Over the past several weeks, Russia’s armed forces have undertaken numerous exercises and drills. The most recent last week was a large-scale exercise that included the firing of a variety of missiles ranging from ballistic to cruise missiles. While military exercises are common-place, as of late Russia seems to be conducting them at greater frequency. President Vladimir Putin over the past two years has annexed Crimea from Ukraine, continues to fight a proxy war in East Ukraine, and has sent forces to fight along Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. As Russia’s economic situation deteriorates due to sanctions and low energy prices, Putin is attempting to show strength at a time of weakness and these exercises are an extension of that.
October 30 Missile Exercise
The most recent drill occurred Friday, October 30 and involved multiple branches of Russia’s armed forces which form its nuclear triad. Only the U.S. and Russia currently have a nuclear triad which consists of air, land, and sea launched nuclear weapon capabilities. Multiple missile launches took place in an “exercise testing the reliability of the passage of combat-training orders and signals along the entire command vertical, from the Russian National Defense Management Center to the command points of formations and military units, inclusive,” in a statement released by the Russian Defense Ministry’s press service.
According to the Defense Ministry, “Strategic underwater missile cruisers Bryansk of the Northern Fleet and Podolsk of the Pacific Fleet launched ballistic missiles from territories in the Barents and Okhotsk seas.” The Bryansk and Podolsk are nuclear ballistic missile submarines of the NATO-named Delta IV and Delta III-classes respectively. A SS-N-18 submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) and an SS-N-23 SLBM were both tested according to a U.S. defense official.
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A ground-based Iskander-M tactical ballistic missile was fired at a target in the southern Russia training field of Kapustin Yar near Kazakhstan. The Iskander first came into service in the Russian Army in 2010 and has a range of over 500 kilometers. In addition a SS-25 Topol intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) was launched from the Plesetsk launch site some 500 miles north of Moscow in northwestern Russia by the Strategic Missile Troops.
In the Caspian Sea, the Buyan-class corvette Velikiy Ustyug from the Caspian Flotilla launched a Kalibr cruise missile at a training target. On October 7, four warships of the Caspian Flotilla including the Velikiy Ustyug launched a reported 26 Kalibr missiles against targets in Syria nearly 1,000 nautical kilometers away.
Meanwhile Tu-160 Blackjack strategic bombers launched cruise missiles at practice targets at the Pemboi range in the northern Komi region and the Kura range on the far eastern Kamchatka PeninsulA. The Defense Ministry released footage of the exercise and it appears that KH-555 air-launched cruise missiles were launched from the Blackjacks. The KH-555 has a range of up to 2,500 kilometers and is nuclear capable.
Speaking to the state-run Itar-Tass news agency on Tuesday, Russian Defense Minister General Sergey Shoigu said “In general, the results of the drills demonstrated high combat readiness of strategic nuclear forces and high-precision long-range weapons”.
In the U.S. Mark Schneider, a former Pentagon nuclear forces official said that the exercise perhaps revealed new information. Referring to the Kalibr cruise missile and Iskander, he said “The use of these missiles in a strategic nuclear exercise tends to confirm Russian press reports that they are both nuclear capable.” In the West, it was initially believed that both systems were conventional. Concerning the Iskander he said, “If it is a ‘high-precision long-range weapon’ as the Russians say, it clearly would violate the INF Treaty (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces)”.
Russia’s Other Recent Exercises
On Wednesday, November 5, the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov conducted the first stage of an air defense exercise in the Barents Sea. Crew of the ship practiced anti-air drills against aerial targets imitated by aircraft of the Northern Fleet. The second stage of the exercise will involve practical firing at imitated aerial targets.
On the same day as the missile exercises, Su-24 bombers from the Baltic Fleet 4th Independent Naval Assault Aviation Regiment carried out bombardment drills during an inspection. In the Kaliningrad region, the bombers carried out high-precision strikes against simulated enemy combat hardware, command posts and engineer obstacles at altitudes ranging between 200-2,000 meters while also practicing joint maneuvering and jamming of anti-aircraft defenses. Meanwhile Ka-27PL helicopters practiced anti-submarine drills against a simulated foreign submarine conducting reconnaissance on the Baltic Fleet.
Additionally, Baltic Fleet air defense missile units and Su-27 fighters of the 689th Independent Fighter Aviation Regiment practiced repelling a simulated enemy aerial attack. According to the Russian Defense Ministry, the simulated enemy carried out a strike on Baltic Fleet assets with a density of four targets per minute. The ministry said that Su-27s responded and “successfully hit all the targets” while working in a “heavy jamming environment”.
On Monday and Tuesday October 25-26, a large exercise was launched in the Black Sea off of Russia-occupied Crimea. Su-24 frontline bombers of the Black Sea Fleet’s 43rd Independent Naval Shturmovik (Assault) Air Squadron practiced repelling simulated air strikes at combat training ranges off of Crimea. Afterwards, the Bora-class missile hovercraft Samum, the Nanuchka II-class corvette Mirazh and the Tarantul III-class R-60 and R-109 corvettes practiced delivering a missile strike against a simulated enemy’s ships and engaged in an artillery battle with a naval strike force simulated by ships of the 84th Novorossiysk Coastal Defense Brigade. Prior to the exercise, Black Sea Fleet spokesman Nikolay Voskresensky said “The ships are expected to live-fire cruise missiles in the final part of the drills to hit sea targets.”
As said, Russia like other countries routinely holds military exercises. Recently though, the frequency of Russia’s exercises have increased while they have been made somewhat more public. Moscow is undoubtedly flexing its military muscle. In some ways this is for propaganda purposes and on the other hand, an attempt to cause concern in the West. For the most part, Russia’s involvement in Ukraine has been met with sanctions and limited promises of security to Eastern European countries; nothing substantial enough to have stopped the Kremlin from pursuing its course of action. In Syria, Russia’s military involvement and support of Assad is now essentially accepted by the West.
Russia is undertaking a slow modernization of its military forces which were revealed to have severe deficiencies in the 2008 Russo-Georgian War. These drills are necessary to improve its capabilities while also showcasing its abilities to the world. One must wonder though, what is Moscow preparing for next?