Given the amount of attention paid over the last year to the capabilities of the Russian military, it is worth considering how the evolving character of warfare over the next 10-20 years is likely to affect Russia’s military capabilities when compared to leading Western states.
The trend toward greater automation, including the use of remote control weapons and AI-driven autonomous warfare, will increasingly put the Russian military at a disadvantage. Russia does not have the technology to match Western automated systems and lacks the capabilities to develop such systems on its own in the foreseeable future. Russia’s defense industry is well behind Western militaries in automated control systems, strike drones, and advanced electronics of all kinds.
The Russian government has recognized these gaps and, until recently, was attempting to rectify them through cooperation with the Western defense industry. However, the freezing of military cooperation between NATO member states and Russia in the aftermath of the annexation of Crimea and the concurrent imposition of sanctions by most Western states will preclude the rapid acquisition of advanced military and dual-use technology by Russian defense firms for the foreseeable future. Financial constraints resulting from the budget crisis that has occurred because of the decline in oil prices will also hinder the development and deployment of weapons using new technologies.
As a result, Russia will have to look for alternative ways to counter Western automated technologies. Two possibilities that play to the Russian military’s strengths include trying to jam enemy communications and using electronic warfare to disable drones and other automated equipment. These are both areas where the Russian (and previously Soviet) military has extensive experience. The recently unveiled Richag-AV electronic warfare system is designed to jam radar systems in a range of several hundred kilometers, so as to render opponents’ radio-electronic guided weapons systems inoperable. It can be mounted on a wide variety of land, sea, and air platforms and, at least according to official Russian statements, its capabilities are far superior to any Western equivalents.
The Russian military will also try to counter Western technological advantages by focusing on using ambiguous and cyber warfare against Western states, both in the event of a conflict and in proxy fights during periods of hostile relations. These are both areas where Russia has advantages when compared to Western states. The lack of democratic accountability in the Russian political system makes the use of deception and ambiguous warfare easier than for governments that have to abide by democratic norms. When engaged in proxy conflicts with Western states, Russia can bring in mercenaries and other irregular forces, backed by GRU and other special forces units. It can also use friendly populations in neighboring states as cover for covert activities in target countries.
Similarly, Russia has extensive expertise in cyber warfare, and is not constrained by the norms against the use of offensive cyber warfare that are prevalent in Western states.
Government-organized Russian cyber warfare would likely be focused on specialized operations. The Chinese attack on the U.S. government’s Office of Personnel Management, which resulted in the theft of personal information on everyone who has received a security clearance from the U.S. government since 2000, points to the likely future where hacking and big data information analysis techniques can be used in combination to undermine adversaries’ security by Russia and other adversaries of the United States.
In addition, Russian security services will maintain their close ties to non-government hackers, who could be mobilized for brute force denial of service attacks. These tactics are not new. They were demonstrated by Russian hackers as early as 2007 in Estonia and 2008 in Georgia, but can be used quite effectively in the future to disrupt civilian infrastructure and potentially even government communications.
In terms of more traditional military means, the use of precision-guided munitions will become increasingly critical for Russian warfighting. Anti-access/Area denial defensive strategies will focus on protecting the homeland with defensive networks. Such layered defense systems are currently being set up in Crimea; in the future they’re likely to be placed in the Kurile Islands, Kaliningrad, and potentially in other coastal areas. The low band radars on Russian SAMs have been designed to counter America’s traditional advantage in stealth technology, which is likely to make U.S. attack aircraft more vulnerable to Russian air defenses over time. The main limitation on this strategy will also be technological: continued problems with the Russian space program’s capacity to launch satellites are likely to limit the ability of the Russian military to detect potential enemy attacks, forcing Russia to depend on ground radars to cover key areas.
Precision-guided munitions may also be used for offensive purposes. Surface to surface missiles such as the Iskander, with a maximum range of 500 km, can be used to threaten neighboring states. The Russian military is in the process of equipping a wide variety of ships and submarines with powerful land attack cruise missiles that are not limited by the INF treaty and have a range of 2,500-3,000 kilometers. These missiles will allow the Russian military to threaten not only immediate neighbors but also more distant states from the safety of well-protected home waters such as the Black Sea, the Baltic Sea, and the Sea of Okhotsk. Since these missiles may be launched from relatively small ships, such as frigates and corvettes, the Russian Navy may pose a serious threat to regional security even if it does not succeed in building a wide array of large combat ships.
Since Russia is highly unlikely to be able to match U.S. conventional forces or to establish a conventional deterrent to Western technological superiority, the Russian military will continue to rely on its nuclear deterrent capability as a backstop. Russian military strategists have come to view nuclear weapons as a way of compensating for Russia’s relative weakness in conventional arms. Russia’s nuclear doctrine in some ways thus parallels NATO doctrine from the Cold War period, though Russian leaders have been much more public with statements arguing that they could use tactical nuclear weapons in order to stop a conventional attack that threatens Russian territory or state sovereignty.
Russian leaders clearly recognize that Russian military capabilities will not match those of the United States, and are likely to fall behind the Chinese as well over the next two decades. However, they are actively planning for how to use areas of relative strength to compensate for their military’s overall weakness. Western planners, in turn, need to focus on countering Russian advantages in areas such as cyber warfare and negating potential Russian threats to use its cruise missiles and tactical nuclear weapons in order to achieve Russian political goals in neighboring states.
Dmitry Gorenburg is a senior research scientist in the Strategic Studies division of CNA, a not-for-profit research and analysis organization, where he has worked since 2000. In addition to his work at CNA, Dr. Gorenburg is the editor of the journals Problems of Post-Communism and Russian Politics and Law and an associate at Harvard University’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. He has previously taught in the Department of Government at Harvard University and served as Executive Director of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies (AAASS). He holds a Ph.D in political science from Harvard University and a B.A. in international relations from Princeton University. He blogs on issues related to the Russian military at http://russiamil.wordpress.com.
Image: Wikimedia/Vitaly V. Kuzmin