Assessing the Glacial Progress in Russia’s Military Modernization

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 13 Issue: 179

New Russian T-14 Armata Tank (Source: Sputnik)

Russia’s political-military leadership places great emphasis upon military modernization, assumes its targets will be fully met, and offers frequent statistics to illustrate success in this long-term endeavor. Deputy Defense Minister Dmitry Rogozin, expresses confidence in the capacity of the defense sector to harness civilian technologies to benefit the Armed Forces. Yet, there are signs that the pace of rearmament may be slowing, while the finance and defense ministries openly argue about the scale of state funding required to ensure such modernization to 2025 (see EDM, October 6, November 3). Equally, based on the defense ministry figures for annual procurement, it is a complex task to establish the modernization priorities or define areas that are proving to be challenging (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, October 30; Armeskiy Sbornik, October 2016).

Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu regularly expounds a message of relentless progress in military modernization. Reflecting on the achievements of the defense industry in the third quarter of this year, Shoigu noted that the share of advanced modern weapons and equipment had increased by 0.2 percent to reach an overall figure of 48 percent; 62 percent of the state defense order has already been fulfilled. By 2020, the share of modern or new weapons and equipment must reach 70 percent in order to declare the modernization program a success. Shoigu’s supporting evidence looks impressive. He notes the delivery of 4 aircraft, 13 helicopters and 21 radars; repairs of 13 aircraft; the Western Military District (MD) receiving Bal and Bastion coastal missile complexes as well as two regimental sets of advanced S-400 air defense systems; and the Navy receiving more than 100 Kalibr and Oniks cruise missiles (TASS, October 21).

Nevertheless, Shoigu’s year-on-year figures appear to indicate that the rate of modernization is actually slowing, with numbers down in aircraft, helicopters, radars, combat vehicles or ship deliveries. He uses these figures to convey an impression that despite the numerous challenges facing the defense industry and the Russian economy, the process itself and the state target remain intact. However, there are also some gaps in the figures, including no mention of the numbers of coastal systems being procured, or offering any figure for fresh unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) procurement (Krasnaya Zvezda, October 11, 2015; October 23, 2016). Manufacturing and repairs of combat vehicles, aircraft production and some advanced technologies such as UAVs are struggling to maintain the momentum in the modernization program, with a tailing off in the respective figures year-on-year. Among the most prominent examples of modern aircraft procurement, which the defense ministry highlights, are the numbers of Su-30SM fighters entering service, perhaps bolstered by their use in combat missions in Syria (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, October 21).

Shoigu also referred to the delivery of three sets of automated command-and-control systems, a core unifying element in the modernization drive, but offered no total figures for these advanced systems. According to defense industry sources, rapid progress is being made toward introducing the new Ratnik individual soldier gear, with 120,000 sets procured since 2014 (RIA Novosti, November 5).

The high-technology end of rearmament is clearly being prioritized by the political-military leadership. And this appears to be well placed with supporting infrastructure to help alleviate some of the problems facing the domestic defense industry. Recently, defense experts and journalists were invited to visit Tula, with its 25 defense companies and its reputation as the armory capital of the country. Aleksandr Denisov, the CEO of the holding Vysokotochnyye Kompleksy (Precision Complexes), explained to his guests from Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye that Precision Complexes is the most highly visited part of defence industry by President Putin, leading members of the government as well as the top brass. This fact confirms the level of interest in precision-strike systems but affords no tangible insight into the rate of high-technology modernization (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, October 21).

Precision Complexes specializes in producing tank and anti-aircraft guided weapons, modern high-precision weapons, radars, as well as simulators to train anti-tank gunners. The company is working on simulators to train crews for the new generation Armata T-14 tank, as well as infantry fighting vehicles such as the Kurganets and the armored personnel carrier Bumerang. These simulators use laser technology and promise to markedly enhance training standards for such specialist systems (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, October 21). Clearly training and educational support is underway for the introduction of greater numbers of high-technology assets in the military. Achieving advances in this area will help to facilitate defense modernization, as more contract personnel come into service in the Armed Forces.

Indeed, study and training are key factors in the success of the defense companies operating in Tula, as it boasts its own specialized training center in order to ensure sufficiently high standards among employees. The center produces training materials in five languages and trains 4,000 to 6,000 personnel annually (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, October 21). Precision Complexes also draws on a long established domestic laser technology capacity, which it exploits in new simulator designs (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, November 1).

Russian military commentators recognize that there are deep-seated issues facing the targets for military modernization without simply resorting to massaging the figures. Introducing the T-14 Armata tank in meaningful numbers will prove to be costly, as well as the modern advanced combat vehicles; and some observers see a need for optimization or resetting targets not least because the state funding levels needed for the armament program to 2025 may be slashed by as much as 50 percent (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, November 1). It is unsurprising that Putin counsels the defense industry to plan for a future lean period in state orders. The year-on-year comparison of official figures suggests that 2016–2017 may well be critical tests for the viability of the rearmament strategy, with progress either stuttering or halting.

Underlying the official figures, while there are discernible difficulties in meeting national targets, there is also continued evidence of long-term state interest in compelling the defense industry to produce more high-technology assets for the military. But even if the 70 percent new or modern equipment target set for 2020 is achieved in full, it is unlikely that it will be evenly spread across the Armed Forces in all service branches and arms. Still, with a high value placed on advanced network-enabled technologies coupled with greater numbers of contract personnel, it is certain that the Russian Armed Forces will possess new and modernized military capability for offensive and defensive purposes.