The Mistral Comes to Town

On November 23, the French amphibious assault ship Mistral arrived in St. Petersburg for what is expected to be a three-day visit. Reports indicate that during this visit, a decision will be made on the purchase of one ship of this class together with a license to build another 3-4 ships in Russia. The ship is likely to be purchased without weapons or radar equipment. The prospective purchase has raised a great deal of questioning and opposition among Russian military experts.

The questioning mostly revolves around uncertainty about the purpose to be served by having such a ship in the Russian Navy. This is an important point. It seems obvious that a large ship such as this would not be needed for anti-piracy operations or protection of shipping lanes, the two main missions of the Russian Navy these days. For those missions, the Admiral Gorshkov frigates that Russia is (slowly) building domestically are perfectly adequate.

It’s possible that the Navy hopes to use this ship for political purposes, similar to those served by the cruise of the Peter the Great nuclear cruiser last winter. But this is not sufficient — and it’s not clear how effective such cruises are in any case.

It seems to me that the Russian Navy can best use the Mistral as a command ship. The ship has space for a command center that can accommodate up to 200 people and, if properly equipped, can be used to control operations up to fleet level, as well as joint operations with air and ground forces. But it may not be so useful as an amphibious assault ship, given differences between Russia and France in how naval infantry is used.

Experts also question whether Russia can afford such a purchase. They point out that the total expenditure on this purchase would be greater than the entire domestic military shipbuilding program. That may well be the case, but at least it would result in some ships actually entering the Russian Navy. Domestic construction has so far resulted in virtually no new ships entering the fleet. Highly touted projects such as the Ivan Gren amphibious assault ship, two of which should have been built by now according to the timetable announced in 2004, have instead disappeared entirely. The Ivan Gren is not even listed among the ongoing projects on the shipbuilder’s website.

Opposition to the purchase is based on two factors: the fear that purchasing major weapons systems from NATO countries will make the Russian military dependent on the West and the potential that such purchases will destroy what remains of Russia’s defense industry. On the first point, Russian military analysts continue to demonstrate their perception of the West in general and NATO in particular as an enemy that might be tempted to use any sign of Russian weakness to attack. In the event of a future conflict, they believe that Western-built platforms (such as the Mistral) would be useless, because Western countries would refuse to supply spare parts.

On the second point, it is striking that those who argue that the Russian Navy should procure ships such as this from domestic shipbuilders often simultaneously argue that the Russian defense industry is in such a state that it is no longer capable of building serious ships.

Neither of these objections make very much sense given the Russian military’s plan to license the production of these ships and build all except the first at a Russian shipyard. Doing so would both help revitalize domestic military shipbuilding and ensure that Russian suppliers could provide spare parts in the (highly unlikely!) event of a future conflict with NATO. In fact, licensing a ship series from a Western country such as France for domestic construction may be the best thing that could happen to Russian military shipbuilding. In order to build French-designed ships in Russia, the builder would have to bring in trainers from France. This would be more useful for revitalizing the industry than years’ worth of empty declarations by government officials about revival efforts.

Overall, it is not entirely clear to me why the Russian Navy needs this type of ship. But the opposition to its purchase is largely based on outdated and contradictory thinking. The general goal of purchasing a license to build foreign-designed ships at Russian shipyards is a laudable one and may be the best way to actually revitalize the shipbuilding industry. But perhaps the Russian Navy would be better served by licensing a frigate, rather than an amphibious assault ship.

Medvedev’s military priorities for 2010

In his recent annual address,  President Medvedev focused on top priorities for the military in the coming year. These priorities can be subdivided into three categories: personnel, education, and procurement.

In the personnel realm, he lauded the government’s success at increasing funding for the construction of housing for officers and soldiers and called for the backlog in this realm to be eliminated over the next three years. He also called for the establishment of a new salary scale for members of the military, asking for a law to this effect to be passed by 2012. Earlier, the defense ministry had stated that salaries would be increased earlier than this, so this time frame may represent the recognition that funds for an earlier increase are not available.

In the area of education, Medvedev noted the establishment of three centers for officer education, which will focus not just on professional training, but also on the inculcation of patriotism. He also mentioned the establishment of seven presidential cadet schools, one for each federal district, and the importance of establishing a corps of professional sergeants.

But perhaps the greatest emphasis was placed on the procurement of new weapons systems and platforms in the context of a fundamental reform of the military’s procurement system. He called for the heads of defense industry facilities to increase the quality of production while decreasing costs. How this might be done was left as an exercise for the managers and for military analysts.

The range of new weapons and platforms that will enter service in 2009 was described with great specificity, however. They included 5 Iskander ballistic missile systems, 300 ballistic missiles, 300 tanks and armored vehicles, 30 helicopters, 28 combat aircraft, 3 nuclear submarines, one corvette, and 11 satellites.

Michael Balabanov provides further details, noting that the tanks and armored vehicles can be subdivided into 63 T-90A tanks, 120 BTR-80 armored personnel carriers, and a range of infantry fighting vehicles: 60 BMP-3M,  40 BTR-MD Rakushka, and 40 BMD-4. The helicopters would include 6 Ansat light multi-purpose helicopters, 12 Mi-28H attack helicopters, 3 Ka-52 “Alligator” attack helicopters, and 9-10 Mi-8 transport helicopters. The missiles will be more or less evenly split between 16 Sineva nuclear missiles for Delta-IV SSBNs and Topol-M and RS-24 ICBMs. Given the continuing test failures of the Bulava SLBM, there are currently no plans to purchase any of these for the active military.

The 28 combat aircraft would consist primarily of MIG-29SMT fighter planes, which were built for the Algerian air force but rejected in 2008 due to quality concerns. I guess they’re considered good enough for Russian needs, even if they have too many defects for Algeria. There are also plans to procure 4 SU-34 bombers, 2 Su-27SM fighter planes and 2 Su-25UBM close air support aircraft. Note that there seem to be no plans to purchase more of the newest types of aircraft, such as the Su-34, Su-35 or MIG-35. Or more specifically, there are such plans, but it seems that none will be completed next year.

The focus here is primarily on purchasing tried and true systems for the ground forces and the air force. The Navy will get just one Steregushchii class corvette and three nuclear submarines that represent merely the completion of ships that have been under construction for years. This means that completion of the Admiral Gorshkov frigate will be delayed yet again and that the completion of further Borei-class SSBNs may be suspended pending the outcome of coming tests of the Bulava missile.

But even the army and air force will get few or none brand new systems — the new equipment will still be based on late Soviet designs that have been around in one way or another for the last 10-15 years. In some cases, these designs have been somewhat modernized, but the military will have to continue to wait, and perhaps for a long time, for the new generation of weapons and equipment.


Reforming the GRU

In the aftermath of the Georgia War last year, the Russian government made the decision to reform the military intelligence service (GRU). According to a recent report, the proximate cause for the reform was the perception that the GRU had failed to inform the minister of defense and other top officials about the possibility of a Georgian attack.

Since the forced retirement of the head of the GRU last year, the government has been entirely silent regarding the specifics of the reform. Speculation centers on cuts in personnel and a reduction in the GRU’s sphere of activity. Most significantly, the special forces were removed from the GRU’s jurisdiction last spring and reassigned to the military districts. As a result, the GRU is left as an agency focused exclusively on intelligence — including branches dedicated to signals intelligence, human intelligence, and analysis.

The report leaves open the question of whether these changes will increase the GRU’s effectiveness. There is no doubt, however, that the changes (combined with Korabelnikov’s resignation last spring) will lead to a significant reduction in the GRU’s political influence within the Ministry of Defense and in the government as a whole. It seems that the FSB is now close to victory in the long-running competition for power and influence between the civilian and military intelligence agencies.

Ukraine’s military in even worse shape than Russia’s

The Ukrainian military seems to be in complete disarray. I don’t regularly follow the Ukrainian military, so I apologize if the following is in some way incomplete or misleading. It is based on an article in the most recent issue of NVO.

Once we get past the usual tendency of much of the Russian press to make fun of Ukraine and especially the Ukrainian language (such as the continual references to Ukraine’s “zbroinye sily”) and the slightly ludicrous connection between underfinancing of the Ukrainian military and political arguments that Russia might soon attack Ukraine, there is some interesting information in the article.

First of all, the Ukrainian military is woefully underfinanced. To maintain its existing level of functionality, the Ukrainian military required 17.7 billion hryvnias (about $2.2 billion). The actual level of financing in the 2009 budget was 8.4 billion hryvnias (just over $1 billion), which is equivalent to 0.87 percent of the country’s GDP.  After public protests by head of the general staff, funding was increased to 11.7 billion hryvnias, although one-third of that money was to come from special one time revenues from property sales. The financial problems were so bad that a large number of Ukrainian military bases had their power shut off due to non-payment of electricity bills.

The result of this level of underfinancing has had a devastating impact on training, with 96 percent of military staff receiving no practical training whatsoever. Air force pilots from the rapid reaction force get only 10 hours of flight training per year, while other pilots receive virtually none at all. In large part, this is because the air force receives virtually no fuel (4000 tons in 2009 versus a requirement of 65-70,000 tons).

Equipment is also deteriorating. 88 percent of Ukrainian military aircraft are incapable of flight. Only 30 of the air force’s 112 fighter aircraft are considered combat-ready. 70 percent of navy ships and 40 percent of tanks and artillery are not combat-ready. The only major new systems received by the military in the past year were two new tanks.

My only personal interaction with the Ukrainian military bears this out. Back in 2005, I was involved in a study that examined the possibility of greater US naval cooperation with the Ukrainian Navy. This was in the immediate aftermath of the Orange revolution and hopes were high. Ukrainian naval commanders were eager to meet with my team and made it clear that they would accept any overtures for greater cooperation. But they persistently rejected our requests to see their ships with various excuses. It was clear that they were embarrassed at the condition of these ships and did not want the extent of their deterioration to become widely known.

The deterioration of training and equipment is compounded by what seems to be a complete leadership vacuum. Yuri Yekhanurov, the last defense minister, was removed by parliament last summer. No replacement has been appointed, nor is there any chance that one will be appointed before the upcoming presidential elections. In early October, Sergei Kirichenko, the chief of the general staff (i.e. the country’s top military officer) submitted his resignation in protest at the lack of concern for the military’s problems among the country’s political elite.

At the same time, Ukraine is doing better than Russia in terms of manpower. 53 percent of Ukrainian soldiers are professional. Salaries and benefits are quite competitive with the civilian economy and there is virtually no prospect of actually having to participate in combat.

At the same time, the military has no problems with the draft. In fact, in the current year there are 18 candidates for each available spot in the military draft. This is the result of a combination of high levels of unemployment among young men in the aftermath of the economic crisis, improved job prospects for draftees after the completion of their service (they can get jobs more easily in the police forces or in private security services), and the disappearance of hazing in the Ukrainian military after the break-up of the Soviet Union.

The implication of this article for the Russian military is that a transition to a professional military is possible as long as economic incentives are properly aligned and living conditions (included freedom from hazing) are adequate.

Update on the Navy

Before I started writing on Russian military reform, I used to cover the Russian Navy. There have been a few new developments in the last couple of weeks, so I thought I’d briefly mention them here, just for the record.

1) The on-again, off-again move of the navy’s headquarters to the Admiralty building in St. Petersburg has been suspended. For the moment, the Admiralty will house a backup control center (in case Moscow is conquered???).

2) China is copying the design of the Varyag aircraft carrier (similar to the Admiral Kuznetsov) as it begins a program to build its own carriers. The 75 percent completed Varyag was sold several years ago, ostensibly for the purpose of serving as a casino in Macao.  Instead, it is been used to reverse engineer a Chinese aircraft carrier. If China succeeds in develop such a craft (something that is still highly doubtful), it will certainly carry copies of Su-33 naval aircraft, since China has procured a prototype plane of this type from Ukraine.

3) The purchase of a French helicopter-carrying amphibious assault ship seems to be moving forward. The Mistral itself will visit St. Petersburg in the near future. The goal continues to be to buy one actual ship and then to license the production of four more in St. Petersburg or Severodvinsk.

According to Vice-Admiral Oleg Burtsev, the first deputy chief of staff of the navy, the ships would be based in the Northern or Pacific Fleets (not the Black Sea Fleet, as recently claimed by Jacob Kipp). They would be used for amphibious landing operations, for peacekeeping and rescue operations, and to fight pirates (where their helicopters would come in handy).

There is some skepticism in the media about whether the Russian-built ships will be completed in a reasonable period of time (i.e. less than 10 years per ship), how they will be supported in terms of ASW and AAW, and whether the promised modernization of the potential forward base in Tartus will materialize. Russian analysts are also questioning whether the navy will be able to afford the ship’s cost, estimated at 400-500 million euros per ship.

4) Alexander Khramchikhin, for one, blames the Bulava for the inevitably coming demise of the Russian Navy. The article is worth quoting at length:

[The Bulava's] effectiveness has turned out to be simply amazing. The missile has not entered serial production, and never will, but it has already destroyed the Russian Navy. Almost all the money allocated to the Navy’s development have been spent on this mindless dead-end program.

Any person who can see the real situation well understands that in a few years the Russian Navy as a whole, as well as all four of its component fleets, will cease to exist. This is already absolutely inevitable — the situation will not be changed even by mass purchases of ships from abroad.

In light of this, it is especially amusing to observe the fierce “battle for Sevastopol.” Why do we need it after 2017? To pay Kiev enormous sums to rent empty piers? By that time, at best the Novorossiisk naval brigade will be all that’s left of the Black Sea Fleet. And the discussion of whether we need a blue-water navy or a coastal one is a complete farce. We won’t even have a coastal force — the maximum that our “navy” will be able to accomplish in ten years is the immediate defense of a few main naval bases. Because we built the Bulava.

While I wouldn’t blame all of the navy’s problems on the Bulava, Khramchikhin is exactly right in his analysis of the future trajectory of the Russian Navy. Despite relatively generous financing over the last few years, its shipbuilders have shown time and again that they are incapable of producing ships in a timely manner. All of the navy’s shipbuilding projects have been repeatedly delayed. As the existing ships approach (and in many cases pass) the end of their expected lifespan, there are few replacements in the works.

In any case, there is little if any cause to fear that the Russian Navy is making progress in its oceanic ambitions, whether or not it still has any. Instead, we should be thinking of it as living out the last years of the leftover glory of its Soviet years. In another 10 years, its major ocean-going ships will be gone, with nothing but a few corvettes and a couple of French LSTs to replace them.


Two excellent pieces on Russia’s defense industry

Alexander Golts makes some excellent points on the reason’s behind the incompetence of Russian defense industry in his excellently-titled editorial in today’s Moscow Times. (“Russia’s Eternal Military-Industrial Kolkhoz”)

Some scattered highlights:

Medvedev exposed the biggest secret of Russia’s military complex: It does not produce any modern equipment but busies itself trying to “modernize” old airplanes, tanks and missiles that were designed way back in the 1970s and 1980s. This highly ineffective practice of updating and upgrading old designs is exactly what the president said needs to be stopped.

The “Zapad 2009” war games convinced the military leadership that despite claims of possessing weapons “that are unmatched by any other country,” Russia’s military-industrial complex is physically incapable of producing equipment with modern information support.

The reason for the ineffectiveness of Russia’s military-industrial complex is that it is not an industrial complex at all. It is actually thousands of scattered enterprises that are incorrectly classified as defense contractors — mostly to save jobs. Some of them haven’t produced anything for years. This situation made it impossible to implement full-scale serial production in the defense industry. The best that most contractors can do is to manufacture enough pieces of hardware to fill the piecemeal orders trickling down from the main production plants where the final, antiquated assembly process is carried out. That is why the price for parts continuously increases, but their quality does not.

Meanwhile, Pavel Podvig provides another example of the problems besieging the defense industry, this time in connection to the highly problematic Bulava SLBM.

It is understandable that the designers are having jitters about the upcoming launch – the missile failed in four of the last five tests. Moreover, it appears that there is no consistency in failures, so it is hard to know which system will be affected next.

At this point it is hard to tell what the future holds for the Bulava program. Even if it ends the current string of failed tests, the confidence in the missile would probably never be particularly high.


Network-centric Warfare?

In military forces of any country, major “showpiece” exercises are designed more to show off the capabilities of the nation’s armed forces than to truly test these capabilities in any focused way. Articles about such exercises, whether they take place in Russia, in the West, or in Mozambique,  follow a common pattern. First, a month or two before the exercise, journalists publish descriptions of the coming exercise based on officially-announced plans. Then, during the exercise, there are slightly breathless accounts of the wonders of modern weaponry and tactics. If an important political dignitary (such as the president or the defense minister) visits to observe the exercise, this is covered in minute detail. Afterward, there are some official pronouncements about how all of the exercise’s goals have been fulfilled and everyone happily goes home.

Coverage of the recent spate of major Russian military exercises (Kavkaz-2009, Zapad-2009, Ladoga-2009) followed this model perfectly right up until the end. But over the last month, a number of critical articles have appeared, and not just in the independent press. This culminated in open discussion in the press of discontent among top generals with the state of military procurement and Russia’s defense industry in general that resulted in a widely publicized meeting between President Medvedev, top government officials, and defense industry chiefs.

One of the main topics that has emerged in criticism of the exercises is the gap between public statements and reality on the topic of advances in precision weapons and command and control (C2) systems. General Makarov, the chief of the general staff, was widely quoted as having stated that the main goal of the exercise was to “examine the transition to a new control system for the armed forces, based first of all on the transition to a system of network-centric warfare.” Given the list of key weaknesses of the Russian military that was published recently, this focus makes sense.

(This list includes weak intelligence and communications capabilities, low level of “automatization” in control of troops and weapons, lack of an adequate system for providing information to troops in the field, and low levels of defensibility for some types of platforms and weapons.)

One of the main goals of the Ladoga-2009 exercise, conducted in the northwestern part of Russia in September, was to test a new command system. The effectiveness of this system apparently left much to be desired. The Russian military still lacks modern electronic communications equipment. One report noted that a new personal communications system (R-169P-2) that was demonstrated at Ladoga was just coming out of testing and was not used by the actual troops participating in the exercise. (Moskovskii Komsomolets, 10/9/2009)

In many cases, soldiers did not have any kind of radios, much less advanced electronic ones. Currently, the Russian military provides one radio for each section (i.e. 10-12 soldiers). General Meichik, the Deputy Chief of the General Staff for Communications, recently promised that each Russian soldier would have his own personal communications device by 2011. In the meantime, many Russian soldiers continue to use mobile phones for transmitting information. According to General Meichik, these phones have special encryption equipment, but it is far more likely that they are actually just the soldiers’ personal mobile phones.

One indicator of just how far behind Western militaries the Russian military is on the communications front is that General Meichik announced that the military is about to begin developing its own internet. This announcement took place more or less on the 40th anniversary of the first message sent on Arpanet, the US military communication system that led to the development of the internet.

There is a similar lag in electronic targeting systems. The newly modernized Su-24M and Tu-22M3 bombers, which participated in the Zapad-2009 exercise, are equipped with a “specialized computer subsystem, automated targeting system, and satellite navigation.” However, this system merely doubles the targeting accuracy of regular unguided bombs. No provision for guided munitions was made in this modernization. Furthermore, this modernization has taken a very long time, as it was first introduced in 2001.

Even more interesting is the description provided by Olga Bozh’eva of an encounter at Ladoga-2009 between General Boldyrev, the head of Russia’s surface troops, and the head engineer of Izhmash — Unpiloted Systems. Looking over the engineer’s shoulder as the latter received information from a UAV on a computer, Boldyrev asked for the coordinates of a group of people visible on the screen. The response: “The program does not allow for the analysis of information while [the UAV] is in flight. Once it lands…” In other words, the latest in Russian UAV technology still does not allow for the instant transmission of  targeting information to commanders on the ground — a tactic whose effectiveness was demonstrated by US forces in Afghanistan back in 2001. (Moskovskii Komsomolets, 10/9/2009)

Despite the stated focus on network-centric warfare, UAVs were not integrated into the exercise in either an intelligence or targeting capacity. In other words, they were just there for show. The newest mobile C2 systems, such as the KShM-149MA, which provides real-time information for commanders and allows for tactical control of troops and weaponry, also seem to have not been used in either Zapad-2009 or Ladoga-2009, though one was shown to President Medvedev in Kaliningrad. At the Kavkaz-2009 exercises last summer, brigade level control systems supposedly broke down.

The fact that all of these problems were described openly in the Russian press, and that President Medvedev has responded by publicly chastising the Russian defense industry as a whole, is a sign that the issues that have prevented the revival of that industry (despite an increase in orders in recent years) have finally come to the forefront. It is possible that Medvedev’s criticism is a signal and the next year will be devoted to reforming the Russian defense industry, much like the past year has been devoted to reforming the structure of the military. This may turn out to be a harder task, as private and semi-private companies will undoubtedly prove less willing to follow orders and even a revitalized industry will find it difficult to find the expertise to build new high-tech weapons as quickly as it may be desired by top leaders.