russian-helos-missiles-zapad

There has been a lot of attention paid to a series of military exercises being held by the Russians under the banner of Zapad 17

In Russia and neighboring Belarus, the Zapad military exercise begins today.

The two countries’ Western neighbors have been worried. Zapad is Russian for “West,” and of all the different major exercises in the Russian military calendar, it causes the most excitement and concern because it is the one that most closely resembles practice for war with NATO.

As a result, this regular event receives a lot more attention than other Russian manoeuvers of similar size. Held every four years, the exercise can even develop its own mythology: Much of the Western coverage said that the 2009 exercise ended with a simulated nuclear attack on Warsaw, Poland, even though there is no evidence at all from unclassified sources to suggest this was the case.

What happens during this year’s Zapad exercise is important. The United States, NATO and especially the front-line states bordering Russia will be watching closely to learn what they can about the latest Russian capabilities and military procedures.

The Poles and the Baltic States are rightfully nervous. Latvia and Estonia, especially, see these exercises as a way for the Russians to mass and launch an attack that would overrun both those nations and force NATO to make a choice of going to war to free them or bowing to the status quo.

Over the past several months, Western defense ministries and militaries have expressed anxiety over the large-scale Russian military exercise known as “Zapad,” or “West,” slated to begin in mid-September and to engage virtually every element of Russian forces. In late July, Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, commander of US Army Europe, warned that NATO allies fear “Zapad 17” could be a Russian “Trojan horse.”

That is not an unwarranted concern. Twice over the past decade — Georgia in 2008 and Crimea in 2014 — the Kremlin has used the cover of an exercise as preliminary to an invasion. The “Zapad” maneuvers, held about every four years, are particularly threatening in that they frequently simulate the use of nuclear weapons.

A lot of people have tied their knickers in a very tiny knot over Russia for reasons that escape me. Russia has the GDP of Canada or New York State (pick the one you like). A nuclear-armed kleptocracy is not a good neighbor, but let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that the Russian military, in either personnel or equipment, is all that formidable.

I’ve written about my experience with the Soviet Army in the past. Two guys–brothers–in my fencing club in Chicago were Red Army veterans and had been refuseniks. Their stories about the nationalities issues (gunfights between feuding Central Asian nationalities in the Soviet Far East) and language problems (the younger brother had been one of three or four men in his engineer company who could speak Russian) convinced me that my first-hand observations were accurate. When the Russians rolled into Chechnya, that was the army we would have faced in Western Europe and it was farcical in its operational ineptitude. As many as 15,000 Russians were killed, wounded, or went missing before a peace treaty was signed.

Likewise, we read a lot about their equipment. What we should know from experience is that Russian military equipment is not terribly formidable. In 1991 we took on a mirror image of the air defense system we’d face in Russia during the Gulf War. The result was not even close. Some of that is attributable to the fact that we were fighting Arabs (first rule of military victories is to fight Arabs as often as possible) but the Russians turn out a lot of crap. Take for instance the saga of the MiG-25. When it first appeared Western intelligence rated it as some sort of super-fighter that obsoleted everything in the west. On September 6, 1976, Soviet Air Force Lieutenant Viktor Belenko took off from his base in Siberia and landed at Hakodate, Japan. He brought his shiny new MiG-25 with him.

Before, the idea that the Soviets potentially had a super maneuverable and ridiculously fast secret fighter jet was highly worrisome to the West.

It was only after Belenko’s defection that the MiG-25 was taken apart and more was learned about it, like how it had more engine than made sense, and that if it went above Mach 2.8, the engines would literally start turning themselves inside out because “the force exerted by the compressors would be so huge it would start sucking up parts of the engine.”

It was more of an interceptor and a reconnaissance platform than a fighter, with high wing loading and relatively poor handling qualities.

The Foxbat, which so many people had been so nervous about, turned out to a big and heavy plane that wasn’t particularly useful in combat. Because it needed so much fuel, it had a very short range. It was only fast in a straight line. After it came the MiG-31, an updated variant with increased capability.

There were other surprise findings. Its electronics used vacuum tubes. Rivets were not machined flush with the air skin. In fact, there was concern that the aircraft was an elaborate exercise in disinformation by the Soviets.

Where is this going? Via the Moscow Times

The unnamed source told 66.ru that there appeared to have been a technical glitch on board “and the missiles blasted off on their own.”

“At least two cars burned down, two people were seriously injured, they are now hospitalized,” the source said. “The victims were most likely journalists.”

The Russian Defense Ministry said two attack helicopters simulated aerial reconnaissance and close air support missions on Monday as part of Zapad 2017.

Video footage accompanying the news report appears to show one of the helicopters misfiring in the direction of camera crews.

The Russians are claiming this did not happen during Zapad 17 but rather during another exercise–I guess that makes it better.

A trained and competent does not do this kind of thing on a set piece demonstration exercise. The reason it happened is because the Russian army, like a lot of elements of Russian power, are mirages, Potemkin villages, if you will. They are constructed to impress and overawe but, in reality, they are pretty shabby excuses for what they are supposed to be.