4-5 battalions took part from different divisions.
  • Cruise missile strikes against infrastructure, if simulated, were done by the two R-500 launches during the exercise, that is via ground based systems. There were also simulated fires from old Tochka-U which are being retired. Although Russia can deliver similar fires via sea and air launched missiles as well. Syria saw a good deal of action at the same time as Zapad 2017.
  • Finally, the proposition that Russia practiced an invasion of the Baltics, Poland and Scandinavia, while fighting the rest of NATO, with about 23,000-25,000 troops is at face value somewhat ridiculous. Zapad 2017 is about a high end fight with NATO, but it’s quite clear what the exercise is and isn’t. There was no invasion of Norway, or Sweden, or Poland, or bombing of the Netherlands, or any of the other alt-history Bild got from its friendly intelligence analysts. Senior officials in U.S. and NATO saw nothing of the sort described in Bild’s apocalyptic fantasy.

This was the Russian amphibious landing exercise in the Baltic Sea:

LST landing

Bild’s account of what happened during Zapad 2017 seems closer to this picture below:

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The Zapad exercise historically has a defensive and offensive component, as all strategic-operational exercises should, but 2017 appeared more limited in scale when it came to the ground force offensive/counterattack. Undoubtedly Russian forces crushed NATO in Belarus and saved Kaliningrad, but the rest of it seemed pretty conservative. Instead a strong emphasis was placed on fundamentals and functional areas of development: mobility and logistics, networking and communications, connecting ISR to fires, integrating aviation with ground attack, defense against aerospace attack, queuing and kill-chain development for long range fires, etc. For details you can look back to the day by day coverage in this blog from September.

As for what happened during Zapad 2017 according to twitter, and Bild, I can best illustrate using the imaginative renderings of Jakub Różalski –

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