Russia’s General Staff uses the annual strategic-level capstone military exercise to test a number of aspects of the Armed Forces, ranging from combat readiness, improved command and control (C2), to rehearsing different levels of conflict, including inter-state warfare (see EDM, September 23). In recent years, these large-scale exercises have featured international participation, particularly since Vostok 2018, offering opportunities to hone skills relating to joint operations and coalition building. Moreover, such drills permit additional ways to experiment with potentially innovative approaches to future combat operations. The most recent strategic command-staff exercise (strategicheskiye komandno-shtabnyye ucheniya—SKShU), Kavkaz 2020, held during September 21–26 and centered on the Southern Military District/Joint Strategic Command (Obyedinennyye Strategicheskoye Komandovanie—OSK), witnessed Russia’s first use of drone swarms to assist in target acquisition (see EDM, September 30). Kavkaz 2020 also tested a new “mobile echelon,” among the broader scope of the exercise.
Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu offered a summary of the various tasks assigned to Russia’s Armed Forces during Kavkaz 2020, stressing the overall success of last month’s SKShU. Shoigu stated that the exercise tested “new methods” of interaction among units, in the context of modern complex operational environments. He noted new reconnaissance, strike and fire systems, as well as further development of the Automated Command and Control System (Avtomatizirovannyye Sistemy Upravleniya—ASU). Shoigu also said special attention was paid to the potential use of high-precision weapons, reconnaissance and electronic warfare (EW) systems, the automation of the processes of C2, and unifying reconnaissance and information-control systems (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, October 27).
Kavkaz 2020 involved the Russian military experimenting with a “mobile echelon,” assessing its performance and the ways to exploit this during future combat operations. Shoigu explained, “The joint actions of a separate airborne assault brigade and an army aviation brigade have significantly increased the dynamics and pressure to destroy the enemy.” He added that the Airborne Forces (Vozdushno Desantnye Voyska—VDV) used the exercise to rehearse the drop of ten combat vehicles from military transport aircraft; this seems to represent an improvement on VDV tactics that featured in Tsentr 2019. Although Shoigu was light on the details surrounding the “mobile echelon,” the force mix of VDV and Ground Forces aviation seems to have focused on speed of action and attacking the mock enemy from unexpected directions (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, October 27).
Equally, other innovative features of the exercise included engineering units from the Southern MD/OSK cutting off an enemy’s approach toward a bridge using a two-kilometer barrage that saw use of the new TOS-2 flamethrower. Shoigu noted, “Within the framework of the main stage of the exercise, Russian servicemen for the first time used the latest heavy flamethrower system TOS-2.” The TOS-2 Tosochka weapon is expected to be procured for introduction in the Ground Forces in 2021. This modernized derivation will replace the 30-year-old TOS-1 Solntsepek flamethrower system. It is installed on a chassis, rather than tracked, as was the case with the existing TOS-1, while being fitted with new rockets and increased range of destruction. The flamethrower system annihilates its target by launching a massive barrage of unguided rockets with thermobaric and smoke-inducing warheads, which create a wide field of high temperature and excess pressure. The TOS-2 is equipped with a modern automated fire control system and does not need the help of transport loading vehicles in preparation for firing; the ammunition is reloaded from vehicles using its own loader crane (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, October 27).
Kavkaz 2020 also worked out the most effective ways to destroy “jihad mobiles” (vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices), based on the combat experience gained in Syria. This uses the most modern reconnaissance means: in particular, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), radio-technical and optical-electronic reconnaissance. Shoigu evidently also wanted to highlight the “international” dimension of the exercise, as he stressed the “coalition” element tied to the September maneuvers. “The created coalition group has shown excellent results in fulfilling the tasks of resolving armed conflicts related to countering terrorism. For example, the spatial scope of the exercise was more than a thousand kilometers. And the practical actions of the troops were practiced at six combined arms and two air training grounds, in the waters of the Black and Caspian seas,” he declared (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, October 27).
The coalition forces included those from Armenia (participating prior to the reignition of the Karabakh conflict), Belarus, China, Myanmar and Pakistan; Russian and Iranian warships rehearsed joint operations in the Caspian Sea. However, Russia’s Ministry of Defense placed the total number of foreign military personnel at 858. Five countries sent observers: Azerbaijan, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan and Iran (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, October 27).
According to the defense ministry, a total of about 80,000 troops participated in Kavkaz 2020, including combat formations and units, logistical and technical support, as well as air-defense, naval and special forces (Rosgvardia and the Ministry of Emergencies) (Mil.ru, accessed October 26). The defense ministry defined the main goals of Kavkaz 2020 as follows:
– Checking the degree of readiness of the leadership and C2 of the Southern MD/OSK, the command personnel, tactical (operational) groups to control groupings of troops (forces), as well as formations and subunits in the course of joint operations to localize and resolve armed conflicts related to countering terrorism;
– Increasing interoperability between C2 bodies and troops (forces) in the course of solving problems of maintaining peace, protecting national interests and ensuring military security;
– Offering practice for commanders and command staffs in C2 in the preparation for and during the conduct of military operations in the southwest strategic direction; and
– Ensuring the readiness of Russia’s Armed Forces and partner states to protect national interests, while increasing the level of interaction in the course of solving joint tasks (Mil.ru, accessed October 26).
Beyond these officially declared goals for the 2020 SKShU, there were clearly a number of experimental or innovative elements. These included the emphasis on using UAV swarms as a means to locate and fix targets among enemy forces, as well as the innovative combination of VDV units alongside Ground Forces aviation to offer a “mobile echelon.” Overall, the exercise scenario, with its counter-terrorist dimensions, seemed to examine a range of conflict types, but focusing on escalation control in terms of local war reaching the level of a regional conflict. Given the ongoing real-world hostilities in the South Caucasus, Russia’s General Staff is surely examining this specific aspect of the exercise quite closely.