Russian Navy Preparing For Assad’s Fall, Force Projection in ‘Largest’ War-Game

Russian MoD claims to be planning the largest naval exercise in Russia’s post-Soviet history. I would discount this claim of unprecedented scale, but argue that the January 2013 war-game is still significant as it shows Russian military is (1) preparing for Assad’s fall; (2) preparing Navy to project force beyond littoral areas (3) practicing formation of multi-service groupings under a streamlined command chain to learn lessons of the 2008 war with Georgia.

Key facts and claims:

  • When: End of January.
  • Where: Mediterranean and Black Sea.
  • What: three large amphibious assault ships, two frigates, a destroyer and two support ships will practice:
    • loading of Marines and paratroopers onto landing ship from an “unequipped” shore;
    • firing practice;
    • anti-terrorism;
    • anti-piracy.
  • Scale:  MoD’s press service:  “Russian Navy manoeuvres of such a large scale are conducted for the first time over recent decades. Main goal of the exercise is to drill the creation of a multiservice grouping of forces outside of the Russian Federation, the planning of its use and joint actions of the Navy joint force under a single operation design.”
    • All four of the Russian Navy’s fleets to participate – Northern, Baltic, Black Sea and Pacific – along with units of Airborne Forces.

Analysis: MoD’s claim that the upcoming naval war-game is of unprecedented scale is noise unless the participating force is actually bigger than the 8 ships listed by MoD’s press service. However, the exercise is still significant as it indicates the Russian military is (1) seriously preparing for evacuation of Russians from Syria after Assad’s fall; (2) preparing Navy to project force beyond littoral areas – where it was stuck for most of post-Soviet period – in key areas; (3) practicing formation of multi-service groupings under a streamlined command chain to learn lessons of the 2008 war with Georgia.

My take in greater detail:

Russia’s military doctrine lists NATO as No 1 in the list of “main external military dangers.” That means that the Russian Navy continues to plan operations against NATO forces and this war-game is, of course, an opportunity to test preparedness for such operations.

But I doubt that planning a conventional conflict with Navies of NATO countries is the main purpose of the upcoming exercise.

Rather, I believe the upcoming war-game is meant to improve the overall preparedness of the Russian military to project conventional force in parts of the world where important Russian interests are at stake.  That part of the war-game will take place in the Mediterranean – which already saw one Russian naval exercise last August – indicates that this sea is one such part of the world.

I also believe that the war-game will test the Navy’s preparedness for humanitarian contingencies, such as mass evacuation of Russian citizens. As we know, more than 30,000 Russian citizens live in Syria, where a civil war is underway with the rebels are targeting Russians as they blame the Kremlin for supporting Assad. Clearly loading personnel on landing ships from “unequipped” shore will make the Navy more prepared for emergency evacuation of Russian citizens from hot spots. But it may also help the crack troops, such as Marines and paratroopers, for operations similar to those they participated in during the 2008 war with Georgia.

The game will also represent an an opportunity to test ability of Russian commanders to fuse units belonging to different branches and arms of forces into a versatile and effective grouping, the need for which was highlighted by the 2008 war with Georgia.

The game might be also an opportunity to test the new command chain. In the course of the military reform conducted by ex-Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, commands of the Russian fleets were to be transferred to three of the four newly-established military districts. According to the plan of reforms, chief of these districts were to assume command of most of the conventional forces located on the territory of these districts and off their coasts. This transfer was to have ended duplication of chains of commands when units would report to the commander of the district, but also to the command of the branch or arm of service they belonged to.

Also note Russia’s strategic documents warn that both global and regional competition for resources will continue to intensify. The Navy is an effective tool to project influence in areas where such competition is either already evolving or may evolve in future, such as Arctic. Showing flag at various corners of the world ocean is also a must for a great sea power, which Russia is.

Given all these needs, I expect the Russian leadership to continue to invest into development of the conventional component of the Navy, which was neglected in the 1990s’, to transform Russia’s largely littoral Navy into a force capable of global power projection.  All in all, the Navy can reportedly count on receiving about one-fourth of more than $600 billion that the Russian military is to spend on new weapons and hardware by 2020, although I would imagine a significant chunk of that money will go to finance modernization of the naval component of the strategic nuclear triad.

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