Update September 2: If one believes CNBC’s story here then the cause of the incident was a failed recovery attempt of a prior Burevestnik missile test from 2018. In recovering the missile from the bottom of the bay something exploded under one of the vessels, which also damaged the missile’s reactor, leading to the radiation release. So there was no missile test, no reactor test, no launch, and equally there was no RTG or some other device responsible. I will leave the rest of the text below without updates so you can see my thought process, right or wrong, early on in this episode before much information was available.
I was going to stay away from this because there simply was not enough information to tell what happened, and the hot take factory had already run away with the story on the basis of close to nothing. Here is the most likely scenario as I see it. The explosion was not a missile launch test, and it was not Burevestnik, no matter how much arms control wonks want to think it was. It’s just unlikely based on the scant information available about the incident.
I have a different view from Jeffrey Lewis here. The notion that Russian Burevestnik program was in major trouble after moving from Novaya Zemlya test site is also probably incorrect. I think Lewis’ own commercial satellite imagery confirms the story that VNIIEF, the Russian nuclear research institute in charge of this work, basically tried to tell but couldn’t get out in time because people already piled in with speculation.
They were testing the system on a platform at sea. According to some accounts the explosion blew the scientists into the water, which is why it took time for an accurate casualty count to come in as they were looking for their own people. It was not a missile launch, as such launches are easily detected by national technical means, and it was not on a rail launcher since we can clearly see one affixed on land at the test site. Why would they rail launch it from a platform at sea when they can fire it over the bay from the coast?
Update August 26: Looks like its not a RTG based on the isotopes detected, and instead a nuclear reactor. Also unlikely to have been a missile, and the initial explosion may have taken place underneath the platform rather than above it.
Let’s ask first order questions. Why did five leading researchers die? If it was a nuclear powered missile test why would they be near the missile? I know I’m always standing next to experimental missiles I’m testing, it’s the best way to see the explosion. If it was an experimental nuclear reactor (unshielded), why were they standing next to it at the time of the mishap? I know I always stand next to experimental nuclear reactors I’m testing. Typically when people stand around things, it is because they don’t expect them to explode or massively irradiate them.
The explosion was caused by a liquid fueled engine – why would there be a liquid fuel engine in Burevestnik? Subsonic cruise missiles have solid fuel as their boost phase. Ok here is the last question for Burevestnik theory enthusiasts. Imagine they are conducting a missile test on a small platform out at sea, and you believe that this is a missile powered by an unshielded reactor. I mean, kind of hard to shield a reactor on a relatively small cruise missile. In this theory Russia’s leading nuclear researchers are standing around an unshielded nuclear reactor on a barge, with the intent to turn it on. Forgive my skepticism.
I know you’re thinking, well maybe they lied about the platform and were testing it at the rail launcher site. So why were the scientists next to it then, and another question, why are there all these ships positioned in the flight path of the missile from the rail launcher? Wouldn’t the radiation from the reactor be a problem for them, the entire bay, maybe the towns?
Some in Russia have combined the two theories, suggesting that Burevestnik has a nuclear power component, but there is a separate liquid fueled engine for maneuverability. While interesting, its still unclear how either system actually powers Burevestnik and why a subsonic missile with maneuvering surfaces would remotely need liquid fueled thrusters or jets to maneuver. I’m raising this here to dismiss it because it doesn’t make much technical sense. We will get back to Burevestnik later.
VNIIEF’s statement, in classic Russian style, alluded to two types of projects without saying exactly what it was, a novel Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator or a novel reactor type akin to U.S. Kilopower project. In my view they were indeed testing a novel Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator with a liquid fuel engine combo. (That turned out untrue after it became clear that the different nuclides produced could only come from nuclear fission).
The idea being to use the RTG as a long term electrical heating solution to maintain thermostatic temperature inside the various components of a liquid fueled engine, either in a booster phase, or the canister itself, of a missile that needs to get up to speed very quickly from launch. Basically an atomic battery for a liquid fueled engine where the components have to be kept at a certain temperature in prolonged storage, otherwise the weapon has to be permanently connected to a power source. This is certainly not as sexy as a nuclear powered missile, but it’s much more probable as the real story behind what happened. That’s the story IZ eventually went with and (I believed it was closer to the truth than all the Burevestnik mania, but it turned out not to be a RTG)
Some of my musings on alternate explanations:
If we ask which secretive missile the Russian military is working on, that is principally for the Russian Navy, has most likely a high power liquid fuel engine – it’s could well be Tsirkon. Since Tsirkon has to be canister stored, and quickly sprint to a high velocity for its scramjet to work, most likely this missile could benefit from a RTG. It could be part of the canister storage system, or fall off as a booster. Some have also suggested Skif, a SLBM designed to be fired from the ocean seabed, even though that would violate a treaty banning such weapons. If its a liquid powered engine, then I’m skeptical on Skif and leaning towards Tsirkon, because the latter is likely to have a powerful liquid fueled engine/scramjet combo, and is actively being worked on whereas I’ve really not seen evidence of Skif being a thing. (it was none of these things either)
While we’re in the speculation business on RTG use, it might also be a maneuvering satellite. That sort of weapon could use a sustained power source, in space, and possibly have liquid fueled thrusters. Just working through the non-Burevestnik list here. If the radiation emitted sounds too high for a RTG, and I’m not an expert here so I don’t know how much radiation you get if you blow one up, I suppose it varies considerably depending on the type of material used and how much of it they were using. RTGs are fairly simple in design, but perhaps this RTG was novel and therefore more powerful.
Equally likely it was a novel nuclear power source, but again it begs the question as to the cause of an explosion, and why leading researchers would ever be standing around such a thing on a platform at sea. The obvious answer is they were setting up equipment, but I don’t see them testing an unshielded reactor off the coast of a town near Severodvinsk.
Now let’s imagine that the RTG story is a canard meant to distract us (which it turned out to be in retrospect). It could be a novel nuclear power source, but for what? Well, probably 10-20 different projects, at least those that I can think of. I’m not ruling out a component related to Burevestnik, but saying that something was tested with infrastructure associated with Burevestnik tests is like going to Kaputsin Yar and just guessing which missile was involved at a range testing 10 different missiles.
The scientists, the explosion and a source of radiation were all co-located which suggests they were working on something with explosive potential and a source of radiation. The radiation released seems quite small for a reactor, just my impression based on commentary from people who follow the nuclear side of things but perhaps too high for a typical RTG. So the circumstances suggest it was something other than an unshielded reactor, involving an engine with liquid fuel propulsion, which should point us away from Burevestnik.
Moscow Times released a story from the hospital talking about exposure to Cesium 137 isotope, which while a byproduct of fission, is a source of gamma radiation. The thing is Cs-137 is total junk for power level and is basically one of the weakest isotope sources you can use for a RTG. Good PDF here with comparisons for those interested.
So after initially leaning towards the RTG story, it seems that was a distraction and instead we are dealing with a nuclear reactor. There are several options for nuclear reactor tests with military applications at sea, from Poseidon torpedo to various types of ATGU’s, undersea atomic power stations, to of course our reactor for Burevestnik. However, to release these different isotopes it is likely that fission might have had to take place at the site, whereas in a missile the reactor would not turn on until after boost phase, which creates obvious problems since the explosion and material was released from the platform.
Back to Burevestnik
I wonder why people assume that Burevestnik is an open air flow reactor/ramject powered missile? Just because in 1960s U.S. project Pluto used this combination on a large supersonic missile does it make sense to assume that’s what Russia is working on as well? The U.S. tried to build 1957-1964, and it doesn’t make much sense that it is what Russia would try to build in 2019. Pluto was a large supersonic missile, with rocket boosters and multiple warheads designed as a supersonic low altitude missile (SLAM), while Burevestnik is a single warhead cruise missile shaped for subsonic or perhaps transonic flight. Its certainly not a mach 2 weapon.
Burevestnik clearly doesn’t look like a supersonic low altitude missile with those wing surfaces.
Given Burevestnik appears to be a subsonic, or a transonic missile, not meant for supersonic flight and therefore not utilizing a ramjet which is better suited for mach 2+ it is probably not an open air flow system. Ramjets are highly inefficient at slower speeds and the wings on the missile don’t exactly look like a mach 2+ weapon. Burevestnik is going to have probably one of two propulsion types, direct air cycle or indirect air cycle. Direct air cycle just throws the air into the reactor and out the back. Highly radioactive. Indirect cycle is probably liquid metal cooled. Air makes contact with a heat exchanger that’s carrying the liquid metal from the reactor and goes out the back, much less radioactive. Of course maybe there is a nuclear power source just powering a turbojet and they’re not using the air for propulsion at all.
Also I don’t think its index is 9M730, although it was initially reported as such. There are still too many assumptions here about an experimental weapon without enough images or information, so in my view it is best to hold back on the guesswork.
Comments and feedback as always welcome. If you have alternative explanations please send them in. I do not know what it was, but there’s enough information to suggest that the hot take factory is wrong on this one.
Thoughts and a quick overview of what is known about the fire that took place aboard AS-31 Losharik (referenced as AS-12 in most stories). Also some clarifications since there are conflicting media narratives and facts surrounding this developing story.
BLUF: On July 1 the Russian special purpose submarine project 10831, AS-31 ‘Losharik’, designated as a nuclear deep-sea station (атомная глубоководная станция) suffered a catastrophic fire killing 14 crewmen, with 4 survivors (at first I heard 5 were rescued). The submarine itself seems to have been not far from its base and was towed back. The now official version as I understand it suggests that the fire occurred at fairly shallow depths (at 280m), originating in the battery compartment of the submarine. The cause was a short circuit in the electrical system. Details are unclear but the gist of it is that while the fire started in the battery compartment, the cause was electrical. Supposedly Losharik was conducting bathymetric surveys in the Barents (that’s the official story anyway). Most of the crew died from inhalation of noxious fumes/smoke attempting to save the submarine – this story retold in IZ.
Update as of July 10th: Fontanka which does great investigative journalism ran a story based on several sources claiming that the cause of the fire, and subsequent explosion, was a lithium-ion battery aboard the submarine. Losharik was docking at the time with the carrier submarine, though according to this story it was BS-136 Orenburg (this bit is unlikely since Orenburg is out of service). The battery was used to power Losharik’s maneuvering systems (this bit kind of made sense, still unclear why the energy from the reactor was not sufficient). According to Fontanka, the submarine recently received a lithium ion battery, which experienced a short circuit during docking operations. This in turn led to a rapid discharge, overheating, and an explosion in the battery compartment. The resulting fire killed all crew members in the first three compartments of the submarine.
Apparently, having little prior experience with lithium ion batteries on submarine, beyond project 677 Lada, which is yet to undergo serial production, they put a Li-ion battery onto Losharik. The advantage of this battery type is that it does not produce hydrogen gas, which must be contained and removed on diesel-electric submarines. BMPD blog ran a great commentary as to the ridiculousness of placing this type of battery onto a submarine so early into development, compared to the Japanese who invested decades into this technology. I’m no expert on batteries so will withhold judgment as to whether or not installing this type of battery, without extensive testing on other submarines, made sense.
Barents Observer ran a story based on sightings by some fishermen as retold in a local news paper, they claim the submarine surfaced near Ura Bay around 9:30 pm (northwest of the entrance to Kola Bay), although this sighting may have been of the carrier submarine BS-64 Podmoskovye. They of course didn’t want to be identified because they were out fishing illegally. I’m skeptical of first hand accounts from fishermen late at night. Media tend to jump on these eye witness tales, but such stories tend to be of questionable veracity.
Most of the versions of this narrative I’ve heard suggest Losharik was quite close to its base, operating near home waters. A subsequent story indicates that there was a civilian on board, and this individual was evacuated prior to the crew’s decision to close the hatch to prevent the fire from spreading – supposedly the died not from the fire but noxious gas inhalation.
On July 5th Putin met again with Shoigu, where Shoigu reported that they are still assessing the timelines and scope of work required to carry out repairs, but given the nuclear reactor compartment was not damaged, he was optimistic the submarine could be made operational within a fairly short time. He further confirmed the fire began in the battery section of the ship and spread from there. In his characteristic style Shoigu said that repairs were not only possible but absolutely necessary. We will see how long it actually takes to get AS-31 operational again.
Electrical fires are not uncommon aboard submarines, as are fires stemming from battery compartments. This problem plagues the Russian submarine service more so than Western counterparts. Of course it is also possible that the Russian MoD has come up with a straightforward explanation for what caused the fire in order to give the media a plausible story to run with, while we do not know what actually happened given the nature and mission of this submarine. Hence the story of some sort of short circuit or electrical arcing leading to a fire makes sense, but at the same time should be taken with some skepticism. Russian submariners carry gas masks and personal life saving kit on them at all times specifically for such incidents.
At first glance the crew complement for that voyage appears unusually composed of senior officers. This is not that unusual for GUGI which is a small, officer heavy service, with technical and engineering specialists. Everyone aboard such a vessel could be an officer given the technical or scientific expertise required, and it could be that such a large number of captains are actually detailed to AS-31.
However it is difficult to believe that the typical compliment, 20-25 crewmen, would consist of 7 Captains first rank, including two who had been awarded as heroes of the Russian Federation (Filin and Dolonsky), unless they were conducting some important research mission or perhaps test. Standard complement or not, either way, the deaths of these senior officers are likely to be a great loss not just for the Russian Navy, but also for GUGI’s technical efforts.
The official casualty list can be found here. It shows a loss of 7 captains first rank, 3 captains second rank, 1 Lt Col from the medical service, two captains third rank, and a captain-lieutenant. I think comparisons to Kursk are unhelpful, and out of place here, but it is a significant tragedy for the Russian submarine service. The crew belongs to GUGI’s military unit 45707 based in St. Petersburg. The two captains who held Hero of the Russian Federation honors earned them as part of earlier research missions in the Arctic and Antarctic. Captain 1st Rank Dolonsky was the actual captain of the submarine.
The nuclear deep-sea station
AS-31 is an unarmed submarine designed for special missions, examination or installation of infrastructure along the ocean floor, research, measurement, and the like. It’s an ideal undersea salvage craft to pick up various bits of technology, munitions, or sensors that sink to the bottom. Yes it can locate or probably cut undersea cables. The submarine has retractable arms to manipulate objects, but is not designed for advanced weapons testing. There is a different set of GUGI subs that perform this mission. The name Losharik is a nickname derived from the visual appearance of its specially designed pressure hull, composed of interlinked spherical compartments made of titanium.
HI Sutton does good cutaways and 3D models, although I fear that this resource is overused as a single-source of visuals on Russian special purpose subs. There’s a strong chance that the interior might not quite match what people imagine it to be. Still the cutaways are quite useful to get a general sense of what it might look like.
Rough specs based on conflicting sources, none of which especially agree with each other:
approximate length 74 meters (or 69)
2100 tons displacement when submerged
composed of 7 spherical compartments (some show as 6)
diving depth 3000m + (perhaps up to 6000m)
speed 6 knots submerged
I doubt the submarine’s voyage had anything to do with the timing of NATO’s ASW exercise in the Norwegian Sea, Dynamic Mongoose, though it is possible this submarine would be sent to pick up anything interesting left on the ocean floor – it is capable of such missions. It does not appear the submarine was operating anywhere near the Norwegian Sea.
Losharik was developed during 1988-1990 by the Malakhit design bureau, built at Severodvinsk during the 1990s. Delayed due to financing, it entered service in 2003, and according to some sources was considered operational some years later. The submarine made a well known research voyage to chart the outer edges of Russia’s continental shelf at the Lomonosov and Mendeleev Ridges. According to one story Losharik sustained damage to its manipulable arms during this mission and underwent repair. The submarine then went through sea trials in 2017, together with BS-64 Podmoskovye, which was just launched in 2016.
Although BS-136 Orenburg is often cited as the carrier mother ship for Losharik, a modified Delta III SSBN, BS-136 is probably not operational and most expect this submarine to be officially retired. There was news as far back as 2013-2014 that BS-136 Orenburg was going to be written off in the near future. The submarine is too old to merit life extension, and is likely to be scrapped. Therefore the carrier is most probably BS-64 Podmoskovye which has been operational since 2017. I will edit this post later with links.
New photos from TASS show clearly it was BS-64 involved, as it is now parked at Severomorsk with a tent over the hatch, and vehicles surrounding it.
GUGI and the 29th Submarine Division
AS-31 belongs to GUGI, the Defense Ministry’s Main Directorate of Deep-Sea Research (10th Department). This is a specialized service that is not part of the regular Russian Navy, but answers directly to the Ministry of Defense as an intelligence and special missions organization. GUGI operates special purpose submarines, ocean going research ships (for example Yantar-class), and divers known as ‘hydronauts.’ Often media accounts conflate the work of GUGI, and its ships/submarines, with that of the regular Russian Navy, and it’s submarine force, which is not the case.
Losharik belongs to the 29th Submarine Division (previously listed as a separate brigade). This is a separate division in the Northern Fleet, based at Olenya Guba next to the town Polyarny. It is often erroneously reported as being at Severomorsk, or headquartered there, neither of which is true. The bay is near the main Northern Fleet submarine base of Gadzhiyevo on the Kola Peninsula. Other submarines of the 29th include the smaller special-purpose diesel-electric classes and larger modified motherships, based on reconfigured SSBN or SSGN hulls.
Submarines belonging to GUGI include:
1-3 project 1910 Kashalot (UNIFORM) atomic deep-diving station
1-3 project variants of 1851/1 Nelma (X-RAY) and (PALTUS) carried atomic deep-diving stations
BS-64 Podmoskovye (modified Delta IV SSBN), mother ship for AS-31
BS-136 Orenburg (modified Delta III SSBN) non-operational, expected to be written off
K-329 Belgorod (modified Oscar II) recently launched from shipyard. Multipurpose platform able to carry smaller submarines, drones, nuclear powered torpedoes, etc.
Other special purpose submarines that may be associated with the service:
B-90 Sarov diesel-electric submarine, appears to be a systems development/testing platform (not part of the 29th)
Project 09851 Khabarovsk, laid down in 2014, currently under construction – may be just a dedicated Poseidon carrier, or a GUGI submarine with different functions
A brief slideshow of GUGI’s various children
Concluding thoughts: It’s natural to ask what this tells us about the state of the Russian Navy or the submarine service, and the fair analytical answer is fairly little. GUGI and its ships are not part of the regular navy, they are not subject to the op tempo of exercises, patrols, etc. What we can see is that fires remain a problem aboard Russian submarines, even the most specialized ones with crews that consist entirely of experienced officers. This problem is more characteristic of the Russian submarine service. Other countries’ submarine services are great at crew training and maintenance, but have a tendency to run into things (no names). Unfortunately we’re not going to find out if the official story on the source of fire is true, or if some piece of boutique tech was the real cause.
If you’re not following the Su-57 because you rightfully believed that Russia was not going to procure these aircraft in sizable numbers, that the program was in limbo, or that this aircraft’s potential didn’t add up to much, now is a good time to take a second look. I think a fair bit of commentary and writing has been overly dismissive of this program based on earlier prototypes shown, and does not account for the different design philosophy and missions in mind that Russian MoD had behind the Su-57 when compared to U.S. approach to 5th generation aircraft. It’s also worth noting changes taking place to the design as it begins to mature.
I rarely write about aerospace and will walk into this subject cautiously.
BLUF: The Su-57 is a high maneuverability air superiority fighter, with a substantially reduced radar cross section compared to 4th generation Russian fighters, designed to work as part of Russian air defense to counter stealth aircraft near or within Russian airspace. This fighter is meant to team with Russia’s sizable 4th gen air force, and VHF/UHF ground based acquisition radars, to establish local qualitative advantages and help close corridors in Russian air defenses. The Su-57 is an affordable, producible option to bolster Russia’s air defense network. It will pose a major challenge for any 4th gen aircraft, and concern to stealth optimized 5th gen aviation. Yes it is a stealth 5th generation aircraft, but it is not a F-22 or F-35 clone, and the design philosophy is not based around mission requirements similar to U.S 5th generation aircraft. This fighter is tailored to Russian needs, though it has features intended to make it attractive to an export market.
On May 15th Vladimir Putin announced that Russia would sign a contract for 76 Su-57 fighters, this will buy three regiments of 24 aircraft, plus a flight of 4 possibly destined for Lipetsk combat training center. The actual contract is likely to be signed at MAKS-2019 show late August. According to Kommerstant the contract is valued at 170 billion RUB (this figure is too low), which will fully load the production line at Komsomolsk-on-Amur plant, though at a rather low profit margin of 3-5%. This plant is already busy with Su-35 orders. Alongside the Su-57 announcement, Putin also declared that a contract will be signed in 2020 for 100 Mi-28NM helicopters and 114 Ka-52M helicopters (Ka-52M variant to be created by 2022). The Su-57 buy appears to be scheduled for 2019-2028, though keeping in mind that the state armament program for 2018-2027 is revised every five years, so in 2022 there are likely to be course corrections.
Putin remarked that Russia has bought more than a thousand fixed and rotary wing aircraft 2011-2018. This is true, about 468 fixed wing tactical aviation and somewhere around 600 helicopters (I’ve not found exact figures for helicopters). The original state armament program (2011-2020) hoped to buy 52 serially produced aircraft. After 2015 the timeline began slipping to the right, and the expected order size drastically reduced. The expected order dropped to 15 aircraft by 2028, with earlier explanations from Deputy Defense Minister Yuri Borisov that can be summed up as ‘Russia’s 4th gen aircraft are perfectly fine for our requirements so we don’t need Su-57 right now.’ This suddenly changed last week to ‘we’ve not built anything like this platform in 40 years and are going to invest in 5th gen. Such a reversal is not uncommon in Russian defense practice. Russia’s purchase of 76 aircraft is considered an initial installment, Russian air force requirements were considered to be 200-250 Su-57s. Considering the aerospace sector’s performance 2011-2018, they could readily build in the 2020s once serial production is established.
Su-57 is the official designation of the aircraft developed under the PAK-FA program (Перспективный авиационный комплекс фронтовой авиации), so far producing 11 prototypes, marked T-50-1 through 11. The USSR conducted research into low observable aircraft in response to the U.S. Advanced Tactical Aircraft program, yielding technology demonstrators such as the Mig-1.44 and the S-37. In 2002 Russia and India agreed to jointly develop a derivative of the PAK-FA aircraft as part of the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft Program (FGFA) for India. The deal was signed in 2010, with an initial investment of $295 million to jointly develop the design between Sukhoi and India’s HAL. The overall program was valued at $6 billion, with 35% allocated to Indian enterprises. In 2012 work stalled due to disagreements over financing and technology transfer. Moscow sought $5 billion from India to continue working on the program, valued at $10 billion. An arrangement was supposedly worked out in 2016 envisioned both sides investing $3.7-4 billion into the program over 6-7 years.
Mig 1.44 demonstrator
India sought more than 50 modifications to the aircraft, ranging from engines to stealth characteristics, meanwhile HAL’s role in the program declined to 13%. Delhi kept changing its mind about how many, and what type of FGFA aircraft they intended to procure, originally seeking 214 fighters with 48-66 of them modified two-seat versions. Subsequently Indian requirements changed to 144 single-seat fighters, and were further reduced to 127. In early 2018 India walked away from the program citing shortcomings in stealth and avionics. Some Russian analysts interpreted this decision as the result of the technical and financial disagreements, along with Indian disappointment that they were not going to develop the Indian 5th gen aircraft they wanted on the basis of the Russian PAK-FA. Other sources suggest that Moscow wanted India to fund at least half of the R&D, but Delhi had already spent an estimated $8 billion on 36 Dassault Rafales (in a deal mired in controversy), and essentially had no money in the procurement budget to seriously invest in FGFA.
Instead India was to receive an export version of the T-50, and in this scenario they backed out, leaving the development risk to Russia, with the option to come back and buy the Su-57 if Sukhoi proves successful. Why India believed they could co-develop a 5th generation aircraft program with Russia, gain experience and tech transfer, for a fraction of what similar such programs typically cost, remains a mystery. Similarly, some Western analysts and commentators began writing off the PAK-FA when India backed out, as though the $4 billion that Russia never actually received from Delhi was going to make or break Russia’s 5th generation program (a country that spends 1.5 trillion RUB on R&D and procurement per year). Many of these predictions of Russian next gen weapons programs entering ‘death spirals’ are simply wrong.
Reasons for the delays found in defense news articles typically reference something about a lack of money, sanctions, or other analytical spaghetti thrown at the wall. There is no evidence that the PAK-FA program suffers from these problems. A simpler reason is that developing a 5th generation aircraft is not all that easy especially if you’re integrating a host of new capabilities, from an AESA radar, to a low observable air frame (or at least an attempt at one), a new engine, flight control system, etc. Suffice it to say Sukhoi encountered challenges – here are a few visuals to illustrate:
It is difficult to talk unit cost because the aircraft is being bought in two phases, one with the AL-41F-1 engines and another with the Izdeliye 30 engine, which is currently undergoing testing. Since key components for the real Su-57 are not yet completed, it is challenging to estimate the actual price per unit. Currently it is estimated as a $2.5 billion USD program which works out at ~$35 million per aircraft. That seems deflated and cheaper than the Su-35, i.e. it just can’t be true. Ilya Kramnik at Izvestiya expects the overall cost of the program to be 400-500 billion RUB, as opposed to 170 bil RUB, which would make the recently announced price tag reflective of just the initial batch of serially produced aircraft. Plus United Aircraft Corporation is going to haggle over the relative price of all the aircraft it is building for the MoD such that the ultimate price per aircraft is going to only be tangentially related to the actual production cost. Most of the estimates on price seem to cluster at $45-54 million USD, or about half the cost of a F-35, not that everything should be measured in prices relative to U.S. acquisition programs.
As I have argued in earlier articles, based on purchasing power parity (PPP), as opposed to pointless conversions into average USD currency values (the kind offered to us by SIPRI), Russia spends roughly $150-$180 billion in overall military expenditure. Of this about 75% is the national defense order, with roughly 50% of that budget allocated to procurement and R&D (maybe an effective $50-$60 billion). This aircraft will have a USD based export price tag at some point, but the cost to the Russian defense budget needs to also be understood in terms of effective spending value, calculated based on PPP. This is a domestically produced aircraft, which thanks to Western sanctions, is going to be made with probably almost entirely Russian components, especially after India withdrew (not that HAL was going to do much anyway). At 2.3-2.5 billion RUB per aircraft the program works out right now to an effective $80-100 million of spending per unit produced.
Aircraft design and purpose
I think the Su-57 is a misunderstood aircraft in terms of design philosophy, purpose, and program viability. The Su-57 is a compromise between reducing the radar cross section and building a highly maneuverable air superiority fighter, with great performance at high speeds, and at different altitudes. It has innovative features which should qualify it for the 5th gen moniker, some of which I will cover later in this piece (engine, flight control, sensors, materials, etc.) That said, the Su-57 does not represent an aircraft solely dedicated to stealth and beyond visual range combat on the basis of first look/first kill.
The Su-57 is not necessarily intended to compete on stealth with U.S. F-22/F-35, though depending on the aspect, it may be quite comparable. It is not meant for penetrating integrated air defenses, conducting deep strike missions, or conducting offensive counter air within enemy air defenses. To compare its design for such roles is to engage in mirror imaging. The Su-57 appears intended to engage enemy stealth aircraft within its own air defenses, guided to target by ground-based low frequency radars, leveraging its own low observation properties to get closer to the adversary, and a mix of on-board sensors that can help with detecting low observable aircraft once within close range (IRST). I suspect it is intended to plug gaps or corridors in Russian air defense that may exist for very low observable aircraft.
The Su-57 has a SH121 multi-functional system consisting of N036 Byelka radars, which feature five active electronically scanned array radar antennas. Three in the X-band, one primary nose mounted, two smaller radars in the cheek position, plus two L-band matrices in the wing edges. Those can be used for IFF and electronic warfare, probably not powerful enough for any real stealth search/detection capability. Between the five AESA antennas, and the dedicated ECM suite in the tail, the Su-57 should be a capable electronic warfare platform, and leverage EW strengths to compensate for any shortcomings in stealth. The fighter could be used to establish local areas of air superiority against 4th gen aircraft, and get close enough to a stealth optimized aircraft to become a problem, especially with passive forms of detection like IRST. The Su-57 can carry the latest generation of Russian standoff strike weapons, and may have a role in intercepting high value air assets as well, such as AWACS. It has already been shown firing a Kh-59MK2 air-to-surface standoff guided missile.
There was no discernible Russian desire to build an advanced sensor fusion platform that could integrate with a other ISR infrastructure, or for the aircraft to serve as an ISR platform for the rest of the force. They were not seeking a stealth optimized strike and recon platform for penetrating strikes. On the whole, there is considerable doubt in Russian circles on the viability of stealth in general, and a strong belief that aircraft must retain high performance flight characteristics – including so it can survive in a post-stealth world. Russia deployed low observable cruise missiles well before the Su-57, and in general, there is stronger interest in making long range guided weapons low-observable rather than planes. There is some suggestion this plane will team with Okhotnik-B or prospective drone platforms, but that may be aspirational at this stage. The potential Su-57 pairing with Okhotnik-B is unclear, but the Russian drone is remarkably large, and may offer an additional sensor suite for queuing.
From a stealth perspective, there are problems with the airframe design as is, but these were conscious choices by the designers. It has features of a high altitude interceptor, maneuverable dogfighter, and effort was made towards reducing the RCS via shaping compared to previous Russian 4th gen fighter designs. The patent filed acknowledges that the core requirements were a contradiction (that never happens in acquisition programs!), therefore the aircraft is inherently a compromise. The fighter features maneuverability at high angles of attack, great aerodynamic performance at supersonic speeds, and good aerodynamic performance at subsonic speeds, supercruise in the final engine, an internal bay capable of large payloads, and a substantially reduced radar cross section probably in the .1-.3m² range just based on shaping. When factoring in radar absorbing material, radar blockers, etc. it could be quite lower than .1m² and grant the aircraft very low observability.
Patent text for those interested:
“Изобретение относится к многорежимным самолетам, эксплуатируемым на сверх- и дозвуковых скоростях полета, в широком диапазоне высот полета. Преимущественная область применения изобретения – многорежимные сверхманевренные самолеты с крейсерским полетом на сверхзвуковой скорости и малым уровнем заметности в радиолокационном диапазоне.
Создание самолета, способного выполнять задачи в широком диапазоне высот и скоростей полета, обладающего возможностями сверхманевренности и, при этом, имеющим малую заметность в радиолокационном диапазоне длин волн, является сложной технической задачей.
К аэродинамической компоновке такого самолета предъявляются требования максимизации аэродинамического качества (увеличению подъемной силы и уменьшению силы лобового сопротивления) на до- и сверхзвуковых скоростях полета, обеспечению управляемости на сверхмалых скоростях полета. К внешней форме планера предъявляются требования по снижению радиолокационной заметности. Все перечисленные требования являются противоречивыми, а создание самолета, отвечающего подобным требованиям, представляет собой определенный компромисс.”
Disclaimer: Here we start to enter swampy waters. I’m not an engineer and can only discuss this topic in layman’s terms. I’m happy to be yelled at by actual engineers or people from the aerospace industry.
The Su-57 features a substantially reduced radar cross section compared to a typical Russian 4th generation aircraft, but this is a somewhat abstract way to discuss the subject. When we think about having low observation qualities or a small radar cross section (RCS) we are thinking about detection and engagement ranges from a particular type of radar, at a select band, and aspect. An aircraft could have a small RCS in m² when looking at it head on, but become rather visible from the rear aspect, sides, or when looking at it from below via ground based radar. It could have a tiny RCS to a X-band fire control radar, but be clearly visible to a VHF radar employing a wavelength of 1 meter or longer. A more technical paper, for example this one, explains the subject reasonably well:
“if a typical air-defence radar could detect a target with an RCS of 1 m² (small fighter) at 200 nautical miles (NM), it would detect a target of 5 m² RCS (large fighter) theoretically at 299 NM (however, the upper limit of most ground radars is set to 255 NM). A reduced RCS fighter of 0,1 m² RCS would be detected at 112 NM and a stealth fighter of 0,001 m² RCS would be detected at 36 NM. The same logic applies to any kind of radar. However, concerning fighter aircraft radars, as well as air-to-air missile seeker radars, the respective ranges are considerably shorter compared to the ones of a ground radar. In theory, the RCS of some simple objects, such as a perfect sphere, can be well defined. In practice, most targets are rather complex objects and their RCS usually fluctuates considerably, as they move with respect to a radar.”
Some commentators see the Su-57s design as a the wrong approach, unable to replicate a F-22 or F-35. As a consequence the design choice is incorrectly attributed to Russian inability to design a stealth aircraft, or some innate deficiency in the aerospace sector, for the simple reason that it’s inconceivable Russians might understand all the same things about modern air combat, and pursue a different design philosophy. This is mirror imaging. The Su-57 is not the result of a failure to execute. There are significant gaps in industrial capacity between the U.S. and Russian aerospace sector, materials, precision molds, additive processing, electron beam welding, yielding tight tolerances etc., but this is not the primary input into the Su-57 design.
The U.S. has placed most of its 5th gen eggs into the basket of stealth optimized platforms meant for beyond visual range combat, air defense penetration, and offensive counter air (if I’m wrong please yell at me). A substantial amount of money has been invested in this philosophy. The Chinese have to a large extent copied these designs, because that’s what they do. Russians think differently about stealth and the role of tactical air power in general. It is there to be one element of an integrated air defense network, and to support the ground force at the tactical-operational level, not to conduct aerospace blitzkrieg. Despite having access to plenty of information on stealth, a technology that’s at least 40 years in exploitation at this point, they developed different requirements for the aircraft.
Russia’s aerospace sector knows how to make good airframes, though not with the same tolerances, close fits, or materials. The Su-57 airframe has aspects that were clear structural choices not to invest heavily in stealth optimization at the cost of other requirements, the T-50 patent filing showed a planned RCS of .1-1m² based on shaping, though it does not include composites, radar absorbing, and radar blocking materials. So the target performance is a bit of a question mark. The biggest sources of radar reflection appear to be conscious choices.
There are oft cited statements in 2010 by the chief engineer, Alexander Davidenko, that the RCS was .3-.4 square meters, which is far higher than the potential .001-.01 m2 on a F-22. Unfortunately this is not exactly what he said. Davidenko said in 2010 that the F-22 has a .3-.4 m² RCS and that they are working with similar requirements for radar visibility. The actual RCS is undoubtedly a state secret, and Davidenko may have the wrong RCS for the F-22. He is also most likely giving out an average RCS as opposed to the RCS from a particular aspect. The point being is that he never said what the T-50 RCS actually is, from what aspect, in what frequency, or whether it was an average assessment.
Some see these comments as being in reference to shaping only, not the net RCS reduction after radar absorbing materials are factored into the equation. Those statements are also quite dated at this point, not reflective of improvements to successive air frames, though it’s reasonable to assume that the average Su-57 RCS would be somewhere in the .1-.3 range – but much lower from the frontal aspect.
Comparing Su-57 RCS to F-22 RCS is not especially helpful for two reasons. First, neither number is actually known, and the internet is awash with derived RCS figures that are relatively baseless. Second, there is no such thing as a general RCS value. The RCS is a conversion from the measure in decibels (dBsm), which varies depending on radar frequency, power, aspect of the aircraft being seen by the radar, and other factors.
It is doubtful that the Russian defense industry could build something optimized to the level of F-22 or F-35 from all aspects, because of the dedicated industrial processes required. It would entail considerable developmental risk, investment, and little payoff given the requirements. Yet the Su-57 does appear to be a very low observable design, particularly from the front aspect. The unit cost would also prove prohibitive for Russia to procure it in meaningful numbers. An optimized stealth aircraft that could not be built, or prove financially ruinous, would have been a brilliant yet somewhat pointless design. The airframe has good potential, and successive prototypes show attention to further RCS and IR signature reduction, though shortcomings are going to remain.
Judging the design based on the first series T-50 prototypes, without further investments in optimization, or the actual Izdeliye 30 engine, is probably a bit premature. Borisov made clear they would be revising the design, and a detailed look at the prototypes shows changes. After the first five prototypes, there were visible changes in the next three, according to Piotr Butowski. Three of the latest airframes (T-50-7,8,9) have an internally reinforced fuselage, panels that close the fuselage have been replaced with composite materials, the rear boom housing an EW suite has been lengthened, there are changes to the underside of the tail section, wingspan has increase from 14 to 14.1 meters – and the fuselage lengthened from 19.7 to 20.1 meters according to Butowski. The prototype T-50-9 was the first to feature a full electronic suite, which will be installed on the serial production model, as opposed to earlier examples that demonstrated partial kit.
One forum had a good example of differences in this image:
There is a 2.5 year gap between #5 and #6, with the latter series showing modifications. The prototypes currently produced are meant to test different components of the aircraft – they are not the same, and as such looking at an image of any specific model and taking it for an example of the serially produced variant could prove a mistake.
The inlets – these are a clearly a compromise in favor of performance over stealth, as Bill Sweetman wrote, “They are serpentine but the curvature is insufficient to obscure the entire engine face (as on the F-22, F-35 and Eurofighter Typhoon), so they also feature a radial blocker similar in principal to that used on the BoeingF/A-18E/F Super Hornet. Unlike the F-22 inlets, however, they feature a variable throat section and spill doors on the inboard, outboard and lower surfaces of the ducts. The result is a complex multiple-shock pattern at supersonic speed, which the Russians consider essential for efficient operation at Mach 2. The inlets also feature clamshell-like mesh screens and diverter slots to keep foreign objects out of the engine, as used on the Su-27 family.” The radar blocker could be a strong solution if it bounces radar waves multiple times inside the inlet prior to any return, then the blocker may prove quite effective, though its unclear the impact on performance. Currently the inlet design forms one of the main reflective surfaces looking head on at the aircraft.
The engine – the original AL-41F-1 (Izdeliye 117) is underpowered for the airframe, it is an interim power plant derived from the engine currently on the Su-35 and used on the prototypes, while Izdeliye 30 is developed. The AL-41F is a modernized variant of the AL-31, supposedly with 15% more power. Some batches of Su-57s will have to be bought with this engine, and perhaps retrofitted later. Izdeliye 30 is not expected to be completed until 2025, but will offer supercruise, delivering supersonic speeds without having to use the afterburner. It is not only more powerful, with 3D thrust vectoring, but also supposedly more efficient (17-18% according to Butowski). Top speed is set as Mach 2, supercruise at Mach 1.3. Izdeliye 30 has begun testing on one of the prototypes as of December 5, 2017 where it was seen launching from M.M. Gromov flight test center. That engine’s appearance seems to have a reduced cross section from the rear aspect in mind, when compared to the standard AL-41F-1.
Izdeliye 30 being tested on the left
The oft touted feature is 3D thrust vectoring, compared to 2D on the F-22, or no thrust vectoring on the F-35. This is useful at high altitude, for maneuverability within visual range, and certain scenarios, but is not an especially useful feature for beyond visual range combat. The Su-57 will be able to out fly most aircraft, if it can get near them and not be shot out of the sky at long range by a superior 5th generation platform – the latter scenario remains in question.
Radar – The aircraft features the N036 Byelka radar system with five AESA arrays, 3 X-band and 2 L-band. These have good potential to be used for electronic warfare, and IFF, along with the dedicated L402 ECM suite in the tail. The L402 Himalays ECM uses its own arrays and those of the N036. The N036 is a first generation AESA, and it will be the first AESA mounted on a Russian fighter. The wing leading edge extensions house two L-band matrices covering a combined 270 degrees. It’s doubtful that the L-band matrices have the power to search for a stealth aircraft in any meaningful way. They can determine range and bearing of a target, not height. Their resolution is insufficient to provide guidance to weapons. Turning them on will reveal the position of the aircraft using them well before they are likely to detect anything. L-band is typically reserved for large ground based radars because of the antenna size required to make effective use of this wavelength. Beyond IFF, and EW, it’s unclear what the L-band matrices are for – perhaps utility can be improved via networking between multiple aircraft. Could be part of a kitchen sink approach to countering stealth, reminiscent of the USSR sticking lots of non-acoustic detection sensors onto its submarines to compensate for capability gaps in acoustic detection.
IRST and DIRCM – The front mounted IRST turret is 101KS Atoll, a useful passive IR sensor, though having the ball turret in the front compromises stealth looking head on. It rolls back to reveal a surface covered with radar absorbing material, but that sphere is a no-no for stealth optimization. The 101KS might make the difference in the aircraft’s ability to search and target stealth aircraft, particularly in an environment contested by heavy use of jamming. Again, here the wavelength matters, as individual IRST may offer passive detection at relatively closer ranges, whereas there is investment in the U.S. in long wave IR detection as a counter-stealth technology. Overall the IRST system makes more sense than L-band for stealth hunting, but they would need to do something about the turret shape. The system does much better searching when queued, which the aircraft could attain via datalink from air defense radars.
Other electronic features of note include the 101KS-O directional infrared countermeasure (DIRCM) turrets, IR sensors to help improve pilot awareness, and recent testing with the 101KS-N externally mounted targeting pod. These features don’t appear well integrated into the airframe, and in their current configuration further compromise stealth characteristics. They may form part of an integrated missile approach warning system. Targeting pods represent useful features for multirole functionality, but better geared towards the aircraft’s competitiveness on the export market.
T-50-9 with DIRCM mounted (system can be seen behind cockpit)
Airframe design – early prototypes suffered stress fractures in the airframe, which required internal reinforcement. This was one of the issues that led to delays in the PAK-FA program. The overall design appears cramped, with uneven surfaces along the underside, round shapes, exposed grills in the first series of T-50s, etc. Some of these deficiencies have been addressed between T-50-5 and T-50-6 (this seems to be where the 2.5 year gap may have gone). T-50-9 is the first exemplar of both RCS improvements and the full onboard electronic kit. Izdeliye 30 should help further reduce the rear aspect RCS together with the IR signature, plus latest prototypes show cowlings and other modifications to the engine housing.
Early T-50-4 variant
The aircraft features a refueling probe, and has a rugged undercarriage with large wheels for those lovely Russian runways. The internal weapons bay appears to carry 4-6 medium range missiles, or 4 standoff guided weapons, plus two R-73 short range missiles in side compartments (I’ve not seen these open to offer proof). Given the bay size, the aircraft should be able to deliver standoff tactical nuclear weapons, i.e. it’s a good candidate for the dual capable aviation role.
I would not discount the Su-57. It is not a 5th generation stealth aircraft design gone bad due to failure to execute. The program has legs, and it’s going to amount to something. Even though the U.S. is quite dominant as an aerospace power, it’s important to remember we exercise analytical humility in looking at why other countries may choose a different design, based on the context of how they see air defense and their requirements. The fighter will allow Russia to attain qualitative air superiority over a 4th generation air force, and work with its own integrated air defense to counter penetrating stealth aircraft. It is a reflection of the Russian philosophical approach to the tactical aviation component of its Aerospace Forces (VKS), intended to support the strategic air defense mission first, and engage in standoff strike as part of offensive aerospace operations.
The Su-57 also reflects Russian skepticism on the money and effort that should be invested into stealth optimization and reduced RCS, representing what one could call the ‘good enough’ solution to the overall air superiority problem. Maybe that’s a mistake, and they should have just cloned the F-22 to the best extent possible, but the F-22 and F-35 work in part because they belong to a large infrastructure of logistics, stacks of ISR, datalinks, support platforms, and all the pieces that make the U.S. succeed as an expeditionary aerospace power. Russia is primarily a land force, where the other services provide support at tactical-operational levels to a strategic land campaign in the theater of military operations. An F-22 clone seems somewhat overkill for that mission, and a F-35 clone makes no sense at all for an air force that has no need to operate within integrated enemy air defenses.
The fighter will also offer Russia’s aerospace sector experience in producing a 5th generation aircraft with the attendant materials/composite requirements. In this regard it reflects limitations of Russia’s military industrial complex, but even if they could replicate the same industrial processes, the unit price could prove prohibitive given all the other competing modernization priorities. Moscow can purchase several regiments of these aircraft at a fraction of the price of Western analogues, and with multirole features the fighter could prove attractive on the export market. Current program cost and production requirements are within the industry’s ability to deliver, assuming they can get the engine work completed 2020-2025. Sticking to timelines is not something industry does well. However, I would not be surprised if India came back to buy it after shifting all the risk and development cost to Russia. The airframe is likely to evolve over time into something less observable – the overall direction is better optimization for stealth.
Comments/criticisms welcome as always. Dealing with aircraft requires a tremendous amount of technical knowledge and is at best a layman’s area for me, so maybe the less I touch on it the better.
Update: had some good feedback on how to interpret patent, and a few other design items. Overall update is that patent numbers should be interpreted as providing average RCS based on shaping only, prior to RAM application, and other features (radar blockers/IRST coating) suggest that the front is VLO optimized. So I’ve gone back to edit a bit – overall conclusion remains the same, but I’m more convinced about the aircraft stealth characteristics than how I looked at the design initially, though I was much more positive on Su-57 than many of the posts out there to begin with.
Here is a closing shot of Putin walking away as billions in RUB of Russian taxpayer money finds a new home.
I’ve been traveling too much lately. Back for a while, with pen in hand. As part of a discussion last week in Stockholm, I composed this brief on main drivers of Russian grand strategy for the Stockholm Free World Forum. The paper is meant to be concise and readable, rather than a comprehensive exposition. It lays out many, though perhaps not all, of my views on what drives Russian strategy. You can download the original PDF here.
Russia is seemingly resurgent in international politics, entrenched in an escalating confrontation with the United States, while posing an increasingly global challenge for a state that was only recently regarded by the former U.S. President as a regional power in decline. Politics are often a matter of perception. In Western conception Russia typically exists in one of two analytical states, decline or resurgence. Such depictions are often paired with another dichotomy, a Russia that is tactical and opportunistic, or one driven by a coherent centrally organizing strategy. These conceptions are not especially useful. Opportunism should be assessed within the framework of a Russian leadership with a vision, and relative consensus on the country’s desired role in international affairs, i.e. tactical decisions made in pursuit of a desired end state. Decline and resurgence are relative terms, based more on perception, than useful metrics of economic and military power.
Moscow has been tethered to historical cycles of resurgence, following periods of decline, with stagnation often following mobilization. Yet stepping back from this pattern, one can readily see that over centuries Russia has been, and remains today, an enduring great power. Russia is best characterized as a relatively weak great power, habitually backward in technology and socio-economic development compared to contemporaries. Hence Moscow’s strategic outlook has always been shaped as much by perceptions of vulnerability, threats foreign and domestic, as it has by ambition and a drive for recognition.
The Soviet Union was by far the weaker of the two super powers, despite having proven a capable adversary to the United States in the latter half of the 20th century. Similarly the Russian empire, despite moments of geopolitical strength, found itself contending with more capable and technologically superior adversaries in its own time, and centrifugal forces from within. Russian decision making, strategy, and military thought remains deeply influenced by the country’s history, a shared vision among the ruling elite of Russia’s rightful place in the international system, and a strong belief in the efficacy of the military as an instrument of national power.
Past it not necessarily prologue, but history has a profound influence on Russian strategy, the state’s theory of how to attain security for itself and expand influence in international politics. While lacking the economic dynamism of present day competitors, the Russian state has a demonstrated propensity to take on stronger powers, that is compete effectively in international politics well above its relative power, or to put it more simply, bench above its weight. At the same time, Russia has suffered from periods of stagnation, internal instability, and occasional state collapse, often engaging in cycles of rebuilding rather than building.
The Russian strategy for great power competition begins with a decision to establish credible conventional and nuclear deterrence, positively shaping the military balance, which paradoxically grants Moscow confidence to engage in indirect competition against the United States. This is a strategy of cost imposition and erosion, an indirect approach which could be considered a form of raiding. As long as conventional and nuclear deterrence holds, it makes various form of competition below the threshold of war not only viable, but highly attractive. Moscow hopes to become a major strategic thorn in America’s side, engaging in geopolitical arbitrage, establishing itself as a power broker on the cheap, and effectively weakening those institutions that empower Western collective action. Ultimately, Russia seeks a deal, not based on the actual balance of power in the international system, but tied to its performance in the competition. That deal can best be likened to a form of detente, status recognition, and attendant privileges or understandings, which have profound geopolitical ramifications for politics in Europe.
The Russian challenge
Russia measures itself first and foremost against the United States, and when seeking recognition, attention, or pursuing a deal, it is Moscow’s desire to parlay with Washington more so than any other power. Moscow sees NATO as America’s Warsaw Pact, not a collective defense alliance where the policies or views of the individual states matter. The Russian challenge, and consequently the inputs into Russian strategy, can be narrowly defined as a contest born of conflicting visions for the security architecture of Europe, Russia’s drive to restore a privileged sphere of influence in the former Soviet Union, and a fundamental difference in normative outlooks on the conduct of international relations, that is how states should behave in international politics and therefore what the character of the international order should be.
Russian leaders seek a revision of the post-Cold War settlement in Europe, having concluded that they have no stake in the current security architecture of Europe. Moscow sees the post-Cold War period as one akin to the treaty at Versailles, an order imposed at a time of Russian weakness. Russian borders today most closely mirror the 1918 Brest-Litovsk Treaty signed by Bolsheviks with the Central Powers of World War I, and while Russia may not be principally expansionist, it has always sought geographic depth against the stronger powers of Europe. Having no stake in the current European security framework, Russia’s leadership has instead pursued a traditional strategy for attaining security via establishment of buffer states against political-economic or military blocks. This is a strategy of extended defense, borne of vulnerability, and a consensus that emerged after Operation Barbarossa 1941 in Russian strategic circles that Russia must never again be placed in the position of fighting an industrial scale conflict on its own territory.
Buffer states are not neutral by design, but represent a zero-sum calculus, in that they are either Russia’s buffers against NATO, or conversely NATO’s buffers against Russia. Moscow believes it must impose limited sovereignty on its neighbors, so as to control their strategic orientation. Russian leaders have come to see neighbors as liabilities, who will often side with opposing great powers. This process has led to a self-fulfilling prophecy, by using force to impose its will, Moscow inspires the apprehension and hedging behavior among its neighbors which drives them to balance and contain Russia in the first place. Though Moscow always seeks to redress these trends through non-forceful instruments to retain its influence, when faced with loss or geopolitical defeat, it invariably resorts to use of force, casting itself as the revisionist threat to its neighbors.
Beyond chasing security, Russia seeks to restore a privileged sphere of influence, believing itself to be the rightful hegemon in its own region, and reintegrate the former Soviet space to the extent possible around its own leadership. However, Moscow lacks the economic means, or an attractive model of development for other states, still witnessing a steady fragmentation of influence over its ‘near abroad.’ There are other forces at play. A century ago Russia found itself between two dynamic rising powers, Germany and Japan. Today it is sandwiched between two expansionist economic powers, China and the European Union, both more attractive to neighboring states.
Russian long term thinking is driven by a vision of Moscow at the center of its own sphere of influence, but in practice Russian policy is defined by loss aversion, trying to check the slow unraveling of Russian influence in what once constituted the former Soviet empire. Not unlike other powers, Russian strategy is deliberate, but also the product of reactions to crises, and partly emergent in practice. Moscow sees the United States as instrumental behind this geopolitical entropy, and while Russian elites do not see their country in decline, they are nonetheless vexed by the gravitational pull of more dynamic states, versus their own lackluster economic stagnation.
Beyond extended defense, and restoring itself as a dominant regional hegemon within its own region, Russian strategic culture has not shed itself of the perception that the country is a providential great power. Moscow views this status as de facto hereditary. Russia has a special role in the world because it is Russia, and Moscow believes it has a mission. Born of its Soviet inheritance, today Russia sees itself as being responsible for international security, in large part because of its strategic nuclear arsenal and substantial military power, and equally because it can play the role of a conservative counterweight to American ideological revisionism. Whether in Syria, or Venezuela, Russia considers itself a defender of the international status quo, and of the nation state system, while seeing the United States as a radical force revising international affairs.
The Russian outlook is hardly dissimilar from other classical great powers, most of whom practiced a form of great power exceptionalism and hypocrisy. Yet Moscow’s vision lends intellectual coherence to the baser drives of its foreign policy, beyond mere pursuit of security at the expense of the sovereignty of others, or simply more power. Russia is a cynical power, but Russian elites do have a vision, and a story they tell themselves about the ‘why’ in Russian foreign policy. The current Russian conception of their role in international affairs is inextricably linked to the United States, which is why Moscow is on a perpetual quest for recognition, and a deal with Washington.
A clash of visions
Less recognized is the fundamental clash in outlooks on international politics, and the conduct of affairs among states. Moscow wants to sit on all the institutions governing the current international order, and be engaged in contact groups or forums of discussion for various international issues, that is to advance its interests and be seen as a system determining power in international affairs. This is not unusual, nor is it the source of the conflict with Washington. The problem is that Russia retains a view of the international system that sees only great powers as having true sovereignty, and the ability to conduct an independent foreign policy. Small states inherently have limited sovereignty from this perspective. More importantly, the purpose of international politics is to ensure stability or ’predictability’ of relations among the great powers, avoiding a great power war. Therefore, in Russian conception, not only are nuclear powers first among equals, but the interests of other states are subordinate to this pursuit. Moscow thinks that a world stabilized by spheres of influence (Yalta 1945), and arbitration among a concert of powers (1815 Concert of Europe), is the more stable system and one where it has the greatest chance of pursuing its own interests.
Notably, this vision places primacy on military strength and status as a nuclear power, over the economic performance. Russian leaders have also come to believe that because the West places emphasis on individual sovereignty, and human rights, over the power of the state, it inherently does not see authoritarian regimes as being legitimate or having legitimate interests. Thus emerges a mutually exclusive outlook on international politics, where Russia feels it is on one side of the argument with China, promoting a conservative international order with preference towards the interests of great powers, and on the other an ideological vision that promotes the independence of smaller states and the liberty of individuals within their respective political systems.
The U.S. may see Moscow’s agenda as fundamentally retrograde, but the visible ideological core at the center of Washington’s foreign policy consensus has convinced Russia’s leadership that the United States will always seek regime change in Russia, and will never recognize Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian regime as having legitimate interests. Moscow’s interpretation of U.S. intent tends towards the paranoid, indulging in unfounded narratives of U.S. organized political subversion on Russia’s periphery. Yet at the same time Washington’s vision for Russia’s integration with the West always had an unstated regime change component, presuming it would encourage Moscow to make a democratic transition. Moscow correctly perceives a missionary impulse at the core of U.S. foreign policy.
The ways of Russian strategy
Russia has always been better at leveraging military and diplomatic instruments of national power as opposed to its economy. Moscow invested heavily in the restoration of conventional military power, building a balanced military that includes a general purpose force for local conflicts, a non-nuclear conventional deterrent, and a capable nuclear arsenal for theater nuclear warfare. This allows Moscow to impose its will on neighbors via limited conventional operations, but more importantly engage in coercive bargaining and manipulation of risk against the United States and NATO. Inherent in Russian strategy is the presumption that interests at stake favor Moscow in these contests, allowing Russia to threaten long range conventional strikes in crises where adversaries may well back down. Scalable nuclear escalation is always on the table – something to think about. As a consequence the challenge for the West is not simply a capability gap, but a cognitive gap in understanding what matters in the modern character of war between great powers.
Russian military strategy is heavily influenced by outlooks on the current and emerging character of war, seeing it as one based on blitzkrieg with long range precision guided weapons, and a contest for information superiority. The Russian General Staff sees warfare as systemic or ’nodal’ in nature, whereby a military system has critical nodes which can destroy its ability to fight, and similarly a political system has elements essential to its political will or resolve in a crisis. Russian operational concepts are geared towards shaping the environment during a threatened period of war, and achieving success in a contest of systems during the initial period of war. There is little notion in Russian military thought of a conventional-only war with NATO, or that beyond a decisive initial period of war, there are likely to be other sustained phases, i.e. one side will be proven successful in the early weeks of the contest. From the outset, Moscow is resolved to the prospect of employing non-strategic nuclear weapons should it find itself on the losing side of the war.
In contests Russia has used military power on the basis of reasonable sufficiency, not seeking overmatch so much as coercive power to achieve desired political ends. Recent wars have demonstrated some efficacy in pairing indirect warfare with conventional military power, but it is ultimately hard military power that has achieved desired outcomes in local contests. The Russian General Staff values the utility of political warfare, and believes that a conflict will start with organized political subversion, information warfare and the like. However, they see this sub-conventional challenge as the leading edge of a spear, where the true coercive power comes from Western technological military power and awesome arsenal of precision guided weapons. Moscow sees non-contact warfare, and aerospace blitzkrieg, as the defining elements of the Western way of war. These are paired with political subversion to create color revolutions within the Russian self-ascribed sphere of influence. Conventional elements are therefore the finishing stroke of an undeclared war which begins with non-militay means.
Buttressed by a growing conventional and nuclear deterrent, Moscow is more confident in pursuing indirect competition via hacking, political warfare, and other forms of coercion against the United States, in the hope of imposing costs over time. This is both a form of retaliation for Western sanctions, and a more ’medieval’ approach to great power contests, leveraging the ability to reach in and directly affect political cohesion among Westerns states. It is more effective when considering Western efforts to reduce the role of the nation state, and establish interdependent economies based on the freedom of movement of goods and labor. Russia pairs cost imposition against the United States with a series of gambits on the global stage to establish an arbitrage role, or become a power broker, in contests, conflicts, or issues that the West cares about. The end goal is to create transaction costs for U.S. foreign policy, force the West to deal with Moscow, with the eventual desire of compelling a negotiation on core Russian interests described above.
A third effort is centered on key powers in Europe, creating asymmetric dependencies via energy pipelines, trade, or other deals with their respective elites. Russia is more powerful than any European state, but much weaker than the European Union. Moscow’s problem in the relative balance of power is self-evident, hence Russia seeks to weaken European ability for collective action, and the role of institutions that limits its freedom of maneuver in foreign policy. Russia is less interested in NATO cohesion, and more concerned with the attractiveness and economic expansionism of the EU. NATO in Russian conception is simply a platsdarm for the projection of U.S. military power.
The EU is not simply a European project, but also an outgrowth of U.S. grand strategy. That is, Europe does not enjoy strategic autonomy from Washington. Russia refuses to accept a European theater of military operations where the U.S. enjoys military dominance, while its ally the EU has economic and political primacy. Therefore, to the extent possible, Russia will work actively to encourage centrifugal forces on the continent, hoping they will restore the political primacy of the nation-state, and the reemergence of a concert-like system of powers over that of political or military blocks. Russian political influence, information operations, and similar efforts are bound by this overall vision not for geographic revisionism, but for the restoration of Russia’s relative power in European affairs.
Re-posting my article on the Russian Airborne from Oxford’s Changing Character of War Program Issue Brief #4. This is a great center (or centre?), and has some of the more interesting articles you’re going to find on the Russian armed forces, by some of the best experts in the field. If you follow the Russian military then you should try and make time for their articles and issue briefs.
The Russian Airborne Forces (VDV) compose one of the more important instruments in the General Staff’s toolkit, serving as a rapid reaction force for local conflicts, supporting special operations, or striking behind enemy lines in a conventional war. The VDV has proven to be leading edge of Russian (and Soviet) military power in operations from the 1956 intervention in Hungary, to the 2014 seizure and annexation of Crimea. A combat arm distinct from the Land Forces, the VDV may be used tactically, operationally, or play a strategic role, depending on how it is employed. Whether responding to a crisis, or choosing to visit the territory of its neighbor without notice, Russia is likely to lean on the highest readiness units with elite training, and good mobility, which in many cases means the VDV.
Today the VDV consists of two parachute divisions, two air assault divisions, four independent brigades, along with a signals and an independent reconnaissance brigade. Parachute divisions can be air dropped to seize enemy air fields and key points, making them a strategic asset, while air assault units are flown into secured landing zones. Brigades represent a mix, often with one parachute battalion and two assault battalions. The Russian operation in Crimea, together with other military actions have demonstrated that if the VDV can seize an airport then they can fly in supporting battalions, and those follow-on units can secure terrain for Russia’s land forces to enter the battle space. In theory, it is a Soviet Airborne, simply cut down to Russian size (VDV Divisions used to have three regiments each, but were long ago reduced to two).
The Russian General Staff has been experimenting with this force since 2016, and according to recent announcements by their commander, Colonel General Andrey Serdyukov, the VDV is in for a rethink. Serdyukov is a well-known figure in Russian military circles. An airborne officer by training, he had seen combat experience in the Chechen wars. As deputy commander and chief of staff of the Southern Military District in 2013, he helped organize the operation to seize Crimea. Serdyukov has also been sanctioned by Ukraine, allegedly for commanding forces in the Donbas 2014-2015. Subsequently promoted to command the VDV in 2016, Serdyukov was seriously injured outside Murmansk in a motor vehicle accident. He was on the way personally to observe Airborne operations, together with several staff members, as part of the wider Zapad 2017 strategic command staff exercise. Having recovered, the VDV commander announced his intention to remodel the force, stating in October 2018 that the Airborne is officially on a “search, testing new forms and methods of force employment to answer the challenges of modern warfare.”
And, indeed, not all is well with Russia’s airborne forces. Two problems stand out. The first reflects a degree of conceptual confusion. The USSR had two concepts for the VDV: one arm was strategic, composed of parachute divisions, while the other was air assault. In theory, the parachute units answered to the General Staff, while air assault units were subordinate to the military districts and supported their advance on the battlefield. Air assault units would seize key terrain or strike enemy reserves not far from the line of contact with the ground forces. But in practice the VDV always had a third role. Early in the 1960s, and subsequently during the war in Afghanistan 1979-1989, deployed Airborne units were armed with heavy equipment in the role of motor rifle units, receiving tanks and artillery. Basically, they were used as elite mounted infantry. These ad hoc changes are similar to the processes shaping the current VDV, though after some improvisation, it increasingly seems that Russia’s General Staff is starting to impose an actual vision (even if – caveat emptor – General Staff visions tend to change every few years, together with Russian force structures).
Second, despite its service record, and esprit de corps, the VDV can be seen as an anachronism: yet another piece of Soviet inheritance that Russians might qualify as a “briefcase without a handle”. Rather than parachuting into battle, in practice the VDV has spent most of its time in the role of motor rifle units on lightly armored vehicles. Allegedly, at one point during the New Look reforms, then Minister of Defense Anatoly Serdyukov and then Chief of General Staff Nikolai Makarov even considered cutting the entire combat arm and handing it over to the land forces. The reasons are not difficult to fathom. Russia’s airborne and Russia’s logistics are woefully misaligned – maintaining an alternate park of airborne infantry fighting vehicles and a host of specialized equipment for the VDV is not cheap – while the force spends much of its time fighting as another form of motor rifle infantry. So it is no surprise that their commander thinks the VDV is due for new operating concepts, and force restructuring.
There are other problems. Optimistically, Russia’s military transport aviation (VTA) is at best able to deliver between one and two regiments in a sortie. The aviation park of Il-76 heavy transports is simply not big enough for serious airborne operations, and certainly not in a contested environment. Given that Russia’s VDV trains to force generate as battalion tactical groups, more than likely the maximum air lift capacity is for two or three such formations. In practice, this means that Russia has one of the world’s largest airborne forces (approx 45,000 strong), but without the air lift to use them in their designated role. Indeed, according to Russian defense journalist Ilya Kramnik if Russia wanted to deliver its airborne in the initial period of war it would have to increase the air transportation park four-fold. This is simply impossible given the current rate of Il-76MD-90 modernization and aircraft production. At best the VTA is likely to tread water on the number of currently available aircraft in the strategic airlift role.
Therefore, the General Staff seems to have chosen an entirely different direction: the VDV’s air assault divisions are set to become heavier, with an expanded force structure, tanks, and air defenses, while independent brigades will conduct heliborne operations. Parachute divisions will still train to perform the more strategic air assault mission. At Vostok-2018, 700 soldiers and 50 vehicles were air dropped at Tsugol range, employing roughly 25 Il-76MD transports. While airborne divisions still train for the airborne assault via Il-76, tactical and operational mobility may increasingly come from helicopter based operations and raids behind enemy lines in support of ground forces.
Serdyukov announced that experiments during Vostok 2018 strategic manoeuvres (September 11-18) determined the future tactics and overall force development. Those experiments employed a special battalion tactical group, based on the 31st brigade, suggesting that the size and scope of the concept is considerably different from the Soviet 1980s formulation. On the second day of the exercise, VDV units aboard 45 Mi-8 helicopters and two Mi-26 helicopters, practiced three types of air assault: low altitude parachute, repelling, and dismount. Gunship support included eight Ka-52 and fourteen Mi-24 helicopters. The much larger Mi-26 helicopters delivered Tigr light utility vehicles, and recon ATVs, serving as an air mobile reserve for the operation. This is a distinctly large helicopter assault formation, intended to deploy a reinforced VDV battalion, with gunship support, and light reserves.
Recent reporting by journalists, like Aleksei Ramm, suggests that the 31st brigade has become an experimental unit, with its own army aviation support, composed of two squadrons of Mi-8 and Mi-26 helicopters. This would give the 31st native air mobility, granting the commander freedom to design and execute an operation. Otherwise, the VDV has to negotiate access to army aviation, which is not necessarily assigned to support it, and may have other competing requirements imposed by ground force operations. Not only would this dramatically reduce the time required for VDV to execute a manoeuvre, but it would add considerable flexibility to the force, though heliborne operations would limit the airborne to light utility vehicles. This force structure redesign would allow the VDV to deploy much faster in response to a local conflict, or execute their own raids behind enemy lines in a conventional war. The VDV would also become much more suitable to expeditionary operations where there is a low barrier to entry, and good prospects for elite infantry to make a difference.
Availability may be the driving force behind this force structure redesign. While VTA is in the doldrums, Russia is much richer in helicopters. The Russian armed forces substantially increased their helicopter park during the first State Armament Program (2011-2020), establishing three brigades and six regiments. Russian experts like Anton Lavrov suggest that over 600 helicopters (they were buying about 130/year since 2011) may have been purchased for the armed forces and various ministries through 2017. Each combined arms army is being assigned a supporting helicopter regiment, while every military district will house an independent helicopter brigade. Though the rotary wing park is also not without some problems, given there are no mid-range options between the venerable Mi-8 variants and the giant Mi-26. Nonetheless, Russia bought far more helicopters than 4th generation aircraft, and is steadily filling out new army aviation regiments and brigades.
These changes are primarily, but not solely, intended for the VDV. Land force brigades and divisions will also develop company or platoon size detachments that are certified for air mobile operations – at least in the Southern Military District, if Colonel General Aleksandr Dvornikov has his way (Serdyukov is not the only one with a vision for helicopter assets). Some of these changes may bring nostalgia for the 1980s, when heliborne VDV units were assigned to support operational manoeuvre groups, and select Soviet army detachments were air mobile. In 2002, the army handed over its helicopters to the air force, which then got rolled into the aerospace forces in 2015. They similarly gave up air assault brigades to the VDV, making that exclusively the VDV’s business. Now the army looks to reclaim air mobility, and seems likely to compete for the same helicopter assets that the VDV will need to realize this new concept of operations. The implication for NATO, used to Russian forces getting places via rail, or driving there, is that Western forces will increasingly have to think at the tactical and operational level about a segment of Russian forces becoming air mobile in the initial period of war.
The introduction of tanks into Russian air assault units represents a countervailing trend, sacrificing mobility for firepower. In 2016, the 7th and 76th Air Assault Divisions, together with four brigades, were slated to receive tank companies. Since then, the 7th and 76th are being expanded with tank battalions, while one regiment (331st) will receive Russia’s new Sprut-SD airborne tank destroyer as part of a force structure experiment. The VDV is due to add three T-72B3 tank battalions in total. Tanks have been introduced on and off to the VDV throughout the Soviet period, as they have to the Naval Infantry (which is also getting tanks back). It seems almost a matter of tradition that the VDV receives tanks after combat experience demonstrates the need for them to employ heavier firepower in a ‘motor rifle’ role, they are subsequently removed, only to be reintroduced later.
Generally, the VDV continues to do well in terms of equipment. It has fared well in both State Armament Programmes (2011-2020 & 2018-2027), perhaps as a consolation prize for not receiving an expanded force structure. The former trend continues, while the latter seems finally about to change. In 2015, the head of the VDV at the time, Colonel General Vladimir Shamanov, sought to restore all four divisions to their former three regiment size. This did not happen, since money was prioritized for procuring capabilities and creating new army formations. Nonetheless, as of late 2018, the 76th Air Assault Division in Pskov is slated to receive a third regiment. Meanwhile an independent air assault battalion has already been established in Crimea, the 171st, structurally part of the 7th Air Assault Division. The VDV also received a combat service support battalion in Orehovo. Hence Russia’s airborne has not only gained upgrades in firepower, but it is growing in size as well, and working on new operational concepts for how to make the combat arm relevant in modern conflicts.
But if size and materiel is one measure, what about quality? According to Andrey Serdyukov, the VDV now has 30,000 servicemen and sergeants under contract service, which represents 70% of the force. His goal is to focus the VDV on being able to generate entirely contract staffed battalion tactical groups with an overall contract level for the force of 80%. During the tumult of the military reforms, 2008-2012, the VDV was de facto the only reasonably well staffed force available for handling local conflicts. This is no longer the case, and Russia’s airborne must compete for a future role alongside increasingly better equipped and larger ground forces. Although it is once again being saddled with a ‘motor rifle lite’ role, the General Staff is still positioning the VDV as a high readiness reaction force, and an air mobile component that offers the Russian military new options at operational depths.
I’ve recently put out an article on Russia’s Avangard hypersonic boost-glide system in the well known Russian journal The New Times, under the title “ЧТО ВСЕ-ТАКИ ПУТИН ПОДАРИЛ РОССИЯНАМ НА НОВЫЙ ГОД,” but for those interested, please find the unedited English version below, which hopefully covers the subject in some depth.
Earlier in March 2018, Vladimir Putin announced at his annual address to the federal assembly that a Russian hypersonic boost-glide system, named Avangard, would start entering serial production. Subsequently on December 26th, 2018 Russian officials claimed that they had successfully conducted a test from the Dombarovsky missile site, to the Kura test range on Kamchatka, some 3,760 miles away. Russia’s president proudly announced that the system as a wonderful ‘New Year’s gift’ to Russia. According to Putin’s statement, the hypersonic glide vehicle is able to conduct intensive maneuvers at speeds in excess of Mach 20, which would render it “invulnerable” to any existing or prospective missile defenses. In this article I will briefly explore the logic behind Russia’s hypersonic boost glide program, recent claims of technological accomplishment, and the strategic implications of deploying such weapon systems.
Despite rather questionable public statements about the technical characteristics of this weapon system, a number of which appear inconsistent, it is clear that Russian military science has made considerable advancements along one of the most sophisticated axis of weapons research. While claims pertaining to the readiness of this system to enter serial production, and operational service, are probably exaggerated, the more important questions are conceptual. More than likely Russia will be able to deploy a hypersonic boost glide system in the 2020s, perhaps alongside other hypersonic weapons projects, but the promise of this technology was always at the tactical-operational level of war, not strategic. This was never considered a ‘game changer’ as a system for the delivery of strategic nuclear weapons. If anything, Russia has invested a substantial amount of money, and years of research, in overdoing its strengths. Beyond a somewhat militant demonstration of ‘Russian national achievement’ for domestic audiences, it’s unclear if this weapon system truly answers Russia’s strategic challenges in the coming decades. The question is not whether it works, or when it will work, but does it even matter?
Hypersonic boost glide weapons function by using a multi-stage ballistic missile as the boost phase, throwing a vehicle into near earth orbit, which then descends and begins gliding at hypersonic speeds along the edge of the atmosphere. As the vehicle descends back to earth, it pulls upwards, and begins skimming the atmosphere in a ‘glide’ phase, before diving downwards onto its target at the terminal phase. Russia has spent years developing this technology under a project referenced as Object 4202, which married a series of experimental hypersonic glide vehicles, such as the Yu-71, with a liquid fueled ICBM УР-100УНТТХ (NATO designation SS-19 mod 2 Stiletto). This system builds on the Soviet Union’s extensive research into hypersonic weapons programs , including work on a hypersonic-boost aircraft named «Спираль», a modified S-200V surface-to-air missile under the project name Холод, and hypersonic cruise missile programs, such as Kh-80 and Kh-90 GELA (гиперзвуковой экспериментальный летательный аппарат).
Although claimed successes in testing may have come as a surprise in 2018, in truth Russian officials have been announcing tests of a hypersonic boost glide vehicle, using the УР-100УНТТХ missile, as far back as the strategic nuclear forces exercise in 2004. Hence, this particular system has been in publicly acknowledged development for at least 14 years, and the glide vehicle itself for quite a few years beforehand. The booster, УР-100 (SS-19), is a 105 ton liquid fueled silo-based missile, which together with the boost glide vehicle payload proved too long for a standard silo. Hence this system is being tested in a modified R-36M2 silo (SS-18 Satan), and although it is being developed with the УР-100, it is meant for the much heavier liquid fueled missile currently in testing, RS-28 Sarmat. While the question of boost method may seem a technicality, the boosting mechanism is actually quite deterministic of the strategic role this weapon can play, as I will discuss a bit later in this article.
However, the principal challenges with this system have little to do with the decades established technology of intercontinental ballistic missiles, or boosting objects into near earth orbit. Hypersonic boost glide vehicles, if successful, represent a major breakthrough in material sciences, as the object must be able to withstand incredibly high temperatures with the payload and guidance system intact. Although impossible to verify, Russian announcements can often be categorized as ‘true lies,’ impressive sounding figures that have some factual basis, but are inevitably inaccurate. The proposition that the vehicle can reach mach 27 is likely true only during the brief return phase, when it is falling back to earth like a rock from near earth orbit, prior to beginning its hypersonic glide at the edges of the atmosphere. The vehicle itself will have considerably different speeds during the pull-up, glide, and dive to target phase, while having to endure incredible temperatures.
Below are a few graphical illustrations available on the web
In U.S. testing of an analogous system in 2011, Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2 (HTV-2), the vehicle was able to sustain glide at mach 20 speeds for three minutes, enduring a temperature of 3500 Fahrenheit. These figures track with Russian statements on temperatures experienced, but the actual speeds and altitudes at which the Russian vehicle is able to glide, and whether the systems actually survive this experience, remain a mystery. Although Russia’s defense sector seems to have made progress on this weapon system, claims that it is ready for serial production, or operational deployment in the near future, should be treated with educated skepticism. Ironically, the most significant potential breakthrough is in material sciences, not in building a seemingly scary strategic weapon.
Yet the rationale for Avangard seems less than straightforward when compared to other Russian hypersonic weapons programs, including the Tsirkon 3M22 scramjet hypersonic cruise missile, and the Kinzhal Kh-47M2 aeroballistic missile. Those are operational depth systems able to deliver meaningful conventional or nuclear payloads to shape the military balance in a theater of military operations. They can offset U.S. conventional superiority, and pose genuine challenges in conventional warfare. What does Avangard do for Russia that existing silo-based, road-mobile, air-launched, and submarine launched missiles cannot?
The Avangard system is best seen as one element in an expensive Russian strategy to develop technological hedges for a security environment perhaps 20-30 years from now where the United States might deploy a cost effective missile defense system, making a percentage of Russia’s nuclear deterrent vulnerable to interception. To be clear, there is no missile defense system now, or on the horizon, able to intercept Russia’s strategic nuclear arsenal. Modern ICBMs can come with multiple reentry vehicles and numerous penetration aids or false targets, creating a complex ‘threat cloud’ that would make interception an improbable business. Nonetheless, ever since the Bush administration chose in 2002 to exit the 1972 ABM Treaty, Russian leadership has been concerned that the United States could eventually devalue the deterrence provided by Russia’s strategic nuclear forces.
Russia’s General Staff worries that a vast arsenal of long range conventional cruise missiles, paired with a semi-viable missile defense, would pose major challenges for their calculations to ensure the ability of Russian nuclear forces to deliver ‘unacceptable’ or ‘tailored’ damage in the coming decades. The 1972 ABM Treaty was not just a cornerstone of Cold War arms control, but fundamental to Russian military thinking on strategic stability, based on mutual vulnerability at the strategic level. Ever since June 1941, Soviet, and subsequently Russian, military thought has been wracked by the possibility of a disarming first strike, and the need to position Russian forces along a strategy of ‘counter-surprise.’
However, unlike other expensive strategic projects, such as the Poseidon nuclear powered torpedo, Avangard does not contribute to a survivable second strike. Thus there are a few ways to interpret the actual purpose of this weapon. The first is as a retaliatory-meeting strike system to attack high-value targets, i.e. civilian targets with political or economic significance, which will provide some insurance for a counter value strike. The second is that it is a first strike weapon against hard to penetrate targets. Since Avangard is silo based, designed for heavier liquid fueled ICBMs, in the event of strategic attack the boosting missile would not be survivable. It must be fired either first, or in a “launch under attack” scenario, when Russia has confirmed a U.S. launch, but the missiles have not yet impacted.
Avangard may be designed to give Russia’s RVSN the ability to penetrate hard targets, getting around missile defenses, and leveraging greater accuracy to take out well-hardened facilities. That said, from a nuclear warfighting standpoint, this makes Avangard a somewhat specialized, but expensive strategic nuclear weapon. Given how few of these systems Russia is likely to be able to afford, the weapon may offer some targeting advantages, but at a high price relative to the benefits. Another possibility is that this is not a system to get around future missile defenses, but a first strike system to be used specifically against missile defenses, clearing the way for the rest of Russia’s nuclear deterrent. Even if more accurate and survivable in flight, Avangard is a questionable investment when compared to the numerous road-mobile ICBM systems Russia fields today, including Topol-M and Rs-24 Yars (but then the logic for Russia’s SSBN program is also somewhat circumspect).
Perhaps in the future, Avangard will be deployed on a road-mobile launcher, but as conceived, this system adds little to Russia’s existing large strategic nuclear arsenal. An expensive insurance policy that in no way alters the strategic nuclear balance either today or tomorrow, which is why the reaction in Washington has been so muted. If anything, the United States should thank Russia for investing money in such super weapons, instead of buying large quantities of conventional precision guided munitions.
Moscow has sought to leverage Avangard and similar novel systems to sell the notion of a qualitative arms race to Washington, D.C., hoping to establish a bilateral agenda for summits. Yet while the world is genuinely witnessing a renewed period of nuclear modernization, with qualitatively new or novel weapon systems in development, there is no arms race in progress. The major nuclear powers of today are pursuing distinctly divergent strategies, concepts, and requirements behind their nuclear weapons programs, rather than racing which each other for superiority. This is why Avangard, if completed and deployed, is unlikely to alter strategic military balance or elicit any meaningful response from Washington, D.C.
Following the November 25th Kerch Strait naval skirmish, in which Russia seized three Ukrainian boats, Ukrainian leadership has issued warnings of a Russian buildup near Ukraine’s borders. These began in early December and have led to a media echo chamber of concerns that a Russian attack on Ukraine is imminent, in part bolstered by press releases from ISW. Actual evidence of Russian preparations for offensive operations, force movements indicating an unexpected buildup, or an imminent attack, is hard to come by. In this somewhat longer post I want to explore the existing evidence, what little there is, and examine a few conflict scenarios that may be within the realm of possibility in coming months.
Unfortunately this simmering conflict is subject to frequent false alarms, while actual points of escalation are rarely predicted, as was the case on November 25th. It is relatively easy to take a week’s worth of Russian troop movements, equipment deployments, drills, and MoD announcements, compile them together into a bullet point list of nefarious activities, and then declare them ‘data points’ indicating preparations for an invasion. As of today it seems Ukraine will not be extending the 30 day state of martial law, which casts some doubt on the urgency and immediacy of the anticipated Russian threat as presented earlier this month by Ukrainian authorities.
The more problematic element in all of this has been senior official Russian statements, which suggest a change in Moscow’s stance on dealing with Ukraine is afoot. Sergey Lavrov, Maria Zakharova, and Sergey Naryshkin, have issued statements expecting a possible Ukrainian ‘provocation’ and or ‘attack’ which could be interpreted as indications and warnings of Moscow preparing the information space, i.e. setting expectations of renewed violence in the coming weeks. However, they may also be a poor Russian attempt at getting Washington, D.C. to restrain Ukraine, or otherwise influence Ukrainian decision making to Russian benefit.
The Russian narrative offers cause for concern, because it is a form of signaling not dissimilar from official statements in the run up to the Russian conflict with Georgia in 2008. That said, it is likely some officials in Moscow believed Ukraine would try to use martial law as a cover for a military operation in the Donbas, especially given their experience with Saakashvili in 2008. Although real evidence is scant, I’ll try to unpack the different stories, and the likelihood of an upcoming Russian military operation against Ukraine.
Bottom line up front: Almost every year there is a sizable artillery duel that takes place after the holiday truce (clashes likely to resume between orthodox Christmas on January 7 and perhaps the old new year on January 14th), and so a notable escalation in violence is likely in January, but there is no evidence of Russian preparations for a major assault in Ukraine, certainly not in Crimea. It is possible, but highly improbable. Most of the information available reflects planned modernization, expected force structure changes, and troop movements on the Russian side not indicative of unusual activity or preparations for an assault. However, as covered years ago on this blog, the long term force posture and structure changes to create three divisions along Ukraine’s borders, return earlier displaced brigades, and a focus on modernizing equipment in the Southern MD, mean that capacity and capability is there to engage in a high intensity conventional conflict with Ukraine at any time. Ukrainian leadership has used evidence from these long term trends to create the sense of an imminent tactical threat, but that is not the case, and they likely know it.
Expectations of an attack are based on three disparate sets of information, if we can charitably call them that, which are seemingly being woven together by various outlets, blogs, and sites like ISW who warn of Russian preparations for an imminent attack. The first is an alleged increase in Russian hardware in the Rostov region of the Southern Military District. The second is a series of disparate troop movements in Crimea, which in and of themselves do not speak to anything, but some believe are indications of a Russian operation against Ukraine’s Kherson region, presumably to seize the Crimea-Dnepr fresh water canal. The third involves statements by Russia’s MFA, Sergey Naryshkin, and others, that indicate Russian preparations for a conflict in the near future.
Issue #1 The Russian tank build up in the east and frightening Google photos of lots of tanks
Ukraine’s chief of general staff, Victor Muzhneko, stated that there is an increase in Russian tanks near the Ukrainian border, having grown from 93 to 250 within two weeks from mid-September. This information was spread by a Ukrainian run English-language blog run by Dylan Malyasov, which is a defense news amalgamator. The problem is that these are mostly T-62 variants (M/MV), which have long been retired from the Russian military, and are not in service with Russian trained separatist forces either. This tank last saw service during the Russia-Georgia War of 2008, and was considered obsolete decades ago. There is no Russian unit that fields T-62 tanks today, or T-64 tanks for that matter. The Russian armed forces use this tank for target practice during major military exercises, as was the case in recently held Vostok 2018.
Separatist forces use T-64BV and T-72B1 variants, which are different main battle tanks, but can perform the same missions and are comparable in their performance characteristics. The T-62 is a completely different design, using different caliber ammunition, sights, fire control, and so on – so it is not possible for someone trained on a T-72 to just jump into this tank and ‘invade Ukraine.’ At this point the same can be said of T-64BVs being supplied to the two separatist corps, doubtfully anyone in line Russian units is current and certified to operate either T-62s, or T-64s. Russian forces use more modern T-72BA or B3 variants almost exclusively, with select units fielding T-80Us or T-80BVM.
Here is a quick slide of T-72B3 use by Russian forces in Ukraine 2014, T-64BV manned by separatists, and a T-62M
Below we can see the alleged tank build up near Ukraine’s borders. Note the rest of the vehicle park at the base, and the contingent, remains the same after the arrival of these tanks, which suggests that they are here for storage and not a force addition.
The main force currently being supplied with refurbished Russian T-62M tanks is the Syrian Army, particularly the 5th Corps. These tanks are coming out of Russian reserve storehouses with T-62s and BMP infantry fighting vehicles. During Vostok 2018 there was news of T-62s being activated and shipped east, but in reality several batches of these vehicles were loaded and shipped West in October. Ukraine’s alleged tank build up is almost certainly a series of old T-62s taken out of the Central Tank Reserve Base in Ulan Ude, which were tracked through social media (you can get a more detailed story on the T-62 shipment from DFR Lab) as arriving at Kamensk-Shakhtinsky, which is where Muzhenko’s photos are from. Subsequently these tanks tend to show up at the port of Novorossiysk for shipment to Syria via the ‘Syrian Express.’
Storage base in Ulan-Ude, before September and after September of this year. A number of tanks have moved from the lot, indicating that some of the vehicles likely came from this base.
T-62M tanks heading west from Central Military District and same ones arriving at Kamensk-Shakhtinsky, some are likely destined for Syria.
The recently arrived tanks near Ukraine’s borders are most likely being stored in Rostov region near the port for shipment, or may be used in training, but the story that Russia is planning to invade Ukraine with ancient tanks that they themselves don’t use and don’t train on stretches the imagination beyond the realm of the possible. It is equally possible that these tanks are there to establish a new reserve structure. Russia has been lacking mobilization force structure, and at best has developed a territorial battalion type reserve system for infrastructure defense. Operational reserve capacity comes out of active units which force generate units from active servicemen rather than mobilize reservists. Therefore one possible explanation is that these older vehicles are designed to park equipment for some nascent reserve force structure.
What’s frustrating is that Ukraine’s military leadership doubtlessly knows all of this, which makes it hard to understand why Muzhenko would use google earth satellite images of old T-62 tanks to push this story in the media. Any military analyst who studies the Russian armed forces could likely tell you this information. Yet Petro Poroshenko went on Sky News with these very same images of Russian tanks, as though they were legitimate evidence of Russian preparations for an invasion.
My personal interpretation of the Ukrainian claims is that this is an information campaign to justify and defend Poroshenko’s controversial decision to institute martial law in advance of Presidential elections, where his chances of winning are quite tenuous. This is a cynical, but optimistic view, because the alternative suggests that Ukraine’s armed forces don’t know much about the Russian military, and use dated google earth images to hunt down old T-62 tanks that are neither here or there to anything. Ukrainian force posture doesn’t suggest that they themselves expect a Russian offensive either, and the temporary state of martial law has ended as scheduled, so this seems to be mostly a large information wave with little substance to substantiate it.
However, the Russian Rostov region is seeing a steady build up of forces as part of the formation of the 150th division in the reestablished 8th Combined Arms Army (Southern MD). This will prove a decade long process. Other units that have been announced as far back as early 2015, include the 144th MR Division and 3rd MR Division in 20th Combined Arms Army (Western MD), some shifting of brigades, and steady addition or maneuver regiments to only partially filled divisions in 1st Tank Guards Army headquartered in Moscow. The 144th Division is somewhat lagging here in formation. The 150th division is a 2×2 motor rifle and tank regiment configuration (+2 supporting regiments), which is almost filled now in its maneuver regiments. Supposedly the last motor rifle regiment is being formed as of this month. There are also interesting force structure changes afoot in the Russian VDV, creating much larger air mobile formations, which were partially covered during experiments in Vostok-2018 exercises.
Issue #2 Russian build up in Crimea for an invasion of Kherson
There is another concern out there, based on sighting of Russian troop movements near the Crimean border with Kherson, that Russia might conduct an offensive operation from Crimea. At least this is ISW’s thesis on the basis of a few troop trucks, some APCs, and artillery being moved towards the border – which is not at all uncommon. Basically, we have a story of an overturned Russian truck as part of a military convoy on the way to the border, with a field kitchen. What’s naturally missing from this equation is a concentration of armor, infantry fighting vehicles, self-propelled artillery, large volumes of ammunition, etc. moved about on flatbed trucks, i.e. there is no evidence of the sort of hardware one would expect in support of an offensive operation or the formation of battalion tactical groups near Ukraine’s borders in Crimea. The Army Corps in Crimea has a dearth of maneuver elements, so units would have to cross into the peninsula via bridge from the rest of the Southern Military District (presumably 58th Army), concentrate, and deploy – which nobody is seeing happen. More than likely Russian troop movements are indicators of preparations for an artillery duel – exchanges of indirect fire that typically escalate in January/February.
Partly responsible for the confusion are two planned force additions to Crimea. First we have the formation of the 171st independent air assault battalion in Crimea, which was announced December 2, 2017. This battalion is technically part of the 7th VDV Air assault division, but will create a permanently based unit in Crimea with air mobility, and add to the ‘elite infantry’ stationed there which can serve as a rapid reaction force. However, VDV units have been rotating through Crimea for years now, so this is less of a force increase and more institutionalizing that which has already been taking place.
The second tidbit of information regards the deployment of a 4th S-400 battalion to Dzhankoi in Crimea, which likely completes the rearmament of the 18th and 12th air defense regiments based there (31st air defense division within the 4th Air and Air Defense Army of the Southern Military District). The first S-400 battalion was deployed January 2017 in Feodosia, the second January 2018 in Sevastopol, and a third in September 2018 in Yevpatoria. The S-400 replaces the older S-300 systems deployed to Crimea, and is part of a general wave of modernization which prioritized the Southern Military District. Alongside S-400 deployments one can find Su-30SM heavy multirole fighters, and Su-34 bombers steadily replacing Su-24s and older Su-27s in the Russian Aerospace Forces and naval aviation units assigned to the Black Sea Fleet.
There is cause for concern that long term Russia may need to resolve the fresh water crisis in Crimea, but no way to know how this situation will play out in the coming year. In May 2014 Ukraine blocked off the water supply from the Crimea-Dnepr canal that links the Dnepr river to the peninsula. Although Russia was able to quickly build an ‘energy bridge’ to supply power, and Kerch strait bridge officially opened May 2018 to commercial traffic, the water problem remains a potential cause of conflict (Jane’s here briefly summarizes the issue: Ukraine supplied 86% of Crimea’s water, and this summer there was an acute water shortage in about 20% of the peninsula). The fresh water issue is problematic, but I’ve found it to be overly spun as the next “land bridge to Crimea” narrative. The only sort of offensive military operation that makes sense is a thrust to the Dnepr river, which seizes the entire canal, and the southern half of Ukraine’s Kherson region. There is no way to take part of the canal since it is easily blocked at any point south of the river itself. In scope, this is about a 65-70km push, which is equivalent to depth of territory seized in the Donbas region. Kherson may be relatively easy to cut off, but it would require a substantial number of forces to effect this kind of operation and earn Russia an entire new host of problems.
Taking Kherson, like taking most any other Ukrainian region, is well within the realm of Russian military capability, but it would mean inheriting a new region which is also dependent on other parts of Ukraine. One of the obvious challenges Russia has faced in taking pieces of Ukraine is that it may seem easy to to dismember a country on a map, but in reality a state is full of integrated pieces that depend on each other for electricity, water, road networks, trade, supply of food, etc. Resolving the fresh water problem in Crimea by taking another region that would itself bring new supply challenges, and while it could probably be done relatively quickly, it would also require a substantial force build up and subsequent deployment. There are no ‘separatist’ or other volunteer battalions ready to take over internal security, man block posts, and create an entirely new line of control with Ukrainian forces. Also, there is the small matter than absent a ‘Kherson People’s Republic’ movement, there are no proxy forces behind which Russia can mask its invasion, and so this would have to be an overt, outright, and bloody business from the very start.
Russia could build up forces in Crimea relatively quickly, combining an air mobile airborne operation with a ground assault, but there would be indications and warnings. Unlike in February-March 2014, the West has a lot of technical and human resources now focused on the Russian problem set. Ground force movements, airborne unit shifts, forward deployment of several battalion tactical groups in Crimea, etc. These are regularly recorded by people, spotters, social media, and traditional news. Right now there is no evidence of such troop movements, though one should not discount a military solution to the water issue in 2019, but the entire scenario remains in the realm of low probability events.
Issue #3 Russian warnings and threats
Finally, Russian press statements by Lavrov, Naryshkin, Maria Zakharova are perhaps the most alarming, since they indicate a readiness of Russian forces to see through an escalation with Ukraine in the coming weeks or months. This of course brings us into the realm of political analysis and out of the world of military analysis. These warnings indicate the expectation of a conflict, with Russia positioning Ukraine as a the provocateur, something that’s become rote in Russian political statements. The messaging is probably not meant for domestic audiences, or Ukrainian audiences, but for the West, which Russian elites believe can heavily influence Ukrainian decision making. As such, they represent a pattern of thinking reminiscent of the run up to the 2008 Russia-Georgia War, reflecting the Russian perception that they can threaten the potential risk of escalation in order to get the United States to lean on what Moscow sees as Washington’s client state.
Russians do see Poroshenko as a provocateur, expecting him to “pull something” in the run up to the election, and engage in military posturing. Like many policymakers in the West, they are subscribers to diversionary war theory, which has little empirical basis, but is very much in vogue with political decision makers. Moscow thinks that Poroshenko needs Western attention on Ukraine, and the cheapest way Ukraine can achieve that is with a narrative that draws attention to the ongoing ‘Russian threat.’ Hence warnings of imminent danger tend to crop up every fall around November-December time. Putting aside the likelihood that Russia itself will execute some of the more dire plans discussed above, there is little incentive for Russia to launch any attack during the election as it would only benefit Poroshenko’s cause, in every scenario. That doesn’t mean it wont happen, because bounded rationality leads to outcomes akin to November 25th, i.e. one should not ignore the likely outcome of a chain of events that results in a conflict spiral between these two actors, but there is no sign that Russia intends to intervene in Ukrainian politics via overt military means.
There is a strong possibility of miscalculation, with January 2019 being different than previous artillery duels and skirmishes that have followed the last major operation in February-March 2015 (Battle of Debaltseve). Ukrainian forces have been slowly gaining ground in the ‘grey zone’ that exists between the two sides respective positions along the line of control in the Donbas. These steady gains are often referenced as the ‘creeping offensive’ to retake lost territory, leading to artillery duels with Russian backed separatists. Separatist units are organized and supported with logistics, technical capabilities like EW, air defense, and other equipment, by a contingent of Russian regulars in Ukraine stationed further behind the line of control. The daily exchanges of indirect fire often flare up after the holiday truce in January, particularly when one side decides to creep into the no man’s land between them, and shift the battle lines.
Russian controlled separatists have also played this game with Ukrainian forces for several years now, making small shifts in the line over the years. It’s what keeps this a hot war rather than a frozen conflict. However, there is a sense that Russia is spoiling for a fight – just one person’s opinion. Russian public statements are designed to paint them as the reasonable party seeking to deter potential Ukrainian adventurism, but in truth, it feels like Moscow is looking to bloody Ukraine at the first available opportunity.
It could be vengeance for Ukraine gaining autocephaly, splitting from the Russian orthodox church, or it could be that Moscow wants to show that it is unconstrained and feels free to use the military toolkit. The November 25th naval skirmish with the Russian FSB border guard service demonstrated that when pressed to make decisions in the moment, the Russian leadership turned what could have been a minor incident into a serious clash, overt, heavy handed, with disproportionate use of force. This is at best personal inference, but it is unlikely that Russia is planning an offensive operation to seize Kherson. It is more probable that Moscow is spoiling for a fight with Ukraine, with the intent of handing Ukraine and by proxy, the United States, a small but politically consequential military defeat.
After a few requests I’ve decided to do a quick take on the skirmish outside the Kerch strait between Russian border guards and the Ukrainian navy which has flooded the news.
On November 25th Ukraine’s Navy attempted to execute a planned transfer of two small armored artillery boats (Gryuza-M) and a tugboat from Odessa to Berdyansk in the Sea of Azov (through the Kerch strait). There are already two armored boats there, which were transferred inland, and a supporting ‘command ship’ was towed by the Ukrainian Navy earlier this fall through the strait. That transfer went unmolested though not without some publicity, and quite likely Ukrainians expected the same scenario – a grant of innocent passage an uncomfortably close escort by Russian patrol ships through the strait.
Ukrainian Navy’s first foray to establish a naval base inside the Sea of Azov, towing the command ship in.
On approach they twice radioed the Russian FSB Border Guard of their intention, but did not receive a response confirming passage. Upon arriving at the strait they were told the waterway was closed for security reasons, though no international notice of closure was filed by Russia, i.e. it was closed just for Ukraine’s small trio of boats. Then Russia’s coast guard ordered them to cut engines. A series of maneuvers ensued outside the strait.
One of Russia’s larger patrol ships, the Don, struck Ukraine’s tugboat (which actually appeared to cut engines and sit still)
Then he struck his flanking partner, the Rubin-class patrol ship Izumrud. Russia’s border guard service didn’t upload any videos of this one, but we will have to imagine what it looked like on the basis of the hull damage.
Someone hit him really high, about the height of the Don patrol ship
Russia blocked the bridge passage with a cargo ship. At first media got confusing reports that Ukrainian ships were let through, but actually it was a Russian minesweeper leaving the Sea of Azov. Then a pair of Ka-52 helicopters and two Su-25s appeared over the bridge to provide support.
After waiting for a boarding party of special forces (type unclear), Russian vessels pursued the Ukrainian ships, and a brief firefight ensued. Russians claim this was in territorial waters, Ukrainians claim it was not. Part of the contest may be rooted in whether or not you consider Crimea to be Russian, because a number of legal considerations stem from that position. Ultimately this was settled via 30mm automatic cannon. Russian patrol ship Izumrud opened fire with its AK-630 on the small armored boat Berdyansk, hitting it with 30mm high explosive rounds judging by the battle damage. The rest of the ships may have surrendered without a fight, and were taken back to Kerch port.
Holes in Berdyansk. Armor casing didn’t seem to hold the HE
Ships parked at Kerch
Some thoughts –
The Sea of Azov is a shared territorial water governed by a bilateral 2003 agreement and international treaties. Ukraine is entitled to innocent passage for military ships through the strait and does not have to present itself for Russian permission. However, since Russia annexed Crimea and built the bridge (officially opened in May) it has been asserting itself as de facto sovereign over the entirety of the strait, and imposing an informal inspection regime over maritime traffic. This has strangled commercial traffic to Ukraine’s port of Mariupol, and the bridge itself is too short for certain types of ships. In practice that bridge means that Russia can physically block whoever it wants from sailing into the Sea of Azov, and there’s not much Ukraine can do about it (equally skeptical on NATO’s options).
Ukraine likely sought to contest Russian efforts to impose a new status quo, establishing sovereignty over the strait and steadily clinching its grip over the Sea of Azov. Moscow wanted a public demonstration of the true balance of power. The clash on November 25th was brewing for some time – Russia’s Navy transferred ships from the Caspian Flotilla over the summer to the Sea of Azov, and Ukraine’s Navy was slowly doing the same via inland routes.
That said, this incident is the result of Russian adhocracy at its best, from the improvised decision making, to questionable seamanship, salty language on comms, and a lot of ‘who is where and doing what now?’ discussions. It strikes me as a poorly coordinated effort more than some brilliant trap laid for the Ukrainian Navy. Russian forces responded quickly, but they were reacting to the Ukrainian naval group – trying to make it appear a Ukrainian provocation and then improvising from there. One could argue otherwise, but then it begs the question why Russian special forces, helicopters, and aircraft were not already in the air and ready given they could have spent over a day tracking Ukrainian ships in transit.
Subsequently Ukraine’s government has imposed a partial state of martial law (30 days), for 10 provinces. I’m personally skeptical of the military utility or wisdom of Ukraine’s decision on imposing martial law, and side with those who think this is more political than anything else, but that’s another matter altogether. Meanwhile Russia is likely to trade the crews back after using them for PR. According to some blogs there were SBU counter-intelligence officers aboard the ships, which Moscow might hold to trade for its own intelligence personnel down the line, i.e. they will be convicted in some show trial and held for barter.
12/3/2018 small update – the two small armored artillery boats are now gone from Kerch while the tugboat remains
On the night of October 29th, Admiral Kuznetsov, Russia’s only remaining aircraft carrier nearly sank together with the dry dock it was inhabiting while undergoing overhaul and modernization in Roslyakovo (Murmansk region). Although Kuznetsov survived, with some degree of damage (extent unclear), Russia’s largest floating dry dock PD-50 is now completely submerged and likely to result in a total loss. The story is likely to become infamous in the annals of Russia’s notorious shipbuilding and ship repair industry, piling on to a spate of bad news regarding engine production for project 22800 missile corvettes, and delays in modernization timelines.
Kuznetsov is the Russian Navy’s most unlucky ship. The vessel has a reputation for killing carrier aviation, breaking down, lethal accidents on board, and major spills. There is something uncanny about this particular ship’s ability to wreak disaster. In this brief blog entry I will discuss what happened last night in Murmansk, and how Russia lost its largest dry dock in the north, which will undoubtedly result in delays for the overhaul and modernization of the Northern Fleet’s principal surface and submarine combatants.
PD-50 sinking rapidly next to the smaller dry dock PD-82
Kuznetsov was undergoing overhaul and modernization inside dry dock PD-50 at shipyard #82, owned by Rosneft. This is Russia’s largest dry dock, able to lift 80,000 tons, at 330 x 88 meters (working space 300m x 79m). It is one of the largest if not the largest dry dock in the world, and the only one of its kind in the Russian north, supporting the Northern Fleet. PD-50 was originally built by Sweden for the USSR (transferred in 1980), and often serves as the overhaul or repair shipyard for the Russian Northern Fleet – the dry dock regularly hosts several surface combatants and nuclear powered submarines at the same time.
PD-50 on a good day
According to the prevailing media narrative, Kuznetsov was being readied for launch when the dry dock lost power from shore, causing it to lose stability, list, and eventually sink. Supposedly wet snow and sleet led to a buildup of ice on the transmission power lines which created problems across Murmansk. There may have been a large power surge, resulting in the emergency shutoff of the pumps maintaining ballast on board PD-50. A different story holds that the power lines were severed resulting in an outage. Either way, the dry dock lost electricity and began to sink while holding the Kuznetsov.
Ilya Kramnik, a long time reporter on the Russian navy at Izvestiya wrote that according to his sources there was no plan to bring the Kuznetsov out of dock that night, and in fact it was a struggle to keep the ship from going down with PD-50. Of course the dry dock should have had its own independent electricity supply via four on board diesel power generators (the sort of thing that would have prevented it from sinking), but in the interest of cost savings and ‘efficiency’ the shipyard saw fit to reduce the crew responsible for power generation and not buy fuel for the generators. The rest of this sordid tale almost writes itself. PD-50 was entirely dependent on Murmansk’s power grid that night and when the power went out it began sinking.
Kuznetsov’s crew was busily trying to save the ship from flooding – the ship was not fully sealed and ready to leave to the dock at the time of the incident. As PD-50 listed heavily, one of the dock’s 50 ton cranes fell onto Kuznetsov’s deck, leaving a hole several meters wide. The carrier was ultimately saved and towed away to shipyard #35, while the dock sank entirely, with perhaps one crewman lost and three injured (as of this morning).
That looks like it may be the crane
A more recent photo shows the 50 ton crane now comfortably resting on the flight deck
Kuznetsov’s modernization will invariably be delayed. The only other option in Russia’s north is Sevmash shipyard, which is currently occupied by the modernization of Admiral Nakhimov (Kirov-class cruiser), and supposedly not wide enough at the entrance for Kuznetsov. There is an alternative large dry dock in Russia’s far east, PD-41, which services the Pacific Fleet and was originally built by Japan. PD-41 has similar characteristics to PD-50 and may prove Kuznetsov’s only possible alternative once the ship is ready to make the journey.
As of now, the Northern Fleet only has smaller dry docks available which can lift 30,000 tons. That’s still big enough for Kirov-class and Slava-class cruisers, or Oscar II submarines, but PD-50 could potentially hold two large vessels at a time. Russia’s Northern Fleet lost an important asset, which could have knock on effects on ship modernization and overhaul.
This is PD-50 now
The Kuznetsov survives, though the carrier is largely a white elephant with no real mission besides sustaining Russia’s fledgling carrier aviation, and projecting status, i.e. it’s primary mission is to exist. Meanwhile, the ship’s track record of bringing bad luck continues unbroken.
I’d like to close out coverage of Vostok 2018 with a brief summary and analysis of the exercise, which was written for Oxford’s CCW Russia Brief, Issue 3. I strongly recommend the issue briefs from Oxford’s changing character of war program, which feature some of the best experts on the Russian armed forces in the field.
Russia’s annual strategic exercises offer an important window into the evolution of the Russian armed forces, their ability to mobilize, deploy, and command large groupings of forces, together with the latest capabilities. The recently held Vostok-2018 (September 11-17), which as the name suggests focused on the Russian Eastern Military District, offered an important deviation from the typically held command-staff strategic exercise which the Russian General Staff organises every September. In a standard exercise, an operational-strategic command (OSK) takes in forces from other districts and fields them in a particular strategic direction, organizing a hypothetical fight together with the General Staff in the theatre of military operations (TVD). But in 2018, Vostok was changed into strategic manoeuvers. Under this framework two military districts, Central and Eastern, divided into opposing forces to conduct manoeuvers in different strategic directions. China’s official involvement in the annual exercises, which is a first, made the event politically significant in Sino-Russian relations, and a mutually agreed upon political signal send by both sides to international observers.
Unlike previous such exercises, Vostok-2010 and 2014, this event represents more of an “in-progress report” for the Russian armed forces. When he was first appointed Chief of General Staff in late 2012, Valery Gerasimov was dismayed with the Russian armed forces inability to move across the country and effectively engage in drills or training events at ranges distant from their home garrisons. The recently reformed military had become a permanent standing force, but it had little experience or credibility in being able to deploy to Russia’s borders in the event of conflict and successfully engage an adversary. The high tempo of snap readiness checks, drills, joint exercises, together with modernization investments under the State Armament Program, were meant to turn the Russian armed forces into a combat credible force, able to effectively deter large scale conventional conflict. Nowhere is this challenge more difficult than the Russian Far East, a vast region that is sparsely populated and lacks much transportation infrastructure.
Vostok-2018 was also as an opportunity for political signalling, featuring a large review of forces and photo opportunities similar to that of Zapad-1981. Russian pronouncements that the exercise would feature 297,000 soldiers – which would have been fully a third of the entire Russian military – was meant to underscore the state’s resilience and undiminished military potential in the face of political and economic pressure from the United States.
In reality, the exercise was rather smaller, probably not exceeding 50,000 participants (this is a guesstimate, use at your own risk) in the actual exercises, with most of the major events taking place at the Tsugol training range. The official numbers given likely represent the total forces on paper from the Central and Eastern Military Districts: often the Russian General Staff will count an entire brigade or division as having participated even when their contribution is only one unit. A large number of units were raised on alert on August 20th, in advance of the exercise, but few had any connection to the actual events. Official statements by Russian commanders also suggest that the exercise was much smaller in reality: Colonel General Alexander Lapin, commander of the Central Military District (CMD), stated that 7,000 troops participated at Tsugol from his district. Together with aviation and airborne units sent, it is unlikely that the CMD’s involvement exceeded 15,000-20,000 soldiers.
The reason for dramatically inflated figures for every Vostok exercise is straightforward: Moscow is unconcerned that announcing fantastical figures would engender a security dilemma in the region. Moreover, political agreements governing military exercises in Europe such as the Vienna Document have no jurisdiction east of the Ural mountains. As such, the Russian leadership can count unit participation however it likes, without stoking NATO fears. At the same time, including China in the exercise was a prudent measure to alleviate any inherent suspicions Beijing might have that these strategic manoeuvers were aimed at them, or a manifestation of Russian security apprehensions. Since most of the exercise events took place in Zabaykalsky Krai, a land-locked region bordering China and Mongolia, this was an important precaution. Moscow’s effort at engaging the Chinese military is quite clever, intended to foster greater partnership, engendering stronger military ties, while at the same time demonstrating to their strategic partners the capability of the Russian armed forces in an effort to bolster coercive credibility.
Vostok featured elements of both contact and non-contact warfare, from a series of attack, defence and flanking manoeuvers by battalion tactical groups, to blunting massed aerospace attacks, and effecting precision strikes against critical infrastructure at operational depths. Going into the exercise Valery Gerasimov said he wanted to see non-standard solutions practiced, code for the Chief of General Staff not wishing to see Russian units arrive at ranges to execute pre-rehearsed manoeuvers, i.e. put on a five-day bit of military theatre for him and Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu. It remains unclear whether or not he got what he wanted, but Shoigu indicated this type of exercise might be held every five years, pegged to implementation of the State Armament Program, the implication being that strategic manoeuvers would be used as a form of in-process review and reflection on the current state of the Russian armed forces.
Although every strategic exercise is designed to be a stress test for the Russian armed forces and supporting civilian agencies, Vostok had four principal areas of focus: logistics, mobilization, command and control, and tactical innovation. Emphasis was placed on the logistics, combat service support, and combat engineer components of the Russian armed forces. Command and control of forces in combined arms manoeuver, along with integration with other services remains a prominent feature, as does experimentation with the force structure itself. The Russian military continues to work on integrating recon-strike and recon-fire contours, connecting targeting in real time from drones, soldiers or aircraft, with artillery fires at the tactical level or strike assets distributed among the services. There was also a mobilization component aimed at taking in reservists to help fill out combat service support units and integrating civilian authorities into the exercise under the model that ‘everyone fights’.
Vostok was spread across five combined arms ranges, four air and air defence ranges, and several coastal regions in the Russian Far East. Ground force exercises featured large attacks with artillery and MLRS systems with targeting and battle damage assessments done via drone systems. River fording, bridging, masking of units with smoke and aerosol were all parts of the exercise to simulate the logistical difficulty of getting to the battlefield while under fire. Engineers also setup false targets, inflatable dummy units, practicing various forms of deception on the battlefield. The strategic nuclear component of the exercise involved flights by Tu-95MS bombers, which cut through the U.S. air defence identification zone, earning a free F-22 fighter escort before returning to fire cruise missiles at target ranges in Russia.
Efforts at innovation could be seen in the attempt by the airborne forces to create a new type of air assault detachment, together with an airmobile reserve based on heavy transport helicopters and light vehicles. Colonel General Andrei Serduykov, commander of Russia’s airborne forces, was trying new things this year by assembling battalions from three independent air assault brigades to practice large scale heli-borne attacks, some involved as many as 45 Mi-8 helicopters and two large transport Mi-26 helicopters in the action. The Russian airborne also conducted a sizable parachute drop, using 25 transports to deliver 700 soldiers and 51 BMD infantry fighting vehicles, while specialized light utility units were brought in as a ready reserve for the action. Russia’s Northern Fleet similarly brought a new force mix, including naval infantry and specialized units from its Arctic brigade, some of which conducted a raid in depth across as much as 270km of terrain.
China’s participation included some 3,200 soldiers mounted on tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, APCs and self-propelled artillery, together with 6 aircraft and 24 helicopters. Interactions between Russian and Chinese forces at the tactical level, assuming any serious collaboration even took place, seemed of lower import than the utility of this event as a form of political signalling. China’s Minister of Defence, Wei Fenghe, highlighted the importance of Sino-Russian cooperation at the operational and strategic level, while Shoigu announced that they had agreed to hold exercises regularly in the future. In a subsequent interview, Shoigu referred to the Chinese participants as allies. While it is difficult to interpret Vostok, or any other exercise, as a proof of a budding Sino-Russian entente, it is clear the two countries seek to demonstrate that they do not see each other as a threat.
While Western policymakers typically describe alliance formation as some sort of state-level dating, where relationships are formed based on trust, common values, similar political systems and so on, in reality this has little semblance to the history of how powers actually form alliances. Alliance formation behaviour takes place as a form of balancing behaviour in response to threats, therefore the only logical catalyst for a Sino-Russian entente is the threat posed by the United States, and the extent to which the two countries see their respective challenges as worth the risk and liability of closer cooperation. Having identified both countries as great power competitors in the National Defense Strategy, and practical measures to intensify the confrontation in economic and military domains, Washington has taken important steps to further enhance cooperation between its disparate adversaries.
Vostok-2018 strategic manoeuvers illustrate that while much progress remains to be made in improving the capability and capacity of the Russian armed forces, the military as a whole is increasingly greater than the sum of its parts, and certainly much improved from its relatively raw state in 2012-2013. Meanwhile Russian policy has become rather more deft in managing their ‘strategic partnership’ with China, seeking to leverage military events as part of a boarder effort to slowly and incrementally pull the latter into a balancing entente against the United States.