Russia admits manufacturing weaknesses

The Russian government promulgated an interesting decree recently. It prohibits the import of foreign goods or work by foreigners for the Russian defense and security sectors, except in cases where the goods or labor is not available domestically. The accompanying list of goods that are exempt from the restriction because they are not produced in Russia nicely demonstrates the areas where Russian defense industry is weak.

Here’s a rough translation of the list:

  • Casting machines used in metallurgy
  • Machines that remove material by laser or other light or photon beam, ultrasonic, electric discharge, electrochemical , electronic beam, ionic – beam or plasma arc processes
  • Waterjet cutting machines
  • Machining centers and unit construction machines used for metal processing
  • Metal lathes
  • Machine tools for drilling, boring, milling, tapping, threading by metal removal
  • Machines for deburring, sharpening, grinding, honing, lapping, polishing or other finishing of metal or ceramic metal using grinding stones, abrasives or polishing products
  • Machines for planing, cross- planing, grooving , broaching, gear cutting , gear grinding or gear finishing , sawing, cutting- off and other machine tools for working metal or ceramic metals by removing material
  • Machine tools ( including presses) for working metal by volume stamping, forging or stamping
  • Metal working machines (including presses) for bending, folding, straightening, cutting,  punching or notching; presses for working metal or carbide metals
  • Other machine tools for working metal or ceramic metals without removing material
  • Machine tools ( including machines for assembly using nails, staples , glue or other means ) for working wood, cork , bone, hard rubber , hard plastics or similar hard materials
  • Measuring or checking instruments, including appliances and machines for measuring or checking geometrical quantities

I don’t know much about machine tools, so someone else will have to address the question of what fraction of machine tools commonly used in defense industry is found on this list. Even someone with little knowledge of the intricacies of industrial production can see that the list shows that there are significant weaknesses in Russian industry’s ability to produce high-tech tools for modern construction methods.

Secondly, the promulgation of the decree in the first place shows that protectionist impulses continue to dominate in the Russian government. To the extent possible, the government is seeking to produce domestically whatever equipment it can.

 

Putin spells out national security strategy

As part of his campaign for the presidency, Vladimir Putin has been publishing a series of articles on various themes. Yesterday, he turned to national security and specifically the Russian military. Since the full text is available in English, I won’t spend much time describing what is in the article, but will just comment on some themes that caught my attention.

I have to say, of all the articles Putin has published as part of his electoral program, this one is one of the best. It’s not a terribly high standard, given that at least one of them was found to have been plagiarized from other sources, but still.

The first part of the article provides one of the best justifications I have seen for the military reform that the government undertook starting back in the fall of 2008. Had this statement been made this clearly and forcefully back then, I think Putin, Serdiukov and company might have had an easier time convincing the expert community that they knew what they were doing. (Back then, the reform was rolled out without a clear plan or explanation, which generated a lot of criticism.) I’ve been a fan of the main ideas behind the reform effort from the start, so I’m glad to see this all spelled out so clearly by Putin (or, more likely, his ghostwriter). Here are the key points justifying the reform:

But previous experience proved that the potential for developing the military system inherited from the Soviet Union had become depleted….

It was not possible to build up the military simply by adding personnel and equipment partly because it didn’t solve the inefficiency problem and partly because the country lacked both the human and financial resources. Most importantly, that system did not meet contemporary and long-term requirements. We could eventually have lost our entire military potential, and we could have lost our armed forces as an efficient mechanism.

There was only one way out. We had to build a new army. We had to establish a modern and mobile army which could maintain permanent combat readiness.

This is followed by an equally clear discussion of accomplishments to date. These primarily have to do with changes in organizational structure, including the transition from brigades to divisions and from military districts to unified strategic commands.

Procurement

The section on future tasks focuses primarily on procurement. The list of priorities is worth quoting:

Our number one priorities are nuclear forces, aerospace defence, military communications, intelligence and control, electronic warfare, drones, unmanned missile systems, modern transport aviation, individual combat protection gear, precision weapons and defence capabilities against such weapons.

In terms of specific platforms and weapons, the list for the next decade reads as follows:

Over 400 modern land and sea-based inter-continental ballistic missiles, 8 strategic ballistic missile submarines, about 20 multi-purpose submarines, over 50 surface warships, around 100 military spacecraft, over 600 modern aircraft including fifth generation fighter jets, more than 1,000 helicopters, 28 regimental kits of S-400 air defence systems, 38 battalion kits of Vityaz missile systems, 10 brigade kits of Iskander-M missile systems, over 2,300 modern tanks, about 2,000 self-propelled artillery systems and vehicles, and more than 17,000 military vehicles.

Parts of this are more believable than others. Given that the military still isn’t sure what tank it wants to build, the 2,300 modern tanks number is particularly unlikely. And I have doubts about 600 modern aircraft and 50 surface warships (unless we count patrol boats and the like). Targets for helicopters, submarines, air defense systems and missiles are more likely to be achieved.

The social dimension

The biggest problems with the reform effort to date have been with the social dimension of reform. This dimension is given an extensive amount of attention in the article. The increase in salaries that came into effect in January is expected to solve the recruitment problem. We shall see.

Putin also made a new proposal to create the Russian equivalent of a GI Bill for soldiers to help with admission to and payment for a university education. This could prove attractive to less wealthy families who otherwise would have little hope of paying the bribes that are often necessary to gain admission to a Russian university.

At the same time, it’s not encouraging that the fiction of a million man army is being maintained. According to the article, there are  220,000 officers and 186,000 contract soldiers and sergeants currently serving in the military. The total number of conscripts serving at present is 350,000. That means the total force is around 750,000, rather than one million. To put it another way, 25 percent of all billets in the Russian military are currently vacant, although this is not being acknowledged. That’s a big problem. The only way to solve it is to step up recruiting of contract soldiers. Again, we shall see if the higher salaries help with that. If it works, then the plan to have 700,000 professional soldiers in place might be achievable, though almost certainly not by the target date of 2017.

Then there’s the housing issue. Putin again makes promises that the issue will be solved, this time by 2014. That’s a year later than previous statements. The deadlines for providing apartments to all active and retired officers who are owed one have been pushed back year after year, so I wouldn’t hold my breath on this.

Dealing with defense industry

The last third of the article deals with new demands that the military and government are placing on Russian defense industry. There’s not much there that hasn’t already been said by various officials elsewhere over the last year. After starting with the usual statements on the importance of domestic defense industry and their modernization, Putin once again makes clear that the military is not going to just accept what they’re being sold. As he puts it, “It is unacceptable for the army to become a market for morale-sapping obsolescent weapons, technologies and research and development, especially if it is being paid for out of the public purse.”

Modernization is to come in a number of ways:

  • The acquisition of foreign technologies with the aim of improving domestic production in the future.
  • Providing greater financial predictability for defense industry by placing state defense orders for a 3-5 (or even 7) year period.
  • Increasing transparency and competition among defense industry companies.
  • Privatizing state-run defense industrial companies.
  • Creating synergies between the defense and civilian economic sectors in order to spur innovation.

The parts about privatization and competition are interesting, as they seem to contradict efforts made in the previous Putin presidency to nationalize many of these same companies through the creation of quasi-state owned sectoral holding companies.  Is this an implicit admission that the government made a mistake then?

All in all, some reasonable grand plans for Russian defense industry, but few specifics on how they might be carried out. And that can probably double as an assessment of the article as a whole. The vision is clearly there. But the question still remains: can the vision be implemented successfully given Russian realities? Or will corruption, the intransigence of the old guard, and just plain old inertia stymie this vision? The jury is still out on that question.

Russia-NATO military cooperation (Part 2: Defense industrial cooperation with France)

Defense Industrial Cooperation

As Russian military leaders have grown frustrated with the failures of their country’s domestic defense industry, they have become increasingly willing to procure military equipment from NATO countries and to engage in joint military industrial projects with them.

France: In recent years, the Russian military has considered a number of purchases from NATO countries. The most extensive cooperation has been with France. The recent deal for the Mistral amphibious assault ship is the most notable Russian military purchase from abroad in recent history. While the final contract has not yet been signed, the rough outlines of the likely deal are well known. Russia is set to purchase two Mistral-class ships, to be built in France at a total cost of approximately 980 million euros. The two sides have not yet agreed on whether Russia would be charged an additional 170 million euros for logistics and crew training expenses, or if those items would be included in the construction price. In addition, Russia would pay 90 million Euros for construction licenses and technical documentation that would allow two more Mistral ships to be built in Russia.

In addition to the ships themselves, Russia is going to receive some of the advanced technology that is used on the French versions of these ships. This will include the SENIT-9 combat information system, but without license rights and without the Link 11 and Link 16 NATO communications systems. The transfer of NATO communications systems would require the unanimous consent of all NATO members. Therefore, even though the request is currently under consideration at NATO HQ, it will be rejected. It is certain to be opposed by the Baltic states, and likely to be opposed by a number of other NATO countries including the United States. It is interesting to note that Russia’s request to receive these systems was justified by its desire to participate in joint missions with NATO navies. The lack of license rights means that Russia will not be able to use the SENIT-9 technology on other ships, nor will it be able to use the knowledge acquired by building such systems to improve its own ability to manufacture advanced combat information systems.

The SENIT-9 systems used on the French Mistral-class ships are derived from the US Navy’s Naval Tactical Data System (NTDS) and are based on the tri-dimensional MRR3D-NG multi-role radar, built by Thales, which operates on the C Band and incorporates IFF capabilities. The French version can be connected to Link 11, Link 16, and Link 22 NATO communications systems. The purpose of the system is to centralize all data from the ship’s sensors in the ship’s command center. Russian military officials argue that having these systems on board will allow them to turn their Mistrals into command ships that will be capable of providing fire control for various forces in the open seas, including dividing targets among surface ships, submarines and aviation.

Reports in French newspapers indicate that the Thales MRR-3D-NG radar, as well as a Racal-Decca helicopter control radar, will also be included as part of the deal. It seems very unlikely that the Russian Mistrals will be equipped to use French communications systems, based on French satellites SYRACUSE 3-A and SYRACUSE 3-B. These satellites provide 45% of the Super High Frequency secured communications of NATO. For Russia, it would make much more sense to equip the ships with communications systems that connect with their own satellites. Otherwise, the ships would not be able to communicate with other Russian ships.

While the reason for the Russian purchase of these ships has been the subject of extensive debate in Western and Russian sources, a consensus has recently emerged on this question. The main purpose of the ships will be to serve as command and control vessels. The first two ships will go to the Pacific Fleet as part of a significant upgrade that will turn that fleet into the most capable of Russia’s four fleets. The ships’ second task will be to serve as helicopter carriers. They will be capable of carrying either Ka-52 attack helicopters or Ka-27 anti-submarine helicopters. While the ships are obviously capable of carrying out amphibious landing operations, this will be a lesser task for them.

Finally, the Mistral ships are also being purchased with the goal of revitalizing Russia’s declining shipbuilding industry. The third and fourth ships will be built at shipyards in St. Petersburg, which will be reconstructed for the purpose, most likely with French assistance. The goal is to be able to use the experience of building ships to French standards to improve indigenous military shipbuilding capabilities.

While the Mistral deal has received the most attention, Russian-French military cooperation actually began several years ago. In 2007, Russia bought French aircraft targeting containers from Sagem and thermal imaging equipment from Thales. One hundred units of the latter were installed on Russian T-90M tanks. Subsequently, an agreement was signed in 2010 to manufacture thermal imagers under license at a Russian plant in Vologda. At the same time, Russia bought some French communications equipment to test the possibility of integrating this equipment into its tanks and armored personnel carriers. The total value of the 2010 deal was estimated at 300 million Euros. French companies had been installing this equipment for years on Russian tanks and aircraft sold abroad, including Su-30MKI aircraft sold to India, MiG-29s sold to Algeria, T-80U tanks sold to Cyprus, T-90S tanks sold to India, and BMP-3 armored personnel carriers sold to the United Arab Emirates.

The Russian military is negotiating with French companies for further items, including Sagem’s Sigma 30 artillery navigation equipment and its infantry integrated equipment and communications units (FELIN). The FELIN units include a set of navigation tools, secure radio communications equipment, computer equipment, GPS receivers, helmet sights for individual small arms and integrated electronic targeting devices. A limited number of these may be purchased for Military Intelligence Directorate special forces units. In February, First Deputy Defense Minister Popovkin announced that the Russian military would like to have a Russian analog of the FELIN equipment designed in the next decade. The Sigma 30 units would be used to modernize Russian Grad and Smerch multiple rocket launchers. They are already used for this purpose in other countries, such as Poland.

Recently, the Russian Center for the Analysis of the World Arms Trade announced that the Russian border troops were negotiating with the French company Panhard for the acquisition of 500 VBL light armored vehicles for $260 million.

Golts on prospects for the Russian military

Last week I was in Russia for a conference. While there, I got a chance to meet with Aleksandr Golts, one of the most reliable Russian experts on the Russian military. Here are some thoughts on our discussion.

Manpower and the Demographic Problem

Golts noted that the greatest problem facing the Russian military is the lack of 18 year olds for conscription. Between now and 2020-2025, the cohort of 18 year olds eligible for conscription will consist of no more than 600-650,000 men per year. Meanwhile, 700-750,000 are needed to fully staff the desired million man army. And various deferments and exemptions will inevitably reduce those numbers even further. There are few good options for maintaining a conscript-based military, especially since an increase of the term of service to 18 months is politically unpalatable and could not possibly be adopted until after the 2012 elections. By that point, it might be too late to avert a collapse of the military’s manpower system. (Golts was skeptical of the need for that many people to serve in the Russian military, but that’s a separate issue.)

He argued that contract soldiers are better than conscripts anyway, because the military does not have to spend as many resources to train them, even if they only end up staying for a single term of 3-5 years.  The implication is that Golts supports the initiative to increase the number of contract soldiers to 425,000, announced at the March 18 military collegium meeting (which was the date of my interview with Golts). The idea is that this effort will succeed where previous ones have failed because of the concurrent increase in salaries for soldiers and officers.

Golts pointed out that the recent decision to partially reverse the cuts in the number of officers had two sources. First, the military had not been able to build apartments  for all the retiring officers. Second, the regime had been scared by last fall’s protest meetings that were organized by the VDV veterans. In the run-up to next year’s elections, it didn’t want to have to deal with 200,000 articulate and well-trained 30-40 year old men who had good cause to hate the regime.

Armaments

Golts was highly pessimistic about plans for rejuvenating Russian military industry, arguing that the military industrial complex (OPK) is actually regressing. Furthermore, it is not a complex at all, as the leading enterprises lack subcontractors to provide basic parts for final assembly. In the Soviet period, these parts used to be provided by civilian factories, who used to lose money on their manufacture. Now that there’s no Gosplan to force them to provide these components, this part of the process has broken down. Instead, the components are manufactured at the final assembly plant, but the process is slow and the product is of poor quality. Problems with the production of basic components has caused numerous defects in sophisticated weapons systems, including the Bulava SLBMs.

There are also significant problems with staffing. In the Soviet period, military industry used to be the best place to work, but now because of lower salaries and a lack of prestige it is much less attractive than the civilian sector.

(I should note that other analysts in Moscow — including those from CAST — disagreed with this assessment of the cause of problems in Russia’s defense industry, arguing that it’s in better condition than Golts believes and that supply chains for the more advanced enterprises continue to function.)

At the same time, for 15-20 years, there was no R&D work being done. With the exception of the fifth generation fighter plane and the Bulava, all of the plans for new weapons systems being used even now are no more than modifications of Soviet-era plans developed in the 1980s.

There are also problems with the OPK’s organization. As part of Russia’s overall recentralization under Putin, the Soviet-era sectoral ministries were largely restored as holding companies (United Shipbuilding, United Aircraft, Rostekhnologii). Many of the constituent units of these companies are disfunctional — the more effective units are used to keep the effectively bankrupt ones afloat. For example, Rostekhnologii controls 570 companies, a quarter of which are bankrupt.

Golts argues that because of all these problems, Russian OPK actually reached its maximum construction capacity back in 2005. Since then, increased financing has just led to higher prices for new state orders. Rather than attempting to reform itself, the industry is focused on coming up with new ways to absorb the vast increase in financing earmarked in GPV 2020.

Prognosis for the future

One of the main problems with the GPV, according to Golts, is that there is no prioritization — the military wants some of everything. At the same time, the Mistral deal was designed to be a wake-up call to the OPK — to make it clear to them that the military will no longer be satisfied with the old ways of doing business with defense industry. That doesn’t mean that OPK reform is inevitable; everything depends on how long Putin and his team will continue to support Serdiukov.

Unlike military reform, reform of the defense industry is likely to result in the exacerbation of undercover battles over the division of profits and resources. The leaders did not know the scope of the military’s problems when they charged Serdiukov with pursuing the reform. Now the likelihood is increasing that changes in the structure of the defense sector will affect the stability of the entire political system, because OPK reform will inevitably affect the distribution of control over lucrative rents among members of the inner circle. Previous aspects of military reform either didn’t affect rent payments or could be used to restructure rent flows away from generals and toward members of the inner circle.

One issue that will be critical for further reform but has not received sufficient attention in the domestic press is the extent to which cooperation with Western militaries is necessary for the success of Russian military reform. Serdiukov understand that he can’t really create a modern military with today’s officers. What is needed is a radical change in the military education system. To this end, he has created a working group to study foreign expertise on this issue. There is an effort underway to adopt Western models for operational planning for the Russian military. However, full adoption may have to wait for new generations of Russian officers.

India-Russia Defense Integration Is Likely To Endure

Here’s one last Oxford Analytica brief to tide over dedicated readers while I try to finish a big project. This one was originally written in early October. If all goes well, expect new material on the blog right after MLK day.

SUBJECT: The outlook for Russian-Indian defence cooperation.

SIGNIFICANCE: India will be the Russian defence industry’s biggest client for at least the next four years, accounting for 55% of all foreign orders. Many of these contracts are for joint ventures that will tie the two countries’ defence industries even closer together.

ANALYSIS: Despite recent reports that Russian aircraft did not advance to the final round of India’s tender for a medium multi-role combat aircraft, Russia’s defence industry will dominate India’s foreign arms purchases for the foreseeable future.

Ships and submarines Cooperation between the Indian and Russian navies has endured since the 1960s.  About half the Indian Navy’s major surface combatants and two-thirds of its submarines were built in Russia or the Soviet Union:

  • Frigates In recent years, India has purchased six Russian-built Krivak (Talwar) class frigates. The first three were delivered in 2003-04, while the second set is being delivered in 2009-12.  Each of the new frigates is to be armed with eight jointly developed BrahMos supersonic cruise missiles, a 100-millimetre gun, a Shtil surface-to-air missile (SAM) system, two Kashtan air-defence gun/missile systems, two twin 533-mm torpedo launchers and an anti-submarine warfare (ASW) helicopter.
  • Submarines India also operates ten Kilo class submarines, purchased from the Soviet Union and Russia between 1986 and 2000. Four of the older submarines have been modernised at the Zvezdochka shipyard in Severodvinsk, which included a complete overhaul of hull structures; improvements to control systems, sonar, electronic warfare systems, and an integrated weapon control system; as well as adding SS-N-27 anti-ship missiles.
  • Weapons systems Over the years, India has bought a number of major Russian weapons systems for domestically built ships. These purchases have included anti-ship missiles and SAMs, torpedoes, ASW rocket launchers and naval guns. Most significantly, the Shivalik class frigates and Kolkata class destroyers are armed almost entirely with Russian weapons such as the RBU-6000 rocket launchers, SET-65E torpedoes, SS-N-27 anti-ship missiles, and SA-N-12 surface-to-air missiles.

Carrier delays The Severodvinsk shipyard is nearing completion on a long-delayed project to refurbish the former Soviet aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov (INS Vikramaditya), which was sold to India in 2004.  Under the terms of the original deal, India would have receive the ship for free in 2008 — but would have paid 800 million dollars for necessary upgrades and refurbishment, and an additional 1 billion dollars for accompanying aircraft and weapons systems, which included:

  • 12 single-seat MiG-29K and 4 dual-seat MiG-29KUB aircraft;
  • 6 Ka-31 reconnaissance and Ka-28 anti-submarine helicopters;
  • a Kashtan close-in weapons system;
  • 9M-311 SAMs;
  • torpedo tubes; and
  • artillery units.

Recurring delays and significant cost over-runs brought the Indian side close to cancelling the deal, though in March 2010 the two sides reached an agreement to increase the payment for retrofitting to 2.3 billion dollars. According to the new contract, the carrier will be transferred to India in 2012. As of July 2010, all structural work had been completed and almost all large equipment had been installed, although cabling work is continuing.

Submarine lease In August 2010, Russia officially transferred an Akula-II class submarine to India, which will lease it for ten years. An Indian crew is currently in Russia being trained to operate the submarine. The lease is the result of a 2004 deal through which India invested 650 million dollars in completing construction on the submarine. It was due to be transferred in 2008, but technical problems during construction, followed by a deadly malfunction of the automatic fire extinguishing system during sea trials, delayed the transfer.

Aircraft The vast majority of India’s fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters were purchased from Russia.  In 2008, the two countries signed a contract to upgrade existing Mig-29s, in service since the 1980s, at a total cost of 964 million dollars. The first four aircraft will be upgraded in Russia, while the other 60-plus will be overhauled in India with the assistance of Russian experts. During the overhaul, which will be completed by 2013, the planes will be fitted with:

  • advanced avionics;
  • new multi-functional Zhuk-ME radars;
  • a new weapon control system; and
  • revamped engines.

As a result, the lifespan of the aircraft will be extended by 25-40 years.  In addition, in January the Indian Navy ordered 29 more Mig-29K aircraft at a cost of 1.5 billion dollars. Together with the 16 identical aircraft ordered as part of the Vikramaditya deal, these planes will form the core of India’s naval aviation for the foreseeable future.

The Indian government has reached an agreement with Sukhoi to assemble in India Su-30MKI fighters from kits purchased from Russia. It is also planning to modernise its existing fleet of Su-30MKI fighters, 42 of which will be upgraded with new radars, avionics and BrahMos supersonic missiles. The project will begin in 2012 and will be carried out by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) at a cost of 2.34 billion dollars, with assistance from Russian experts. By the end of this decade, the Indian Air Force will have a total of 272 Su-30MKI fighters in service at a total cost of around 14 billion dollars, making it the dominant aircraft in its fleet.

India has also purchased 139 Mi-17 helicopters as a replacement for its aging Mi-8s. The first lot of these is being delivered this year.

Tanks and armoured vehicles The Indian army currently operates 657 T-90 tanks, most of which were assembled in India under license. Another 1,000 T-90M tanks will be built locally over the next ten years. The Indian army also operates almost 2,000 T-72 tanks and large numbers of BMP-1 and BMP-2 armoured vehicles.

Joint projects In addition to purchases, the Indian and Russian defence industries are working on a range of joint projects, some of which have already resulted in very successful products:

  • BrahMos Considered by some experts to be world’s fastest and most accurate cruise missile, the BrahMos has a range of 290 kilometres (km), can be used against ships or land targets, and can be launched from ships or land. Air- and submarine-launched versions are currently under development. The missile is currently in service on Indian frigates and destroyers, as well as in the Indian army on mobile launchers. The air version will be installed on Indian aircraft by 2012. A faster BrahMos II missile will be ready by 2014 and will be installed on the Kolkata class destroyers. The BrahMos is not currently used by the Russian military. It is available for export, with Chile, Brazil, South Africa, Indonesia and Malaysia involved in negotiations for potential purchases.
  • Multi-role transport aircraft This project is in its initial stages, with costs being split evenly among Rosoboroneksport, the United Aircraft Corporation and HAL. A prototype aircraft may be built in six to eight years. It will be modelled on the Il-214, with a range of 2,500 km and a payload of up to 20 tonnes. The goal is produce around 200 aircraft, with 30% available for export.
  • Fifth-generation fighter jet HAL is cooperating with Sukhoi on the development of a new fighter aircraft, which is expected to join the Russian Air Force in 2015.  India will procure at least 50 planes in a two-seat version that will be armed with BrahMos missiles.

CONCLUSION: Military cooperation has moved beyond arms sales and licensing of Russian designs for production in India.  Successful joint ventures promise to integrate the two countries’ defence industries for the foreseeable future.

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.

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.