The Russian Military’s Lessons Learned in Syria
This paper is part of ISW's Military Learning & The Future of War series. Click here to go to the series homepage.
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY (Download the full report here)
The Russian military identifies its deployment to Syria as the prototypical example of future war—an expeditionary deployment to support a coalition-based hybrid war. The Russian General Staff cites Syria as highlighting the need for Russia to develop a new military capability—deploying flexible expeditionary forces to carry out “limited actions” abroad. The Russian Armed Forces are applying lessons learned from their experience in Syria to shape their development into a flexible and effective expeditionary force.
The United States must avoid projecting its own modernization priorities—or those of other competitors such as China—onto Russia. The Russian military is making discrete choices to concentrate on certain learning opportunities from Syria while rejecting or deemphasizing others. These choices are optimized to support a Russian concept of operations that is distinct from both pre-Syria Russian modernization efforts and the United States’ own modernization efforts.
The Russian military is using lessons learned managing an ad hoc coalition and proxy forces in Syria to inform preparations to coordinate formal coalitions in future wars. The Kremlin seeks to set conditions to ensure its next “limited action” based on Syria, as described by Chief of the Russian General Staff Valery Gerasimov, can leverage non-Russian forces. The Kremlin’s preparations in this regard include practicing coalition operations in exercises and expanding Russia’s international military ties—magnifying the Kremlin’s power projection capabilities.
The Russian military’s main lesson from Syria is the need to gain “superiority of management” in future conflicts. The Russians define superiority of management as making better decisions faster than the opponent and compelling the opponent to operate within a Russian decision framework. They assert that obtaining superiority of management will be commanders’ key focus in increasingly fast and complex conflicts. The Russian military assesses that command and control (C2) efficiency is the key predictor of success in modern and future operations. Many Russian lessons on command and control are new to Russia, not novel innovations in modern warfare, but the Russian military is effectively leveraging learning from Syria to close its gap in C2 capabilities with Western militaries.
The Kremlin optimized its deployment to Syria to instill combat experience throughout the Russian military. Gerasimov considers the Syrian civil war to be the Russian military’s primary source of learning for the future of war and optimized Russian deployments to ensure as many officers as possible gained experience to contribute to this learning effort. Much of the Russian senior officer class now possesses the experience needed to contribute to the process of developing adaptations to lessons learned in Syria.
Russian military exercises since 2015 have institutionalized and refined adaptations to lessons from Syria. Russian discussions on learning from Syria evolved rapidly from 2015 to 2020, and many adaptations discussed in this report have likely been incorporated into doctrine, including in Russia’s classified National Defense Plan for 2021-2025.
The Russian military’s chosen adaptations to its learning from Syria pose several challenges to the United States and its allies. The United States cannot assume its ongoing modernization efforts will incidentally counter the Russian military’s changing capabilities in command and control, expeditionary warfare, and coalition warfare. The Russian military still requires extensive investment and time to implement the lessons learned from Syria. If the United States does not take action to counter these developments in the coming years, however, Russia’s new toolkit of capabilities drawn from Syria will close several capability and technology gaps with the United States and NATO.
The United States should not underestimate the Kremlin’s intent to conduct expeditionary deployments modeled on its intervention in Syria. The Kremlin identifies Syria as a highly successful—and replicable—operation and conceives of expeditionary deployments as a new addition to the Kremlin’s policy toolkit. The Kremlin is already applying its lessons from Syria to its involvement in Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh.
The United States must maintain a global, flexible force posture to confront the Russian military. The United States need not deploy its own military forces everywhere the Kremlin might conduct expeditionary operations, but it must find and develop allied and partner military forces to counter the Russian threat. The Russian military threat is not confined to Europe and cannot be countered by conventional deployments alone.
The United States must prioritize contesting Russian efforts to secure superiority of management. The United States and its allies need not copy this concept but must develop an understanding of what the Russian military sees as the key combat task of its officers—increasing the speed of their own decision making and reducing their opponents’ command and control capabilities.
The Russian military’s new cadre of combat-experienced officers may transform Russian military thinking and effectiveness. Every Russian military district commander and nearly all officers above the regiment and brigade level now possess experience from Syria. The Russian military’s practice of transplanting entire Russian staffs to Syria ensured Russian forces developed unit cohesion during advising missions.
The Kremlin will likely leverage coalition partners more effectively in future combat operations. The United States should take steps to strengthen cooperation with NATO and extend outreach to other states to mitigate the Kremlin’s ability to grow its network of military ties. The United States and its allies should also develop methods to disrupt enemy coalitions, a task the United States has not had to conduct in recent wars.
The Russian military is leveraging learning from Syria to close several capability gaps with the United States and NATO. The United States and its allies should prepare for the Russian military to further modernize several capabilities that, while not new to the United States and NATO, will empower the Russian military.
The Russian military’s prioritization of networked command systems, if achieved, will erode one of the United States and NATO’s key technological advantages. The Kremlin’s ongoing effort to modernize command and control systems will be a costly process, but the Russian military is already making rapid progress, testing systems in 2020 that were theoretical as recently as 2018.
The Russian military is supporting its technological modernization of command systems with a campaign to overhaul Russian command culture. The Russian General Staff is embarking on a difficult generational effort to introduce initiative and creativity into the Russian officer corps. Future Russian officers will likely demonstrate greater creativity and flexibility than their predecessors, and the United States and its allies must avoid increasingly outdated assessments of Russian command culture rooted in the Soviet era.
The Russian military is developing doctrines to support increased precision-strike capabilities but achieving these goals requires further costly technological investment. The United States and its allies must particularly take steps to harden logistics and command assets to mitigate the Russian military’s focus on developing capabilities to target rear areas as a key element of gaining superiority of management. The United States and its allies should additionally maintain sanctions pressure to deprive the Kremlin of the resources necessary to implement costly acquisitions programs.
The Russian military is likely developing capabilities to challenge the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). The United States and its allies should prepare to operate drones in an increasingly dangerous airspace. Modernization efforts must account for the increasing sophistication of Russian UAV and counter-UAV capabilities.
The United States and its allies must prepare to confront an increasingly effective Russian military that is intent on further developing expeditionary capabilities and using them in coalition environments. Russia is still involved in and still learning from the conflict in Syria. Additional Russian discussion and testing of ideas, not to mention further combat experience, will likely refine many of the adaptations that the Russian military is still developing from its lessons learned in Syria. The Russian military’s learning from Syria is driving Russian modernization efforts; the United States must understand this learning and adaptation to confront the Kremlin effectively.
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