Russia’s Pacific Power Pivot


2016-06-10 By Richard Weitz

As expected, China’s claims to the South China Sea dominated last weekend’s Shangri-La Defense Dialogue in Singapore.

As usual, Russian military views and actions in the Asia-Pacific theater were largely ignored at the event and in Western commentary.

In his speech to the plenary, Anatoly Antonov, the Russian official in charge of the military’s foreign ties, reaffirmed Russian calls to a new regional security order.

As developed by Antonov and others, the new order would be based on the principles of equal and indivisible security, de-emphasis on bilateral defense allies such as between Japan or South Korea and the United States, and instead concentrate on all forces against fighting terrorism.

According to Antonov, “the existing regional security system, based mainly on a network of close military alliances, does not contribute to creating an atmosphere of trust and mutual understanding, nor does it meet the interests of concerns of all Asia-Pacific states.

Closed military blocs are a relic of the past.

Instead, we suggest mutually respectful partnership, recognition of nations’ right to determine their fate independently, renouncement of any attempts to ensure one’s security at the expense of the others.”

With respect to the terrorist threat that Antonov saw as growing in the region, he offered to share the “valuable experience in fighting terrorist groups” that the Russian armed forces have gained in Syria “with a view to improve counter-terrorism capacity of the Asia-Pacific.”

Antonov also devoted much attention to North Korea. He insisted that Russia would not recognize North Korea as a nuclear weapons state and wanted the Korean Peninsula to be free of nuclear weapons.

But he warned Washington against using the DPRK nuclear threat as a pretext to “change military-political balance in the region” by expanding its ballistic missile defenses (BMD) in Asia.

Antonov failed to mention that in late May, Russia and China conducted their first joint BMD exercise, a command post computer simulation, called “Aerospace Security-2016.”

The Russian media said that the two countries “will use the results of the exercises to discuss proposals on Russian-Chinese military cooperation” in this field

Russian experts said that Russia might supply Kalibr cruise missiles to China for use on its Russian-provided Kilo diesel-electric submarines

Neither Antonov nor others at the conference discussed the major Russian military buildup that has occurred in the Russian Military District (MD or the growing Russian military activities there. The Russian forces there have received new equipment and other capability enhancements and raised their readiness through more large-scale exercises and surprise “snap” drills.

Russia may build pacific fleet base on Matua island in Kurils Chain. Credit: Sputnik News
Russia may build pacific fleet base on Matua island in Kurils Chain. Credit: Sputnik News

A few days ago, Colonel-General Sergei Surovikin, commander of the Eastern MD, said that the Russian armed forces were taking “unprecedented measures to develop the civil-military infrastructure.”

Although Putin has complained for a decade about the alleged U.S. quest for “absolute security” at the expense of generating insecurity for everyone else, Surovikin said Moscow was seeking to “exclude the emergence of even the smallest risks” to Russian security in Asia.

During the last year alone, the MOD has sent 22,000 more contract soldiers to the Eastern MD, raising the total number of military personnel in the MD to 65,000. 

Surovikin said that the district would receive some 700 pieces of military equipment and weaponry this year, including three warships, more than 20 UAVs, and some 60 warplanes and military helicopters.

The Pacific Fleet has over 70 combat vessels, including some 50 warships and about two dozen submarines. It has received more funding, resulting in better training, maintenance, and equipment.

The Fleet is beginning to obtain new Project 955 Borei-class strategic submarines: the K-550 Aleksander Nevskiy, commissioned in 2013, and the K-551 “Vladimir Monomakh, commissioned in 2014.

Russian Topol in missile test. Credit: Moscow Times
Russian Topol in missile test. Credit: Moscow Times

They can carry as many as sixteen Bulava SS-NX-30 (NATO SS-NX-30) Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles, each of which can deliver up to ten warheads. Following a troubled development period, the three-stage Bulava appears to be working reliably now.

The Borei and the earlier-generation Delta-III submarines play a significant role in sustaining the Russian nuclear deterrent, protected by the Fleet’s attack submarines and naval air power in their Sea of Okhotsk bastion.

In the air, the Eastern MD has two fighter regiments, a fighter/ground attack regiment, two ground attack regiments, one intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) regiment, and several transportation squadrons.

The fighter and interceptor aircraft include some new Sukhoi (Su)-35S generation 4++ multirole fighter aircraft as well as older multirole fighters like the Su-27SM, Su-30M2, and MiG-31.

Besides the anticipated improvements in the submarine force, future Russian maritime plans include increasing the inventory and capabilities of surface forces such as aircraft and helicopter carriers as well as multi-role landing ships; developing a rapid-response marine force equipped with long-range and high-precision strike systems; incorporating more underwater, aerial, and surface unmanned vehicles; and improving naval support systems.

Plans continue for a new aircraft carrier designed to conduct operations in remote and oceanic areas, engage land-based and sea-borne enemy targets, ensure the operational stability of naval forces, protect landing troops, and provide the anti-aircraft defense.

These Project 2300E “Shtorm” (Storm) carriers would be nuclear-powered, capable of carrying up to 90 aircraft, and feature both Catapult Assisted Take-Off But Arrested Recovery (CATOBAR) and Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch Systems (EMALS), for which tests are already underway.

Given fiscal and technological constraints, construction will likely begin years later than the 2019 date suggested by the president of Russia’s United Shipbuilding Corporation.

Beyond lacking requisite technology for building the ship itself, Russia does not have a dock large enough to build the proposed 100,000-ton vessel.

Russia’s sole remaining operational carrier, the Admiral Soyuza Kuznetsov, was built in Ukraine.

As a result, any future carriers may be completed in sections at various locations and assembled at Sevmash, Russia’s largest military shipyard. Future development plans, also constrained by financial realities, include an advanced maritime patrol aircraft, a new multi-mission maritime helicopter, and an advanced airborne strike system.

The Eastern MD is also obtaining new Orlan-10 and Forpost UAVs that have a longer flight capacity and can carry TV-cameras, infrared cameras, radio gear, EW systems, and additional technologies for reconnaissance, intelligence gathering, and other support operations.

The Russian military has been upgrading its capabilities on the Kuril Islands with Tor-M2U air defense systems, Bal and Bastion coastal missiles, and more S-400 long-range air defense missile systems as well as the shorter-range Pantsir-S1.

The military district’s aerospace and naval units have served as a force provider for other Russian strategic commands, recently deploying warplanes on rotation to Syria and warships to the Indian Ocean and Mediterranean Sea.

Unsurprisingly, Russian arms sales to the region are booming, with China leading the pack but some ASEAN markets rising in importance.

Of note, a few days before the June 2016 Shangri-La Defense Summit, the Pacific Fleet’s flagship, the Varyag, conducted a port visit to Singapore.

There it hosted a reception for the representatives from the ASEAN and their dialogue partners—which offered a convenient opportunity to market Russian arms to Southeast Asian military chiefs.

In short, Russia has its own pivot going on in the Pacific which involves both a military buildup and leveraging the Chinese dynamic in the Pacific.