Russia’s General Staff has a long-established interest in automatizing and enhancing command and control, which has shown remarkable advances since the reform of the Armed Forces was initiated in 2008. These changes, propelled forward by recent experience of combat operations in Ukraine and Syria, are also closing the gap between military theory and Russian military capability. Growing confidence in these advances—coupled with implementing command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) approaches to modern combat operations, theoretical discussions and experimentation in the field—were exemplified by a series of threats to the United States and its allies ahead of their April 14 precision strikes on Syria’s chemical weapons program (see EDM, April 16, 19). Russia’s threats to target enemy platforms and missiles in certain circumstances, the great care taken in the conduct of the allied strikes, aspects of the Russian disinformation campaign that followed, as well as developments in Russian C2 disruption theory are all important indicators that Moscow has formed a credible stand-off strike capability (Voenno-Promyshlennyi Kurier, April 24).
Concerning the success or failure of the April 14 missile strikes on Syria, the cycle of claims and counter-narratives is well-known: While the US, France and the United Kingdom claim success in destroying the designated targets, Moscow and Damascus argue that most missiles were intercepted. The official position of Russia’s defense ministry is that over 60 percent of the missiles were shot down, despite widely publicized aerial before-and-after-images of the target sites that suggest otherwise. Some Moscow-based defense specialists contended that the purported “failure” of the strikes not only shows that older Russian air defense systems in Syria remain potent and robust, but the entire episode calls into question US and Western approaches to non-contact warfare. It was also argued that the details of the US-UK-French strikes and the Syrian/Russian response would result in a widespread rethinking on the nature of anti-access, area denial capability (A2/AD). Russian experts were keen to stress that the “failure” of these strikes confirmed the strength of Russia’s A2/AD capability and its integrated approaches to layered air defense (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, April 20; Voenno-Promyshlennyi Kurier, Gazeta.ru, April 16).
Nonetheless, one critical article in Voenno-Promyshlennyi Kurier sought to move away from discussing the success or failure of the allied operation and instead assessed some of the technical aspects of the strikes. This approach appears to confirm the extent to which the Western powers took seriously the threat of a retaliatory strike by Moscow, de facto recognizing that the presence of Russian military forces and assets significantly complicates operational planning (Voenno-Promyshlennyi Kurier, April 16).
According to the author, unlike the unilateral US attack on al-Shayrat airbase in April 2016, the recent strikes required close coordination, greater attention to planning for possible retaliation, more use of reconnaissance assets, and careful avoidance of either activating Russian air defense in Syria or risking a Russian retaliatory strike. This was illustrated by a number of factors. In the hours before the strikes, the US strategic unmanned reconnaissance RQ-4 Global Hawk flew off the coast of Lebanon, and the reconnaissance effort was augmented by reported unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) flights in international waters north of Egypt. Also, above the Mediterranean Sea, a US Air Force E-11A appeared in order to synchronize the work of automated C4ISR at strategic, operational and tactical levels. The aircraft flew from Kandahar, Afghanistan. The allied air grouping was accompanied by a number of refueling tankers, which were not necessary for the operation but appear to have been a contingency for a real air battle (Voenno-Promyshlennyi Kurier, April 16).
The author also argued that most of the precision strikes were from the southwest, using a route over the territory of Lebanon with an additional route along the Syrian-Jordanian border. His article continued by highlighting the geography of the location of the naval grouping in the attack. He noted a destroyer and frigate operating from the Red Sea, and the destroyer USS Higgins in the Persian Gulf, while in the Mediterranean Sea, only the French frigate Languedoc and the US submarine John Warner operated. He made no mention of the reported cat-and-mouse activity between the UK Royal Navy and Russian submarines in the Mediterranean Sea. But the author assessed that the naval assets in the allied attack were kept well back from the strike range of Russian military assets in the region. The Voenno-Promyshlennyi Kurier author concluded that the Pentagon took the threat of a Russian retaliatory strike seriously and factored this into operational planning (Voenno-Promyshlennyi Kurier, April 16).
If one accepts that the allied strikes on Syrian targets were carefully planned to avoid any Russian military response, then this presumably confirms Russian military advances in C4ISR as well as Russia’s ability to act, react and conduct credible conventional stand-off strikes when required. Recent advances in automatizing Russian C2 are being further advanced by theorists in the General Staff, and operational experience against (albeit less technologically advanced) adversaries in Ukraine and Syria are driving this process. The theory and practice gap is clearly narrowing (Voyennaya Mysl, September 2017, pp. 43–50). Equally, Russian military theorists are actively working on the development of enemy C2 disruption theory. In one article in Voyennaya Mysl, the authors framed their ideas for disrupting enemy C2 on the basis that an information confrontation on the battlefield transforms into a conflict to gain superiority in C2. In this sense, the Russian General Staff is not only thinking about an information-contested battlespace, but also how to gain C2 superiority over enemy forces. The authors confirm that, in kinetic contact with a high-technology adversary, Moscow will target enemy C4ISR with a range of assets, including strike systems and electronic warfare (EW), to disrupt and attempt to achieve superiority (Voyennaya Mysl, September 2017, pp. 65–69).
Syria has proved to be a testing ground for many Russian military systems and advances as well as for experiments in its approaches toward modern warfare. Equally, Syria has now become an illustration of Russia’s entry into a network-enabled warfare capability with non-contact precision strike at its heart. Russian threats to target allied platforms may well have heavily influenced Western target selection and other operational details during the April 14 strike. But the willingness to resort to hard power against the US and its allies, if genuine, indicates a level of confidence in Moscow about conventional capability and escalation control. Clearly, following the April 14 strikes, the possibility of Russian retaliatory strikes may complicate and limit US military power projection in the future.