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Yes, The Russians Are Rearming

October 9, 2013
Russian T72

Nikolas G. Gvosdev, a foreign policy wonk over at The National Interest, takes a closer look at the Russian government’s ambitious plan to overhaul the armed forces in his October 4 analysis titled Russia’s Military Is Back.

His opening salvo best summarizes the subject he’s dealing with:

One of the distinguishing characteristics of Vladimir Putin’s presidency has been his commitment to revitalizing Russia’s military. Putin, who has noted that Russia’s perceived weakness makes it vulnerable to external pressure and internal disruption, is pushing for increased funding to transform the Russian armed forces from the debilitated remnants inherited from the old Soviet superpower military machine into a smaller, but more modern, mobile, technologically advanced and capable twenty-first century force.
To emphasize why rearmament is important, Gvosdev spends the first stretch of his article illustrating its scope:
Perusing budget reports and position papers, Russian plans—spearheaded by the Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Dmitry Rogozin, the deputy prime minister in charge of the defense industry—certainly look impressive—and ominous. If, only a few years ago, the shipbuilding budget for the Russian navy was less than 10 percent of the U.S. Navy, the Russians have now closed the gap and the Russians are, in terms of budgetary outlays, spending about half of what will be allocated to the U.S. Navy for new ship construction. By 2020, the Russian army will be structured around combat-ready and easily deployable brigades, with a goal of having those forces be at least 70 percent equipped with next-generation weaponry and equipment. If all goes according to plan, the Russian military, by 2020, will return to a million active-duty personnel, backed up by 2300 new tanks, some 1200 new helicopters and planes, with a navy fielding fifty new surface ships and twenty-eight submarines, with one hundred new satellites designed to augment Russia’s communications, command and control capabilities. Putin has committed to spending some $755 billion over the next decade to fulfill these requirements.

But Gvosdev finds many of the decade-long plan’s benchmarks problematic. Foremost is the inconvenient fact that Russia’s state-owned enterprises no longer have the engineers, resources, and technology to mass-produce high tech weapon systems on par with what the US and NATO have.

Aside from Russia’s worrisome demographics, money is also a concern. Gvosdev thinks the needed budgeting for rearmament is unrealistic. What he leaves out is how a leading energy exporter like Russia currently suffers from a flatlining GDP, a grim fact that could undermine its rearmament program.

Having closely observed the progress of Russian rearmament, Gvosdev finds additional inconsistencies. He first singles out the Su-35, a fourth-generation fighter jet based on the Su-27, as an example of a stalled effort suffering from poor management. He then mentions the uneven test record of the Bulava missile.

Both are proof that Russia’s military-industrial complex haven’t shaken off their Yeltsin-era paralysis.

According to Gvosdev:

Yet there is often a noticeable gap between declared Russian intentions and executable results. To what extent are these ambitious goals realizable?

Some observers have been prepared to write off these plans as Potemkin posturing—or new and creative ways to transfer more of Russia’s state funds into private hands through creative, corrupt schemes. Certainly, any expansion of the military budget represents enormous opportunities for graft. But it would be a mistake to dismiss the clear evidence that this buildup is restoring capabilities to the Russian armed forces that had been lost after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the last eighteen months, Russia conducted military exercises on a scale not seen since the end of the Cold War (such as the recently concluded military trials in the Far East). While still highlighting problems with command and control systems and with equipment, these nonetheless have also demonstrated that the reforms are starting to have an impact, and that Russia is capable of fielding a more mobile, effective force.

Gvosdev discusses attempts at buying foreign weapons, which has resulted in a historic deal for French Mistral amphibious assault ships and a joint partnership for an APC. He bothers to recount ex-defense minister Anatoli Serdyukov’s often frustrated attempts to reorganize a decrepit military structure.

In closing, Gvosdev enumerates three major issues that could derail the whole enterprise:

1. Does the Treasury have ample funds?

2. Are Russian weapons makers up to the task?

3. Are current manpower levels adequate?

Let what he wrote not go unnoticed. Gvosdev has raised some good points and his article is a wake up call for everyone that something’s brewing in Eurasia.

Allowing for a moment’s aside, Russian rearmament is actually among the key subjects that inspired the creation of this site. The sweeping rearmament policy was first announced in 2010 and began the next year. A helpful reminder:

On February 24 the Kremlin made public its nineteen trillion ruble ($650 billion dollars) plan to modernize the armed forces, which still operates huge numbers of Soviet-era equipment. The ambitious 10-year program will rebuild the Russian army, air force, and navy form the ground up with new tanks, thousands of new aircraft, advanced submarines, warships, missiles, and four Mistral amphibious helicopter carriers.

The program also signals an unprecedented break from the past. For the first time since World War 2, Russia is acquiring weapon systems from abroad.  News of Russian interest in the French Mistral class helicopter carrier was initially dismissed as rumor in 2010 until their confirmation months later. Russia doesn’t only intend to purchase two of the amphibious assault ships but build another pair in Russian shipyards under license. A senior French official has stated that the first of the Mistrals might be delivered to Russia by 2013. Russia has expressed interest in another advanced French weapons system, the FELIN infantry combat suit, for its soldiers.

But that’s not all. IVECO armored cars from Italy are also part of Russia’s sizable shopping list and these are to be license-built as well. Though the rugged Gaz jeeps and BTR family of APCS has long been a mainstay among Russian units, an additional large purchase of Panhard VBL armored cars from France is underway and to be used by the FSB for patrolling Russia’s vast frontiers.

Despite these forays into the European arms market, the re-armament program is largely indigenous, with an emphasis on late Cold War systems that never received proper funding in the cash-strapped post-Soviet era. The air force in particular will receive 1,000 new helicopters, including the much vaunted Mi 28 Havoc and the fearsome twin rotor Ka-50, plus 600 additional aircraft comprising Su-33s, Su-35s, and the overhyped fifth generation T-50 stealth fighter.