PAK FA: An initial success for the Russian military

Today, Russia’s fifth generation fighter plane had its first test flight. Sukhoi’s T-50, also known as the PAK FA (which stands for “perspective aviation complex for frontal aviation,” I kid you not). The test flight was originally supposed to occur yesterday, but problems with the steering and brake systems caused the flight to be delayed by a day. Todays flight lasted 47 minutes and went off without a hitch (see the video below).

This plane is supposed to be comparable to the American F-22 fighter plane, which entered service in 2005, though somewhat lighter (therefore sharing some characteristics with the newer F-35 joint strike fighter, which is currently in final in-flight testing). Design of the T-50 began in 2002, with the first prototype being built in 2007. While the plane is obviously capable of flight, it is not clear which of its systems are ready, as journalists were not allowed to approach the plane closely. Initial reports stated that the fifth generation engines are not yet ready, so the prototype flew with a modernized Saturn-117S engine, similar to those used on the Su-35BM. Subsequently, Saturn, the manufacturer of the engine, put out a press releasestating that the prototype flew with an entirely new engine that was not based on the 117S. The same information was reported by RIA-Novosti. At the same time, no information was provided on the readiness of the plane’s radar and weapons systems.

The T-50 is expected to reach a maximum speed of 2000km/hour, have a range of over 5000 kilometers (with refueling) and have superior maneuverability and stealth characteristics. It is also expected to have the other characteristics of fifth generation fighter planes, such as integrated multifunctional radioelectronic systems and new advanced weaponry. It is being designed in cooperation with the Indian Air Force.

The air force plans to procure 150-200 T-50s by 2030, with India procuring at least another 200-250. There are also plans to sell the aircraft to countries that would like to purchase a fifth generation fighter plane, but do not want to or are restricted from purchasing American or Chinese models. The cost of the plane’s design is assessed at around $12-14 billion. Each plane is expected to cost $100 million, which compares favorably to the $175 million cost of each F-22, but is more expensive than the much lighter F-35.

Plans call for the plane to enter serial production in the next 3-5 years, with the air force receiving the first planes in 2015. However, Ruslan Pukhov, the director of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, believes that because of expected budget cuts, it is more likely to enter active service sometime in 2018-20. If this is the case, it will mean that Russia will be about 12-15 years behind the US in fighter aircraft design, but about on par with China. Not a bad result given that pretty much all development was suspended in the 1990s due to a lack of financing.

The test flight is a big psychological boost for the Russian defense industry, which has been criticized by top government officials in recent months for its inability to build high tech weaponry. As Vitaly Shlykov noted, it may lead to an increase in exports for a variety of Russian weapons, showing buyers that Russia’s arms manufacturers are capable of producing the most modern weapons systems.

Russian military planners expect to use the fighter to counter potential threats from “neighboring states that are conducting a demonstratively russophobic foreign policy” and may come to possess F-35s in the next 15-20 years. It is also expected to be used to counter potential threats from China and its fifth generation fighters, which are currently in development. How real these threats might actually be is another matter, but as journalists and military planners like to point out, the plane is designed for a 40-50 year lifespan, and no one knows what the world will be like in 2040 or 2050.

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New attack on General Staff and military reform

It seems that opponents of Russian military reform have launched another effort to derail it. Over the last week, a number of articles in generally even handed newspapers such as Nezavisimaia Gazeta have focused on the continuing problems with the implementation of reform. What’s more, these articles have been quite direct in blaming General Makarov, the chief of the General Staff. Given his close ties to Anatolii Serdiukov, this seems to be a direct attack on the defense minister himself.

The key figure in these reports is Mikhail Babich, the deputy chairman of the State Duma’s committee on defense. He has done two interviews in recent days, one on the subject of the recent housecleaning in the military’s top ranks and another on the subject of the state of preparedness of troops in the Russian Far East and the Pacific Fleet.

In mid-January, an MOD review commission found that the state of the Far Eastern Military District and the Pacific Fleet is poor. It didn’t help that on the last day of the review, a Su-27 fighter aircraft crashed in Khabarovsk during training. (The Air Force subsequently suspended all Su-27 flights until the cause of the crash is determined.) The goal of the review was to determine how prepared the region’s military forces were to work in the new command system implemented last year. While the final report of the review has not yet been issued, General Makarov publicly announced that the state of region’s armed forces was not satisfactory. Continue reading

Russian Politics and Law, November 2009 Table of Contents

In addition to my work on Russian military and security issues, I am the editor of the translation journal “Russian Politics and Law.” Starting with the most recent issue, out today, I will post the tables of contents and introductions of each new issue, together with (gated) links to the articles.

Volume 47 Number 6 / November-December 2009 of Russian Politics and Law.

This issue contains:

Dmitry Gorenburg: “Russia’s Political Future: Scenarios and Projections: Editor’s Introduction” p. 3

Andrei Melville, Ivan Timofeev: “Russia 2020: Alternative Scenarios and Public Preferences” p. 7

Irina Busygina: “Breadth and Prospects: Regionally Specific Factors in the Realization of Development Scenarios” p. 34

Nikolai Petrov: “Warm Spell or Spring Thaw?: Imagined and Real Changes in the Russian Political System” p. 40

S. P. Peregudov: “The Russian Political System After the Elections of 2007-2008: Stabilizing and Destabilizing Factors” p. 47

Author Index to Russian Politics and Law: Volume 47 (January-December 2009) p. 88

Russia’s Political Future: Scenarios and Projections

The financial crisis that almost swamped Russia’s economic system in the fall of 2008 also led to renewed speculation about the stability and long-term endurance of the country’s political system. While it had previously appeared that the windfall revenues earned by the government from Russia’s energy wealth would allow its leaders to spend their way out of any potential difficulties, this prospect was put to a very real test as the government was forced to spend a large part of its financial reserves just to prop up the ruble and to bail out indebted state-allied corporations. Although by early 2009 the economic situation had somewhat stabilized, analysts began to consider how the Russian political system would function in the absence of the financial resources its leaders had come to take for granted.

In this issue of Russian Politics and Law, a number of Russian authors examine the alternatives for the future development of Russia’s political system. Some of them (Melville, Timofeev, Busygina) do this through an alternative scenarios methodology, while others (Petrov, Peregudov) simply extrapolate based on trends they see in the current political environment. The combination of the two approaches provides a wide range of possibilities for what Russian politics will be like five to ten years from now.

In their much discussed report on MGIMO’s scenario-building exercise (“Russia 2020: Alternative Scenarios and Public Preferences”), Andrei Melville and Ivan Timofeev develop four possible scenarios for Russia’s future development and then describe the responses of five Moscow focus groups (arranged by political leanings) to these scenarios. The scenarios range from an an ideal world of peace, economic growth, greater internal democracy, and Russia’s integration into the international community as a well-respected partner (New Dream) through an extension of current trends ten years into the future (Kremlin Gambit) to one where Russia is surrounded by hostile or unstable states and has to mobilize all of its resources to maintain its sovereignty (Fortress Russia). A fourth scenario (Russian Mosaic) appears to go back to the 1990s by focusing on the potential for a weak, decentralized Russia that is forced to play according to Western rules that it has had no part in formulating.

North Caucasus Federal District

Yesterday,  President Medvedev split the Southern Federal District into two parts, creating the North Caucasus Federal District. The new district includes Stavropol krai and the ethnic republics of Kabardino-Balkaria, North Osetia, Karachaevo-Cherkesia, Ingushetia, Chechnya, and Dagestan. The district will be headed by Alexander Khloponin, who was previously the governor of Krasnoyarsk krai in Siberia. He will be both the presidential representative to the district and a vice-premier in charge of the region.  The capital of the new district will be in Piatigorsk, a fairly small resort town (~150,000) in Stavropol.

What does this mean for Russian politics and the region?

First of all, there’s the question of why the region was divided in the first place. One hypothesis is that it was done to separate the troublesome ethnic republics of the North Caucasus from Sochi, the site of the 2014 winter Olympics. I find this vaguely plausible but not very likely. Nobody outside Russia (other than a few scholars) really cares about the federal districts. And renaming and reorganizing things doesn’t change the essential geography. No matter what district they’re in, Sochi is still not that far away from places with a bad international reputation, such as Chechnya and Beslan.

It seems more likely that this was done  to increase Moscow’s control of the region, both by making it more geographically focused (and thus hopefully improving governability/control) and by bringing in the right person to take charge.

This brings me to the second question: why Khloponin? While there are some rumors circulating that Dmitry Kozak was offered the position but turned it down, Khloponin nevertheless seems to be ideally suited for the job. He is an outsider who is not beholden to any of the clans that run political and economic life in the district’s republics. This is an absolutely critical factor, as he will have the task of reducing the influence of these elites, who until now have largely traded on the threat of more instability in the region to receive continued financial subventions from the center.

Khloponin is also an excellent manager, with a proven track record both in business (as chief of Norilsk Nickel) and in politics (as governor first of Taimyr okrug and then of Krasnoyarsk — one of Russia’s largest and most economically significant provinces). He has received high marks in both positions and was instrumental in effectively carrying out one of the first regional mergers — by folding Taimyr and Evenk autonomous districts into Krasnoyarsk. He is also not considered a member of either Putin or Medvedev’s teams, thus allowing him to have access to both leaders.

One thing he is not is a general (or a silovik of any kind). Russian papers are speculating that this is a sign that Russian leaders have decided it is time to shift from a policing/counter-insurgency strategy in the North Caucasus to one of hoping that economic development leads to a reduction in violence and an increase in stability. Military and quasi-military operations will still be necessary from time to time, but these will be handled either by provincial leaders (such as Ramzan Kadyrov in Chechnya) or by existing quasi-military structures (such as the local branches of the Ministry of Internal Affairs). Khloponin, on the other hand, will be responsible for overall coordination and particularly for the district’s economic development.

To this end, the unique combination of giving Khloponin the positions of both presidential representative and vice-premier is particularly significant. This allows him access to both President Medvedev and Prime-Minister Putin and puts him in charge of not just the power ministries. As Vice-premier, he will have the authority to give orders to representatives of all federal ministries in the region. The unique nature of the position is also meant to serve as a signal to regional leaders that he is someone with direct access to the top leaders in the Kremlin; in other words, he is someone to be respected and obeyed.

Finally, there is the question of why Piatigorsk was made the capital of the region. This seems fairly straightforward — it is close to all of the regional capitals without actually being one of them. If the capital of the new district was placed in one of the republics, it would give that republic an advantage over the others, something that would not go over well in the region. Placing the capital in the city of Stavropol was possible, but it is farther removed from the republics. Piatigorsk is only an hour or so drive from any of the other capitals in the district. It hosts the Liudmila market, which is a central meeting point for traders from the entire region. And last but not least, it is a resort town, which will make it an attractive place to live for the federal bureaucrats who will now be based there (and also an attractive place to visit for officials from Moscow…).

Overall, this seems to be a very successful decision on the part of Medvedev and Putin, allowing them to reap the benefits of Khloponin’s potential success in the region, while giving them the necessary distance from their new viceroy to lay the blame squarely at his doorstep should things go badly awry.

More personnel changes

Interfax is reporting today that there has been a major reshuffle in the top ranks of the Russian military. Colonel-General Alexander Postnikov has replaced Vladimir Boldyrev as commander-in-chief of the ground forces. Postnikov was previously commander of the Siberian military district. Also, Lieutenant General Andrei Tret’iak has been appointed Chief of the Main Operations Directorate of the General Staff, replacing Major General Sergei Surovikin, who was demoted to the position of Chief of Staff and first deputy commander of the Volga-Urals military district. Tret’iak previously held the position of Chief of Staff and first deputy commander of the Leningrad military district. Two new military district commander appointments  were also announced. Lieutenant General Alexander Galkin will commander the North Caucasus military district and Lieutenant General Vladimir Chirkin will command the Siberian military district.

I’ll try to have some more analysis later, but at first glance Surovkin’s demotion seems interesting in that it may signify that there is still resistance to reforms among top officers at the General Staff.