Nine years ago I started writing these pages. It’s 936 posts and almost a million views later. Not huge numbers but this is something of a niche. I usually content myself with the quality of readership rather than quantity. At any rate, I thank each of you for visiting and hope you’ve found information and insight here.
My intent has been to track, document, and maybe explain developments in Russia’s armed forces. Or sometimes even anticipate them and provide open source early warning of courses the Kremlin may pursue in military affairs.
Over nine years, Moscow has become less and less a potential partner of the West and more and more a possible adversary again. This has coincided with its military rebuilding efforts which did not begin to bear fruit until 2013 or 2014.
I consider myself neither Russophobe nor Russophile. In a lifetime of “Russia watching,” I’ve found things to love and respect as well as things to loath and abhor. Any attempt to understand the country and its peoples brings one into contact with much of each.
I don’t have the time I’d like for these pages, but I’ll keep writing as I can. It’s both my vocation and avocation.
I’ve endeavored to provide substantial and unique content and avoid items devoid of the same. But on this anniversary, I’ve created a new category for the dreaded “cheap post.” This will be its first entry.
Last week Russian General Staff Chief Valeriy Gerasimov addressed a variety of topics in his annual briefing for the Moscow foreign military attaché community. According to KZ’s coverage, he said Russia continues to work at manning Russia’s military forces at 95-100 percent of their authorized level.
On contract service — the Russian military’s longstanding attempt to recruit, train, and retain large numbers of enlisted soldiers to serve alongside one-year conscripts — Army General Gerasimov said:
“The number of servicemen serving on contract has reached 384 thousand. This has led to a noticeable qualitative growth in the combat capabilities of sub-units.”
“The transition to the new system of manning combined arms formations, and also naval infantry and VDV formations, with contract servicemen has enabled them to have in their composition the necessary quantity of battalion tactical groups ready immediately to fulfill their designated missions. A further increase in the number of contract servicemen is planned.”
Anyone studiously following the process of Russian military professionalization would notice that 384,000 is the very same number given by Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu almost exactly two years ago.
Just over a year ago, the head of the MOD’s NTsUO — charged with day-to-day monitoring of the status of Russia’s armed forces — said the number was 354,000.
The MOD’s announced goals were / are 425,000 contractees by the end of 2017, and 499,000 by 2020.
So we’re safe in concluding that Russia’s contract service program is treading water. It has stalled with just enough new recruits to replace those who don’t renew their contracts.
The lack of civilian employment for young men and the attraction of joining the military’s mortgage program are not enough to encourage the number of enlistees the MOD seeks.
It’s also clear (and not surprising) the MOD is emphasizing filling the ranks of its frontline combat forces — combined arms, naval infantry, and VDV units — with contractees.
Perhaps most interesting, virtually no Russian media outlet is calling the MOD out on contract service. Just this from Denis Mokrushin:
“If the media checked what was said, they would quickly find out that the officially declared number of contract servicemen has not changed since 2016, Shoygu and Gerasimov always give the same number. But every time they talk about it as if over the past year there has been an increase in the number . . . .”
An Interfaks-AVN source has told the news agency the fate of Black Sea Fleet flagship Moskva is undecided. For now, the cruiser remains at Sevastopol’s 13th Ship Repair Plant (13 SRZ) with a caretaker crew. And the Navy Main Command faces a complex choice.
Option 1 is a “deep modernization” costing perhaps 40-50 billion rubles the navy lacks. It would be “deeper” than Marshal Ustinov’s (which was really a protracted overhaul). The Northern Fleet’s Ustinov was laid up at Zvezdochka from 2011 until late 2016. But with Moskva, the superstructure would reportedly be modified to accommodate a VLS for the Kalibr-NK to replace the ship’s aged SS-N-12 / Sandbox ASCMs. But Moskva itself is already 35 years old.
Option 2 is scrapping Moskva. AVN’s source says this would be a blow to Russian and navy prestige, but he claims two new Gorshkov-class frigates (project 22350) could be built with funds not spent on Moskva.
In 2018, Moskva was expected to begin a three-year repair at Sevastopol’s Sevmorzavod — a Zvezdochka affiliate.
That three-year repair is actually Option 3, a middle point between “deep modernization” and scrapping. And it’s usually the choice settled upon.
Not mentioned by AVN is the 40-50 billion rubles for “deep modernization” is just a little less than what the navy planned to spend to return its Kuznetsov carrier to service (before PD-50 sank damaging the flight deck in the process).
Moskva was active in the Med supporting Russian operations in Syria from 2014 through early 2016, but has been virtually inactive since.
At some point, the navy will also have to decide what to do about the third and final Slava-class CG, the Pacific Fleet’s Varyag. It has 28 years of service and many miles under its keel.
While the Pentagon frets over its chances against China or Russia, Vzglyad’s Mikhail Bolshakov writes about why the Russian air forces would lose a battle with the United States.
Russia’s purported fifth-generation Su-57 fighter — yet to enter series production — might (as the VKS and OKB Sukhoy insist) be superior to American F-22 and F-35 fighters, but Bolshakov says the U.S. would still win.
Sukhoy chief designer Mikhail Strelets claims the Su-57 combines and surpasses the capabilities of the F-22 and F-35 in one fighter. The choice of the index 57 — sum of 22 and 35, he says, was a coincidence but still indicative.
However, Bolshakov points out, the U.S. has 187 F-22 and 320 F-35 aircraft in its operational inventory at present. Russia has no Su-57 fighters in line units.
The F-22 is 28 years old, and the F-35 at 18 is still suffering growing pains. And Russia, Bolshakov concludes, has clearly not lost its ability to design and produce modern combat aircraft. It built a competitive fighter in a short period of time.
Lacking U.S. levels of funding and with few rubles for weapons development, Russia adopted a “small step” approach. First and foremost, Sukhoy modernized existing fourth-generation fighter designs, developing “transitional” so-called generation 4++ aircraft on the base of the successful Soviet Su-27. This led to multirole Su-30 and Su-35 fighters and the Su-34 fighter-bomber. Rival MiG was not as successful updating its MiG-29 and that’s why the MiG-35 light fighter still hasn’t been produced.
Since 1991, Sukhoy has produced 118 Su-34, 630 Su-30, and 84 Su-35 aircraft. The problem is most of them were for export and didn’t go to Russia’s air forces. According to Bolshakov, Russia has 108 Su-34, 194 Su-30, and 70 Su-35. It’s not well-known how many of these aircraft are combat ready. So, even accounting for Moscow’s fourth-generation fighters, Russia’s air forces are significantly inferior in numbers to those of the U.S., and especially of NATO, he concludes.
Compounding the problem of low numbers is a tendency to spread new aircraft over the entire force, creating headaches in pilot training, parts supply, and maintenance and repair. Regiments have to plan for retraining pilots when they don’t know when they will actually get new planes. Meanwhile, they have to be ready for combat missions in the old ones.
In contrast to current practice of doling out new aircraft by the teaspoon, Soviet air regiments and divisions used to get dozens and hundreds, so in two or three years, units would be combat capable in new planes. Bolshakov writes:
“Today with bravado they announce supplies of two, three, four new aircraft to this or that regiment — not even squadrons! Of the entire regiment, in all several pilots learn the new equipment, the rest have to suffice with old, worn-out equipment.”
To top things off, most Russian air regiments since the mid-1990s have operated with two squadrons, not three as in Soviet times.
Bolshakov sums up saying the real equation is 187 + 320 = 0, and Russia’s task is to turn that zero into 50, 100, or 200 through consistent, well-planned efforts. The country needs to reequip its fighter aviation without “small steps,” “robbing Peter to pay Paul,” or “temporary solutions” that somehow become permanent.
The Russian MOD certainly doesn’t like to hear the state of affairs aired this way. But a journalistic smack-in-the-face is more realistic and useful than an entire collection of propagandistic Mil.ru, RIAN, or TASS reports on systems entering the forces today. Maybe the issue is political. The Kremlin doesn’t want the press saying that rearmament may not be going so smoothly.
Bolshakov wasn’t focused on the U.S., so leavening is required if we want some “net assessment” of air power. The quickest glance at the Western press shows the USAF has its hands full with keeping 50 percent of its F-22s flying at a moment’s notice. The F-35, more computer than plane, presents its own maintenance and readiness challenges.
Aircraft inventory is important, yes. But so are operational readiness, flying time, tactical training, and especially employment scenarios. The USAF is inherently expeditionary. It will fight in someone else’s backyard. Every battle will be an away game. Russia’s air forces will usually be right next door to any conflict involving them. And Russia’s tradition is more air defense and homeland protection.
Has a future Chief of the General Staff (NGSh or НГШ) appeared on the Russian military leadership horizon? Is it Aleksandr Zhuravlev?
RF President Vladimir Putin appointed General-Colonel Zhuravlev (zhu-rav-LYOV) Commander of the Western MD sometime prior to November 10. For more than a year, he’s been a rapidly rising star of the Russian Army.
Zhuravlev shaking hands with Putin in 2017
Zhuravlev replaced General-Colonel Andrey Kartapolov who became Deputy Minister of Defense and Chief of the Main Military-Political Directorate of the RF Armed Forces back in mid-summer.
Putin made General-Colonel Zhuravlev a Hero of the Russian Federation for commanding Russian forces in Syria in 2017 (he was also previously chief of staff in Syria). He served a stint as a deputy chief of the General Staff. He also briefly commanded the Eastern MD and led its troops during Vostok-2018. Those “strategic maneuvers” likely delayed his appointment to the Western MD.
Born in Tyumen oblast on December 2, 1965, Zhuravlev’s not quite 53. He graduated from the Chelyabinsk Higher Tank Command School in 1986. He served in the USSR’s Central Group of Forces (Czechoslovakia) for about eight years before returning to mid-career training at the Military Academy of Armored Troops.
In 1996, he was posted to the Far Eastern MD where he was a tank regiment and motorized rifle division commander.
He completed his senior training at the Military Academy of the General Staff in 2008. Upon graduation, he became Chief of Staff, First Deputy Commander of the 58th CAA in the North Caucasus (now Southern) MD.
In 2010, Putin appointed him to command the 2nd CAA in the Volga-Ural (now Central) MD. He became Chief of Staff, First Deputy Commander of the Central MD in early 2015. That posting led to Zhuravlev’s duty in Syria. The Central MD has been responsible for Russian operations in Syria.
Zhuravlev was chief of staff for Russia’s forces from the start. He commanded them during the second half of 2016 and for most of 2018. He basically never got settled in the Eastern MD before being moved to the Western.
General-Colonel Zhuravlev looks like he’s checked all boxes to become Chief of the General Staff at some point. A Hero of the Russian Federation . . . command of forces in combat . . . command of MDs . . . chief of staff assignments in Syria, Central MD, 58th CAA. Perhaps all he needs to spend a couple years actually commanding the Western MD.
But what of the current NGSh Army General Valeriy Gerasimov? He just turned 63. By statute, he can serve until he’s 65, but there are cases where general officers serve beyond established limits. A lot could depend on how long Putin intends for Sergey Shoygu to be Minister of Defense. Shoygu picked Gerasimov right away to replace his predecessor’s NGSh — Nikolay Makarov — in 2012. It’s hard to say when Gerasimov might go.
The current list of Russian three-star officers has less than 20 men. General-Colonel Sergey Surovikin is Zhuravlev’s most obvious competition. But is he a stronger candidate now that he’s getting the unusual chance to command Russia’s air forces, or was he shunted aside?
Among the others, at least five are specialists lacking experience commanding large-scale ground forces. Two are career staff officers without recent command experience. About six are so close in age to Gerasimov that they don’t really make sense.
Soon to be 57, Airborne Troops Commander Andrey Serdyukov is a possibility but he never commanded an MD. He was, however, Chief of Staff, First Deputy Commander of the Southern MD, and slated to command in Syria in late 2017 when a serious car accident derailed that plan. Andrey Kartapolov seems sidelined with Russia’s resurrected political officers, but he’s only 55, so it might be early to count him out. Similarly, Aleksandr Dvornikov is 57, was the first commander of Russia’s troops in Syria, is a Hero of the Russian Federation, and currently commands the Southern MD.
There are younger rising stars but, as general-lieutenants, most haven’t yet held a large command. But two are new MD commanders — Aleksandr Lapin in the Central and now Gennadiy Zhidko in the Eastern. At 53, Zhidko was a chief of staff in Syria, served a year as a deputy chief of the General Staff, and is a Hero of the RF. Lapin and Zhidko will probably get their third stars in December.
From what we can tell externally, it doesn’t appear NGSh Valeriy Gerasimov is going anywhere soon. But a change in the MOD’s top uniformed officer will probably happen overnight and take us by surprise. When it does, General-Colonel Zhuravlev might be best positioned to succeed him.
“Russia could shift to preemptive nuclear strike doctrine — ex-chief of RVSN”
“Retaliatory nuclear strike command and control system ‘Perimeter’ has been modernized”
“Moscow. 9 November. INTERFAKS-AVN – Russia could renounce its retaliatory strike doctrine in favor of a preemptive nuclear attack on a potential aggressor, if the U.S. deploys missiles on the territory of European states, said General-Colonel Viktor Yesin, who led the Main Staff of the Missile Troops of Strategic Designation in 1994-1996.”
“‘If the Americans start deploying their missiles in Europe, we have no choice but to abandon a retaliatory strike doctrine and move to a preemptive strike doctrine,’ V. Yesin said in an interview published in the weekly ‘Zvezda.'”
“He also said the Soviet-created ‘command’ missile system ‘Perimeter’ capable of transmitting launch commands to intercontinental missiles after an enemy nuclear strike on Russia has been modernized.”
“‘The ‘Perimeter’ system is functioning, and it is even improved,’ said V. Yesin.”
“Answering the question if the ‘Perimeter’ system can guarantee a retaliatory strike in the case of an enemy preemptive attack, the general said: ‘When it is working, we will already have few means remaining – we can launch only the missiles which survive after the aggressor’s first strike.'”
“The expert also stated that ‘we still don’t have an effective response to American medium-range missiles in Europe.'”
“‘Perimeter’ (in English Dead Hand) is an automated command and control system for a massive nuclear retaliatory strike developed in the USSR. According to open information, the ‘Perimeter’ system was created as a component part of the Airborne Command Post (VKP) system under the codename ‘Link’ developed in the Soviet Union.”
“The airborne command and control post on the Il-86VKP aircraft, airborne radio relay on the Il-76RT, silo-based command missile (KR) ‘Perimeter’ and mobile KR ‘Gorn’¹ were part of ‘Link.'”
“In a crisis period three Il-86VKP would have had the Supreme Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, Minister of Defense and Chief of the General Staff on board.”
“‘The aircraft didn’t have passenger windows so those on-board wouldn’t be blinded by the flash of nuclear blasts. Computers and communications were located in the nose. Two electrical power generators were hung under the wings. They guaranteed long operation of all aircraft systems,’ it says in a book from the series ‘World of Russian Weapons’ published in 2016.”
“At the determined moment the Il-86VKP would launch an 8 km long antenna which not even impulses from nuclear explosions could affect. Using this antenna the aircraft would transmit commands to launch all the country’s intercontinental missiles even in the event that all underground KP [trans. command posts] were destroyed by the aggressor’s nuclear strike.”
“The radio relay aircraft Il-76RT would transmit commands to launch missiles in distant regions, including those deployed on submarines in the Northern and Pacific Fleets.”
“‘Perimeter’ and ‘Gorn’ missiles could have transmitted missile launch commands when the aggressor had already delivered a surprise first strike and destroyed communications systems. The KR, having launched into space, where no satellite or enemy nuclear explosions could reach them, would transmit radio signals from there. The missiles ‘awakened’ by them would take off and strike the aggressor.”
“The ‘Perimeter’ missiles were reliably protected on the ground by concrete silos. ‘Gorns’ deployed on missile transporters permanently on the move.”
“According to expert assessments, the ‘Link’ system, including space KR, was one of the most important factors deterring the U.S. from a nuclear attack on the USSR.”
An interesting piece bringing Perimeter back into the news. Yesin calls the system Dead Hand. But he doesn’t describe how the system is engaged, any atmospheric, seismic, and radiation sensors, or ground-based command, control, and communications link monitors that some claim allowed it to function autonomously. Others assert these elements, though considered, were never incorporated into Perimeter.
Russian military commentator Viktor Murakhovskiy has pointed out that, even if the U.S. quits the INF Treaty, Washington is a long way from deploying new intermediate- or shorter-range nuclear missiles in Europe. So Yesin’s recommendation for a change in Moscow’s declaratory nuclear doctrine is premature.
¹ Command missile Gorn [trans. bugle, trumpet, etc.] had GRAU index 15Zh53 and deployed with Soviet SS-20 IRBMs.
In his short opinion piece, Klimov doesn’t systematically address the cost-benefit of Russia’s nuclear-powered submarine forces. But he has an opinion: their price outweighs their usefulness.
He’s not happy with what little he’s seen from the Borey and Bulava programs, but he seems to favor keeping a naval component in Russia’s strategic nuclear triad.
He’s not persuaded when it comes to SSNs.
Klimov states flatly that Moscow’s effort to modernize its third-generation attack boats has failed and it has turned instead to project 885/885M. But these fourth-generation subs are too expensive and too few in number. Producing them as an effective means of non-nuclear deterrence, Klimov writes, is beyond Russia’s economic capabilities.
While the 885/885M design might approach U.S. levels of stealthiness, they aren’t rolling out of Sevmash like sausages. Not even commissioned, Kazan will make two. Yes, two.
The U.S. Navy has had three Seawolf-class SSNs since 2005. It has 16 Virginia-class subs in service. Another is ready for commissioning. Nine, yes, nine are under construction. Ten Block V boats could be built in the 2020s. And the U.S. Navy also maintains a capable force of more than 30 Los Angeles-class boats. It has to. It confronts larger, more complex strategic challenges than its Russian counterpart.
From outside, we can only guess whether USN airborne ASW is as successful as Klimov claims. One would expect the FSB to inquire about his sources for this part of his story. Mind you, he was talking about P-3 Orion surveillance, not more modern and capable P-8 Poseidon aircraft.
That older combat systems have been used on the 885/885M, as he asserts, seems likely from past Soviet/Russian evolutionary practice.
Klimov’s recommendations, however, are more difficult to swallow. Redistributing resources from SSNs, which are becoming dolgostroi, to ground forces, surface ships, and naval aviation would be strange.
Spending less on subs in favor of the army could be a legitimate decision for Moscow to make, especially because the navy made out so well in GPV 2011-2020. But it also sounds like something green-uniformed guys in the General Staff might propose. It makes one wonder whether Klimov’s article was commissioned (by someone wearing green).
Proposing that money saved go to surface ships and aviation is puzzling. Sending more rubles down the surface ship “rabbit hole” is unlikely to produce better results. The Russian Navy has always been a submarine navy, and probably always will be (if it gets new submarines). Submarines suit Russia’s strategic situation and requirement to defend against seaborne threats to its continental theaters.
Klimov makes the valid point that Russia will need new weapons and systems for a true fifth-generation submarine. To put older ones into a new hull is to “lay down a growing lag” in the fleet, as he says.
But, from Moscow’s perspective, curtailing sub production risks falling out of the business altogether. Its industrial base for submarines isn’t doing well enough to take time off.
But Klimov’s article is Russian military journalism rarely seen over the past five years or so. He has dared draw conclusions (e.g. the failure of efforts to modernize aging third-generation boats) we haven’t heard from others.