Russia’s General Staff has stated that the active phase of its involvement in combat operations in Syria is drawing to a close, without any hint that this might involve withdrawing its forces or even entirely ceasing to conduct airstrikes. The complexity of the emerging post-conflict settlement, from Moscow’s perspective is further complicated by a growing anti-Iran coalition, which may well prove more challenging for the future security of the Middle East than the Kremlin’s largely successful effort to prop up the regime in Damascus (see EDM, November 27). However, the confluence of the positive impact of the Syria intervention for the development of Russia’s Armed Forces, combined with the fifth anniversary of the appointment of Sergei Shoigu as defense minister (see EDM, November 21) and the long-awaited signing of the new State Armaments Program to 2025 (Gosudarstvennaya Programma Vooruzheniya—GPV), highlight the growing disparity in Western and Russian perspectives on both Syria and Moscow’s rearmament plans. Undoubtedly, the General Staff not only used the operations in Syria to train its forces, but also to experiment and test new and advanced systems, and even its approaches to modern warfare (see EDM, December 9, 2015; January 26, 2016). It appears that one lasting effect of this process will be the emphasis upon high-technology weapons and equipment in the next GPV, now slated for presidential approval next month (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, November 24).
The leadership of the Russian Armed Forces has certainly drawn lessons and potentially valuable experience from its involvement in Syria. Most importantly, it has provided an opportunity to gain operational experience in an unfamiliar environment, which will prove to be of lasting value to the Kremlin and the top brass; these forces are becoming more experienced and proficient, and the confidence boost is most evident in state investment in high-technology assets and further developing Russia’s stand-off strike capabilities. In short, the combat operations in Syria, mainly in support of the Bashar al-Assad regime, have yielded a high degree of success both in political and military terms, without the commitment of large numbers of Ground Forces deployed in the country. That is significant, as Russia’s political-military leadership has tested the force multiplier of involvement in a foreign military conflict without recourse to “boots on the ground,” and has emerged with minimal casualties and a massive confidence boost for the Armed Forces as a whole. This explains remarks by Senator Viktor Bondarev, the former commander of the Aerospace Forces (Vozdushno Kosmicheskikh Sil—VKS), who stated that the new GPV will focus on high-technology weaponry, referring to conventional stand-off strike systems, including cruise missiles (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, November 24).
This is largely rooted in the effort to boost conventional strike capability to offer non-nuclear deterrence capability for Russia’s Armed Forces, frequently referred to by the General Staff as “pre-nuclear deterrence.” This comprises cruise missiles, as well as other ballistic missile systems such as the Iskander-M, which is being fully introduced into the existing twelve missile and artillery brigades across Russia—including in Kaliningrad. However, it was also tried and tested in Syria, resulting in surging interest in these systems among the Russian political leadership. As demonstrated vividly in the course of its operations in Syria, this stand-off strike capability provides additional options and possibilities for the Kremlin, stopping short of actually deploying Ground Forces into any future conflict. It marks Russia’s fuller entry into the precision-strike regime and may paradoxically mean that Moscow could be inclined to pursue military options in the future, if it believes it can avoid being drawn into using its limited land-power capabilities (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, November 24).
While the stress upon high-technology weapons will become a feature of continued Russian military modernization over the next decade, involving innovative approaches to modern warfare, such as the adoption of network-centric capability, it also trickles down to traditional areas of the Russian way of war fighting. This is vividly illustrated in the use of artillery, once referred to by Joseph Stalin as the “God of War,” which has benefitted from deploying unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) to increase fire accuracy in Syria. Artillery will not be left out, therefore, in the increasing modernization rush to adopt high-precision capability (Izvestia, November 17).
The defense ministry has decided to retain existing 122-millimeter self-propelled howitzers, such as the 2S1 Gvozdika, but will effectively turn them into modernized “combat robots.” This decision extends to the 2S3 Akatsiya and the 2S19 Msta-S systems. The modernized versions will calculate target coordinates and determine the required number and type of ammunition, using shells with increased power and accuracy. Defense ministry sources told Izvestia that this decision is partly based on recent experience of conflict, including combat operations in Syria, where Russian forces were able to retain their mobility in highly challenging terrain. The plans to upgrade these artillery systems center on exploiting automated digital guidance and fire control, which reduces the role of the crew and increases the overall effectiveness of the firepower. GPS/GLONASS satellite navigation technologies will be employed more widely in Russian artillery, while efforts are being made to integrate these into the automated artillery control system in order that these fires be used in a “single information field” (Izvestia, November 17).
While there is no doubt that the defense ministry will procure more high-technology assets over the next decade to increase Russia’s conventional military capability, this seems to extend beyond high-precision strike systems and marks part of an effort to “informationize,” or “intellectualize” its combat systems. Existing systems, especially in artillery, will receive upgrades designed to increase firepower and accuracy as part of an integrated “command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance” (C4ISR) approach to conducting combat operations. Shoigu has also noted, in reference to the lessons drawn from Russia’s involvement in Syria, that the military will receive more UAVs in the future, as they were used in Syria to populate the battlespace and facilitate operations in real time. Equally, Shoigu, aware of the importance for the military of this wider effort to upgrade and modernize, notes the role played by the National Defense Management Center (Natsional’nogo Tsentra Upravleniya Oboronoy—NTsUO) in Moscow, to help integrate defense and security apparatuses across the country. Shoigu not only highlighted the important coordination work carried out by the NTsUO, he singled out its oversight of the 24/7 supply and logistics operations to support the mission in Syria (Krasnaya Zvezda, November 19; Mil.ru, November 17).
Russia’s General Staff is studying and rapidly drawing on the lessons of the Syria campaign and will actively press for continued emphasis and spending on high-precision and high-technology systems.