BACKGROUND: The military exercise itself was unusual in the lack of advanced warning to units involved; only after orders arrived from the General Staff did commanding officers commence the task of raising their units to full readiness and relocating to a designated point. More than 7,000 servicemen participated with several hundred pieces of hardware and up to 48 aircraft. Maintenance personnel in the 4th Air Force and Air Defense Command were praised, alongside a VDV battalion tactical group (BTG) drawn from the 98th Airborne Division. This force is also assigned to the CSTO Collective Rapid Reaction Forces. Likewise, the VTA was considered to have performed their mission well, using 20 Il-76 transport aircraft to airlift the VDV unit in severe weather conditions 100 kilometers from Ivanovo to the Chebarkul training ground in Chelyabinsk Region.
However, reflecting on the exercise the Chief of the General Staff, Army-General Valeriy Gerasimov presented a litany of failure and lamented the equipment weaknesses confirmed during the surprise inspection. Gerasimov complained about ageing BMD-2s in the VDV inventory, which are 20 to 25 years old. Problems were detected in Mi-8, Mi24 helicopters, Su-25 aircraft, Msta self-propelled artillery and R-168-5UN radios. The Chief of Staff said these were among a few examples of equipment related drawbacks. Some air assets assigned to the exercise remained grounded, as Gerasimov later said that only 66 percent of such air assets remain serviceable.
Gerasimov used his videoconference with senior Russian commanders to criticize the defense industry. On the Volk armored vehicle, originally earmarked for introduction into the Armed Forces by 2010 and plagued by numerous setbacks and delays, Gerasimov explained that the vehicle is not operational across twelve key indicators, and implied the project could be scrapped. On the BMD-4, which the command of the VDV has heavily lobbied to procure, Gerasimov expressed surprise that only three can be loaded on an Il-76 and that with their crews sitting inside the vehicles, each weigh 14.2 tons. In his view, too frequently the domestic defense industry fails to design and develop the hardware required by the Russian military.
On this basis, Gerasimov ordered commands to study the results of the surprise inspection, in order to implement corrective measures, and promised that more such inspections will occur in the future. In his criticism of personnel and repair and maintenance capabilities, Gerasimov highlighted, albeit inadvertently, the low level of strategic mobility in the Russian Armed Forces, and his comments singled out Central MD and the 201st Military Base in Tajikistan.
IMPLICATIONS: In addition to pinpointing equipment-linked issues and personnel challenges in the future development of the Armed Forces, strategic mobility was also a major concern for the General Staff. This relates to the ability to move units and equipment at speed from one part of the country to a crisis zone and deploy and sustain these forces in combat operations over time. And it is precisely in this area that the exercise demonstrated the limited power projection tools at Moscow’s disposal during a future crisis within Central Asia.
Gerasimov confirmed that personnel in the exercise demonstrated low shooting skills in weapons handling, even extending to tank crews. Most units were given a “satisfactory” grade in this area, which Gerasimov considers to be a damning indictment of the 2012 graduates of military schools. Such weaknesses were also evident among armored vehicle and tank drivers. At command level, officers struggled to use the prototype automated command and control (C2) system to issue orders. The Chief of the General Staff castigated the personnel in the 28th Motorized Rifle Brigade (MRB) in Central MD, which would play a critical supporting role during Russian military operations in Central Asia. And communication was singled out as a major weakness at the 201st Military Base in Tajikistan, which is placed under the Central MD, where telephones went down and other C2 issues emerged. During the SCO Peace Mission exercise in June 2012, the 201st Military Base had to be reinforced ahead of the war games by personnel from the 28th MRB.
Returning to his themes of identifying hardware issues and tying this to the condition of the defense industry, Gerasimov explained that BMD-2s broke down and could not be repaired. It is common, in Gerasimov’s opinion, for platforms provided from the defense industry to break down within their first few months in service; equally the capacity of repair and maintenance depots to carry out timely overhauls is a cause for concern.
Indeed, despite reforming the combat service support system in 2010, the reformed structures still struggle to carry out all but the very basic repair tasks. In the combined-arms brigades repair and maintenance battalions can only handle around five percent of hardware repairs, with most being sent back to repair depots. 99 percent of electronic or computer linked repair and maintenance cannot be handled at battalion level and has to be returned to depots. Deputy Defense minister Dmitry Bulgakov promised further reform of the “repair and reconstruction” battalions by June 1, 2013, in order to become capable of carrying out their own basic repair and maintenance work; only medium sided repairs and overhauls would involve defense industry enterprises. These personnel challenges greatly reduce the capability of the combat service support to sustain Russian combat power in theater for a protracted period.
CONCLUSIONS: While many of the problems exposed during the inspection of combat readiness were predictable, a number of factors confirm the on-going weaknesses of Russian military strategic mobility; this has important implications for Russian security policy in Central Asia. While the BTG performed well, and the VTA moved these forces quickly over distance (100 kilometers), these forces are lightly armed and in any case would be “first-in” during military operations. VDV units may be moved by air, but the Ground Forces brigades with organic heavy equipment require ground lines of communication (GLOCs). Russian troop deployment consequently remains heavily tied to the railroad system. But the problems encountered in C2, standards in combat training linked to firing or driving skills, combined with the lack of contract and specialist personnel all serve to restrict Russia’s power projection options.
Yet, the severe skill shortage among the combat service support units further exposes the limitations of harnessing hard power during any regional crisis. These organizational weaknesses will take considerable time to redress. Such exercises show that the General Staff is aware of these challenges and wants to use the motif to correct existing failings. But for the foreseeable future, Moscow cannot risk military deployment in Central Asia where there is any likelihood of the timescale becoming elongated.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Roger N. McDermott is an Affiliated Senior Analyst, Danish Institute for International Studies, Copenhagen and an Advisory Scholar: Military Affairs, Center for Research on Canadian-Russian Relations (CRCR) Georgian College Ontario, Canada.