Despite the global COVID-19 pandemic, the Russian Armed Forces have vigorously pursued the summer combat training schedule throughout the country’s five military districts (MDs). International attention was sparked by Russia’s recent air-defense and naval exercises—especially the large maritime war games in the Baltic Sea, which prompted the Baltic States to go on alert. However, a less well publicized military exercise staged in August in the Central MD offers insights into the utility of Moscow’s military experimentation in Syria as well as its application to the role of combined-arms units in future operations. While the main strategic exercise of 2020 is scheduled for this month (Kavkaz 2020, September 15–27), centered on the Southern MD, the rehearsal of tactical and operational approaches to combat operations conducted in the Central MD, on August 10–14, appears to signal the implementation of a Russian variant of the United States military’s concept of “multi-domain operations,” which has important implications for Russia’s evolving conventional military capabilities (Aviaport.ru, August 12).
The mid-August drills involved the 41st and 2nd combined-arms armies (CAA) in the Central MD, and included 12,000 personnel, 3,000 units of equipment and more than 20 aircraft. The rehearsal of combat operations occurred at four training ranges in Siberia and Volga regions; these ranges are located in Tyva, Novosibirsk, Kemerovo and Orenburg oblasts. Motorized rifle and tank units; groups of missile forces and artillery: air-defense, operational-tactical and army aviation, and electronic warfare (EW) units; Radiation, Chemical and Biological Protection Troops (Radiatsionnoy, Khimicheskoy i Biologicheskoy Zashchity—RKhBZ); as well as logistics personnel were involved. The participating forces additionally utilized various Russian unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV): the Forpost, Orlan-10 and Eleron (Orengrad.ru, August 11).
The overall goal of the exercise was to test and check the level of preparedness of the command-and-control (C2) structures, evaluate the command staffs of military units and formations to form “force groupings,” develop staff leadership skills, and increase unit interoperability and cohesion during the execution of operations. The commanders in the exercise were tasked with working out ways to counter an enemy offensive. Moreover, one of the key features of the maneuvers was to use force groupings to commence and repel a “global strike” from a simulated adversary and to form the counter-action in a multi-sphere operation (mnogosfernoy operatsii—apparently the Russian General Staff’s interpretation of the US term, “multi-domain operations”) (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, August 25).
Reportedly on August 14, motorized rifle, tank, missile forces and artillery, air-defense, operational-tactical and army aviation, EW, as well as RKhBZ units began to perform combat training tasks within the framework of a single operational background and concept and in in real time. As one commentary noted, “the multi-sphere operation involves the conduct of hostilities in various environments—on land, water, in the air and even in space” (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, August 25).
The exercise included more than 400 tactical episodes, drawing on the experience of the Russian military deployment and operations in Syria. These tactical elements tested new forms and means of using deployed forces in combat operations. In terms of reconnaissance, for example, Su-24MR reconnaissance aircraft and Orlan-10 UAVs identified and observed the enemy’s troop locations. This was followed by multi-role Su-34 fighter-bombers equipped with the Khibiny EW defense systems (see EDM, June 13, 2018), which provided group protection and delivered an air strike with high-explosive fragmentation bombs against anti-aircraft missile systems. This preceded the use of Ground Forces to attack the notional “enemy,” supported by high-precision strikes from the Iskander-M operational-tactical missile systems, which covered critical infrastructure facilities with deadly fire (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, August 25).
According to the commander of the Central MD, Colonel General Alexander Lapin, a feature of this exercise was the use of force groupings in opening and repelling a global strike by a simulated enemy. Also, the participating units practiced utilizing an integrated defense system with the inclusion of forces and means of EW, reconnaissance, air defense and long-range fire damage. Lapin explained, “In addition, during the exercise, we tested in practice measures to improve the C2 system. After all, it is competent and continuous C2 over troops that is the main guarantee of the success of any operation. We tested the latest Tigr-based mobile command posts from the operational-strategic to the tactical level. In other words, from the military district to the brigade, inclusive. This innovation gave the commanders the opportunity to continuously control the troops, including on the move, and it also provided them with protection, which is important when performing tasks on the front line” (Rossisykaya Gazeta, August 14; Aviaport.ru, August 12).
In the final stages of the exercise, focused on Orenburg, the two combined-arms armies were integrated with the large-scale use of aviation and air-defense systems to protect the area of deployment. Oleg Falichev notes in his commentary in Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, “In particular, the grouping of aviation and air-defense forces, created to protect the area of deployment and air support of the troops, repelled missile strikes and UAVs as well as destroyed ground targets of the imaginary enemy. The crews of the Tunguska anti-aircraft missile and cannon systems and Igla man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS) repulsed the attack of more than 50 UAVs with precision equipment.” Falichev adds, that a more difficult task was assigned to a squadron of Su-34s, “which had to fight with the launches of enemy anti-aircraft missile systems. A simple raid […] would not give anything here. Therefore, the leadership had to develop a special operation to penetrate into the depths of the enemy’s echeloned air defense using EW. Acting as a group and lining up in a circle formation, the Mi-24P crews inflicted continuous fire damage at targets in the fortified area, for which they used S-8 unguided air-to-surface missiles. [The targets included] [c]ommunications, command posts and communication routes of the area occupied by the enemy” (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, August 25).
These experiments in the Central MD suggest that not only is the General Staff actively learning from the experience gained in Syria, but it is also building those lessons into the exercise planning efforts to achieve greater force integration. This is clearly concentrated on enhancing the accuracy of firepower. However, judging by the content and emphasis of the last month’s drills in central Russia, the concept of multi-domain operations seems to be gaining traction.