Not So Scary: This Is Why Russia's Military Is a Paper Tiger
While Moscow’s military adventure in Syria shows that its forces have improved markedly since their near collapse in the mid-1990s, Russian military forces still have many weaknesses.
While select portions of the Russian military—most notably the Strategic Missile Forces, airborne forces and naval infantry—have been extensively modernized, other forces still rely on ill trained conscripts and dilapidated hardware held over from the Soviet-era. In other words, Russia’s military modernization has been uneven at best.
In the years immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian military spending bottomed out. Readiness collapsed and the Russian defense industrial base essentially fell apart—along with the rest of society. Since then during the late 1990s and early 2000s, Russian leaders would often pronounce periodically that they would reform their military, but they took very little action to actually implement such changes. The result was two disastrous domestic debacles in Chechnya and ultimately Russia’s embarrassing performance during the 2008 Georgian conflict.
Part of the problem was a lack of money, but much of it stemmed from Russia’s reliance on poorly trained and motivated conscripts. The Soviet Union would man each army division with only about fifty to seventy-five percent of its full combat strength. When war was imminent, the Soviets would undertake a mobilization drill and call up reservists. But it would take time to bring reservist and conscripts onboard to fill out such forces. While the Soviet system worked well enough during the Cold War, it is not well suited to the modern era. As such, for Russia’s short-notice actions in Georgia, it had to assemble ad hoc forces out of those units that had troops available. As one might imagine—it was a disaster. While Russia still won due to the sheer size of its forces, it should have be been an easy victory.
The Russian military has started to reform after the Georgia conflict—but only small portions of its forces have transitioned to the “new model.” More than two-thirds of Russia’s armed forces—particularly the ground forces—still follow the old Soviet conscript model and are still armed with increasingly decrepit Soviet-era hardware. Even the majority of Russia’s forces fighting in Syria are using modernized hardware from the 1970s.
Russia has started to move to a professional force, but the transition will take time to complete. Only about a quarter of Russian ground forces are fully staffed, well-trained professional troops. Those professional soldiers—who are not quite trained to Western standards—are part of a corps of rapid reaction forces. The Russians have also taken steps to overhaul training and professional military education, based on a Western model. They have also made many organizational changes—the Kremlin cut the military’s bloated headquarters staff, command and control was streamlined and logistics have been improved. Further, many old Soviet-era division-sized formations were cut and reformed into fully staffed combat brigades that are similar in concept to a U.S. Army brigade combat team. But the reforms are incomplete and will remain so for years to come—especially as Russia’s economy continues to face massive challenges thanks to low oil prices and sanctions.
While Russia is slowly addressing its biggest weakness—training, organization and readiness—the country’s defense industry is a shadow of its Soviet forbearer. The Russian defense-industrial base has markedly atrophied since the Soviet collapse in 1991. The country fell behind in many crucial technological areas, particularly during the 1990s. For example, the Russians are well behind on key technologies for building precision weapons, targeting pods and active electronically scanned array radars—which are just a few examples. Shipbuilding is yet another weak spot—Russia no longer has the capability to build large warships the size of a carrier and it uses antiquated construction techniques. It might eventually be able to regain those capabilities—but it’ll be a long wait.
In terms of procurement, Russia has made some interesting choices—and many of its aspirations appear to be unrealistic (for example: 2,300 T-14 Armata tanks by 2020 is highly unlikely). The Russian air force, for example, is buying small numbers of modern combat aircraft built in boutique-sized batches. The country is building Su-30M2s, Su-30SMs, Su-35S and Su-34s, which are all derivatives of the same basic Flanker airframe, but don’t share a lot of commonality and that complicates logistics. It’s also buying MiG-29 derivatives—which add to the problem. Russia is also starting to develop at least three new types of aircraft, but it’s not clear how it will pay for such expensive programs.