The Russian Armed Forces staged their annual strategic-level military exercise this past week (September 16–21), alongside units from seven partner countries—Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, China, India and Pakistan—all of them Moscow’s allies in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). This year’s strategic command-staff exercise (strategicheskiye komandno-shtabnyye ucheniya—SKShU), Tsentr 2019, tested a number of aspects of military capability within an overall theme of the Russian variant of network-centric warfare: the Reconnaissance-Fire System (Razvedyvatelno-Ognevaya Sistema—ROS) (see EDM, September 18). As with every one of the quadrennial Tsentr exercises, last week’s maneuvers focused on the Central Military District (MD); though, additional force groupings were also formed in the Southern MD. Tsentr 2019 covered large geographical areas, ranging from the North Caucasus to the Urals and Siberia, and also saw Russian forces deploying to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan (Vesti.ru, September 22).
In terms of the “multilateral” dimension of Tsentr 2019, it was not officially designated as an SCO exercise; whenever officials or Russian media referred to the Central Asian participants, they qualified this as involving allies from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO)—even though Uzbekistan is no longer a member. The overall troop total for the exercise, 128,000 personnel, is undoubtedly an exaggerated figure; and it includes only 1,600 troops from China, 140 from India and 90 from Pakistan. In other words, this was a Russian military exercise with the facade of a multilateral event (Topwar.ru, September 22).
Although the defense ministry leadership stressed the exercise was “purely defensive” in nature and based on an anti-terrorist scenario, it appears from the various vignettes and rehearsals that it was more suited to testing military capabilities against a high-technology adversary. Smaller in scale compared to the officially reported numbers for Vostok 2018, Tsentr 2019 concentrated on managing forces deployed in three theaters: the North Caucasus, southern Russia and Central Asia. It witnessed a massive use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and the management of force groupings in different regions, as well as experimentation with a new concept for the use of Airborne Forces (Vozdushno Desantnye Voyska—VDV). Additionally, high-precision strike systems featured in the exercise, including cruise missiles and the deployment to Kazakhstan of the Iskander-M mobile, short-range ballistic missile system (Gazeta.ru, September 20). Indeed, such experimentation increasingly features in Russia’s strategic exercises, and this also extended into ways to increase firepower in the Ground Forces’ maneuver brigades (TASS, September 23).
In Vostok 2018, the experiment with the VDV saw the 31st Air Assault Brigade used as an airmobile brigade. Personnel and equipment were transferred to the battlefield alongside artillery using road routes and by air with helicopter suspension. This concept was retested during Tsentr 2019, with VDV participation used as airmobile units to attack enemy forces at tactical and operational-tactical levels as well as in the operational rear of the adversary troops, in combination with the Ground Forces’ maneuver brigades. Thus, the entire 217th VDV regiment carried out a parachute landing. However, this was overshadowed in media coverage by the malfunctioning of two parachutes, resulting in the destruction of two BMD-2 airborne combat vehicles (VPK, September 24; RIA Novosti, September 23).
The real achievement of Tsentr 2019 was the successful testing of the enhanced use of UAVs in combat operations. Additionally, a special UAV detachment was formed for the exercise, and all UAV assets in the Central MD were involved. The exercise also witnessed the independent use of drones for finding targets, conducting reconnaissance and designating targets for strike aviation and field artillery. Moreover, it appears that several new shock versions of previous Russian UAV models were tested during Tsentr 2019 (VPK, September 24). The usage of UAVs in conjunction with field artillery is a critical element of Russia’s Reconnaissance-Fire System, greatly enhancing speed of action and accuracy in fire control.
Radiation, Chemical, and Biological Protection Troops (Radiatsionnoy, Khimicheskoy i Biologicheskoy Zashchity—RKhBZ) formed a heavy flamethrower battalion for the exercise, aimed at boosting firepower. Four companies armed with TOS-1A Solntsepek heavy flamethrower systems delivered a simultaneous massive thermobaric strike (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, September 23). The Chief of the RKhBZ in the Central MD, Major General Valery Vasiliev, noted, “As part of the further development and enhancement of the combat capabilities of the RKhBZ troops, a heavy flamethrower battalion was formed for the first time in the Armed Forces in the Central Military District. The combat use of the new unit was tested in the Tsentr 2019 strategic command and staff exercise, according to which the flamethrower battalion was assigned to strengthen the tank division acting in the direction of the group’s main strike.” The TOS-1A Solntsepek is a heavy flamethrower system attached to the chassis of a T-72 tank. It uses 220-millimeter unguided rockets with thermobaric warheads. The Solntsepek is intended for the destruction of structures and buildings as well as for strikes against enemy manpower (TASS, September 23).
Despite this apparent innovation during the exercise, it is unclear why the Solntsepek was advancing in the main attack of a tank division. Vasiliev did not specify whether this was an operation on the move or if it practiced going on the offensive from a position of direct enemy contact. In the second case, there would not be time to move behind the advancing tanks (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, September 23).
Tsentr 2019 involved a great deal of experimentation with reference to further enhancing the role and the scale of UAVs as part of the wider effort to conduct network-enabled operations. The defense ministry did not promote the exercise to the extent seen during Vostok 2018. Even so, its importance should not be underestimated. The involvement of Chinese military forces now seems to be the new normal, and Moscow apparently no longer feels the need to publicize this in the same manner. While cast as an anti-terrorist exercise, it seems that the main element of Tsentr 2019 was large-scale force-on-force warfare. And finally, at the level of command and control, Tsentr 2019 was also distinctive for providing Russia the opportunity to practice the simultaneous management of military operations in three theaters.