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.

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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.

Rethinking the Structure and Role of Russia’s Airborne Forces

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.

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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.”

can't assault an enemy airbase without a photo

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).

 

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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.

VDV praciting loading

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.

airborne repellingairborne ATVshelicopter units

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.

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VDV with tanks in Afghanistan

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.

Emerging Russian Weapons: Welcome to the 2020s (Part 1 – Kinzhal, Sarmat, 4202)

Vladimir Putin’s speech on March 1st revealed a number of seemingly new or emerging weapon systems, some of which were known to be in testing, while others may come as somewhat a surprise. However, most of these ‘new weapons’ are long running projects, systems thought to be in development, or testing. Some had not shown themselves in quite some time, while others have never been seen, although there were reports of their tests in public releases or official statements. The weapons represent a mix of hypersonic missiles, hypersonic boost-glide vehicles, traditional ballistic missile projects, and third strike vengeance weapons on the basis of Russian advancements in nuclear technology. Here I will briefly cover Kinzhal, R-28 Sarmat, and ‘4202’ – the rest of the more fantastical weapons will come in Part 2.

But first, a brief comment on the overall presentation. The speech itself felt like a “послание” in more than one meaning of that word for those who speak Russian. It was certainly a ‘challenge accepted’ message from VVP, in part responding to the NDS and NPR. After a good run through new and seemingly fantastical capabilities, VVP returned to the subject of Russia’s military doctrine, nuclear policy, and the like. So, aside from domestic politics, there is a fair bit of coercive diplomacy in the message, from talking about the capabilities themselves, to Russian resolve, and concluding with assurances that all will be well if nobody gets into it with Russia. Moscow understands the audience well: nothing gets the attention of U.S. policymakers like nuclear weapons, and there is one person in particular in Washington who is readily impressed by videos of missiles. The graphics were not exactly Lord of the Rings quality, but what can you do, Russian MoD has to live with budget reductions since 2015.

This was my overall impression listening to the speech and the vision it offered.

Deathstar Russia

Now, back to the missiles. A number of the more futuristic projects can only be characterized as semi-rational, in the sense that a fair bit of defense procurement is semi-rational. There was a need to support various design bureaus, Russia’s nuclear energy industry, and a long standing narrative about the need to penetrate a missile defense system the U.S. does not have (and probably after 30 years of copious amounts of funding still won’t have, because Russia is hardly the only country that suffers from semi-rational defense spending).

There is no way to intercept Russian ICBMs, and with the upgrades to penetration aids they’re already implementing, Russia can ensure the viability of its deterrent for decades to come. This is not to mention recently deployed air launched cruise missiles like Kh-101/102. The ticket price of upgrading strategic nuclear weapons for better penetration, i.e. the offense, is just incredibly lower than the cost of trying to mount any viable defense. Statements on the various projects on March 1st can best be summarized as true lies, that is their stages of development are likely exaggerated, but none of what was said qualifies as science fiction either.

Mainstream media coverage, and experts quoted have been rather dismissive of Putin’s presentation. That is an unfortunately common but foolhardy reaction, and its almost habitual. Observers are right to say that these technologies will take considerable time to test and deploy, but what some may not recall, because investment in Russian military analysis took a vacation 1992-2014, is actually when testing and development for these weapons began. The narrative of a sanctioned, economically weak and decaying Russia tends to prevail, but it comes with blinders on the issue of military technology. Yes, they can do this, and much of this may become reality in the 2020s. Recall awhile ago when Russian MoD leaked a slide on Status-6, many observers thought it was a PR stunt, and some kind of bluff, until it showed up in the NPR. Some thought T-14 Armata was a bluff, and made of cardboard, that ‘often wrong, but never in doubt list’ of expert dismissals is fairly long.

Aeroballistic Missile Kinzhal – the air Iskander

Kinzhal

The shown missile is a substantially modified version of the Iskander SRBM, with Mig-31 serving as the boost phase, providing a high  altitude launch at supersonic speeds (recommend A. Ramm and Bogdanov for good reading). This is far from the first missile design to leverage Mig-31s performance in speed, takeoff weight, ceiling and combat range. Kinzhal is an operational-tactical complex, able to reach hypersonic speeds, a 2000 km range – although some suggest it is closer to 1500 km. According to official statements this missile can reach mach 10 and can conduct high-G maneuvers on terminal approach. I’m skeptical of the former, that is it likely can do mach 10 at early stages of flight, but then reduce speed for terminal maneuvers. The latter makes sense, because OTK 9M723 Iskander SRBM was designed to make random maneuvers in order to make its flight path difficult to intercept.

Kinzhal is quite shorter, with smaller control surfaces, and a narrower nose. Gen Sergei Surovikin, head of Aerospace Forces (VKS) said the designation for this missile is Kh-47M2 (although earlier forum sources put it as (9-С-7760 – missile, 9-А-7660 – complex). Iskander, referenced as 9M723, can reach 350-450 km depending on payload, if launched at supersonic speeds from high altitude it stands to reason that a modified variant can achieve a substantially increased range. VKS should be happy since Mig-31s are technically under their service arm, and one of the few types of aviation they actually control. This gives them a new standoff weapon, and better chances at an anti-ship mission.

Kinzhal is new, but according to A. Ramm and others, the concept initially surfaced 8 years ago. It has since then been mentioned by experts like Pyotr Bukowski in 2017. Given Iskander-M is considered to be a dual-capable replacement for Tochka-U, though its principal mission is conventional, there is ample reason to believe that the same nuclear warhead can be deployed on Kinzhal. Guidance is an interesting question, supposedly it can actively home on targets, and has scene matching as well. How that comes together at hypersonic speeds is a question, but more than likely this weapon is capable of very complex flight profiles. At least it is advertised with different seeker heads, one for traditional air-to-ground work, and the other as an anti-ship weapon.

Readers will recall that Raduga’s Kh-15 (AS-16 Kickback) aeroballistic missile from 1980s was allegedly quite fast, perhaps reaching Mach 5. Kinzhal might have more power than the original Iskander too. Russia’s MoD has plans to upgrade the current Iskander-M, improving range, so a Iskander-M2 is in the offing already for the ground forces.

Kinzhal anti-ship.JPG

I’m skeptical of the claim that this weapon has already begun combat duty in the Southern MD, which sounds like a ‘true lie,’ but it is probably the closest to operational deployment among weapons mentioned. One should not be surprised to see this in Syria at some point. Rumor has it the new GPV 2018-2027 plans to upgrade up to 50 Mig-31s to carry this missile. If anything, this weapon is ideally suited for the Pacific theater, where many Mig-31s are based, and in the anti-ship role, as it will prove incredibly difficult to intercept. I will add, there’s been no news of Tsirkon (a hypersonic cruise missile in development) since last year, principally for the anti-ship role. In 2017 everyone was advertising their goods to get funding in the new GPV, but since then Tsirkon has gone a bit quiet.

Added another photo after more videos came out.

Кинж

 

R-28 Sarmat – heavy ICBM replacement for R-36M2 Voyevoda (SS-18)

Sarmat 2.jpg

R-28 Sarmat is a liquid fueled heavy ICBM designed to have high throw weight, deploying multiple warheads and numerous penetration aids. Although often touted as being a 200 ton replacement for SS-18, there’s a lot of conflicting information, some of it suggesting that its actually much closer to the weight of the SS-19, that is towards 100 tons. Earlier information suggested this was a 106 ton missile with a throw weight of 4350 kg. As a silo-based ICBM, SS-18 could deploy 10 warheads, but was designed and produced by Yuzhmash in Ukraine SSR. Hence Russia had an obvious problem, not only is this aging missile fielding a substantial percentage of the currently deployed force under New START, but it was still serviced and maintained by Yuzhmash.

Currently, Sarmat is about 2 years behind schedule based on the contract initially signed in 2011. The last ejection test was in late December 2017, which seems to have gone successfully, with two more planned for early 2018. Sarmat features prominently in the new state armament program so there’s every reason to believe that it will be completed sooner rather than later, but in the end this is rocket science, not basket weaving. Suffice it to say, this missile is nowhere near serial production or operational readiness. Problems in Russian industry when it comes to missiles, rockets, and space lift, tend to stem less from S&T and more from production quality of complex components. This was at the heart of Bulava’s spotty test record. I’m also skeptical of the south pole trajectory shown in Putin’s address, implying it could be a fractal orbital weapon. In the end, we have to wait for the actual parameters of the missile to become public (100t or 200t ?), because Russian officials have a long established problem with numbers – whether lies, truth, or self-PR, rarely does anyone in Russia give the same figures for anything.

Capture

Sarmat is possibly the least interesting item shown during the weapons menagerie. More puzzling is that little has been said about RS-26 Rubezh, which has stayed out of the news for some time after initially being tested as an ICBM and classified as such. Russian MoD needs to do a ‘where are they now’ catch up segment on some of these systems.

Gerasimov’s face during Sarmat video expresses how I felt.

Gerasimov's face during talk of Sarmat

Avangard or 4202 hypersonic boost-glide weapons

During the address, Vladimir Putin said that they couldn’t show the actual video of the rocket being used, and hence the name reference to Avangard is rather confusing. Avangard was a project mentioned back in 2011 by Serduykov and some sources incorrectly suggested it was based on a modified RS-24, which was made by MIT, whereas 4202 has been a well known hypersonic boost-glide program and is regularly mentioned as being tested on УР-100УНТТХ, which is made by NPO Mashinostroyeniya. The video during Putin’s presentation shows UR-100 (SS-19 Stiletto) as expected, besides being associated with 4202 – this ICBM also forms the basis for two successful space lift variants ‘Rokot’ and ‘Strela.’ The concept involves using an ICBM to boost a vehicle to near orbital speed, then it descents and adjusts flight profile at some altitude where there is still minimal atmospheric resistance into a sustained hypersonic glide, with the terminal phase being dive to target.

Borrowing this graphic

HTV-2.jpg

First mention of Russia’s hypersonic boost glide program, and tests using UR-100, actually goes back to large scale RVSN exercise in 2004.  This, like Kinzhal in 2008, is to give the reader some indicator as to how long these programs have been in progress so as to remove any confusion about the proposition that VV Putin ran out of things to claim and is now making all this up. USSR had ideas about hypersonic vehicles back in mid-1980s, so this is hardly a new concept.  N. Surkov has a good article on the program here, adding that 4202’s flight control system was made in Ukraine, and needed replacing after the war. According to Surkov the vehicle is boosted to 100 km altitude and then glides down, perhaps at 5-7 km per second, those could be just official stats though, just like when Shoigu liberated 500,000 sq km of Syria.

The idea behind 4202 is Russia’s version of Prompt Global Strike, except this system is intended to be an air defense penetrator carrying a strategic nuclear warhead. The vehicle being tested is analogous to U.S. Hypersonic Test Vehicle 2. Russia’s military continues to imagine a distant future where BMD is able to intercept their second strike, and therefore sees value in an expensive program to deliver nuclear weapons via a boost-glide vehicle. Although this threat perception is not too different from our oft advocated need for a new B-21 stealth bomber, since the current $2 billion B-2 is going to be defeated in some future where stealth is no longer viable. How Russians talk about the capabilities of U.S. missile defense to justify programs, and how Americans talk about Russian integrated air defense when it comes to B-21 and LRSO, has quite a bit in common.

obj 4202

A. Ramm has one of the best articles with details on 4202. A R-36M2 silo (listed as object 370) is being used to test 4202 (the complex is often referenced as A35-71. The UR-100 in question, together with 4202 on top of it, fits into this R-36 silo because it is designed for a missile that is 7 meters longer. Earlier mention of Avangard on a RS-24 based missile seems incorrect, unless this is a different system altogether, but in my view 4202 and Avangard are the same. Ultimately R-28 Sarmat is the most logical carrier for this hypersonic vehicle. UR-100 is the current test missile for 4202, while Yars or Topol lack the throw weight for such a weapon, but because UR-100 is too old, it means that R-28 Sarmat is the only perspective ICBM ‘booster’ for this weapon when/if it is completed. Before anyone chimes in that these things take a long time to develop, remind them that R-28 contract was signed 2011, and 4202 began testing 2004. So perhaps we will be seeing both by the mid-2020s?

Bottom line: there remains a strong emphasis on non-contact warfare, particularly tactical operational and operational-strategic weapons, along with dual-capable standoff systems. Even if the rationale of U.S. missile defense doesn’t hold much logic behind it, Russian leadership continuously thinks about a future where their strategic deterrent is somehow compromised, and this threat concept is rather convenient to justify a host of next generation technology programs, delivery systems and the like. Where there is capability in long range precision guided munitions the short coming often ends up being capacity. These are not bluffs, the question is less whether they can make it work and more of ‘how many can they afford.’ The upcoming GPV 2018-2027 will focus on increasing munition stocks and bringing to fruition several new standoff missiles – Kinzhal is just one among several projects. More in part 2 on Dr. Strangelove weapons.

Beyond the bad graphics, there is a real vehicle somewhere in testing, though it likely has a long way to go.

4202 video.JPG

In one brief graphic its even dodging numerous missiles that appear to be GBI interceptors, so there are two fantasies playing out in this image

past gbi

Comments and suggestions are welcome.

U.S. Strikes and Russian PMC Casualties in Syria – Fact vs Fiction

It’s become common knowledge that a U.S. strike took out an advancing column of Syrian forces on February 7th in defense of SDF positions east of Deir ez-Zor, and more likely to protect U.S. SOF embedded with them. Since then the story of Russian casualties among supporting PMCs (mercenaries belonging to private military companies) has proliferated across the internet and newspaper articles, with many of the facts and figures inaccurate. I’ve seen 100 dead, 200 dead, 600 dead, dozens, hundreds, scores of dead, and so on and so forth. Unfortunately Russian casualties, troops participating in military exercises, or similar such events have a large “applied internet multiplier” whereby they increase several fold depending on the source. By current figures many of those involved in the fighting February 7-8 were killed at least twice, if not multiple times.

Due to a lack of credible information serious newspapers are citing some Russian businessman, a Syrian commander, and all sorts of other conflicting sources. The contradictory stories are reminiscent of Akira Kurosawa’s famous film Rashomon, where every character has their own often self-serving narrative about the same event. After a journalist called this morning to inquire whether it is true that U.S. airpower took out 20% of Russian ground forces in Syria it seems time for something sensible to be written on the matter. I’m updating this a bit as better information comes out.

Based on the information available at the time I wrote that actual casualties among PMCs in this episode are likely somewhere on the order of 13-15 dead and a relatively equal number wounded. Initial reporting seemed closer to a dozen than dozens. The casualties  from this strike are spread between a Syrian unit known as ISIS Hunters (~20 KIA) and the bulk among SAA units which seemed to include some percentage of local fighters from the area (these numbers might be around 40 or more). There was word of a Syrian brigadier killed as well along with the SAA soldiers. More than likely this was an unit from Syria’s 5th Assault Corps supported by PMCs. The 13-15 PMC casualties are also not all necessarily Russian, but thus far all the confirmed dead are. A good number seem to be Cossacks, and many are fighters who previously were part of separatist formations in the Donbas, either directly on behalf of DNR or under contract as mercs.

I am very biased towards conservative assessments based on the information that can be confirmed, and makes sense, i.e. I prefer starting low and working my way up. In this case it seems that the less probable event was true, the number of Wagner mercenaries killed was much higher than I initially thought.

On Feb 16 I updated the count after more information and some additions from fighting February 10th. The better number increasingly looked like ~40 dead and 70 wounded as in MK article. I’m more inclined towards MK numbers in this graphic than any of the other figures, but it is still too low an estimate. Those are figures for combined casualties, referencing 3 companies of Wagner involved in support of Syrian forces. Of these the number of PMCs killed and wounded is probably more than a dozen but doubtfully exceeds 30-40 (or so I thought). Today the more realistic number is somewhere between 100-200 killed in that engagement.

MK article here: http://www.mk.ru/politics/2018/02/13/pogibli-40-raneny-72-istochnik-v-chvk-vagnera-utochnil-poteri.html

A good source comparison chart to figure out where all these numbers are coming from can be found here: https://chervonec-001.livejournal.com/2227259.html

This is a photo of ISIS Hunters holding a funeral following the strike

ISIS Hunters funeral

The KIA count may go up depending on the fate of the wounded. There is a general assumption based on the evidence that the few PMCs killed belong to Wagner ChVK, as Wagner is the principal mercenary group fighting in support of SAA in Syria. As is often the case, facts point to a much less exciting and sensational story behind the headlines.

According to DoD statements, and those by SecDef Mattis, the attacking force approximated ‘300 pro-regime forces’ in a surprise push towards SDF positions on February 7. Thus, the fantastic figures of hundreds dead, including Igor Girkin’s 644, can be safely thrown out the window. Somewhere on the order of 200 dead is also improbable unless the numbers for those attacking were much higher than being reported by the American side. The U.S. would have to kill literally everyone involved, and that seems quite a reach for typical rules of engagement. But it seems the numbers were somewhere 100-200 after all, that is the reporting from Russia and numerous sources suggest the U.S. intentionally under reported Russian PMC casualties in this fight. Either that, or the additional fighters died from poor morale after seeing the strike.

Later on, DoD statements elaborated that the attack came evening of Feb 7th, and it included a ‘dismounted battalion sized element’ which was turned back. So this is somewhere on the order of 300-500 attacking but they only had contact with a part of the force. The difference in the numbers between Mattis’ initial 300 and LTG Harrigan’s battalion is in the leading half of the battalion, which dismounted (200-300), that U.S. forces struck and most of the casualties were among this element.

Since LTG Harrigan indicated the attack was not unexpected, and they observed the buildup for some time (https://www.defense.gov/News/Transcripts/Transcript-View/Article/1441080/department-of-defense-press-briefing-by-lieutenant-general-harrigian-via-teleco/), it explains better how so many assets were involved in beating back the assault – MQ-9, F-15E, F-22, even B-52 and AC-130. B-52 in particular would take some time to arrive on station. This suggests the U.S. knew the attack was coming, and they told the Russians they knew, and the action went forward anyway.

This episode appears to have taken place around Al-Tabiyeh east of Deir ez-Zor. Syrian forces began an attack on SDF positions, with armor and artillery. Then U.S. forces made contact with Russian MoD to deconflict, and after being told there were no Russian soldiers there, which by all accounts there were not, they struck the advancing units. So, initially I thought total casualties were probably less than 100 with a approximately 40 SAA, 20 ISIS Hunters, and 13-15 PMC split (although unclear if SAA losses include ISIS Hunters losses in which case it might even more conservative). Now looking back, that was grossly conservative. Somewhere between 100-200 were killed, many of them Wagner fighters, that is more than the 42-70 estimate from the MK story.

The exact reason for why this episode took place is naturally unclear, but it may be connected to the overall friction between Syrian forces wanting to seize energy infrastructure, gas and oil, from SDF forces. The latter took it from ISIS, and of course need the resources, just as the Syrian regime needs the money to sustain a rump state. There are also Russian interests there looming in the background, among people interested in contracts handling Syrian energy extraction post-conflict, and hoping that PMCs can secure potential energy cash cows. This episode may be due to poor coordination, deliberate probing, or as often happens in war – a confluence of events yields compound risk as mistakes and misjudgments stack.

From higher altitude, the U.S. has a strategy to maintain presence in Syria via SDF, and Russia has a strategy to make the regime as viable as possible financially, while pushing U.S. proxies further east. Astride the war between Turkey and Kurds playing out in Afrin, the war between Israel and U.S. vs Iranian presence in the south, this is technically Syria’s war #3 which involves Russian forces backing SAA to retake more of Idlib and gain ground east of Deir ez-Zor.

P.S. Behind this tale is another looming story about some Syrian T-72 that was taken out by a U.S. MQ-9 Reaper drone in defense of SDF positions and embedded U.S. advisers (internet can’t decide if its Russian or Soviet made). Actually on the video available it first looked more like a T-90, supplied by Russia to Syria’s 5th Assault Corps. There is an object right of the gun that looks like a Shtora system than IR illuminator from T-72BA – but this was not the case. https://www.military.com/daily-news/2018/02/13/us-mq-9-reaper-takes-out-russian-t-72-tank-syria.html (I got this photo from the same article)

Looking at it some more later the V barrier on the front seems to point to T-72M, which is the more probable answer. This is is from Feb 10 fighting.

DoD video shows a U.S Air Force Reaper strike on a Russia-made T-72 tank. (Screen shot of DoD video)

We stand by to find out from the internet whether this particular tank was filled with hundreds of Russian PMCs or personally driven by Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu.

Figures compiled from a few news sources like Novaya Gazeta, Meduza, etc. some blog sources that are ‘pro-Russian’ but fairly well informed on the situation in Syria, work put out by CIT, other journalists/experts currently working the issue)

https://www.novayagazeta.ru/articles/2018/02/13/75496-oshibka-ili-predatelstvo

https://www.novayagazeta.ru/news/2018/02/12/139439-cit-uznala-imena-pogibshih-v-sirii-boytsov-chvk-vagnera

MK might have the best sources: http://www.mk.ru/politics/2018/02/13/pogibli-40-raneny-72-istochnik-v-chvk-vagnera-utochnil-poteri.html

Oryx probably took number of dead and did standard 3x wounded multiplier, which makes sense.