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A COMPARATIVE GUIDE TO RUSSIA’S USE OF FORCE: MEASURE TWICE, INVADE ONCE

My latest article examining Russian use of force, published on War on the Rocks.

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In the 20th century, the Soviet military’s penchant for area of effect artillery and armored firepower had earned it the reputation of a large hammer always in search of nails.  This popularized impression stuck with Russia long after the Soviet Union’s demise, but today’s Kremlin employs military power in a much more nuanced manner to pursue its objectives.  In recent conflicts, Russia has demonstrated a keen understanding of how to apply this instrument of national power to achieve desired political ends, doling out force in prescribed doses in the quest for decisive leverage.  Although Russian military power remains a blunt force instrument, the state wields it more like a rapier, demonstrating discretion and timing.

In a previous article on the key pillars of Russian strategy, I argued that Moscow favors an emergent strategy based on “fail fast and fail cheap” approaches. The Russian military itself has a long way to go in terms of modernization, but conversely, America’s political leadership needs to reexamine how great powers, with far fewer resources, use the so-called “big stick” to get the job done.  The unipolar world order appears to be rapidly melting, while great powers are back on the agenda.  When it comes to use of force by peer rivals contesting America’s interests, it is only going to get harder from here on out.

The United States may not wish to emulate Russian approaches, but American strategists should certainly study then.  Those who fail to learn from the experience of others must inevitably gain it at personal cost.  As Mark Twain  is said to have remarked, “The man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read.”  To take another step along the journey of understanding Russian strategy, I explore how Russia changes facts on the ground, compels its adversaries, and achieves much of this on the cheap.  The goal is to examine Russian use of force and draw lessons for an era when American use of power must become judicious, timely, and better married to something that resembles political objectives.

Read the rest here.

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Russian Navy Part 3: Impressive Beneath the Waves

Third installment in my article series with Norman Polmar on the Russian Navy for the USNI Proceedings Magazine.

The modern Russian Navy, similar to its Soviet predecessor, looks best underwater. Russia’s fitful attempts to revive its surface fleet could leave some observers unimpressed, but such criticism misses the point that the country’s current naval power largely resides in its subma­rine force.

Russia has retained the industrial ca­pacity and knowhow to produce capable submarines. Today the navy is recapital­izing its nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) force, which has the highest naval priority, modernizing its nuclear-powered guided-missile and at­tack submarine (SSGN/SSN) force, and still pumping out venerable diesel-electric submarines (SS), which are upgraded to launch land-attack missiles.

In 2015, the commander-in-chief of the Russian Navy, Admiral Viktor Chirkov (now retired), lauded a 50 percent in­crease in submarine patrols, but this fresh life comes from a force that had been largely missing from the world’s oceans in the preceding 15 years. Russia’s op­erational submarine force consists of an estimated: 12 SSBNs, 8 SSGNs, 11 SSNs, and 20 SSs. There also are several spe­cial-purpose nuclear and diesel-electric submarines.

While this undersea force is but a frac­tion of the Soviet strength during the Cold War—which approached 400 (largely die­sel) submarines in the 1960s—the current emphasis on submarine development and construction is readily evident.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, submarine production slowed and then came to a halt. The first prototype Yasen-class SSGN—the Severodvinsk—was laid down in 1993 and the first Borey-class SSBN—the Yuri Dolgorukiy—in 1996, but construction on both ceased soon after. In the decade or more of that hiatus, both sub­marines were extensively redesigned, and when they belatedly went to sea they were very different from their original designs.

Prior to the arrival of the first Borey, Russia’s sea-based deterrent consisted of three Delta III and six Delta IV submarines plus one Typhoon in limited service as a missile test ship. The Delta IIIs, completed between 1979 and 1982, are outdated and have seen relatively little time at sea com­pared to their U.S. counterparts.

Three Borey-class SSBNs have been completed. The Aleksander Nevskiy and Vladimir Monomakh are now in the Pa­cific Fleet, while the Yuri Dolgorukiy is in service with the Northern Fleet. Five additional Borey SSBNs are under con­struction, all scheduled to enter service by 2021, although construction delays are common. These ships each carry 16 solid-fuel Bulava missiles, given the NATO des­ignation SS-N-32. The missile itself had a troublesome development history largely due to production quality issues, but de­spite several test failures it has been de­clared operational since 2013. The Bulava is reported to sacrifice range and warhead payload for increased survivability against ballistic missile defenses.

Russia has not announced the scrapping of any Delta IIIs, but its strategic forces are now significantly above the 1,550 de­ployed nuclear warhead count agreed to under the 2010 New Strategic Arms Re­duction Treaty. This limit must be met by February 2018, and likely will require the decommissioning of several older SSBNs.

The lead unit of the Yasen class SSGNs—the Severodvinsk—represents the most advanced undersea adversary now faced by the U.S. Navy. Launched nearly two decades after being laid down, she was extensively redesigned and is Russia’s first truly multipurpose submarine. The Severodvinsk is capable of antisubmarine, antiship, and land-attack missions. Among the more interesting features are a large bow sonar dome for the Irtysh-Amfora sonar system and an amidships battery of eight vertical-launch cells that can carry 32 Kalibr (SS-N-27/30 Sizzler) or Oniks (SS-N-26 Strobile) cruise missiles. These antiship and land-attack weapons are par­ticularly significant after Russian surface ships and submarines fired long-range mis­siles into Syria in 2016.

The Severodvinsk, lead ship of Yasen-class

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The Severodvinsk spent more than two years on sea trials, reportedly hav­ing significant propulsion and noise-level problems that delayed her commission­ing. Subsequent submarines of this design have been modified with changes said to include a different sonar arrangement. Six are reported to be under construction.

Russia’s older SSGNs—the Oscar II se­ries—are receiving facelifts, with several undergoing modernization. Some of the Oscars will have their existing 24 missile tubes for the P-700 Granit (SS-N-19) mis­sile refitted to carry 72 Kalibr or P-800 Oniks missiles. The Granit missile was principally an anticarrier weapon. Armed with the latest missiles, the Oscar II will be more versatile.

Now in development is a new Rus­sian “hunter-killer” submarine. This SSN will have the primary role of countering Western SSBNs. The new SSN is prob­ably a significant program, but very little is known about it other than construction is slated to begin in the near future.

An Oscar-II class SSGN

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While all nuclear submarine construc­tion is now undertaken at the massive Severodvinsk shipyard in northern Russia, four other shipyards are producing diesel-electric Kilo submarines. There are sev­eral variants of the Kilo, first completed in December 1980. More than 20 were built for Soviet/Russian service, and about 40 units were built for export to Algeria, China, India, Iran, Poland, Romania, and Vietnam. An improved version, known as Project 636.3, is one of the defense in­dustry’s most popular exports, carrying the export variant of the Kalibr antiship and land-attack missile. Russia recently completed an order of six for Vietnam.

Six improved Kilo submarines are being added to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, which is being revived at a remarkable pace. An identical squadron has been promised to the Pacific Fleet by 2021. One Kilo fired Kalibr missiles at targets in Syria as part of the Russian air-ground-naval interven­tion in the Syrian civil war.

The construction of modernized Kilos continues in part because of the Russian failure to produce a submarine with an ef­fective air-independent propulsion (AIP) system. Three submarines of the Lada class were begun, but after difficulties with the AIP plant only the lead unit, the Sankt Peterburg, was completed in 2010—with conventional diesel-electric propulsion. She now is in the Northern Fleet. The two unfinished Lada-class sub­marines are scheduled for completion in 2018 and 2019, but the class as a whole has been a failure. It is unclear what Rus­sia ultimately will do with Sankt Peter­burg’s sister ships once finished. Hopes for an AIP submarine now are being placed on the Kalina class, a new design likely to employ AIP, about which little is known publicly.

The continuation of non-nuclear sub­marines offers several benefits to Russia: the ability to conduct operations in re­stricted waters where nuclear submarines are impractical (Baltic and Black seas); coastal defense missions; and special op­erations where larger, nuclear submarines are not required and could be considered a liability; as well as ease of production compared to nuclear submarines. Armed with land-attack missiles, cheaper diesel submarines can range the European and Asian theaters while staying relatively close to home waters. They also are easy to produce and a good source of hard cur­rency for Russia’s shipbuilding industry.

Beyond combat submarines, there is another Russian submarine force that answers to its own command. The Navy’s General Directorate of Under­sea Research (GUGI) maintains several special-purpose undersea craft. Some are conversions of older submarines, such as the Delta “stretch” SSBN designs, while others are new construction units. These special-purpose submarines—nuclear and diesel-electric—are employed in several roles, including supporting submarine weapon and systems development; con­ducting deep-ocean antisubmarine proj­ects; and mapping and possibly interdict­ing seafloor fiber-optic cable networks. Some of GUGI’s submarines serve as mother ships for deep divers such as the “Losharik” special-purpose subma­rine. Others may deploy underwater drones with nuclear warheads such as the recently revealed “Status-6” weapon, which will be carried externally. Many press reports credit the Status-6 with incredibly high speed, long range, and a multi-megaton warhead—claims that likely are unrealistic. But even if those performance figures are off significantly, it still will be an innovative weapon and need to be countered.

Podmoskovye, a modified Delta-stretch SSBN, designed to dock smaller submersibles in the bottom half of the hull.

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Russia’s submarine fleet may be a dwarf force compared to its Soviet predecessor and even its contemporary U.S. Navy adversary, but it is still the heart of the navy’s combat capability. Its SSBN replacement program con­tinues apace, while new SSGN/SSN designs promise to test the dominance the U.S. Navy has grown accustomed to in the undersea domain. Given the troubled state of the Russian economy, it is difficult to predict how long the country can sustain the current levels of construction and readiness, but for now this force has been imbued with fresh life. Russian submarines produced in this decade will shape the underwater military balance well into the 2030s.

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

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The ABCs of Russian Military Power: A Primer for the New Administration

My latest article in TNI summarizing key aspects of Russian military power and the balance in Europe.

The current confrontation in U.S.-Russia relations, and increasing antagonism in the relationship, makes it difficult to separate structural changes in the European security environment from politically charged sources of conflict. Yet these changes have been profound, dating back to Russian military reforms launched in late 2008. They have serious implications for the new U.S. administration. The principal factors are Russia’s revival of the military as an instrument of national power, the unsettled war in Ukraine, and NATO’s changing posture to counter a perceived threat from Moscow’s machinations.

Seeking an improved, or perhaps simply more stable, relationship with Russia from a “position of strength” requires understanding the new military balance in Europe, the evolution of Russia’s military capabilities, and its evolving force posture. Independent of whether the proximate causes of hostility in U.S.-Russian relations are resolved, or there is a change in the broader atmospherics of the relationship, the United States must develop a strategy and policy for dealing with Russia, grounded not in optimism but in hard military realities. The previous administration suffered from a severe rhetoric-to-strategy gap, contesting Russia politically but losing strategically.

It would be safe to assume that distrust will continue to dominate NATO-Russia relations, and that even if interactions on the whole may improve—arguably, they cannot worsen—they may not produce concrete results in short order. A fact-based approach to the security situation in Europe should inform further changes in U.S. force structure and posture. Unfortunately, for the past two years discourse on this subject has been only marginally informed by reality, with policy advocacy and agendas driving analysis of the Russian military threat. Debate has often taken place either in a fact-free zone, or with new information overconsumed by a policy establishment long unaccustomed to dealing with Russia as a serious adversary. The United States has not been winning the geopolitical confrontation with Russia of late; nor has it come up with a vision for how to change the dynamics in this adversarial relationship.

Like its predecessor, the new administration will have to formulate its Russia policy in the aftermath of a crisis in European security; this is an opportunity either to make fresh mistakes, or to get things right. To succeed, the administration must base its strategy not on individual capabilities that Russia has, the individual concerns of proximate NATO members, or the designs of different constituencies within the U.S. policy establishment, but on a coherent understanding of the security dynamics in Europe and Russian military power.

Russia Has Been Busy

The Russian military that the United States faces in 2017 is not the poorly equipped and uncoordinated force that invaded Georgia in August of 2008. This is why the magnitude and potential impact of the current crisis is far greater than that inherited by the Obama administration in 2009. Following reforms launched in October 2008, and a modernization program in 2011 valued at $670 billion, the armed forces have become one of Russia’s most reliable instruments of national power. Russia disbanded the useless mass-mobilization army of the Soviet Union, consolidated what was worthwhile, and reconstituted a much smaller, but more capable force. The overall size of Russia’s armed forces continues to increase, numbering over nine hundred thousand today, while the state armament program continues to replace aging equipment throughout the force with new or modernized variants.

The reform process and a stable infusion of much-needed capital have restored war-fighting potential to the Russian military, though incomplete, and unevenly applied to the force. Moscow’s ability to sustain this spending is very much in question, faced with low oil prices, economic recession and Western sanctions. However, Russia has made the choice to defend defense spending and enact cuts elsewhere. Reductions will be made to the procurement program, but Moscow will maintain spending on nuclear modernization and long-range standoff weapons, trying to sustain the force at current levels In reality, loss of access to key components from Ukrainian and European defense industries created the most serious setbacks to Russian defense modernization (delays of about five to seven years in 2014).

Russia’s defense budget steadily climbed from to a peak of 4.2 percent of GDP in 2015. Since then, it has been in relative decline, though likely to remain above 3.7 percent, well beyond the spending levels of America’s European allies. This level of expenditure is probably unsustainable for the Russian budget, inevitably forcing its leadership to choose between weapons procurement, operations and the quality of personnel. However, the inertia of the current modernization program will have lasting effects well into the 2020s.

Bottom line, Russia can sustain this military with judicious reductions, and even if the funding base collapses, the dramatic turnaround in its armed forces is not a temporary bounce that the United States must ride out. Russia’s General Staff has been focused on drilling the force with snap readiness checks, joint exercises, large movements and annual operational-strategic exercises. From its air force to the nuclear-powered submarines of its navy, the Russian military has quickly clawed back operational readiness not seen since the 1990s.

You can read the rest here.

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Russian Navy: Part 2 – One Step Forward, Two Steps Back?

The second installment of my series with Norman Polmar.  This article originally appeared in the January edition of the Proceedings Magazine.

The surface combatants in today’s Russian Navy are an eclectic mix of mostly Soviet-era designs built in the 1980s and early 1990s—from guided-missile cruisers to a host of small missile boats, frigates, corvettes, and legacy flotsam inherited by the five fleets.

The Russian Navy still has “capital ships”—including the nuclear-powered battle cruiser Petr Velikiy and the aircraft carrier Kuznetsov, which recently made her combat debut off Syria. Similarly, three Slava-class missile cruisers are in service, as well as at least two operational Sovremenny-class destroyers, and eight Udaloy-class large antisubmarine ships. But after this short listing of major warships, one begins to count the smaller, lesser ships and craft. Two Neustrashimyy-class frigates in the Baltic and a pair of Krivak frigates assigned to the Black Sea Fleet bring up the rear guard, together with two newer Admiral Gorshkov-class frigates and three of the Admiral Grigorovich design. Perhaps another 60 corvettes, patrol boats, and missile boats—many with advanced missiles—round out the current surface forces. Thus sails the remnants of the massive, ocean-going fleet built by Admiral Sergei G. Gorshkov.

For the past two decades, the Russian Navy’s principal purpose has been status projection, showing the flag to demonstrate Russia as a great power outside its land boundaries. Squadrons of two or three ships—sometimes including the Petr Velikiy—typically would undertake port visits or exercises, always with a tanker and a tug in escort, given the frequency of breakdowns among Soviet-era ships.

Indeed, some of today’s Russian Navy ships are akin to floating naval museums: the Smetlivyy, a Kashin-class guided-missile destroyer, launched in 1968, is still in service. Despite being overhauled in the 1990s, she impresses no one. Russia’s amphibious ships also suffer from aging. The Ivan Gren-class tank landing ships (LSTs), intended to replace the aging Alligator and Ropucha classes, so far number only one ship, with only one other yet laid down. The first ship of the class took 12 years from laying the keel to entering service. The Alligators and Ropuchas now vary in age from 25 to nearly 50 years. Remarkably, with life extensions and modernization, these LSTs remain in service and are supporting Russian forces fighting in Syria. They should not be underestimated. In fact, five landing ships from Russia’s Black Sea Fleet demonstrated the ability to land a battalion during exercises in Crimea as recently as September 2016. The two French-built Mistral-class helicopter-carrying landing ships (LHAs) were embargoed after the Russian seizure of Crimea and have been sold to Egypt.

The Russian Navy’s vision for next-generation warships began with corvette and frigate construction programs—in part because they are ships Russian shipyards still can produce in significant numbers—and then moves on to larger ships in the next decade. However, large, nuclear-powered destroyers of the so-called Lider class, promised to be laid down in 2019, are unlikely to be completed in the 2020s, if at all. Such projects are announced regularly to domestic applause, but they are likely to remain on paper for a decade if not longer.

The restoration of the Russian surface fleet has met with harsh realities. First, about one-half of the Soviet shipyards building warships were “relocated” outside of the country when the Soviet regime fell in 1991. No different from the rest of Russia’s defense industry, shipbuilding has survived in large part on export orders from other countries. Ships being built for foreign navies, as well as those for domestic service, have suffered long delays and cost overruns. Some shipyards worked slowly in the hope of extending work, while their prominent owners embezzled funds and often fled the country.

Russia also was entirely dependent on Ukraine for gas turbines for large ship propulsion, a legacy of the integrated defense industry of the Soviet Union. When ties were broken after the Russian seizure of the Crimea in 2014, Russia found itself in possession of engines for only two Admiral Gorshkov-class frigates and three Admiral Grigorovich-class frigates then under construction. Other ships of these classes were left with empty engineering spaces.

Lead ship of the class Admiral Grigorovich below.

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Russia’s solution to this predicament has been to delay both frigate lines awaiting future indigenous turbine production, expected no sooner than 2018, and to sell existing Grigorovich hulls to India as part of a large arms deal, with the expectation that Ukraine will supply India with its gas turbines. Domestic frigate (and larger ship) production will stall while Russia tries to develop domestic gas turbines. In the meantime, the only new surface combatants at the Navy’s piers will be corvettes and lesser craft.

Another problem—how to repair gas turbines traditionally overhauled in Ukraine—has been partially solved by the Russian firm Novik, located in Samara on the Volga River. Novik has completed maintenance and repair on a Neustrashimmy-class frigate. There may be a line of ships waiting for such overhauls, especially given the current, high operational tempo. Western sanctions following the Crimea seizure also have taken their toll, cutting off supplies of German MTU diesel engines for some corvettes and forcing a shift to less reliable domestic engines.

The State Armament Program, announced in 2011, breathed new life into Russian shipbuilding. Valued at 20 trillion rubles at the time ($670 billion), the program allocated roughly one-quarter of its expenditure to military shipbuilding, but delays are likely to continue as the gas turbine and diesel propulsion issues are being solved. The Russian Navy’s near-term vision is sacrificing displacement and endurance to build smaller warships with families of advanced defensive and offensive systems. They are a philosophical break from specialization to smaller, multipurpose designs stressing flexibility and long-range offensive firepower. Russian frigates and corvettes either already feature these weapons or are under construction with them integrated into the design. These ships combine highly capable antiship and land-attack missiles fired from vertical-launch cells that can house all Kalibr (NATO designation SS-N-27/30) missile variants or Oniks missiles (NATO designation SS-N-26 Strobile).

Larger displacement ships feature the Poliment-Redut surface-to-air missile (still in testing), while smaller ships will employ the short-range Pantsir-M variant. Close-in weapon systems have been upgraded, and many ships come with Paket-NK for the antisubmarine/antitorpedo roles. Now in development is the Tsirkon family of hypersonic missiles, planned for deployment on the modernized Petr Velikiy and Admiral Nakhimov and other future ships.

Thus, the smaller warships joining the Russian fleet can conduct strikes across Europe, or range hostile ships at great distances. Although their individual magazines may be limited, these ships are easily massed. A typical Russian corvette displacing roughly 1,000 tons is armed with 100-mm and 30-mm guns, eight vertical-launch cells, and advanced electronic warfare and sensor packages.

There are interesting additions to the Russian fleet of oceanographic research ships that regularly conduct “research” near Western underwater infrastructure and communication cables. The 5,200-ton Yantar oceanographic research ship was completed in 2013 and is reported to be equipped with two deep submergence vehicles. The Vishnaya-class 3,470-ton intelligence collector Viktor Leonov visited Cuba in 2015, just as U.S.-Cuban relations were undergoing major changes. Plans to construct armed icebreakers with antiship missiles may produce a unique, hybrid ship class. Meanwhile, Russia has not expanded naval sealift—instead reflagging commercial ships as needed.

Yantar research ship below.

Although reinvigorated, and relatively well-funded at this time, Russia’s Navy will retain one foot in its Soviet past at least through the 2020s. Its transformative vision is not without merit, but it is threatened by delays, outdated shipyards, shortages of engines, and other problems. The abundance of new ship designs demonstrates the Russian Navy continues to suffer from the Soviet disease of distributed “classality,” the inability to produce more than a few warships of any given type before moving on to another design, leading to a diverse and difficult-to-maintain force.

Despite its limitations, the Russian Navy has a viable vision for its future—not as the major blue water fleet that was Admiral Gorshkov’s Cold War goal—but as a force that can show the flag in distant waters and support Russian political-military interests in bordering seas.

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

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THE MOSCOW SCHOOL OF HARD KNOCKS: KEY PILLARS OF RUSSIAN STRATEGY

My breakdown of Russian strategy in our geopolitical interactions over the past two years published on War on the Rocks.

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The scandal over Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential election is only the latest in a series of geopolitical contests with Russia in which Moscow has often gotten the better of the United States. The “new Cold War” isn’t going all that well for anyone besides Vladimir Putin. Washington certainly has the least to show for it. Following public outcry, the Obama administration released intelligence on the Russian hacking operation, but the clumsily written disclosures only made Vladimir Putin look bigger and badder. Meanwhile President Obama’s ambiguous threats to respond at a “time and place of our choosing” obscured what costs, if any, Russia paid for such chicanery. One suspects that there was little pressure beyond what is publicly known. If anything, this exchange of accusations only highlighted America’s vulnerabilities while encouraging Russia and other states to try harder next time around.

The Russians earned yet another political victory with audiences at home and abroad. Meanwhile, Washington is in the midst of self-immolation. When the next peer adversary comes knocking, the United States must be better prepared. The United States can’t return to the past, but it can certainly learn from it.

As Mark Twain once said, “good judgment is the result of experience, and experience the result of bad judgment.” After Ukraine, Syria, and this latest episode, America has been on the receiving end of some good experience. Step one in learning is admitting that Vladimir Putin has been on a winning streak, arguably as far back as March 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea. Based on observing Moscow’s interaction with our policy establishment, I expect the Kremlin to continue “winning” this year, whether or not U.S. foreign policy changes dramatically in the coming months.

Read the rest here for free.

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Toward Smaller Ships and Professional Sailors

This article appeared in the December 2016 edition of the Proceedings magazine which I co-authored with Norman Polmar.  Norman is a long time writer and analyst for the U.S. Navy, in particular on the subject of Russian submarines.  This is part 1 of a series on the Russian Navy.

A quarter century after the end of the Cold War the old Soviet Navy is steadily disappearing from view and a very different Russian fleet is starting to take its place. Once a challenge on the high seas to the U.S. Navy, today Russia’s surface combatant force is becoming a “green water” force. As Russia steadily retires old Soviet ships, its young replacements are smaller, multipurpose, and with new capabilities. Yet Russia’s vision for a new fleet also is in trouble, beset by construction problems, delays, corruption, and lost years caused by a dependency on gas turbines from Ukraine. Only in submarine construction is there a bright picture, but here, too, there are important questions.

In terms of capital ships, today the Russian Federation Navy (RFN) has one aircraft carrier (the Admiral Kuznetsov— currently at sea off the coast of Syria), the sole survivor of an ambitious carrier program initiated in the 1960s. Similarly, only one of the four nuclear-propelled battle cruisers of the Kirov class currently is in service (the Petr Velikiy), although a second (the Admiral Nakhimov) is undergoing major modernization costing more than $2 billion. These ships are legacies, now intended for showing the flag and status projection, demonstrating Russia still is a great power on blue waters.

The Kuznetsov continues to suffer engineering problems, evidenced by plumes of black smoke recently seen coming from her stacks. After her current deployment to the Mediterranean, she will begin a multi-year overhaul and modernization that leaves Russia without an aircraft carrier ready for sea. Of the three Slava-class missile cruisers, typically two are available at any time while one is in long-term overhaul. Hence the Moskva and Varyag of that class have taken shifts commanding Russia’s naval squadron in the Eastern Mediterranean, leaving the Pacific Fleet without a proper cruiser-type flagship. The third ship of the class under Russian colors, the Marshal Ustinov, is scheduled to leave the Zvyozdochka Shipyard in Severodvinsk in early 2017 and may go to the Pacific Fleet.

Admiral Kuznetsov strike group near Norway on its way down to the Eastern Med, November 2016

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Beyond these “capital ships,” the Russian surface fleet has a small assortment of destroyers, frigates, amphibious ships, and auxiliary ships. This situation persists despite the Russian leadership’s disproportionate attention and affection for the navy, especially given that the country is a major—and historically dominant—Eurasian land power. This belief in the importance of naval power dates to the time of Peter the Great (tsar of Russia from 1682 to 1725). Today President Vladimir Putin sees his navy as a means of projecting great power status and garnering attention of world leaders.

Meanwhile the Russian General Staff believes the RFN has an important role in securing maritime approaches and the vulnerable littorals on the country’s periphery, and in providing new strike options with land-attack cruise missiles. Even Russia’s dated fleet of amphibious ships and landing craft trains to shift troops around the nation’s vast borders and practices landings, as recently as during exercises in Crimea in September 2016. The Alligator and Ropucha classes of landing ships have been integral to the “Syrian Express,” Russia’s supply line from the Black Sea to support the Assad regime and to provide the logistics train for the Russian ground and air intervention in Syria.

During the campaign in Syria, a new generation of Russian Kalibr land-attack cruise missiles, launched from small corvettes, frigates, and diesel-electric submarines, have made their “combat” debut. These ships and submarines are multipurpose platforms, tied more to specific families of weapon systems such as Kalibr and P-800 Oniks (NATO designation SSN-26 Strobile) strike missiles, along with the Poliment-Redut air defense system, which is still in development.

Buyan-M class corvette firing Kalibr-nk land attack cruise missiles in 2016

Following the seizure of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, the Russian government proceeded with plans to resurrect the largely moribund Black Sea Fleet. Thus this dying naval command has been revived with an influx of new corvettes, submarines, naval infantry, aviation, and coastal defense forces. Together with the Caspian Sea Flotilla, the Black Sea Fleet has had a discernible impact on the Syrian campaign, providing missile attacks as well as local air defense off the port of Tartus.

The recent announcement that Russian troops and aviation units will be “permanently” based in Syria further enhances the significance of Tartus and the navy’s logistic support. Meanwhile, from his Crimea headquarters, the Black Sea Fleet commander can confidently project control over most of the Black Sea. With the arrival of a new series of diesel-electric submarines this fleet will increasingly make its presence felt in the Eastern Mediterranean.

The men and (a few) women who sail on board Russian navy ships and submarines are increasingly professionals. Gone are the three-year conscripts who formed the enlisted force on board Russian ships. Today the “Red Fleet” is manned primarily by career officers and warrants (the equivalent of senior petty officers in Western navies), and “contract” enlisted men. The few women who serve on board ships are assigned to civilian-manned auxiliary ships (akin to the U.S. Navy’s Military Sealift Command); other women serve in billets of the shore establishment and headquarters staffs.

The pay, service conditions, and benefits for naval personnel exponentially have improved since the launch of military reforms in late 2008. Indeed, the most important qualitative improvement across the fleet is the new generation of better trained and better-paid naval personnel. A regular regimen of exercises, drills, and snap checks keep this smaller force at a much higher state of operational readiness than its predecessors.

Where is the Russian navy heading? Russia’s shipyards are building submarines, corvettes, and frigates because those are the ships they can produce. These new surface ships—and submarines—are sufficient for controlling the waters of Russia’s periphery. Construction of cruisers, destroyers, and large frigates is at a standstill at this time, primarily because in the past the Russian navy’s gas turbine engines were supplied by Ukraine. While Russian factories are now developing naval gas turbine engines, existing ship designs will require major modifications for their installation.

Launch of Admiral Essen, a project 11356 frigate, in Kaliningrad.  This ship is now on active service with the Black Sea Fleet.

Significant electronic and navigation gear provided by Western firms is no longer available because of sanctions imposed by Western governments after the Russian takeover of Crimea. The breakup of the Soviet Union in December 1991 left several key shipyards in newly independent Ukraine and other countries. Of particular importance was the carrier-building facility at Nikolayev in the Ukraine. Significantly, all four submarine construction yards and their suppliers remained within Russian territory.

The current Russian navy, a mix of legacy Soviet vessels and new smaller ship classes, is ill suited for long-range operations, and there appears to be no planning for them—at this time. Most of the new surface ships have short endurance and are not designed for long-range operations. Large Soviet platforms, like the nuclear cruiser Petr Velikiy, can still undertake impressive voyages, such as the deployment to South Africa and the Caribbean in 2008. The principal missions of Russia’s surface forces, however, are to prevent the U.S. Navy from approaching Russia’s borders, defend strategic missile submarine bastions, provide alternative land-attack options for the increasingly joint military force, and support Russian “overseas interests” in adjacent areas, at this time in the Middle East.

The Russian navy faces limitations in the short term, and it is difficult to foresee what the distant future will hold. The Russian economy shrank in 2015 and will likely stagnate in the near future under continued low oil prices and its long running structural inadequacies. Russia does, on the other hand, retain key shipyards and highly competent surface ship and submarine design bureaus. Given time and funding, the ingredients exist to grow the fleet into a more capable force. Russia’s naval traditions, and the historic interest of its leaders in the maritime domain suggest the St. Andrew’s flag will continue to fly over Russia’s regional seas, and, possibly in the future, the distant seas.

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

 

 

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The Russian Navy’s Great Mediterranean Show of Force

My latest on the Russian flotilla sailing to the Eastern Med in The National Interest.  A more technical brief to follow in next post.

News has been rippling across Western media of a Russian naval squadron headed by the country’s only aircraft carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov, slowly making its way towards Syria.  Originally announced on July 11th, the combat tour to Syria has been long in the works, together with a host of other Russian naval activities unfolding simultaneously this month.  The Russian squadron has been lurching along at a steady pace as part of a tour de force around NATO countries and towards the Eastern Mediterranean.  At the time of this writing, the ships were passing through the English Channel. While the military objectives of this mission are not entirely insignificant, Russia’s chief purpose is status projection, leveraging its navy to demonstrate that it is a great power.

The squadron will first irk Russia’s already apprehensive Western neighbors and then make its presence felt in the Middle East.  Yet this latest bit of political theater and military showmanship is not without risk.  Kuznetsov’s fortunes will determine whether this becomes a demonstration of Russia’s power projection, or an unintended embarrassment, leaving the impression that Moscow is only imitating great power status.  The carrier is notoriously unreliable, while many of its fellow ships are also Soviet inheritances—capable but aging.

Russia seeks to intimate that it is one of the few countries able to project military power to distant shores and present the image of having some parity with the United States.  Both images will play well with a domestic audience.  Behind the scenes, a two year battle over the future of the State Armament Program is also unfolding in Moscow, with military services fighting over a defense procurement budget on the ebb.  Despite being a vast Eurasian land power, Russian leaders going back to Peter the Great have a history of lavishing disproportionate attention to the navy, believing that in the international system one must be able to show prowess on the high seas to be recognized as one of the great players in the system.

Vladimir Putin has not deviated from this traditional mindset, only exemplified it.  He has at times quoted Alexander III’s famous line that Russia has only two dependable allies: “its army and its navy.”  A commentary on geopolitics more so than military matters, but it still holds true to this day.  Russia’s navy has taken on considerable risk in a bid to convey to national leadership that it is an invaluable instrument for global status ambitions and national inspiration.

Though often a point of fixation, the Russian carrier Kuznetsov—or perhaps more accurately the originally Soviet-built ‘heavy aviation cruiser’—is also accompanied by the nuclear-powered missile cruiser Peter the Great. This flagship of the Russian Navy packs an arsenal of anti-ship missiles, air defenses and combat capabilities worthy of its prominent name.  Kuznetsov’s mission is in part to make a combat debut in Syria, having sailed several times to the region, but never having fought.  This is a public relations mission at heart, but also an important training event for Russia’s tiny naval aviation component.

The military aspects of the operation should not be overlooked.  Russia’s carrier is often disparaged as a floating lemon, and such criticisms are fair, but the West has an unhealthy track record of underestimating Russian military capabilities for the sake of disparaging them.  Unlike previous tours, which were largely for show, this time the ship will likely conduct combat operations, and it’s not traveling alone either.

The Kuznetsov set sail on October 15th from Severomorsk for the Syrian coast together with Peter the Great, two Udaloy-class destroyers, a tanker ship and a large tugboat.  Little noticed is that on the same day a squadron from Russia’s Pacific Fleet departed Vladivostok on the other side of the world.  The second grouping consists of two destroyers (Udaloy and Sovremenny class), together with a large tanker and tug, headed for the Indian Ocean.  It’s possible that this task force may choose to rally with the Kuznetsov in the Eastern Mediterranean, or perhaps standby on call in nearby waters.

A host of other naval movements are playing out simultaneously.  One of Russia’s newly completed Admiral Grigorovich-class frigates is transferring from the Baltic to the Black Sea Fleet, and may join the group off Syria to fire land attack cruise missiles.  It’s possible one of the Northern Fleet’s nuclear-powered submarines has joined this tour as well.  The Russian Navy’s comparative strength, its submarine force, is unlikely to have been left completely without a role in this affair.

Two large corvettes from the Baltic Fleet have ventured out of port, either to escort the carrier or join it for exercises on its voyage south.  Already on October 18th, the carrier began flight-training operations in the Norwegian Sea, shadowed by the British and Norwegian militaries.  Traveling slowly, the Russian Navy will probably make several exercise stops as a pointed show of force to NATO along the way.  Although planned well in advance, the first part of this tour will undoubtedly answer some of the ‘deterrence messaging’ by the United States 6th Fleet and NATO ships routinely visiting the Baltic and Black Sea.

More at TNI.

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THE MISADVENTURES OF RUSSIA AND THE UNITED STATES IN SYRIA: COMPLETE STRATEGY IMPLOSION EDITION

Below is my latest piece on War on the Rocks, analyzing the Russian intervention in Syria and the collapse of the ceasefire.

The current situation in Syria is the civil war’s most dangerous and arguably tragic phase. Months of U.S.-Russian efforts to arrange a nationwide ceasefire in Syria and set up a military coordination agreement have collapsed spectacularly, leading to venomous recriminations as a Russian-backed coalition renewed its assault on Aleppo. The tone of official rhetoric — Ambassador Samantha Power called the renewed bombing campaign “barbarism” — together with a suspension of military contacts raises the risk of a military clash that much further. Meanwhile, interventionist circles in the West have renewed their cries for the United States to use force, while Russia signaled that such a move would lead to uncertain consequences and possible military conflict, reminding the United States to “think carefully” before hitting any Syrian regime forces. If this is not the greatest foreign policy train wreck of 2016, it will certainly do until that calamity arrives.

On October 3, the United States suspended its attempts to implement a ceasefire with Russia and scrapped the proposal for a joint military coordination body. Russian President Vladimir Putin retaliated by shelving a 2000 deal on disposal of weapons-grade plutonium and canceling a bilateral agreement on research cooperation between nuclear sectors. The two countries have since cemented an escalatory cycle of tit-for-tat blows, as U.S. intelligence agencies publicly blamed Russia for its hacking of the Democratic National Committee to interfere with U.S. elections. The prevailing impression in policy and media circles is that Russia has abandoned efforts at peace, instead making a bid for military victory on the ground. Increasingly, many in Washington are certain that Russia strung the United States along in negotiations to help Syrian forces recapture Aleppo in the closing days of the Obama administrationReferences to the Cold War abound as tensions increase.

These well-structured narratives are built upon grains of truth, but they miss more than they capture. Important facts get in the way of this story. Since the first day Russian planes took flight over Syria in September 2015, analysis in Washington too often flailed between declaring the Russian intervention a hopeless quagmire and decrying that Russia is winning at everything. These depictions suffer from being wedded to merely tactical snapshots. They bend whichever way the wind is blowing that day in Syria. At times, we have been treated to contradictory strategic assessments based on the same battle.

In late August, Reuters told us that fighting in Aleppo exposed the “limits of Russian airpower,” and a few days later The New York Times explained how Syrian forces made their gains in that siege thanks to Russian help. This results in great stories but poor analysis. I offer a different perspective on why the ceasefire collapsed and what it tells us about the Russian intervention. Essentially, Russia got caught selling something they did not have — Assad’s agreement to a ceasefire before the Syrian Arab Army subdued Aleppo — and U.S. Secretary of State Kerry accidentally trapped them by conceding to a grand deal sooner than Moscow expected.

There’s Something Wrong with This Story

Setting aside popular misunderstandings in Washington, many experts and analysts in Moscow also do not seem to understand why the ceasefire collapsed. That is what makes the current situation so dangerous: It was actually unplanned on the Russian end. “Unplanned” may be the defining characteristic of U.S. policy on Syria, but it has not been similarly true of the Russian approach. Since September 19, when the ceasefire was visibly on life support, experts and intelligence officials have opined that Moscow’s strategy is to seize Aleppo in the coming months and present the next U.S. administration with a fait accompli. They are working the problem backwards from what happened in the last two weeks.

Russia may not have expected for the ceasefire to last — and most in the West did not either — but this entire episode is not a Kremlin-managed scheme.  To start, there is little evidence of Russian preparation to support Syrian forces in their campaign to seize Aleppo. There was no Russian military buildup in Syria to better enable an attack on the city or a large-scale expansion of the air wing based at  Hmeimim Airbase. While Russia’s air force has been flying more sorties over the city, its presence in-country is arguably lower than it was during heavier fighting last winter. Following the March announcement by Putin that Russia was “withdrawing” from Syria, there was a visible reduction in both fixed- and rotary-wing aviation deployed. Russia’s newspapers reported that Russia was sending aircraft back to Syria, including the 12 Su-25 ground attack aircraft that were previously withdrawn. Yet, at the peak of this deadly air campaign against Aleppo, we have satellite footage from IHS Jane’s showing that they have not arrived back in Syria.

Russia’s attempt to use Iran’s Hamadan airbase back in August, which would have greatly increased the payload its Tu-22M3 bombers could carry into battle, failed embarrassingly in a public spat with Tehran. Because they thought the arrangement should be kept secret, Iran’s leadership bristled at Russian attempts to turn cooperation into a public relations opportunity, claiming Moscow “betrayed trust.” There is also no visible increase in Russian ground forces present in Syria to suggest that a “final solution” to Aleppo had been in the works all these months, while Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov kept Secretary of State John Kerry distracted with notions of peace. If there is a Russian strategy to make timely gains with Aleppo as the primary operational objective, the Russian military does not seem to have been informed.

Typically, militaries build up assets in theater for an offensive operation beforehand, but in this case, we cannot discern a substantial increase of Russian support to Syrian and Iranian forces even after the ceasefire’s collapse. Instead, Russia had been busy with its annual strategic exercises in September that simulated amphibious landings in Crimea, and much of the country’s national attention had turned to the situation in Ukraine.  Russia has engaged in a dizzying number of troop movements, multinational exercises, wargames, and military events in August and September, many centered around contingencies in Ukraine or with NATO but none resulting in additional combat capabilities transferred to the campaign in Syria.

Following fiery exchanges between Russian and Western officials, Moscow has become noticeably wary of a possible U.S. lurch toward considering military intervention. The calls to do something grow louder in U.S. policy circles. America’s penchant to meet such calls by lobbing cruise missiles as a low-risk form of military action is well known. To ready for such a development, the Russian General Staff sent an S-300V4 air defense system, along with several missile corvettes from the Black Sea Fleet, hoping to deter any inclinations the United States may have toward a campaign of strikes against Syrian forces. This complements the S-400 system that is already in theater. Moscow’s generals, such as Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, are not leaving much room for doubt as to what these systems are for: “Any missile or air strikes on the territory controlled by the Syrian government will create a clear threat to Russian servicemen.” Although Russia continues to block for Syria, the bloody battle for Aleppo and this subsequent political maelstrom does not appear to be the product of a deliberate strategy.

If the Kremlin wished to take advantage of the Obama administration’s closing days to consolidate some sort of gains in Syria, then why was Lavrov permitted to spend so much time negotiating the intricate technical details of a ceasefire agreement going back to mid-July when Kerry first flew to Moscow with a proposal to establish a joint military coordinating body? What was the point of agonizing delays in announcing a deal, delving into the minutiae of who is positioned where around Castello Road? This is a Rube Goldberg theory of Russian scheming in Syria, and one that does not make much sense if Moscow simply sought a military solution in the last months of the administration.

Instead, what we have is a case of policy capture and, as I explain below, a reasonably well-thought out Russian political strategy unraveling at the hands of its allies. In September, the contradictions inherent in Russia’s approach and the divergent interests of its allies finally came home to roost. We may assign blame to Russia, but what is happening right now in Syria is Russian-led in name only.

Please click on this link to read the rest of the article.  No paywall I promise.

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Russia’s territorial defense battalions are finally here

Recently Russia’s MoD announced the formation of two territorial defense battalions as part of the series of exercises and readiness checks held August 25-31 across military districts.  As most know these checks are in preparation for the main show of this training year, Kavkaz-2016, and typically it is during the annual operational-strategic exercise when Russia’s military tries to muster the reserves.  The story of Russia’s reserve program, or lack thereof, is a rather interesting saga that I will discuss in this post.

This year, perhaps for the first time, the MoD announced that as part of the drills a territorial battalion of 500 reservists was formed as a naval infantry unit (likely with equipment from 810th naval infantry bde).  This battalion will practice basic elements of naval infantry and coastal defense, while in Novosibirsk the first motor rifle battalion of 400 reservists was assembled.  Both groups are civilians under contract as reservists. The first group was likely put together by the naval infantry brigade while the second group was organized by the Novosibirsk’s higher military command school.

August 29 TASS reported that a territorial defense regiment at full strength was formed in Stavropolskiy Kray.  This apparently is also a first alongside the battalions put together in Crimea and Novosibirsk.  The regiment’s equipment seems to have come from the 205th Separate Motorized Rifle Cossack Brigade in Budennovsk and it will participate in the annual exercise.  It’s unclear if this unit is part of the fledgling experimental reserve program (those who signed 3 year contracts) or from the general reserves mobilized regularly for operational-strategic exercises.

The Novosibirsk motor rifle unit (MoD website)

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The appearance of these reservist based formations was announced as part of the ‘introduction’ of a new system to train and support reservists, or shall we say the system which has repeatedly been announced, and ordered multiple times, but refused to come into being.  Perhaps we are seeing the first inklings of Russia’s experimental reserve system coming alive?

The subject of reserves is more interesting than it may at first appear.  When Russia’s military underwent its tumultuous reform period from late 2008-2012 it setup a permanent standing army but without a reserve.  The reserve was a list of people on paper, but as I’ve commented from time to time: excel spreadsheets don’t fight.  You cannot summon civilians to a base full of equipment they’ve never seen, having not gone through basic training in years, and expect that mass to somehow become a fighting unit.  The mass mobilization army was slain, but the new standing army has been living without a functioning reserve.  The current reserve can work for basic territorial defense units, guarding a checkpoint, facility, but they cannot conduct combat operations.

This creates certain practical problems for our imagined high-end fights with NATO or any other conventional campaign requiring large numbers of troops.  How does Russia replace its losses in combat, and who defends Russia while its forces attack along a particular vector?  Territorial defense battalions are not intended to defend against a conventional force.  The Russian ground force is actually quite small if we consider the army, airborne VDV and naval infantry probably add up to north of ~300,000 troops for what is one eighth the world’s land mass.  That’s a lot of real estate to defend.

In order to supplement its maneuver units, Russia needs a reserve it can call up with some combat capability.  The self-evident manpower limitations offer practical explanations for why occupying large parts of Ukraine was never in the cards for the Russian military.  Taking over the Baltics, the contingency NATO officials have become fixated with of late, is also not as simple as it might seem in wargames.  Its not the invasion itself but the occupation part that always gets people – the U.S. has lots of experience in this department.

Why do I say Russia has no working reserve?  In his recent ruminations on the threat of hybrid warfare earlier this year, which for Russian leaders is shorthand for color revolutions and Western covert operations, Valery Gerasimov noted “The growth in hybrid threats dictates the urgency of increasing the effectiveness of territorial defense,” and “What is essential now is a scientific analysis of the forms and modes of employing multi-agency groupings, of the sequence of actions by the military and non-force constituent of territorial defense given the possible emergence of crisis situations in a matter of days and even hours.”  It seems the territorial defense concept is geared towards internal security, suppressing color revolutions and the like, rather than supporting the armed forces.  That’s great for managing domestic political stability etc, but it doesn’t quite solve the Army’s problem with respect to warfighting.

The naval infantry territorial defense battalion in Crimea (MoD website)

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In the beginning…

Our story begins in May 7, 2012 when Vladimir Putin first ordered the creation of a national reserve for the armed forces, and the inauguration of a new system to train and mobilize reservists.  That order went into effect on January 1, 2013.  A subsequent order to sign up reservists and get this scheme going was signed on April 23, 2013.  According to the plan, prior to completing their military service soldiers would be offered a 3 year contract in the reserves, with a monthly payment ranging from 5,000-8,000 RUB per month.  The order stipulated that the pay should be attractive enough for soldiers to sign a reserve contract and the time of service could be renewed up to a certain age.

It is also worth noting also that in September 2011 the General Staff setup a department to lead the organization of territorial defense units across government agencies (its current head is Major-General Sergei Dudko), though its unclear if any territorial defense units were summoned between 2011-2016 so however was in charge of this section may have had an easy job.

Prior to this pilot program, in the early-mid 2000s, the practice of mustering reservists was a ‘check the box’ affair.  Perhaps the largest showing occurred during the Vostok-2010 exercise.  Those called up spent their time in camp without real refresh training or familiarization with new equipment.  One individual described it as an exercise that consisted largely of ten days attacking one’s own liver.  Back during the days of the the USSR reservists were looked down upon as lacking discipline or combat utility, referred to as ‘partisans’ by the officers who had to take them in during drilling cycles.

The Duma committee planned expenditures of 279.4 million in 2014, 288.3 mil in 2015 and 324.9 mil in 2016 for this initiative.  Let’s do the math on that: at the cheaper end in 2014 it would have bought you 4656 reservists, and at higher officer rates only 2910, so we can fix the range of reserves at somewhere safely below 4,500 i.e. less than two brigades worth. The new program’s budget came out of the MoD, which may have been its initial undoing.  However, Российская газета reported that even those paltry amounts were never allocated and the whole plan to muster reserves was shifted to 2016.  In short, nothing happened in 2013.

A great photo of one city’s government officials participating in reserve drills during the mid-2000s.  No doubt this is another aspect of the Russian military that has since changed.

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Vostok-2014

We first see movement when Vladimir Putin signs an order on June 27, 2014 to implement the training and call-up plans for the reserve.  The crux of this order is essentially for the MoD to realize the previous orders.  According to this document, the reservists were to be assigned duties corresponding to their specialties, with readiness checks of the various command elements involved in the system – this means the officers that would form reserve units, the voenkomat that mobilizes them, and equipment storage bases to equip them.  In essence the order was for two types of checks, one for the system to call up reserves and one for the reservists themselves.  The idea was to energize the system ahead of the Vostok-2014 to be held that year.

In August 2014 Major-General Sergei Major-General Sergei Udin, head of mobilization command for the Western MD, explained that the number of reservists called up annually must increase due to the new equipment being fielded, which requires more training and certification.  For Vostok-2014 those called up were mostly lower ranking officers in the platoon/company commander range along with ensigns/sergeants.  According to him the selection of training sites was based on units that had entirely replaced or modernized their equipment.  The MoD approach was quite logical in terms of how they intended to carry out reserve drills.

The average time spent drilling was 15-25 days, and the pay ranged 450-600 RUB per day.  Various media reported the ages of those called up were 28-50, though the pay was listed differently as 8,000 for regulars and 20,000 for officers during their training.  The different types of checks to be conducted during this exercise were listed as: drills for the command staff in charge of the reserves, assembly for training as a readiness check or mustering to begin an actual exercise.  Given the reserve system was still largely nonexistent, 2014 probably saw mostly a check of the command staff assigned to taking in reservists along with some individuals called up to support various units.

Maybe in 2015?

Alexander Golts has followed this over the years and at the time he wrote that the military aspired to expand the 5,000 man program to 8,000 by 2015 if successful.  According to him, there was enough equipment in storage bases to arm perhaps 60 brigades (no doubt less now given how much equipment was given to DNR/LNR).  Lieutenant-General Vladimir Ostankov, suggested similar figures, but it seems the 5,000 strong reserve did not come to pass in 2014.

Based on the pay alone it was impossible to have that number of reservists with the funding allocated.  The deputy commander of the General Staff’s mobilization department, Yevgeni Burdinsky essentially said that the experiment to form 5,000 reservists would take place in 2015 and compared the concept to the system in Israel, albeit with a ‘different purpose.’  It’s unclear what that was supposed to mean, but its safe to say Russia does not have a reserve like Israel’s.

On February 5, 2015 Vladimir Putin signed another order stating that reservists would carry out drills not longer than two months, applicable to the MoD, MVD, various security structures and FSB.  Prior orders had yet to produce even an experimental reserve system.  Perhaps more interestingly, the FSB was listed alongside other government structures as though they have a reserve.  The timing itself was quite problematic.  Russian forces were headlong into a winter offensive in Ukraine engaged in what would become the battle of Debaltseve that month.  Unlike the obtuse political leadership, Russia’s MoD understood how the public might interpret a call up of reservists for drills given what was being shown on the news.  Hence the MoD supplemented the signed order with a statement emphasizing that this announcement had no connection to the ‘escalating situation in bordering regions of the Donbass.’

The official statement was a tacit acknowledgement of what most undoubtedly knew, Russian forces were fighting in Ukraine.  If the General Staff believed that the public was convinced otherwise, they would not feel the need to issue a clarification on why reservist drills were being ordered, explaining that it had nothing to do with the war Russia was not fighting.

By July 17, 2015 Vladimir Putin would sign yet another order, the purpose of which was to motivate the military to take his 2012 instructions seriously.  This document would once against tell the MoD to establish the reserve as part of the new/experimental system being introduced.  By implication, the Kremlin understood that the 5,000 pilot program never went anywhere and he was ordering the MoD to make it happen. The takeaway here is that Russia’s leader understands quite well when something has not materialized, but he cannot will it into being just by stamping documents with the presidential seal.  As anyone with defense experience knows, dealing with a military bureaucracy is sometimes like punching into a pillow.

Another photo of the Crimean territorial defense battalion (at least that is what TASS posted)

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2016 – A great year to launch an experimental reserve program again

A snap exercise was called for June 14-22 in 2016 specifically to test the reserve system.  This event was organized for the command structures involved in calling up reservists, organizing them into units, and the various equipment storage bases designated to supply them.  This time Sergey Shoigu meant business when he ordered the exercise, looking to see whether the key components of the system (mobilization, command staff, equipment bases) could be readied to turn reservists into territorial defense battalions.  As in 2014, the intent was to prepare these elements for the main annual exercise.

It’s unclear what spurred the progress. The MoD either finally got the funding to realize these plans, or they got a talking to by Vladimir Putin about how 4 years in he expected to see a territorial battalion.  Aleksei Nikolski of Vedomosti did some good reporting on this call up, and Roger McDermott wrote a good summary of the snap exercise back in June for Jamestown.

Undoubtedly the idea is to show the senior leadership during Kavkaz-2016 that territorial defense battalions composed of reservists, which the Kremlin has ordered countless times now since 2012, have finally become a reality.  I have argued in several places that the absence of a reserve, an important bit of unfinished business from the military reforms, inherently limits Russia’s ability to sustain a large conventional conflict where it is on the offense.  After four years, the MoD seems to be getting after this problem.  Though the appearance of two battalions and a regiment is a watershed moment, its utility as a reserve for a force of over 300,000 is marginal.  Still we should note the increasing formation of territorial defense units as part of exercises as a growing trend.

Meanwhile the rest of the reserve is technically available for the basic tasks of being formed into territorial defense units.  They don’t need much and can fall in on older equipment.  However, Russia’s military has a long way to go in establishing the sort of manpower base for national defense that could free up the active duty force for large scale combat operations.  Having trained soldiers to replace combat losses in attrited brigades is another issue.  Without a capable reserve to backstop its armed forces, the Russian military will retain a degree of brittleness when it comes to large scale offensive operations.

As always comments or corrections are welcome. (don’t suffer in silence)