While the focus of Russia’s Zapad (West) 2017 was a fictional conflict in Belarus, several parallel exercises arguably offered as valuable an insight into Moscow’s military thinking as events around Minsk, and served to outline capability areas that NATO needs to consider further.

Russian Sukhoi Su24. Credit: US Navy

By Douglas Barrie, Senior Fellow for Military Aerospace, and Nick Childs, Senior Fellow for Naval Forces and Maritime Security

Russia carried out naval, air defence and offensive air operations during the same period as the 14-20 September main phase of Zapad 2017. A Northern Fleet task group built around the Kirov-class cruiser Pytor Veliky carried out an air defence exercise including against cruise missile targets using naval ranges in northern waters. Baltic Fleet units also carried out similar air defence drills. In addition, MiG-31 Foxhounds were used to intercept cruise missile targets.  Counter-air and offensive air operations were also part of a Baltic units exercise involving Su-27 and Su-30SM Flankers and Su-24M Fencers. Meanwhile early September saw a Russian-led multi-national air defence exercise (ostensibly a Commonwealth of Independent States exercise involving Belarus, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan as well as Russia) using the Ashuluk range in the Astrakhan region.

Air defence in all its guises remains of critical importance to the Russian military, reflecting the leadership’s concerns that it must be able to withstand and absorb a US-led conventional air attack – however outlandish the latter notion might seem. The conventional nature of the air defence elements of the exercise, especially at sea, seemed to confirm how much the activities during Zapad 2017 migrated from its original underpinnings as a counter-terror scenario.

At the same time as it was honing its counter-air capabilities and testing its layered approach to air defence, the Russian military was also exercising its cruise missile land attack capabilities as part of Zapad 2017. The Iskander-K variant of the Iskander-M (SS-26 Stone), which is equipped with the 9M728 (SSC-7) cruise missile, was fired using the Lushky Range in the St Petersburg region as part of the exercise. The Russians also released images portraying the deployment of 3K60 Bal (NATO designation SS-C-6 Sennight) by the Baltic Fleet 25th Coastal Missile Brigade during Zapad 2017.

This underscores the fact that, today, air defence is no longer only a priority for Russia. After almost two decades of benign neglect this is re-emerging as a key task for NATO nations. Unlike the 1980s, the target set now includes not just ballistic and aircraft targets but also ground, air and sea-launched land attack cruise missiles. As well as the 9M728, NATO air defenders have to take into consideration the air-launched Kh-101 and the 3M14 (SS-N-30) ship and submarine-launched cruise missiles. The last two have been used repeatedly in the Syrian campaign. Furthermore, if US allegations are correct, then Russia has also begun to deploy a ground-launched land attack cruise missile with a range far greater than the 500km 9M728. Apparently designated the 9M729 (SSC-8), the missile may well be a variant of the 3M14 with a maximum range in the order of 2,000km.

The combination of short-range ballistic and cruise missiles, long-range cruise missiles and a considerably improved inventory of tactical ground-attack aircraft presents NATO with an integrated air and missile defence (IAMD) challenge. It is one that the Alliance is only beginning to address fully.

Russia, however, potentially offers a lesson in how to approach the problem. As some of the aforementioned exercises showed, Moscow continues to build and improve a layered approach to IAMD. Aircraft capable of intercepting not only other aircraft, but also cruise missiles, provide an outer layer, while long, medium, short and point-defence surface-to-air missiles provide further defence in depth. It is a model that NATO could look to adapt for its own needs. Among Alliance members, Poland is prioritising the acquisition of a layered air defence capability that could be integrated into broader NATO air and missile defence capabilities. In the longer term, the acquisition by a number of NATO members of F-35 fighters, with their potential networked capabilities that could also leverage other Alliance air defence assets including other air defence fighters, could be another cornerstone to transformed Alliance IAMD capabilities.


This analysis originally featured on the Military Balance+, the new IISS online database that enables users in government, the armed forces and the private sector, as well as academia and the media, to make faster and better-informed decisions. The Military Balance+ allows users to customise, view, compare and download data instantly, anywhere, anytime.

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