What we learned from Eurasian 'Peace Mission 2016'

Daniel Urchick



I have previously asserted that the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s (SCO) “Peace Mission” military anti-terror exercises have numerous benefits for the Chinese military that are not available to it elsewhere. The Peace Mission exercises are multilateral and allow the PLA to practice joint and integrated warfare with the closest thing Middle Kingdom has to strategic partners. The experience gained from traveling outside of China and seeing the wider region is a further boon to Chinese military leadership and logistics planners. China is not the only major power that benefits from the Peace Mission exercises. Russia and China’s relationship in the region is largely regarded being equally cooperative and competitive. The Peace Mission exercise series benefits Russia by allowing it opportunities outside of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) to showcase its abilities and commitment to the region in a competitive yet still cooperative manner alongside China.

The potentially volatile nature of Central Asian politics means an effective expeditionary capability may be needed by both China and Russia as authoritarian leaders age and spark succession crises. The longtime president of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, died right before Peace Mission 2016, and succession in the nation remains rocky and contentious—underscoring the SCO’s importance in the security realm. Peace Mission 2016 was the latest iteration of the relatively young anti-terror exercise series and offers a wealth of information for Russia and China analysts. Analyzing Peace Mission 2016 is critical for helping assess the evolution of military trends for the PLA. It also acts as a barometer of Russian-Chinese high level security cooperation as opposed to cooperation in the region. The Peace Mission Series also offers a glimpse into the thought and planning of the SCO as well as current strategic worries and focus areas.

The Facts of Peace Mission 2016

The latest iteration of the SCO’s large-scale joint anti-terror military exercises, dubbed Peace Mission 2016, took place in the mountainous Issyk-Kul Region of Kyrgyzstan from September 15 to 21. China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan all participated in Peace Mission 2016. Uzbekistan, Central Asia’s most populous country, refrained from taking part in the exercise once again. Most media sources reported that 1,100 troops were estimated to have been involved in the joint exercise, including 270-300 Chinese soldiers. The Kazakhstan website, Inform.kz reported that 2,100 soldiers took part in the exercise. TASS, a Russian media source, reported that “about 2,000” soldiers participated. Despite the discrepancy, 2016 was still a noticeably small year for the Peace Mission series. Peace Mission 2014 had roughly 7,000 soldiers participate in the exercise between all nations.

Following the template of previous exercises, Peace Mission 2016 had three distinct cooperative phases: strategic consultation, battle preparation, and live-fire combat implementation. The live-fire portion of the drill reportedly consisted of repelling an “illegal invasion,” evacuating citizens from war zones, maneuver warfare (blocking, striking, and wiping out the illegal armed forces), and finally, cleanup operations. SCO military officials, such as Major General Deng Yu’en, the Chinese deputy director of Peace Mission 2016, emphasized the importance of the exercises as a way of enhancing the training, cooperation, and interoperability of SCO forces. Traditional rhetoric about the SCO combating the forces of the “three evils” of terrorism, separatism, and extremism was also prevalent in most official statements and press releases.

Chinese systems involved in the exercises included PLL-09 122mm self-propelled artillery, towed artillery pieces, Type 92 wheeled APCs, Z-9W attack helicopters, Z-8 transport helicopters. According to pictures found on the China Defense Blog, the PLAAF deployed at least four Type 92 APCs in total and two Dongfeng combat jeeps. Infantry practiced using mortars and MAPAD systems in a video from the exercise. According to a China Military article, the PLA aviation contingent traveled from Kashi airport in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region and ground forces traveled from Atushen, Xinjiang Province.

Russian forces and equipment sent to Peace Mission 2016 included Su-24 (Fencer) tactical bombers, Tu-95 strategic bombers, An-22 transport aircraft, An-124 transport aircraft, Su-25  (Frogfoot) ground attack aircraft, Mi-24 (Hind) assault transport helicopters, mobile command centers, Tiger armored cars, BTR-70 armored personnel carriers (APC), and the 55th mountain brigade combat team. Russian miliarty personnel in total were estimated to be 500. The Tu-95s flew 3000km from Engels Airforce base in the Saratov region to the exercise as a way of practicing long distance precision strikes in unfamiliar territory. Russian forces also practiced airborne operations, though it is unclear if other nations participated in such activities.

The breakdown of the actual Central Asian SCO member’s forces has been difficult to ascertain, but simple math suggests lackluster participation numbers. Pictures from the exercises via Chinamil.com show the Kyrgyzstani military using Grad MLR systems during the exercise. A video reportedly from the exercise shows T-72 tanks traversing open terrain (40 second mark); it is unclear which country was operating the tank, but markings do not suggest Russian or Chinese equipment.

In total, a reported estimate of 300 military vehicles—including 40 aircraft—were active in Peace Mission 2016.

Assessment of Peace Mission 2016

The first thing to assess is Peace Mission 2016’s operational scenario premise. Peace Mission 2016 operations involved mountain warfare and repelling an external invasion. In contrast, Peace Mission 2014 involved besieging a town taken over by “terrorists” who were armed with tanks and fighter aircraft. The premise of the 2014 exercise appeared to reflect how much the PLA—and likely the SCO as a whole—was concerned about an ISIS-like scenario happening in the region after the United States’ drawdown from Afghanistan. Peace Mission 2016’s operational premise moved from a static versus dynamic forces combat scenario to one of constant mobility in difficult terrain. At first, the scenario suggests a concern about an external intervention more than an ISIS-style insurgency. After all, China and Russia, the leading members of the SCO believe many of the insurgencies and revolutions in the world are secretly western supported. To China and Russia, the West has shown that it has a penchant for interventionism as well. The alternative scenario premise could reflect the desire to practice preventing an excursion by an ISIS-like force from across a border, much like between Syria and Iraq early in ISIS’s existence. There is little threat of a Western interventionist force coming to Central Asia, but the possibility of ISIS-like organizations emerging from a collapsed nation in the region is real to the SCO. The rise of ISIS in Afghanistan and failure of the Afghan National Army to defeat the Taliban and ISIS makes the scenario more rational for the SCO than some would like to admit.

The worry about ISIS-style cross-border operations is further supported by the forces selected for Peace Mission 2016. Russia chose to send a recently formed mountain brigade combat team, and China chose to send forces from Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. Any conflict in Central Asia needing joint SCO help will undoubtedly involve forces from Xinjiang. The geographically closest part of China to Central Asia, ethnic unrest in Xinjiang is the largest motivator for Chinese SCO involvement. China works hard to help prevent a conflict that could spread from a Central Asian country to inside its borders, sparking an internal crisis. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan’s geography is almost entirely mountainous. Chinese forces in Xinjiang with mountain training may also be used to support PLA forces in mountainous Tibet should a crisis occur there. The selection by Russia to send a mountain brigade combat team suggests Russia is focusing on being able to support the two nations in difficult terrain if necessary. It should also be noted that both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan host Russian bases and soldiers, while Tajikistan also shares a border with fragile Afghanistan.

Mountain warfare tends to revolve around smaller units able to operate quickly and flexibly with minimal equipment. These mission parameters could help explain why Peace Mission 2016 dropped in size so drastically from Peace Mission 2014. Peace Mission 2014’s siege operations allowed for the flow of forces into the combat zone and the need for numerous support forces, which made their first appearance in a peace mission exercise. The small size of the drill may also reflect economic realities in many of the SCO members. With low energy prices, many Central Asian nations and Russia lack the normal amount of funds they would have for military exercises. Many nations have close economic links to Russia and suffer knock-on effects from the sanctions that have followed its role in the Ukrainian conflict. Another factor may be that China has been criticized for its overbearing participation numbers in previous Peace Mission exercises. Wishing to keep the exercise equitable in size and representation, China could have limited its participation numbers.

All of the above factors help put the scenario’s size and premise into perspective for those who may think that the diminished size of Peace Mission 2016 is indicative of a less capable or committed organization.

An interesting addition to Peace Mission 2016 was the use of Russia’s long range Tu-95 bombers. Russia has been using long range bombing in Syria against both moderate opposition forces fighting against Assad and ISIS. Analysts widely agree that Russia’s use of long range bombing in the Middle East has been a way to signal to the United States and NATO that Russia possesses a robust military capacity, capable of operating under expeditionary conditions past its immediate borders. The Tu-95s in Peace Mission 2016 could serve as a way to signal to Central Asian states that Russia possesses such an ability in their region as well, should they need it in a conflict.

Missing from Peace Mission 2016 media coverage was the noticeable use of UAVs, which were prevalent in 2014. Drone use in 2014, including a missile strike with a Wing Loong UAV, was likely another attempt at marketing for the Chinese. Not long after the exercise, Kazakhstan procured several Wing Loong UAVs. Recent crashes of what could be a Wing Loong in Pakistan in the last couple months indicate that other countries paid attention to the test as well. With their capabilities proven, drone use or more likely their media coverage was significantly scaled back. Chinese officials consistently report engaging radical extremists fighting Chinese rule in the vast northwestern region of Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Province. Officials believe these extremist/separatists have used illicit border crossings and desert encampments in the vast nothingness of the area. Drones would offer a highly effective and rapid way to monitor the SCO’s shared borders from above.

Testing and marketing new equipment for Russia and China does not seem to have been on the agenda for Peace Mission 2016, despite a CCTV report mentioning that the drill highlighted Chinese military technology. In 2014 China tested or inaugurated several modernized tank variants, the WZ -10 attack helicopter, and the WZ -19 reconnaissance/light attack helicopter. The WZ-10 soon arrived in Pakistan as well, where it is currently undergoing testing in combat conditions. China chose not to market any of its mobile SAM systems in 2016 either, with a video showing Chinese forces firing MANPADs instead—reflecting the light and fast nature of the force composition.

The Take Away from Peace Mission 2016

The size of Peace Mission 2016 was perhaps the biggest surprise of the exercise at only 1,100-2000 soldiers. However, this should not distract analysts from the substance of the exercise. The use of mountainous terrain, mountain troops, and an invasion premise compliments the scenario of Peace Mission 2014 and continuous to reflect concerns about the expansion of an ISIS-like organization in the region. The direct parallel from the Middle East would be ISIS’s initial push from Syria into Iraq, which scattered Iraqi forces and took Mosul. The most likely sources of concern for the SCO are Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, which share borders with China and host Russian forces/facilities. Both Russia and China had an important chance to practice rapid expeditionary capabilities to unknown terrain.

The small size of the exercise still allowed Chinese military forces the opportunity to coordinate and operate with other nations in a coalition warfare setting. However, the pomp and circumstance of the exercise may have been the most important aspect for China. Language used by Chinese media sources heavily emphasized that the exercises involved multilateral cooperation, while neglecting uneven participation sizes and the unusually small size of the drill overall. The Chinese MoD issued a statement online on September 23rd when all PLA forces had returned to Chinese soil that the other SCO member’s militaries had spoken highly of the excellent performance by the Chinese troops, especially their precise command, strike and coordination capabilities. Much like how Chinese diplomacy focuses on the act more than the substance, the most important aspect of Peace Mission 2016 for China was that it happened and Chinese forces were not involved in any sort of snafu.

The largest concern about the size of the exercise is not Russia or China oriented, but the continuing low numbers of Central Asian soldiers participating in the exercises. Domestic constraints aside, the rhetoric of many Central Asian states would suggest that their security is threatened even now. Yet actions say otherwise with Peace Mission participation. It is possible that the SCO has taken on one of NATO’s more negative qualities, freeloading. Freeloading as an example occurs when the smaller states in Europe on the piggyback of security provided by the United States rather than making legitimate efforts to meet their own security needs. Even equipment points to the potential of freeloading. The use of T-72 and Grad MLRs are not conducive to the type of mountain warfare Central Asian states potentially face. The apparent lack of focus on investing or participating wholeheartedly in mountain warfare for Central Asian nations is another indicator that they may be relying on Russia and China’s abilities more than their own. Central Asian states may truly be content to let Russia and China compete and cooperate to provide security assurances for the region.

The duality of China and Russia’s relationship in Central Asia could rightly be described as “coopetition”, defined by David Shambaugh to characterize the modern United States-China relationship. China has typically been given the advantage in Central Asia today thanks to its stronger economy. But Russia has been making noticeable strides to correct that balance in last three to four years. Peace Mission 2016 was an opportunity for Russia to continue to signal to the region that it remains committed to protecting the survival of current regimes. Like for China, there were positive secondary effects from Russia’s participation as well. The use of the 55th Mountain Brigade Combat Team gave them valuable experience that could be put to use in other potential hot spots like Southern Russia and the Caucuses Mountains which are home to Russia’s own hot bed of “three evils.”

The 2018 iteration of Peace Mission will be held in Russia according to the deputy chief of Russia’s General Staff, Sergey Istrakov. In international relations today, a two-year time span may as well be a century, and it is difficult to foresee the status of the world then. However, the nature of the Peace Mission series in 2018 will help analysts understand how the members of the SCO see the threat environment then and further establish a trackable pattern for important policy makers around the globe. It will also help Russia and China watchers assess the trajectory of their “coopetitive” relationship. While not often the subject of intense analysis the SCO and the Peace Mission series will remain important for assessing the aspirations, threat perceptions, and capabilities of China, Russia, and the region.