Russian A2/AD: It is not overrated, just poorly understood

There were several articles in 2019 attempting to address the Russian anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) problem set, in my view an unfortunate term that got transported from the China watcher community and slapped onto Russia, even though it has preciously little application in Russian military strategy or doctrinal thought. In a late 2019 WOTR article, which proved quite long, I sought to tackle the operational level thinking in the Russian military for how different capabilities listed under the A2/AD umbrella are likely to be used, illustrating that no A2/AD defensive doctrine or strategy exists. Russian forces are organized around offensive/defensive strategic operations which do not suggest the intention to sit back in a defensive bubble and get eaten by a U.S. led aerosopace attack.

However, this post is about the tactical side of things, and a series of claims made by colleagues about Russian A2/AD capabilities being overrated that I think need addressing. Technology fetishism and threat inflationism seems to be giving way to a dismissive attitude in some circles which is equally problematic. In my view these capabilities are misunderstood. I will briefly tackle air defense and a couple items I think it’s useful to consider on this subject. Just to be frank, this is going to be fairly rudimentary because I’m not an engineer and math is not my preferred language – on the other hand readership dramatically declines with each math formula or table you include in a post.

The first challenge with Russian air defense is the almost wanton confusion between Aerospace Forces (VKS) fielded systems, ground forces fielded air defense systems (PVO-SV), and the Russian air force within the VKS, which is often missing from this picture. Basically, much of the writing presumes that Western forces can fight the S-400 on its own, and you have a number of reports from well meaning countries that attempt to simulate the battle of NATO versus Kaliningrad, as though Kaliningrad was a country and not a tiny grouping of Russian forces relative to the whole. Given Russian framing of any conflict with a coalition of states as a regional war, we need to think about how Russian forces organize for large-scale warfare in the TVD (theater of military operations), and in a geographical span running roughly from Norway to Turkey rather than some contrived pinky fight in the Baltics.

IADS belonging to VKS

Integrated air defense systems under VKS include the S-300 line of S-300PMU1/2, S-400, S-350 and point defense systems like Pantsir-S1. These systems are used to defend Russian critical infrastructure and ‘strategic deterrent forces’ assigned to execute strategic operations. They may cover Russian ground forces, but are not necessarily vested in defending them since the army has its own air defense component. While the S-400 may be ‘overrated,’ the echelonment of these systems creates layers of defenses at different ranges, but most importantly with different types of missile seekers. These systems provide overlapping coverage for maximum attrition, but what they really do is defend critical civilian and military objects at operational or strategic depths.

The 200km 48N6E2 and the 250km 48N6E3 is semi-active, but the much shorter range 9M96 series (60-120km) is active radar homing. The extended range 40N6 400km missile appears to have achieved initial operating capability, and also comes with an active radar seeker, although I’ve never seen the container for it. These systems excel at medium-high altitude, while the active radar homing missiles pose a challenge for pop-up attacks, low-flying aircraft, or helicopters. We will touch on low altitude penetration a bit later.

Although there have been claims that you can simply take out one engagement radar and thereby neutralize an entire battery of 6-8 TELs, it’s not clear that this is remotely true. That would somewhat defy the concept of integrated air defense and it’s probably not quite that simple given the proliferation of automated systems of command and control at all echelons of the Russian armed forces. It would be safer to assume the Russian VKS thought of that and there’s a Plan B + Plan C to ensure redundancy.  This assumes that TEL #1 can only talk to fire control radar A, but cannot communicate with fire control radar B assigned to TEL #9, even though there are dedicated C3 vehicles deployed with them to enable high bandwidth communication.

Typically these systems are co-located with Pantsir-S1 batteries which provide defense against cruise missiles, and missiles intended to take out the S-400. There will also be plenty of EW systems to make life more complicated and effect disorganization on the incoming aerospace strike.

Pantsir-S1

The main problem for Russian air defense is stealth and saturation. The former can offer considerable standoff relative to the effective engagement range, and the latter can simply overwhelm with munitions, decoys and drones. Low observation characteristics substantially reduce the effective range of fire control radars, which means that most of the range rings shown as ‘angry circles of death’ are meaningless. This is part of the reason why there is no Russian strategy based around bubble defense, because it’s not really possible against 5th gen, and even less so against cruise missiles. Hence there is no area denial, and not necessarily anti-access either – think more attrition, disorganization, and deflection.

However, statements about the advantage of low observation aircraft should come with caveats. Stealth does not mean invulnerability. The proliferation of increasingly mobile low-frequency Russian radars, like Nebo-M, which operate in the L-band, VHF, and UHF, means that stealth aircraft can be seen, just not necessarily engaged. These radar systems used to be quite large and clunky due to the antenna aperture required, but are now far more portable with shorter setup times. That said, any air defense network starts to develop gaps once you take down enough radars.

Most of the arguments about a Russian A2/AD strategy based on zonal defense amount to defense intellectual gobbledygook attempting to portray Russia as 1973 Egypt (limited offense followed by area defense). Here is a good example of how Russian writing depicts the problem of deflecting and attriting an aerospace attack. Note the emphasis is on the stack of threats in the aerospace domain, from low-altitude to space based assets, and the ability of Russian air defense to defense critical infrastructure/strategic deterrent forces.

Arsenal Otechestva Effektivnaya Razvedka Protivnika
Arsenal Otechestva – Effektivnaya Razvedka Protivnika
Militarizatsia Kosmosa Neisbezhna
Militarizatsia Kosmosa Neisbezhna

Reading Russian military thought articles on the problem of U.S. massed aerospace assault, and the damage that numerous long range precision guided munitions could inflict, one gets the impression that they understand where things stand perfectly well – and they don’t like it.

That leads us to the second problem, the air force component of the Aerospace Forces, which is probably somewhere in the range of ~800 tactical aircraft. The majority of these have been modernized or replaced with new variants 2011-2019. These fighters are an integral part of the Russian air defense network, and will be looking to engage any aircraft penetrating it, which will be seen on low frequency search radars whether they are 5th gen or 4th gen.

A fair bit of writing presumes that one can perform a SEAD or DEAD mission, tackling VKS owned IADS separately, while the entire Russian air force sits parked and waits for its turn to fight, which is unlikely. Russian fighters will naturally fill the corridors or gaps between Russian air defenses, and will be guided by radar systems that can see low observation aircraft. The Su-57 seems well suited for that role. The limited availability of AWACS aircraft (A-50U) in the Russian air force is an enduring issue, but Russian fighters are primarily guided to intercept via ground control stations utilizing ground based radar. The air defense system as a strategic network is really a combination of radars, integrated air defense, tactical aviation, and missile defense.

Here is a list of aircraft deliveries I pulled from BMPD’s recent update.

Aircraft deliveries

My sense is that the 5th gen versus modern IADS + air force is the sort of thing that will either go really well, or quite poorly, without a lot of in between. Either way the Russian air force is likely to preemptively conduct its own aerospace assault, as part of the strategic aerospace operation, and together with long range aviation wipe out as many air assets as possible on the ground (covered in the WOTR article). Cruise missiles don’t really care if you have 4th gen or 5th gen on the runway. Remove air refueling and AWACS from the picture, things start to get less rosy.

What about Low-Altitude?

It has been asserted that one could simply negate the range of many of these systems with low altitude penetration, going in old school to negate the advantage of long range radar air defense systems. One can understand the visual appeal, complete with Kenny Loggins’ Danger Zone playing in the background. There are a few problems with this theory. The first is that 5th gen aircraft are optimized for the medium-high altitude penetration mission – stealth loses a lot of its value if you can literally see the plane and shoot it down with almost any type of short range system (SACLOS/IR/SPAAG/bow and arrow).

It’s not clear to what extent any Western air force, with the exception of Israel, spends much time training for low-altitude penetration, and while the aircraft can do it, many pilots probably cannot. Without training, nap-of-the-earth flight is likely to result in disaster before Russian air defense can even have a chance to shoot something down.

The second problem is that it’s not a cure-all given many Russian radars are found raised on masts, plus most Russian systems carry a shorter range active radar seeking missile variant. As the S-350 proliferates in the VKS, and the Buk-M3 in PVO-SV, this will become even more of a problem. Naturally the earth’s curvature dramatically affects radar range against a low flying target, but there is a great deal of complexity that goes into assessing a radar’s effective targeting range over the horizon – especially since atmospheric conditions and terrain play an important role. I’m an expert on none of these things, but Russian search and fire control radars frequently come mounted on 24 or 40 meter masts. We should ask why.

5N66+5N63-40V6MD-Mast-1S

Some basic calculators I found online show that all things being equal against a target flying at 100 meters your targeting range from a 5 meter height is only 27km, but from a 24 meter height you get 62km and from a 40 meter height 67km (hopefully I got those right). I’m not a radar expert, but the Russian military likes to put them on telescopic masts for a reason. If you can see the air defense radar in a 4th gen aircraft then it can probably see you. This problem might be solvable by pop-up attacks when dealing with semi-active radar missiles, but then you have a batch of 9M96 active seeking missiles to deal with because the radar only needs to see you for a brief amount of time and the missile seeker will figure out the rest of the problem.

s-300pmu-battery-ll

It is also worth mentioning that the proliferation of Russian over the horizon radar systems pose a challenge for launching an aerospace attack undetected at any altitude. The relatively short range Podsolnukh-E, which uses the ocean as a conducting surface can see 450km out and being deployed with every Russian fleet. Strategic OTH systems like Container are located deep inside Russia and can see most of Europe’s airspace at ~3000km range. This simply means that Russian VKS will see an aerospace attack coming whether it is high, medium, or low altitude and without that element of surprise you get more attrition.

The last problem is that by avoiding VKS IADS an aircraft may quickly become best friends with Russia’s PVO-SV.

The PVO-SV problem for low or medium altitude

Air defense units belonging to the Russian land forces (PVO-SV) do not need VKS IADS, because they carry a thicket of their own air defense systems to cover the maneuver formations. These include Tor-M1, Buk-M2, various radar assisted gun systems, and MANPADS. The problem with attempting low altitude penetration or close air support against Russian ground forces is that they have a very high density of short range air defense systems able to reach to medium altitude.

Newer systems add to the challenge. Buk-M3 is much more capable than its predecessors, with active radar homing missiles (70km on 9R31M), a separate radar that can be raised on a retractable mast, and a containerized missile for quick reloads. These more capable systems are to be found in air defense brigades include S-300V4 and Buk-M3, while M2 is probably going to stick around in air defense regiments/brigade. Almost anything in the PVO-SV arsenal can shoot down cruise missiles, although that’s not their primary mission.

Bukm3
Buk-M3

Meanwhile S-300V4 is really the mobile missile defense system for the Russian ground forces, designed to provide standoff capability against high value aerial assets like AWACS, or jammer aircraft. In terms of capability this has always been a more interesting system than the S-400, because of its ability to engage ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and maneuverable aerodynamic targets. This system was deployed to Syria, and largely unnoticed given the fixation on the S-400. Antey fielded a 400km missile against low maneuverability targets, 9M82 ‘Giant’, well before the 40N6 went into development for the S-400. The 9M83 ‘Gladiator’ missile is comparable to the 48N6 line, and the system components are tracked which makes them quite mobile. S-300V4s are due for an upgrade, and will be bought in increasing numbers for Russian air defense units assigned to fleets. I would watch this space – PVO-SV is going to get a lot more capable in the coming years.

S-300v4
S-300v4

Wrapping up

So Russian A2/AD is overrated in large part because of our own technology fetishism and terrible understanding of how Russian forces are actually organized. It does not exist as a doctrine, or a military strategy, but we should not over simplify the discussion in attempts to debunk the tactical capabilities of Russian military technology. All you have to do to achieve air dominance is eliminate the VKS radars, the low-frequency radars, and the Russian air force – then you’re largely ok right after dealing with the countless PVO-SV air defense systems. Assuming you don’t run out of munitions early on into this process, or aircraft, and all the high value enabling platforms do not get attrited, then it’s a manageable problem.

In some respects Russian IADS are a sort of McGuffin plot vehicle. As long as time and munitions are spent on them, Russian critical objects are safe, and one way or another the IADS end up executing their mission – which is not to defend themselves but to defend that which is strategically significant for the success of operations in the TVD.

In my view the balance of aerospace assault vs air defense remains offense dominant (I understand offense/defense dominance is not a thing because Keir Lieber says so), but  that is probably not enough to offer confidence in the initial period of war. The problem is that Russia’s military has always seen defense to be cost prohibitive, and there for focused on an offensive damage limitation strategy + functional defeat of the adversary. So whether you think Russian A2/AD systems are amazing, or overrated, just remember – there is no such doctrine or term in the Russian military and the conversation misses the plot on how Russian forces actually organize at the operational-strategic level.

For a better, but longer explanation on operational level organization in the TVD, and Russia mil strategy check here.

The Ogarkov Reforms: The Soviet Inheritance Behind Russia’s Military Transformation

Reposting this article from Oxford’s Changing Character of War Programme latest Russia issue brief, just released this week. I encourage taking a look at the article compliation in these briefings, because CCW’s work typically includes some of the best analysis on Russian defense, strategy, economic or energy issues.

Since late 2008, the Russian military has undergone a period of sustained reform, and modernization to compensate for almost twenty years of divestment which took place after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Much has changed during the initial reform period under the then combination of Minister of Defense Anatoly Serdyukov and Chief of General Staff from 2008 to 2012, and again subsequently under the new tandem of Sergei Shoigu and Valery Gerasimov since 2013. Implementing reforms to previous reforms is a Russian tradition, but the vision being executed is born of a deeper intellectual pedigree. The modern Russian armed forces owe a great deal to the current generation of military leadership, which disbanded the remnants of the Soviet mass mobilization army. But, in truth, it owes far more to the intellectual heritage inherited from the late 1970s through to the mid 1980s when Marshal Nikolai Vassilievich Ogarkov served as Chief of the Soviet General Staff.

The most recent decade of military transformation would be better known as the “Ogarkov reform inheritance”, since it represents the successful implementation of a vision he had for the Soviet armed forces in the early 1980s, which was only partly realized during his tenure. Looking across the changes implemented in the Russian armed forces, from the flattening of the command and control structure, to the execution of complex exercises with combined or inter-service groupings from different military districts, the deployment of recon-strike and reconfire loops, the integration of combat branches and arms around strategic operations in the theater of military operations, and the increasing emphasis on non-nuclear strategic deterrence, we can see that Ogarkov’s intellectual children have come home. This is not to dismiss the lasting influence of Mikhail Tukhachevsky, Alexander Svechin or Georgii Isserson, whose writing is also used to underpin modern military thought. But none of those men lived through the Cold War, and many of the current ideas or concepts take their heritage from the Ogarkov period.

Ogarkov was a technologist at heart, arguing for a revolution in military affairs in 1982, to reshape the Soviet armed forces with a new generation of technology. Many of the latest weapon systems deployed in the Russian military date back to the 1980s in terms of design, and were conceived as answers to the capabilities then being deployed by NATO. More important, though, is the doctrinal thought that the Russian General Staff has visibly inherited from him, which drives the development of capabilities and concepts of operations for their employment, i.e. the Russian way of war. The goal is to establish a balanced force, consisting of general purpose forces for warfighting, a non-nuclear conventional deterrent, a capable non-strategic nuclear force for escalation management, and a credible strategic nuclear deterrent.

ogarkov-2.jpg

It was Ogarkov’s vision to establish high readiness combat groupings of mixed forces, able to conduct defensive and offensive strategic operations in a theatre divided along strategic directions. This was the model for large-scale combat operations that has so heavily influenced latter day Russian planning for Joint Strategic Commands (OSK), combined arms armies as operational level headquarters, and the formation of high readiness combat groupings along said strategic vectors.

In his time, Ogarkov sought to reform how the military approached war at the operational and strategic level, unifying the work of the service headquarters and the general staff. His goal was to integrate services that they could create operational level groupings composed of combined arms units, which today is realized best at the level of the combined arms army. According to Makhmut Gareev, Deputy Chief of General Staff at that time, Ogarkov centered the General Staff as the ‘brains’ of the Soviet military. He sought the integration of air defense and the air force, seeing air power as decisive in the initial period of war, without which ground forces cannot effectively advance. Seeing the U.S. way of war as aerospace blitzkrieg, the Russian military has made air defense a strategic operation, unifying air defense, missile defense, and tactical aviation under the Aerospace Forces (VKS). In his own time, Ogarkov lost the fight internally to combine air defence and the air force as institutions, but, in the end, he served as progenitor for a reorganization of Russian air power and air defense around strategic operations to deflect U.S. aerospace attack (the Russian air force and aerospace defence forces were merged in 2015 to create the Aerospace forces).

It was Ogarkov who, together with other notable Soviet military leaders, such as Viktor Kulikov, Sergei Akhromeev, and Valentin Varennikov, restored operational-strategic and operational level training at the General Staff, with large scale command-staff exercises designed to explore operational art, and develop military strategy. Of particular note were Zapad-81, Vostok-84, Dozor-86, and Osen-88, testing concepts such as the Operational Manoeuvre Groups, reconnaissance at the tactical-operational level, destruction of enemy formations with fires and electronic attack through the depth of their lines.

Zapad 1981
Zapad 1981

Under recent Russian Chiefs of General Staff, including Yuri Baluevsky, Makarov, and Gerasimov, there has been a resurrection of the influence of annual strategic exercises, together with a robust annual training cycle, to work out questions of operational art, mobility, mobilization, service integration, and so on. Consequently, today the Russian armed forces, while not the largest they have ever been, are at their highest state of readiness in decades, beyond that of the Soviet military in the 1980s.

Ogarkov is equally notable for what he opposed. For example, he argued against the USSR’s habit of spending large sums of money on civil defence. In his view, the USSR was burying its money in the ground by arming civil defense units with vast quantities of obsolete equipment. Instead, he wanted to rearm the Soviet military with the next generation of conventional weapons, thus restoring its conventional military power after Khrushev had invested heavily in nuclear weapons in a bid to reach parity with the United States.

Like any good land force officer, Ogarkov was critical of the Soviet Navy’s megalomania, especially its desire to build a vast surface combatant force without the infrastructure to support operations. He singled out the Navy’s desire to waste money on aircraft carriers in an effort to match the United States. Although the Russian Navy may never be cured of such aspirations, in practice it is transitioning to a capable green water force with a more practical set of missions and a host of new capabilities to implement them. Still, if Ograkov had had his way, the Admiral Kuznetsov heavy aircraft cruiser, perhaps the unluckiest ship in the Russian Navy and notorious killer of naval aviation, would never have been built.

Perhaps most importantly, Ogarkov understood the chief problems of the Soviet military, which in the 1980s had fallen behind in communications, reconnaissance, battle space management, targeting, automated systems of command and control. These problems were demonstrated repeatedly in Chechnya, and finally in the RussiaGeorgia War of 2008. The modern Russian military has worked to solve the hereditary blindness of the Soviet Union, and is increasingly able to find, fix, and finish targets at tactical and operational depths, while implementing new systems of command and control across all echelons.

Ogarkov observing 1981.png

Although Russia retains its traditional military strengths in firepower, mass, and warfighting at the operational level, the Russian General Staff has now come a long way towards implementing Ogarkov’s vision of conventional warfare driven by information, real-time integration of fires and strike systems with intelligence and reconnaissance assets. From this, one can see the evolution of Russian combined arms maneuver enabled by noncontact strikes, fires, and a growing share of precision guided weapons added to the legacy heavy firepower mix.

Ogarkov’s view held that the military should not be employed to resolve cases that were principally political crises, demanding political solutions. He was publicly opposed to the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. This characteristic hesitancy to employ conventional military power has to some extent stayed in the Russian political and military leadership, typically exhausting other instruments of national power to achieve political objectives, and methods that fall short of war, prior to the introduction of high end conventional military power.

Nikolai Vassilievich was also one of the first senior Soviet leaders to conclude publicly that political victory in a nuclear war was impossible, instead seeking answers to what Soviet leadership at the time called the ‘independent conventional war option’. Under his leadership, the USSR began to develop concepts for a high intensity conventional war without depending on nuclear weapons, as a riposte to similar developments taking place in the U.S. establishment that culminated in the development of the AirLand Battle concept. As Ogarkov pursued this military transformation, however, his vision proved to be a costly strategy at a time when the USSR was in economic crisis instead seeking to reduce the unsustainable costs of military competition.

The present day Russian General Staff envisions a capable general purpose force, together with a non-nuclear deterrent that is able to deliver tailored or prescribed damage against critical objects of political, economic, or military significance. Rather than compete with NATO in long-range conventional weapons, an unwinnable contest not only for Ogarkov’s Soviet Union but also today’s Russia, the military has chosen an approach based more on reasonable sufficiency. Where Ogarkov had the right idea but wrong scope and execution plan, was in seeking to match U.S. technological might in a large-scale conventional war. It was overly symmetric, and economically ruinous. It also made less sense given that the USSR never believed that a war between nuclear powers could be kept conventional.

Given an asymmetry of interests at stake, in most crises the Russian military thinks it can meet the requirements of strategic operations with a much cheaper ‘strategic’ conventional deterrent, because its coercive impact would be greatly magnified by the presence of a capable non-strategic nuclear force. The latter can be employed as part of scalable nuclear operations in theatre, from demonstration employment to escalation management, or warfighting. This vision evolved from the early 1980s debates of Ogarkov’s General Staff, with an important caveat: while Ogarkov did not believe that nuclear weapons could be used as an instrument of policy in practice, it is unclear that the current Russian military leadership shares such views given the somewhat different nature of the stakes in the contest.

The Russian General Staff has made considerable progress in building a military to answer the technological advancements and the concepts of operations developed by the United States in the 1980s and 1990s, i.e. what they perceive to be the modern character of war. It was largely Ogarkov’s answer – a military transformation envisioned by the USSR General Staff in the 1980s, even as the Soviet Union itself hurtled towards state collapse. Albeit fitful and perhaps incomplete, the restoration of Russian military power was decades in coming, and now it is here. Whether the United States will be able to successfully adapt to these developments, innovate, invent, and evolve where necessary, remains the open-ended question for our generation of analysts and strategists.

There’s a great deal more that could be said of Ogarkov’s influence, ideas and legacy, so this is an abridged exposition. Comments and feedback are always welcome.

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

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

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

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

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

Read the rest here.