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What We Learned from Peace Mission 2018
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO)’s “Peace Mission” anti-terror exercises are an important tool for understanding how its members, which include China, Russia, India and most of Central Asia, view the regional threat environment and trends. While not as heavily analyzed as the massive Russian Zapad 2017 or Vostok 2018 exercises, analysts should not ignore Peace Mission 2018. For example, Peace Mission exercises provide the Chinese military numerous benefits such as practicing joint and integrated warfare with the closest thing China has to strategic partners. As China continues to expand its expeditionary capabilities, the experience gained from PLA units traveling outside the country helps develop its rising military leadership and logistics planners.
China is not the only major power that benefits from the Peace Mission exercises, though. Russia continues to benefit from this multilateral opportunity outside of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) exercise framework. Peace Mission exercises allow Russia to showcase its military capabilities in a different manner and demonstrate a commitment to the region in a competitive yet cooperative manner alongside China.
Central Asian politics, both domestic and regional, remain volatile as returning Islamic State (IS) foreign fighters strain local security forces and cause increased concerns over homegrown IS splinter groups. Central Asian nations know they must develop the ability to effectively counter destabilizing threats of terrorism, extremism, and separatists, known as the “three evils.” Effective expeditionary capabilities may also be needed and used by both China and Russia as the region’s authoritarian leaders grow older and succession crises become more likely.
Peace Mission 2018 is the latest iteration of the still relatively young anti-terror exercise series and offers a wealth of information for China, Russia, and Central Asian analysts. Assessing Peace Mission 2018 is critical in charting the evolution of the PLA as a modern great power military. The exercise also acts as a barometer of Russian-Chinese high-level security cooperation. Finally, the Peace Mission series offers a clear window into current strategic concerns and focus areas for the bloc.
The Facts of Peace Mission 2018
Peace Mission 2018 took place at the Cherbarkulsky Training Ground in Chelyabinsk Oblast, in the Central Military District on Russia’s border with Kazakhstan. The choice of Chelyabinsk Oblast, straddling the Ural Mountains, aligned with public statements before, during, and after the exercise about continued focus on anti-terrorist mountain warfare operations. Based on public satellite imagery and pictures, the training ground itself is not mountainous, but instead a mix of dense forest and rolling grassy hills.
Roughly 3,000 troops are reported to have participated in Peace Mission 2018, up from the 1,100-2,100 in 2016. Russia reportedly sent 1,700 military personnel, including an armor detachment. China sent a 700-750 solider-strong contingent that also included an armored detachment, a mixed artillery battery, a detachment of the PLA Air Force (PLAAF), and a special operations group. India sent 200 personnel that again included armor forces and air force personnel, while Pakistan sent 110 special operations soldiers. Kazakhstan also reportedly sent an armor contingent and a group of combat aircraft, although basic math suggests that the overall participation of the Central Asian nations themselves was severely lacking for the second Peace Mission exercise in a row. Kyrgyzstan appears to have only sent a small special operations detachment, Tajikistan sent a company-sized force of “mobile” troops, and Uzbekistan reportedly only sent 10 observers.
Peace Mission 2018 continued to follow the template of previous exercises with three distinct cooperative phases: strategic consultation, battle preparation, and live-fire combat implementation. The overall exercise scenario for Peace Mission 2018 closely resembled that of the 2014 exercise: recapturing a village taken over by militants in a Central Asian country called “Country A.” Video and pictures of the exercise show a small training village and the seven-nation coalition surrounding the village before assaulting it from all sides. According to the reported “exercise plan,” the troops were organized into “combat clusters” for joint operations. Combat operations were carried out in six distinct steps: reconnaissance, blockade and control, a paradrop landing, resistance, suppression, and, finally, a pursuit and attack phase. After unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) were used to fully scout the village, opposing forces were softened by a series of airstrikes before armored and mechanized forces assaulted the town in house-to-house fashion. Oddly, the paradrop was conducted by Indian forces, that also reportedly participated in the more realistic helicopter assault.
Between 500-600 pieces of military equipment were involved in Peace Mission 2018. Reports, videos, and pictures show a diverse range of equipment including main battle tanks (MBT), modern combat aircraft, and 20 UAVs. In proportion to their troop contingents, Russian equipment was the most prevalent, followed by China, etc.
Over 60 aircraft were involved in Peace Mission 2018, up from 40 in 2016. Russian aircraft reportedly operated from the nearby Shagol Airfield which is home to several squadrons of aircraft that have rotated through Syria, including Su-24 Fencers. Chinese forces also operated from Shagol Airfield, including two Shenyang J-11 multirole fighter, JH-7 fighter-bombers, and six Shaanxi Y-9 transport aircraft. Four Mi-171 multi-purpose helicopters, four Z-10 attack helicopters and two Il-76 transport aircraft of the PLA were also spotted at Shagol. A Kazakhstan Air Force group made up of two Su-30SM fighters, two Su-25 ground attack planes and a C-295 twin turboprop transport aircraft were also stationed at Shagol. The ubiquitous Mi-24 Hind assault transport helicopter was present throughout the exercise as were large numbers of Mi-171 transport/assault helicopters from other participating nations. A Mi-26 Halo heavy lift helicopter was even involved in the exercise. Videos related to the exercise show a Tu-95 Bear bomber in flight, although it is unclear if long-range bombing operations were about the 2018 exercise like they were during the 2016 iteration.
On the ground, a wide-variety of armored personnel carriers (APC) and infantry fighting vehicles (IFV) were involved, ranging from the BMP-1 and BMP-3 to several variations of the BTR-60/70/80 wheeled APC family. A notable piece of equipment for Russia was their Tiger armored truck which has been used extensively in domestic anti-terrorism operations in the South Caucasus regions of Dagestan and Ingushetia. Tanks were heavily featured in the exercise with videos showing numerous tanks firing from hull-down positions and moving in columns. India appears to have sent its workhorse T-72 MBT while Chinese forces appear to be operating the ZTZ-99A MBT. Multiple Launch Rocket Systems (MLRS) do not appear to have been a feature of Peace Mission 2018 (unlike 2016) but towed-artillery was used extensively. Photographs of electronic warfare equipment at the exercise show the SCO’s focus on preventing terrorist from being able to communicate effectively.
Assessment of Peace Mission 2018
The first element of Peace Mission 2018 was to assess is the overall exercise scenario. The 2018 exercise closely followed the Peace Mission 2016 premise of a group of terrorists taking over a village. It is not clear if this year’s terrorists also possessed tanks and fighters like in 2016. In the past, the village-take over and subsequent assault appeared to reflect the unique way the SCO defined “terrorist,” which actually includes separatists and coup-plotters who may have access to heavy military equipment. the scenario is also relevant given the organizations legitimate concerns about an IS-affiliate or an IS-like actor carrying out a rapid takeover of a city, like Mosul. As the Peace Mission series and the threats to the SCO mature, a dual-purpose scenario may be viewed as the most efficient way to conduct Peace Mission exercises.
Peace Mission 2018 was widely billed as an opportunity for nations to cooperatively practice urban counterterrorism operations. Imagery and video of the combat operations phase show a small training village was used. It does not appear to be truly reflective of the difficulties of modern urban warfare. The mismatch in messaging and practice is especially odd considering Russia’s experience fighting in dense urban areas in Syria and from its counter-terrorism operations in Dagestan. It is possible that SCO leadership believe that terrorist groups are more likely form outside of dense urban areas, but rather in rural villages instead.
Footage of the combat phase also show a distinct focus on modern combined arms operations. Forces appear to be carrying out an assault against a seemingly conventional enemy rather than approaching an urban center held by lightly armed terrorists. This assertion is supported by the broad-front assaults against the village, the paradrop operation, and tanks firing from prepared, hull-down positions. All of these actions would suggest a continued focus on attacking a near-peer force like a coup or-separatist faction. Of course, the style of the exercise could also reflect the Soviet-origins of many participant’s doctrines rather than the threat, which is an issue itself.
There are several possible reasons for the mismatched messaging and events of Peace Mission 2018. First, SCO leadership is de facto dominated by China, who possibly chose to ensure that the exercise remained relatively easy to carry out. This would ensure minimal breakdowns in cooperation between forces of different capability levels. It may have also made it easier for new entrants, Pakistan and India, who are not used to cooperating together. Because the SCO is indeed a China-dominated organization, it is likely that it has acquired some of the Chinese military’s bad habits, such as padding military exercises so that there is no loss of face if there was failure.
Pictures and video show a clear lack of focus on precision strike capabilities for all nations involved. PLAAF J-11s are shown being used in a ground attack role firing rocket pods while other pictures show JH-7s dropping “dumb” bombs. There is no media of any aircraft using precision strike weapons. The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) said in an online press release that only 20 guided “missiles” used out of a 1000 rockets and missiles were fired. The lack of precision-strike weapons in Peace Mission 2018 is not entirely surprising. Russia’s penchant for using dumb bombs in Syria is well documented, after all, and Central Asian leaders are unlikely to be overly concerned with collateral damage if regime survival is at stake.
The participation of only 10 observers for Uzbekistan is one of the most shocking aspects of Peace Mission 2018. The long-time president of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, died right before Peace Mission 2016, and the succession process was rocky and contentious—underscoring the SCO’s importance in the security and stabilization realm. The instability caused by Karimov’s death likely helped awaken Uzbekistan’s new leadership to the dangers facing it and spurred a return to SCO involvement. Uzbekistan is also the origin point for most of the returning IS foreign fighters from the Middle East, a problem it is struggling to adequately address. Despite these issues, Uzbekistan appears to be fighting to maintain its reputation of independence. Only time will tell if the observers saw enough positive aspects in the latest Peace Mission to convince leadership to fully recommit to the organization.
Biggest Takeaways from Peace Mission 2018
Before Peace Mission 2018 started, I highlighted that China’s dominance of the SCO could lead to “padding” of exercises to ensure they were closer to scripted propaganda events than rigorous training events. At this time, the Peace Mission series appears to remain in the middle of the spectrum. On its face, the exercise hit all the checkmarks for a modern joint-exercise. Obviously, coordinating between eight different militaries is a difficult feat in and of itself, especially with two new members that bring their own contentious relationship. That said, the scenario was an overly-scripted rehash of the past exercise with an unrealistic training environment and no real surprises. Most importantly, if the SCO is as deeply concerned with urban combat operations as it suggests, one would expect effort to be shifted towards more realistic urban training centers like those slowly proliferating among Western militaries.
The continued lackluster participation of Central Asian nations in Peace Mission exercises remains a major concern for the SCO and its legitimacy. Central Asian nations are clearly under pressure as domestic extremism continues to ferment and returning foreign fighters add to the powder keg. Yet, they send only small contingents and do not appear to transfer lessons learned to the rest of their respective militaries. At some point, the official statements about the SCO being an organization of cooperation and trust will be seen as disingenuous as the organization will feel more like an overt Chinese puppet. It remains possible that the SCO is copying on of NATO’s more negative qualities, freeloading. Central Asian nations certainly appear to remain content to let Russia and China compete and cooperate to provide security assurances for the region.
No details about the 2020 iteration of Peace Mission have been officially announced but Peace Mission 2018 has helped establish a firm baseline for how the SCO sees the regional threat environment. While not often the subject of intense analysis like massive Russian military exercises like Vostok 2018, the Peace Mission series it set to remain important tool for assessing the aspirations, threat perceptions, and capabilities of SCO members.