Category Archives: Training and Exercises

Bering Patrol

Your author has been distracted since late March, but here’s an effort to regain (and possibly maintain) focus….

On April 9, the U.S. Air Force intercepted two Russian Il-38 May ASW aircraft in the Bering Sea north of the Aleutians. The Russian planes were in the Alaska ADIZ but didn’t enter sovereign U.S. or Canadian airspace.

Two random Il-38Ns

Two random Il-38Ns

According to the Russian Pacific Fleet’s press-service, the Il-38s were conducting a “flight-tactical exercise” to their max combat radius — about 2,200 km (1,188 nm).

The precise track is known only to the Russians and to NORAD. A full-range flight from their base at Yelizovo could have taken them to the Bering Strait and back, or perhaps along the Aleutian chain. Or maybe somewhere in between. The distances are great enough, however, to limit any search or loitering time.

The aircraft practiced ASW with radar and acoustic sensors and notional delivery of on-board weapons, according to the report. MiG-31 Foxhound interceptors provided air cover. An-12 Cub and An-26 Curl transports flew in a surface recce role.

“Special attention” was given to coordinating the activity of the Il-38s with the Marshal Krylov and tactical ship groups. The Marshal Krylov is an old missile range instrumentation vessel reportedly now serving as the Pacific Fleet’s command ship.

The Pacific Fleet and Il-38 aircraft have been wrapping up the winter training period with some fairly vigorous exercises.

The Russian Navy and its Il-38s are obviously interested in U.S. military systems in Alaska and how they react to ingressing aircraft. They’re also interested in U.S. subs operating in the Bering, whether headed for the Arctic or possibly tracking Russian subs based on Kamchatka.

Flying to max radius (for Il-38s which have typically been used close to home) is most curious. Perhaps it’s sensor system testing. Maybe it was the chance to train with Marshal Krylov as a tactical controller. Why not rebase and fly from Anadyr?

Russian Naval Aviation may operate as few as 20 Il-38s at this point. The Yelizovo-based 317th Mixed Aviation Regiment has an ASW squadron of probably 8 Il-38 and 4 Il-38N aircraft. The Northern Fleet probably has another 8 airframes.

All Il-38s are likely 40 or more years old, but perhaps seven were modernized to Il-38N during the 2010s. In 2017, the chief of Naval Aviation claimed to have 30 Il-38s that would be upgraded to Il-38N by 2025.

The Il-38N is the old airframe plus the new Novella P-38 system to replace the original Berkut-38. That sensor suite mounted rather awkwardly atop the fuselage increases the range of the plane’s air and surface target detection and tracking. More enthusiastic reports say it can find submarines by magnetic, wake, and IR detection, and is four times more effective in target search.

Talk of a new medium-range ASW aircraft is heard from time to time. The Beriyev-designed A-40 Albatros amphibian was once a possibility. Now the Il-114 is often mentioned. However, no clear move to replace the aged Il-38 inventory is evident.

Bears Leaving Hibernation

RAF Typhoon intercepts Bear F

RAF Typhoon intercepts Bear F

Russia’s Tu-142 / Bear F ASW aircraft are waking up at the end of the winter training period. The Russian media highlighted four evolutions recently.

We probably haven’t seen a surge in long-range naval surveillance flights like this in some time. Possibly not since Soviet times. 

On March 7, two Bear F flew a patrol into the Atlantic. A Russian Northern Fleet spokesman said the aircraft were refueled over the southern Norwegian Sea during the 15-hour flight. The aircraft trained over waters near Spain and Portugal before returning home.

On March 6, three Pacific Fleet Bear F over the Sea of Japan practiced locating, tracking,  and attacking a notional enemy submarine.

On March 4, at least one (probably more) Bear F aircraft was refueled over the Black Sea. TVZvezda provided this video. Northern Fleet air crews trained at the Russian Navy’s Combat Training and Combat Employment Center in Yeysk during the week.

On 26-27 February, two Bear F flew a mission south of the Faeroes and Iceland, possibly to gain contact on U.S. or British subs enroute to ICEX 2020.

At present, there are likely about 24 Tu-142 aircraft in the Russian Naval Aviation inventory. One air group or squadron of 12 each (possibly as many as 15) in the Northern and Pacific Fleets. The former at Kipelovo-Fedotovo and the latter at Mongokhto.

Tu-142 Bear F bases

In the late 1960s, the Tupolev design bureau developed the Tu-142 on the blueprint of the Tu-95 / Bear bomber with a range of roughly 10,000 km.

The Bear F has carried various ASW systems including surface search radars, airborne acoustic detectors, Korshun search-targeting system, magnetic anomaly detectors, IR direction finders, gas analyzers, and Korshun-K. The Korshun-K system is found on the Tu-142MK. The Tu-142MZ is distinguished by its newer NK-12MP engines.

The Bear F, while aged in most cases, has been a reliable aircraft. It’s suffered three known crashes, the last in 2009 occurred in the Strait of Tatary.

The current fleet was produced mainly in the late 1970s and 1980s. A number, perhaps most, of them received capital repairs in the late 2000s and 2010s.

The oldest Russian Bear F are likely 40-45 years old. The youngest perhaps 30. But relatively restricted flying hours have helped keep them in the air. Flying them hard, however, would stress the limits of the force. 

The Russian Navy is reportedly thinking about acquiring civilian Tu-204 or Tu-214 airliners for conversion into new ASW aircraft but this would be expensive and hasn’t advanced beyond the requirements stage yet.

Pchela’s Daughter

Order the flowers . . . Russia’s March 8 (and 9) celebration of International Women’s Day has started.

On February 27, KZ highlighted Yekaterina Olegovna Pchela who may become Russia’s first female LRA pilot.

She’s a cadet at the Krasnodar Higher Military Aviation Pilot School (KVVAUL) and the only woman currently studying to fly Russian strategic bombers.

Cadet Pchela’s the start of what Russians like to call a “military dynasty.” Her father — Oleg (promoted to one-star general-major rank on February 20) — has commanded the 22nd Guards Heavy Bomber Aviation Donbass Red Banner Division at Engels since 2017. It operates Tu-160 / Blackjack and Tu-95MS / Bear H bombers.

Cadet corps at KVVAUL

Cadet corps at KVVAUL

The Russian MOD first allowed women to attend KVVAUL in 2017, but restricted them to transport aircraft.

According to the school’s deputy chief, now there’s at least one woman studying each of four specialties: one in attack aviation, one in long-range aviation, seven in fighters, and the balance in transports.

On average the women get higher marks than the men. KZ’s editor adds there are 45 women enrolled in KVVAUL.

Female second- and third-year cadets will fly for the first time this spring.

The number of women in the armed forces hasn’t gone up much over the past decade. There were 50,000 in 2012. Perhaps only 40,000 now despite increased opportunities for them in the ranks. Polling indicates about two-thirds of Russians don’t want their daughters to serve.

The move to a Russian Army more reliant on volunteers than draftees, however, means Moscow can’t ignore a large pool of valuable human capital — young women.

A land where male chauvinism has long prevailed, Russia still trails Western countries significantly in this respect. U.S. service academies were open to women by the second half of the 1970s and the first female USAF B-52 pilot was flying in the early 1990s.

Yekaterina Olegovna

Then there’s nepotism. We don’t know anything about Ms. Pchela’s selection for KVVAUL. We have to assume she was a qualified applicant and is a promising future officer. She’s been getting a bit of media star treatment though. Not at random, she was picked to ask Putin questions during last June’s “direct line” with the president.

Russian mothers and fathers worry about hazing and violence against their sons in the army. So they certainly worry about sexual harassment and assault on their daughters. Oleg Pchela’s presence and position in LRA protects Yekaterina in this regard. But it’s likely more difficult for female cadets without fathers who are senior military officers.

Toy Soldiers

Cadets at the Tula Suvorov Military School

Tula Suvorov Military School Cadets

In NVO, historian Stanislav Ivanov asks how much “cadetization” of Russia’s youth is justified? Even a good thing like military education for the young, he says, shouldn’t be taken to extremes.

A 2012 Duma roundtable concluded that cadet, Suvorov, and Nakhimov schools weren’t well-regulated legally, and lacked unified teaching plans, programs, and content, according to Ivanov who works as a researcher at IMEMO. Standard uniforms, diplomas, and professional qualification documents were absent except in the case of MOD-run Suvorov and Nakhimov schools.

There are, Ivanov writes, 31 educational institutions for boys and girls operating under MOD auspices, more than 3,500 other cadet-type organizations (cadet corps or cadet schools under different ministries, departments, and RF territorial components), 150 specially-named educational institutions, and 51,000 “cadet classes.” The latter are a cadet-type program run in a civilian school. Junior ROTC on steroids.

Ivanov notes that the concept of cadet education is supposed to be a unified, targeted process of indoctrination and learning in the historical tradition of Russian cadet corps. He continues:

But the time has come to bring order to the chaotic and fragmented system of cadet education, to bring it into some kind of standard and legalization in the relevant law.

As a 1964 Suvorov graduate, Ivanov says he wants to analyze the pros and cons of the accelerating large-scale “cadetization” and militarization of Russia’s young generation.

The first nine Suvorov Military Schools opened in 1943 as part of the answer to thousands of pre-school and school-age children left without parents or relatives during the Great Patriotic War. Soon there were 22, and students included not just orphans, but sons of military officers and CPSU officials. In 1975, however, they were reduced to just eight Suvorov schools and one Nakhimov school.

The military schools fulfilled their purpose, according to Ivanov. Many students became generals, thousands became senior officers, and still others occupied important state posts. They served in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Chernobyl, Afghanistan, Chechnya, and Syria. Current General Staff Chief Valeriy Gerasimov graduated from the Kazan Suvorov Military School. The end of the Cold War, however, took away many reasons for conflict with the West. So Ivanov writes:

In these conditions, the process of such large-scale militarization of the childhood and adolescence of Russia’s young generation does not seem entirely understandable. In fact, the number of children, boys and girls dressed in military uniform compared with wartime and post-war times has already grown not dozens or hundreds, but a thousand times. Some have to live in closed military-training institutions, practically in barracks conditions. From my own experience, I know how it is separating children from their families, from their homeland, friends, comrades, national customs and traditions. All early limits on freedom of movement and personal life, barracks life and drill don’t contribute to the harmonious development of an individual. And there are serious doubts about the possibility of picking up hundreds of thousands of decent officers, warrant officers, civilian teachers and educators for such a number of cadets. Local authorities and chiefs of cadet schools don’t always correctly understand the specifics of the child’s worldview. So at the cadet induction ceremony in Zlatoust they showed young students techniques for dispersing mass protests in a demonstration provided by FSIN [Federal Prison Service] Spetsnaz. Officials called the performance “vivid and spectacular,” noting that it was conducted in the framework of the program on “patriotic indoctrination of civilian youth.”

Ivanov is referring to the video below.

As Novaya gazeta described, the exhibition was primarily for the “benefit” of the fifth grade “cadet class” in uniform at right.

There are, Ivanov continues, many important and necessary professions besides military or government service. And in addition to normal school programs, those who dream of a military career can study military history, visit military museums and firing ranges, or participate in military games, without being isolated from their families. It’s not obligatory to go around constantly in military uniform or live in a barracks. So many prosecutors, investigators, police, baliffs, and customs officials are wearing military uniforms today that it has lowered the uniform’s significance in Russian society to some degree. Obviously, veterans of war and military service don’t altogether accept the sight of juveniles bedecked with medals and badges received for participating in parades or other ceremonial events.

Ivanov concludes:

. . . the mass “cadetization” or militarization of Russia’s children today is not justified by anything and is rather temporary, the state is simply trying to simplify the indoctrination process. It seems officials have found in cadets a replacement for the Young Pioneers and Komsomol and suggest to society through the media and education system that enemies once again surround Russia and are preparing to conquer it from without. So they’ve dressed millions of little Russians in military uniforms and are trying to indoctrinate them in the spirit of devotion to the authorities.

If a law on cadet educational institutions were adopted, Ivanov says it should strictly limit them in number, regulate their programs, uniforms, and rules for wearing them. A more limited number of schools could even improve the quality of the students. Meanwhile, other “military-applied” activities could be upgraded so youth can participate without having to leave their families for the dorm or barracks of a cadet school.

A thought-provoking article. One wonders if some parents resort to cadet schools because of underfunding and poor conditions in civilian schools. Education, like health care, isn’t exactly a regime priority. Interesting too that Ivanov doesn’t even mention Putin’s 600,000-strong Yunarmiya including both cadets and many students not enrolled in cadet schools.

Grom-2019

RS-24 Yars ICBM launched from Plesetsk

RS-24 Yars ICBM launch from Plesetsk

Recall the Russian press reported in advance that Grom-2019 would be a command and control CSX with live activity by RVSN, LRA, VTA, and Northern and Pacific Fleet forces and 16 ballistic and cruise missile launches.

According to Mil.ru, Supreme CINC Vladimir Putin participated in the exercise from the NTsUO.

Russian Northern and Pacific Fleet SSBNs fired SLBMs from the Barents Sea and Sea of Okhotsk to the Kura and Chizha impact areas respectively.

Video showed Delta IV-class SSBN Karelia (SS-N-23 Sineva SLBM) was the Northern Fleet shooter. An SS-N-18 Stingray was supposed to be fired, so the Pacific Fleet boat had to be one of three Delta III-class SSBNs.

Media accounts indicated Northern Fleet and Caspian Flotilla surface ships launched 3M-14 Kalibr (SS-N-30A) cruise missiles against land targets at the same time.

NVO claimed more Kalibr missiles were fired from submarines and from Pacific, Baltic, and Black Sea Fleet platforms. This should be considered unsubstantiated for now.

A mobile RS-24 Yars (SS-27 Mod 2) ICBM was fired from Plesetsk to Kura.

Iskander crews launched cruise missiles (SSC-8 or 9M729) from ranges in the Southern and Eastern MDs. The SSC-8 was the Russian system that busted the INF Treaty.

Russian TV news Pervyy kanal provided this report on Grom-2019:

 

Tu-95MS / Bear-H bombers fired their Kh-55 (AS-15 Kent) cruise missiles to Pemboy and Kura.

Mil.ru reiterated that Grom-2019 was intended to check the readiness of Russia’s military command and control organs and the skill of commanders and operational staffs in organizing command and control of subordinate forces. The MOD website reported all missions were fulfilled, and all missiles reached their targets and confirmed their capabilities.

With INF gone and New START (START III or what the Russians call SNV-III) approaching expiration in 2021, Grom-2019 might have been the first stratex of a post-arms control era. When were intermediate-range nuclear missiles used to such a degree in a stratex? Moscow may have tested its nuclear response and escalation in a world without a ban on systems short of truly strategic ones.

Grom-2019

A Russian MOD press-release outlined Grom-2019 — Russia’s annual strategic nuclear forces exercise which begins today and runs through Thursday.

Grom-2019

The MOD officially describes the activity as a “strategic command-staff exercise in the command and control of the Armed Forces.”

RVSN, LRA, VTA, and Northern and Pacific Fleet forces will be involved. Ballistic and cruise missile launches will terminate on the Pemboy, Kura, and Chizha ranges.

Pemboy near Vorkuta is typically for ALCMs; Kura and Chizha are for ballistic missiles. VTA tankers will refuel Russian bombers. 

The head of GU MVS General-Major Yevgeniy Ilin indicated activity will include 16 ballistic — Yars ICBMs and Bulava,  Sineva (SS-N-23), and Stingray (SS-N-18) SLBMs — and cruise missile firings.

The press-release said 12,000 personnel will participate in the exercise along with 213 ICBM launchers, 105 aircraft including five bombers, and as many as 15 surface ships and five submarines.

Combat Experience

When Russian President Vladimir Putin got serious about modernizing his military in 2013, he lacked something: somewhere to flex those new muscles.

It’s a “chicken or the egg” paradox. Does a country really have military power if it doesn’t use it? Or does the process of employing the country’s military create that power?

The leaders of the world’s most bellicose nations don’t feel secure until they’ve seen their troops in combat, no matter how well manned, equipped, and trained they are. Supreme CINCs like to see the effect using their military power has on others.

The Kremlin watched while U.S. and NATO forces were used in many places around the globe in the 1990s and 2000s. There were some senior Russian officers who’d done a tour in Afghanistan during the 1980s. But Moscow’s soldiers — and precious few at that — had only Chechnya and Georgia, and the results weren’t encouraging.

So Putin’s modernized forces got their first real practice annexing Crimea and invading eastern Ukraine in 2014. And though Moscow can’t advertise, its generals and units have been fighting alongside the Russian militias in Donetsk and Lugansk ever since.

Syria served as a bigger firing range.

Russia’s intervention in the Syrian civil war in 2015 provided not just a live proving ground for the new weapons and equipment Moscow procured. It created another opportunity for Russian officers and soldiers to acquire combat experience.

There have been various Russian media summaries capturing this, but Interfaks-AVN published one recently that seems pretty comprehensive.

According to Interfaks-AVN, the Russian MOD announced that 68,000 troops, including 460 generals, have received combat experience in Syria.

It indicated that the commanders of all four Russian military districts, all combined arms army and air and air defense army commanders, all division commanders, and also 96 percent of combined arms brigade and regiment commanders have served in Syria.

The MOD said 87 percent of frontal aviation crews, 91 percent of army aviation crews, 97 percent of transport aviation crews, and 60 percent of strategic Long-Range Aviation crews have gotten combat experience over Syria.

The Russian Defense Ministry added that it’s reducing its contingent in Syria now.

These are, of course, pretty remarkable claims, but one wonders: does Russia have 460 general officers in combat command positions from which they could be sent for a tour in a war zone?