Publication: Prism Volume: 2 Issue: 13

The Surprising Vitality of the Russian Defense Industry

By Stanislav Lunev

The current state of the Russian military-industrial complex (VPK)is attracting the attention of a growing number of Russian politicians,all of whom express concern for the unfortunate condition of Russianmilitary industry, which, in a vivid expression used in the Moscowpress, is like "Prometheus, whose liver was continually beingpecked away." (1) This "concern" over the country’smilitary-industrial complex, which includes thousands of enterprisesand millions of workers, technicians, and engineers, has a purelypractical reason behind it: to win over millions of votes.

According to the Russian press, there are more than two millionservicemen and civilians working directly in defense productionin the enterprises and installations of the VPK. (2) But if youtake into account the number of voters in the country’s forcestructures and in corporate formations closely connected withthe VPK, the total number of voters in this social group addsup to 35-36 million people.

The importance of this "defense vote" has finally beenrealized by the leadership of Russia’s present government as well,and its representatives have recently begun to show concern forthe problems of the Russian military industry, whose present plightis due, in large part, to this government’s own policies. Forexample, in April, Boris Yeltsin held a meeting with representativesof the Russian VPK, and promised state support for defense enterprisesin both domestic and foreign markets, if the military-industrialvote supported his candidacy. In a special statement approvedby the participants of this meeting, Yeltsin was promised thissupport. The statement also declared that a change of government,under present Russian conditions, was not only unnecessary, butdangerous. (3)

Several days later, the Russian president signed a decree on increasinggovernment control over the privatization of VPK enterprises,in order that it not harm the country’s national security. Pursuantto this decree, a special government commission was created, headedby First Deputy Premier Oleg Soskovets, which must prepare a listof defense enterprises that may not be privatized. (4)

The next day, a plan to transform the State Committee on the DefenseIndustry into a ministry was approved by President Boris Yeltsin.(5) Oleg Soskovets, commenting on this event, said that this reorganizationwould enable not only a modernization of the country’s weaponssystems and military reform, but wider economic reform as well.(6) In the future, Oleg Soskovets noted, the Russian governmentwill concentrate its attention on increasing arms exports, includingto China and India, and on the restoration of a powerful moderninfrastructure, especially for aircraft production.

And on the eve of May 9, Victory Day, there followed a whole seriesof presidential decrees, according to which, the State Committeeon the Defense Industry was officially transformed into the Ministryof the Defense Industry, and seven military-industrial enterprisesreceived the right to export arms. (7) And in addition, it wasannounced that 24 more Russian military-industrial enterpriseswere at the stage of applying for the same right.

At the same time, the Russian president himself was drawn intothe campaign to demonstrate support for the VPK. In his visitto the Kapustin Yar testing grounds near the Volga, Yeltsin promisedthat he would exercise direct personal control over the defenseindustry. He also expressed complete satisfaction with new missiles,which were created by Russian specialists and demonstrated tohim on the testing grounds under conditions of complete secrecy.These missiles have no counterparts in the West and will be animportant component in the arsenal of Russia’s armed forces inthe coming millennium.

And this gives rise to a question: are things really as bad inthe Russian VPK as the politicians and the mass media say theyare? It is true that Russia’s VPK is not what it once was. Russiainherited the biggest and most modern part of the USSR’s defenseindustry while the smaller and more technically-backward partwas divided among the other former Soviet republics. But contraryto the charges of the opponents of the present Kremlin regime,one cannot say that the Russian government has done nothing todevelop the country’s military-industrial complex. And this isespecially significant at a time when traditional democratic countries,inspired by their victory in the Cold War, are beginning to dismantletheir own military-industrial infrastructure, which is far harderto restore than the armed forces themselves.

It is worth noting that privatization, so widely acclaimed inthe West and for which Russia has received significant financialaid, has left defense enterprises almost untouched. And even ifan enterprise directly or indirectly involved in defense is privatized,it is only under conditions which leave a controlling packet ofshares in the hands of the state or the government. This has madeit possible to preserve strict centralized control over the activitiesof the Russian VPK and over the development and production ofnew types of modern weapons systems.

Contrary to the current opinion that there is a deep crisis inthe military industry, caused by a severe shortage of funding,the Russian government has given the VPK regular material andfinancial support (and no small amount of it.) This helped itto live through the lean years from 1992 to 1995. It is true thata significant amount of the money allocated by the governmentwas simply stolen, and only rarely reached the intended enterprisescompletely intact. But even the amount of money which reachedits intended recipients allowed the Russian VPK to preserve itsability to supply not only its own armed forces, but even thoseof other countries, with various types of modern weapons systems.

But the achievements of the Russian VPK are not widely touted;if they were, it would be rather difficult for Moscow to explainwhy Russia was asking for new credits and loans, and for extensionsin the deadline for interest payments on old ones, which, by theway, will be left for future generations to repay. But these achievementsexist, and have to do with the development and production of newtypes of weapons systems, both conventional weapons and weaponsof mass destruction.

In particular, according to the Commander-in-Chief of StrategicMissile Forces, Col. Gen. Igor Sergeev, this year, the RussianVPK began mass production of the "Topol-M" modernizedmobile strategic missile system, which has no counterpart anywherein the world. (8) As the Russian general noted, with the introductionof this system, Russia will have the only national strategic missilesystem with a balanced structure of mobile and silo-based land-basedmissiles.

It is well-known that the "Topol" strategic mobile missilesystem, though not as accurate as the former Soviet silo-basedmissiles, is extremely mobile and hard to catch and destroy withenemy missiles. And moreover, this system could be used, not onlyfor strategic goals, but also for operational and tactical goalsto secure various operations by ground forces in place of themissiles destroyed in compliance with the INF Treaty.

As was reported on Russian television, last fall, the RussianVPK "surprised the world once again with its outstandingachievements in the military field. At the Central Testing Groundof the Ministry of Defense, under the leadership of Chief of theGeneral Staff, General of the Army Mikhail Kolesnikov, a new typeof experimental operational-tactical missile was launched. Thenew mobile missile complex was distinguished by unprecedentedaccuracy, a high degree of reliability, and maneuverability."According to Gen. Kolesnikov, the new missile system, which willbe supplied to the ground forces in two years, is a "21st-centuryweapon." (9)

The Russian VPK has developed, and is now putting into production,other new weapons systems which have no equals, or even counterparts,in the world. For example, the famous S-300 antiaircraft missilecomplex, which is substantially superior to the well-known AmericanPatriot missile system, is being supplied, with various modifications,to the Russian ground forces, antiaircraft defense forces, andnavy. And last year, at the Kubinka testing ground, at the celebrationof the 75th anniversary of the production of the first Russiantank, there was a demonstration of the new T-90 tank, which willcome out in the near future. (10) This tank, which weighs 46.5tons and is equipped for a crew of three people, is armed witha powerful 125-millimeter cannon.

The achievements of the Russian military aviation industry, whichis actively exploiting the improvement in ties with the West tomodernize its own production base, have become reasonably well-known.For example, on March 21 of this year, there was the first flightof the MiG-AT trainer, which was created by Russian specialistsin cooperation with French firms, which built the engines andinstruments. The unique characteristic of this plane is that thatit can be used to train pilots both for the Russian MiG-29 andSu-27 fighters, and for the foreign Mirage-2000, Rafale, Eurofighter-2000,F-15, F-16, and F-18 fighters, among others. This opens the roadfor the export of the MiG-AT to countries which use the aforementionedfighters.

In addition, specialists from the Russian VPK have found waysto modernize "old" Soviet warplanes which were supplied,in their time, to the armed forces of various countries. For example,this March an agreement was signed between Russia and India, accordingto which 150 Indian MiG-21 fighters will be modernized by Russianspecialists into the newest version of this fighter — the MiG-21-93.(11) According to a statement made by a representative of theMikoyan construction bureau and confirmed by independent experts,the MiG-21-93 is equal to the French Mirage-2000 fighter, andslightly outperforms the American F-16, in medium-range battles.But in dogfights, the MiG-21-93, whose maiden flight took placeon May 25, 1995, from the airport of the "Sokol" AviationFactory in Nizhny Novgorod, outperforms the American F-16 fourto one.

It is well-known that the Russian navy has only one aircraft carrier,or rather, an effective hybrid of a powerful missile cruiser anda floating airport. The Russian navy also has nuclear cruiserswith a displacement of 25,860 tons, which is almost double theAmerican standard. Incidentally, the nuclear missile cruiser "Peterthe Great," which is now being completed on an acceleratedschedule on the Petersburg docks, and will be commissioned thisyear, will be the most powerful cruiser in the world. And thereis already a special designation for Russian nuclear ballisticand guided missile submarines — they are called "underseastrategic missile cruisers" since the famous "Typhoon-class"submarines have a displacement of 28,000 tons, which is more thanthat of nuclear-powered surface cruisers. The newest nuclear attacksubmarines, on the other hand, are smaller than their Americancounterparts and can reach a speed of 40-42 knots, which Americansubmarines will not soon match.

Contrary to the statements of Russian officials that Russia isnot building any new nuclear submarines, the foreign and Russianpress report that they are being built on the same schedule asexisted in the USSR’s last years of existence, and in the nextcentury, Moscow will have the largest nuclear fleet in the world.(12) It is worth noting that if the former Soviet Union had over300 nuclear submarines at the end of the Cold War, and the U.S.,around 150, by the year 2000, Russia will have 80 nuclear and40 diesel submarines left. But the quality of these Russian submarineshas improved so much that the "small" 21st century fleetwill be much stronger than that of the fleet during the Cold War.

Likewise, contrary to the numerous and well-publicized promisesby Russian leaders to convert the Russian defense industry tocivilian purposes (a process which the West has already spentbillions of dollars in trying to assist), very little, if anything,has been done in this area. According to reports in the Russianpress, in 1992, only 42 percent of the expenditures required underthe conversion program approved by the government were funded,in 1993, only 22 percent, in 1994, only 10 percent, and no furtherexpenditures were even provided for in the 1995 draft budget presentedby the Ministry of Economics at the end of 1994. (13)

In this regard, the Russian VPK, deprived of defense industryconversion funds, is looking for a way to increase purely militaryproduction and to expand market demand for its production. Naturally,they will find outlets in the armies of countries who need thisproduction and cannot obtain it from traditional democratic countries,who refrain from arming dubious regimes. Russia will expand themarket for its military production by selling arms to such countriesas Cuba, North Korea, Libya, Iraq, Iran, and China. The West’salarm at the increase of arms shipments to these countries issimply ignored by the Russian government, which prefers lettingnegotiations break down, as happened in Vienna in April, to disclosingthe true figures on Russian arms sales to Cuba, North Korea, andIran. (14)

If, in the 1980s, the former USSR sold 15-20 billion dollars worthof arms per year, these dollars were purely hypothetical, sincethe so-called "fraternal" countries paid, for the mostpart, in barter, if they paid at all. But at the present time,Russian arms sales are made for real money, convertible currency,and for more and more of it each year. So, if in 1994, Russiatook in 1.71 million dollars in income from arms sales abroad(15), and 3 billion dollars in 1995, this year, according to Russianofficials, Russia already has orders from various countries for7 billion dollars worth of arms. (16)

In the future, the leadership of the Russian VPK, including formerFirst Deputy General Director of Rosvooruzhenie, AdmiralSergei Oslikovsky, calculates that the Russian military industrycan sell 12-15 billion dollars of arms a year, "if our Ministryof Foreign Affairs is able to get the embargo lifted from ourtrading partners, Iraq and Libya," and if Moscow can withstand"the dishonest trade practices of American arms exportersand Washington’s political pressure." (17)

In the words of Sergei Svechnikov, the chairman of the State Committeeon Military and Technical Policy, the world arms market has shrunkfrom 45 billion dollars in the 1980s to 25 billion at present.In this connection, he remarked, the Russian VPK cannot expectany large orders, especially since "the Americans and otherforeigners are trying, any way they can, to interfere with exportersfrom Russia." But, he added, the Russian side is "developingties with its traditional partners: contracts are being renewedwith Eastern Europe, and a breakthrough has been made into new[arms] markets — Greece, South Korea, Malaysia, and others."(18)

This casts doubt on the assertions of Russian politicians andthe mass media regarding the "unfortunate" and "hopeless"situation of the Russian military industry in 1992-1995. The Russianmilitary-industrial complex exists as a unified state military-industrialmachine, which continues to impress the world with its achievementsin the development and production of the most modern weapons systems.

The government is allocating funds for its development, and inaddition, the VPK itself is receiving significant dividends fromarms sales to other countries. The VPK has not only a chance tosurvive, but even to impress the world once again with the developmentof future weapons systems. And then the only question will be:whom will these new weapons, created by Russian defense industryspecialists, serve, and to what end?


1. Pravda-5, No. 16, 1995

2. Novoye vremya, No. 13, 1996

3. Monitor, April 12, 1996

4. Reuter, April 15, 1996

5. Interfax, April 16, 1996

6. Which, to this day, does not exist, even in the form of a documentapproved by the parliament. (Author’s note)

7. ORT [Russian Public Television], May 8, 1996

8. Interfax, November 17, 1995

9. ORT, October 27, 1995

10. Moskovskaya pravda, No. 165, 1995

11. Biznes-segodnya, No. 14, 1996

12. Novoye vremya, No. 36, 1995

13. Pravda-5, No. 16, 1995

14. Reuter, April 4, 1996

15. Segodnya, No. 223, 1995

16. Monitor, April 15, 1996

17. Segodnya, November 24, 1995

18. Segodnya, No. 223, 1995

Translated by Mark Eckert