Reflections on Vostok 2010: Selling an Image

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 134

Russian Navy during the Vostok 2010 Military Exercise

Jacob Kipp recently analyzed the political-military context of Vostok 2010 and drew attention to an increased threat perception in the Russian Far East relating to China. Kipp also referred to the taboo within Russian security circles about openly referring to China in discussion of threat perception, as the “threat that dare not speak its name” (EDM, July 12). Indeed, on June 5, 2009, Army-General Nikolai Makarov, the Chief of the General Staff, detailed the “new look” military reform and its justification during a two and half hour press conference. In his series of slides he showed the threats and challenges surrounding Russia in each strategic direction, with the exception of the “eastern vector.” His silence over China was deafening (Kommersant-Vlast, July 12, 2009).

Nonetheless, in March, 2010, Lieutenant-General Vladimir Chirkin, Commander of the Siberian Military District (MD), announced the deployment of two brigades closer to the Chinese border near Chita, which he justified as based upon the presence of five combined-arms armies across the border. Chirkin stated: “Despite friendly relations with China, our army command understands that friendship is possible only with strong countries, which can quiet a friend down with a conventional or nuclear club” (Argumenty Nedeli, March 4-10; EDM, March 18).

Among a select group of foreign observers invited to Vostok 2010 were delegations from Ukraine and China. The Chinese defense ministry observers were led by Lieutenant-General Hou Shusen, the Deputy Chief of the General Staff of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) (ITAR-TASS, July 5). On July 5, they watched units and formations in the Siberian MD conduct a river crossing (Onon River, 3.5 meters (m) deep at the assault crossing point), and carrying out combat operations against a simulated enemy in a “difficult tactical situation,” at the Tsugol training range (Transbaykal Krai). This involved tank and motor rifle brigades, operating on separated axes, artillery fire and air strikes and inserting an airborne assault force in the tactical rear of the enemy. General Makarov commented: “This episode made quite a good impression due to the confident actions of the personnel,” adding “I am satisfied that commanders learned to control their troops’ actions specifically in such a difficult situation in an assault crossing of a water obstacle. This is one of the difficult missions in the combat training system” (Krasnaya Zvezda, July 8). Evidently, the Russian defense ministry calculated that there was something occurring during the exercises that might be worthwhile displaying to PLA observers.

That the exercise marked the largest in post-Soviet history would not, by itself, impress the PLA. However, a number of the features of Vostok 2010 were potential sources of positive PR, for both the domestic image of the “new look” and the benefit of foreign observers. These included the use of helmets and body armor, a marked improvement for Russian exercises, artillery strikes coordinated using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV’s) or the high profile nonstop 8,000 kilometers (km) flights of Su-24M and Su-34 fighters from European Russia to airfields in the Far East MD, with mid-air refueling (three for the Su-24M and two for the Su-34) (Zvezda TV, July 6; Interfax, June 30; Vzglyad, July 8).

On the final day of the exercise, responding to an enemy incursion featuring columns and armored vehicles, reconnaissance assets were used to locate a command post of the simulated “hypothetical opponent” near Mount Poltavka on the Sergeyevka Range (Primorsky Krai) before UAV’s fixed the target and two launches were made from a Tochka-U (SS-21) operational-tactical missile complex, capable of carrying AA60 tactical nuclear warheads. Tasked with striking a target within a 50 m radius, the first missile at a range of approximately 19 km was 7 m over and the second 12 m left of target. Armed with a conventional fragmentation warhead its destructive capability covers 3 hectares. These launches greatly exceeded the standards required to achieve excellent grade (Krasnaya Zvezda, June 30, July 9). It appeared remarkably similar to a simulated tactical nuclear strike against enemy forces.
Despite the vagueness concerning the exercise scenario, the General Staff, according to one commentary were able to:

“Prepare troops for combat operations against a large, powerful, technically well-equipped enemy. Prepare for a clash with a foreign regular army. Officers and commanders of combined-arms formations admitted that despite the extremely vague definition of the enemy, it still managed to organize combat operations of inter-branch groups of forces in the exercise, repel massive air strikes and the landing of an amphibious assault force, make an assault crossing of a major water obstacle, and carry out a number of other operational measures, and with forces not at all designed for suppressing small bandit forces. Around 20,000 servicemen, over 5,000 pieces of military equipment, more than 40 ships, and 75 aircraft and helicopters took part in Vostok 2010” (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, July 9).

However, Vostok 2010 not only tested the “new look” formations in carrying out complex combined-arms operations, it centered around the adoption of network-centric warfare approaches, and specifically how the new command and control structures could be enhanced with automated systems and radios. In the Siberian MD alone, command and control entities processed more than 900 narrative problems during the exercise. Automated processing of information occurred, including “surprises” in the conduct of the tactical exercises designed to test the skills of commanders, while this level of complexity will be increased further during Tsentr 2011 (Krasnaya Zvezda, July 8).

Vostok 2010’s subtext was about the reformers securing long-term political support to ensure adequate state investment in adopting network-centric warfare capabilities. It also enabled the top brass to more clearly determine how long Russian conventional forces might hold out in a conflict with the PLA, before using tactical nuclear weapons. Calibrated into this delicate equation was the likelihood that this time factor might be exponentially increased by possessing asymmetric network-centric capabilities, thus securing invaluable time for diplomacy to resolve an escalating crisis. If the “new look” combined with network-centric capabilities convinces Russian policy makers that the vulnerable Far East may in the future be conventionally defensible, or prolonging its defense, it would go a long way towards secure backing a reform program that will last more than a decade. For the purposes of conveying a message to the PLA, Vostok 2010 exaggerated the level of progress in developing network-centric capabilities, using a military version of Potemkin’s village. However, the Russian military is clearly determined to develop the “conventional club” which it might use upon the heads of their “hypothetical” eastern opponent.