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.