Russia must make re-equipping its military a top priority, President Dmitri Medvedev announced Sept. 11, the day after a pair of Russian bombers landed at an airbase in Venezuela
. In one sense, Medvedev’s statement — made during a conference on modernizing the Russian military — is simply the latest in a long line of martial declarations made by Russia's senior civilian and military leadership. But in another sense — one that warrants careful consideration in the wake of recent developments in Georgia — the statement suggests military reforms begun when Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was president may be gaining steam. Though very real challenges remain, a well-armed as well as reassertive Russia could be on the horizon.
One cannot talk about Russian military modernization without understanding the devastating effects of the 1990s. The decline in Russia’s military capability during this period — everything from morale and tactical proficiency to the maintenance and care of equipment — was holistic. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Russian defense industry continued to eke out an existence for a few more years by consuming immense Soviet-mandated stockpiles of raw material. But it, too, suffered immensely — and in the end, perhaps more than the military itself. This is not to say that the Russian military went back to square one. It was actually worse than that. Instead of being discarded, outmoded equipment in a state of disrepair remained in the inventory — as did outmoded capabilities and marginal personnel — as generals failed to recognize the new world order and tried in vain to sustain the powerful Red Army. The military also became increasingly top heavy as the officer corps — especially its upper echelons — fought any reductions. Opportunity costs mounted as the system failed to properly maintain the most crucial units and capabilities. Competent lower and mid-level officers left in droves. The Russian military became an underfunded, bloated and rusting shadow of its former self, a downward spiral symbolized by the tragic loss of the nuclear-powered guided-missile submarine Kursk (K-141)
in 2000. Many observers today, including much of the U.S. defense and intelligence establishments, still disregard the Russian military based on events nearly a decade passed. But the loss of the Kursk was a wake-up call for the Kremlin, and Putin came to office in 2000 with a plan. As we have argued, events in August 2008 demonstrated unequivocally that the Russian military has regained, at the very least, the infrastructure and capability for warfighting on its periphery
. Of course, the Georgian operation was just one carefully planned and orchestrated gambit in a much larger and more complex strategic maneuver. Since the fighting in Georgia has waned, the Kremlin has been happy to have its performance denigrated
and its military accomplishments marginalized by Western analysts. This buys it more time to rearm its forces — a process that will continue for a decade or more. Russia faces a number of challenges in this endeavor. First is its scope. Re-equipping armed forces is only one component of defense reform. Parallel efforts to resolve underlying issues with manpower, training and doctrine are equally important. The Kremlin is attempting to reduce the term of conscription from 24 months to 12 months. While concurrent efforts are underway to reduce the size of the armed forces, shorter tours for draftees will require an overall increase in the proportion of the population turning 18 each year that submits to the draft. This at a time when there are fewer 18-year-olds available at all due to the post-Soviet decline in the Russian birth rate. Of course, the Soviets also employed conscription and always relied more heavily on quantitative numbers than on the qualitative skill of individual soldiers. Yet conditions for draftees are notoriously bad and a major point of national discontent. Drunkenness, drug abuse, brutality, desertion and even suicide are all too common. To improve the quality of military personnel, the Kremlin has its work cut out for it. In Russia today, all the most competent candidates for military service use their competence to dodge the draft, and the quality of conscripts has tumbled. Meanwhile, a competent noncommissioned officer corps — something Western military models have always valued more highly than the Russian model — would go a long way toward reining in the abuse and improving tactical proficiency. However, the Russian military has little in the way of such traditions and even less in the way of experience. The professionalization of select units with more highly paid volunteers continues, though with spotty results so far. Ultimately, the establishment of a professional corps of soldiers and a cadre of junior and mid-level officers to lead them will be an important aspect of any true Russian military resurgence. In terms of hardware acquisition, any defense establishment always tries to stagger its major acquisition programs over the course of many years so as to allocate funding to each in turn. One cannot fund everything all at once. Though Russia is not exactly starved for cash these days, it faces an immensely complex acquisition balancing act for which it may not have the appropriate knowledgebase and experience to execute. The Russian military-industrial complex also is a problem. Though reforms have been underway for some time, inefficiency, graft, corruption and incompetence still characterize much of the sector. Issues with not only the notoriously behind-schedule Admiral Gorshkov conversion
but also Kilo-class submarine upgrades
and even the delivery of MiGs to Algeria
evince an industry still struggling to achieve a passable, baseline degree of quality control. Compounding this is the fact that the bulk of the sector's work force is nearing retirement and fresh manpower (because of the declining birth rate) is becoming an issue, just as it is for the military. The trouble here, in addition to a weakening institutional knowledge base, is that fewer and fewer workers and managers have the faintest of memories of Soviet-era manufacturing capacities, just as Moscow is moving toward ramping up production. Proficiency with software development and programming — an increasingly essential skill set in producing modern weapons systems — is an additional Russian weakness; those with such competency find more lucrative work in other industries (and often other countries). And just as the workforce has aged and been neglected, so have the sector's manufacturing facilities. This goes to the heart of the capacity for quality and efficient production. Even though Russian design work has always emphasized production efficiency and equipment durability (to endure crude maintenance conditions), in certain sectors — such as aviation and naval propulsion — there is no substitute for high-quality engineering and manufacturing. In addition, efficient serial production — once a Soviet hallmark — is made more difficult by aged equipment and facilities. Meanwhile, foreign sales continue to constitute the bulk of Russia’s post-Soviet military production efforts. This may, in part, be a conscious choice. As Moscow continues to roll out prototypes, conduct testing and tweak designs for production, foreign funds that are sustaining the industry may also help shake off the cobwebs of neglect and ramp up production. Major programs currently include:
- Navy: While the expensive and complex production of new nuclear submarines continues to be slow, there are also some indications that the Russian navy (despite continued rhetoric about carrier aviation) may be pursuing more obtainable goals for revitalizing its surface fleet. Two classes of multipurpose guided-missile frigates are now being built, though the quality and efficiency of serial production will not be seen until around 2011.
- Army: Much of the equipment used to invade Georgia was Soviet-era. Nevertheless, one of the notable deliveries of late has been the BMD-4, a heavily armed infantry fighting vehicle used by airborne units and for which Western airborne formations have no equivalent. Delivery of the new BTR-90 wheeled armored personnel carrier is also slated to begin soon, as is that of the Iskander short-range ballistic missile.
- Air Force: The most modern version of the venerable Su-27 “Flanker” multirole fighter series is the Su-35, which could begin serial delivery to the Russian air force alongside the Su-34 “Fullback” fighter-bomber in the next decade. Work on a fifth-generation air superiority fighter with stealth characteristics is under way. Though such claims have been circulating for a decade at least, some early sketches suggest that it may be an evolutionary outgrowth of the same Flanker architecture, thus suggesting realistic and obtainable designs. India may be lending assistance with this project.
- Air Defense Forces: The newest S-400 strategic air-defense system is now being fielded around Moscow. The rate of production is not yet clear, but the system is regarded as among the most capable in the world.
- Strategic Nuclear Forces: The slow fielding of the Topol-M intercontinental ballistic missile is slated to continue, alongside upgrades to the Tu-160 “Blackjack” strategic bomber and work on the Yuri Dolgoruky, the lead boat in a new class of nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarines. The strategic nuclear forces will reportedly remain a funding priority in the near future.
These latest systems generally rely heavily on design work done in the last days of the Soviet Union. It is not clear the degree to which they represent true modernizations, incorporating research and development work that the Russians have continued to fund as well as technology gleaned from ongoing espionage. It is important to note, however, that even re-equipping the Russian military on a broad scale with new production batches of late-Soviet technology and equipment — essentially the same designs with new paint jobs — would go a long way toward rejuvenating Moscow's military power. Russia already possesses the basic tools. And in the wake of the Georgian conflict, which STRATFOR considers a Russian success, military reform is likely to gain steam under Putin's continued supervision. The ultimate trajectory is one of improving capability beyond the fundamentals recently demonstrated in Georgia.