On 7 November 2017 Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov held a speech where he described the state of the Russian armed forces. The speech was given at an open session at the Ministry of Defense in connection with a conference on the implementation of the presidential decrees of May 2012 and the 2020 plan of the Russian Ministry of Defense.
Gerasimov is famous for straight up talk, and he has said interesting things in the past. He is a representative of the Russian government, so obviously he adheres to a certain protocol. The developments that he describes happened on his watch in the General Staff, so a certain inclination to a positive view must also be expected. With those two abstractions, however, Gerasimov’s speech stands out as matter-of-fact account of the state of the Russian armed forces as seen through the lens of the military leadership.
I thought it would be interesting to look closer at the speech. The point has been to show Gerasimov’s message, so the following is not a critical review. Instead I have tried to make a loyal description of what Gerasimov said. The speech itself is detail-oriented and rich on factual information, and I have omitted much of that to make the message stand out more clearly.
I have made the review based on the Russian version of the speech, which is available on the Defense Ministry’s website. An English translation is also available, but it is seriously challenged and leaves out many of Gerasimov’s most interesting points.
Over the last five years most developments in the armed forces have been directed towards increasing the strength of the army and the navy.
Most efforts have been put into the maintenance of a high combat readiness for nuclear and conventional strategic forces, the enhancement of a multilayered air defense system, and improvements to command and control systems. The development of joint task forces that can operate independently in strategic environments is also a result of this process.
Nuclear forces increase deterrence profile
More than 300 new kinds of equipment and weapons have been taken into use during the last five years. This includes new and modernized equipment for the nuclear forces that have received more than 80 intercontinental missiles, and 12 regiments have been equipped with the new Yars launchers. The number of modernized equipment for the strategic nuclear forces – a somewhat diffuse Russian yardstick that measures the quality of the equipment – rose from 42 percent to 66 percent during the last five years, while the application of countermeasures against a ballistic missile defense rose by 30 percent (again a rather unclear measurement). Work is continued on the development of more effective warheads and more sophisticated countermeasures against missile defenses.
With regards to the navy’s role in nuclear deterrence, Gerasimov mentioned the new Borei-class of nuclear submarines (Dolgorukiy-class in NATO terms). This submarine is finally operative, and Russia has designated 102 ballistic missiles to these submarines. This dramatically improves the strategic power of Russia’s submarine fleet. Work has started on an improved Borei-B version of the submarine.
The Air Force has experienced a modernization of the strategic bombers TU-160M (Blackjack) and TU-95MC (Bear) that includes stronger engines and improved electronic equipment. Production of TU-160M has been resumed, so in addition to the upgrade of older models the total number also increases. Overall the number of aircraft capable of carrying modern cruise missiles has increased by 11 times (!) since 2012, and strategic bombers now count for 75.7% of the total number of aircraft. The total strength of the airborne nuclear strategic forces has increased by 1.5 times since 2012, which again is a somewhat opaque way to measure things but definitely sounds impressive.
Counting all nuclear forces on land, ships, and aircraft, the number of modern weapons now constitutes 74%.
Conventional deterrence raises nuclear threshold
Highly accurate long-range cruise missiles with conventional warheads are important to Russia’s military strategy. Over the last five years there has been a breakthrough in the implementation of land-based Islander-M missiles and ship-based Kalibr missiles. An ongoing modernization of aircraft will make more platforms capable of launching Kh-101 missiles. The number of cruise missile launchers as increased 12 times since 2012, and the number of missiles has increased by more than 30 times.
Russia has worked intensively to create a command and control structure that allows an effective use of cruise missiles. Systems for informations sharing, planning, and preparation of use data are now in place, allowing Russia to shoot missiles at distances up to 4,000 kilometers and hit with a few meters’ accuracy.
In the Baltic Sea, Barents Sea, Black Sea, and Mediterranean areas Russia has a solid area denial (A2/AD) capability with ship-borne Kalibr missiles, coastal batteries with the Bastion missile system, and S-400 (SA-21 Growler) air defense systems.
Conventional deterrence is such an important aspect of modern Russian doctrine that I find it prudent to quote Gerasimov directly on this point:
“The achieved dynamics of deployment of high-precision weapons and the ongoing development of hypersonic missiles lifts the fundamental part of strategic deterrence from the nuclear to the conventional realm.”
Air defense and surveillance
In 2015 Russia merged the Air Force and the Cosmic Defense Forces into the newly established Aero-Cosmic Forces. This created, according to Gerasimov, a better leadership structure with a more holistic approach to air defense.
Land based surveillance systems have been improved so Russia now has a complete image over the country that gives warning against an attack with ballistic missiles. Earlier there were some holes to the North and South, but they have been patched. Russia has also through satellites a good image of the most likely launch areas of the missiles, which gives even earlier warnings, and the future development of the system will give global coverage.
Overall Russia has launched 55 military satellites during the last five years. In addition to ballistic surveillance these satellites support command and control, intelligence collection, and navigation.
Every year the Air Force receives more than 200 new aircraft of different kinds, which has allowed the equipment of 12 regiments of the Air Force and three brigades and six regiments of the Army. 16 anti-aircraft regiments have been upgraded to the S-400 missile system.
Over the last five years more than 60 warships have entered service, and 15 of those can launch Kalibr missiles. Naval aviation also received more than 60 new aircraft. A new operational command structure has been developed to better support maritime operations in the Mediterranean.
Overall Gerasimov says that the renewal program for the navy is moving ahead at a high pace. Modern equipment now counts for 53% of the total amount, and the fighting power of the navy has risen by 30% over the last five years.
The Baltic Fleet has received 19 ships of varying sizes since 2012. This includes the corvette Stoiky and the smaller missile vessels Zeleny Dol and Serpukhov, which are able to launch Kalibr missiles. Shore batteries are equipped with Bal and Bastion missile systems.
The development of the army has to a large extent been about the formation of joint battlegroups that are able to operate independently, and where land forces naturally constitute the basic building block.
More than 3000 armored vehicles have been delivered to the Russian army. The equipment has been rapidly modernized, and over the last five years the share of modern equipment has risen from 15 percent to 44.7 percent. Ten missile brigades have received the Iskander-M missile which is capable of performing as a cruise missile as well as a ballistic missile. The command and control system Ratnik-2 is implemented, and Ratnik-3 is under development.
Of special interest to the Baltic region is that an army corps has been established in the Kaliningrad region. There has also been a dramatic development in the field of amphibious and parachute forces that can be rapidly deployed. Russia has more than 30,000 contract soldiers in these desant forces that are ready to move at short notice.
Drone technology is also being rapidly implemented. In 2012 there was a lot of legacy technology but much has been replaced and thanks to 1800 new drones the Russian army is now capable of conducting effective intelligence operations until 500 kilometers in depth. This development will continue, and future drones will be even more effective.
The Russian Armed Forces have put a lot of effort into developing reliable command and control systems. The aim has been to unite the different systems into a whole to provide for effective tactical decisions. These systems proved their effectiveness during the Kavkaz 2016 and Zapad 2017 exercises.
There has also been a rapid development in the field of electronic warfare. This includes jamming equipment installed on drones that effectively blocks radio communications within a range of 100 kilometers. Countermeasures against enemy weapons are also among the equipment that has seen great development. Gerasimov especially points out that Russia has good experience with equipment that interferes with satellite communications including satellite based navigation systems.
Military scientific production
Russia is increasing the production of scientific knowledge as part of its strategy to develop a more modern armed force based on national technology. Since 2012 there has been opened eight new scientific institutes and ten departments within the military educational institutions. Military scientists participated in more than 500 scientific projects with the purpose to increase fighting power.
In order to facilitate the productions of knowledge, there are today higher demands to the qualifications’ level of the employees at Russia’s military scientific institutions. The share of employees with master’s or PhD level qualifications has risen from 16 percent in 2012 to 47 percent in 2017. A great deal of work has been put into the application of scientific knowledge in the practice in the armed forces, and today that process happens twice as fast as before.
Personnel and leadership approach
The personnel situation is pretty good. Overall 95-100 percent of the positions are occupied. Russia is in a proces to move from a conscription based force to a manning based on professional contracts. The number of professional soldiers has increased by two times since 2012 and now counts 384,000 persons.
The readiness level is high, and Russia continues to emphasize this point. Over the last five years there have been conducted 24 unannounced readiness inspections. These inspections, according to Gerasimov, allow for a realistic assessment of the preparedness of the military to handle a real situation. Russia has also increased the intensity of these inspections by including almost 30 percent more measures to be taken.
Special attention is given to the implementation of new methods and the transformation of experiences from armed conflicts into practical applications. It is a goal that military commanders are able to make quick judgments of a situation, predict developments, make innovative decisions, surprise the enemy, be proactive with the goal in mind, achieve suddenness, take considered risks, and to seize and keep the initiative.
The officer corps today consists of highly educated military specialists with real war experience from Syria and other armed conflicts.1 All younger officers have a higher education degree, and most commanders stand out as energetic and goal oriented persons who are able to take appropriate initiatives. The average regiment commander is 38 years old.
Organized collection of practical experiences has been resumed which has led to a more structured debate about problems and their solutions. This has given new approaches to training and practices on the battlefield.
At the unit level, the concept with a focus on joint task groups that are capable of acting independently to make strategic effect has proven its value in big exercises like Zapad 2017 where both the command structure and the units demonstrated their competence. At the individual level there has been a big increase in the activity level since 2012 with sailors spending more days at sea, pilots having more time in the air, drivers making more kilometers, paratroopers having more jumps etc.
A key element in the Russian approach to training is a competitive element. This is both at the individual and the unit levels. The disciplines are designed to promote the professional spirit and to inspire the development of innovative training methods. A new initiative is that particularly good units can achieve an honorary title (ударный – strike) that becomes an official part of the unit’s name for a given time.
Gerasimov mentions several indicators to show that Russia’s military is more engaged in the world. For example submarines are leaving port 4-5 times more frequently now than in 2012.
The war in Syria naturally gets a lot of attention in Gerasimov’s speech. He mentions that the enemy has been extremely competent, prepared, and well equipped. According to Gerasimov, Western instructors have trained many of the illegal groups, and in some cases Western special forces have taken direct part in the leadership of illegal fighters in Syria.
The Russian operation in Syria has been extremely successful. More than 1000 cities have been liberated and over 54,000 illegal fighters have been killed, including 2800 Russian citizens who took part on the enemy side. There has been a successful integration of command, communications, and intelligence systems under the principle of “one target – one bomb”.
Valuable experience has been achieved through the participation in the war in Syria and other armed conflicts. At the individual level the number of people who have attained real war experience is enormous. There have also been gained important insights into the use of modern equipment like cruise missiles from ships and aircraft, new types of aircraft, new airborne weapons, intelligence and target acquisition equipment, electronic warfare systems, and more. Work is constantly conducted to attempt to keep statutory documents and doctrinal papers up to date.
A fundamental doctrinal lesson from the war in Syria is the importance of high-precision missiles. The operation has confirmed the role for these weapons in non-nuclear deterrence, and the massive use of high-precision missiles has become a basic part of any military operation.
The Russian military is in a good position, according to Gerasimov. Despite world events, it has been possible to maintain momentum in the development of the armed forces. This will allow the military to achieve the goals set forth for 2021. This includes:
- Maintain a personnel force where at least 95 percent of the positions are filled by properly trained soldiers.
- Continue the modernization so at least 70 percent of all equipment is modern, and at least 90 percent of materiel is in good service condition.
- Have a full arsenal of missiles, ammunition, and other necessary equipment.
- Maintain intensive innovation in the training of units and command chains.
- Maintain the necessary levels of morale and psychological readiness to complete given assignments.
Though these initiatives it should be possible to secure the safety of Russia and to defend national interests in strategically important regions of the world.
- Gerasimov does not mention Ukraine in his speech. ↩