In Military-Political Review, Pavel Kovalev takes issue with a contention that Russia will send 4,000 rail cars carrying 30,000 troops and their equipment to Belarus for Zapad-2017. That claim appeared in National Interest three months ago.
Kovalev’s rebuttal is interesting in the context of Russia’s major annual exercise. But it’s significant for what it shows about the military’s use of trains, i.e. how much they can transport. It’s particularly useful given that the MOD now provides figures on what military trains deliver each week.
Kovalev says the Russian MOD contracted for 4,162 rail cars to carry cargo back and forth to Belarus during the 2017 training year. That’s 2,081 round trips over the course of 11 months, not just before the one-week Zapad-2017 exercise which takes place September 14-20. He indicates that a military train typically has 57 rail cars, so 2,081 cars is 36 round-trip train loads.
To Belarus this year, Moscow has sent 1,000 troops and equipment for a VDV exercise on four (round-trip) trains, 1,500 troops and 200 pieces of equipment for an EW exercise on four trains, troops and equipment for an engineering exercise on two trains, and forces for a communications exercise on one train. One train is needed to serve two Russian facilities on Belarusian territory.
Estimating two trains after Zapad-2017, Kovalev concludes there are 22 round-trip train loads or 1,254 rail cars available to carry what’s required for the exercise.
Soldiers secure a 2S19 SP howitzer to a flat car
The number is virtually unchanged from the 1,250 rail cars Kovalev says were used for Zapad-2013.
Moscow announced 3,000 Russian troops and 280 pieces of equipment will travel to Belarus for Zapad-2017. So 1,254 rail cars might seem like too many. But a motorized rifle battalion with 550 personnel and 120 vehicles requires 78, according to Kovalev’s depiction below.
There are variations, e.g. a tank battalion might require 20-30 additional rail cars.
In the end, per Kovalev, transporting one battalion might take 80-110, or two train loads. Add to this a train with rear support including rations, ammunition, POL, medical units, etc.
Kovalev never says what 22 train loads could carry. But they might deliver a brigade, depending on the materiel needed to support it. However, he says after Zapad-2017 he won’t be surprised to read Western accounts of 100,000 Russian troops delivered to Belarus.
Russia will maintain it’s below the threshold of 13,000 troops conveniently mooting the OSCE Vienna Document’s politically-binding requirement for foreign observers on ground. But tens of thousands of Russian soldiers will almost certainly participate in related drills in the Western MD.
Kovalev’s explanation of the use of rail transport provides perspective on MOD weekly graphics showing more than 4,000 train-loads of men and equipment delivered since early July. Exactly where the MOD doesn’t say. But there are many possibilities given Russia’s dependence on its railroads and internal lines of communication.