Hi-tech imports could revive defence sector

The following piece was written in August for Oxford Analytica. I haven’t updated it, but it’s probably still useful as a summary of Russian plans for foreign procurement as of a few months ago. I’ll follow up in a few days with a second post with more details on cooperation with NATO.


SUBJECT: Shifts in the military’s procurement strategy from purely domestic to a mix of domestic production and purchases from abroad.

SIGNIFICANCE: The government is accelerating efforts to procure major military platforms from abroad, including from NATO countries. These acquisition plans show that the government has finally realised that the domestic defence industry is incapable of producing complex platforms in a timely manner, forcing it to turn to foreign sources to re-equip its ageing military.

ANALYSIS: The Russian military’s procurement strategy has recently undergone a fundamental revision. Whereas in the past, government policy called for the military to procure virtually all equipment domestically, there has recently been a well-publicised effort to purchase some major equipment from abroad.

Slow pace Much of the disappointment with the defence industry stems from the slow pace of construction for major platforms:

Air Force This has been particularly evident in the Air Force (VVS):

    • The VVS received no new aircraft between 1994 and 2003, and only three since then.
    • Planners staked the future on the acquisition of the T-50 fifth-generation fighter aircraft, which was first proposed in the late 1980s, with design finally beginning in 2002. The goal was to procure 150-200 T-50s by 2030, with India procuring at least another 200-250.
    • It took five years for the first prototype to be built. At the time, the VVS commander indicated that three such planes would be ready by 2009. Instead, the original prototype’s maiden flight did not take place until January 2010 because of various technical problems, the most serious of which concerned engine design.

    Current plans call for the plane to enter serial production in the next three to five years, with the VVS receiving the first planes in 2015. However, given the history of manufacturing delays, it is more likely to enter active service no earlier than 2018.   If this is the case, it will mean that Russia will be about 12-15 years behind the United States in fighter aircraft design, and about on par with China.

    Ground Forces and Navy Similar problems have plagued the Ground Forces and the Navy (VMF). The military recently cancelled procurement of the T-95 battle tank, which had been in development for over 20 years, because it was already obsolete before it had even entered production.

      The VMF began construction of its new Admiral Gorshkov frigate in 2006, with the goal of completing the first ship in 2009 and procuring 20 by 2015. Since then, construction of the Gorshkov has bogged down so that the first ship will not be ready until 2011 at the earliest.  It will be impossible for the VMF to get more than four or five of these ships by its 2015 target date, and this more modest goal is contingent on no further slippage in the schedule.

      Workmanship defects The poor state of Russia’s defence industry is the main reason behind the delays. The best workers — those left over from the Soviet years, when the industry was well funded and highly prestigious — have retired or are about to do so. Few good people went into the field in the 1990s, when there was virtually no financing and the industry came close to collapse. At the same time, because there was no money for equipment modernisation, industrial plants began to deteriorate. By the start of Vladimir Putin’s presidency, even the allocation of additional financing was not enough to counteract the decline in the defence industry’s ability to produce high-quality products.

      Defects in workmanship have had a major impact on the military’s ability to develop new systems and platforms:

      • In addition to problems with the T-50 engines, there have been significant difficulties with the new Lada-class diesel submarine. The St Petersburg, the first submarine of this class, spent six years in sea trials (after seven years of construction) while the builder sought to resolve defects in its power plant.
      • The Bulava sea-launched ballistic missile has suffered multiple test failures, with each failure coming because of construction flaws (not design flaws) in various parts of the missile.

      Workmanship problems are very difficult to resolve compared to design flaws, because of their tendency to pop up in different places on each unit and because they quite often occur on parts built by sub-contractors.

      Hi-tech deficiencies The defence industry’s problems extend beyond poor workmanship. While design bureaus and major builders at least have experience building major platforms such as fighter aircraft, tanks and submarines, they are hopelessly behind European and US manufacturers in their ability to produce modern electronics and advanced equipment. Russian arms suppliers are still able, at least to some extent, to manufacture equipment that they built in the Soviet era. However, such technologically advanced items as digital communications equipment, identification friend-or-foe systems and night vision technology require fundamentally new designs that the defence industry is simply not capable of producing on its own.

      Domestic procurement Nonetheless, the Russian military will continue to procure most major weapons and platforms domestically. This includes items such as:

      • missiles;
      • tanks;
      • aircraft; and
      • most ships.

      Some of these items, such as ballistic missiles, cannot be purchased from abroad because of the sensitive nature of the equipment.  In any case, the SS-26 (Iskander) theatre ballistic missile is considered effective.  For tanks, aircraft, and ships, slightly modernised late-Soviet designs will serve quite well now that the Russian government has decided that its military should be configured to fight in smaller regional conflicts, rather than a major frontal war against NATO or China.  Furthermore, some of these modernised Soviet designs, such as the S-400 air defence systems and the An-124 transport aircraft, are of excellent quality and utility.

      Given the amount of money now being invested into military modernisation, it is likely that many construction problems will be at least partially resolved in the next few years. If this is the case, it is likely that Russia will see increased domestic procurement of:

      • new aircraft (both the T-50 and Su-35BM);
      • new ships (Gorshkov frigates, various submarines);
      • T-90 tanks; and
      • various types of artillery.

      There is already some evidence of this trend: Russian officials have rolled back announced plans to procure armoured combat vehicles abroad, and will instead use Italian armor on vehicles built domestically.

      Purchases from abroad However, for certain types of equipment, the Russian military will have no choice but to go abroad. Russia would like to procure advanced electronic equipment and platforms where such equipment is integral.  Digital communications devices, guided munitions, and unmanned aerial vehicles are especially important in this regard, as the domestic defence industry largely lacks the capability to produce such equipment. True guided munitions are hindered by the archaic nature of GLONASS, the Russian equivalent to the US-designed GPS system.  Negotiations to purchase Mistral ships have largely focused on persuading France to include the electronics package that essentially runs the ship.  Russian officials would like to license production of two of the four ships in order to use the construction of the last two Mistral ships in Russia to revitalise Russian shipbuilding.

      CONCLUSION: The authorities hope that foreign procurement, especially if it includes licenses to produce the equipment in Russia, will help revive the domestic defence industry. The idea is that foreign purchases are a temporary measure designed to maintain Russia’s military capabilities while the defence industry is restored over the next 10-15 years. However, they are likely to run into difficulties receiving permission to purchase the most advanced technologies from NATO states.