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.
Moreover, while the Russians are demonstrating high sortie generation rates in Syria—they are not using more than a handful of precision-guided weapons . Moreover, even the Su-30SM has not been spotted with modern air-to-air missiles—which is strange. It could be that while Russia developed weapons like the R-77, it has not fielded those weapons in quantity.
Meanwhile, the Russian navy—with the exception of its submarine forces—has many shortcomings. The Russian navy has started to deploy it formidable new Borey-class nuclear ballistic missile submarines and the new Yasen-class attack submarines. Those vessels are genuinely formidable—especially the Yasen. Just last year, Russia started construction on two ballistic missile subs and three attack boats, but it is not likely that Moscow can sustain building five nuclear subs a year. It’s also modernizing older subs.
But while Russian is maintaining a formidable submarine force, most of Moscow’s surface fleet is composed of aging Soviet-era ships. Those ships are not properly upgraded, maintained or manned and don’t sail very often. Perhaps the best example is Russia’s lone carrier— Admiral Kuznetsov —which is prone to breaking down at inopportune times during deployments. It actually sails with an ocean-going tug to haul it back to port—just in case. Russia is building new ships, but the pace of modernization is ponderously slow.
All in all, Russia’s military has made tremendous progress since its post-Soviet low-point in the mid-1990s. But it has a long way to go before it completes it reforms, which could take until 2030—or later. Even then, Russia is not the Soviet Union—it doesn’t have the population or industrial base to be that kind of juggernaut. And even when reforms are complete, Russia can’t complete head-to-head with the U.S. and its allies. Certainly Moscow’s military forces will continue to modernize, but Russian military might—other than its nuclear forces—is an illusion. It’s a paper tiger.