On March 24, the chief of the Russian General Staff (CGS), Army General Valery Gerasimov, delineated current top brass thinking on future warfare. Gerasimov placed his remarks within the context of Russia’s deteriorating relations with the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). He specified some of the systems and approaches that may feature in future warfare, while clearly drawing on observations from the country’s recent involvement in military conflict. The setting and audience for Gerasimov’s speech may have been as important as his underlying thinking regarding how future conflicts may be fought. Addressing the plenary session of the Academy of Military Sciences (Akademii Voyennykh Nauk—AVN), at the General Staff Academy, Gerasimov covered a broad range of inter-related topics. The unifying theme was that Russia’s military is becoming more high-tech and continues to develop non-nuclear deterrence capabilities (Moskovskiy Komsomolets, March 25).
The venue and audience reflects the synergy in Russia between official and quasi-official bodies in the pursuit of innovation and ideas on strategic defense issues. On the eve of the conference, Sergey Pershutkin, a corresponding member of the AVN, highlighted the importance of the organization and how it harnesses the experience and skills of retired military officers. Pershutkin’s article in Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye stresses the extent to which the AVN cooperates with the General Staff, outlining plans for closer integration with the Russian Academy of Sciences, while emphasizing the wealth of knowledge among its membership. The AVN consists of approximately 2,000 highly qualified researchers and expert analysts; among them, 72 percent are retired generals, admirals, officers and reservists. In recent years, following the military reforms and modernization initiated in late 2008, the AVN has been encouraged by the top brass to play a more proactive role in revitalizing Russian military science (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, March 23).
As the CGS, Gerasimov addresses the AVN conference annually. In 2013, his speech was published as an article in Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer and later ignited Western speculation that he had outlined a “Gerasimov doctrine,” or a guide to the forms of warfare used in Ukraine (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, February 26, 2013). Of course, his speech in February 2013 pre-dated the Ukraine crisis and contained a disclaimer that drew upon the work of the Soviet military theorist Aleksandr Svechin that discredited any later assertion of a one-size-fits-all Russian way of war. Namely, he argued that all conflicts differ and require appropriate planning. On this year’s occasion, Gerasimov repeated the same caution, noting that all conflicts demand varied operational planning approaches. But, unlike five years ago, in his speech he did not refer to General Georgi Isserson, the military theorist credited with formulating the Soviet concept of deep battle so vital in the Red Army’s defense against Nazi Germany in 1941–1945. Gerasimov’s speeches to the AVN, or more accurately his speech writers, generally seem to convey a solid understanding of Soviet and Russian military theory (Interfax, TASS, March 24).
Gerasimov’s predecessor, Nikolai Makarov, used the opportunity of addressing the AVN to encourage military scientists to re-engage in the debates triggered by military reform and modernization. Inevitably, when the incumbent CGS offers a General Staff view on future war, it can appear as a convenient way to cover up or downplay existing flaws and weaknesses in the Armed Forces. Similar to Makarov, Gerasimov regularly asserts that the character of warfare is changing, as well as the means and methods in its conduct; and this year he restated the case, tying the theme to Syria. What appears different in Gerasimov’s 2018 speech to the AVN is that much of the content on future warfare is already occurring or is in the development stages in terms of force structure and procurement. Reportedly, his speech was also less theoretical in its approach and inclined to reference the lessons of Russia’s recent experience of conflict—especially in Syria. Moreover, he also referenced President Vladimir Putin’s state of the nation speech on March 1, thus raising hopes that advanced unstoppable weapons systems would soon be entering service (Moskovskiy Komsomolets, March 25).
Gerasimov sees future warfare as having the following hallmarks: “Broad employment of precision and other types of new weapons, including robotic ones, will be fundamental characteristics of future conflicts. The enemy’s economy and state command-and-control system will be the priority targets. Besides traditional spheres of armed struggle, the information sphere and space will be actively involved,” adding, “Countering communications, reconnaissance and navigation systems will play a special role.” This is the “most probable shape of future war,” but the range of potential conflict types is “extremely broad,” and the Armed Forces must prepare for such contingencies. Gerasimov noted, “The possibility that armed conflicts will arise simultaneously in various strategic directions predetermined the creation of inter-service groupings of troops and forces in the military districts that guarantee the effective conduct of combat actions by military personnel in peacetime as well as wartime” (Krasnaya Zvezda, March 26).
High-precision strike systems are moving center stage in Russian defense planning. Based on recent operational experience, and in order to create credible conventional deterrence options, Gerasimov said, “In each strategic direction, groupings of long-range air and sea-based cruise missile delivery platforms capable of deterrence in strategically important areas have been established.” He added: “In the future, the increase in possibilities of precision weapons, including hypersonic ones, will allow for transferring the fundamental part of strategic deterrence from the nuclear to the non-nuclear sphere.” Gerasimov envisages further work to integrate reconnaissance and automated command and control with high-precision weapons systems to reduce the time to prepare the latter’s use. While Russia’s Armed Forces will also seek to exploit unmanned aerial systems, both for reconnaissance and strike purposes, the need arises to develop effective counter-measures to similar systems being used against them. Moreover, additional measures, such as improving electronic warfare capabilities, will seek to address the need to target enemy command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) assets (Krasnaya Zvezda, March 26).
Much of Gerasimov’s observations on future warfare indicate operational planning to counter a high-technology state power—most likely the United States. The range of weapons systems and approaches suggest an asymmetric means to counter that opponent; and the reference to deep strikes on enemy territory implies long-range, high-precision strikes into the US homeland. Publicizing this may be part of Russia’s deterrence strategy. Some of the features of Gerasimov’s address to the AVN afford insights into the priorities for Russian strategic defense planning; that thinking seems far advanced and institutionally underpinned, ensuring Russia will likely present a long-term challenge to the US.