Russia’s highly ambitious military modernization agenda to 2020 has garnered unprecedented government spending to redress the long hiatus in replacing dated weapons equipment. Yet, it faces potentially crippling obstacles to a fuller implementation of such goals. The original plan, to achieve 70 percent new or modern equipment in the table of organization and equipment by 2020, has recently been talked up, with suggestions that this target may even be surpassed (Interfax, September 30). But the precise nature of this modernization and what it will mean for each service in the Armed Forces has been locked in secrecy and a lack of clarity even at a conceptual level.
The modernization itself began after instituting the reforms of 2009–2012, while the piecemeal advances made since then toward procuring new hardware and weapons has left much unanswered. Later adjustments to the reforms could not be factored into procurement planning and will most likely face correction when the revised rearmament program to 2025 is finally agreed. Russia’s Armed Forces aspire to adopt network-centric approaches to modern warfare, while its threat environment and force structure suggest that the defense industry needs to equip a military to cope with a widening array of domestic and foreign contingencies (see EDM, September 20).
While the impetus to modernize the Armed Forces is still in place, there is much speculation that the tightened economic reality facing the Kremlin may compel less ambitious defense spending in the future. However, there are also a number of critical weaknesses in the defense industry, which serve to slow or even potentially derail such modernization efforts. These factors include the lack of reform as well as efforts to resuscitate the ailing national defense industry. They are particularly acute in key areas such as aviation or tank building capacity. The two main issues facing Russian defense planning in its modernization drive are internal corruption and a lack of consistent and integrated defense procurement planning (Topwar.ru, September 15).
Russia’s air campaign in Syria has certainly domestically promoted a more positive image of the Aerospace Forces (Vozdushno Kosmicheskiye Sily—VKS) and served to advance the need to procure more advanced platforms in greater numbers. The VKS is set to receive an additional number of new Su-34 fighter-bombers by the end of the year, reflecting their high-profile use in Syria (Interfax, September 23). Nonetheless, Russian civil and military aviation faces immense challenges stemming from weak strategic planning capacity and the ever-present system of kickbacks. Russia’s political-military leadership understands that not all the budget funds intended to modernize the Armed Forces will be used legitimately, with unspecified figures vanishing through kickback schemes. Additionally, both the civil and military aviation industries lack strategic-level planning to facilitate an integrated system that flows from customer to executor (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, September 20).
Prior to the Duma elections in September, Kazan Helicopter Plant reportedly had insufficient levels of orders to retain its present staffing levels (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, September 27). Similar problems exist in other parts of the Russian defense industry, with the government having to bail out numerous enterprises from bankruptcy. For example, the main tank manufacturer, Scientific Production Corporation Uralvagonzavod (UVZ), required such a bailout earlier this year, yet it is tasked with production of the first non-Soviet designed tank: the T-14 Armata. The leadership of UVZ points out that the plan to procure a small number of T-14s on a trial basis for state tests—perhaps around 100 tanks—is not enough, suggesting that, in the longer term, there needs to be significantly larger numbers purchased for the Ground Forces. Equally, this will entail additional costs, such as to support the training and introduction of such advanced platforms (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, September 30).
While the T-14 Main Battle Tank (MBT) has featured in the Victory Parades in Red Square, this platform is currently absent from the inventory of the Ground Forces, raising questions over the numbers that may be purchased in the future. Lieutenant-General Alexander Shevchenko, the head of the Main Tank-Automotive Management office in the defense ministry, also expressed confidence in the future T-14 procurement. Shevchenko noted, however, that state testing of the Armata will only be completed next year and that no longer-term decision has been reached on the issue. Meanwhile, in discussing the development of the overall “tank concept” for the Ground Forces, Shevchenko referred to the modernized T-72B3, which has featured in Donbas. Based on this concept, drawn up four years ago, an additional 300 T-72B3 MBTs will arrive in the army in the “near future.” Shevchenko also suggested that the defense ministry may opt for a modernized version of the T-90, depending on costs (RIA Novosti, September 9).
The T-14’s absence, reliance upon modernized T-72s, as well as possibly similar arrangements with the T-90 in the future illustrate the inherent challenges facing a defense industry still living off the back of the Soviet military industrial complex. The Armata would be the first genuinely post-Soviet-era tank in the Russian Armed Forces inventory. Moreover, as the numbers of contract personnel increases in the Ground Forces, such systems can more readily be adopted for use. But the defense ministry is evidently facing tough choices in terms of costs (RIA Novosti, September 9). The caution in the defense ministry may reflect financial constraints, but it also highlights differences over procurement priorities.
Russia’s operations in Donbas and Syria contrast in ways that exemplify the mix between old and new currently denoting its military and improved capability. These operations demanded that forces and hardware deployed would be tailored to meet the unique features of the operational environment, but both rely heavily on dated systems and mostly old tactics. The level of financial waste impacting on military modernization is certain to provide a reality check on the Kremlin’s ambitions for building a modern and advanced fighting force. Most of what is now being termed “modern” in the equipment stocks represents no real breakthrough in technology, but upgraded Soviet-designed hardware. Yet, this tinkering around the edges of rearmament serves to instill fear in the country’s neighbors all too disposed to confuse capability with hostile intent.