The New Model Army: Still Equipped with Soviet-era Weapons

A recent article in NVO again makes the point that Russia’s military reform effort has so far failed to come to terms with the Russian military’s lack of modern weapons and equipment. Back in March, Defense Minister Serdyukov noted that only 10 percent of the Russian military’s weaponry can be considered modern, which actually represents a signifcant decline from 2003.  The “new” weapons and equipment that are currently entering service in tiny quantities are based on Soviet designs and do not meet the demands of modern warfare.

Major weapons systems, such as the Iskander ballistic missile and the 2S19 Msta-S self-propelled howitzer, are equipped with inferior targeting and communications systems. The T-90A tank lacks an on-board computer control system. Some also believe that its armament is inadequate for modern warfare. Finally, Russian infantry combat vehicles and armored personnel carriers are inadequately armored. Attacks on these vehicles with modern artillery was the main cause of casualties among soldiers entering South Osetia during last year’s war with Georgia.

While military R&D was restarted during the Putin presidency, the results of these efforts are still some years away from entering production, much less entering service in the Russian military. New tanks, artillery, aircraft, ships are all projected to be ready to enter service in 3-5 years, and even then in very small quantities. Mass production is still as much as ten years away.

As Roger McDermott recently pointed out, the Russian military has made a decision to focus on reforming personnel before it gets to equipment. As I have argued previously, this was not just a smart decision, but the only feasible one if reform is to have any chance of succeeding. But this does not mean that modernization of equipment can be put off indefinitely.

If the Russian government wants to have an effective military in 5-10 years, it needs to prepare now by beginning the process of rebuilding its defense industrial complex. If it waits another few years, whatever expertise that exists in the field will disappear with the retirement of the remaining holdover Soviet-era engineers and managers. Recent steps to license the production of French naval assault ships may be an indicator that this process is now beginning. We shall have to wait to see if similar steps are taken for equipment for other services.

In the meantime, it remains clear that even if the transformation of military structure and personnel currently under way is completely successful, because of its obsolete equipment the Russian military will still be some way from becoming a fully effective warfighting force. It will certainly provide no real competition to NATO militaries.

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