The Future of Russia's Military: Part 1

5 MINS READAug 27, 2012 | 10:45 GMT

Editor's Note: This is the first installment in a five-part series on Russia's military modernization. Click to read Part 2, Part 3, Part 4 and Part 5.

Russia has been struggling to reform its military since the fall of the Soviet Union and the ensuing crisis in Russia. Some progress was made after Vladimir Putin came to power, though Russia had no viable and specific plan for its military until 2010, when Moscow drew up its first serious military doctrine in years. Reform has progressed since then, but the next few years will be a true test. Russia's goal is to create a military capable of facing the country's main challenges domestically, regionally and globally. Though the Kremlin has moved forward with its plans, major constraints could slow this progress if not stop it altogether. 

Russia's drive for military modernization and reform is not new. After the crisis of the 1990s that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian military was left with a disorganized, underfunded and — as the Gulf War and Operation Allied Force demonstrated — unsuitable doctrine for next-generation warfare. Given its geographic and funding pressures, Russia's military has emphasized recalibrating its weaponry and adopting a more flexible and versatile force structure that allows it to rapidly deploy across the country.

Locator Map - Russia

The Russian military maintains large stockpiles of equipment and weaponry, an overwhelming majority of which is dated. The military budget for the armed forces has increased substantially year-on-year during the last decade (between 4 and 24 percent every year compared to the previous year). However, the vast quantities of materiel requiring replacement means that even with more funding, it would take the military decades to replace the equipment on a one-to-one basis. Overall, the military needs a substantial budget increase specifically meant to replace the aging equipment en masse, improve training and command structures, raise the quality of life for the soldiers and maintain, if not improve on, its combat level.

Ground Forces

While the ground forces have very large stockpiles of materiel left from the Cold War, the equipment is on the whole not well-maintained and requires significant upgrades. The bulk of the equipment used by the ground forces is obsolescent if not already obsolete; most of the army's current equipment was designed or built by the Soviets. Moreover, the army is particularly lacking in precision-guided munitions and modern Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance systems.

A good example of the Russian army's vast but aging inventory is its armored vehicles. The army's inventory consists of tens of thousands of these vehicles, which translates into a very high ratio of armored vehicles to number of personnel. However, these numbers do not tell the whole story; it is estimated that more than 70 percent of its armored fighting vehicle holdings are in storage and non-operational. Additionally, almost all types of vehicles used — aside from some, such as the T-90 — were first produced during the Cold War. Even the T-90 is in essence an evolution (from Soviet-designed vehicles) rather than a revolutionary design.

Air Force

The Russian air force has an estimated 4,000 aircraft in active service, but — as with the army's equipment — vast numbers of these are aging platforms first built during the Cold War. Current Russian production rates are not enough to prevent a gradual decline in the inventory of fielded aircraft. Unlike the army, however, the air force has placed considerable emphasis on producing new equipment, with a flagship design being the new generation stealth PAK-FA. The Russians are also seeking to produce a number of the effective Ka-52 and Mi-28 attack helicopters to supplement the existing force of Mi-24 gunships. Overall, the Russian air force is slightly better off than the ground forces in terms of the levels of modernized equipment available, but the more technologically advanced aircraft are slowly entering service in low numbers.


The Russian navy is not as powerful as it used to be. Vast numbers of ships suffered from lack of maintenance and upkeep after the Cold War, particularly in the 1990s. Russia currently maintains a sizable number of warships, but once again, most are obsolescent designs. The Admiral Kuznetsov (Russia's sole aircraft carrier), all the cruisers and at least half of Russia's destroyers were first launched by the Soviet Union. The Russian conventional attack, nuclear attack and cruise missile submarine forces are in better shape than the surface fleet in terms of levels of modernization. However, the Russians have encountered considerable problems in developing and building Lada and Yasen class submarines, which are supposed to replace older conventional attack and nuclear attack submarines respectively.

An Aged Arsenal

Russia has a very sizable arsenal that is laced with deep structural problems associated with age and lack of upkeep and modernization. As the equipment continues to age, maintenance becomes more expensive, taking up more of the defense budget. The equipment will also be retired at an ever-increasing pace as it becomes obsolete.

The Russian military therefore is dependent on increased military funding if it wishes to maintain its current combat potential, much less increase it. At the current pace, and even if funds were increased, Russia will have to make choices about which defense sectors to prioritize. 

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