Category Archives: Force Structure

Airmobile Groups

An airmobile group

The Ground Troops of Russia’s Southern MD are resurrecting airmobile groups. Recent Mil.ru press-releases have highlighted them. Though clearly still developing, they are far enough along to advertise them.

Shortly after the December 1 start of Russia’s new training year, Southern MD Commander General-Colonel Aleksandr Dvornikov declared that every battalion, regiment, brigade, and division in his AOR will establish and train airmobile groups.

He continued:

“Up to 40 helicopters of various designations — strike, combat-transport and transport — must support the completion of the combat-training missions of each company tactical group.”

Forty helos is a stiff requirement even for the Southern MD with a brigade plus two independent regiments of rotary wing air support.

Airmobile groups have been established in the Volgograd-based 20th MRB. According to Mil.ru, they have spent a month on the Prudboy range training for tactical air assaults, employing helicopter fire support, landing on different terrain day and night, and using night vision goggles.

The 150th MRD in Rostov oblast has airmobile groups. Mil.ru reported on Mi-8AMTSh Terminator helos flying in support of them. The site indicated that the groups are outfitted with the RPG-7B, AGS-17 Plamya grenade launchers, 2S12 Sani mortars, Igla (SA-18) MANPADS, and Belozer satellite comms.

Mil.ru showed the 136th MRB’s airmobile groups with buggy-like light vehicles.

Airmobile group with ATVs

Airmobile groups sound like platoons, so several groups will probably constitute a company-sized unit for divisions or brigades.

In Soviet times, combined arms armies also had airmobile battalions.

Russian divisions and brigades won’t own helos to support airmobile groups. The MD commander, leading the joint strategic command (OSK) in his AOR, will task his air force component to support them.

Some Soviet divisions and armies had organic squadrons and regiments with Mi-8 and Mi-24 helicopters.

New Russian airmobile groups may not become named TO&E elements, but remain motorized rifle platoons or companies with training sufficient to be designated “airmobile capable” — if only parenthetically.

There’s significant history to this story. The Russian Army lost ownership of its aviation in 2002 when the General Staff gave it to the air force. But, in 2010, all theater air assets came under control of the OSK commander — a Ground Troops general. Then, in 2013, the army surrendered its three air-assault brigades to the Airborne Troops.

So the formation of airmobile groups may be, at least partially, about Russian ground pounders reclaiming some air support and airmobile missions from the other services.

Vertical envelopment wasn’t forgotten in Russia, it just became the exclusive province of the VDV, and to a lesser extent Spetsnaz and Naval Infantry, for a while. General-Colonel Dvornikov appears to be leading the charge to reinvigorate air mobility as a facet of the Russian Army’s tactical doctrine.

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Tanker Shortage

Russian aerial refueling

Writing in Izvestiya on December 26, Ilya Kramnik concluded that a shortage of aerial tankers is damaging the readiness of Russia’s air forces. He makes a convincing argument that Moscow has upgraded its air power but failed to provide the logistical support to operate it successfully.

The last half of his article is translated below.

“The New Reality”

“The fact that the country didn’t have the money to maintain large air forces to ensure the necessary composition of forces in any direction¹ became clear in the 1980s, and by then all future multipurpose fighters and frontal bombers had gotten the requirement for aerial refueling in their technical tasks. The transfer of aviation units from one direction to another, including with the help of aerial refueling, looked like a quicker means to support the concentration of forces than a transfer using intermediate airfields, and certainly much cheaper than maintaining the necessary number of aviation groupings in all directions.”

“The USSR’s collapse ruined practically all plans to renew military aviation, but in the end new aircraft entered series production. Besides Tu-160 and Tu-95MS strategic bombers, A-50 AEW aircraft and long-range Tu-142M reconnaissance aircraft kept in the order-of-battle, Su-34 frontal bombers, Su-30SM, Su-35, MiG-29SMT fighters being built for the Russian air forces today are being equipped with aerial refueling systems.”

“The above-mentioned Su-24M, Su-24MR reconnaissance aircraft, MiG-31B fighter-interceptors, including also the modernized MiG-31BM, were equipped with these systems. Of course, the fifth generation Su-57 fighter is also outfitted with an aerial refueling system.”

“Of the more or less new aircraft not having the refueling system were several dozen modernized Su-27SM, and the largest number of ‘unrefuelable’ frontal aviation aircraft are the Su-25 attack aircraft.”

“One way or another, the Russian air forces made into part of the Aerospace Forces [VKS] in 2015 have hundreds of aircraft equipped with the aerial refueling system, and this number is growing. Most likely, judging by everything, even though earlier deprived of this capability in the framework of strategic arms limitation the Tu-22M will receive it during the modernization of the Tu-22M3M variant. Besides this, the ‘strat’ inventory will grow also on account of restarting Tu-160 bomber production in the Tu-160M2 variant.”

“But there are no tankers. All this grandeur falls on one regiment of tankers with 15 Il-78 or Il-78M aircraft built on the base of the Il-76 transport aircraft.”

“The prospective growth in this number doesn’t inspire optimism because of the extremely difficult development of the new Il-76MD-90A series viewed as a platform for a tanker, and the air forces’ demand for transport aircraft themselves, and for airborne radars being built on this platform, the number of tankers clearly won’t turn out to be large. It would be optimism to suppose that the United Aircraft Corporation could deliver more than fifteen Il-78M-90A aircraft over the next 10 years, which in the best case would allow for increasing the number of aerial tankers in the air forces to 30 aircraft, including the Il-78 and Il-78M aircraft it already has.”

“Alternative Decisions”

“And 15 or 30 tankers is very few considering that the number of aircraft capable of being refueled in mid-air will grow. Moreover, taking into account the shrinking inventory of military-transport aviation, it’s possible that refueling will be required for them in the future in order to increase the inventory’s capabilities without increasing its numbers.”

“In the final accounting, even the USA with its greater military budget practices the refueling of transports, while the typical distances of a possible transfer in Russia’s case can turn out to be a little shorter.”

“Air forces strategic mobility is one of the main priorities of military organizational development, the transfer of aviation units across the entire country is a characteristic sign of the greater part of large exercises over the last fifteen years, and aerial refueling is an integral part of these exercises. So the tanker inventory isn’t enough and can’t be enough under present circumstances, as Izvestiya’s interlocutor in Russia’s VKS described the situation.”

“Tankers are actively used in the course of the Syrian campaign, to support the transport of equipment from Russia to Syria and back, as well as in place: it’s well-known that fighters and bombers regularly carry out missions while on “air patrol” requiring many hours of loitering over the combat area.”

“In conditions of growing activity by Long-Range Aviation, and also the deployment of Russian air units in the North and Far East with their huge expanses, the requirement for tankers has become greater still, both on the strategic and tactical levels.”

“One variant for fulfilling this mission is a return to earlier put-off plans for the production of a tanker on the base of the Il-96 airliner. In the event that the military department turned again to it, this would allow for solving two problems: both to justify expenditures to restart the Il-96 without making it into a commercial airliner for civil aviation, and also, possibly, to avoid the requirement to use Il-76MD-90A platforms as tankers.”

“A potential tanker based on the Il-96, given its dimensions and cargo capacity, could meet the requirement of strategic aviation in the future with an order volume in the realm of 30-40 planes in the coming fifteen years.” 

“On the tactical level it would be possible to use existing the Il-78/Il-78M, given the essential repair and modernization of these aircraft, and besides this, the existing Il-76TD/MD aircraft in storage which haven’t used up a significant part of their service lives and allowing for reworking into Il-78M variants could act as a reserve. This would allow for growing the Il-78M inventory sufficiently quickly by several dozen aircraft.”

“In the event the condition of the Il-76 ‘from storage’ is too poor to use it as a tanker, more exotic but fully realizable decisions are possible: for example, development of a Tu-204S ‘tanker’ variant — the cargo version of the Tu-204/214 aircraft, the passenger cabin of which in this case will be used for the placement of additional fuel tanks. This is an established and serially produced type, on which the fuel supply of the tanker variant could exceed 60 tons, that will fully guarantee the requirements of tactical aviation.”

“Since the presence or absence of tankers of a such class can determine the presence/absence of multipurpose fighter squadrons at the necessary place at the necessary time, similar projects have direct economic sense, allowing us to not chase after the number of extremely expensive modern combat aircraft (of which quite a lot are required), increasing the capabilities of aviation sub-units by buying relatively cheap (compared with combat aircraft) aerial tankers based on commercial aircraft.” 

“There is a need for this in any case, with the current number in the tanker fleet its capabilities are largely nominal.”

Kramnik makes good (and obvious) points, but there are other things worth knowing to be thrown in here.

The day after Kramnik’s article, Ulyanovsk-based Aviastar-SP announced that its “convertible” Il-78M-90A tanker has entered flight testing.

Il-78M-90A

Presumably the Il-78M-90A is the same as the new Il-76MD-90A, but equipped to accommodate fuel storage tanks in its cargo bay and refuel other aircraft when not deployed as a transport.

TVZvezda offered video from inside the new transport/tanker.

Visiting Aviastar in August, Deputy Defense Minister and arms tsar Aleksey Krivoruchko said the Russian MOD is considering a contract with the firm for 14 Il-78M-90A tankers to be delivered by 2027. He also indicated that number might grow.

So Kramnik’s call about maybe getting to a fleet of about 30 new and old tankers sounds about right. But, as recently as 2013, the Russian air force was talking about acquiring 30 new tankers.

By the by, the USAF operates something north of 450 tankers, and that’s counting only KC-10 and KC-135 aircraft.

¹ Направление or direction in the military sense of a strategic axis or the Soviet/Russian concept of western strategic direction, south-western strategic direction, etc.

Return of Independent Spetsnaz Companies

Tayfun-K armored vehicle

Tayfun-K armored vehicle

On December 19, a Mil.ru press-release reported that a special designation (Spetsnaz) sub-unit has joined one of the Western MD’s two combined arms armies. It’s easy to guess the unnamed army is the 20th CAA pointed at Ukraine in Russia’s south-west strategic direction.

Russian armies lost their independent Spetsnaz battalions/companies at some point after 1992. They were a luxury no longer affordable in the 1990s and 2000s. But Soviet combined arms and tank armies always had one or the other, but most often a company.

The independent company of special designation (orSpN or орСпН) was typically formed and trained in a Spetsnaz brigade (four battalion-sized units called special detachments) before assignment to a large formation. The independent Spetsnaz company had over 100 personnel organized in a command element, four Spetsnaz groups (grSpN or грСпН), and communications group (group effectively being a platoon). The commanding officer was a major (O-4) or promotable captain (O-3).

The mission of the orSpN, in support of the army commander’s objectives, is long-range reconnaissance and operations behind enemy lines to destroy or disable his tactical nuclear weapons and precision strike systems, and disrupt his C3 and logistics.

Independent Spetsnaz brigades (obrSpN or обрСпН) are assigned an echelon above armies, i.e. districts/fronts.

Here’s what Mil.ru said:

“An independent special designation sub-unit has entered the order-of-battle of a combined arms army of the Western Military District.”

“The servicemen are going through additional training with the brigade of special designation in Tambov oblast. The reconnaissance men need to complete an enhanced course of combat, fire, special, engineer, medical and other training.”

“The groups are being armed with AK-74M assault and VSS ‘Vintorez’ sniper rifles, Stechkin and Shpagin pistols, and ASVK ‘Kord’ sniper rifles.”

“The sub-unit is also outfitted with specialized ‘Tayfun-K’ and ‘Tigr’ armored vehicles, unmanned aircraft to conduct aerial reconnaissance, and also steerable ‘Malva’ and ‘Arbalet’ parachute systems.”

Obviously, this isn’t one-off. Look for Spetsnaz companies to appear in the TO&E of other Russian armies if they aren’t there already.

Su-34s Practice Anti-Ship Strikes

Yesterday RIA Novosti ran the headline “Pacific Fleet Fighters Launch Newest Kh-35U Anti-Ship Missiles.” Сiting a Russian MOD press-release, the news agency said they were Su-34 fighter-bombers.

It’s curious because Russia’s neglected Pacific Fleet air component doesn’t have Su-34s. The closest are 26 belonging to the VKS based in Khurba, Khabarovsk territory (277th Bomber Regiment).

The Su-34 has been produced in good numbers now, but it’s still a system from the 1990s . . . a major update of the 1970s-vintage Su-24.

The Russian Navy has only a regiment of MiG-31 interceptors at Yelizovo outside Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy. But it also operates assorted land-based ASW aircraft, transports, and helos.

Capture

Khurba’s a long way from the open ocean

The unknown number of Su-34s apparently fired eight missiles, and all struck derelict vessels imitating enemy ships.

The Kh-35U — or AS-20 / Kayak air-launched variant — has a 260-km range, and has been in Russia’s inventory since the early 2000s. As the MOD reminds, it can be fired from a number of combat aircraft, Tu-142 ASW aircraft, helos, or land-based Bal launchers (SSC-6 / Sennight).

The “U” might be for improved (usovershennyy) or multirole (universalnyy), but it’s still not really the latest thing as RIA Novosti said.

Neither RIA Novosti nor the MOD indicated where the practice strikes occurred, which is interesting.

Add the combat radius of the Su-34 to the missile’s range and the Russians don’t get much protection for ships out of Vladivostok or for the Kuriles.

Capture

Not much reach

Almost any exercise is good for a military, but it’s hard to see the point in this one unless Russian Naval Aviation gets its own Su-34s. Or the VKS bases them closer to the sea.

Just an example of the deconstruction required when the press (Russian or American) hyperventilates about the rising Russian military threat.

Upgunning Artillery

The Uragan-M1 MRL can mount 12 300-mm or 15 220-mm tubes

The Uragan-1M MRL with twelve 300-mm tubes

A year ago General-Lieutenant Mikhail Matveyevskiy asserted that Russian Army firepower will increase 50 to 100 percent by 2021. This will come, he said, by forming new missile and artillery units and reequipping existing ones.

In December, Izvestiya talked to MOD sources who provided more specifics on what’s happening in the artillery.

The Ground Troops are reinforcing artillery regiments and brigades with new 9K512 Uragan-1M heavy multiple rocket launchers, and are returning very large-caliber guns and mortars to the order-of-battle. These systems provide greater firepower and extend the reach of Russia’s artillery.

According to Izvestiya, in 2013-2017, “seven self-propelled artillery regiments were formed in five motorized rifle and two tank divisions.” They are likely the brigades that were converted back to divisions in the last couple years. As maneuver brigades, they typically had two SP howitzer battalions and one MRL battalion (122-mm BM-21 Grad MRLs). Adding an Uragan-1M battalion is a significant upgrade.

The paper noted an independent artillery regiment was also established as part of the Black Sea Fleet’s 22nd Army Corps in Russian-occupied Crimea.

The MOD started adding heavy Uragan-1M MRLs to the reestablished maneuver divisions in late 2016. Izvestiya reported that the 275th SP Artillery Regiment (4th Kantemir Tank Division) got a “full battalion set” of eight Uragan-1M launchers. The earlier 9K57 Uragan MRL also typically deployed to artillery brigades in eight-launcher battalions. 

The Uragan-1M can fire cluster, volumetric, guided, and enhanced range munitions and use 122-mm, 220-mm, or 300-mm rockets. It has a 70-km range. Its rate of fire is faster than older MRLs because it can reload complete racks of loaded tubes instead of reloading individual tubes mounted on the launch vehicle. It may fire two salvos before maneuvering to avoid counterbattery fire.

According to the paper’s sources, the Uragan-1M’s automated command and control system and fire control computer allows the MRL to destroy targets “in real time without crew input.”

Izvestiya reported that the 45th Svir Order of Bogdan Khmelnitskiy High Power Artillery Brigade was reestablished at Tambov in 2017. It operates two battalions (eight each) of 203-mm SP 2S7 Pion guns and one battalion (eight) of 240-mm SP 2S4 Tyulpan mortars. These large-caliber systems can destroy reinforced targets and field fortifications 122-mm and 152-mm weapons cannot. Pion has a range of 47 km. Tyulpan can reach 20 km and also fires Smelchak, a Soviet-era laser-designated munition.

The MOD told the paper that artillery brigades in the Central (385th) and Eastern MDs (165th and 305th) already have Pion and Tyulpan systems.

Mil.ru has reported that the 165th Artillery Brigade has the 2S7M Malka gun.

The article notes Orlan-10 UAVs are being widely deployed with Russian artillery brigades and regiments since last year. Procurement of UAVs certainly seems to be a priority.

Izvestiya concludes, while considered less effective than precision weapons in recent years, Russia’s artillery troops and new systems are getting more attention as they work toward a one-shot kill capability.

Brigades and Divisions

Russian MOD daily Krasnaya zvezda published an interview with Ground Troops CINC General-Colonel Oleg Salyukov on March 7. Right off, the paper asked if the MOD intends to change all combined arms brigades back to divisions.

General-Colonel Salyukov address senior army officers in December

General-Colonel Salyukov addresses senior army officers in December

Recall the conversion of the army’s divisions to brigades was a key plank in former defense minister Anatoliy Serdyukov’s “new profile” reforms. But more than a few military leaders grumbled that brigades weren’t powerful enough to meet the threat of a  large-scale war.

Here’s what Salyukov had to say:

“Actually in the indicated period [2012-2017] seven combined arms divisions were formed. Compared with combined arms brigades, divisions have increased striking force and firepower, and are capable of handling combat missions on a broader front.”

“Besides this, command personnel in divisions get experience controlling large tactical formations which is essential for the next step to leadership of operational troop groupings.”

“But combined arms brigades continue to be highly mobile and self-sufficient formations. Therefore in the Ground Troops’ order-of-battle both divisions and brigades will be preserved to allow us to have balanced troop groupings which are capable of fulfilling different missions.”

The seven reestablished ground divisions include:

  • 2nd (Taman) Motorized Rifle Division — Kalininets
  • 4th (Kantemir) Tank Division — Naro-Fominsk
  • 150th Motorized Rifle Division — Kadamovskiy
  • 90th Tank Division — Chebarkul
  • 42nd Motorized Rifle Division — Khankala
  • 3rd Motorized Rifle Division — Valyuki
  • 144th Motorized Rifle Division — Klintsy

Reestablished Divisions

The map above shows four in the Western MD, two in the Southern, and one in the Central.

KZ didn’t ask General-Colonel Salyukov about a recent report that the 19th and 136th Motorized Rifle Brigades at Vladikavkaz and Buynaksk respectively will become divisions before the end of this year. That would add two to the Southern MD.

Moscow’s preoccupation with a bigger conflict with Ukraine or a major contingency in the Caucasus or further south is clear.

The 2nd, 4th, and 42nd divisions were easy to reconstitute because they’d been full-up divisions in the recent past. The others are more of a challenge.

The 90th and 3rd divisions are being put together from two brigades each. The 144th is based on one brigade. Current brigades are just a little larger than a complete regiment. So these divisions have to raise at least one or two more maneuver regiments each.

The 150th division has largely been built from scratch.

Besides significantly expanded manpower and equipment, these new divisions require substantial investment in new or renovated base infrastructure at a time when rubles for the military are harder to find.

The 19th brigade was a division until 2009. One regiment became the brigade’s backbone while two others became the 4th Military Base in South Ossetia (Georgia). The 136th has always been a brigade.

More Airborne

The Russian MOD has announced that the Eastern MD’s 83rd Independent Air-Assault Brigade will conduct the first large-scale parachute drop in its history on October 18.

Recall the 83rd transferred from Ground Troops to VDV control almost exactly four years ago. It apparently spent the interval preparing and training to be more airborne than air mobile.

Colonel Sergey Maksimov takes command in November 2016

Colonel Sergey Maksimov takes command in November 2016

According to the MOD, the Ussuriysk-based brigade will drop combat equipment and personnel. It will proceed to a standard scenario involving seizure of a notional enemy airfield. About 2,000 troops and 400 pieces of equipment will be deployed.

Ussuriysk

Ussuriysk

In the evolution’s second phase, the brigade’s airborne and air-assault battalions will conduct a march with a pontoon bridge crossing and combat firings in a mobile defense.

The MOD didn’t indicate how many troops will parachute into the exercise. But the 83rd likely now has a parachute battalion to air-drop from Il-76 transports. VDV air-assault brigades traditionally also have two air mobile battalions. When the 83rd arrived from the army in 2013, it likely had three air-assault battalions.

The ex-army 56th ODShBr in the Southern MD may also have a parachute battalion already, but it seems less likely that the 11th in Buryatia has one.