Publication: Prism Volume: 3 Issue: 7

Russia’s surprisingly resilient military-industrial complex

By Stanislav Lunev

A strange situation has taken shape today in the Russian military-industrial complex (MIC). On the one hand, the representatives of this complex, supported by nationalistically-minded legislators and the radical press, are expressing alarm at the ostensibly calamitous situation of the Russian defense industry, which allegedly finds itself on the brink of complete collapse. On the other hand, in spite of truly dramatic budget cuts in this sector of the economy, Russia’s MIC continues to function and not only guarantees a supply of relatively modern weapons systems to the armed forces of the Russian Federation and a whole series of newly-independent states, but is also working for the future, continuing to amaze the world with its new designs in the most promising weapons systems.

In this regard, it must be noted that arms production in Russia continues out of inertia, from the legacy inherited from the former USSR, and is based neither on the country’s military doctrine (a new doctrine has not yet been worked out and the old one is no longer in force) nor on any fundamental theory of modern military construction. The activity of the MIC is dominated by the unsystematic and virtually aimless growth in the output of traditional weapons systems, produced in particular for the ground forces, on which the Soviet military leaders relied most of all and on which the present Russian military leaders continue to rely.

For example, production of armored vehicles continues despite the fact that their poor quality no longer shocks anyone in the Russian army. As the Russian press noted, in commenting on the results of the recent war in Chechnya, Russian armored vehicles in Grozny were destroyed because they were completely unfit for military operations. T-72 and T-80 tanks went into the city with their flanks unprotected. Specialists maintain that losses of armored vehicles were proportionately greater in Grozny than they were during the capture of Berlin in 1945. (1)

The final document produced by the Special Military Council on the Use of Armored Vehicles in the War in Chechnya cited some damaging statistics. First, the report admitted that Russian military equipment and weaponry were insufficient, in both quality and quantity, for the mission that the ground forces faced. Moreover, the report expressed no confidence that the situation would be corrected even by 2005. Second, the personnel who serviced and repaired this military equipment and weaponry lacked the proper training. Finally, existing weapons systems cannot guarantee that Russia will be able to conduct military operations effectively on a large scale, or even, as the experience of Chechnya shows, in local conflicts.

The MIC’s production for the Russian navy is of approximately the same quality, if not worse. The magazine Ogonek reports that, although Russia has not yet adopted a military doctrine, an enormous piece of the budget pie has apparently already been chopped off and the MIC has already started building a new series of nuclear submarines. The ceremony celebrating the beginning of work on this new generation of nuclear missile submarines took place last fall in Severodvinsk, and Anatoly Chubais and Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov presided at the event as "godfathers." (2) Well, it’s clear why Luzhkov attended. He is always talking about either defending or liberating "traditional Russian land, for which Russian blood was shed." But why Chubais? Oh, yes! Unused productive capacity, workers without their salaries, the threat of a social explosion, etc. etc. We’ve heard all that before. The mass media, which usually count every last penny, this time, did not even ask the natural question — how many trillions of rubles did this last adventure of the admirals cost the taxpayers?

Expressing doubt as to the expediency of this development in naval shipbuilding, Ogonek noted that little had changed over the period of perestroika and reforms; just as little has changed in the logic of the Russian MIC itself, whose interests remain the same: to produce as many weapons and as much equipment as possible, even though the country is no longer in any condition to service, repair, or even store all of it. Even when there is no more space in the mooring places, in the docks, or even in the "ships’ cemeteries," the cry is still the same: "Give us funding!" For example, the navy used to have five heavy aircraft carriers. Four of them have now either already been decommissioned or are rotting under endless repair. But judging from their age alone, all four ships could still be in service. In other words, the arithmetic goes like this: "Let’s build five aircraft carriers so that we’ll have one left in operation."

Moreover, of Russia’s four heavy atomic missile cruisers, three of them, from all indications, are ready to be scrapped. The last, the Petr Velikii (Peter the Great), has taken ten years to build instead of the projected four. There would have been virtually no hope of completing construction had it not been for Boris Yeltsin’s visit to St. Petersburg between the two rounds of the presidential election last summer. While on his visit to the cruiser under construction, Yeltsin set aside additional money, thereby giving the admirals a last expensive toy. But they broke it: a serious accident during performance tests in the Baltic Sea has put the fate of this ship as well in question.

Trying to find some sort of logic in the activities of Russian military politicians, Ogonek quoted some statements of one of the MIC’s lobbyists, Rear Adm. Valery Aleksin, according to whom, "a military doctrine, for Russia, is a program for solving concrete problems of construction, training, and application of armed forces, not only to prevent war, but also to repel sudden aggression and to defeat it under any circumstances." So that the reader will have no more doubts about who the enemy is, here is another quotation from the same speaker: "We simply can’t let American aircraft carriers go around all over the ocean without being watched. And therefore, our fleet is also choosing [to build] aircraft carriers." Having a population only 60 percent of America’s, and a GDP approximately 16 percent of America’s, at what price does Admiral Aleksin want to "defeat" this enemy? (3)

But one cannot say that everything is going badly in the Russian MIC either. For example, in spite of certain funding problems, airplane and missile construction are developing successfully, new forms and systems of weapons of mass destruction are being created, and arms are also being produced for the world market. In the last case, the unprincipled attitude of the Russian leadership in its choice of partners in arms deals (mostly countries with, to put it mildly, authoritarian regimes, including Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Cuba, and others) is striking. Naturally, it causes the Western democracies some uneasiness.

Russian arms producers are also increasing their presence in such potentially enormous arms markets as, for example, the People’s Republic of China (PRC). As well as fulfilling current contracts to supply the Chinese military with aircraft and other equipment, Russian arms manufacturers are seeking to sell Russia’s rich southern neighbor the most modern weapons systems, including weapons for China’s ground and naval forces. In particular, Itar-Tass reported on March 31, China intends to acquire Russian air defense systems, including the most modern "Tor-M1" self-propelled surface-to-air missile complexes, which NATO calls SA-15s and which are made by the Antei concern, and some "Tunguska" anti-aircraft artillery complexes.

In December 1996, Russia agreed to sell China some of the most modern Russian Sovremennik-class destroyers and to modernize the weapons and guidance systems on other ships of this type. The Chinese side is also showing special interest in the production of the Tulamashzavod corporation — the AK-396 automatic artillery complex with which small warships are equipped.

Until recently, Russian arms exports were conducted under the official control or, more accurately, with the connivance of the central authorities. Now, however, the tendency of local arms producers to escape from Moscow’s tutelage and to reap the dividends from this rather profitable business is becoming more and more obvious. As more and more Russian regions declare themselves sovereign republics, subordinate to the central government only in certain respects, it is becoming more and more difficult for Moscow to rein in these tendencies and to block arms deals by enterprises in the Urals, Siberia, Tatarstan, and other regions.

In spite of the fact that the defense sector is not going through its best times, Tatarstan had its own stand at the "IDEX-97" exhibition in Abu Dhabi in March and showcased fourteen defense plants. Tatarstan’s participation in this demonstration of military technology looked rather solid. The republic’s potential was particularly clear at the aviation industry’s exposition, at which the Gorbunov Aviation Production Facility in Kazan demonstrated a model of the Tu-214 aircraft.

As always happens at such events, there was great interest in Abu Dhabi in the day and night observation equipment, unique optical sights, heat-vision equipment, and other examples of the production of the Kazan Optical-Mechanical Factory (KOMZ) and the State Institute of Applied Optics. The Gorky plant in Zelenodolsk offered potential buyers warships, including frigates and "Terrier" patrol cutters, and the "Linda" and "Meteor" passenger ships.

The Kazan engine-builders offered various types of engines, including one of their most promising models — the NK-93 airplane engine. The Tatarstan enterprises also exhibited a sea-, air-, and land-based recognition system, avionics for military and civilian aircraft, and ammunition. Several pre-contract documents were signed at the exhibition, including one regarding the sale of 120 KamAZ trucks to the Defense Ministry of the United Arab Emirates, a business partnership between the Gorky Shipbuilding Plant in Zelenodolsk and the Arab side, and on supplying a number of Gulf states (Qatar, Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates) with binoculars and other equipment. There were offers from Jordan and several other Arab countries to form joint ventures with Tatarstan to produce arms and military equipment.

The competitiveness of Kazan’s aviation technology on the world market was proven by the signing in March of Tatarstan’s fourth $100 million contract to supply Egypt with a shipment of Mi-17 military transport helicopters. But the Kazan aircraft manufacturers intend to place a new model on the market and to put a new multi-purpose helicopter into production this year. Participants in Abu Dhabi could already see the "Ansat," and gave it high reviews.

Built with the participation of their traditional partners (one of the branches of the Mil design bureau, the "Permskie motory" corporation, the Voskhod design bureau, and others), the "Ansat" helicopter conforms in its technical and maintenance characteristics to the highest world standards. Powered by a Pratt & Whitney gas turbine engine, this helicopter has a maximum take-off weight of 3.3 tons and a lifting capacity of 1.3 tons; with a full set of fuel tanks, it can achieve a range of 580 kilometers. The helicopter is driven by one pilot, and can carry up to nine passengers. The factory’s specialists intend to build 600 to 900 of these helicopters by theyear 2000.

The entrance of this little helicopter on the domestic and world markets will inevitably meet with stiff competition from leading Western firms. In particular, from the American company Bell, which is presently negotiating to sell its helicopters to Kazakstan. The Polish "Sokol," built on the basis of the Soviet "Mi-2," is moving forward quite actively in the markets of the near-abroad, and the Kamov design bureau is offering customers a new version of the "K-26." In this situation, the Kazan helicopter builders intend to defend their place in the sun, not only by the high quality of their production, but also by its moderate price. An "Ansat" costs about $1.7 million, which is almost half the price of similar helicopters made in America and elsewhere in the West.

At the same time, Russian arms producers are fulfilling not only the limited orders from their own military, but foreign orders as well. According to press reports, the first KVD-1 liquid-fuel rocket engine for the Indian "GSLV" three-stage rocket passed fire tests at the Scientific Research Institute for Chemical Machine Building (in Novostroika in Moscow oblast). (4) The system of cryogenic acceleration blocks (KRB) with the KVD-1 engine makes it possible for Indian rockets to carry a payload of 2.5 tons into geostationary orbit. When it completes this project, India could become the fifth country, after the US, Russia, China, and France, which can commercially launch satellites into space. The KRB, developed by the Khrunichev State Space Scientific-Production Center, can be used in future Russian rocket-vehicles as well.

It is difficult to predict the course of the Russian MIC’s further development, but one can already discern a clear tendency towards modernization and adaptation to the Russian leadership’s current needs. If the promises of Russian leaders to stabilize the economic situation are ever realized, priority will gradually shift to long-term research and development and design work on the most promising weapons systems, implementing their results, producing them and supplying them to the Russian armed forces. In both the near and the foreseeable future, however, the Russian MIC will continue to produce systems which have already been developed, both to supply them to the Russian armed forces and for export to other countries, where there continues to be a substantial demand for these former Soviet weapons.

The question of preventing arms supplies to authoritarian regimes and terrorist and extremist groups is important from a political and strategic point of view. A positive resolution of this issue depends on the activity of the highest levels of the Russian military and political leadership. Until now, as the widely-discussed deal to supply surface-to-air missiles to Iran showed, Russian leaders have either turned a blind eye to such shipments, for opportunistic reasons, or have pretended to have no knowledge of the existence of such a problem. (5) And while arms production for the Russian army is a purely internal matter, arms shipments to other countries, many of which are rather dubious in character, are an international matter and do not speak well of the Russian leadership’s activity in observing its [international] obligations.


1. Ogonek, No. 50, 1996

2. Ogonek, No. 48, 1996

3. Ibid.

4. Interfax, April 1, 1997

5. Washington Times, April 17 and 18, 1997

Translated by Mark Eckert

Stanislav Lunev was formerly a colonel in Soviet military intelligence [GRU].