200,000 page views

Sometime today, this blog will hit 200,000 page views. I started it in the fall of 2009 as a way of making myself stay abreast of what was happening with the Russian military. I certainly didn’t expect that the topic would be of interest to a large audience, given that Russia and the FSU seemed to be becoming less and less significant to US military planners.  So needless to say, I’ve been quite gratified by the interest in the topic in general and in my commentary in particular. I just wanted to say a quick thank you to every one who has read,  commented, and/or shared my blog. While I started the blog without the expectation of a large readership, I’m not sure it would have lasted this long without the interest and especially the feedback.



More foreign imports for the military

A year or two ago, procurement from abroad was one of the hottest topics among analysts of the Russian military. This generated lots of controversy in the Russian press over whether it was appropriate for the MOD to buy from abroad, or whether it should support domestic manufacturers. The topic had largely died down once the Mistral deal was concluded last summer, but now it appears to have been resurrected, courtesy of a recent decision by the MOD to issue a tender for light helicopters.  The tender states that the ministry seeks to purchase 15 dual-engine and 30 single-engine light helicopters at a total cost of just over six billion rubles. The technical specifications for the tender make it almost certain that the goal is to buy AS350 and AS355 helicopters made by Eurocopter. Some reports indicate that over 100 helicopters of this type will eventually be procured  for the MOD, with assembly to take place in Russia.

These are direct competitors of the Russian single-engine Mi-34 and dual-engine Ka-226 and Ansat helicopters. In fact, the Ka-225 and the AS350/355 are currently the two finalists in a tender for the Indian Ministry of Defense. Russian defense industry officials have already made the expected complaints about how this is undermining domestic manufacturing and how purchasing a whole party of helicopters from abroad contradicts Putin’s call just last week for supporting domestic defense industry except in cases where Russian manufacturers are not able to produce the technology in question. So it may be more interesting to look at the reasons why the MOD decided to go with a foreign supplier in this case.

Reports so far provide two possible explanations. First, the comparable Russian helicopters are not yet ready for mass production. According to Konstantin Makienko of CAST, the Mi-34 has not yet completed testing, while the Ansat and Ka-226 are both heavier and more expensive. Furthermore, according to Ilya Kramnik, Russian manufacturers have not yet built a suitable engine for a light helicopter. In the Soviet period, light helicopters such as the Mi-2 were built in Poland. Now, Russian light helicopters such as the Mi-34 are being tested with foreign engines. The tender indicates that all 45 helicopters are to be received by the Russian armed forces by November 25, 2012. Russian-made helicopters could not be procured that quickly.

The second explanation (published in Moskovskii Komsomolets) notes that according to the tender, these helicopters are to be used primarily for transporting military personnel. It jumps from that to the argument that the real purpose is to transport VIPs in helicopters that provide the comfort and reliability that such figures have come to expect. It is seen as unsuitable for VIPs to be transported in the same helicopters as regular soldiers, especially given that they are used to Mercedes  and other foreign luxury automobiles when traveling on land. I’m not sure how reliable this particular conjecture is — it may be that the helicopters will just be used for regular training and transport purposes. Time will tell.

This is probably not the last foreign purchase to be made by the Russian military in the near future. Kramnik notes that the Russian air force may soon acquire C-27J Spartan light transport aircraft, to replace the aging An-26. While the lack of direct domestic competitors will make such a purchase less controversial, the overall point is that the Russian military seems firmly committed to being open to buying foreign equipment whenever it feels that domestic equivalents do not measure up.


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.


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’s Iran Strategy

Another piece that I wrote for Oxford Analytica has been picked up (in edited form) by CNN. Here’s the repost.

In response to Tehran’s announcement of advances in its civilian nuclear capabilities, the Russian Foreign Ministry on February 15 urged the international community to re-engage Iran in serious negotiations, with the aim of forestalling the development of a credible nuclear weapons program. While Russia is often portrayed as uncritically supportive of Iran, the bilateral relationship is more complicated than it appears.

Most Russian corporates have complied with international sanctions, which have made it difficult for multinationals to pursue opportunities in Iran. Large contracts have been repeatedly called off or postponed. Yet economic cooperation, especially in the civilian aviation, telecom and hydrocarbons sectors, remains significant.

While Iran used to be one of Russia’s leading defense industry customers, this relationship has almost completely collapsed in the wake of President Dmitry Medvedev’s September 2010 decision to ban sales of missile systems, armored vehicles, warplanes, helicopters and ships to Iran. This went beyond the U.N.-mandated sanctions. Since then, Russian military sales have been limited to equipment needed to modernize previously transferred anti-aircraft defense systems and electronic warfare and reconnaissance systems.

While bilateral ties have been periodically difficult, Moscow is well aware of Iran’s important geopolitical role – not just in the Middle East, but also Central Asia and the Caucasus. Russian leaders have long believed that protests such as the 2009 Green Movement could destabilize a great many states in Russia’s ‘south’, and this view has only been confirmed by the ‘Arab awakenings’. They also fear that an Israeli strike on Iran would be the first step in a regional conflict that could engulf the entire Middle East and generate massive refugee flows into Russia via Azerbaijan. At the same time, Russian policymakers are also concerned about the possibility of Iran creating instability on Russia’s southern border, especially in light of difficult relations between Iran and Azerbaijan.

Russian military planners recently announced that next autumn’s large-scale military exercise would take place in the Caucasus and involve the premise of a war that begins with an attack on Iran, but turns into a regional conflict that draws in Russia.

Russian leaders believe that Iran already has the technical ability and materials to build a nuclear weapon should it choose to do so. For this reason, it opposes the use of air strikes (or other military means) to damage the Iranian nuclear program. The logic is that while military strikes would certainly set back the program in the short term, they would only reinforce Iran’s determination to acquire a nuclear weapon in order to deter potential future attacks. From Russia’s perspective, negotiations are thus the only means to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear arsenal.

Russia would like to see a comprehensive agreement, whereby Tehran agrees to stop its nuclear weapons program in return for the end of sanctions and reintegration of Iran into the international community. Should Iran make the first aggressive move by following through on its threat to close the Strait of Hormuz, Russia will benefit in the short term from higher oil prices. However, this would be more than off-set by a subsequent intensification of regional instability. Over the longer term, Russia would be best served by stable oil prices, not extremely high ones.

More details on the Ekaterinburg fire

In the last week, there have been two very interesting reports with additional information on the fire that seriously damaged the Ekaterinburg strategic nuclear submarine back in December. All the reports seem to agree that the submarine’s nuclear missiles and torpedoes had not been offloaded prior to the start of the repair, which meant that there had been a serious risk of a torpedo explosion while the fire burned.

But let’s start at the beginning. The reports indicate that the submarine came to Rosliakovo for a routine inspection, during which it was decided that damage to a cowling that covers the submarine’s sonar. This covering had been damaged either when the submarine was docking, or earlier in the summer or fall, depending on the report. In order to fix the cowling, an opening was made in the outer hull. The fire began during the repair (at 3:45pm Moscow time on December 29) as the result of sparks igniting wooden scaffolding. From the scaffolding, the fire spread to the rubber soundproofing covering that is located between the outer and inner hull. This covering supposedly becomes flammable only at very high temperatures, but once on fire it is very difficult to extinguish. The fire spread in the space between the two hulls, a location that is narrow and filled with various equipment, factors that increased the difficulty of fighting the fire. Three hours after the fire began, flames continued to shoot up to a height of 15-20 meters.

Those in charge at the site early on had the idea to submerge the floating dock in which the submarine was located, but the process was complicated by the presence of the Admiral Kulakov destroyer in the same dock. If the dock was submerged too far, the interior of the ship would be flooded. The Kommersant article that discusses this issue does not really address the question of how this was resolved, though it implies that the dock was partially submerged so that seawater could reach the submarine and extinguish the fire without rising so high as to flood the Kulakov. Afterwards, the fire was mostly brought under control, though it was not fully extinguished until 6:20pm on December 30, almost 27 hours after it began.

Numerous sources agree that both the submarine’s nuclear missiles and its torpedoes had not been offloaded prior to the inspection. The reports indicate that regulations do not require that the missiles be offloaded in this circumstance, but that the torpedoes should be. According to Novaia Gazeta, the base commander allowed the Ekaterinburg to enter the dock without offloading the torpedoes. Kommersant notes that this happens fairly frequently in order to avoid delays.

The torpedoes were located in the first compartment, only 40 meters from the fire. Here’s a picture of the front of the submarine:

The crew quickly realized the danger that extreme heat just on the other side of the inner hull might cause the torpedoes to explode. Since the hydraulic systems for torpedo removal were not functioning, they risked their lives to manually remove the torpedoes from the first compartment. According to Novaia Gazeta, three torpedoes were removed in this way. Had the torpedoes exploded, dozens of crew and firefighters would have been killed. Depending on the number of torpedoes affected, the authors of the Kommersant article raise the possibility that the explosion could have destroyed the floating dock and the Admiral Kulakov and might have led to radioactive contamination from the nuclear missiles or the two nuclear reactors onboard. I have no way of judging how serious that threat was, but whether or not it was real, a torpedo explosion would have certainly led to panic not just in Roslyakovo but also in the nearby cities of Severomorsk and Murmansk, which have a total population of almost 400,000 people. You can see the locations on the map below, from the Kommersant article.

Finally, let me turn to the consequences for the future of the submarine. This topic is addressed extensively in the Novaia Gazeta article. The good news is that according to Dmitry Rogozin the repairs will cost only 500 million rubles — half of the initially announced estimate. The article goes on to argue, however, that it is unlikely that the submarine will be able to submerge to significant depths in the future because the high temperatures sustained by the inner hull in the front section of the submarine may have compromised its strength. The author says that unless the entire front compartment is replaced, the submarine will only be able to submerge to limited depths without risking the lives of its crew.

I am sure that the Ekaterinburg’s first cruise after the repairs are completed will receive a great deal of attention. Given the potential consequences of a problem, hopefully no one will be cutting any corners.

Russian interests in Syria

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about why Russia protects Assad. In that post, I referred briefly to Russian investments in Syria outside the military sphere. I came across a recent article in Kommersant that spells out these investments in much greater detail.

The most important sphere is oil and gas exploration and production. Tatneft and Soiuzneftegaz are currently extracting oil in Syria. Tatneft’s contract was concluded in 2003 and its first well was drilled in 2010 in the South Kishma field. Stroitransgaz has build a natural gas pipeline and processing plant and and is now building a second plant near Rakka that will process 1.3 billion cubic meters of gas. The North-Western oil group won a tender in 2008 to build a petroleum  processing plant near Deir-es-Zor. Finally, a Gazprom subsidiary named Georesurs was planning to participate in tenders for oil exploration.

Russian companies are also involved in other energy projects, including plans announced by Rosatom in 2010 to build Syria’s first nuclear power plant and continuing service by Tekhnopromeksport of energy producing facilities it has built in the country.

Russian companies such as Sovintervod and Rusgidro have also participated in Syrian irrigation projects. Rusgidro signed a contract just last month to design an irrigation complex on the Tigris river.

Russian manufacturing companies also play a role in the Syrian economy. Uralmash signed a contract in 2010 to provide drilling equipment for a Syrian petroleum company. In September 2011, Tupolev and Aviastar-SP signed a memorandum to provide three Tu-204SM passenger airplanes and a service center for these planes to Syrian Air. Traktornye Zavody has announced plans for a joint venture with a Syrian company to build agricultural equipment. The Sinara group is building a hotel complex in Latakia. Sitroniks signed a contract in 2008 to build a wireless network for Syria. Finally, Russkie Navigatsionnye Tekhnologii has plans to install GLONASS-based navigation equipment on Syrian vehicles.

The article doesn’t put numbers on all these contracts, though I’ve seen numbers as high as $20 billion. I’m sure that these economic ties are not the only reason for Russia’s continued protection of the Assad regime, but given the importance of the profit motive in Russian foreign policy these days, they must clearly play a role in the Kremlin’s decision-making.


A question on Soviet military history from a reader

I received the following question from a reader:

Just a brief question, sir. With regard to Soviet Airborne/Air Assault troops during the Soviet war in Afghanistan; because they were armored vehicle operators (mechanic-drivers, operator-gunners) – but paratroops first, did VDV AFV crew members of BMD’s, BMP’s, T-62’s and the like participate in dismounted Air Assault operations, or were they pretty much restricted to operating the AFV? I’ve read that they wore a black uniform, rather than the beige Afghan style infantry wore, with a diamond tanker patch over the right shirt pocket, hardly camouflaged gear for the Afghan terrain. Thank you very much for any response given.

Soviet military history is not something I know very much about, but I figure there’s at least a decent chance that one of my readers might know something about this topic. If you can answer this question, please comment or send me an email.

Rogozin takes on Navy shipbuilding (and gives us all a good chuckle)

Dmitry Rogozin, the newly minted Deputy Prime Minister in charge of military procurement, has made a statement on naval shipbuilding, in the context of the current discussion of a 30 year naval vessel development program. According to Rogozin, by 2013 Russian shipyards will be able to build 6 submarines and an aircraft carrier per year. Given that Russian shipyards currently have no docks large enough to build a carrier, there is zero chance that they could start construction of a carrier by 2013 even if the Navy had a design ready, which they don’t. If they started building a dock now, I imagine construction on the first carrier could start by 2020. Furthermore, the United States, the country with the most experience in building aircraft carriers, has never built one in less than 2.5 years. Three to four years from keel-laying to launch has been the norm for most of the Nimitz-class carriers.  So if Russia wanted to build one every year, they would have to build 3-4 docks. All very unrealistic, to be sure.

Rogozin appears to have realized that he made a fool of himself, so he subsequently walked back his statement on aircraft carriers, indicating that he was just talking about the refurbishment of the Vikramaditya. But he stuck to his guns on the submarines. And this claim makes equally little sense. According to Ilya Kramnik, at best Russia will be able to commission 2 new submarines (one diesel and one Borei class SSBN) and refurbish one Delta IV in 2013. He believes that the level of six submarines a year will be reached no earlier than 2018.

Furthermore, Rogozin’s talk about restoring the Typhoons is likely to remain just talk. There’s no reason to spend the money on modernizing these submarines (including refurbishing 2 of the 3 to launch Bulava missiles) when the Borei subs are better and more likely to provide value for the money in terms of longevity.

So we can put this latest statement by Rogozin down as yet another effort at attention-seeking. While Russian ship-building is undoubtedly experiencing a revival of sorts, there’s no point in exaggerating their capabilities. That will only lead to subsequent articles decrying the failure of “officially announced” plans.