Russia’s Military: More Bark Than Bite

May 23, 2018 Topic: Security Region: Eurasia Tags: RussiaVladimir PutinWeaponsWarMilitary

Russia’s Military: More Bark Than Bite

Russia remains a long way from possessing the ability to overwhelm larger, better equipped peer competitors.

For the first time during the May 9 Victory Day celebrations in Moscow, the Russian armed forces paraded unmanned vehicles. Korsar surveillance drones equipped with electronic-warfare capabilities, Uran-6 autonomous demining vehicles, and Uran-9 unmanned tanks were showcased on the Red Square. Furthermore, fifth generation Su-57 multi-role fighters and MiG-31 fighters equipped with the recently-unveiled Kh-47M2 Kinzhal hypersonic missiles flew over Moscow for the first time.

In many ways, the 2018 celebrations outlined the shape of things to come for the Russian armed forces in the context of the recent approval of the new State Armament Programme (GPV) 2018–2027. This new program will replace its predecessor, the GPV 2020.

The procurement, refurbishment and development of new military equipment that took place under GPV 2020 played an important role in reshaping the Russian armed forces by delivering new and modernized equipment in significant volumes for the first time in the post–Soviet period. GPV 2027 is therefore expected to build on the progress made under the previous program and strengthen the Russian armed forces.

GPV 2027 will guide defense procurement and the modernization of the armed forces. It is likely to focus on power-projection capabilities, force mobility and deployability, military logistics, and strengthening Command & Control systems (C2) systems. Additional emphasis is likely to be placed on the standardisation and optimization of existing systems. The GPV 2027 should allow the Russian defense industry to streamline priority technological developments for the armed forces. Advanced air defense systems, honing deterrence and anti-access capabilities will also probably play an important part of the program.

As displayed on the Red Square on May 9, state defense orders under GPV 2027 will undoubtedly focus on precision guided munitions, autonomous systems and military robotics, electronic warfare capabilities—potentially shaping the future of Russian warfare capabilities into the 2020s and beyond. Projecting the Russian armed forces into the twenty-first century and adapting them to modern challenges will require sustained investment in modernization efforts and military research and development (R&D).

There are, however, long-term challenges facing the defense industry that will shape prospects for the successful implementation of GPV 2027. These challenges are related to the failure to modernize the productive capabilities of the defense industry, a decline in the level of military R&D, and structural deficiencies within the defense industry, such as low labour productivity and poor quality control mechanisms. Meanwhile, external factors related to lessons learned from recent and ongoing operational experience gained in Syria and Ukraine, as well as the negative impact of international targeted sanctions on the defense industry, all threaten to impede the execution of GPV 2027.

Despite these challenges, it is likely that the Russian armed forces will be considerably better equipped in 2027 than they are today. Under GPV 2020, large volumes of modern military equipment were delivered to the armed forces. Most success was observed in the delivery of systems based on Soviet-era designs, such as the T-90 tank, the Flanker series of fighter and attack aircraft produced by Sukhoi, and Varshavyanka-class (Project 636.3), diesel-electric submarines.

Nevertheless, the pace of probable modernization should not be overstated. While some further progress may be made with the development of new generation equipment, defense-industrial constraints are likely to prevent the serial production of genuinely modern weapons systems across the board. Some systems—such as the S-400 and Iskander missile systems—should continue to be delivered in significant quantities. Other systems— such as the Armata family of armoured vehicles, the Su-57 fighter, and the Yasen-M class of submarine—are more likely to reach the armed forces in much smaller numbers. As a result, the armed forces will probably still rely on a mix of legacy hardware and modernized Soviet systems alongside new modern designs.

A sum of nineteen trillion rubbles has reportedly been assigned to GPV 2027. As a headline figure, this sounds impressive, especially as it approximates the sum assigned to GPV 2020. However, a rouble in 2018 is worth nearly half as much as it was in 2010, when GPV 2020 entered into force. Thus, in real terms, GPV 2027 is not nearly as financially ambitious as its predecessor program was. This means that if Russia is able to maintain an annual economic growth rate of around 2 percent, then the state should be able to finance the new GPV without imposing an excessive burden on the wider economy. Indeed, current spending plans under the 2018–2020 federal budget indicate that the share of defence spending in GDP should decline steadily.

This represents an apparent paradox: on the one hand, senior Russian officials, including the president, are publicly declaring the existence of a range of advanced new weapons systems, while on the other hand, spending plans suggest that the defense burden should decline into the early 2020s.

Resolving these contradictory facts, however, is not too difficult. While official rhetoric in relation to military modernization—and in particular to the development of new strategic-weapons systems—might appear alarming to some observers, a detailed examination of what Russia is able to produce suggests that Russian ambitions are in fact more modest.

Given existing economic constraints, and the leadership’s desire to avoid incurring the costs of an excessive military build-up, defense-industrial production on a scale commensurate with an arms race is simply out of the question. While Russia is likely to feel more confident in its ability to defend itself, to assert its interests near its own borders, and to deploy relatively small-scale forces abroad, it will remain a long way from possessing the ability to overwhelm larger, better equipped peer competitors.

Richard Connolly is an associate fellow with the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House and the director of the Centre for Russian, European and Eurasian Studies at the University of Birmingham.

Mathieu Boulegue is a research fellow with the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House.

They are the authors of the research paper Russia’s New State Armament Programme: Implications for the Russian Armed Forces and Military Capabilities to 2027.

Image: Creative Commons.