Russia’s Armed Forces and security bodies have concluded the primary military exercise of the combat training year. The strategic-operational exercise Tsentr 2015 was the largest of the year, modeling an intervention in Central Asia under the umbrella of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). The exercise took place at training grounds in the Central Military District (MD) and in Kazakhstan; Russia also rehearsed repelling an air attack using the Caspian Flotilla. Tsentr 2015 offers insights into ongoing efforts to test and strengthen strategic mobility, achieve joint action among a range of military and security forces and other government agencies, as well as experiment with new weapons and equipment. Furthermore, Tsentr 2015 provided observers with continued reference to strategic messaging to other actors during Russia’s military exercises (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, September 18).
On September 7, the supreme commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces, President Vladimir Putin, ordered a “snap inspection” of the units located in the Central MD, placing these and aviation units in other MDs on full combat alert. The scale of the snap inspection and the units involved matched the Tsentr 2015 exercise; the inspection, lasting from September 7 to 12, involved 95,000 troops, 7,000 pieces of military equipment and 170 aircraft. These same forces remained on alert prior to commencing the military exercise (Interfax, September 7).
The snap inspection prepared participating forces for the Tsentr 2015 exercise. It involved airborne forces, air force and air defense units, the navy (Caspian Flotilla) as well as Ground Forces based in the Central MD. A key feature of the inspection was to test strategic mobility provided by 40 IL-76 transporters redeploying troops over large distances. This accounts for approximately one third of the transport aircraft capacity at the disposal of Russia’s Armed Forces. Although planned well in advance, this feature of the inspection and relocation during the military exercise came at a time of increasing reports of Russian military deployment in Syria. Based on the reporting of the snap inspection and Tsentr 2015, Russian commanders and senior defense staffs paid a great deal of attention to strategic mobility. Moreover, tactical missile systems such as the Tochka-U were redeployed to training ranges in Orenburg, more than 1,000 kilometers away; while air force landings were specially designed to evade fire from man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS) (TASS, September 11; Interfax, September 7–20).
Colonel-General Andrei Kartapolov, the chief of the Main Operations Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, downplayed the idea that the snap inspection and Tsentr 2015 reflect any deterioration in the international security environment. Kartapolov also confirmed that the snap inspection was designed to prepare forces for Tsentr 2015. In addition to raising the level of combat readiness among the units involved, much of the emphasis was on moving personnel and equipment by air and rail over large distances, stressing “unfamiliar terrain,” with a clear practical application to either Ukraine or Syria (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, September 11).
Tsentr 2015 was placed under the control of the chief of the General Staff, Army-General Valery Gerasimov. The vast distances involved covered the territory of Central Russia from the Volga to Siberia and also included elements of the Baltic Fleet and Airborne Troops (VDV) personnel in Pskov. Consequently, the same numbers of personnel and equipment were consistent across the snap inspection and the exercise itself. Gerasimov stressed that the scenario for Tsentr 2015 was joint action to localize an armed conflict in Central Asia, which added the CSTO dimension and involved access to training grounds and personnel participating in Kazakhstan. During an anti-terrorist vignette at a training ground in Kazakhstan’s West Regional Command, four Kazakhstani army contract servicemen accidentally died (Krasnaya Zvezda, September 21).
Colonel-General Aleksandr Lentsov, the deputy commander-in-chief of the Russian Ground Forces, said that every effort was made to make the operational environment in the exercise as close to real combat as possible. The Aerospace Forces’ commander-in-chief, Colonel-General Viktor Bondarev, declared, “We will use this exercise to work on how we form up our order of battle, because 170 aircraft is a huge number and it is necessary for the command-and-control group to have some experience with guidance for these aircraft. In addition, the crews must fly in formation and attack ground targets the right way as the Ground Forces also move in line with their tasks at the same time.” The commanders of the Navy, Military Transport Aviation and the VDV made similar statements about the high demands placed on them during Tsentr 2015. According to the commander of the Central MD, Colonel-General Vladimir Zarudnitskogo, the exercise involved deploying established units to designated areas and directing them by using advanced automated Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4ISR). Indeed, the exercise seems to have served as a test bed for a number of advanced systems, including the reconnaissance complex “Strelets” and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) such as “Zastava,” “Takhion,” “Orlan-10,” “Forpost” and “Leer-3” (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, September 14).
Four Andromeda-D mobile automated command posts were deployed for command and control over the “immediate-use group of forces” from the Airborne Troops, (31st Ulyanovsk Air Assault Brigade and the 98th Ivanovo Division—both part of CSTO Collective Rapid Reaction Forces). Reportedly, a “new automated electronic warfare command-and-control system” was also field tested during Tsentr 2015. Indeed, the electronic warfare aspect of field testing new equipment was prominent, with around 150 pieces of electronic warfare equipment used, including “latest models” such as Borisoglebsk-2, Krasukha-4S and Infauna, as well as the Zhitel automated jamming station. TMM-3 heavy mechanized bridges were used to lay three river crossings to enable a tank company to cross the river Chernaya (Donguz, Orenburg Region). UR-77 mine clearance systems, BMR-3M mine clearance vehicles and Uran-6 mine clearance “robots” also featured in the exercise (Interfax, September 15).
A number of observations may be made concerning the aims and activities in the snap inspection and Tsentr 2015. Clearly, both were intrinsically linked, and the prime focus was on strategic mobility. Despite the international sanctions regime, a great deal of new high-technology assets are appearing in the military’s inventory. And no doubt drawing lessons from operations in Ukraine, these systems will be further refined. The Russians are improving their coordination of various force elements from across the power ministries. In the context of Ukraine and possible Russian air support operations in Syria, Tsentr 2015 contained the all-too-familiar strategic messaging signals for other actors based on deploying the missile troops. It remains a fact that Russia has limited power projections capabilities, but what they do have is being honed and sharpened in ways to extract more clout on the world stage at minimal cost.