May 21 marked the understated birthday celebration of Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, already the longest serving in the post since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. But the occasion also unexpectedly provided a public forum for a discussion of the current direction of the Armed Forces.
Following his appointment in November 2012, Shoigu has mirrored the overall aim of the commander-in-chief, President Vladimir Putin, to provide stability to the Russian military and enhance its status, while simultaneously building up hard-power capabilities through the constant attention to modernization. Much of the progress made during Shoigu’s term of office reflects decisions and ideas dating back to his predecessor; though the current defense minister’s survivability clearly reflects his close friendship with Putin (see EDM, February 5). One recent commentary in Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, published in conjunction with Shoigu’s birthday, specifically highlights his achievements (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, May 22).
While the defense minister’s birthday was officially downplayed, the public discussion on the image of the Armed Forces was encapsulated in the phrase mobilnaya, sovremennaya, effektivnaya (mobile, modern, efficient). The main accomplishment shepherded by Shoigu is the near-attainment of 70 percent new or modern weapons and equipment in the Armed Forces by the end of this year; the current official figure is 68.2 percent, and the defense ministry expresses confidence that the target is genuinely within reach. Many promised procurement systems are absent, including the much-publicized T-14 Armata tank (see EDM, May 6) and the Su-57 fifth-generation stealth fighter (see EDM, May 20), and there are numerous delays to submarine building, among many other platforms. Nevertheless, the real achievement since Shoigu’s appointment is the extent to which the military has successfully digitized the force structure with the procurement of modern radars, communications equipment, electronic warfare systems, robotics, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), and high-precision strike assets (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, May 22; see EDM, February 26, March 4, 13, April 29).
In this context, Shoigu believes that the Russian military needs to “develop and implement new, more effective ways of using troops in combat-training programs,” as well as to “continue to work to increase social security and maintain a decent standard of living for military personnel.” Prior to the COVID-19 coronavirus global pandemic, which has since been impacting Russia and its military, Shoigu stated that the main efforts in combat training this year would focus on conducting joint activities of the Ground Forces, Aerospace Forces, Military-Maritime Fleet (navy) and Airborne Forces in various regions, including in the Arctic. The emphasis was on improving training units staffed by contract soldiers (kontraktniki), teaching them how to counter cruise missiles, unmanned aerial vehicles, as well as tactical air, sea landing, reconnaissance and sabotage groups; protect against precision weapons; handle electronic warfare equipment; and organize joint training for UAV units and the crews of operational-tactical and army aviation. The overall message was on force integration. Yet, Shoigu and the defense ministry are now largely silent on how much of this can be done during the ongoing pandemic, raising the question as to whether 2020 will be a lost year for the Russian military (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, May 22).
In terms of the practical results achieved under Shoigu’s tenure at the head of the defense ministry, the commentary highlights the bloodless seizure of Crimea in 2014 and entry into the conflict in Syria the following year; it additionally asserts that the military helped stem the spread of COVID-19 in Russia, despite the ongoing crisis within the country, and that the Armed Forces aided Italy and Serbia during the pandemic (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, May 22). However, the figures for the spread of the virus within the Armed Forces are less than reliable, while efforts to keep up the business-as-usual appearance by staging smaller tactical-level training exercises offer no insight into how these are being safely carried out in line with the health restrictions to contain the spread of COVID-19 (see EDM, April 15).
While President Putin supports the message of his defense minister, even recently wrongly claiming that Russia is now a global leader in combat aviation, there are critical unanswered questions about the modernization of the submarine fleet. In a detailed analysis of the challenges facing the modernization of the Russian sub-surface fleet, retired 1st rank Captain (submariner) Vadim Kulinchenko highlights historical errors in maritime policy. Writing for Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, Kulinchenko notes, “In accordance with our defense doctrine, we need to maintain dominance in the near-sea zone—the Barents, Kara, Okhotsk, Japanese and Bering seas. First of all, it is extremely necessary to ensure the combat stability of the SSBN [nuclear ballistic missile submarine]. In simple terms, you need to save them from destruction. Black Sea and Baltic theaters without submarine forces are unthinkable. As the People’s Commissar of the USSR Nikolai Kuznetsov said, answering [Joseph] Stalin’s question whether we needed submarines in the Black Sea: “If we have 15–20 submarines in the Black Sea, we will gain dominance at sea!” (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, May 26).
Kulinchenko suggests the focus of the defense ministry’s effort to modernize the submarine fleet should cover strategic nuclear submarines, nuclear- and diesel-powered models, as well as the ultra-small versions for protecting underwater pipelines, drilling platforms and other offshore facilities. Kulinchenko concludes, “To this end, it is advisable to separately review the development program of the Russian navy in order to strengthen underwater shipbuilding in light of the new military doctrine [as well as] to develop measures to prevent the reduction of the combat potential of the Russian submarine fleet. Unfortunately, the existing shipbuilding program does not reflect the needs of submarine forces.” If his assessment is correct, the existing Russian submarine modernization is progressing in the wrong direction (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, May 26).
One area where Russian submarine development is offsetting other deficiencies is the effort to develop and introduce the Poseidon unmanned underwater vehicle, to be carried by nuclear-powered submarines as part of an “ocean multipurpose system.” The Poseidon was mentioned in Putin’s address to the Federal Assembly on March 1, 2018; it will carry both conventional and nuclear warheads, capable of destroying enemy infrastructure, aircraft carrier groups and other targets. The unmanned vehicle will reportedly have an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) range and an operational depth of up to one kilometer; its nuclear warhead will yield up to two megatons. The first test launch of the Poseidon is scheduled for September, from the Belgorod nuclear submarine (Rossyiskaya Gazeta, May 26; Lenta.ru, May 16). Such efforts lie at the heart of Shoigu’s vision for Russian military development.