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Dvornikov's Reforms: Tactical Training in the Southern Military District

Pending his performance commanding the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Alexander Dvornikov’s training reforms could extend from the Southern Military District to the Russian Armed Forces more widely.

Tough reformer: General Alexander Dvornikov, commander of Russia's Southern Military District. Image: / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0

In the years after the 2008 Russo-Georgian War and ‘New Look’ reforms, the Russian Armed Forces have had considerable success. Russia almost bloodlessly took Crimea, pummelled Ukraine in Donbas, bolstered the Syrian regime and conducted a short deployment to Kazakhstan to quell civil unrest.  Given these successes and the Russian military’s much touted modernisation, most analysts did not anticipate the poor performance of the Russian military during the first phase of its 2022 invasion of Ukraine. As of the writing of this assessment, it is impossible to determine how much of this poor performance was due to initial intelligence and planning failures at the operational and strategic levels, as opposed to massive failures at the tactical level. The details required for this understanding will only be able to be determined after operations cease, and there is an accurate accounting of the initial Russian objectives.

Although a full understanding of the situation is not possible at this point of time, what can be said from many first-hand accounts and digital evidence is that the Russian Armed Forces have certainly had at least some tactical failures. These were apparent in the Battalion Tactical Groups of the Ground Forces, Airborne Troops (VDV) and Naval Infantry. This was somewhat surprising, as the Russian Armed Forces appeared to be quite adept at integrating lessons learned from past conflicts, especially from Syria. But despite these perceived successes, some Russian tactical difficulties should have been expected, as Russian military leaders have still been mentioning certain areas of concern. As late as 2017, the Russian Ground Forces were experimenting with systemic training reforms to correct perceived field training deficiencies in order to improve combat training. These experiments were generally oriented towards giving battalion-level and above commanders more leeway in customising training for different personnel types (conscripts or contract soldiers) and anticipated missions, but did not mention improving the overall quality of tactical-level training per se.

In July 2021, Colonel General Alexander Dvornikov, the commander of the Southern Military District, and Rafail Nasybulin, the chief of the Combat Training Directorate of the Southern Military District, published an article detailing a new programme in the Southern Military District for improving company-level training. The significance of this publication should not be underestimated, as Dvornikov is one of the Russian Federation’s most high-profile generals. As a relatively junior general, he commanded the initial Russian military contingent (September 2015–June 2016) that intervened in the Syrian Civil War.  Although his tenure was considered heavy-handed by the international community — he is now referred to in the Western media as the ‘butcher of Syria’ – he was successful in preventing the collapse of the Assad regime which appeared to be almost inevitable before the Russian intervention. Upon Dvornikov’s return from Syria, he was appointed as commander of the Southern Military District, where he gained a reputation as being a reformer, stemming from his proponency of various military reforms brought about by his experience in Syria. 

Most notable among Dvornikov’s reforms is the fact that he has endeavoured to improve the quality of tactical training exercises. According to Dvornikov and Nasybulin, the analysis of modern armed conflicts indicates:

Thinking outside the box, skilful use of one’s own advantages and mitigating enemy advantages, misleading the enemy, and achieving surprise effect — this is what is required for the successful conduct of combat operations in modern military conflicts, and this is what we should teach commanders and military formations of the Russian Federation Armed Forces.

To achieve these goals, Dvornikov has implemented a training programme that includes competitive force-on-force exercises. Although Dvornikov and Nasybulin’s article focuses on company-level exercises, Dvornikov’s interest in introducing force-on-force training can be seen as early as 2018, when he conducted an exercise with opposing brigades and divisions. As he explains:

For the first time in exercises of this level, the opposed forces principle was implemented, in which troops in two operational directions conducted combat operations against each other.…Prior to the command staff exercise the troops of the military district conducted just company and battalion tactical exercises.

Since Dvornikov has assumed command, Southern Military District units appear to engage regularly in competitive force-on-force activities.

Russian military leaders likely believe, like their Western counterparts, that there is no better training than actually doing the activity one is training to do

Dvornikov’s push for competitive force-on-force training in the field appears to deviate significantly from the Russian standard of training. In general, Russians view gunnery and live-fire exercises as the highest form of combat training. This is very different to US and NATO militaries, which held similar views until the 1980s, when competitive force-on-force training, employing means such as the Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System (MILES), and Observer, Coach, Trainers (OC/Ts) were adopted.  Eventually, competitive force-on-force training came to be regarded as the highest form of combat training for these militaries. Russians do see value in training against a thinking adversary, but this adversary is usually fought in a simulator, as opposed to in the field, and this training is only seen as supplementing gunnery and live-fire exercises. 

Russian military leaders likely believe, like their Western counterparts, that there is no better training than actually doing the activity one is training to do. However, since this is not practical for combined arms warfare, fighting against a thinking adversary in a training environment is of great value. While the US and NATO have opted for force-on-force training to achieve this end, Russia appears to have chosen simulation. Simulators may seem a peculiar choice, but in some ways their use is more realistic than competitive force-on-force training, as they allow individuals and units to do activities that would otherwise be unfeasible. For example, a MANPADS operator shooting down an aircraft, or the conduct of certain large-scale manoeuvres during competitive force-on-force training, can be simulated. Simulators are often found at unit level (for instance, within an air defence battalion) and can be widely found throughout the Russian Armed Forces. 

Although the Russians appear to prefer simulation, they have had some limited experience with competitive force-on-force training. In 2015, Russia established the interbranch 333rd Combat Training Centre in the Western Military District. The centre is capable of training brigade-sized formations, including the conduct of gunnery and live-fire exercises. The competitive portion of the training is conducted both in simulators and in the field, as it has a dedicated opposing force (OPFOR) battalion. There is little information about how exactly this OPFOR battalion ‘fights’ against the unit it is training.  Most Russian exercises are heavily scripted, with outcomes never really in doubt. The force-on-force training at the 333rd may be of a similar variety.  However, what is clear is that the use of simulators is of primary importance, as there is little mention of the training activities of the OPFOR battalion, and much ballyhooing about the quantity and quality of the 333rd’s simulators.  Although the 333rd Combat Training Centre is still in operation and much vaunted, plans to develop similar training centres in the other military districts have apparently been scrapped, as there is now discussion of developing ‘mobile training centres’ that could travel to the units’ home station or even meet them in undeveloped areas to provide training. Notably, there is no discussion of employing an OPFOR battalion with this mobile concept, as the competitive portion of the training will occur within simulators. In a similar vein, in the last few years, there have been media reports that force-on-force training activities are occurring in the other military districts, but it is clear that in some cases this training may be occurring in simulation, or a combination of simulation and in-field training. The extent of ‘free play’ is also unknown, as there are no reports on the use of means such as MILES and OC/Ts, raising the possibility that these may not be true competitive force-on-force training events, as conducted by US/NATO militaries, and have reportedly been conducted by Dvornikov in the Southern Military District.

If Dvornikov’s command of the invasion of Ukraine is deemed successful, there is a high probability that force-on-force training will be introduced throughout the Russian Armed Forces

In conclusion, Dvornikov has endeavoured to change the way his troops train. He is likely to believe, as his Western counterparts do, that gunnery and live-fire exercises are important, but by their nature, are restricted and often scripted due to safety concerns. Instead of just relying on gunnery, live-fire and simulations, he wants to incorporate force-on-force competitive exercises with freedom of friendly and enemy manoeuvre, and adjudication and training assets such as MILES and OC/Ts to impose honesty and, therefore, a higher level of training. 

Although it is not possible at this time to determine if Dvornikov’s efforts to introduce competitive force-on-force training to units in the Southern Military District have borne any fruit, these units have fared better than those of other military districts. It is currently impossible to determine if these results are due to better training, or simply because the Southern Military District reportedly has some of the best-equipped units and operates in more favourable terrain. 

However, it can be said that Dvornikov’s reforms were almost certainly positively viewed before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Due to age and rank regulations (up-or-out) in the Russian Armed Forces, Dvornikov’s promotion to general (4-star equivalent) in June 2020 was seen as a sign that he was being groomed to be Russia’s next chief of the general staff, pending the retirement of General Valeri Gerasimov. Dvornikov’s performance during the invasion was also likely positively viewed (or he was, at the very least, perceived to be the best available), as he was appointed to command it in early April.

If Dvornikov’s command of the invasion of Ukraine is deemed successful, and he becomes the chief of the general staff and perceives that his force-on-force training in the Southern Military District was beneficial, there is a high probability that force-on-force training will be introduced throughout the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation. In this event, the widespread use of simulators would likely continue, but their use would be supplemented with this initiative.

This Commentary is part of the Russia Military Report series.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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