The Role of Pre-Conflict Conflict and the Importance of the Syrian Crucible

Russian private military contractors in Syria, March 2017

The vibrant writing and discussion that forms the corpus of ideas in Russian military thought is exemplary of a timeless tradition among defense establishments, ever debating the changing character of war, operational concepts, and capabilities that will define the battlefield. Naturally the debates never end, but eventually the time comes for military reform, modernization, and to choose a direction for the development of the armed forces based on a congealed view of the operating environment and the future tendencies in warfare. For Russia’s General staff this period began with the military reforms of 2008- 2012, and a state armament program launched in 2011 that was subsequently renewed in 2018. Since 2014, the Russian military has also had ample opportunity to bloody itself in multiple conflicts, putting the new force through a trial by fire, and integrating those experiences into the next cycle of concept development for armed forces.

The evolution of current Russian thinking on warfare can be confidently traced to the debates in the 1980s on how best to reform Soviet armed forces, and the subsequent discussions on the nature of Sixth Generation warfare in the 1990s and early 2000s. The Russian General Staff’s understanding may begin with a classical reading of the correlation forces, but is based more on the correlation of forms and methods in warfare. As such, the salient features of Russian military thought include: a greater appreciation that modern precision guided weapons and standoff conventional capabilities can create effects throughout the depth of the enemy’s lines, that there are no longer operational pauses in conflict, and non-military or indirect methods are at times much more effective than direct action. The absence of spatial distance, made prominent by advancements in global domains such as cyber, space, or information, all of which are commonly integrated in Russian writing on information superiority, has led to a battlefield shaped by capabilities that yield persistent effects.

Russian conceptualization of the modern battlefield sees a leveling off of the tactical, operational and strategic, with the armed forces now living more firmly in the operational-strategic or operational-tactical space. Based on a strong appreciation of the U.S. way of warfare, which is principally aerospace blitzkrieg enabled by an information driven military machine, Russia sees the initial period of war as being decisive to the conflict. Modern weapons, persistent effects, and a host of capabilities that are employed during a threatened period prior to the onset of overt hostilities have raised fundamental questions about the viability of territorial defense and the pacing of conflict. In the Russian view, massed conventional strikes with precision guided weapons can impose damage equivalent to that previously assigned to tactical nuclear weapons. As a consequence, the emphasis has shifted from 20th century industrial warfare to the threatened period of war and the initial period of conflict. Large armored formations, or operational maneuver groups of the 1980s, are now consigned to the much later and less relevant phases of war.

Russian thinking is informed by the desire to acquire the advanced capabilities fielded by Western militaries, as successful organizations often seek to replicate each other’s advancements, but to use them for different purposes, adopting said technology or approaches to counter and defend against the perceived Western way of warfare. Hence Russian armed forces are investing heavily in precision guided munitions, electronic warfare, new generations of long range standoff weapons, unmanned systems, and robotics designed to integrate into Russia’s advantages in the area of ground-based fires. Beyond making the current force much more lethal and capable against current generation counterparts, the goal is to successfully engage in confrontation via non-military means during crisis, establishing information superiority over the adversary, and blunt or retaliate against a massed aerospace attack in the initial period of war. Understanding that Russia is not an expeditionary maritime or aerospace power, it does not need these capabilities for global power projection, but instead for defense of the homeland, to impose the Kremlin’s will on neighbors, and to project power into adjacent regions just beyond Russia’s near abroad.

Several offense and defense centered concepts have emerged to answer the challenges defined by this conception of the threat environment, integrating newly available capabilities after considerable investment in the armed forces. Russian armed forces are organized around a series of ‘strategic operations’, many of them overlapping. These are designed to attack the adversary as a system, targeting the opponent’s ability and will to sustain a fight, with emphasis on logistical, information, and critical civilian infrastructure.

A second approach develops the tactical-operational space, allowing Russia’s ability to conduct war through the adversary’s operational depth by linking reconnaissance complexes with long range fires. This is designed to leverage Russia’s firepower and compensate for the military’s historic blindness – that is, its inability to target enemy forces in real time beyond the tactical ranges of a battlefield. Russia’s goal is to make much greater use of that 100km-500km tactical-operational space, which will allow it to successfully conduct warfare across domains, and substantially bolster its conventional deterrence against would-be attackers, regardless of their technological or numerical superiority.

Finally, the country is headlong into developing the capability and capacity to conduct long range fires that can target the full depth of adversary lines, at operational-strategic distances (500km-2500km), investing in the number of available fires. Such strikes will be integrated with offensive non-kinetic capabilities targeting enemy infrastructure, based around the desire to challenge the adversary’s will, create operational pauses during conflict for negotiation, and destroy key infrastructure that the other side would need to sustain a campaign. This approach is flexible, aimed at both denial and punishment. It is an attempt to coerce through cost imposition while remaining scalable to achieve warfighting aims. The scalability remains aspirational, as Russia still has a long way to go in acquiring conventional standoff weapons in large quantities.

Defensive concepts seek to solve the Russian nation’s historic vulnerability and penetration by opponents’ modern offensive systems, against which defense is both technically and economically difficult to mount. Russia is integrating civilian and military infrastructure under a concept in which everyone fights, creating new decision-making mechanisms like the National Defense Control Centre, and bringing civilian leadership into military simulations. This is in effect the ability to conduct total mobilization, particularly effective in bolstering a country’s coercive credibility in a crisis, allowing them to signal the readiness to absorb casualties and engage in total war. Meanwhile, the job of aerospace forces is to blunt aerospace attacks and impose high costs with integrated air defenses against technologically superior air powers like the United States. Air defense, missile defense, and electronic warfare come together to reduce the effectiveness of Western weapons, absorb those fires, and protect critical infrastructure in the Russian homeland.

A phased concept of strategic deterrence, increasingly prominent since 2009, is intended to make use of imposed operational pauses to effect escalation management, or deterrence in conflict. Integrating instruments of national power, Moscow seeks to prevent hostilities via anticipatory operations in a time of crisis, and attack key enemy nodes during the initial period of war. A pulsed attack on critical enemy infrastructure, for example, could impose ‘gut checks’ on an opponent’s desire to further continue fighting, assuming the asymmetry of interests at stake favors Moscow (and in the Kremlin’s conception it always does). If escalation management fails, the final step is to demonstrate the readiness and determination to use nuclear weapons, and if necessary, employ them. Nuclear escalation when defending is quite credible, as it presumes greater resolve, based off of interests at stake, and distinct force advantages favoring the Russian side. In this respect Russian nuclear concepts differ little from NATO’s Flexible Response of the 1960s and the Schlesinger Doctrine of limited nuclear options of the 1970s. However, for Russia such approaches are inherently much more credible, as Russia’s deterrence is central versus extended, and the decision-making mechanisms involved will be unitary as opposed to in consultation with allies or an alliance command.

However, military thought and operational concepts rarely survive actual combat like nothing else. Whatever senior officers m ay write or say, all militaries have a tendency to want the same things: high-end capabilities, larger force structures, expensive platforms, and numerous general officer billets. These are what one might call institutional proclivities borne of the profession. It is war that helps to focus the minds of General Staff officers on those capabilities and concepts they need in order to win. Ukraine demonstrated the need to restructure the ground force, rethink maneuver elements like battalion tactical groups, and tilt back from overly focusing on just defending against the U.S. way of warfare.

There is no substitute for a large and effective ground force if one seeks to impose their will on neighbors, because only a capable ground force can hold terrain. Without it one cannot threaten invasion, and thus cannot effectively coerce, as airpower is notoriously ineffective as a tool of coercive diplomacy. At the end of the day, Russia is a Eurasian land power, and at the heart of its force beats land-based firepower together with a large armored fist. Ukraine was a stark reminder that local and regional wars remain the most likely contingencies for Moscow, and Russia would have to reinvest in not just equipment but the force itself, dramatically increasing the number of contract servicemen, improving their personal kit, and integrating land-based fires with autonomous ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) systems on the battlefield.

Syria on the other hand is proving a transformative conflict for the Russian armed forces, where not only equipment but the entire Russian cadre of senior officers have gained operational experience in warfighting. Russian Aerospace forces came of age in Syria, with much of the air force intentionally bloodied in the conflict. Most long-range missiles and other high-end capabilities have been tested in Syria, together with various reconnaissance platforms to direct them. Russian armed forces quickly realized their limitations in both the dearth of weapons available to prosecute moving targets on the battlefield, and the lack of planning experience that would permit real time integration of ground forces with airpower. These problems are in the process of being addressed. The Russian military establishment has proven fairly forthright in evaluation of its performance, seeking to leverage Syria in order to build a proven military.

However, the Russian armed forces deployed in Syria today are already quite different from the force that first began the campaign in fall 2015. Based on that experience, the backbone infrastructure is slowly falling into place, allowing Russian airpower to effectively support ground units, in real time, with newly developed precision weapons. Most importantly, the Russian military experience in Syria exposed the weaknesses in modern equipment, force structures, and operational concepts at a time when they were relatively nascent, giving the Russian General Staff useful results when there is plenty of opportunity to adjust course. As a result, Russian armed forces are increasingly able to conduct combined arms warfare, project fires at operational distances, and e stablish the state’s coercive credibility to shape adversary decision-making, restoring the military as a useful and reliable instrument of national power.



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