Russia’s minister of defense, Army General Sergei Shoigu, used his annual address to the Defense Ministry Collegium, on December 24, to detail the advances in the country’s Armed Forces in 2019. In his speech, he blamed the current poor state of relations between Russia and the United States and its allies firmly on Washington and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). However, some of his reflections on the achievements of the year, even if exaggerated, provide insights into the evolving priorities for Russian defense planning and force development as well as highlight areas where they continued to face challenges (Mil.ru, December 24, 2019).
Shoigu stated that the modernization targets are on course, with the share of “modern” or “new” weapons, hardware and equipment reaching 68.2 percent overall. The percentage is much higher in the nuclear forces, with the Strategic Missile Forces (Raketnye Voyska Strategicheskogo Naznacheniya—RVSN) achieving 76 percent and the nuclear triad overall reaching 82 percent. He noted that the first missile regiment to receive the new Avangard hypersonic glide vehicles began duty in December. Shoigu then provided data on the levels of conventional military procurement in 2019. This included 624 tanks or armored vehicles, 143 aircraft or helicopters, 13 satellites, 1 submarine, 8 surface warships (with 17 vessels and support ships), 4 coastal missile systems, and “10,000” pieces of communications equipment. Shoigu claimed that “combat potential” increased by 14 percent, though he offered no information on how this figure is calculated (Mil.ru, December 24, 2019). On the issue of kontraktniki (contract personnel), he provided no comment on why the target figure (475,600) has been switched from a 2020 deadline to 2025 (TASS, December 11, 2019).
Shoigu also asserted that “Russian troops are the guarantor of peace in Syria.” Referring to the Aerospace Forces (Vozdushno Kosmicheskikh Sil—VKS) operations in Syria, the defense minister said this has dropped to two-to-three sorties per day, compared with the period 2015–2017 with an average of 80–90 bombing runs daily. However, noting the continued use of the Syrian theater of operations as a training opportunity for the Russian Armed Forces, Shoigu referred to testing a total of 359 weapons systems in Syria (Mil.ru, December 24, 2019).
Of course, in terms of advances in training, the highlight of the last combat training year culminated in the strategic command-staff exercise (Strategicheskiye Komandno-Shtabnyye Ucheniya—SKShU), Tsentr 2019, which tested military capability interconnected through the Russian variant of network-centric warfare: the Reconnaissance-Fire System (Razvedyvatelno-Ognevaya Sistema—ROS) (see EDM, September 25, 2019). Moscow promoted the multilateral features of the exercise, with forces contributed from India, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, China, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. A curious claim concerned the overall size of the personnel numbers involved in Tsentr 2019—“128,000”—which one unnamed Russian general apparently equated (with no further clarification) to the size of the “European Army” (VPK, December 24). Tsentr 2019 featured a number of key achievements and experiments. The former included the first-ever airdrop of an entire Airborne Forces regiment during the exercise; it was not entirely successful, however, with the loss of several combat vehicles during the process. The Tsentr 2019 experiments included greater focus on the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) during combat operations, increased accuracy in fires using advanced artillery (especially with automated variants), as well as factoring into the exercise lessons drawn from Russia’s military operations in Syria, mainly in relation to force protection (VPK, December 24).
Perhaps an underestimated achievement in the development of Russia’s Armed Forces in 2019 was the successful introduction of a new system for the promotion of officers, with fully updated staffing, marking a “personnel revolution.” Prior to introducing the new personnel promotion system, the previous version was a complex “multi-stage” process. The process has now been streamlined, and, in particular, the selection of officers for promotion is now more stringent. For example, the commander of a division or brigade can only be promoted after also graduating from the Academy of the General Staff. Combat experience is another factor in the new promotion system. Combined-arms officers are also prioritized for promotion in this new system (VPK, December 24).
The commander of a Military District (MD)/Joint Strategic Command (Obyedinennyye Strategicheskoye Komandovanie—OSK) is extremely important in the Russian military hierarchy, with all uniformed personnel, including those under other “power ministries,” placed under his command during combat operations. In order to become an MD/OSK commander, it is no longer required to have held the post of head of the Main Operations Department. Instead, such an officer needs to have served as deputy head of the Academy of the General Staff or head of the military training and scientific center of the Ground Forces. The current commander of the group of forces in Syria, Lieutenant General Alexander Chaiko, also holds the post of deputy chief of the Academy of the General Staff. Before this, he was the chief of staff of the Eastern MD. Colonel General Alexander Lapin, prior to being appointed to the post of commander of the Central MD, was head of the military training and scientific center of the Ground Forces (VPK, December 24).
Over the past year, Russia made numerous observable advances in military capability, and the Armed Forces achieved undoubted progress in their modernization. The introduction of a new officer promotion system appears to highlight combat experience and merit. An area of continued challenge, however, lies in the recruitment and retention of kontraktniki. The levels seem stuck (384,000), and the struggle to push toward achieving targets that were set several years ago resulted in extending the deadline to 2025. While the Russian defense ministry does not publish the figures on the annual numbers of kontraktniki leaving service, it is interesting to note that an effort is underway to evaluate the professional standards of existing contract soldiers, with undisclosed numbers already being fired on this basis; this factor may also have influenced the decision to reset the deadline to 2025. Equally, it is clear that Russia’s Armed Forces have enormously benefited from the combat experience and experimentation in Syria. All those trends bear watching for likely continuity or potential reversals in 2020.