Russia: The Challenges of Modernizing the Military - September,2008

Russia: The Challenges of Modernizing the Military

Russia will improve its army:

September, 2008


Russian President Dmitri Medvedev said Sept. 11 that Russia must focus on rearming and modernizing its military. Though echoing statements made frequently by senior civilian and military leaders in Russia, the assertion warrants careful consideration in the wake of the Russo-Georgian war. Russia may face substantial hurdles in its military resurgence, but the effort should not be underestimated.


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.


Russia Plans Record $46.5 bln Arms Spending in 2009

Russian spending on arms will rise to a record $46.5 billion next year, a senior government official said on Friday, as the Kremlin moves to beef up the armed forces after a conflict in Georgia. Russian national defence orders will rise to 1.2 trillion roubles ($46.55 billion) in 2009, 70 billion roubles higher than previously planned, Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov was shown saying on Russian television. "We have managed to convince the Finance Ministry that the volume of state defence orders in 2009 will be 70 billion higher than previously planned," Ivanov told Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. "The overall volume of state defence orders next year are planned at a record level of 1.2 trillion roubles," Ivanov said.

State defence orders includes spending on arms by all of Russia's military organizations -- such as the Defence Ministry, Interior Ministry and special services -- as well as repairs and spending on research and development. Ivanov did not give reasons for the rise but said prices for military goods was rising faster than government inflation forecasts. President Dmitry Medvedev said on Thursday the five-day conflict in Georgia last month had shown the armed forces needed modernizing and that problems with equipment needed to be resolved. Russia provoked an outcry from the West when it sent troops deep into Georgia after repelling a Georgian attack on the Moscow-backed rebel enclave of South Ossetia, which is internationally recognized as part of Georgia. Putin hiked defence spending during his eight year presidency in an attempt to stop the decline of Russia's once mighty fighting forces. But domestic critics and former officers say the Russian armed forces are hampered by rampant corruption, poor discipline, faulty equipment and outdated battle plans which still focus on a major land war in Europe.

In Russia's draft budget, spending on "national defence" is set to rise more than a quarter to 1.28 trillion roubles in 2009 from 1.02 trillion roubles this year. A more detailed breakdown of the spending is classified. Putin also told Ivanov he had approved increases in spending on space programs and that he had signed a decree ordering an addition 67 billion roubles for the Russian GLONASS satellite navigation system. Putin said an additional 45 billion roubles would be spent on the Federal Space Program over the next three years. He said the money would be used to build a new cosmodrome in the Far East, finance the International Space Station and help space research.

(Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge, editing by Matthew Jones)


In other news:

Russia Lines Up With Syria, Iran Against America And The West

Moscow announced renovation had begun on the Syrian port of Tartus to provide Russia with its first long-term naval presence on the Mediterranean. As the two naval chiefs talked in Moscow, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov met Iranian foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki in the Russian capital for talks on the completion of the Bushehr nuclear power plant by the end of the year. DEBKAfile’s military sources report that the commander of the Russian, Navy Adm. Vladimir Vysotsky, and his Syrian counterpart, Gen. Taleb al Barri, spent all Friday working on details for the outfitting of Tartus port to accommodated increased Russian fleet Mediterranean missions not far from Israel’s shores. Mottaki’s unannounced visit to the Russian capital focused on the timetable for Atomstroiexport to finish work on the Bushehr reactor after five years of delays.

Moscow has sharpened its tone in comments aimed at the West and the US in particular. President Dmitiry Medvedev said Friday that Georgia’s attack on South Ossetia was the equivalent for Russia of the 9/11 attack on America. Even if Georgia had become a NATO member, he said, he would not have thought twice about ordering the Russian army to go in. Prime minister Vladimir Putin, after putting Moscow’s case on Georgia to the Western media, warned the US that stationing a missile defense shield near Russia’s borders would start an arms race in Europe. There was no basis for a new Cold War, he said. DEBKAfile’s sources interpret Friday’s events as indicating that Russia’s leaders have determined not to declare a Cold War in Europe but to open a second anti-Western front in the Middle East. In the second half of August, DEBKA file and DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s analysts discussed this re-orientation at length (Russia’s Second Front: Iran-Syria), disclosing that Moscow had decided to use its ties with Tehran and Damascus to challenge the United State and the West in the Middle East as well as the Caucasian, the Black Sea and the Caspian region.

The traumatic impact of the Georgia conflict on Russia’s rulers came through in the remarks of an unnamed Kremlin official quoted by the Russian media this week: “Everything has changed since the war with Georgia. What seemed impossible before is more than possible now when our friends become our enemies and our enemies our friends. Russia will respond. A number of possibilities are being considered, including hitting America where it hurts most – Iran and Syria.” In aligning with Tehran and Damascus, Moscow stands not only against America but also Israel. This volatile world region is undergoing cataclysmic changes at a time when Israel is virtually without a fully competent prime minister and key political and military decision-making by the rest of the government is at a standstill.


US to Invade Iran Any Day Now?

A few weeks ago the Russian newspaper Izvestia, a well-known and authoritive daily published nationwide and abroad, came forward with something that would have been looked upon as a conspiracy theory if published by a tabloid. The paper suggested that by attacking South Ossetia, the Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili had badly damaged a planned U.S. military operation against Iran. In the newspaper's opinion Georgia was supposed to play the role of another "unsinkable aircraft carrier" for the U.S., i.e. an operational and tactical base for U.S. aircraft that would be making bombing raids into Iran. Something akin to what Thailand was in the Vietnam war. Thailand certainly benefited from the arrangement, and Georgia would have too, insists the paper, if its President hadn't put his ambitions above the US national interest and ended up beaten, disarmed, chewing on his neckties and totally incapable of providing whatever the U.S. needs from him.

That's why, according to Izvestia in yet another article on the matter, the U.S. response to the Russian retaliation was harsh in words but very mild in action. The latest on the issue suggests that Mikhail Saakashvili may be replaced any day now by direct order from Washington. Having read the story in Izvestia I decided to try to figure out the extent of improbability and impossibility of the assumptions. As I was doing that, I remembered that early in August CNN had started showing U.S. generals who cried for more troops and hardware for Afghanistan which, in their opinion, was rapidly becoming a more intensive conflict than Iraq. Shortly after that, a phone call came from a college friend who had just come back from Kandahar in Afghanistan, where he had seen American battle tanks being unloaded from a Ukrainian-registered Antonov-124 "Ruslan", the heaviest and largest cargo airplane in the world. The friend asked if I had any idea what tanks would be good for in Afghanistan, and I said I didn't. It's an established fact from the Soviet war in Afghanistan that tanks are no good for most of the country's mountainous territory. They are good for flatlands, and the main body of flat land in the region is right across the border in Iran.

Later in August there was another bit of unofficial information from a Russian military source: more than a thousand American tanks and armored vehicles had been shipped to Eastern Afghanistan by Ukrainian "Ruslans" flying in three to five shipments a day, and more flights were expected. Somehow all this, together with the series of articles in Izvestia, the information that all U.S. troops in Afghanistan are going to be reassigned and regrouped under unified command, the arrival of NATO naval ships in the Black Sea, the appointment of a man used to command troops in a combat environment as the new commander of the US Central Command and other bits and pieces. To my total astonishment, when they all fell together the Izvestia story started looking slightly more credible than before. Today the U.S. media reported that there had been a leak from the Pentagon about a secret Presidential order in which President Bush authorized his military (most of which is currently on Afghan soil) to conduct operations in Pakistan without the necessity for informing the Pakistani government. The U.S. military in Afghanistan - or shall we say in the whole region neighboring Iran - is getting a freer hand by the day. And it is getting more and more hardware to play with.

Of course it's quite clear now that Georgia has lost its immediate potential as a nearby airfield, but after all, the aircraft carriers in the Gulf are not so far away. Believe me I'm not saying that the U.S. is going to start an all-out war against Iran tomorrow. But aren't there indications that it may happen the day after tomorrow, a month from now, or on any date before the official handover of Presidency in the U.S.? Or, as some suggest, before the election? I'm just asking the questions. But there are some people, like those working for Izvestia, for instance, who answer them with a "yes".


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Dear reader,

Arevordi will be taking a sabbatical to tend to personal matters. New blog commentaries will henceforth be posted on an irregular basis. The comments board however will continue to be moderated on a regular basis.

The last 20 years or so has also helped me see Russia as the last front against scourges of Westernization, Globalism, American expansionism, Zionism, Islamic extremism and pan-Turkism. I have also come to see Russia as the last hope humanity has for the preservation of classical western civilization, Apostolic Christianity and the traditional nation-state. This realization compelled me to create this blog in 2010. Immediately, this blog became one of the very few voices in the vastness of cyberia that dared to preach about the dangers of Globalism and the Anglo-American-Jewish alliance, and the only voice preaching the strategic importance of Armenia remaining within Russia's orbit. From about 2010 to 2015 I did monthly, at times weekly, commentaries about Russian-Armenian relations and Eurasian geopolitics in general. It was very difficult as I had no assistance in this endeavor. The time I put into this blog therefore came at the expense of work and family. But a powerful feeling inside me urged me to keep going; and I did.

When Armenia finally joined the EEU and integrated its armed forces into Russia's military structures a couple of years ago, I finally felt a deep sense of satisfaction and relaxation, as if a very heavy burden was lifted off my shoulders. I finally felt that my personal mission was accomplished. I therefore felt I could take a step back, as I really needed the rest. Simply put: I have lived to see the institutionalization of Russian-Armenian alliance. Also, I feel more confident now that Armenians are collectively recognizing the strategic importance of Armenia's ties with Russia. Moreover, I feel satisfied knowing that, at least on a subatomic level, I had a hand in the outcome. As a result, I feel a strong sense of mission accomplished. I therefore no longer have the urge to continue as in the past. In other words, the motivational force that had propelled me in previous years has been gradually dissipating because I feel that this blog has lived to see the realization of its stated goal. Going forward, I do not want to write merely for the sake of writing. Also, I do not want to say something if I have nothing important to say. I feel like I have said everything I needed to say. Henceforth, I will post seasonal commentaries about topics I find important. I will however continue moderating the blog's comments section on a regular basis; ultimately because I'm interested in what my readers have to say and also because it's through readers here that I am at times made aware of interesting developments.

To limit clutter in the comments section, I kindly ask all participants of this blog to please keep comments coherent and strictly relevant to the featured topic of discussion. Moreover, please realize that when there are several anonymous visitors posting comments simultaneously, it becomes very confusing (not to mention extremely annoying) trying to figure out who is who and who said what.Therefore, if you are here to engage in conversation, make an observation, express an idea or simply attack me, I ask you to at least use a moniker to identify yourself. Moreover, please appreciate the fact that I have put an enormous amount of information into this blog. In my opinion, most of my blog commentaries and articles, some going back ten-plus years, are in varying degrees relevant to this day and will remain so for a long time to come. Articles in this blog can therefore be revisited by longtime readers and new comers alike. I therefore ask the reader to treat this blog as a depository of important information relating to Eurasian geopolitics, Russian-Armenian relations and humanity's historic fight against the evils of Globalism and Westernization.

Thank you as always for reading.