Quite a few readers will likely make the connection between the headline and a recent post by Michael Kofman over at his Russian Military Analysis blog. The post, titled “Russian A2/AD: It is not overrated, just poorly understood”, has received quite a bit of both praise and pushback in the few days since it was published, and certainly deserve a closer look.
To begin with, last autumn Kofman published a long read over at War on the Rocks. Titled “It’s time to talk about A2/AD: Rethinking the Russian Military Challenge”, it was without doubt one of last year’s best texts on the topic. I recommend anyone not familiar with it to go over there and read it, as it gives a very good overview of why the adoption of terminology originally dealing with a Chinese concept of operations and inserting it into an unrelated Russian context will lead us deep into the land of wrong conclusions. It also details well how the Russian long-range systems fit into the Russian operational concept.
“Russian A2/AD: It is not overrated, just poorly understood” instead looks at the question on a tactical level, and takes issue with what Kofman describes as “technology fetishism and threat inflationism [seemingly] giving way to a dismissive attitude”. There often exist a very real possibility of overcompensating when the first wave of panic-induced threat inflationism is receding, but I am not quite convinced that is what is happening here. Before starting, it should also be pointed out that whenever discussing the “general consensus” or “the discussion” as I do here, it can easily qualify as debating a strawman, since the average opinion, much as the average person, doesn’t exist.
There are several valid points in Kofman’s piece, perhaps the most important of which is that the focus on the strategic long-range systems* of the Aerospace Forces (VKS), which control the Air and Missile Defence Troops (V PVO PRO), leave out a sizeable number of Russian Air Defence assets. This include not only the Russian Air Force, but also the vast number of air defence systems of all kinds and ranges, some of which are very capable, that are subordinated to the Russian Ground Forces’ air defence units (PVO-SV). Another issue is whether Russia in a conventional war against NATO really would think in terms of a limited war, or whether the smallest size would be something along the lines of a conflict stretching along the full span of Russia’s western land border. Perhaps the most important point raised is the importance of discussing how well the Russian systems would work in a Western setting. As was evident especially during the post-Cold War thaw of the 1990’s when Russia shared the thinking behind their weapons programs more openly (though it frankly should have been evident both before and after), the Russian concept of operations differs from NATO’s CONOPS. This in turn means that their development and procurement decision are driven towards solutions that might seem strange or underperfoming in a Western context, but match the requirements of the Russian Armed Forces (ask yourself where all the Russian targeting pods are, just to give one brief example).
However, other issues raised by Kofman aren’t quite as clear-cut in my opinion. Yes, the Russian Air Force did receive 402 new tactical fighters and strike aircraft between 2008 and the end of 2019 (88 of which were Su-35 and 125 of which were Su-34). However, that ten-year run can be contrasted to the deliveries of 134 F-35 in 2019 alone (a year in which the Russian Air Force received 20 new fast jets), with another 140+ planned for next year, not to mention the production figures of other western fighter programs currently running. It should also be noted that the Russian Air Force of 2008 was sorely outdated, and that the aircraft since delivered, while modern, dosen’t necessarily provide the Russian Air Force with a qualitative edge compared to the current western inventory. Big questions surround the Russian fighters when it comes to key areas such as sensor fusion and man-machine interfaces, two fields that have grown in importance over the last decade with the increased amount of information available to the pilots.
The most serious issue for the Russian Air Force however is their weapons. For decades nothing much happened in the field, to the extent that the main air-to-air weapons still are the R-27 family of medium-range and the R-73 short-range missiles, both of which entered service well before the end of the Cold War. The situation is so dire that when the Russian Air Force first went to Syria, they had to resort to the ‘export-only’ RVV-SD to get a medium-ranged missile with an active radar seeker. Deliveries of updated weapons such as the R-77-1 (on which the RVV-SD is based) and the R-74M have now started (though the R-74M is still somewhat uncertain as far as I am aware), but it will take time until they have become the standard load of the fighters.
For air-to-ground, a more or less similar situation exists, not aided by the fact that Russian ‘dumb’ bombs aren’t easily kitable to become smart due to their general construction. The most common air-to-surface missile is the laser-guided Kh-25ML, a weapon with a 10 km range that was in production between 1982 and 1997. Several other air-to-ground systems exist, in fact the Russian arsenal include more diverse weapons/seeker capabilities than the NATO air forces, but the numbers for modern systems are generally low.
This is not to suggest that the air component of a NATO-Russian clash would be easy, especially once considering the possibility of preemptive strikes against NATO air bases and the low stocks of weapons held by the western air forces. It certainly would be a complex and messy affair, of which the SEAD/DEAD mission would be just one aspect.
While much has been written about the Russian focus on electronic warfare, there are still a number of very capable platforms in the west as well. The EA-18G Growler would be a key asset in any US air campaign within the foreseeable future that was faced with modern air defences. Source: Own picture
I do agree that the greatest benefit of ground-based air defences often aren’t their kinetic capabilities, but the fact that their presence on the battlefield causes the enemy to alter tactics and divert resources to managing the threat from these long range systems (or, as Kofman put it, they become McGuffins). There is an inherent value in these systems, but the question is if we haven’t left A2/AD territory a long time ago by this point, and are back to the issue of how to pick apart a multi-layered air defence system made up of multiple components, all with their own strengths and weaknesses. This in itself is nothing new, Vietnam and the Yom Kippur War are probably the two most well-known examples, both in part due to the seemingly superior air force suffering serious losses when trying to get around one kind of threat and running into another one. However, it should be pointed out that the examples to the contrary are also found. The Lebanon War of 1982 and Operation Desert Storm both saw seemingly robust integrated air defence systems supported by serious fighter and interceptor components destroyed with fairly limited losses.
How the Russian air defences stand up against a concentrated air offensive is anyone’s guess. One of the key questions is who really dominates the electronic warfare spectrum? The Russian capabilities have been on test in Ukraine and Syria, but while the focus in west can be said to have been elsewhere during the post-9/11 period, there is still several capable systems and platforms in operational service. The effect they would have on the modular structure of the high-end Russian air defence assets is one of the key unanswered questions.
In the end, if I would have to guess, I find the high-end Russian systems such as the S-400 to likely be overrated. The same goes for the capabilities of active seekers of individual missiles, especially as their ranges grow. The medium-range systems such as the latest versions of the Buk and the Tor, are likely underrated, due to their combination of being easier to hide while still packing a serious punch. The whole A2/AD bastion concept makes little sense for most of Russia (the Murmansk area being the exception). What is completely open to me is how modular the Russian ground-based air defences really are, and how robust this modularity is in the face of a squadron of Growlers. In general, it can also be noted that history hasn’t been kind to ground controlled intercept-based tactics post-WWII.
In the domestic critique of the Pohjanmaa-class, an often repeated claim is that with the Russian focus on light vessels, the few corvettes will simply be overwhelmed by the swarming vessels launching barrages of anti-ship missiles. Rarely however does anyone discuss this claim more in detail, including which small vessels would fire the barrages, whether the Russian fondness for light craft really exist, and what the geography in the Baltic Sea dictates. As it turns out, these oft-repeated truths aren’t necessarily truths at all.
To begin with the geographic realities of the Baltic Fleet needs to be acknowledged. The main base, Baltiysk, sits in Kaliningrad. There it is not only within artillery distance from a NATO-country, but it also lacks a land connection to the Russian mainland, and any ship wanting to exit the port to reach the Baltic Sea has to do so by transiting the two kilometer long and 400 meter wide Strait of Baltiysk which cuts through the Vistula Spit. The second base is located in Kronstadt, just outside of St Petersburg. While the base is located closer to the Russian mainland and more easily defendable, it comes at cost of any vessel wanting to head over to the Baltic Sea proper having to run the full 400 km length of the 40 km wide Gulf of Finland. The Gulf of Finland is also shallow, making submarine operations with conventional submarines challenging. It is often forgotten in the Finnish discussions exactly how bad the geostrategic realities are for the Russian Baltic Fleet in the grand scheme of things.
The Russian Baltic Fleet feature a varied fleet, made up of a significant number of vessels of Cold War designs, including a single destroyer, frigates, light corvettes, and FACs. In addition, seven modern corvettes of three(!) different classes are found. If you are the kind of person who really want to pick the details and look into numbers, at the bottom is a somewhat lengthy go-through of the individual classes and their weapon systems.
In short, the majority of the Baltic Fleet is far from any kind of swarming wunderwaffe. The lightest vessels, the Molnaya, still displace almost twice that of the Hamina-class. The majority of the missiles carried by these vessels are old bordering on obsolete, though getting hit with a 300 kg warhead still hurts if the seeker works. As of writing, the Baltic Fleet operate seven modern vessels with any kind of surface warfare capability (and a single modern minesweeper of the Project 12700 Alexandrit-class), these being the four Steregushchiy, two Buyan-M, and single Karakurt corvettes. Notable is also that the endurance of the vessels are somewhat limited, usually around ten to fifteen days. As was seen during the fleet parades of 2018 reinforcements can come from the outside, though such movements risk alerting the adversary and the number of modern vessels in the Northern and Black Sea Fleets are limited as well.
FLOTPROM reports that the planned displacement of the Project 23560 Leader-class destroyer has grown to 19 tons, and will be nuclear-powered. The other option previously mentioned was 10-12 ton displacement with a gas turbine power-plant. 1/https://t.co/MwdosyTrw5pic.twitter.com/IBxQZ3n4u5
A key point of the Russian fleet programmes is that the current focus is on frigates and corvettes, as opposed to swarming light vessels. However, it should be noted that this is also not due to a lack of interest in larger vessels. Many of the older destroyers and cruisers are undergoing long and difficult modernisation programs and overhauls, and there are longtime ambitions to launch new large surface combatants. However, the decade long gap in newbuilding has left its mark on the capability of Russia to build modern warships, making it hard to live up to these ambitions. Anders Puck Nielsen recently published an interesting study into the state of the Baltic Fleet, where he points out that the median age of ships above 300 tons in the Baltic Fleet is a full five years older than the average age of the same (29 compared to 24 years), clearly illustrating this split. Within the next five years it is likely that we will see the first new destroyers laid down, but considering the building time of frigates and the Ivan Gren-class LST, it will likely be more than a decade before these are operational. By that time Nastoychivyy will be approaching 40 years in service.
Through exercises such as the Northern Coasts and BALTOPS serieses, the Western navies ensure interoperability should the worst come.
In a conflict between NATO and Russia, the Baltic Fleet’s main mission would likely be sea denial. Especially the modern vessels are well-suited for the mission, though the poor basing options make them vulnerable. In a conflict between Finland and Russia, the Baltic Fleet’s base at Kaliningrad would on the other hand provide a safe haven 600 km from the Finnish coast, and the first step would likely be to regroup vessels from Kronstadt to the open waters in the northern parts of the Baltic Sea. However, with the Finnish Navy operating according to the policy that they know the identity of “all vessels passing close to our waters”, such a move would risk giving away the element of strategic surprise. Granted it is possible to mask fleet movements as an exercise, and/or to try and dash through the Gulf of Finland with the Kronstadt squadron in the immediate aftermath of a first strike, but achieving strategic surprise against an adversary that maintain a 24/7 readiness even with a limited number of vessels is hard.
In absolute numbers, the current Finnish Navy with eight FAC hiding in the archipelago backed up by significant coastal artillery assets, including truck-mounted anti-ship missiles, would be a tough enemy for the Russian fleet of about a dozen (mostly light) corvettes, six FAC, and a maximum of two heavier vessels. With the exception of the Kalibr-equipped vessels, the Russian vessels would have no range advantage, and in most cases would operate with significantly older vessels, weapons, and sensors. They would also be unable to rely on any kind of terrain masking, coming from the open sea. Their limited endurance would also mean that any kind of blockade or attempt at exercising sea control over the Archipelago Sea would require a rotating presence with squadrons taking turn on station, being in transit, and replenishing in Kaliningrad.
The best opportunity the Baltic Fleet would have is interdicting merchant shipping passing the open waters of the Sea of Åland as well as to a smaller extent Kihti (Skiftet) either by surface weapon or by mines laid by Dmitrov in suitable locations closer to shore. This would face the Finnish Navy with the choice of allowing the country to be under siege or coming out from the archipelago and taking up battle. This is a scenario for which the Pohjanmaa-class is well-suited, with the advanced sensor suite giving it superior situational awareness against the smaller and older Russian vessels, and with the endurance to stay at sea and choose the time and place of the battle. The Baltic Fleet is expected to grow in capability, both through new vessels such as the second Karakurt-class corvette Serpukhov as well as through modernisation programs, but through the introduction of PTO 2020, Hamina MLU, and the Pohjanmaa-class the relative power balance at sea is expected to remain roughly the same. Of the modernisation programmes, the most important is perhaps the replacement of the six P-120 Malakhit missiles on Project 12341 corvettes with up to sixteen Kh-35 Uragan. The first such modified vessel (of the Pacific Fleet) test-fired its missiles in February this year. However, it should be noted that while this would be a huge leap in capability for the Baltic Fleet, it is still just replacing a fifty year old missile with a twenty year old one.
In the end, the Russian Baltic Fleet still is a serious adversary and should not be underestimated if the Finnish Navy ever was to face it alone. However, the maritime domain is still significantly more evenly matched than the air or land domains. There are some significant headaches, such as the possibility of Russia imposing a naval blockade on ships heading to Finland in the southern parts of the Baltic Sea or using submarines to lay mines to create a crisis below the treshold of war. The idea that Russia will be able to overpower the Finnish Navy by employing a vast number of light craft firing volleys of modern anti-ship missiles is however not backed up by the order of battle of the Baltic Fleet, nor by current or envisioned Russian shipbuilding programs.
The vessels of the Baltic Fleet
The flagship of the Baltic Fleet is the destroyer Nastoychivyy (‘610’), a Project 965A class destroyer (NATO-designation Sovremenny). The vessel was laid down as the Moskovskiy Komsomolets in 1987, and entered service in 1993. The vessel has a serious gun-battery in the form of two twin-130 mm gun turrets, as well as a number of 30 mm gatling AA-guns. The naval version of the Buk is also carried for air-defence. The weaker point of the vessel is the ASW-suite, which is mainly meant for self-defence (the Project 11551/Udaloy-II and 1155R/Udaloy were supposed to take care of that part). Mine rails are also found.
The main punch is provided by the twin quadruple launchers for the long-range P-270 Moskit or the even longer-ranged P-100 Moskit-M (SS-N-22 Sunburn) anti-ship missiles. The missile design dates back to the early/mid-1980’s, and the last missiles apparently rolled off the production lines in 1994. The missiles has a total weight of 3,950 kg, flies at Mach 2.5 and has a range of 100 km for the baseline-Moskit and 129 km for the Moskit-M, of which “only a few were made” according to USNI. The missiles use an active radar seeker, and carries a 300 kg warhead (of which half the weight is made up off the explosives). An interesting detail is that the design was sold to Boeing, for use as target drones.
Nastoychivyy is currently undergoing overhauls, including a renewal of the propulsion system. This is based on two sets of geared steam turbines driving two propeller shafts. However, naval propulsion is a big headache throughout Russia, as they went to war with the country producing their (relatively) modern gas turbines, while at the same time are having serious trouble in producing modern high-powered diesel engines suitable for naval use. It remains to be seen if and when the Nastoychivyy will get moving again.
Another large vessel of the Baltic Fleet from the same era is the frigate Yaroslav Mudry (‘777’), second and final vessel of the Neustrashimyy-class (Project 11540). Mudry had the bad luck of getting stuck in the turbulence following the fall of the Soviet Union, and took 21 years from being laid down in 1988 until she actually entered service in 2009. The design is optimised for ASW-duty, including through carrying a Ka-27 ASW-helicopter, and the combat system sports the distinction of being the first fully integrated computerised system in use by the Russian Navy. Yaroslav Mudry has done a number of long voyages, and just recently passed through the English Channel heading south. Sister and leadship of the class Nesutrashimyy (‘712’) is currently in the final stages of a five year overhaul. These repairs saw a serious fire, and at times the sleek vessel looked like it might never get back to sea. However, reports are now stating that she will be able to join the Baltic Fleet before the end of the year.
.@hms_mersey shadowed the Russian frigate Yaroslav Mudryy, support tanker Yelnya & tug Viktor Konetsky from the North Sea and through the English Channel this weekend pic.twitter.com/acXC6TeprJ
In the anti-ship role, the Neustrashimyy-class can carry up to sixteen Kh-35 Uran (SS-N-25 Switchblade) anti-ship missiles in four quadruple launchers, though the usual complement is half that number. The Kh-35 reminds more of typical western designs, carrying a 145 kg warhead at high-subsonic speeds and with a range of up to 130 km. The radar seeker is able to operate in both active and passive modes, and the weapon entered service in the late 90’s.
Significantly more modern vessels are found in the form of the four Steregushchiy-class (Project 20380) multi-purpose corvettes. Carrying up to eight Kh-35 Uran, the most impressive feature is still the Redut-air defence system. Redut is a VLS-system related to the S-400-family, and reportedly uses three different missiles with 15 km/40 km/120 km max range respectively. The system is reported to receive a new longer-ranged missile with ABM-capability in the near future, and integration with the new Poliment-radar is reportedly operational since the first half of the year. The Steregushchiy is however far from a one-trick-pony, and also feature a serious ASW-capability. The class is roughly comparable to the Pohjanmaa-class, being about 105 meters long, with a shallow draft and a top speed somewhere in the order of 27 to 30 knots. The big difference is the lack of the dedicated mine hull of the Pohjanmaa, and the significantly lighter full load displacement of 2,100 ton.
Moving down the ladder in size, the most modern vessels of the Russian Baltic Fleet are the two Buyan-M (Project 21631) and upcoming Karakurt (Project 22800) corvettes. The Buyan-M corvettes Zeleny Dol (‘562’) and Serpukhov (‘563’) entered the Baltic Sea in 2016, and caused quite a stir due to their VLS being able to handle up to eight Kalibr-cruise or anti-ship missiles. The range of the 3M-14 cruise missile version of the Kalibr allow the vessels to strike targets anywhere in the greater Baltic Sea region, while the 3M-54 anti-ship version is charachterised by its very high speed in the final attack run, reaching up to 3.0 Mach. However, the vessels are in certain aspects closer to large FAC than corvettes, as they completely lack ASW-capability and have a very limited anti-air capability featuring 30 mm CIWS and a single short-range Gibka-launcher firing navalised versions of the late-80’s era Strela-3.
For the Karakurt-class, the first vessel Mystischi (‘567’) was declared operational during late 2019, with a number of sisters expected to follow the vessel into service in the Baltic Sea. However, the build rate has been delayed due to lack of suitable M507 diesels. Compared to the Buyan-M, the Karakurt feature the same eight-cell VLS for Kalibr-missiles, but employs the moder modern short-range navalised Pantsir-M system instead of the Gibka. The endurance is also longer, at fifteen days compared to ten days for the Buyan-M. A more in-depth comparison is found here. The main gun has also gone down in calibre from 100 mm on the Buyan-M to 76.2 mm on the Karakurt.
The last surface vessels with a serious anti-surface capability are all Soviet-era designs. Four Project 12341 (Nanuchka III) class corvettes date to the last years of the Soviet Union, and carry six P-120 Malakhit (SS-N-9 Siren) heavy anti-ship missiles. The missiles have a rather limited range of 56 km unless they are assisted by a forward observer and flies at high subsonic speed. In addition the vessels have a short-range SAM-system in the form of the Osa-M, a 76.2 mm deck gun, and one of the ubiqous 30 mm gatling CIWS. The vessels sport a ten day endurance. The smaller FACs are represented by two Project 12411T Molnaya (Tarantul II) and four of the sligthly newer Project 12411 Molnaya-M (Tarantul III). In this case ‘newer’ means of the same age as the 12341s, as opposed to the original Monayas which both date to the first half of the 80’s. The Molnaya feature four of the outdated P-15M Termit (SS-N-2C Styx), while the Molnaya-M have four of the P-270 Moskit that are also carried by the Nastoychivyy. Both classes employ a 76.2 mm deck gun, Strela-3 short-range SAM launchers, and single-barreled 30 mm CIWS systems. Both classes share the 10 day endurance with the larger Project 12341. The vessels have been in and out of dry dock during 2019, but apparently none of them have undergone any larger upgrades for the time being.
The final vessel that would play a key part in any naval battle is the sole submarine of the fleet, the B-806 Dmitrov. Dmitrov is a Project 877EKM (Kilo) class submarine, and was laid down in 1985 and entered service two years later. The Dmitrov was refitted in St Petersburg during 2001 and 2002, and has often been used to train foreign crews for export Project 877s. With a 45 day endurance the submarine can not only carry up to 18 torpedoes, but also up to 24 mines, or a mix of the two. The sligthly older B-227 Vyborg has recently been retired.
The rest of the Baltic Fleet is made up of landing crafts, amphibious vessels, single-role mine warfare and ASW-vessels, as well as auxilliaries. In addition a number of ground and air units sort under the fleet.
The lead ship of the Russian Ivan Gren-class had a long and troubled start of it’s career, requiring over 20 years of work before it finally was accepted into operational service in June 2018. For a while the whole future of the project, including the second sister laid down in 2004, seemed to be in jeopardy. However, the French refusal to deliver the two Mistral-class vessels built for the Russian Navy following the Russian invasion of Crimea suddenly threatened the ability to maintain the amphibious capabilities of the Russian Navy in the medium term. As such, work continued/was restarted on the second vessel, named Pyotr Morgunov, in late 2014.
The Project 11711 Ivan Gren-class is significant for the Russian Navy in many ways. It is one of very few major warships to be added to the Russian Navy since the end of the Cold War, and as such is important both from an industry and prestige point of view. But that also mean they play a key role in revitalising the amphibious fleet, which currently mainly rests on ex-Soviet Ropucha-class LSTs backed up by the last few Tapir-class LSTs. The newest of these are approaching 30 years in service, with the older ones dating back to the late 60’s. The fleet has also been heavily worked as part of the Russian campaign in Syria, where they have run cargo between Black Sea ports and Syria on a regular basis. As such, a replacement is sorely needed.
A short interlude on explaining the different kinds of amphibious ships and what makes them differ from each other:
The Landing Ship Tank, LST, is a large landing craft capable of traversing open waters which can be driven onto the beach and unload vehicles through the bow,
The Dock Landing Ship, LSD, has a well dock (hence the name) from which it launches landing crafts which then ferry personnel and vehicles to shore,
The Landing Platform Dock, LPD, functions as a LSD but has better aviation facilities to be able to support helicopter assaults,
The Landing Helicopter Dock, LHD, and Landing Helicopter Assault, LHA, both look like small carriers with full-length flight decks and a focus on helicopter and V/STOL operations. The LHD also has a well dock, while the LHA doesn’t.
Both the LSD and LPD can be found with bow doors similar to the LST, making vessels such as the Ivan Gren hard to classify accurately. This is especially true, as the designations above are based on US naval vessels, and vessels of other nations doesn’t necessarily strictly adhere to the same dividing lines. In the case of the Ivan Gren, it lacks a well dock, but the presence of a hangar is something unheard of in most other LSTs.
The Mistral-class is a typical LHD, which can bring in a 40-tank strong Leclerc battalion, some 900 troops, and some 16 heavy helicopters in shorter operations. To say that by acquiring the significantly smaller Ivan Gren (13 tanks or 36 APCs, 300 troops, 2 helicopters) the Russian Navy replaced the shortfall in amphibious capability would be a lie. In essence they go from being able to lift a tank battalion to being able to lift a reinforced motorised company per ship. However, the vessels still hold great potential, though especially the Ivan Gren has been plagued by technical issues.
A notable tactic of the Russian Ropucha-class is that instead of driving all the way to the shore and beaching the bow, they stay some distance out and let amphibious vehicles enter the water through the bow doors and ‘swim’ the last part to the shore. This has certain benefits, as well as some rather significant drawbacks. The obvious benefit is the ability to use shores where the large LST can’t safely beach itself. The requirements for a suitable landing spot are rather strict, as it should be solid enough and at a shallow enough angle to allow the forces to disembark safely, while still being deep enough to allow for safe passage to and from the shoreline. The LST is also kept out of range of most infantry weapons, with the swimming vehicles providing smaller and less valuable targets. The biggest drawback is that it takes significant time for the APCs to reach shore, giving prolonged warning to the waiting defenders. The swimming vehicles are also more vulnerable to bad weather compared to the larger ship, and while their low profile makes them hard targets, their situational awareness is seriously hampered until they can get out of the water. As such a dug-in defender with ample anti-tank weapons can wreak havoc on an incoming wave of swimming APCs.
The obvious solution then is to add speed. This is nothing new, with both the US and the Soviet Union having added some classes of faster landing crafts and, crucially, helicopters to their amphibious forces already during the Cold War. The helicopters give the possibility to secure spots that aren’t reachable from the sea (i.e. in the enemy rear), and provides significantly faster cruise speed compared to any landing crafts found. But if landing a motorised battalion by sea is hard, helicopters aren’t suitable for anything heavier than light infantry, make a serious amount of noise, and have their own set of requirements when it comes to landing locations. As such the need to be able to bring heavy ships close to shore will remain if the landing is to be able to open up a new front (in the long run a harbour with working port facilities will have to be secured, which further opens up interesting tactical and strategic considerations which are too complex to fit inside the scope of this post. Just be aware that securing a beachhead is rarely enough).
The Mistral could thus have landed infantry units by helicopter to secure key spots along the shoreline and protect the beachhead from counterattacks until the main fighting force, including tanks, could be carried ashore by the heavy landing crafts operating out of the Mistral’s well dock. The Ivan Green can try to do a ‘lighter’ version of the same thing, with a total of two Ka-29 transport helicopters carrying two squads each ashore to be followed by infantry in swimming BTRs. The use of helicopters is also evident in how the Russian naval infantry brigades are set up, as one of the three (or possibly four) rifle battalions in any brigade is airmobile.
The other option is to use faster landing crafts. The general arrangement of the Ivan Gren is such that landing crafts can be carried as deck cargo (light craft such as RIBs can also be launched and apparently retrieved over the stern ramp). However, the lack of a well dock means that these have to be carried as deck cargo and then hoisted with a crane over the side of the ship, a time-consuming maneuver which also increases the risks during the transfer of soldiers between the LST and the landing craft compared to using a well dock.
The latest development is that the Russian Navy has ordered two further vessels of a modified Ivan Gren-class. These will be further tailored to provide additional options to the task force commander when it comes to how the forces will be landed, namely with improved aviation facilities and better facilities for handling landing crafts. These are stated to be either of the Project 03160 ‘Raptor’ or the similar looking Project 02510 BK-16 classes. Both of these are best described as combat boats or assault landing craft, being able to transport around twenty marines to shore at high speed, and then support the landing with machine guns and other infantry support weapons from roof-mounted remote weapon stations. The reasoning behind this is clearly stated in an Izvestia-article, where former chief of the General Staff of the Navy, Admiral Valentin Selivanov, was interviewed:
Boats will allow the special forces to quickly and quietly approach the shore to ensure a successful landing of the main wave of the landing. They will destroy the most important firing points, demining approaches to the coast.
The special forces in this case could be ‘true’ SOF such as OMRP, or elite marine infantry such as the separate reconnaissance battalions of the naval infantry brigades (724th Separate Reconnaissance Battalion in the case of the Baltic Fleet’s 336th Guards Naval Infantry Brigade). Another interesting aspect is that modifications to enhance the ability to operate the assault crafts are apparently still unconfirmed, and could include either a dedicated chute or even a well dock instead of the rear ramp. While the latter is unlikely considering the serious modifications to the basic design it would entail (especially considering the projected in-service date of 2024/2025), it would be a significant improvement to the Russian capabilities and in essence make the two vessels of the second batch LPDs rather than LSTs. This would also improve the ability of the Russian Navy to operate far from home both on amphibious assault missions as well as on more peaceful ones, such as disaster relief.
In essence, the non-delivery of the Mistral-class has caused a serious gap in Russian amphibious capabilities in the near- to mid-term, especially when it comes to the ability to conduct stand-off amphibious landings with helicopters and fast landing crafts. Now the Navy is trying to make up for at least part of the shortfall in capability through ordering more vessels of the troubled Ivan Gren-class and trying to adopt the design to better fit the stand-off requirements. Time will tell if this will make a useful workhorse of the class in the vein of the venerable Ropuchas, or if it will be left a poor attempt to beat a square peg into a round hole.
Hat-tip to Robe Lee (@RALee85) who first brought the story to my attention. Head over to Twitter and give him a follow if Russian equipment is of any interest to you!
Yesterday Sunday 20 January Israel again struck targets close to Damascus International Airport. Much is still unconfirmed about the raid, but it is clear that it included significant numbers of Syrian missiles fired in response, at least one of which led to two Iron Dome-missiles being fired from an Israeli battery close to Mt Hermon as it was on track to enter Israeli airspace (the missiles are usually fired in pairs to ensure intercept). It is not confirmed whether the missile was intercepted or not.
The Israeli Defense Forces has released a new video showing SAM-sites being targeted. The most interesting part of the clip shows a Pantsir-S1 (likely the S1E-version) being intercepted by what looks like a Delilah cruise missile. Keen Syria-watchers will recognise that this isn’t the first encounter between the Pantsir-S1 and the Delilah. For details how to recognise the Pantsir-S1 and Delilah footage, see the post from last time. While the Israeli modus operandi hasn’t seemingly changed, neither has the incompetence of the Syrian air defence crews. The radar is raised, but not rotating and pointing in the wrong direction, while the missiles are in the transport-position and not ready to be fired. Despite the vehicle being an obvious high-value target, it is left sitting out in the open with no attempt at camouflage or anyone trying to move it into cover.
The bottom line is that we still lack any proof of the Pantsir-S1 being of much use. It is possible that the missiles were used (successfully?) to intercept decoys launched before the strike itself, there are rumours of the Israelis using this tactic dating back to Operation Mole Cricket 19, though as with many aspects of these raids confirmed information is scarce.
From the perspective of the Kremlin, Syria has been a great success. Following the surprisingly successful organisation of a transatlantic response to the Russian invasions of Crimea and the Donbas, the Russian intervention in Syria not only managed to prop up the Assad regime and reverse the course of the civil war, it also made sure that the Russian Navy would get a naval base in the Mediterranean. And most importantly: it forced the West to again talk directly with the Kremlin.
This was not only a case of Russia playing a rather mediocre hand very well, but also of several events outside of Putin’s control lining up favourably. These include both Iran and Hezbollah intervening, as well as the Turkish turn-around following the failed coup of 2016. The introduction of Russian long-range air-defence system, including the S-400, into Syria caused further alarm amongst western observers, with some going as far as stating that no assets in theatre beyond the F-22 Raptor “has any ability to operate and survive” inside the 400 km range of the system’s 40N6 missile.
I have earlier on the blog cautioned against drawing rings on maps and stating that they are any kind of steel domes inside which anything and everything will be shot down, and this is very much the case for the SAM’s at Khmeimim Air Base as well. The latest strikes on targets in western Syria, including those well-within 100 km of Khmeimim AB, showed that coalition aircraft can strike presumably protected targets without issue. And not only that, if one looks closely at the map, the 400 km range extends well beyond Cyprus. The very same Cyprus which was the base of the RAF aircraft participating in the strikes. In other words, British aircraft took off and landed inside the stated range of the system, and all cruise missiles, both ship- and air-launched, penetrated the bubble without seemingly any of them having been intercepted.
The short answer is that Russia, according to Washington, didn’t try. There is said to have be no indication that the S-400 was fired against anything, and most likely this was a political decision. However, it does tell you something.
4. Russia blinked, they know they blinked, we know they blinked, but we will pretend they didn’t.
If Russia had the magical steel dome that some lay out A2/AD to be, why didn’t they at least swat down some of the cruise missiles, even if they decided to leave the aircrafts themselves (or rather, their pilots) alone? At the crucial moment, Russia decided not to try to protect the assets of their ally. Whatever the reason, the result is a razed block in the Syrian capital.
However, while there without doubt are intelligence services around the world plotting the decision as yet another data point, the immediate outcome isn’t necessarily too dramatic. As TD noted, the West will continue to act like Russia didn’t blink, and Russia will continue to claim that they control the skies over (western) Syria.
The problem is that while Russia might be the great power on location in Syria, the other actors, including Assad, Iran, and Hezbollah, all have their own agendas as well. More importantly, it is highly doubtful that any of them would hesitate to jump the Russian ship if they saw more benefits to be gained elsewhere.
Enter Israel, which is likely the western state that has been cooperating most effortlessly with Russia. In part this stems from a pragmatism that is a strong part of Israeli foreign policy, but it should also be noted that current defence minister Lieberman (and a sizeable Israeli minority) is in fact born in the Soviet Union. By most accounts the Israeli-Russian deconfliction agreement is working nicely, with Russia more or less accepting Israeli strikes on targets in Syria.
Israel has on the whole tried to stay out of the Syrian conflict, in no small part likely based on the experiences from the Lebanese civil war. However, a red line has always been drawn at the “transfer of advanced weaponry” from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon. What exactly constitutes “advanced weapons” is left open, but it is usually taken to include long-range rockets and ballistic missiles, surface-to-air missiles, and anti-ship missiles. The Israeli answer to transfers has been air strikes, often carried out with stand-off weaponry from Lebanese or Israeli airspace.
As the war has been dragging on, the Israeli involvement has deepened at the same time as the Iranian impact on the ground has increased. While Assad constitutes a know quantity, Israel has been extremely wary of the long-term impact of allowing Iran a foothold in the region. And while brig. gen. (res.) Shafir of the Israeli Air Force a decade ago confidently could say that Iran is isolated in the Muslim world, recent developments have opened up avenues of approach for Teheran on a broader scale than has been seen before. The recent downing of an Iranian drone that entered Israeli airspace and the following air raids (including the first downing of an Israeli fast jet in a very long time) has increased the temperature further.
Israeli official told me PM Netanyahu's conclusion from his phone call with Putin last week was that Russia has no real ability to contain Iran in Syria
A very worrying detail was the fact that Israeli media claims that the aftermath of the raid left Israeli prime minister Netanyahu with the impression that Russia has no real ability to contain Iran in Syria. The problem here then is that the logical conclusion is that Israel will have to deal with the Iranian presence in Syria alone, and while I doubt that anyone inside the IDF is dusting off the plans for a drive to Damascus just yet, a more comprehensive air campaign aimed at severely crippling the Iranian forces in Syria might be in the cards.
While this kind of Israeli-Iranian showdown is bad enough in and by itself, the big kicker is how that would reflect upon Russia. Having two gangs fight it out on what should ostensibly be your backyard does not leave the onlookers with the feeling that you are in control, no matter how often you say so. In addition, if Russia goes through with the idea to supply the S-300PMU-2 to Assad, this opens up further risks of losing face. While the S-300 is one notch below the S-400, the system is vastly superior to anything currently in operation by the Syrians themselves. As such, it would likely be a prime target in any Israeli air campaign, and echoing the aerial battles of 1982, it would likely be destroyed sooner rather than later.
This all would leave Russia in a bad light, and erase much of the gains in prestige and diplomacy that the Syrian intervention has so far given Russia (in certain places, one should add, as others are less impressed by people regularly bombing hospitals and supporting dictators who use chemical weapons). While attempts at predicting Putin’s next moves are notoriously hard, it is safe to say that he has not shown an inclination to count his losses and leave the table. Instead, when the rest of the players believe him to have overplayed his hand, what usually happens seems to be that Putin will press on regardless. And there’s no telling whether his next move would come in Syria, or somewhere else.
The location is next to a walkbridge just northwest of the central station, looking west-southwest. The bridge is the major hint, but you can also make out the apothecary with its green roof, the lower market buildings in front of it, and the low trees on the other side of the track.
This means that the train is heading east at the time of the filming. However, the railways around Orsha has several interesting features, and nothing certain can be said about the destination. However, the likely target is Vitebsk in northeastern Belarus, where the Losvido training range has been linked to Zapad 2017.
The train holds 12 2S19 Msta-S heavy self-propelled guns. The number is interesting, as a mechanized or armoured brigade would field 18 of these modern artillery pieces. Looking at the rest of the vehicles, the most prominent are the nine different vehicles based on the MT-LBu chassis, most of which seem to be of the 1V12-family of observer vehicles, either the older 1V12-3 “Mashina-M” or the newer 1V12M “Faltset”. A single BMP-based command vehicle is also seen, likely the command vehicle of the whole artillery unit. Suspiciously absent are not only the last third of the artillery pieces, but also the large number of different trucks which accompany artillery units, only four of which are aboard the train.
In conclusion, this leads me to believe that:
The last six artillery pieces and most of the trucks are being transported on a second train,
The complete heavy artillery of an armoured or mechanised brigade is being transferred to the area of Vitebsk for Zapad.
The vehicles in question are 9K33 Osa (NATO designation SA-8 GECKO) surface-to-air missile TELARs, meaning that a single vehicle transports the missiles in their launch containers and is equipped with a radar allowing it to acquire and fire upon any targets without outside assistance. At least six of the vehicles in the convoy are Osas, the lead vehicle is too blurry for an accurate identification, and could be a command vehicle.
The video is indeed shot in Vladivostok, at the western end of Russkaya Ulitsa, at a relatively recent date. The geolocation is based on the building to the left, visible at the very beginning of the clip, which holds a V-Laser store, as well as the small kiosk in front of it.
The Google Street-view image above is from 2013, and it seems some changes has been made to the area between the road lanes.
To the right, a large building with a slightly smaller one behind it is briefly visible. This is not found on Google Street-view, but Yandex somewhat newer imagery shows it under construction. The building in question houses the Mall Druzba Center.
All in all, the location seems quite certain, and while it is hard to say for certain how old the clip is, the inclusion of Mall Druzba Center means that really old footage can be ruled out.
The location is intriguing. As mentioned, this is at the very end of Russkaya, and there does not seem to be any logical place from where the vehicles would have come, unless they have been transported to Vladivostok by rail or sea, and are now choosing this somewhat low-key road to get out from the city.
As for the presence of Osas in Vladivostok, that in itself is no reason to worry. The movement of a handful of medium-ranged SAMs is well within normal routines. However, this does constitute a small piece of a pattern of current events and troop movements on and around the Korean peninsula which on the whole do give reason for concern.
Edit 15 April 09:40 (GMT +2):
Zvezda state that three motorized infantry brigades in the Far East has moved out. The Osas could very well be related to this.
A second video clip shows the forward part of the convoy, and together the clips seem to indicate that a total 13 vehicles are included in the convoy. Eight of these are 9K33 Osa TELARs, with a further two being the 9T217 missile transporter and loader, which carries reloads for the TELARs. The last three are then some kind of unidentified BTR armored vehicles, likely being PU-12M command vehicles. This setup does make sense, as it would mean that the convoy is made up of two batteries with four TELARs and command vehicles each, though the number of 9T217 does seem a bit on the low side.