Russian training focus in 2017 — Amphibious operations
For the Russian armed forces 2014 was the year of snap drills and the Ukraine war. 2015 brought in the Syrian expeditionary force and larger readiness exercises. 2016 saw the resurgence of army level operations and strategic relocation training. In 2017 the most notable change is the focus on the amphibious operations and river crossings.
Russian Naval infantry BTR-82A APC:s and a Zubr class landing craft
The Russian naval infantry was established by Peter the great in 1705. The naval infantry has been subordinated to the Russian Navy and it has never been treated as an individual service like the United States Marine Corps. While the quality of the Russian Naval infantry has varied wildly along the centuries it established an elite status during the World War 2. The importance of the Soviet Naval Infantry grew steadily and some elements of it, such as the parachute battalions, were considered equal to the VDV airborne troops.
After the Cold War the Russian military turned to face more unconventional threats and major naval landing operations were not given a high priority. Most of the modernization budget of the Russian Armed Forces went to the army and the VDV. The importance of the Naval infantry began to grow as the President Putin restructured the Russian armed forces for offensive operations.
Crimea and Syria
The most high profile operation of the Russian naval infantry in the recent times was the invasion of Crimea, where the 810. Naval Infantry brigade was involved in disarming the Ukrainian marines and naval forces together with GRU speznaz and VDV airborne units.
The naval infantry from the Black Sea Fleet and the Northern Fleet have also been active in Syria. They have been providing security for the Russian naval base in Tartus for a long time. As the Russian involvement in the Syrian civil war has deepened, the naval infantry has also expanded its force in the theater. The motorized naval infantry units with their BTR-82 APC:s have supported the Syrian Arab Army in many operations. Syria, while not exactly a naval operation, has been an important test for the combat and expeditionary capabilities of the Russian naval infantry.
Increased drills in 2016
The focus of the Russian naval infantry and naval spetznaz forces have been in unconventional warfare, base security and special operations against enemy shore based facilities. In 2016 the Russian naval infantry conducted several amphibious landing drills into unprepared shores with the support of the naval gunfire, army aviation helicopters and air-force tactical bombers.
These drills happened in all of the four major fleets and they ranged from a battalion sized landings to the small islands in the Gulf of Finland to a brigade level operations in the occupied Crimea.
In 2017 these drills evolved into more complicated ones. The drills involved more units and support assets. All of the fleets also tested and exercised loading and unloading of the VDV airborne units in amphibious landing conditions. The unique equipment of the VDV such as the BMD-4 infantry fighting vehicles and the Sprut-SD tank destroyers can provide important capabilities to a landing force. More importantly the VDV units are by design expeditionary and can operate independently inside enemy territory.
VDV BMD-2 taking a swim (photo: Sputnik)
The integration of the VDV units into the naval infantry forces significantly bolsters the number of elite troops that Russia can use to land into the enemy shores. The VDV units are also easily air-transportable, so they have an unsurpassed strategic mobility. These landing operations would also provide an use for the newly formed VDV tank battalions, that can’t be airdropped, unlike the other VDV formations.
During the fall training season, the Russian northern fleet took on new challenges. It conducted a long distance training operation that spanned nearly the entire northern coastline of Russia. The Northern Fleet landing force carried a mix of marines, paratroopers and arctic warfare specialists form the 200th Independent Motor Rifle Brigade based at Alakurtti, to a several landings in the high arctic. The longest assault happened over 2000 kilometers away from the jump off point. These locations and transit distances could mimic assaults against Iceland or Svalbard.
In addition to the published amphibious landing exercises, the Russian Northern Fleet has also been actively training small units into arctic operations under the disguise of scientific expeditions and environmental cleanup projects. Some of these expeditions have even transited through the demilitarized Svalbard islands.
While the introduction of the airborne forces into the naval infantry operations indicates a desire to conduct larger scale amphibious operations that would be possible with only the dedicated units, the procurement of naval landing equipment shows that there is still significant drive to increase the special operations capability of the Russian navy.
Russia has recently introduced four separate classes of combat boats, that provide it’s naval infantry and spetsnaz forces with increased mobility and protection in coastal waters and riverine operations.
Raptor combat boat (photo: Russian MOD)
Three of the boat classes resemble the Swedish Combat Boat 90 at least visually. Kalashnikov BK-16 and BK-18 can transport half a platoon of infantry to a range of 400 km Armament of these boats are a mix of crewed machine guns and grenade launchers and a remote weapon station mounting a 12,7 mm machine gun. The boats also carry a Kalashnikov designed UAV:s to provide the landing unit with better situational awareness. BK-series boats have two 780 hp engines, that can push the boat to speeds up to 43 knots.
The Project 03160 Raptor, while externally similar to the BK-series, is supposed to be a more advanced design than the Kalashnikov boats. It’s armed with 14,5 mm RWS and supposed superior sensors and better sea going abilities. It’s also supposedly faster and easier to operate. The Raptor has 2000 hp engines and a top speed of 50 knots.
Project 02800 class boat (Photo: Ru MOD)
The fourth boat design is a more streamlined project 02800. The first time one of these sleek boats participated in a real world training exercise was on 19th of October 2017, when it supported an amphibious landing drill of the Baltic Fleet in Kaliningrad. Technical details of the new boat are still scarce. The layout of the Project 02800 resembles the Finnish Jurmo-class assault boats, but my subjective opinion is that the Russian counterpart looks way more sexy.
In addition to the combat boats, the Russian navy has procured five Project 21820 aka. Dyugon-class landing crafts. These crafts can land an motorized infantry company or a main battle tank platoon into an unprepared shore. Three of these crafts are based in the Baltic fleet, one in the Pacific Fleet and one in the Caspian sea.
Dyugon-class landing craft deploying BTR-80 APC:s (photo twower.livejournal.com)
In order to support larger amphibious operations in the high arctic, where harbors and shore facilities are scarce, Russia has developed their version of a Mulberry Harbor. Mobile harbor facilities that were established on the coast of Normandy immediately after the D-Day landings, were crucial for the allied war effort.
None of the recent acquisitions can replace the capabilities that the Russian Navy lost, when the French government refused to sell Russia the Mistral-class assault ships. If Russia had received the Mistrals it could pose a threat even to a defended shoreline.
Possible targets and capabilities
The Russian navy has limited number of amphibious assault ships and larger landing crafts that are capable of supporting mechanized naval infantry units. These assets are divided between the four major fleets. This limits the Russian naval infantry more than the number of available amphibious trained infantry units.
Russia can land an brigade from its Northern, Baltic and Black Sea fleets. With the support of the new high speed boats this can be improved only slightly. The greatest advantage they bring is the ability to land special forces in advance of the main landing party. Naturally they also increase the ability to conduct special operations missions along the enemy shorelines and into hostile and neutral installations, such as the Ukrainian gas rigs, that Russia occupied in the Black Sea.
Considering the obvious lack of heavy naval assets and carrier borne aviation, the list of targets Russia can use it’s expanding naval landing capabilities for is relatively short. In the high arctic there are only four probable targets Svalbard, that has a Russian settlement of Barentsburg as a staging area, Iceland and Jan Mayen. The fourth is a landing along the Norwegian coast, but that would mean a full blown ground war against a NATO member.
Ropucha-Class landing ship (photo: Russian Militaryphotos)
In the Baltic Sea region the list of suitable targets for amphibious landings is likewise very short, Gotland and Åland that can provide a game changing advantage by effectively cutting off NATO access to the Baltic states. As with Norway, Russia could use naval landings to support a strategic strike against Finland or the Baltic states. Especially Finland would be a suitable target for such strike as the Finnish reserve based defense takes some time to respond to a brigade level or larger operations against it’s shoreline. Although situation in Finland in improving.
In the Black Sea there is a broader spectrum of possible naval operations that Russia could conduct against Ukraine or Georgia. The concentration of combat boats in the Black Sea Fleet shows that Russia is expecting to use SOF assets rather than brute force landings. The landing and transport ships of the Black Sea Fleet are also crucial at supplying the Russian expeditionary force in Syria.
While the expansion of amphibious trained troops and the introduction of the new combat boats are not massive game changers, they clearly show that Russian armed forces are building capabilities, that are exclusively offensive in nature. Similar development can be seen in the recent restructuring of the ground forces.