For several years now, Moscow has been trumpeting its development of sophisticated next-generation weapon systems that finally put the superiority of Western counterparts into question. And much of the new hardware appear to have NATO militaries worried.
If you believe Russian state media, hordes of new super weapons are just around the corner, always just a few years away from becoming operational. Then reality—in the form of defense budgets—sets in.
The new T-14 Armata tank was unveiled to much fanfare in 2015 boasting promising new features including an unmanned turret, dense multilayered armor, a more powerful 125mm main gun, and a revolutionary active protection system . And any number of articles would inform you that 2,300 T-14s would be built by the year 2020, so NATO tankers beware!
However, British defense analysis estimated that Russia was unlikely to produce more than 120 T-14s per year. In fact, that estimate proved too generous. In August 2017 the deputy defense minister announced that 100 T-14s would be produced by 2020. So that initial announcement was slightly off by a factor of 23.
There is also the T-15 heavy Infantry Fighting Vehicle (IFV) based on the Armata chassis, which would potentially become the most well-protected armored personnel carrier in service.
But one little detail—so far, none have been ordered for production.
What about the PAK-FA T-50 stealth fighter, now designated the Su-57? This supermaneuverable stealth jet promised to bring the Russian Air Force (the VVS) a deadly fifth-generation air superiority fighter—and it is now scheduled for delivery in 2018 or 2019 .
Specifically, twelve of them will be delivered. The technology for a fully-capable PAK FA simply won’t be ready until the 2020s once upgraded Saturn turbofans are ready. The aircraft entering service will make do with inferior AL-41 engines that produce insufficient thrust.
A dozen stealth fighters will not turn the tide in an air war with NATO, though they could have their uses, perhaps serving as sneaky hitmen targeting vulnerable backfield tanker and AWACS support aircraft. On the other hand, the Su-57 is not ideal for deep penetration raids over hostile territory because its rear aspect is not especially stealthy.
These projects will at least result in the production of real hardware that will enter service in a few years, albeit in numbers too small to really affect the military balance. But then there is a whole slew of other programs that, despite extravagant boasting on international outlets, so far exist as prototypes or even just design documents and schematics.
For example, take the plans to launch enormous new nuclear-powered Lider-class destroyers by the mid-2020s that would vastly out-gun and out-bulk even the large Ticonderoga-class cruisers in U.S. Navy service.
But this May, it was revealed that the mega-destroyers are not even budgeted for in the 2018–2025 defense plans. But just so you don’t lose faith, in June a Russian admiral announced that unfunded nuclear-powered destroyers are still going to happen , somehow. He also promised a new carrier—another item nobody expects will actually materialize in the next decade because the Russian Ministry of Defense has so far shown little interest in a new one.
Then there is the S-500 Prometheus surface-to-air missile system , which on paper amounts to an evolved S-400 SAM armed with new high-flying hypersonic 776 N missiles to serve in the anti-ballistic missile role. In development since 2009, the Prometheus was supposedly going to enter service in 2016 or 2017 .
Fast forward to this July 2017, when a new briefing by the defense ministry announced that S-500 was “on schedule,” with “some elements” of the system currently undergoing testing and the first systems slated for delivery to air defense units in 2020.
And there are countless additional projects including the Pak DA stealth bomber, huge upgraded Tu-160M2 Blackjack bombers , and a supposedly hypersonic space-flight capable MiG-41 to replace the MiG-31 Foxhound interceptor . These can be counted in addition to useful, though less space-agey, new programs to upgrade its T-90 tanks with T-14 technology , and produce new Boomerang and Kurganets armored troop carriers and BMD-4M airborne fighting vehicles .
Talking A Good Game
Russia is developing this proliferation of different weapons on a defense budget that amounts to just 2.84 trillion rubles—equivalent to roughly $50 billion U.S. dollars, though some counts place the total over $60 billion. That budget has been shrinking between 3 to 7 percent for several years in a row due to falling oil prices and sanctions put in place due to Russia’s seizure of Crimea from Ukraine. (A widely circulated claim that it fell by 25 percent in 2017 was inaccurate .) By comparison, the U.S. military budget amounts to around $580 billion in 2017, and China’s is around $200 billion.
If large numbers of hi-tech tanks and jet fighters don’t seem to add up with a contracting defense budget, that’s because…they don’t. Of the new systems that do make it into production, many are only being ordered in boutique quantities.