A historic large-scale Russian military exercise is currently in progress, testing the ability of the armed forces to deploy high-readiness and reserve units rapidly across Russian territory. The operational strategic military exercise, codenamed Mobility 2004, began at 0800 (Moscow time) on June 9, with three Il-76 transport planes taking off from Koltsovo airfield near Yekaterinburg. Cargo included military personnel and hardware from a Motor Rifle Division (MRD) in the Volga-Urals Military District. Airlifting continued at frequent intervals over several days moving servicemen and military hardware to Russia’s Far East (ITAR-TASS, Moscow, June 9).
Mobility 2004, which runs until June 30, will also include command and staff exercises and additional follow-up exercises, taking the process into autumn. The strategic airlift of Russian troops by dozens of aircraft included long-distance civil aircraft and Ministry of Transport equipment, including several long haul Il-62s and Il-86s, in addition to air force Il-76, An-124, An-22, and An-12 aircraft. Russian Defense Minister Sergey Ivanov highlighted the significance of the exercise. “There have never before been such exercises in Russia, ” Ivanov asserted. However, Ivanov has lost out personally to the general staff. Ivanov, who had been in charge of an exercise in the Far East in 2003, during which two MiG-24s collided, has had to give way to his rival for the current exercises. Major General Anatoliy Kvashnin, chief of the general staff, has been placed in charge of Mobility 2004 (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, June 4).
Indeed, Mobility 2004 is by far the most ambitious Russian military exercise to date, involving not only the air transport of many troops together with military hardware but also coordinating the deployment between several military districts covering a very large geographical expanse from European Russia to its Far Eastern Military District. Lieutenant General Viktor Denisov, commander of the 61st Air Army of the Supreme Main Command, confirmed that military transport aviation is ready to successfully carry out the large-scale airlift of troops over thousands of kilometers. The Russian Air Force has ensured that designated airfields have been fully prepared to receive the aircraft, including required aviation fuel reserves. Apparently every effort has been made to avoid any mishaps, which have beset previous high profile military exercises. Mobility 2004 is also politically sensitive, since the exercise will do much to support Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ambition of a strong Russian military. Perhaps it may mark a turning point for the beleaguered Russian military.
The exercise involves ground forces, navy, air force, and border guards units, all carrying out specific tasks on a limited time scale. “Combat operations” of the forces will be staged at training grounds in the Far East Military District and the Pacific Fleet on June 21-25. Military commanders have asked regional governors to improve those training grounds. An air assault landing behind a hypothetical adversary will be staged together with an amphibious landing to secure a beachhead. Troops will also rehearse combat operations on unfamiliar terrain.
All Russian aircraft will fly over the country using the American GPS system since the orbital group of the GLONASS system is still a work in progress, and the signal receivers for consumers are currently inadequate. If the US chose not to put out a signal, the whole exercise would be undermined. This illustrates current Russian vulnerability, depending on American goodwill and technology to a large extent (Vremya Novostey, Moscow, June 8). Perfecting simultaneous coordination of forces from different commands will demand particular attention to planning details and efforts to avoid any appearance of failure.
Some signs of progress will be evident. The 76th Airborne Division at Pskov, undergoing a crucial leading experiment in professionalization, will be dropped into the Far Eastern Military District. According to Lieutenant General Aleksandr Kolmakov, commander of the airborne troops, they will be using Pecheneg machine guns instead of the traditional Kalashnikov machine guns, with optical sights on their assault rifles, permitting effective day and night use. This could provide a useful insight into how the airborne forces could look in future. Manning principles and equipment requirements will be determined in structural changes to be considered by Ivanov in the near future. These forces are likely to spearhead any future Russian military operations, and their performance in the exercise will be critically assessed (Krasnaya Zvezda, June 11).
Nonetheless, military exercises are no replacement for genuine systemic military reform. At best they are a signal of changes yet to come, at worst a carefully orchestrated show for the generals in Soviet tradition. Mobility 2004 is designed to show the Russian armed forces in a good light by projecting a positive image, and marks a significant development. Russia may be attempting to convince its neighbors of its willingness to act pre-emptively, should the occasion arise, to protect Russia’s interests and defend territorial integrity.