Preparations are well advanced for the high profile Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) military exercise, Peace Mission 2012. As the NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan by 2014 influences the planning of such exercises, Beijing and Moscow are seeking to use the SCO security apparatus and joint force capabilities to underscore their commitment to preserve security and stability in Central Asia. On April 24, Geng Yansheng, the spokesman for China’s defense ministry announced that Peace Mission 2012 will be held in accordance with agreement among the defense ministers of the five member states participating in the exercise in northern Tajikistan in mid-June. Uzbekistan has opted out of the exercise, though no official statement has been offered to justify its decision. Some experts believe Tashkent’s differences over water resources with Dushanbe and its efforts to raise this issue at the SCO level may have resulted in Uzbekistan’s non-participation (Xinhua, April 24; Regnum, March 13).
The largest SCO Peace Mission exercise was staged in 2005, though it was conducted as a bilateral Sino-Russian exercise involving 9,800 personnel. The exercise was officially described as antiterrorist; however, the presence of strategic bombers and submarines suggested a large-scale war featured in the scenario. Peace Mission 2007 reached the milestone of involving all its members in the exercise, which has never been achieved since; Tashkent sent a small number of officers to the command post element of the event marking the only occasion in which Uzbekistan participated in an SCO military exercise. The Uzbeks strongly criticized the gap between the scenario of Peace Mission and the decision to use assets more consistent with larger combined-arms operations. The message from Tashkent seemed influential and in 2007 the force grouping size and hardware used indicated greater effort to match equipment and weapons to an antiterrorist model. By 2009, the trend to concentrate on smaller joint forces rehearsing antiterrorist operations continued with only 3,000 troops participating. Although Peace Mission 2010 was larger, involving 5,000 personnel, the final stage of the three stage exercise witnessed the Chinese Air force rehearsing a precision strike on ground targets in southern Kazakhstan. The PLA demonstrated network-centric warfare capabilities and appeared to be keen to highlight its strategic airpower potential by choosing to conduct mid-air refueling of its fighter aircraft despite the relatively short flight from bases in western China (Revue Défense Nationale, December 8, 15, 22, 2010).
Following the meeting of SCO defense ministers in Beijing on April 24, Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie emphasized that the organization was entering a new phase of development in its “journey,” praising the level of consensus and cooperation among those present. In March 2012, the international military cooperation departments in the members’ defense ministries held a leadership conference, while the Chiefs of General Staff also met to consider new threats and challenges as well as to plan the military exercise in Tajikistan (Jiefangjun Bao, April 26).
Russian Defense Minister Anatoliy Serdyukov told his counterparts that a program of cooperation against terrorism, extremism and separatism for 2013-2015 is expected to be signed at the SCO summit in Beijing in June; Peace Mission 2012 is regarded as a step toward fulfilling these tasks. Serdyukov reiterated earlier statements by senior officials that the SCO does not seek to transition into a military-political bloc, but instead to restrict itself to collectively combating present threats and challenges (Interfax, April 24).
According to the press center of Tajikistan’s defense ministry, Peace Mission 2012 will be held at Chorukdaron military range in Sughd Region in the north of the country, consisting of three phases. Command post and theoretical phases will precede the live phase of the exercise involving operational groups and subunits from the Armed Forces of China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Russia. The scenario centers upon a special operation in a mountainous area to block and destroy armed militants following the seizure of a mountain village. Reportedly, part of the exercise will be classified, concentrating on using “new methods” to perform the blocking and destruction of the simulated terrorist grouping. Planning for the exercise seems to have calibrated into the scenario a deterioration of the security situation in the Ferghana Valley necessitating SCO intervention to de-escalate the conflict (Regnum, March 13; Interfax, March 12).
Russian forces taking part in the exercise include a battalion from the 201st Military Base in Dushanbe, Qurghonteppa and Kulob, Tajikistan (subordinate to the Central Military District –MD) and fighter jets from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) base in Kant, Kyrgyzstan. These force elements will also stage a bilateral military exercise with Tajikistan’s Armed Forces prior to the SCO exercise (Asia-Plus, April 26). The use of the 201st Military Base and airpower drawn from the airbase in Kant may be consistent with recent statements by senior Russian officers concerning planning to strengthen the potential for the Russian airborne forces to operationally deploy in Central Asia during a crisis. However, the choice of forces by the Russian defense ministry also indicates limited power projection capability despite the continued reform and modernization of the Armed Forces (Interfax, March 12).
On April 16, the Central MD began a planned rotation of military personnel, aiming at moving 3,000 soldiers and sergeants trained in Russia to the 201st Military Base in Tajikistan; 50 percent of the personnel will be contract soldiers (kontraktniki) and will serve in posts as snipers, drivers, weapons operators and as members of reconnaissance units. The rotation will not change the overall strength of the 201st Military Base and curiously it will reach final completion ten days after Peace Mission 2012 ends. It is likely that some of these kontraktniki will be used to raise combat readiness in the deployed battalion. Nonetheless, given their recent arrival, lack of experience in working with colleagues and poor unit élan, it is unlikely to actually boost performance (Interfax, April 16).
Peace Mission 2012 reflects concern in Beijing and Moscow about managing any future crisis in Central Asia post 2014, and increased anxiety over the region’s stability linked to the Ferghana Valley. Russia and China also wish to project an image of the SCO’s growing role following the NATO exit from Afghanistan. But the capabilities on display will vary widely. The closed element of the exercise may have less to do with “new” tactics or methods, than Russian forces testing automated command and control systems and their susceptibility to electronic warfare. Nonetheless, challenges in developing joint command, joint force interoperability and other factors will not eclipse the underlying political message to other actors: Central Asian security in the region lies through cooperation with Beijing and Moscow.