The Russian Armed Forces are improving
Pessimists have made it fashionable to portray the Russian military as virtually defunct. And some go overboard in the other direction, through ignorance or propaganda hypocrisy, blowing soap-bubbles about “Russia’s rapidly-growing military might.” The truth lies somewhere in between. An srticle in Komsomolskaya Pravda by the military observer Viktor Baranets.
The Daily Telegraph (UK) has published an article entitled “Vladimir Putin rearms his Cold War military,” which says: “President Vladimir Putin caused consternation by announcing the resumption of regular, long-range nuclear bomber patrols, but there is more to come; Russia is planning to double combat aircraft production by 2025 with more nuclear missiles, aircraft carriers and tanks at the top of Moscow’s shopping list… Russian defence spending rose by 22 per cent and 27 per cent in the past two years and could be up as much as 30 per cent this year.”
As it happens, an Estonian newspaper (Delovye Vedomosti) published an article at almost the same time, entitled “Russia is no longer a warrior.” This takes an entirely different view of our military: “Russia’s military might is a myth.” The author presents some revelations from Russian officers: “We lack armaments, and the weapons we do have don’t work… Funding allocated to our unitf or buying two new armored personnel carriers never reached us. And the two KamAZ trucks we got instead had to be sawn apart, the metal being welded to old armored personnel carriers which are simply impossible to use any longer. If Estonia attacked us tomorrow, its soldiers might well reach Moscow. No more than 15-20 % of our arms and military hardware meets Western standards. In2006, the Russian Armed Forces were scheduled to acquire only 31 T-90 tanks, 125 armored personnel carriers, nine planes and eight helicopters. At this rate, rearmament will take us 300 years… The Russian defense sector has long since become incapable of producing military hardware regularly. Only one-offs are made, for export, in order to survive.”
So where is the truth? Let’s try to work this out. The Daily Telegraph is correct on almost every point – except the idea that Putin allegedly “caused consternation” worldwide by resuming strategic bomber patrols. Even competitive American generals with an interest in exaggerating the military threat, so as to extract more arms funding, admit that these flights are a routine phenomenon.
Yes, Moscow does plan to double production of military aircraft in the next 20 years. And the Russian Armed Forces shouldg et 69 missiles and 600-650 tanks by 2015. Yes, a new aircraft-carrier is being designed. But these are only plans as yet. They aren’t difficult to formulate; the hard part is putting them into practice. Almost everything will depend on money. Largely thankst o petrodollars, our military budget is growing with every year; the British newspaper is correct in noting this. We have the world’s fourth-largest military, in terms of personnel: 1.1million people (China has 2.2 million, the United States has 1.5million, India has 1.3 million). And in order to maintain the military’s armaments, the state needs to spend money.
Now let’s look at what the Estonian newspaper said. The question of whether Russia’s military myth should be addressed by looking at the Armed Forces as a whole – not one particular unit, as described by the newspaper’s officer sources. Much of what they said is quite true. Indeed, their unit (I identified it via theDefense Ministry and the North Caucasus military district) has military hardware in a pathetic state. Yes, they received two battered KamAZ trucks instead of armored personnel carriers. But the funding that “never reached the unit” was never supposed to go there. No military unit buys its own hardware; that is done via the Defense Ministry (based on requests from arm and branch staff). The Ground Forces staff apparently decided that the unit in question could get by with two trucks instead of new armored personnel carriers. Since the trucks were useless, they were taken apart. Yes, all of the unit’s armored personnel carriers date back to the Soviet era and should have been scrapped long ago. The situation is much the same in many other regiments and battalions which are not categorized as permanent combat readiness units. The permanent combat readiness units get priority for rearmament, while all the rest are rearmed as funding permits. It’s impossibleto re-equip the entire Armed Forces simultaneously; the defense budget would have to be $300 billion, not $30 billion. And that’s almost equivalent to Russia’s entire annual budget.
The officer who told the Estonian journalist that only 15-20 % of Russia’s military hardware meets Western quality standards wasn’t far off the mark. In other words, our military is still 80 % Soviet in terms of arms quality. There are only two ways to solve this problem: upgrading our existing tanks, planes, and missiles, while simultaneously acquiring new arms and hardware. Unfortunately, this is happening very slowly.
Russia has addressed this problem by adopting the State Arms Procurement Plan to 2015, with total funding of 4 trillion rubles. The priority now is to see that none of this money is misspent. Perhaps that is why Anatoly Serdyukov has been appointed as defense minister: he formerly headed the Federal Taxation Service.
But the claim that the Russian defense sector is incapable of producing military hardware regularly is a lie. In recent years we have exported hundreds of tanks, planes, missile systems, and other hardwar. Foreign arms buyers wouldn’t waste their money if our products were useless. The only problem is that we’re exporting 90% of the new military hardware we produce.
It’s ludicrous to say that the Russian military is so weak that it might let the Estonian Army get as far as Moscow. If anyone has really lost faith in the capacities of the Russian Armed Forces, and seriously expects to see Estonian soldiers on Red Square, here’s some information to counteract that nonsense. The Estonian Army has 4,000 soldiers and 36 armored vehicles, two An-2 planes, and four R-44 single-seater helicopters (armed with nothing more than the handguns carried by the pilots). Even the friendly Americans wax sarcastic about the Estonian Army: “It’s either a large platoon or a small battalion.” If such an army ventured into Russia, one Russian division (6,500 personnel, 300 armored personnel carriers, 90 tanks) would suffice to defeat it.
In recent years, a whole cohort of pessimists in Russia and abroad have made it fashionable to portray the Russian military as virtually defunct. And some go overboard in the other direction, through ignorance or propaganda hypocrisy, blowing soap-bubbles about “Russia’s rapidly-growing military might.” The truth lies somewhere in between those extremes.
Yes, we have “only” 500 ground-based ICBMs, and 400 of them are old. But we have deployed two regiments of new Topol missiles, after all, and we’ll keep going at the rate of ten new missiles a years (in the 1990s, we couldn’t even do that much).
Yes, we have only 12 nuclear-powered submarines carrying 16-20 missiles each (and two of these submarines will soon be scrapped). For Russia, ten submarines is a humiliatingly low figure. We’re building three new ones. We should build five more by 2015. Unfortunately, the new Bulava sea-launched missile for the new submarines still isn’t ready. Without this missile, the new subs are nothing more than costly nuclear-powered barrels. But perfecting the Bulava is only a matter of time.
We also have 79 strategic bombers. True, they are not new aircraft (some are over 30 years old). But they’ll be good for another 20-30 years after upgrades. The famous MiG-29 and Su-27fighters in the Air Force are being joined by superior new aircraft – the Su-34. The Armed Forces are deploying the world’s most powerful air defense rocket systems: the S-400. New communications and intelligence satellites have been launched, and new T-90 tanks are being acquired. True, all this falls a long way short of the sweeping rearmament which the Russian Armed Forces have been craving for the past 15 years. But who would deny that the “ice of stagnation” has been broken at last?
The Russian Armed Forces still have many problems – but their current condition is still closer to recovery.
Author: Viktor Baranets, military observer
September 3, 2007
Translated by Elena Leonova.