The Russian Armed Forces have benefited from and been boosted by their operation in Syria, more than any other military intervention in Russia’s post-Soviet history. President Vladimir Putin used the opportunity of his visit to the Russian airbase in Latakia, on December 11, to announce a “withdrawal” of forces from Syria, while threatening future strikes if terrorists dare to “raise their heads.” Meanwhile, the chief of the General Staff, Army General Valery Geramisov, struck a similar tone in declaring that the Aerospace Forces (Vozdushno Kosmicheskikh Sil—VKS) effectively routed the Islamic State in Syria (Kremlin.ru, December 11). While these statements may appear hyperbolic, if not premature, there is no doubt that the Russian military has gained tremendously from its two-year involvement in Syria, deploying a comparatively small force, suffering only light casualties and avoiding becoming bogged down in the quagmire forecast by many Western governments. Yet, the extent to which the military has capitalized on the Syria intervention is evident in its use as a large-scale training opportunity for commanders; moreover, the lessons being drawn from the campaign are shaping the new Russian armaments program.
In an article in Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, Colonel General Andrei Kartapolov, the commander of the Western Military District (MD), highlights the achievements of the current training year and offers some insights into the priorities for 2018. At the center of his reflections on the 2017 training year, Kartapolov refers to lessons drawn from Zapad 2017 and the overall operational experience in Syria. He notes that during the current year, the Western MD held 1,200 exercises at various levels, including its involvement in Zapad 2017, asserting that operational and combat training has increased in quantity and quality. Kartapolov states that such training within the Western MD rehearsed approaches to warfare based upon lessons drawn from the use of the Russian military in Syria (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, December 6).
According to Kartapolov, these trends and themes in combat training will continue in 2018, suggesting that officer training will involve more competitiveness and stress “self-learning.” Kartapolov, similar to the commanders of three other MDs among the country’s five military districts, has combat experience gained in Syria (see EDM, July 26, 2016); currently, this pattern is also reflected in many of the leading officers throughout the Armed Forces. In short, Moscow has exploited its intervention in Syria as a training opportunity for the officer corps by rotating many of its military brass in and out of the conflict areas; this has benefited the VKS, the Ground Forces, the Special Operations Forces, the Navy and also extends to the use of private military companies (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, December 6; see EDM, March 16, 22, October 12).
Kartapolov praises the success of ongoing military modernization, which is increasing the levels of new or modern weapons and equipment in his MD (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, December 6). Despite international sanctions and challenges to Russia’s economy, it appears that the state will continue to support the modernization process in the longer term. The State Armaments Program to 2025 (Gosudarstvennaya Programma Vooruzheniya—GPV), has been long delayed, and is now referred to as the GPV to 2027 (see EDM, November 29). As this planning is refined prior to its finalization and signing by Putin, it seems clear that Russia’s nuclear forces and further introduction of high-technology conventional precision-strike systems will be the key priorities for rearmament. According to President Putin, its main aim will be to further modernize the nuclear deterrent, placing high priority on the strategic nuclear forces. This will gradually replace older systems with new ones in order to ensure the enduring capability of Russia’s nuclear deterrent and capacity to overcome enemy missile defense (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, December 8).
In addition to the nuclear priority, conventional forces will benefit mainly by the increased attention to and introduction of high-precision strike weapons. Deputy Defense Minister Army General Yury Borisov also confirmed this trend in defense spending by specifically tying the emphasis on high-precision weapons to the experience of the Syria conflict. Borisov explained to reporters that, in addition to the introduction of greater numbers of these high-precision weapons, there will be additional related demand for information support systems—these will include aviation and space-based assets. Moreover, the GPV to 2027 will reorient to large-scale funding for scientific research in defense to further develop the high-precision strike capability in Russia’s conventional Armed Forces. This will involve efforts to boost the numbers of highly qualified defense-sector scientific staff to facilitate the wider aims of strengthening and increasing the high-precision strike components of the military (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, December 8).
It is clear therefore, that Russia’s military and the longer-term modernization program are being significantly boosted due to the operational experience gained in Syria. General Kartapolov’s comments make a clear connection between the Syria campaign and the surge of interest in high-precision systems. This will also benefit the modernization plans in other military districts. For example, Moscow intends to construct a naval base on the Kurile Islands (several of these islands are disputed with Tokyo), in the Eastern MD. Original Japanese military infrastructure on the Kuriles has long ago deteriorated, demanding renovation by Moscow; this will include revamping the runway on Matua to receive strategic aviation as well as constructing a naval facility to support submarines and surface vessels. Tu-22M3 strategic bombers equipped with conventional strike weapons will be able to use the island to enhance strategic non-nuclear capability in the Asia-Pacific Region (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, November 29).
Although Russian military commanders and defense officials refer to drawing lessons from Zapad 2017, it seems clear that the GPV to 2027 is being shaped primarily by lessons drawn from operations in Ukraine and Syria. The emphasis on high-precision weapons as well as command, control communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) systems is most certainly rooted in the Syria conflict. Although the majority of VKS sorties in Syria did not use high-precision strike weapons, experimentation in the use of such systems has convinced the defense ministry and General Staff that more of these are needed in the military inventory. As modernization shifts in favor of such systems and the military benefits from combat-experienced senior commanders, the range of options at the Kremlin’s disposal to avoid having to rely on “boots on the ground” grows. In the future—based on this modernization plan and combined with experience of the low-cost, smaller-scale operation in Syria—Moscow may be more willing to pursue military intervention, both on its periphery and if local support is offered on an expeditionary basis.