What Happened During Vostok 2018?
After the week-long Vostok 2018 large-scale Russian strategic maneuvers ended on September 17 and the initial hot takes went to press, the Russian blog Naspravdi rebutted Western observations, declaring, “[I]f we consider that America, from time immemorial has only understood the language of power, I believe the unprecedented military exercises conducted by Russia jointly with China and Mongolia in the homeland of the great conqueror of Eurasia Genghis Khan greatly improved the thinking process of our strategic opponents” (Naspravdi.info, September 24). In reality, Vostok 2018 shed more light on Russian thinking on the future of war than it will likely educate Western militaries.
Officially, the exercise involved 297,000 Russian service members, about 36,000 pieces of equipment, and more than 1,000 aircraft (YouTube, September 6), complemented by 3,200 Chinese soldiers and an unknown number of Mongolians. This represents a third of all active-duty servicemen and 72 percent of all combat-capable aircraft of the Russian Federation, according to IISS’s 2018 Military Balance. As such, it is an utterly impossible scale (see EDM, September 17, 19), especially considering the logistical limitations of reinforcing the Russian Eastern Military District (VVO), where the exercise occurred (Openrailwaymap.org, accessed October 1).
Unlike other Russian strategic-operational drills, which exercise the operational command of a military district (Mil.ru, September 14, 2017), Vostok 2018 was billed as a set of “maneuvers,” a term largely dormant in the post-Soviet military lexicon and generally only used by the Strategic Rocket Forces (Mil.ru, April 1, 2018) or for naval exercises (Mil.ru, April 4). The centerpiece of this year’s Vostok exercise was at Tsugol, Zabaikalskiy Krai (Mil.ru, September 19), where the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) participated. The Russian 29th Army, based near Tsugol, has been steadily increasing its readiness all year in anticipation of the exercise. Those preparations included large drills in March—though involving only 4,000 service members—that Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov unusually briefed directly to President Vladimir Putin (Mil.ru, March 31; Kremlin.ru, April 20).
For the official Vostok 2018 maneuvers, the 29th Army was apparently augmented not only by the PLA but also the neighboring Russian 36th Army from Buryatia (Mil.ru, September 18) and the 35th Army from Khabarovsk. At Tsugol, two opposing sides—a blue “western” force and a red “eastern” force—were established for the primary exercise. The forces of the VVO and the PLA formation constituted the red force, while elements of the Russian Central Military District (TsVO) formed the blue force (Bmpd.livejournal.com, September 7). After two days creating the respective operational groups of forces, they carried out maneuvers for the following five.
Based on tactical details reconstructed from press releases, the (enemy) blue force evidently opened the operational phase of the exercise by seizing key terrain with the help of an air assault led by the Airborne Troops (Vozdushno-Desantnye Voyska—VDV). The blue force then attempted to destroy the red force’s command posts (function.mil, September 13), after which blue’s TsVO Ground Forces reinforced the line (Izvestiya, September 13). During this, parallel VVO exercises in Buryatia (Mil.ru, September 12) and Khabarovsk (Mil.ru, September 14) simulated the red force repelling a major air offensive, including from blue’s Tu-95MS strategic bombers (Izvestiya, September 12). At the same time, TsVO forces in Orenburg conducted simulated precision Iskander-M strikes from positions concealed with smokescreens (Mil.ru, September 12).
The red counterattack began with their own Iskander-M strikes supported by massed fires from 52 multiple-launch rocket systems (MLRS) and 72 artillery guns, spotted by Su-24MR reconnaissance aircraft and Orlan-10 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) (Mil.ru, September 13), as well as the deadly TOS-1A Solnstepek flamethrower (Mil.ru, September 13). From then on, the red force retained the initiative in the air using A-50U airborne early warning (AEW) assets (Mil.ru, September 14) to coordinate interdiction strikes against blue supply lines (Mil.ru, September 14), to shoot down enemy aircraft with ATA missiles (Mil.ru, September 15), and finally to suppress remaining blue airfields with cruise missiles from Tu-22M3 strategic bombers protected by Su-35 fighters (RIA, September 15). Despite this red rally, blue S-400s successfully defended against red air strikes on the last day of the exercise (Mil.ru, September 17), enabling blue to simulate a successful Iskander-M launch (at Kapustin Yar) against red’s command post (Mil.ru, September 17).
Other components of Vostok 2018 beyond Tsugol generally followed this script: in the Urals (Mil.ru, September 12) and Siberia (Mil.ru, September 13) (blue TsVO home garrisons), initially successful UAV-informed offensives and advances gave way to defending garrisons from spetsnaz insertion to steal their plans or equipment (Mil.ru, September 14). After red regained the initiative, VVO units practiced cleaning up contaminated equipment from hypothetical chemical spillages (Mil.ru, September 14), rescue and survival skills (Mil.ru, September 15), and even a joint Russian-Chinese search and rescue of a downed passenger plane in the Amur River run by the Russian Ministry of Emergency Situations and the Chinese Maritime Security Administration (Mchs.gov.ru, September 15).
At sea, the Northern Fleet traversed the Northern Sea Route (Warvspeace.org, September 12) to act as the blue navy for the maneuvers while the Pacific Fleet served as the red navy. Blue’s Arctic Brigade landed on an unequipped beachhead in Chukotka at the very start of the exercise (Mil.ru, September 11), followed by a rapid march over 270 kilometers while repelling enemy reconnaissance and special forces probes (Mil.ru, September 14). At the end of the exercise, they were seemingly “opposed” by red Pacific Fleet naval infantry performing synchronized drills far to the south, near Vladivostok; this red force then destroyed them with a combined air, sea and land operation (Redstar.ru, Mil.ru, September 17). Further details of the naval combat were sparse: the red fleet executed a rapid withdrawal to the sea at the start of the exercise (likely, to escape a blue air attack) (Mil.ru, September 11), followed by a mine-countermeasures exercise and anti-ship missile launches (Mil.ru, September 12). Otherwise, Russia only disclosed vague numbers (Mil.ru, September 19).
A red victory is unsurprising: red forces are the protagonists in Russian exercises, and China was assigned to the red team. This makes the simulated blue tactics more interesting, especially a reported “new type” of air assault (Mil.ru, September 11). However, the fact that red forces were based in the east likely somewhat obscured true Russian defense plans from the Chinese guests, making the Vostok 2018 maneuvers a far more classical educational game than other Russian strategic-operational exercises. Shoigu announced that these war game “maneuvers” will take place every five years (Redstar.ru, September 17), meaning the next will be scheduled for Tsentr 2023. And China could well be invited back to again take part.