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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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)
Followed by bombing passes from Su-30SM and Su-24 bombers
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
Ilya Muromets firefighting together with the large ocean going tug
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
The display signs at Tsugol – this seems to be the Chinese contingent section
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.
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.
More photos can be found on BMPD. But here’s s sample of some of the gear Chinese brought with them.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Of course you can’t assault an enemy airbase without taking a photo first
And a time honored tradition emerging from modern exercises, people pointing at screens:
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Later on, trying to explain something to angry looking Shoigu (this is not possible since Shoigu knows everything).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
Fun photos for our caption contest:
If you camo net the front of the TEL then nobody can see the launch tubes
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.
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)
Map of forces involved
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
My issue brief as part a series run by the Changing Character of War Centre at Oxford, assessing the durability of Russian military power. I recommend their centre’s website for some great Russia mil analysis. This briefing in particular focuses on manpower, materiel, and funding. I tackle the issue of whether Russia is able to sustain a competition with the United States, and the extent to which it will be able to sustain the military as an effective instrument of national power despite the many problems the country faces. I’ve found that some of the discourse on this subject, particularly with respect to manpower/demographics, could be better informed by data, and merits a closer look.
Political analysis in the West retains a strong bias towards measuring state influence and status according to economic foundations of power, yet Russia has demonstrated that military power remains an important instrument in international politics. Having enacted a period of military reform 2008-2012 and financed a sustained program of modernization, Russian foreign policy is increasingly underwritten either by the use of force, or threat of force, as part and parcel of coercive diplomacy. Though much attention is drawn today to indirect competition, it is Russia’s successful resurrection of military power which enables the country to ‘bench press’ above its weight in the international arena. Indeed, indirect competition is often messy, indecisive, and ineffectual without the weight of conventional military power supporting it.
While observers are cognizant of the resurrection of Russian military power, there remains, however, a considerable debate as to its durability. Simply put, many believe that demographic, economic and industrial trends are against Russia – the country will not be able to sustain this level of direct competition. Yet there is little to suggest, looking ten years out and even beyond, that Russia will suffer from those severe shortages of either manpower, money or materiel which would reduce Russia’s ability to underwrite its foreign policy. On the contrary, Russian demographic trends reflect only an increasing availability of manpower for the growing force, a sustainable defence budget in terms of spending, and a modernization program that will suffice to arm the force well into the 2020s. It can go on, and it will.
Much of the conversation on Russian demographics is simply ill informed. A decline of birth rates throughout the 1990s lasted until 1999. Russia suffered through a decade of declining health standards, fertility, falling birth rates, and emigration. Despite the decline in numbers of 18 year olds available for service, Russian armed forces expanded from perhaps around 700,000 in 2011 to over 900,000 in 2017. The contract share of the force swelled to as much as 380,000, or more than 50% of the enlisted force. Russian birth rates increased year on year from 2000 until 2015. This means that men born in 2000 will be of service age this year, 2018, and the pool of men aged 18-27 should increase every year from now until 2032.
Russia’s birth rate – World Bank
Birth rates are hardly the only indicator responsible for growing manpower availability in Russia. The draft board, Voenkomat, has also helped clean up corruption in the number of health exclusions granted to those seeking to dodge service. In the past, many Russians would spontaneously become unhealthy upon turning 18. But with health exclusions revised, and the rampant buying of disqualifications now attended to, the amount of those deemed unfit had declined to only about 23% in 2016 according to head of the General Staff’s Mobilization Directorate Colonel General Tonkoshkurov. Russia’s chief military prosecutor, Valery Petrov, stated more recently in 2018 that overall draft evasion is down by about 30% from the corrupt heydays of the past. Beyond reductions in draft dodging, increases in pay, growing public respect for the armed forces, and overall improving conditions in the military have all had a positive effect on recruitment. Starting in 2018, a change in the conscription law now offers draftees the option of one year conscript service or two years under contract with better terms.
General demographics trends offer a complex picture of Russia’s future. Russian life expectancy actually reached a record high in 2017, and fertility rates are closing in on those in the United States, up from 1.157 in 1999 to 1.75 in 2016 (U.S. was at 1.8). Russia suffers from three principal problems in demographics: the demographic echo from the disastrous 1990s which will return to haunt Moscow in the mid-2030s, a declining workforce which is losing perhaps 600,000 per year in retirements, and the recent economic recession which slowed birth rates 2015-2017 (even despite generous state sponsored family programmes) which will have knock on effects years from now. Russia’s main problem is not so much the size of its population, but its productivity. Nevertheless, because Russia remains the primary labour market for the former Soviet Union, and is host to a large pool of immigrant labour, it does have answers readily available for the present decline in the labour force. Despite all these challenges, therefore, Russia’s current population is much healthier of late, with the longest lifespan witnessed, and manpower availability is likely to see sustained increases into the mid 2030s.
Fertility rates comparison – World Bank
From a materiel standpoint, it is also difficult to observe looming shortages. The previous State Armament Program 2011-2020 was meant to jumpstart the defence industry, and effectively provided for a dramatic increase in the modernization rating of Russian equipment from 15% in 2010 to almost 60% in 2017 (according to official figures). That program’s achievements merit briefly recounting, as they include the acquisition of 418 aircraft for tactical aviation, 3 combat aviation brigades and 6 combat aviation regiments, 16 air defence regiments of S-400, more than 70 radars of various types for VKS Aerospace forces, 10 Iskander-M brigade sets, completion of Russia’s early warning radar network, 55 military satellites launched into orbit, 12 new regiments of Yars road-mobile ICBMs deployed, more than 3,000 modernized ground force vehicles, 3 new SSBNs and 2 new 4th generation SSGNs, together with diesel-electric submarines, corvettes, and auxiliary ships. This list includes upgrades in more specialized fields, including electronic warfare brigades and companies, new command and control systems to enable recon-strike and fires, together with more than 1800 drones acquired across services.
The funds spent by 2017 doubtfully exceed 50-60% of the original 19 trillion RUB allocated. Thus the new state armament program 2018-2027, at another 19 trillion RUB, plus 1 trillion for infrastructure, and 3 trillion for other security services, represents a sustained investment. Albeit with reduced purchasing power, the new state armament program will focus on areas neglected, or perhaps ‘jump started’ by its predecessor. These include large-scale acquisition of precision guided munitions, long-range standoff cruise missiles, transport aviation, bomber modernization, expansion of artillery, armour, and missile formations in the ground forces, more capable drones, and next generation tech like hypersonic weapons.
Even in Russia’s lagging industry, shipbuilding, one can see that core sectors of competence such as submarine construction remain capable of producing some of the most sophisticated platforms available. Russia currently has 11 nuclear powered submarines laid down, and is able to build a diesel-electric submarine in 18 months, with a division of 6 currently in production for the Pacific Fleet. Despite a messy divorce from Ukraine’s defence sector, the material is not only there to sustain Russian military modernization, but the production rates are more than sufficient even in troublesome sectors.
In other areas, such as the ground forces, the conflict in Ukraine and Syria has illustrated that Russian ‘good enough’ is can deal with the country’s military requirements for the coming decade. Modernized Soviet platforms are able to beat any former Soviet republic on Russia’s borders. Possessing them at high readiness, and large numbers, means Russia can effectively impose its will on neighbours or coerce them in a crisis. If anything, most of the challenges faced by Moscow are self-imposed, such as the decision to expand the ground force structure so quickly that it will inherently suffer in readiness and mobility. The defence industry has shown itself capable of producing current generation technology such that Russia has a viable path towards conventional deterrence vis-a-vis the United States, meanwhile less advanced elements of the Russian military are more than suitable for compellence in local and regional conflicts.
Assuming levels of economic growth at 1.5%, there is little to suggest that Russia cannot sustain this level of military expenditure, which will amount to no more than 4% of GDP. Meanwhile Russian spending on national defence will likely hover at around 2.8% of GDP, as the defence budget is only seeing modest cuts relative to other sections of the budget. The fact that oil prices are 50% above the $40 per barrel mark which the government used to underpin its budget expectations is yet another indicator that the economic outlook for defence spending is considerably better than usually appreciated. While the defence budget may still have fat to trim, coming off of historic highs in 2014, there is less urgency in spending on procurement after major gaps have been filled in 2011-2017, and the defence industry revitalized in the process. Adjusted for purchasing power parity, Russia remains just behind Germany as the second largest GDP in Europe. Although it is technically a middle income country, Russia’s raw GDP hides considerable purchasing power when it comes to defence spending and the ability to sustain its armed forces.
On the basis of macro indicators such as manpower, materiel, and money, therefore, Russia is positioned to sustain its policies, even if this means a prolonged confrontation well into the 2020s, and perhaps 2030s. More importantly, Moscow’s ability to leverage military power as one of the more decisive instruments in pursuit of its foreign policy objectives should be clearly understood. Russia can retain the current degree of military activity, snap readiness tests, large strategic exercises, expeditionary operations in Syria, and a rotating presence in Ukraine. The challenges Russia faces are consequential, often resulting in cycles of stagnation and mobilization, but they are not deterministic, as has historically been the case for this particular power.
Posted today on Russia Matters, a project by Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Below is my latest piece in response to the headlines generated by SIRPI’s trends in military expenditure report alleging a 20% reduction in Russian military expenditure in 2017.
One can only observe with bemusement the growth in size, readiness and modernization of Russia’s armed forces when juxtaposed against recent newsstoriesreporting a 20-percent decline in Russian defense spending from 2016 to 2017, described as the first notable cut since 1998. It is seemingly impossible for both trends to be real. Indeed, Russian defense spending is alive and well, with cuts limited to single digits. The announcement about its steep decline by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, or SIPRI, was erroneous. Changes in Russia’s handling of defense funding have led SIPRI and, before it, IHS Jane’s Defense Weekly to misreport the reduction. Now, for the second time in as many years, the miscalculation is proliferating across major media outlets.
The main source of the error is readily identifiable, arcane though it may be: In 2016 the Russian government started paying off defense-sector debt that had piled up over the years, which created the illusion of much higher spending on national defense and, accordingly, a subsequent decline the following year. Before this, the Defense Ministry (MoD) had managed to rack up close to a trillion rubles in debt to defense contractors, who had been producing equipment on credit borrowed from various banks. The MoD was paying the interest on these loans and the Russian leadership was none too happy about it. After the government decided to pay down the debt, the Finance Ministry provided 792 billion rubles for this purpose, a figure that seemed to boost 2016 defense spending from its actual 3.09 trillion rubles to 3.8 trillion. (Subsequently another 186 billion rubles was spent in 2017 on paying down debt, making the spending appear higher for that year as well.) According to the MoD, this measure saved 130 billion rubles in interest alone.
Another change disrupting the continuity of Russian defense-spending data, adopted by the government in 2017, was to tighten up controls on funding left over in the hands of the defense sector when it was unable to deliver weapons on time. Prior to this, the defense industry was allowed to build up stockpiles of money advanced for armaments that had not been produced as scheduled. Furthermore, some defense enterprises were clever enough to collect interest on these large advances, which sat in their accounts. At the end of the year, about 250-300 billion rubles ended up trapped in this manner, and the MoD had a hard choice to make: either further finance incomplete orders, and therefore reward delinquency, or return the money to the government budget and potentially lose it. To solve the matter, the MoD will now pull unspent funding back to the government budget under the condition that it will be reissued, and roll over payments into the following year. This means that some portion of each year’s budget (perhaps 5 percent or so) will flow into the next year.
In making its calculations SIPRI also converted the outsized budget figures from 2016 into U.S. dollars, which exacerbated the impression of a dramatic decline in defense spending in 2017. Measuring Russia’s defense budget in dollars is analytically unhelpful, since Russia’s defense sector doesn’t buy much of anything in dollars. Thus, the resulting figures are distorted by changes in currency exchange rates, and they are not adjusted for purchasing power parity. Ultimately, several percentage points in SIPRI’s alleged decline were likely due to currency devaluation, which is almost completely irrelevant to the matter in question.
While we are in fact witnessing a steady decline of Russian defense spending as a percentage of GDP, defense cuts in absolute terms have been modest at best. Official spending on defense dropped by about 8 percent from 2016 to 2017, from 3.09 trillion rubles to 2.84 trillion, and the defense budget was only scheduled for cuts averaging 5-6 percent over the three-year period of 2017-2019. (The numbers in this article reflect official defense spending, not total military expenditure, which might include funding for other militarized services like the border guards and Interior Ministry troops, or military pensions, which could add another trillion rubles to the bottom line.) Actual reductions in military spending began in 2015, by about 5 percent. Economic factors certainly played a role—primarily Russia’s recession and the drop in oil prices—but perhaps more important were the geopolitical factors: loss of access to certain defense articles imported from the West and the messy divorce from Ukraine’s defense sector. Due to the war with Ukraine, Russia’s defense industry could not buy components from its long-time partner across the border; this, in turn, delayed production and left the Russian Defense Ministry with less materiel to buy, while the funds to pay for it sat in government coffers instead of getting spent.
Russia’s defense expenditures are not a coherent data set and have become easy to get lost in given the changes that have taken place. Nonetheless, it is especially frustrating to see the narrative of “slashed military spending due to economic woes” resurface now, since the same miscalculation was made last year by Jane’s, which reported a 25-percent reduction in Russian defense spending from 2016 to 2017 based on Moscow’s advance announcement of planned expenditures. Jane’s later acknowledged the mistake and took down its original story, but by that time the sensational figure had already been reported widely in the news media.
Although it is impossible to know in advance how much will be spent in 2018, it is already looking like this year’s anticipated 5 percent reduction is unlikely to materialize. Instead of the planned 2.768 trillion rubles, the Russian budget’s defense chapter has already been amended to 2.953, a 6.7-percent increase; this higher 2018 figure likely includes carryover payments for armament procurement in 2017. Hence defense spending in 2018 is unlikely to decline, but the Russian leadership still intends to see military expenditure reduced as a share of GDP. Planned spending on national defense was envisioned at 2.815 trillion for 2019 and 2.807 trillion for 2020—also hardly a steep cut, and current performance suggests actual numbers will prove higher.
Moreover, despite a reduction in Russia’s purchasing power, the new state armament program for 2018-2027 is quite substantial for the defense sector, especially considering the amount of modernization and procurement of new equipment already accomplished under the previous one. The latest program allocates considerable resources for additional procurement. It is configured in a 19+1+3 formula, with 19 trillion rubles for the armed forces, 1 trillion in infrastructure spending and another 3 trillion for other security services, such as the National Guard. The previous program of 2011-2020 was valued at close to 19 trillion rubles (plus infrastructure investment), about half of which was spent by 2017, at a rate that might average 1.35 trillion per year.
Thus, Russian defense spending and procurement is in for a sustained trim, but the reductions are fairly minor in comparison to the sensational headlines. Moscow has long declared its intentions to halt the growth in defense spending and reduce military expenditure as a share of GDP over time. Given the complexity of Russia’s defense budget, and a data set that lacks continuity, the best thing one can do is tread with care when it comes to pronouncements.
Because budget work is kind of lackluster and doesn’t offer much in terms of photos, I’m attaching this picture of Ivan, our lead analyst of budget analytics and kibble.