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Zapad-2017 exercise puts Russian army’s "nervous system" to test

TASS special feature salutes Zapad-2017 drills

MOSCOW, September 19. /TASS/. The joint strategic exercise Zapad-2017 has proved a serious test for Russian and Belarussian military.

What such major drills are needed for? Read about this and much more in a special feature by TASS.


It is not accidental that strategic command-and-staff exercises are often referred to as the digest of the previous twelve months of combat training. One of the main purposes is to check cooperation by all military command and control centers and all units - from platoon to army and from soldier to general. In other words, it verifies the speed and efficiency of what can be called the armed forces’ nervous system - how long it takes information issued by commanders to reach the subordinates and how effectively all arms and services can interact in unfamiliar situations and environments under pressure. When military commanders mention the "operative compatibility of command centers of different levels" and the "interfacing of new systems of troops and weapons control", they refer to precisely this type of cooperation.

The Defense Ministry has said more than once the participating troops will be getting all instructions and tasks not beforehand, but at the very last moment before this or that episode of the exercise is due to begin. The need to act in conditions approximating real ones, and not under a rehearsed scenario was an important feature of the exercise from the very beginning.

International cooperation, too, leaves its imprint on the drills. Russian military and their Belarussian counterparts have been mastering the skill of protecting not only the borders of their own countries, but the borders of the common, Union State as well. The scale of the exercise and the complexity of tasks to be coped with grows immeasurably.

Struggle against terrorists

The strategic command staff exercise is held once a year in one of the four strategic directions - Western, Eastern, Southern (Caucasus) and Central. Last time the Zapad exercise was held in 2013. As the chief of Russia’s General Staff, General of the Army Valery Gerasimov, said then after the exercise "the participants have departed from the traditional ways of conducting combat operations in a large-scale war and to practice ways of localizing armed conflicts in an aggravated situation in the Western strategic direction."

This time, too, the traditional mode of combat operations is no longer the determining one at the Zapad-2017 exercise. Military personnel operating in the field are testing new methods of troops control on the basis of experience gained in the latest armed conflicts, in particular, experience obtained in Syria.

As he summarized the results of one of the central episodes of the exercise, the Western Military District’s commander, Colonel-General Andrey Kartapolov, said that "the task was to repel an attack by well-trained and heavily armed terrorists."

The Belarussian Defense Ministry said on its website that "proceeding from the current events in the Middle East and Europe the authors of the Zapad-2017 scenario imagined a likely critical situation and conflict growth, in particular, expanding operations by armed groups and international terrorist and separatist organizations enjoying external support.


At the first phase of the exercise Zapad-2017, which began on September 14, the Baltic Fleet repelled a hypothetical enemy’s air raids and delivered an artillery strike against naval and coastal targets.

At proving grounds in Belarus Russian and Belarussian aircraft cooperated within the framework of a common air defense system. At the Domanovo proving ground Yakovlev-130 planes of the Belarussian Air Force and Air Defense attacked the "enemy" with bombs and unguided missiles. In the meantime, at the Ruzhansky proving ground in Belarus measures were practiced against air intruders, while at the Borisovsky and Osipovichsky proving grounds troops "destroyed" groups of enemy saboteurs, repelled the enemy’s offensive and mounted a fire attack on its main forces, facilities and infrastructures. Similar tasks were addressed by Russian military personnel at the Luzhsky, Pravdinsky and Strugi Krasnyie proving grounds in the Leningrad, Kaliningrad and Pskov regions respectively.

The second phase began on September 17 at proving grounds in Russia and Belarus and also in the Baltic Sea. It will end at the Borisovsky proving ground in Belarus on September 20. Russian and Belarussian troops will be conducting maneuver defense operations against intruders and then launch a counter-offensive until the enemy’s complete defeat.

Episodes vary

At first sight the numerous episodes of the Zapad-2017 exercise are not very well inter-connected and look like a kaleidoscope of unrelated events. In reality, each arm and service addresses its own tasks directly or indirectly matching the tasks of other arms and services.

For instance, in one of the central episodes at the Luzhsky proving ground near St. Petersburg aviation, artillery, ground and airborne forces repelled an offensive and then wiped out a hypothetical enemy. Russia’s Supreme Commander-in-Chief, President Vladimir Putin, Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu, and 95 foreign representatives from 50 countries watched the exercise.

Kartapolov said the episode proceeded in very bad weather along a line of about 600 kilometers at three proving grounds simultaneously. "New fire control systems at the tactical level were tested in action," he said.

Under the proposed scenario, small groups of armed militants infiltrated through the border to have merged into several larger groups up to 500 men each for staging acts of terrorism and sabotage. For this they had seized a large number of light planes and drones at airfields near the border. The elimination of these air targets required participation of missile and artillery systems Tunguska, artillery and missile systems Pantsir-S1, air defense systems Strela-1 and other weapons. On the ground, the simulated enemy forces were destroyed with fire support provided by artillery and armored vehicles, including T-90 tanks, the newest tank support combat vehicles Terminator, frontline bombers Sukhoi-24, fighter-bombers Sukhoi-34 and also helicopter gunships Mi-24, Mi-28 and Ka-52.

Good occasion to test hardware

Putting new military hardware to test and seeing what it is really worth in different conditions was quite an important aspect of the exercise.

The Defense Ministry said reconnaissance balloons were on the list of equipment used. Also, more than 30 systems equipped with drones were employed at the Western Military District’s proving grounds. Drones transmitted on-line information to command and control centers for impartial monitoring of troop movements. Also, they conducted reconnaissance and determined targets’ coordinates and then transmit them to the artillery units’ fire control centers. The experience of using drones in Syria was taken into account to considerably enhance fire effectiveness.

The Belarussian Defense Ministry said it would test knew types of weapons and military hardware, including those co-manufactured by Russia and Belarus. Participating in the tactical episodes were the armored motor vehicle Kaiman equipped with a machine-gun module, anti-tank missile system Shershen on the chassis of the light armored vehicle V-1, drone Moskit and multiple rocket launcher Polonez.

The armored vehicle Kaiman, manufactured at a plant in Borisov, the Minsk Region, is meant for participation in reconnaissance and sabotage, patrolling and escort missions, and peace-keeping and policing operations. The multiple rocket launcher Polonez is capable of dealing pinpoint strikes at eight targets simultaneously. The circular error probable at the maximum distance away from the target is no more than 30 meters.

Defense, not attack

The Russian Defense Ministry has repeatedly said the Zapad-2017 exercise is purely defense, while all reports of a Russian threat the drills were allegedly fraught with had nothing to do with the reality. Neither Russia nor Belarus make any secret of the details of the exercise, their sites or the details of each episode.

In Belarus, the drills are being held at six proving grounds and two areas in the Vitebsk region, and in Russia, at three proving grounds.

Taking part in the exercise are about 12,700 officers and men (10,200 in Belarus), 70 planes and helicopters, up to 680 pieces of combat vehicles, including about 250 tanks, up to 200 pieces of artillery, multiple rocket launchers and mortars and ten ships.