July 12, 2019:
The Russian military recently revealed that its new KRUS (Reconnaissance, Command and Control and Communication) Strelets (“Musketeer”) system had proved itself in Syria and earlier when deployed with Spetsnaz (commando) and airborne forces in the Caucasus (mainly Chechnya). The recent Russian announcement cited how the new system regularly got air and artillery strikes on targets with unprecedented (8-10 minutes) speed. That was a major achievement for Russian forces but the original American version was getting targets hit that fast in Vietnam and even faster in Afghanistan during late 2001. Yet for Russia KRUS Strelets was something the Russians had sought to implement since the 1950s but without much success. Soviet era military experts had the theory down cold but the Soviet Union lacked the tech to implement this sort of thing. That changed when the Soviet Union went bankrupt and dissolved in 1991. The needed technology was now available, but first, the post-Soviet Russia had to sort out its finances. By the late 1990s, the Russians were ready to play catchup.
It wasn’t just electronic tech that Russia acquired after 1991, but automotive as well. Thus one thing that really improved KRUS Strelets performance in Syria was the introduction of a new FAC (Forward Air Controller) vehicle. Called BOMAN (BOyevaya Mashina AviaNavodchika), this FAC vehicle uses a standard Russian army Tigr 4x4 chassis. But instead of a machine-gun or RWS (Remote Weapons Station) on top, there is an RWS-like structure containing a laser rangefinder/designator and a thermal sight plus antennae for various communications devices. Inside there are various types of radios including equipment that links the FAC to KRUS Strelets, which includes the new Russian battlefield networking system. Data is displayed on a laptop or tablet and the FAC personnel in BOMAN can communicate digitally with aircraft and UAVs overhead as well as any headquarters or other unit equipped with KRUS Strelets. This is similar to a system American forces have been using for nearly two decades and most other Western nations have also adopted.
Russia put more money and effort into KRUS Strelets when they and China saw what happened in 2003 when American forces' use Blue Force Tracker (the land based system, using satellite communications, that told American commanders where all suitably equipped army vehicles, aircraft and units are at all times) in Iraq. That success prompted the American military to quickly make wider use of this technology. These tracking devices were actually quite common outside the military, for tracking trucks and other commercial vehicles. This commercial application began in the 1990s so when the U.S. Army adopted it as part of an experimental new system, they actually had BFT (Blue Force Tracker) working for them because the basic tracker tech had already been refined and perfected by commercial users.
The air force, navy and marines, and allied armed forces could easily buy and use these devices, but the only thing lacking was a way to bring all the information together, with maps, so that commanders could quickly size up the situation and make decisions. So the U.S. Army developed and tested new software that tied it all together. The Department of Defense had not expected to implement this, and the widespread use of BFT until 2010. But the exceptional usefulness of Blue Force Tracker in 2003, and the maturity of commercial tracking hardware provided an opportunity that was jumped on. By 2010 American forces had an integrated system using the BFT and computerized communications, command and control systems that had already been designed and tested, again because commercial technology for this sort of thing was already available.
Most foreign observers were not aware that innovations like BFT and its networking software were nothing new for the U.S. military. The American. military had been using versions of this sort of thing since World War II, long before computers and flat-screen displays sped it all up and BFT solved the key problem of “exactly where are all of our troops” so we can avoid hitting our out people with an air or artillery strike. During World War II, when the front lines were not moving the American system could quickly mass artillery fire or airstrikes at an enemy attack. This was crucial to winning the “Breakout Battle” after the 1944 Normandy amphibious operations put over a million allied troops into France. The Germans quickly brought in troops to contain the invasion force. All German effort to launch attacks to drive the invaders off the beachhead were quickly defeated by the use of the command and control system that could coordinate and mass the fire of hundreds of artillery guns as well as hundreds of bombers and fighter-bombers overhead. Eventually, this concentrated firepower system made it possible to literally blast through a portion of the German fortified line.
The Germans had been trying to develop a similar system during World War II but the Americans had worked out all the details in the 1930s and by 1944 had all the radios and procedures in place army-wide. This was one of the least publicized but more useful technical and tactical developments of World War II. The Germans knew about it but did not have the technical resources to make it work for them. The Russians heard about it and recognized the importance of this capability but even after World War II and throughout the Cold War Russian military planners could only talk about implementing it themselves because they were never able to muster, or even afford, all the tech and equipment required. The Russians were also aware that most NATO nations had adopted this system and were continually improving it as new tech appeared.
So the integration of BFT and speedier computerized data sharing communications and control systems was not a complete surprise to Russian military planners in the 1990s and in 2003. The Chinese, however, did not start modernizing their military until the 1990s and the impact of BFT and other systems in 2003 made it clear that modernizing their military and matching Western capabilities would be more difficult and expensive than anticipated. At that point, the Chinese defense spending then began growing at unheard of rates. China also sought to acquire all the needed tech and found much of it was just commercial tech adapted to military needs. By 2010 China was well on its way to catching up. Russia, on the other hand, suffered enormous cuts in defense spending during the 1990s and after 2000 was (and still is) playing catchup. With KRUS Strelets, as actually used in Syria since 2016, the Russians had caught up with what the Americans had in 2003. The Russian Navy began using KRUS Strelets in 2017 and implementing it throughout the army is still underway. Use of the tech in Syria was the first application of it in support of allied forces and was rightly considered the most strenuous test of all. KRUS Strelets worked and was tweaked some more.
Syria and Ukraine were the first battlefield test for KRUS Strelets and the BOMAN vehicle. As the Americans discovered earlier in Iraq and Afghanistan, FACs in armored hummers can get close enough to the action (300-400 meters) to be safe from RPG fire and able to get a good view of targets, and then use laser rangefinders to get a precise location for calling in an air strike. Russia still uses a lot of unguided bombs because they cannot afford to go completely “smart bomb” like Western forces. The Russians have made the most of that by using the modern fire control system common to most fighter-bombers since the 1990s. These systems enable pilots, with some practice, to very accurately deliver unguided bombs or rocket fire on a ground target. American forces sometimes use these systems for strafing runs with their 20mm autocannon but that is rare these days because it exposes the aircraft (usually an F-16) to ground fire or coming in too low and clipping some object with a wing and crashing. That has happened a few times since 2001 and the American air forces have since banned it except in extreme emergencies. The A-10s still do this work but they are slower, armored and generally built for it. The Russian version of the A-10, the Su-25 regularly does this low-level work and the latest version of the Su-25 fire control system makes these low altitude attacks even more effective.
All of this is an example of how long it can catch up with a new tech you are aware of but cannot afford to buy or build yourself.