We’ve seen a resurgent Russian military in Syria in the last few years, and they seem to be notably more effective than the team we saw in Georgia and Chechnya. They have new weapons for sure, but there is also performance that reflects a new training structure that leverages effective joint operations. Did they have a Goldwater-Nichols moment? Well, sorta.
The Army’s Foreign Military Service Office (FMSO) produced an e-book in 2017 called The Russian Way of War (PDF) which is one of the only documents I’ve found that explores Russian inter-service cooperation thoroughly. According to the authors Dr. Lester Grau and Charles Bartles, Russian command and control has jointness baked-in. They write:
Unlike the U.S. military, officers do not rotate through “joint” assignments. In the Russian system, “joint” matters, such as operational-strategic level planning and capabilities and doctrine development, are handled exclusively by General Staff personnel…Since matters of military doctrine and procurement are decided by the General Staff, it is considered essential that officers break their fixation with their branch of service (Ground Forces, Navy, Air Force, etc.) and branch of arms (infantry, armor, artillery, etc.) in order to avoid the ‘trade union mentality’ that hinders military doctrine and procurement matters in Western armies.
The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency’s 2017 report on Russian military power confirms the FMSO report, adding that this design is intended to speed up decision-making and enable joint operations. It invites the question if jointness exists in the upper command hierarchy, why didn’t the Soviet Armed Forces have joint operations commands below them?
Russian Armed Forces began to truly recognize a need for restructuring almost immediately after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, but efforts to modernize have taken decades. Informed by painful experiences in Chechnya and Georgia, real discussion of reform doesn’t really take off until 2008 when unpopular Russian Defense Minister Anatoliy Serdukov announces “New Look.” The irony of this name should not be lost on this blog’s readership. Some of Serdukov’s proposals came into place in 2010; such as the conversion of military districts into operational-strategic commands (OSKs). Momentum for the reform would take-off when Sergei Shoigu became Defense Minister in 2012.
Serdyukov worked closely with Chief of General Staff Nikolai Makarov on a wide body of reforms focused on “greater mobility, eliminating mass mobilization in exchange for higher levels of constant readiness, and improving inter-service coordination.” Much like the US, Russia realized in battle situations that cooperation between services was weak and was hampering their effectiveness on the battlefield. A number of sources that have studied Russian operations in Syria say that the jointness is much improved over 2008. Russian military reform is still underway, and the fight in Syria is being observed by some as a sandbox for playing out how this “new look” is, um, looking.
In 2010 as part of the overall reform package, they converted their six “military districts” into four OSKs based on geographical regions. These are similar in nature to U.S. Combatant Commands. The name for the western region “Zapad” ought to look familiar as well. The military exercises that US media was obsessed with last year are one of the four that happened as part of ongoing readiness training. A fifth joint strategic command was added in 2015 in recognition of the Arctic as an emerging battlespace. The new structure means that units assigned to these regions train for joint-defense of that particular battlespace.
Operations in Syria provide evidence of Russian operational jointness. The SU-25 Frogfoot lost in Maasran is the Russian aircraft designed for close air support. Other attack aircraft were likely used to clear the way: bombing fixed targets, weapons caches, and command/control points of the opposition. There are numerous videos showing Russian helicopters attacking targets, likely in a close-air-support role for Iranian-backed militias. The Black Sea Fleet provided sea-lift for base-protection troops and the missile cruiser Moskva as a platform for the fearsome S-300 air defense system to back the CAS mission.
It appears that the broad reforms started 15 years ago are beginning to show fruit. While some of the more futuristic and surprising capabilities of a reformed army make the news (UAVs and cyber), it should come as no surprise that the grandchildren of “Deep Battle” understand how to modernize and institutionalize inter-service integration.