Moscow’s Pursuit of Military Strategic Parity With NATO

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 14 Issue: 79

Russian fifth-generation PAK FA fighter (

As Moscow prepares to finalize the new State Armaments Program to 2025 (Gosudarstvennaya Programma Vooruzheniya—GPV) in September (see EDM, June 12), numerous reports hold out the prospect of continued military modernization with an emphasis on high-technology and modern assets. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu promises the arrival of the PAK FA (T-50) fifth-generation fighter jet in 2019 and the new S-500 surface-to-air missile system the following year. Shoigu believes such procurements will help to protect Russia against modern means of aerospace attack. While, Colonel (retired) Viktor Baranets argues that such developments, coupled with other trends in Russia’s military modernization, will offer the country a level of “strategic parity” with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). This view reflects both Moscow’s modernization of the Russian nuclear deterrent as well as progress in the transformation of the conventional Armed Forces (RIA Novosti, May 25).

However, such perspectives seem rooted in optimistic defense ministry information campaigns, which explicitly promote an image of a resurgent military well on its way to meeting modern challenges—including any possible threat posed by the United States or NATO. The generally positive publicity for Russian manufactured arms and equipment is certainly doing no harm to arms exports, as highlighted in Moscow’s recent report to the United Nations on such sales. The deployment of S-400 air-defense systems in Syria has, likewise, helped generate further interest among potential foreign customers. Although, the S-400 has not yet been fully introduced into the Russian Armed Forces (TsAMTO, June 13). Indeed, there are persistent and deeper issues at play within the domestic defense industry that no amount of information spin can conceal.

One of the most surprising facets of the (current) GPV to 2020 was the apparently low level of state investment in research and development (R&D). While the R&D component of the GPV to 2025 may well increase, some experts and industry specialists see potentially problematic cost issues arising from R&D factors. This may result in numerous delays at the higher end of the modernization agenda in relation to expensive high-technology items. The task of creating new domestic technologies is inhibited by weaknesses in target setting, insufficient coordination in development planning, and low levels of innovation. Sergey Pankov, the head of the Ministry of Defense’s Directorate for Advanced Inter-Specific Research and Special Projects, suggests that the opening of R&D to develop high-tech samples of weapons and hardware could increase development costs in some cases by up to 40 percent (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, June 7).

Oleg Bochkarev, the deputy chairman of the Board of the Military Industrial Commission, recently addressed a conference on “Managing the creation of a scientific and technical reserve in the life cycle of high-tech products—2017.” He noted the importance of the need to calculate the costs in the life cycle of new systems. Bochkarev spoke of the Military Industrial Commission forming working groups to explore such issues, but the implication is that numerous challenges exists in the area of R&D and planning around the introduction of new systems. While these processes continue to be worked out, President Putin places great confidence in the effort to reform the Russian Academy of Sciences and the possibility to stimulate innovative ideas through such initiatives (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, June 7).

Of course, with a widely anticipated boost to the defense ministry in the final agreement of the GPV to 2025, such pressures within the planning cycles and domestic defense industry will likely be further aggravated. Delays to procuring new systems frequently center on the inherent failure to coordinate between the various interested parties, including the defense companies and arms or branches of service that those new assets are earmarked for. If expensive items, such as the PAK FA or the S-500, are procured in meaningful numbers, properly integrating these systems will require great coordination and effort. At the same time, lingering doubts apparently exist concerning new technologies linked to main battle tanks, with the defense ministry planning to procure modernized older tanks rather than rely exclusively on the new T-14 Armata (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, May 31; see EDM, October 4, 2016).

Lieutenant General (retired) Alexander Luzan, sees these challenges as especially acute in technologically demanding services such as the Aerospace Forces (Vozdushno Kosmicheskikh Sil—VKS). The need to add fourth-generation strategic and tactical systems to boost air defense has given some grounds for optimism, according to Luzan. The process of linking design, production, operations and use in combat came about informally, resulting in significant progress in modernizing air defense systems (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, May 31).

Oleg Falichev, in an article in Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, expresses confidence in a future military technological revolution in 2025–2030 leading to fully electric aircraft. Progress in aviation manufacturing will prove to be important for the wider defense industry. Falichev’s sources stress the importance of developing a “road map” for applicable shipbuilding, rail transport and other high-technology industries, as this may enable concentration of resources and the development of competence centers in order to quickly establish serial production. It seems that such experts are trying to explore ways to unite and integrate planning processes around the military modernization plan to move beyond a patchwork approach (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, June 7).

While the defense ministry expects good news and celebrates its victory over the finance ministry in relation to the GPV to 2025 (see EDM, June 12), there are clearly still many challenges ahead that may serve to mitigate the nature and depth of the military modernization. It can be expected that a new emphasis on conventional strike systems, improved hardware and frigates for the Navy, and modern platforms for the VKS will enter service during the period to 2025. What is unclear is how many will be procured and what performance characteristics can be expected of these cutting-edge examples. The top brass and defense officials also say that the modernization will be influenced by lessons drawn from combat experience in Syria. But to extrapolate from this that Russian forces have already reached some level of conventional parity with NATO—or even that they might sometime in the near future—stretches the spin too far.