Moscow’s defense establishment annually reflects on achievements in modernizing and enhancing combat capability and readiness levels in the Russian Armed Forces. Late last year (December 22, 2016), Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu offered such detail with an upbeat message on the Russian military’s operations and exercises as well as the defense ministry’s targets for modernization and improving the personnel system. President Vladimir Putin’s own statement to the defense ministry’s collegium, where Shoigu was speaking, also conveyed this sense of renewed confidence in the military (Kremlin.ru, TASS, December 22, 2016). Public statements by Russia’s top brass and political leadership increasingly link future force development and perspectives on defense requirements to lessons drawn from the country’s involvement in military operations in Syria. And Shoigu confirmed the fruits of such thinking the following month by highlighting plans to boost Russian conventional strike capability by 2021 (see below). The significance of these comments should not be underestimated, reinforcing the idea that Moscow has used the Syria conflict to experiment with various assets and recast some of its future defense plans on this basis.
Shoigu additionally set out the priorities for the Russian defense ministry in 2017. Center place will involve continuing to raise the combat capabilities of the Armed Forces and strengthening the military in all strategic directions. Shoigu said the target for the state defense order will be fully implemented to reach 60 percent modern within the table of organization and equipment (TOE). The strategic rocket forces (RVSN) will receive three missile regiments equipped with modern systems; strategic aircraft will be modernized; while the ministry will procure an additional two brigade sets of the Iskander-M operational-tactical missile system. The Army will receive more tanks and armored vehicles; air defense will be strengthened by adding S-400 sets; and the Navy will see eight surface ships enter service (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, January 11, 2017).
Despite the generally positive tone from the political-military leadership about the condition of the Armed Forces and its modernization, buoyed by the intervention in Syria, the issues facing defense planners surrounding military manpower offer mixed signals. On the one hand, the numbers of contract personnel are increasing annually, with the balance between conscript and contract service gradually shifting to the latter. The numbers of professional sergeants is also growing (Izvestia, December 29, 2016). On the other hand, the defense ministry pays more attention to the future role of reservists in ways that imply concern about the numbers and quality of deployments abroad. On January 9, an amendment was published to the Law on Military Duty and Military Service, allowing for short-term contracts (up to 12 months) to enter service to participate in combat operations abroad. Its preamble justifies this in terms of extremism and terrorism, but the manpower challenges remain problematic (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, January 9, 2017; see EDM, November 9, 2016).
Addressing the defense ministry’s collegium on December 22, Shoigu stated that the state defense order deliveries increased year-on-year by 5 percent. Combat capability in the Armed Forces was raised by 14 percent, though no further detail was provided. In terms of modernization levels in the arms and branches of service, Shoigu offered the following overview: The share of modern weapons and equipment reached 42 percent in the Army, 47 percent in the Navy, 47 percent in the elite airborne forces (VDV), and higher levels in the RVSN (51 percent) and the Aerospace Forces (Vozdushno Kosmicheskikh Sil—VKS—66 percent. There was no increase year-on-year for the RVSN, with small increases for the others. The highest advance was for the VKS—14 percent. The VKS, consequently, received 139 aircraft, including Su-35S and Su-30SM fighters, as well as new helicopters, including Mi-28Ns, Ka-52s, Mi-35Ms, Mi-26s, Mi-8AMTSh-VAs, and Mi-8MTV-5s. Four regimental sets of S-400s were procured, along with 25 Pantsir-S systems, 74 radars, and 4 modernized strategic bombers. The total serviceability of VKS aircraft reached 62 percent (Krasnaya Zvezda, December 27, 2016).
The Syria experience has allowed for a degree of combat testing with subsequent adjustments to existing procurement plans. On this basis, some orders have been stopped or delayed by the defense ministry. The clear beneficiary in this process is the VKS, which was at the forefront of the intervention in Syria since September 2015 (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, December 31, 2016; Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, December 23, 2016). Shoigu earlier underscored the importance of the Syria dimension on military modernization: “162 types of modern and modernized arms were tested in the course of combat operations in Syria and showed high effectiveness. They include the newest Su-30SM and Su-34 aircraft, and Mi-28N and Ka-52 helicopters. Precision munitions and sea-based cruise missiles employed in combat conditions for the first time confirmed their tactical characteristics” (Krasnaya Zvezda, December 27, 2016).
Russia’s military testing in the theater of operations in Syria involved experimentation with new VKS assets as well as tests of network-centric warfare capabilities, including new communications systems and the integration of service branches to apply precision-strikes against enemy ground targets (see EDM, March 1, 2015; December 9, 2015; May 17, 2016). Putin’s remarks to the defense ministry collegium noted the ongoing need to modernize the assets in the RVSN. But he also highlighted the importance of non-nuclear forces, which will demand achieving a qualitatively new level: “Strategic non-nuclear forces also need to be brought to a qualitatively new level, allowing them to neutralize any military threats to Russia” (Kremlin.ru, December 22, 2016).
While not denying the core nature of nuclear deterrence in Russian strategic security policy, Shoigu believes a gradual shift is possible in the burden of deterrence from nuclear to conventional forces: “Above all, this will be achieved by means of precision-guided strikes,” he said. “The plan is to more than quadruple the combat capabilities of our non-nuclear strategic forces by 2021, which will enable us to address non-nuclear deterrence objectives in full,” Shoigu explained. He added that the Navy will also benefit from this approach: “The Navy is accepting modern multi-role surface ships and submarines armed with cruise missiles into service. By 2021, Navy forces will become the backbone of the grouping of carriers of precision-guided long-range weapons” (Interfax, RIA Novosti, January 11, 12).
Moscow has long sought to develop command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) capabilities. And combined with its expressed interest in “pre-nuclear deterrence”—notably in the latest iteration of its Military Doctrine in December 2014—and defense spending increases, all this underlies testing such precision-guided strike approaches in Syria. Its experimental use seems enough to convince skeptics in the Russian defense leadership. Ultimately, plans to boost this component will reduce Russia’s reliance on tactical nuclear weapons within the next few years.