Russian Military Complex: Results of 2013 and Expectations for 2014

Russia has been the runner-up on the global arms market for three years now. Soviet and Russian weapons are referred to in the West as “simple and deadly.” It is comfortable to serve on German submarines, but Soviet and Russian submarines are better for fighting. But this is changing. Russia’s current demographic trends will compel it to follow the Western road, investing in higher technology and producing fewer arms.

Performance of the arms market

Russia has been the runner-up on the global arms market for three years now. Moreover, it has maintained this position despite growing competition. In addition to the many advanced Western and Eastern countries that have retained huge defense industries as a Cold War legacy, a number of new players have emerged on the market during the last ten years, such as South Korea and Turkey, which were net arms importers for a long time but are now exporters. Many more countries will soon join the ranks of exporters, such as Singapore.

The arms market is highly competitive, with too many sellers offering expensive goods and very few buyers prepared to spend a lot of money. There is no rush to buy weapons in times of peace. Brazil’s ten-year tender for the purchase of fighters is a classic example. It was annulled twice. At one point, it seemed like Brazil would purchase Russian fighters, but then the French models became technically superior. Eventually Brazil bought Swedish fighters.

The year 2013 on the arms market stood out for its supplies and transfers and for the signing of new contracts.

The transfer of the INS Vikramaditya to the Indian Navy was the highlight of the year. This was truly an unprecedented event. Aircraft carriers are sold once in a decade. Russia received $2.33 billion for this ship. The transfer was not limited to the ship though and included 45 aircraft and MIG-29 deck fighters and a helicopter group for a total of about $2.5 billion, bringing the price tag to about five billion dollars. In addition, Russia and India have already decided to establish a joint venture, so the Vikramaditya will continue to earn Russia money for the next 40 years of its operation. The deal is also important as an image booster and politically. An aircraft carrier of this class, with horizontal takeoff and landing, has never been transferred before. This is the world’s biggest aircraft carrier built for export.

The estimated $4 billion in contracts signed by Russia and Iraq had important political dimensions. Just two years ago, it seemed that Iraq had a puppet government that was dependent on the United States. But Iraq’s Shiite-led government has shown its independence by signing this package deal for Russian helicopters and air defense systems.

In January 2013, Russia agreed to grant Bangladesh a loan for one billion dollars to purchase Russian arms. This is noteworthy because Bangladesh is a relatively new client, having only purchased Russian armored personnel carriers and MIG-29 fighters in the past. A notable fact is that Russia granted a loan to promote its weapons abroad.

It is important to remember that arms trade, referred to as military-technical cooperation (MTC) in Russian legislation, is often the first step in bilateral relations. For a long time, Russia had no contacts with Venezuela. The political rise of Hugo Chavez opened up new opportunities, and cooperation started with MTC. Usually MTC is followed by other projects. Some are high-tech. For instance, Russia now is building nuclear power plants in Bangladesh. Other projects may involve oil and gas or agriculture, as is the case with Egypt. When a country buys weapons from another, it becomes dependent on the seller, and so countries don’t buy weapons from countries they don’t trust. Russia counts over 70 countries as customers, including 50 that regularly buy weapons on a large scale. This is a good indicator of confidence in Russia.

The French and Russian economies are comparable in size. And though it has a better image and greater appeal, France has sustained one setback after another on the arms market, be it supplies of aircraft, surface ships or tanks. The AMX-13 tank was once the best selling tank in the world, and yet France managed to sell its last generation Leclerc tank to only one country, the United Arab Emirates, as a part of a deal that was accompanied by corruption scandals, kickbacks and quality problems. Clearly, Russia carries more weight than France as a weapons producer.

Although Western arms have always been high-tech, they are designed for Western servicemen. Historically and genetically our military technology is geared toward a Soviet (Russian) mentality, production culture and warfare skills. Soviet and Russian weapons are referred to in the West as “simple and deadly.” It is comfortable to serve on German submarines, but Soviet and Russian submarines are better for fighting. If you collide with a rock, it is better to be in a Soviet (Russian) sub. But this is changing. Russia’s current demographic trends will compel it to follow the Western road, investing in higher technology and producing fewer arms.

Defense industry

It is important that the president, the government and the defense ministry realize that a strong army cannot exist without a strong defense industry, that they are related. You can’t just go and buy weapons at a shopping mall like ordinary consumer goods. Problems in light industry or agriculture do not threaten the independence, identity or territorial integrity of a state. If we can’t grow good tomatoes, we buy them from Spain or Israel. But when you do not have your own weapons for your soldiers or a country will not sell them to you for its own reasons or because of US pressure, you will find yourself in a difficult position. Lack of weapons was a source of tremendous problems for the Russian imperial army at the beginning of World War I.

Obviously, the defense industry must be upgraded simultaneously with the army reforms. It is currently in the process of restructuring. The federal budget allocates money both to the military and the defense industry to keep them in the same boat. The conflict between the defense industry and the Defense Ministry was fairly acute in 2011-2012. It was less pronounced in 2013.

Needless to say, there are always disputes over costs, quality and deadlines between buyers and sellers: the military wants to buy more for less, and as quickly as possible, whereas industry wants to make less for more. This conflict was exacerbated by subjective factors under former Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov. Now that Sergei Shoigu has taken over, the conflict has abated considerably. The debates continue but in a much more respectful manner now. After all, both sides are working for the sake of Russia’s national security, and mutual respect is a must.

Existing problems in education, healthcare and infrastructure, coupled with the absence of the threat of war, are creating a strong temptation to slash the defense budget and dole out the money to voters. But this would be cheap populism. As we know, if you don’t feed your army, you are feeding someone else’s. It is good that the government is determined to see the army reforms through.

The Russian Empire and the Soviet Union both had a weakness for firepower and did not pay much attention to communications, reconnaissance, and command and control, which can’t be flaunted during military parades. Now we are seeing a change. The government is not only concerned about Uralvagonzavod, whose workers supported Putin, but also Ruselectronics and Radioelectronic Technologies Concern, which produce less flashy but not less important communications equipment and means of electronic warfare. They are receiving funding too, because if a new generation of aircraft does not have radar it will be an idle toy incapable of fulfilling its mission.

In another major development in the defense industry last year, the Russian Navy received its first two Project 955 Borei-class strategic nuclear missile submarines (SSBN). The lead vessel, the Yuriy Dolgorukiy , was put into service in January, and the first batch-produced Alexander Nevsky was commissioned in December. Formally, the two submarines have been incorporated into the Navy, but a series of Bulava missile launches must be performed before they are sent on patrol missions. However, the bulk of technical and organizational risks have been eliminated. But this serious program is very difficult to execute in post-Soviet conditions.

Another major new-generation lead vessel – the SSBN Severodvinsk – was adopted by the Navy at the end of 2013 (although its construction started in 1991). This submarine paves the way to upgrading the non-strategic submarine fleet.

In 2013, the Air Force and the Navy also received 72 war planes based on a new design, including 44 combat aircraft – 14 Su-34 tactical bombers, 14 SU-30SM fighters, 12 Su-35S fighters, four MIG-29K/KUB deck fighters, 18 Yak-130 combat trainer aircraft, one Tu-214ON surveillance plane, and nine cargo-cum-passenger aircraft (one Tu-154M, three An-140s, one An-148 and four L-410s). This is a high number by modern standards. Only the United States and China buy more. If we had had this equipment in 2008 during the peace enforcement operation in Georgia, the war would have ended in two and a half days instead of five, resulting in fewer casualties.

Russia continued building up the number of helicopters in its armed forces last year. Their number surpassed one hundred, almost matching the Soviet level.

Foreign and defense policy

Before 2013 – an interesting year in world politics – Russia seemed strategically isolated, without enemies or friends. We had constant tensions even with our two closest military allies, Belarus and Armenia.

This was uncharacteristic, as both the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union had their own “families.” The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 brought hard times, but now it appears that we have moral leadership. For all its shortcomings, Russia holds a position based on principles that we won’t compromise. It is heartening to see post-Soviet countries and states from farther afield turning toward Russia. Japan wants to pursue dialogue with us again, including on military issues. China is very interested in upgrading our strategic partnership. It is clear that most states support our role in the world and want Russia to be a strong and stable country with an independent foreign policy. Only a few countries are critical of us.

Since 1991 and Operation Desert Storm, decisions regarding individual countries were made by a select few countries without UN sanction. This has been the case with Syria, and before that Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic and Muammar Qaddafi. In July 2012, the media reported that Bashar al-Assad would only be able to hang on for a few more weeks; by the fall of 2012 it was several months; and in February 2013 his regime was supposed to fall before the end of the year. Assad stayed in power in 2013 owing to Russia. Financial support from China also played a role, as did the manpower supplied by Iran. However, Russia played the main political and logistical role and saved the doomed regime. This was a stunning foreign policy victory, and we probably do not fully realize what new role Russia will play in 2014.

Once again there is a world power providing an alternative to a hegemon drunk on its own power and supremacy.

For a long time, we were under the spell of Atlanticism and Eurocentrism when we looked at the West. In the last few years, especially in 2013, we realized that we are not only a European but also an Asia-Pacific country. Now that the global economy and politics are turning to Asia, especially Southeast Asia, should we seek to win the affection of semi-bankrupt European states? Vietnam is ready to embrace us; China wants to be friends, Indonesia and India… We believe these are the countries of the future, not European states where homosexuality, drug addiction and other deviant lifestyles are rampant.

Prospects for 2014

Based on the available evidence, the positive trends of the past year will persist in Russia’s armed forces and defense industry.

Russia will continue promoting MTC with foreign states. It is fully capable of maintaining the high bar set both in supplies and new contracts. There are grounds to expect a new surge of Russian exports to China. The two countries have been working for a long time on new contracts for the purchase of the latest Russian armaments – 24 Su-35 fighters and S-400 air defense missile systems. Russia is likely to sign new important contracts with Algeria and Vietnam. It is also expected to commence large-scale supplies of military hardware to Iraq and to continue selling considerable amounts of arms to India.

The beginning of large-scale trials of advanced armored platforms for the Land Forces is expected to be a major event in the Russian defense industry. This applies to the Armata heavy caterpillar platform (both for tanks and APCs); the Kurganets-25 medium caterpillar platform (IFVs and APCs), the Boomerang medium wheeled platform (APCs) and a family of advanced artillery systems led by the Coalition self-propelled gun. This will be the first step towards fundamentally re-equipping the Land Forces in almost half a century – since the adoption of the T-64 and T-72 tanks and the IFV-1.

Russia is planning to make a breakthrough on its fifth generation AAS TA (T-50) fighter by increasing the number of fully configured T-50 flight models and starting official testing. Russia is supplying the Air Force with increasingly more batch-produced aircraft, both combat and auxiliary. In 2014, the Air Force may receive up to 100 aircraft, including nearly 60 war planes.

The Russian Navy will receive up to 40 new ships, motor boats and auxiliary vessels, including the Project 955 Alexander Nevsky strategic SSBN, the Project 06363 Novorossiysk lead diesel electric SSBN, and the Vladivostok landing helicopter dock (LHD), the lead of the two Mistral ships that is being completed by France. The first new-generation Project 22350 frigate, the Admiral Gorshkov , is also expected to undergo trials.

Russia will continue upgrading and developing its strategic nuclear forces as well. In 2014, it will probably demonstrate considerable results in advanced programs on the latest arms – from network-centric systems to large drones. It will also speed up delivery of modern systems to the armed forces.

Nevertheless, the current slowdown in Russia’s economy is a potential threat to the development of its defense industry. Therefore, the continuation of many positive trends in this field directly depends on the ability of the Russian government to take effective measures to restore economic growth in the country. This is the main challenge of 2014.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.