The shape of Russia’s military in 2035 will largely be determined by how successfully Moscow can transition from projects originally conceived by the Soviet Union into efforts that originated in today’s Russian Federation. Many of Russia’s most modern weapons such as the Kalibr-NK cruise missile or Iskander-M ballistic missile are actually projects that were on the drawing board in the late 1980s when the Soviet Union began to falter.
“These are actually late ‘80s Soviet designs—almost all of it,” Michael Kofman, a Russian military affairs specialist at the Center for Naval Analyses said during a presentation at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington on May 24. “We’re going to transition—we’re going to see the real next-gen Russian stuff that this program can deliver.”
True next-generation Russian weapons—that don’t have their origins in the Soviet-era—include the developmental S-500 air and missile defense system, Zircon hypersonic anti-ship cruise missile and the Tupolev PAK-DA stealth bomber. Other next-generation systems include the operational izdeliye 129 engines for the Sukhoi PAK-FA fifth-generation stealth fighter. It’s not clear how much of a learning curve Russia will face in developing those new motors since the country has not developed a new fighter engine since the Soviet-era. “Engines are really hard,” Kofman noted. “If they weren’t, China wouldn’t still be buying Russian engines.”
In the future, Russia is likely focus “non-contact” warfare—that might include long-range strike capabilities, long-range air and missiles defense systems and precision-guided weapons. The idea is to be able to punish a potential aggressor at long-ranges—striking back directly against a potential aggressor. “They’re working on deterrence by punishment, which is what all this long range strike potential is about,” Kofman said. “The ability to retaliate and to strike with conventional weapons, not nuclear weapons.”
The Russians are also developing unmanned systems in a completely different way than Western militaries. Russia is currently behind the West in terms of unmanned technology, but the Kremlin and the Russian defense industry is dumping money into such systems. As such, the Russia is rapidly moving forward in the area of robotics. “There is a rapid proliferation of drones across the Russian military,” Kofman said.
Compared to Western forces, there is much less focus on large medium altitude unmanned aircraft and much more focus on tactical systems for the Russian Ground Forces. Thus, the Russians are focused on cheap, plentiful and disposable drones that can be used as reconnaissance assets to provide targeting capability for heavy artillery. The Russian “are trying to enable our surface-to-surface long-range fires,” Kofman said. “There, they very quickly started adapting drones to the way the Russian Army would like to fight. And the Russian Army would like to fight with face-melting firepower.”
Tomas Malmlöf, a political scientist with the Swedish Defense Research Agency (FOI), added that Russia is also investing very heavily in electronic warfare. Moreover, in terms of cyber-warfare, Kofman said that Russia is very likely either a peer or near-peer competitor to the United States. But cyber capabilities are difficult to measure—some information comes via intelligence while the rest is discovered once it has been used. “It’s a different challenge to study that particular set of tools,” Olga Oliker, CSIS’s director for its Russia and Eurasia program, said. “Even with all the talk, it’s still very poorly defined.”
Basically, long-term, the Russian military is moving from a force that relies on mass towards one that has the ability to strike precisely while retaining its capability to cause area effects. But Oliker noted that Russia has not completely integrated precision-guided weapons into its doctrine and that is very much a work in progress. In Syria, for example, precision-guided weapons are not used in a particularly well thought out manner. However, Russian precision-guided weapons doctrine is evolving as the Russian military learns to use its new tools. “That’ll be worth watching,” Oliker said.
Ultimately, Russia is not the threat that the Soviet Union once was. But nor is Moscow quite as weak as it was in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union where the Kremlin had to rely solely on its nuclear arsenal for deterrence. Modern Russia has the means to strike back conventionally against potential threats. “Russia now has a really decent conventional standing force,” Kofman said. “They no longer depend on nuclear weapons as their only deterrent.”
Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar.
Image Credit: Creative Commons.