Moscow’s recent “snap inspection” exercise of the Aerospace Forces (Vozdushno Kosmicheskikh Sil—VKS) was no doubt intended to present a positive image of this relatively high-technology branch of service. Indeed, since its creation in 2015, the VKS has also benefited from involvement in air operations in Syria, not only in terms of testing new or modernized systems but using the opportunity as a means to train its military personnel. The VKS resulted from a merger of the Air Force and the Aerospace Defense Forces. It includes, consequently, three sub-branches: the Air Force, Air Defense Troops and the Space Forces. However, the large-scale testing included in the snap inspection exposed issues related to VKS command and control (Gazeta.ru, March 2).
President Vladimir Putin ordered the inspection of the combat readiness of the VKS on January 31; the exercise concluded on February 10 and involved 46,000 personnel and 18,000 units of armaments and military equipment. The VKS was raised to its highest level of combat readiness, and units were deployed to designated or reserve areas to work on interactions of its various force elements to repel massive missile and air strikes by the hypothetical adversary. This element seems to confirm continued concern in Russia’s General Staff about a surprise air attack on Russia; it is consistent with how Moscow understands the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) operations. The exercise focused on protecting Moscow and the “central industrial region.” It may well have served as a method to rehearse escalation in Syria or Ukraine. Command staffs demonstrated cohesiveness, the ability to collect and use data on the air situation, as well as the capability to protect command, control and communications from enemy jamming. Nonetheless, the exercise also highlighted the complexity of unifying these sub-branches into a seamless branch of service (Interfax, February 8).
Mikhail Khodarenok, a graduate of the Soviet Air Defense Academy and a defense correspondent for Gazeta.ru, has argued that the creation of the VKS did not reflect Russia’s strategic realities in August 2015, but resulted from a compromise between various interest groups and lobbyists in the Armed Forces and the domestic defense industry. Khodarenok’s recent critique of the VKS exercise also noted the difficulty of integrating these eclectic military organizations into a unified and fully functional system—incorporating army aviation, which has passed back and forth from the Ground Forces to the Air Force. He asserted that the VKS command structure is simply not fully integrated, describing the command as hodgepodge and incoherent. The exercise exposed systemic flaws, including difficulties in the performance of the Space Troops following their relocation during the inspection. Even senior commanders apparently did not utilize the same microphone to issue orders. Khodarenok concluded that the VKS must unite the overall command of air defense, missile defense, missile warning and the space troops in order to create a genuinely integrated aerospace defense system (Gazeta.ru, March 2).
Such criticism of the VKS is almost entirely absent from Russian reporting of its operational achievements in Syria. Yet, advanced air defense systems were only deployed in Syria in the aftermath of the Turkish Air Force downing of the Russian Su-24M in November 2015. Additional evidence has emerged that Moscow plans long-term military involvement in Syria. The legal documents are nearing completion in the Duma to expand the Tartus naval logistical facility into a full-fledged naval base. Meanwhile at the Hmeymim airbase in Latakia, repairing the second runway and adding additional taxiways is due to commence in the spring. The VKS is confident that its assets are fully protected by the deployment of the S-400 advanced surface-to-air missile (SAM) system as well as other air defense capabilities, including the Pantsir-S1 (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, January 20).
The demand for high-technology systems places the VKS at the forefront of Russian military modernization, and undoubtedly these interests are lobbied for by a variety of defense industry companies. Some Russian defense specialists argue that advanced missile systems, such as the 9M82MV missile used in the S-300V4, or even the capability of the S-300PMU or the S-400 provide range and accuracy and may play a role in overcoming the United States’ ballistic missile defense (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, February 22). The use of high-precision weapons in the operations in Syria by the VKS and the Navy, especially Kalibr cruise missiles among other systems, is likely to further increase such demand as part of the ongoing modernization.
Indeed, Russian defense specialists argue that more investment is needed in strengthening and expanding the range of high-precision weapons in the Armed Forces. This is viewed as an emerging capability that will validate “pre-nuclear” deterrence, as well as providing pre-emption, deterrence and retribution options (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, February 3). Such developments will be welcomed by the defense industry, while holding out the promise of more high-technology procurement in the future.
Moreover, since the military modernization began, there has been much discussion on the issue as to which systems introduced are of Soviet or more recent Russian design. However, a recent meeting of defense industry and defense scientists in Moscow suggests growing interest in the “intellectualization” of modern air complexes. On February 2, a meeting was held under the Russian Academy of Sciences involving the scientific and technical council of the military industrial commission, during which the modernization of future aircraft and missiles featured in the presentations. Areas of innovative research included the motion-detection parameters of air objects, the creation of new advanced on-board human-machine interfaces, and other issues. Experts also discussed the management of a group of aircraft implementing various battle scenarios, including missile launches from a single aircraft under the trajectory management from other aircraft as well as methods of overcoming air defense (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, February 3).
While defense industry and military scientific developments may well facilitate further high-technology development in the Russian military, Khodarenok’s analysis of the weaknesses of the VKS at the command level are important not just for that service branch. The General Staff is probably aware of such issues based on the campaign in Syria, though it seems reluctant to discuss these weaknesses publicly. Analysts have long observed that during strategic military exercises since 2009, Russia’s Armed Forces rehearse the integration of multiple force elements. If Khodarenok’s thesis concerning the hodgepodge nature of VKS command and control is correct, then the level of success in achieving inter-force cooperation is certainly open to question. If the VKS becomes heavily involved in escalation in either Syria or Ukraine, neither theater is likely to fully test or expose such command-and-control complexities.