The U.S. Army’s Asymmetric Warfare Group was formed in 2006 to identify gaps in U.S. military doctrine, equipment and field tactics, and to study how potential adversaries are developing tactics to exploit them. In 2017 the group released the sixty-one-page Russian New Generation Warfare Handbook , which you can read here, based on observation of Russian tactics in Ukraine and to a lesser extent Syria, as well as published doctrine and public statements. It paints an intimidating picture of a military ready to combine old strengths in artillery and antiaircraft systems with new technologies and tactics, leveraging drones, electronic warfare, information warfare and massed sniper fire.
To be clear, the document doesn’t set out to paint the Russian military as an indomitable juggernaut. In fact, its so-called “New-Generation” or “Fourth-Generation” warfare is founded on a recognition that old Soviet-era “Deep Battle” tactics emphasizing huge armored formations deploying to battle in echelon were no longer viable given Russia’s more limited resources compared to the Soviet Red Army, as well as its persistent qualitative inferiority. Despite progress in professionalizing, the Russian military remains largely made up of conscripts who, after four months of basic training, only serve for another eight before a new group of fresh recruits is rotated in. The armed forces retain a centralized command-and-control structure, which accords enlisted personnel and NCOs little ability to act on their own initiative.
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Of course, the AWG’s handbook is in attempt to understand an adversary’s warfare from the outside, rather than reflecting how the Russian military perceives its own tactics. Such an effort will inevitably be colored by analysts’ cultural biases and worldviews, as well as a degree of paranoia intrinsic to the military profession. For a reverse example, Russia’s concept of “hybrid warfare,” or the so-called Gerasimov doctrine—a term used to describe a blend of conventional and irregular warfare as well as political and cyber warfare—was actually coined to describe what the Russian military perceived as Western military tactics .
Without further ado, let’s look are some of the major takeaways from the report.
Modern Russian Units Are Evolving into Smaller, More Flexible Formations
The new basic Russian military unit is the Battalion Tactical Group, which can be tailored for specific missions by the addition of antiaircraft, electronic-warfare and artillery units. At the operational level, Russia has moved away from a force organized around large divisions to smaller but still well-rounded brigades—though the divisional echelon may soon be reemphasized to ease administrative burdens.
Moscow Prefers to Rely on Local Proxies to Do the Brunt of the Fighting
Moscow has made increasing use of allied irregular forces and private mercenary companies to lead operations in Ukraine and Syria, bolstered by Russian advisors, military equipment and training. This approach has been inspired in part by Western engagement with allied proxies in conflicts ranging from Vietnam to Libya and Afghanistan.
As the AWG puts it, the proxies create several useful effects for successful Russian military operations: “confusion, deniability and additional manpower.” Local proxies free up conventional Russian military units and assets to intervene in the sectors they are most needed. They also help paint a veneer of political legitimacy to Russian military operations. Indeed, Moscow is placing renewed emphasis on “information warfare” to mold the human terrain of a conflict zone in its favor.
Finally, Russia uses the proxies to deny the involvement of their own forces, confusing the reactions of its adversaries. This was especially evident in the conflict in Ukraine, when the government’s reaction was initially paralyzed by uncertainty as to whether it faced a Russian invasion or a purely local uprising. Meanwhile in Syria, there is often uncertainty as to whether any given attack directed against civilian targets was perpetrated by Syrian or Russian forces.
Moscow Uses Cyberwarfare and Information Operations for Offensive Ends
Moscow has invested to an unparalleled degree in an information-warfare apparatus designed to manipulate foreign public opinion and break into adversary computer systems for both political and military ends. These hacking and disinformation campaigns have high possible rewards, and are done at limited risk to Russia because Western adversaries’ open political systems constrain their ability to retaliate. By contrasts, Russia’s authoritarian structure silences political opposition and independent media outlets that could undermine information campaigns, and projects a philosophy of universal cynicism to instill doubt in counterpropaganda.
Moscow employs hundreds of professional hackers and internet trolls, and is also comfortable employing experienced criminal groups for such operations. While the propaganda generated by low-level sources may be contradictory, it still plays up the same general themes (“Western society is on the verge of collapse”, “there are no Russian forces in Ukraine” and so on), helping mold international opinion to Moscow’s preferred narratives.