MINSK, RUSSIA - MAY 9: In this handout image supplied by Host photo agency / RIA Novosti, S-300 long range surface-to-air missile systems during the celebration of the 70th anniversary of Victory in the 1941-1945 Great Patriotic War in the Hero City of Minsk during the celebration of the 70th anniversary of Victory in the 1941-1945 Great Patriotic War in the Hero City of Minsk, May 9, 2015 in Minsk, Russia. The Victory Day parade commemorates the end of World War II in Europe. (Photo by Host photo agency / RIA Novosti via Getty Images)
MOSCOW — In a bid to streamline Russia's air and space defenses in the face of what Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu characterized as "a shift in the combat 'center of gravity' toward the aerospace theater," the Defense Ministry has merged several branches of the military into a new Aerospace Force. on August 1.
"Air forces, anti-air and anti-missile defenses, and space forces will now be under a unified command structure," Shoigu was quoted by Russian news agencies as saying, on August 3, two days after President Vladimir Putin authorized the merger of the three military branches Aug. 1.
The merger represents an evolution in Russian military thinking, as the Soviets historically treated air and space as separate theaters of war, and separated command authority for the Air Force, air defenses and space assets among different command structures with little, if any, overlap.
Shoigu described the merger as "the best option for streamlining our nation's system of air and space defenses" to better combat what Russia sees as growing threats from both air and space — treating the two mediums as a single theater of war for the first time in Russian military history.
Gen. Evgenzy Buzhinsky, a former member of Russia's General Staff, told Defense News that embracing the idea of an aerospace theater is a basic tenet of modern warfare, and organizationally the separation of the Air Force, Air Defense and Space Command was "absolutely obsolete."
"We are lagging behind in many spheres, but we are catching up," he said.
Creation of Russia's Aerospace Force builds upon an earlier marriage of Russia's air-defense forces and the space forces in 2011 into a new branch of the military known as the Aerospace Defense Forces (ADF). The ADF was tasked with defending Russian airspace from airborne and space-borne attacks, and was billed as a new contingent of the Russian military apparatus.
The force was to be equipped with new S-400 air defense systems — substantial upgrades to the S-300 system — and the still-in-development S-500 air and missile defense system.
A reported 20 percent of Putin's sweeping decade-long 20 trillion ruble (US $316.8 billion) rearmament and modernization program was set aside to pay for the new defense systems for the ADF.
Taken as a whole, Putin's modernization campaign, launched in 2011, is intended to replace up to 70 percent of Russia's military hardware with new, advanced and top-of-the-line gear by 2020 to boost military capabilities across all branches of the Russian armed forces.
"Its the same logic that motivated the US to consolidate commands under the Air Force long ago, but it's also a part of the process of reforming Russia's armed forces," said Buzhinsky, who is now the chairman of the board of directors at the Moscow-based PIR Center think tank.
With or without Russia's current standoff with NATO amid the Ukraine crisis, these reforms would have gone through, Buzhinsky argued, though as with all Russian military decisions lately it is envisioned as a means to counter what Moscow considers to be the threat posed by the US and NATO to Russian national security and strategic interests.
The creation of Russia's Aerospace Force comes hot on the heels of another major shift in Russian military thinking — the amendment of Russia's naval doctrine in late July to prioritize countering NATO expansion toward Russian borders and interests.
The doctrine enshrined the creation of a new Russian blue water Navy to project force into the Atlantic Ocean. This involves strengthening the Northern Fleet's position in the Arctic, which is the only region from which Russian forces can enter the Atlantic unhindered by NATO.
Though the doctrine also calls for strengthening the Baltic and Black Sea fleets, these forces have to pass through NATO-controlled waters to enter the Atlantic.
The Aerospace Force appears to be similarly focused on countering NATO forces, albeit with a more pronounced defensive posture. Though the new branch appears to take organizational cues from the US Air Force by merging forces operating above the ground under one roof, the Strategic Rocket Forces were left out of the Aerospace Force.
The Strategic Rocket Forces operate Russia's land-based nuclear missiles, which suggests a defensive orientation to the new force.
However, Buzhinsky explained the exclusion of the Strategic Rocket Forces as a matter of habit. As Russia's most important military asset, the nuclear missile forces have always been under their own command and will remain independent from the Aerospace Force, he said.
In fact, an unidentified Defense Ministry source quoted by news agency Interfax on August 3 said that the obvious reason for the reorganization was to better prepare to defend against hypersonic missiles developed under the US Prompt Global Strike program.