Should we panic about Russian naval modernization?

The commissioning of the Yuri Dolgoruky Borei-class SSBN this week, which follows closely on the heels of the launching of the Vladimir Monomakh SSBN at the end of December, has made a number of commentators focus on prospects for Russian naval modernization. I’d like to introduce a note of caution about these prospects into the debate.

The first of these articles, by Brian Slattery of the Heritage Foundation, is just the usual panic-mongering about how the US Navy is not what it used to be in the good old Reagan days. The information about a coming 14-year period during which the US Navy will fall below the 12 sub legal requirement for SSBN numbers doesn’t make sense to me. We currently have 14 Ohio-class SSBNs, which is the limit under existing arms control treaties. The first of the Ohio-class subs is expected to retire by 2029. Construction of the replacement submarine was scheduled to begin in 2019 for commissioning in 2029, but  is reportedly two years behind schedule has been pushed back by two years. But the US Navy can retire two SSBNs without replacement and still meet the 12 sub requirement. Even if there are further delays in construction, there could be a 2-3 year period in the 2030s where we are down to 10 or 11 SSBNs, rather than 12. Given that Russia plans to have 8 SSBNs going forward, this does not seem like a grave threat to US national security.

Slattery also does not make clear why the United States needs a 600-ship navy given that the Russian navy has no more than 25 major surface combat ships and less than 50 submarines of all types. We can add the 15-20 landing ships and throw in a few tugboats and oilers and come up with a rough estimate of no more than 100 ocean-going ships and submarines in the Russian navy, of which 10-20 are either still on the books but not actually seaworthy or are in the midst of being overhauled at any given time. Of course, if we wanted to sow panic among the uninformed, we could include the 70+ corvettes, 30+ minesweepers, and assorted other ships to come up with 200+ combat ships of all kinds. We could even add the various auxiliary ships. That would get us to almost 500 ships currently listed as serving in the Russian navy. Clearly a formidable force, especially the 30-odd degaussing vessels and 50 or so hydrographic ships. But if we want to be serious, we have to recognize that the Russian navy as currently constituted has a very small number of ships that are actually able to deploy out of area for any length of time.

And this is not likely to change substantially in the short term. The shipbuilding program currently in place is significant. Galrahn is right to note that the Russian government has allocated $132 billion for shipbuilding through 2020. This is not quite the $16.5 billion per year that he mentions, simply because the total amount is for the naval component of the full 10-year State Armament Program for 2011-2020 (SAP-2020). So we should divide by 10 rather than 8, getting $13.2 billion. That’s still a lot of money. But the vast bulk of that funding will be going to build new SSBNs and attack submarines, with not that much left over for surface combatants. Other than the two Mistrals being purchased from France, ocean-going surface ships will be limited to 8 Admiral Gorshkov class and 6 Krivak class frigates. These are nice ships, but not the kind of ship that would indicate a massive Russian naval revival is underway. Plus, the first Admiral Gorshkov-class ship has been repeatedly delayed. This is quite common in the construction of a new ship class in any country, but it does lead to some serious questions about whether the navy will get all eight by the 2020 target date.  Plans for new destroyers are still on the drawing board and discussion of building an aircraft carrier is likely to remain purely theoretical for at least the rest of this decade.

Furthermore, much of the funding is very much uncertain. There have been various reports about reductions in military procurement spending and even potentially a three-year delay in fulfilling the armaments program. The most recent information I have is that $22.5 billion has been cut from total military procurement for the 2013-15 period, though it’s not clear how much of that affects naval procurement. Funding for the SAP is very much backloaded, with 69 percent of the funding allocated for the 2016-2020 period. By that point, of course, there will be a new State Armaments Program and, if necessary, the inflated figures from the current one can be quietly forgotten.

I don’t want to give the impression that this is all smoke and mirrors. The Russian military is clearly focused on modernization and the navy in particular will be getting new ships and submarines over the next few years. Its ability to protect its shores will be greatly enhanced by the new ships coming online during this period. However, it will be at least another decade (i.e. 2030 or later) before it will get the kinds of large combat ships that it will need to have any kind of global presence or significant expeditionary capability.

Challenges Facing the Russian Defense Establishment

The following article originally appeared on the International Relations and Security Network (ISN) of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH Zurich). You can find the original version here.


Over the last four years, the Russian government has undertaken an unprecedented effort to reform the structure of its military. As part of this effort, it has sought to begin the process of shifting the military to a more professional manning structure, providing it with modern weapons and equipment, and reorganizing it to be prepared to fight the conflicts it is most likely to face in the coming decades. While the reorganization process has proceeded fairly quickly, a demographic crisis and continuing problems in the defense industry will present grave challenges to the military modernization effort in the coming decade.

Military reorganization

At the start of the reform process, Russian military forces had few combat-ready units; most units were staffed only with officers, with the expectation that these officers would command units made up of reservists called up in the event of a major conflict. Planners expected it to take a full year to bring the military to full readiness in such circumstances. This type of structure worked for the Soviet military engaged in the Cold War confrontation with NATO but did not make sense for a military that expected to be involved primarily in local, counter-guerilla and counter-terrorism operations. Being prepared for this type of conflict leads to far less stringent requirements in terms of army strength and mobilization capability, while emphasizing greater professionalism and combat readiness on the part of the military.

To better prepare the military to fight in 21st century conflicts, the Ministry of Defense mandated major changes in command structure to improve command and control. As part of this plan, traditional military districts were eliminated in favor of four Unified Strategic Commands (USCs). Each USC was given responsibility for all conventional military units in its region, in both peacetime and wartime. This was the first step of an effort to create truly joint military forces in which troops belonging to various services are under a single command and able to easily communicate with each other. As part of this change, the military shifted from a four-tier to a three-tier command structure, with combined arms armies and brigades below the USCs. The goal was to make the military more compact and mobile and to allow for rapid troop deployment, all as part of an effort to prepare the military to fight smaller local wars, rather than the huge frontal conflicts of the past.

The second part of the reorganization involved making the brigade the basic unit of the military. The reform created modular brigades that combine three infantry or tank battalions with dedicated reconnaissance, artillery, air defense, logistics, and repair units. These brigades are much more self-sufficient in combat than a regiment, but at the same time more mobile than a division.

The reorganization process was largely completed in 2011. However, the Ministry of Defense is still facing challenges in maintaining the newly formed brigades at a high readiness level and in providing communications equipment to facilitate joint operations involving multiple armed forces branches. These challenges are related to the two greatest problems facing the Russian military: inadequate staffing and outdated equipment.

A continuing manpower shortage

Despite the need for an increase in the number of professional soldiers, the Russian military has largely failed to resolve its manpower shortage. Although it officially has a one-million-man army, actual staffing is around 750,000. The gap between the official position and reality, of course, implies that 25 percent of billets are currently vacant. This does not bode well for the concept of fully manned permanent readiness brigades, which have been at the core of recent military reform efforts.

The manpower shortfall is due to a combination of a rapid decline in the number of 18-year-old men eligible for conscription and an inability to recruit enough contract soldiers to fill the gap in the number of conscripts. Presently, there are no more than 700,000 men reaching the age of 18, of whom only about 400,000 are considered draft-eligible because of various deferments and health exemptions. Furthermore, the severe drop in the birth rate in the 1990s means that within the next two years, the number of 18-year-olds will decline by a further 40%, leaving less than 300,000 draft eligible 18-year-olds. The number of conscripts called up annually has already declined to 270,000.

Some politicians have sought to address the manpower shortage by proposing an increase in the length of conscript service to either 18 months or two years. This is a politically unpopular measure that will most likely lead to popular protest. Given the fragility of the current political regime, it seems fairly unlikely. Furthermore, if it happens, it will signal the rollback of military reform and the victory of the old guard over the reformers.

The military is instead banking on vastly increasing the number of contract soldiers serving in the military. This has been the stated goal of military reformers for many years. But so far they have little to show for their efforts. In fact, over the last 15 years Russia has actually regressed in its ability to attract professional soldiers. In 1995, the Russian military had 380,000 contract soldiers and NCOs in service. Because of a combination of financial problems and resistance by senior generals, by 2003 this figure had shrunk to135,000. Since then, there has been a modest increase to190,000. The MOD has set a target of reaching 425,000 contract soldiers by adding 50,000 per year starting in 2012. To this end, it has increased salaries and improved living conditions for soldiers. Despite these actions, it is falling short of its recruiting targets for this year and is not assured of continued financing for contract soldier recruitment going forward. Given its manpower problems, the military would do better to abandon the fiction that the Russian military has one million personnel and admit that 800,000 is a more realistic target going forward.

Outdated armaments

The Russian military is also facing a crisis in its equipment. Because of a lack of funding, the military received virtually no new equipment between 1993 and 2008. As a result, the vast majority of its armaments are both physically old and based on outdated designs. To deal with this problem, the Russian government has begun to implement a 10-year and $650 billion State Armament Program. The program’s goal is to ensure that 70 percent of the Russian military’s equipment is modern by 2020. The program’s top priorities are to re-equip the Strategic Rocket Forces, the air force, the air defense and space forces, and to provide more advanced command and control equipment for the military.

The program suffers from a number of problems. First of all, when Russian officials discuss their goals for procuring modernized weaponry over the next 10 years, they never define their terms. They do not have a list of what types of armaments are considered modern. In some cases, systems that are based on 20-50 year old designs are described as modern. This inevitably leads to the conclusion that the MOD is implicitly defining modern equipment as any equipment that was procured in the last few years, rather than equipment actually based on new designs.

More importantly, analysts have grave doubts that the program will actually be carried out. Prominent Russian political figures have argued that the government cannot afford to spend such sums on rearmament given the need to revitalize the country’s civilian infrastructure and the need to fund social programs in a deteriorating economic environment. Last summer, senior officials were considering a decrease in procurement funding for the next several years. Some sources indicated that the entire State Armament Program would simply be extended for three years—that is, it would run through 2023 rather than 2020.

Even if procurement funding is maintained at planned levels, there are grave doubts about the Russian defense industry’s ability to produce modern weapons. Only a few enterprises have modernized their facilities and begun to work on new designs. The rest have outdated equipment and are not prepared to fulfill the military’s needs. Most are continuing to lose skilled workers because the civilian sector can pay higher salaries. This is in addition to the disappearance of an entire age cohort (ages 30-50) who didn’t go into the field over the last two decades because of its lack of financing and low prestige. Even companies that have modernized are dependent on subcontractors for their supply chains, and these subcontractors are often in much worse shape.

There are also problems with the defense industry’s organization. As part of Russia’s overall re-centralization 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 dysfunctional — with the more effective units used to keep the effectively bankrupt ones afloat. All this means that the modernization of the industry has only barely begun. And it is difficult to understand how the State Armament Program can be fulfilled without the modernization of the defense industry.

The problems facing Russia’s defense industry

A couple of weeks ago, Ilya Kramnik had Viktor Murakhovsky on his show on the radio station Govorit Moskva. Murakhovsky and Kramnik are both relatively well known experts on the Russian military and the discussion turned out to be highly informative. The whole 45 minute conversation is available here in audio form, while a Russian language transcript of the first 10 minutes can be found here.

There’s a lot of interesting material here, mostly on the state of Russian defense industry and specifically on the State Armaments Program. The key point for me comes near the end, though. Murakhovsky spells out the four top priorities of SAP 2020 as follows: 1) Strategic Rocket Forces, 2) Space Forces, 3) Air Defense and 4) Command and Control. Murakhovsky argues that these are derived directly from the military doctrine, which lists NATO and its enlargement as the most significant threat facing Russia. However, since these threats have nothing to do with the actual conflicts that Russia might be engaged in in the coming years, the army is in essence spending money on armaments that it will never use (new missiles, air defense, advanced fighter planes, etc).

The Russian military’s real needs relate to the types of war in which the Russian military HAS fought in the last 20 years — local and regional wars. For this, Russia needs to procure new tanks, armored vehicles, machine guns, better personal armor, modern artillery, PGMs, etc. But the modernization of the ground forces is last on the list of priorities for the SAP. No new tanks are to be procured until 2015 or 2016. Modern ammunition will only be procured starting in 2014. Until then, 1980s era tanks will get by with 1980s era ammunition.  This is not to say that the ground forces are not getting new tanks or other armaments. They are. But what they’re getting is new equipment based on old designs, which are not truly modern weapons by any means.

A second point made by Murakhovsky is that when MOD officials talk about goals for procuring modernized weaponry over the next 10 years, they never define their terms. There’s no denominator for the percentages. In other words, 30% modern weaponry could be achieved just by scrapping a lot of old equipment, without actually producing all that much new equipment. More seriously, there’s no list of what types of armaments are considered modern. Some officials describe systems that are based on 20-50 year old designs (Msta, Akatsiia, Gvozdika) as modern. This inevitably leads to the conclusion that the MOD is implicitly defining modern equipment as any equipment that was procured in last few years, rather than equipment actually based on new designs.

Third, Murakhovsky addresses the likelihood that the SAP will actually be carried out. The problems revolve around simple arithmetic. If the total amount to be spent on rearmament over the next 10 years is about 20 trillion rubles, it is fairly simple to figure out that the MOD should be spending approximately 2 trillion rubles a year. However, the total amount spent in 2011 was 721 billion. In 2012, procurement spending may reach 1.1 trillion. And of this, only 60-65 percent goes to actual procurement of new equipment, while the rest goes to R&D and modernization of existing equipment. These are obviously quite significant sums, but the difference between the plan and actual spending is clear to see. If this persists, then the current SAP is likely to fail in much the same way as the last three SAPs failed.

In addition to the discussion of the armaments program, Kramnik and Murakhovsky also discussed the state of the Russian defense industry. A lot of the discussion focused on the successes and failures of specific companies, but several general points were made as well.

First of all, the companies that are currently in the best shape are those that were able to adjust to the post-Cold War conditions by focusing on exports. They developed modern marketing and information departments, were able to produce new designs, and were able to retain a large part of their workforce. Some examples include Russian Helicopters, Irkut, and Sukhoi, as well as several lesser known companies. On the other hand, even these companies are dependent on sub-contractors for their supply chains, and these subcontractors are often in much worse shape.

Many companies are continuing to lose skilled workers because the civilian sector can pay higher salaries. This is in addition to the disappearance of an entire age cohort (ages 30-50) who didn’t go into the field because of its lack of financing from the late eighties until the mid 2000s.

The modernization of the industry has not really begun, because the three-year federal program dedicated to this task has yet to be adopted. It is difficult to understand how the State Armaments Program can be fulfilled without the modernization of the defense industry. Until this program is adopted, it will be difficult to recruit workers with the necessary qualifications, or to modernize the equipment of many defense sector companies.

One topic that was not addressed was the extent to which the defense industry’s problems are caused by government’s refusal to allow some defense sector companies to fail. The creation of vertical sectoral holding companies has been described by some analysts as an effort to make the better-performing units support other units that are effectively bankrupt. This may be a reasonable solution if the goal is to minimize social disruption to the companies’ remaining employees, but it inevitably drags down the more successful units and makes the production of needed technology more expensive. I would have been curious to hear Murakhovsky’s take on this problem.

Of course, no one can address all the problems that face Russian defense procurement in one 45 minute radio show. The topics that were addressed make clear the depth of the problems facing Russia’s defense industry and reinforce the sense that concrete procurement targets should continue to be taken with a grain of salt.


The fate of the last state armaments program

Today’s NVO includes a reminder of the fate of procurement plans included in the last State Armaments Program (for 2006-2015) as the program has passed its halfway mark.

  • 7 Borei SSBNs: none in service to date (though two have been built), because of problems with the Bulava missile
  • 6 multi-purpose attack submarines: none built to date
  • 24 surface combat ships: 2 completed in the first 5 years
  • 116 new fighter aircraft: 22 completed
  • 156 new helicopters: 60 completed
  • 18 S-400 battalions: 4 completed
  • 5 Iskander brigades: 1 completed

I’m afraid I don’t have the time to verify the numbers right now or to break this down into specific components (types of aircraft, etc), but the general picture seems more or less correct.

The article goes on to note that in 2010, Russian defense industry received its full measure of allocated funding, while completing only 70 percent of state orders in 2010. This reinforces the point being made not just by analysts, but also by top generals: the condition of the Russian defense industry has deteriorated to the point that it is unable to keep up with demand. Most of its plants are desperately in need of modernization. Without an effort along these lines, the new State Armaments Program (for 2011-2020) is likely to fail as badly as the last.

The Russian Navy’s shipbuilding constraints

Last week, the press in the U.S. briefly got excited about the Russian state armaments program. Fred Weir’s article in particular talked about the bear sharpening its claws, etc. There was no mention of the failure of all previous such programs, and no discussion of the overall likelihood that the program would actually be carried out in its entirety. I have for awhile been arguing that there’s no way that these grand pronouncements can be met given the current capacities of Russia’s defense industry. I’m currently in the middle of putting together a fairly lengthy analysis of the Russian air force’s acquisitions in light of these limitations, which will hopefully see the light of day within the next week or so.

While that’s in progress, I thought I’d share a note that I received recently from Dave Baker regarding the extent to which Russia’s shipbuilding industry is likely to meet its GPV targets, written in response to an AP article about Russia’s plans to acquire 600 planes and 100 ships in the next 10 years.

Despite this being an official announcement, I’d not put too much credence into it, and I seriously doubt that the stated goals can be met or even distantly approached. Within the last couple of weeks there was another official statement that, instead of five Graney-class SSNs being completed by 2015, there will now be only one more past the prototype laid down 15 years ago. Another Russian yard official stated that no work would be begun on the pair of Mistrals to be built in Russian until 2020 (when the new yard at Kotlin Island would be completed; prior announcements, not that long ago, have said the yard would be finished in 2017).

At the same time, the new corvette program has already been cancelled after only two launchings, due to stability and weapons system integration problems. Just read that the new submarine rescue ship laid down in 2007 at Admiralty has had very little done on it since due to funding shortages, and, of course, the Lada program seems very likely to have been halted at the one in the water, since by switching to building Kilos for domestic use at Admiralty, there’s no longer any yard space to build Ladas (not sure what’s happening to units two and three, which are on order — unit two may be the one laid down as an export demonstrator back in 1996, but the fourth was never ordered).

Etc., etc.   On the other hand, there’s a yard near St. Petersburg cranking out a slew of new yard tugs to replace the ancient and decrepit fleet now in use. Perhaps the 100 ships will mostly be yardcraft. Oh, and Putin is getting a very large and expensive yacht out of the Russian Navy budget.

I am very much in agreement with this line of thinking. While my understanding is that at least two more of the new corvettes will be completed (and possibly as many as four for a total of six altogether), it is clear that the project has been declared a failure and will eventually be replaced by a new corvette design that is light (1500 tons or less), inexpensive, and can accommodate a wide range of armaments — including missiles that can hit both land and sea targets (perhaps the Klub?), anti-aircraft and anti-submarine defenses, and mine-laying capabilities. However, the timeline on this project is quite long, as design has only just begun.

Similarly, the Lada submarines are a failure because of largely unsolved propulsion problems. A return to the Kilo, at least for the near to medium term, seems to be the only solution. I’m also not at all surprised that there will only be one more Graney (aka Severodvinsk)-class attack submarine. Back in September, I noted that plans for building one of these a year starting in 2011 were completely unrealistic and that the submarine type in and of itself was too expensive and unnecessary given the cancellation of the similar Sea Wolf program by the United States after only three subs.

In other words, don’t expect 100 new Russian navy ships by 2020. Unless you count the yard tugs…

UPDATE: In fairness, I should note that Fred Weir’s article does talk about problems related to the armaments program, particularly about whether the weapons being procured will be useful for Russia’s defensive needs, the lack of fresh designs, and the deteriorating capabilities of the military industrial complex. As I note in the comments below, it’s more the headline that’s the problem, rather than the piece itself.

What will the navy do with its ships?

Surprisingly, developments in the Russian military have continued apace over the last two months while I’ve been more or less away from writing new material. Now I’m back and at some point will write about some of the things I learned about Caspian security.

But first, I came across a very interesting analysis of likely Russian naval strategy for the next ten years based on plans announced in the State Armaments Program. This was published two months ago, but I haven’t seen it covered in English, so it seems worth noting. The author notes four situations in which Russia will have to depend on its naval forces:

  1. Protecting undersea pipelines and offshore energy deposits.
  2. Protecting Sea lanes of communication and trade (i.e. anti-piracy).
  3. Defending Russia from China. The author argues that since Russian ground forces could not withstand a Chinese attack, Russia’s only hope (other than its nuclear deterrent, which he doesn’t mention for some reason) is to defeat the Chinese Navy and threaten its major population centers on the coast.
  4. Showing the flag in areas where it’s important for Russia to have influence. The author specifically lists Latin America, the Middle East, and Southwest Asia. He ties previous ship visits to these areas to subsequent arms sales to Venezuela and Vietnam.

These are likely to be the four main missions of Russia’s conventional naval forces for at least the next decade. Note what is missing from this list. Based on its shipbuilding plans, Russia no longer considers the US an opponent. Instead of ships aimed at destroying US attack submarines and aircraft carriers, Russia plans to build smaller multipurpose ships such as frigates and corvettes.

Furthermore, ship building plans indicate that in the coming years, the Pacific Fleet will become the most important Russian fleet, taking over from the Northern Fleet. Its main mission will be to deter potential Chinese aggression against Russia. It could also be used in the event of a conflict with Japan over the Kuril Islands, though I can’t imagine that how that dispute could lead to an armed conflict. Because of the priority given to this fleet, the first of the newly purchased Mistral ships will go to the Pacific Fleet.

The Northern fleet will remain the main base for strategic submarines, while its big surface ships (and especially Peter the Great, which is nuclear powered and does not need to depend on accompanying refueling ships) will be restricted to “show the flag” types of cruises around the world.

Now that the Sevastopol basing issue has been resolved, the Black Sea Fleet will be substantially modernized. Plans call for it to receive six diesel submarines and 12 new corvettes and amphibs. These will be used for three missions — to protect undersea energy pipelines, control maritime approaches to Georgia, and conduct anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia.

Finally, the Baltic Fleet has no potential opponents and will be turned into a coastal protection force. All of its large ships are being transferred to Sevastopol and its sole mission will be to protect undersea pipelines. To this end, it will have a larger contingent of naval special operations forces.

Of course, all of this depends on the Russian ship-building industry actually completing the construction of various ships in a timely manner. Plans call for the construction, over the next ten years, of 8 strategic submarines, 22 multi-purpose submarines (both nuclear and diesel), 12 frigates, 20 corvettes, and 10 amphibious ships. Given the track record, the likelihood of Russian ship-builders being able to build this many ships in ten years is more or less zero. Building half of those ships is perhaps a realistic target, if all goes well. But note that the first of the Ivan Gren amphibious ships, six of which are supposed to be built, has been under construction since 2004 and is currently listed as “in early stages of construction.” The first of the new Admiral Gorshkov frigates, laid down in 2006, was recently floated out of its launch dock but is still listed as only 40 percent complete.

Despite the inevitable problems and delays that will push back this reconfiguration, the shipbuilding program spelled out in the SAP shows the likely strategic direction of the Russian Navy for at least the next decade. According to these plans, the conventional Russian navy will remain primarily a coastal defense force, while its older larger ships will primarily be engaged in friendly visits to other parts of the world.

Russia’s State Armaments Program 2020: Is the Third Time the Charm for Military Modernization?

The following post is being published as a PONARS Eurasia policy memo and will be presented at its annual policy conference, which will be held in Washington D.C. on Friday, October 22. For more information, click here.


For the first two years of the Russian military reform program that began in October 2008, the top priority of the Ministry of Defense was reorganization. This involved the transformation of the military’s division-based structure into one based on brigades, as well as a shift in the ratio of officers to enlisted soldiers in favor of the latter. The last step of this reorganization was the replacement of military districts with four operational strategic commands, modeled on the U.S. military’s regional commands. These are joint commands that control all of the forces on their territory, including naval and air force units.

As this organizational transformation was being completed, top defense officials increasingly focused on the need to rearm the newly streamlined Russian military. In several speeches last winter and spring, President Dmitry Medvedev called for large-scale rearmament. More specifically, in a March 5 speech to the Defense Ministry Collegium, he called for renewing arms and equipment at a rate of 9 to 11 percent per year for the next decade, in order to reach a target of modernizing 70 percent of military equipment by 2020.

This will be a difficult target to achieve. The current rate is less than two percent; even the Soviet military of the 1980s averaged only a 5-7 percent renewal rate. In order to achieve this plan, the Russian government is putting together a new State Armaments Program for 2011-2020 (SAP-2020). This program will replace two earlier programs enacted since Vladimir Putin came to power, the most recent for the period from 2007 to 2015. What the previous programs have all had in common is that in each case the government failed to achieve the program’s stated goals.

SAP-2020: What We Know So Far

The SAP will not be announced until later this fall, but some information about its parameters has already begun to appear in the Russian press. The total size of the program is still under negotiation. Back in May, President Medvedev announced that total spending on armaments over the next ten years will be 13 trillion rubles, or approximately $425 billion at current exchange rates. This would be a significant increase from the previous armaments program, which allotted five trillion rubles over a nine-year period. However, Defense Ministry officials argued that this amount would not be sufficient to modernize the entire military. General Oleg Frolov, the acting chief of armaments, noted that for 13 trillion rubles the ministry would be able to modernize only the strategic nuclear forces, the air force, and air defenses. To modernize the ground forces, an additional 15 trillion would be necessary, while the modernization of the entire military (including the navy and the space forces, which operate Russia’s military satellites) would cost a total of 36 trillion rubles ($1.2 trillion).

The definitive program budget will not be announced for several more months, though it seems impossible for the Ministry of Defense to obtain anywhere near the full amount it seeks. In late September, Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov announced that total spending for the armaments program would equal 22 trillion rubles, of which 19 trillion would be allocated to the Ministry of Defense and 3 trillion to other power ministries. This would increase Russian defense spending to around 3.5-4 percent of GDP, up from the current 2.9 percent.

The Air Force

The full parameters of which armaments the Russian military will procure with this money have also not been announced, though some specifics are now available. The air force will be one of the main beneficiaries, while the navy and ground forces are considered a lesser priority. The Ministry of Defense believes it can modernize all of the country’s military aircraft over the next ten years. The goal is to purchase 350 new fighter airplanes, 1,000 new helicopters, and a number of new transport aircraft. This is a high priority as most of the existing aircraft have reached or exceeded their original lifespan. Specific air force procurement plans include:

  • T-50 fifth generation fighter aircraft (PAK FA). 10 to be purchased in 2013-2015. An additional 50-60 to be procured in 2016-2020.
  • Next generation long-range bomber (PAK DA). Design began in 2010. Prototype to be built by 2015. First units scheduled to enter air force in 2020.
  • Su-35BM fourth generation fighter aircraft. 48 to be purchased in 2010-2015.
  • Su-34 fighter-bomber. 32 to be purchased in 2010-2015.
  • MiG-35 fighter. Currently in development. First units expected to enter air force in 2013.
  • Yak-130 training aircraft. 150 to be delivered in 2010-2015. An additional 50 to be procured in 2016-2020.
  • An-124 transport aircraft. 20 to be purchased in 2015-2020. 10 to be modernized in 2011-2020.
  • An-70 transport aircraft. 60 to be purchased in 2011-2020.
  • Mi-26 transport helicopters. Exact number unknown. Main focus of helicopter renewal program.

Air Defense and Strategic Rocket Forces

The armaments program also promises significant improvements in air defense and strategic rocket forces. For the former, Russia will continue to procure the S-400 air defense system. Two air defense regiments were armed with this system prior to 2010. An additional five were to be procured during this year. The goal is to have as many as 23 regiments (of 8 to 12 missiles each) by 2015. It will then be augmented by the more advanced S-500 system, currently under development and expected to be ready for production by 2013. Both the S-400 and S-500 systems are superior to the US Patriot PAC-3 in maximum speed, range, and accuracy. Russia will also continue to procure the Pantsir-S1 short-range surface-to-air missile, with at least 200 units expected to be added by 2016 to the 10 already in service in 2010.

The strategic rocket forces will continue to receive Topol-M (SS-27) and the new RS-24 ICBMs. The latter is a Topol-M variant with three or four multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVed) that began to be deployed this year. These will gradually completely replace the older SS-18 and SS-19 ICBMs, as the service life of these missiles is scheduled to expire over the next ten years.

The Navy

The procurement plans for the navy seem quite extensive, but are likely to be carried out in full only if the Ministry of Defense succeeds in its effort to increase the government’s total financial commitment to the State Armament Program. The strategic submarine force remains a priority for the military and will be funded no matter what. Financing for other projects, especially the larger and more expensive ships, is more uncertain, though the commander of the navy recently announced that the construction of a total of 15 ships and diesel submarines for the Black Sea Fleet will be part of the armament program. Specific plans include the following:


  • Borei-class ballistic missile submarine. First currently in sea trials. Five to seven more to be commissioned in 2010-2017. Three of these are already under construction. The project’s success will depend on the military’s ability in getting the Bulava SLBM to fly successfully.
  • Yasen-class multi-purpose attack submarine. First launched in June 2010. Two to five more to be commissioned by 2020.
  • Lada-class diesel submarines. First commissioned in April 2010. Two to seven more to be commissioned by 2020.
  • Improved Kilo-class submarines. If problems with Lada class continue, could build as many as eight of these instead, with at least three going to the Black Sea Fleet. There is also the possibility that a smaller number of these would be built to be used in conjunction with a small number of Ladas.

Surface Combat Ships

  • Aircraft carrier. This summer, the navy announced that designs for a new aircraft carrier would be finished this year. It is likely that the construction of one or two carriers will be included in the State Armaments Program. Their actual construction is likely to take many years in the best of circumstances, and it is highly unlikely that the Russian Navy will have a functioning aircraft carrier by 2020.
  • Mistral amphibious assault ships. Two will be purchased from France, with another two to be built in Russia under license. Negotiations over the purchase are still ongoing, but they are likely to conclude successfully in the next few months.
  • Ivan Gren-class landing ships. Three to five to be commissioned in 2012-2020.
  • New destroyers. Press reports indicate that design of a new 10,000-ton destroyer is under way, with construction of the first ship to begin in 2013. The hope is to build 10 to 12 of these ships over the next 20 years, though it is unlikely that more than two or three could be completed by 2020 in the best of circumstances.
  • Admiral Gorshkov-class frigates. Two currently under construction. Plans call for a total of 20 to be built over the next 20 years. Of these, three to six are likely to be built by 2020.
  • Krivak IV-class frigates. Given the slow pace of construction for the Admiral Gorshkov frigate, the Russian navy is likely to build three or four of these frigates for the Black Sea Fleet. Previously, these ships have been built for the Indian Navy.
  • Steregushchii-class corvettes. First commissioned in 2007. Second launched in March 2010. Three more are currently under construction, to be commissioned by 2013. In total, 20 are expected to built, with 10 likely to be completed by 2020.

In addition to these procurement plans, the Navy has declared its intention to restore and modernize the various mothballed Kirov- and Slava-class cruisers owned by the Russian Navy. The Kirov-class Admiral Nakhimov (originally Kalinin) cruiser will be the first to undergo modernization. If this effort is successful, the Admiral Lazarev (originally Frunze) may also be modernized prior to 2020. The Admiral Ushakov (originally Kirov) could theoretically be modernized as well, though most sources believe it to be a pile of radioactive rusted metal, due to a combination of a 1990 reactor accident and subsequent lack of repair or maintenance. The Navy may also work with Ukrainian shipbuilders to finish the almost completed Admiral Lobov Slava-class cruiser. If this project goes through, the three active Slava-class cruisers in the Russian navy may also be modernized over the next ten years.

Ground Forces and Other Equipment

Much less is known about procurement plans for the ground forces, in part because they are likely to receive the least amount of new equipment in the next decade. We do know that the military has canceled plans to procure the T-95 battle tank and will instead continue to purchase T-90 tanks for the foreseeable future. The ground forces will also receive Italian light armored vehicles, probably instead of the BTR-90 armored vehicles that they had previously planned to purchase. They will also continue to purchase Iskander tactical ballistic missiles for its missile brigades, replacing existing Tochka (SS-21 Scarab) missiles in seven more brigades, in addition to the two that have already been rearmed with Iskanders in 2010. It is likely that sometime during the next decade, the design of a new generation of multiple rocket launcher systems will be completed, with some likely to enter service prior to 2020 in place of the currently used BM-30 Smerch systems.

In addition to platforms and weapons, the Russian military will focus on improving its communications capabilities by upgrading its GLONASS satellite system and procuring new digital communications and command and control systems, as well as other high tech items such as night vision equipment and better IFF (Identify Friend or Foe) systems. Many of these items are likely to be procured abroad or developed with foreign assistance.


Whatever the actual details of SAP-2020 turn out to be, if the Russian government carries all of them out, it will be the first time such a program is actually carried out in full. Past programs foundered due to three reasons: lack of financing, corruption, and the poor state of the Russian defense industry. All these factors are likely to play a role in limiting the Russian military’s ability to modernize its weapons and equipment over the next decade.

The large increase in funding promised for SAP-2020 may not be sustainable, as it depends on a stable or rising price of oil and natural gas in coming years, which itself depends on the continuation of the current global economic recovery. If government revenues should falter, financing for the military will undoubtedly suffer as well. And even if revenue projections are met, the increase in financing being discussed right now will require a significant shift in government expenditures toward the military despite ever more pressing needs in the civilian sector.

Whether the government will be able to maintain such a plan if its popularity starts to erode in coming years is very much an open question, especially as it becomes more and more obvious to the population that much of the procurement money instead goes to line the pockets of senior military officials. Various press reports estimate that as much as half of all procurement money is spent on bribes and other forms of corruption. Last spring, the Audit Chamber announced that one billion rubles of military procurement money was lost to corruption in 2009. Analysts argue that without corruption, 19 trillion rubles would be more than enough to finance the entire defense procurement wish list, rather than the 36 trillion that was asked for by the Ministry of Defense.

However, the real question facing the armaments program is whether the Russian defense industry can actually build the weapons they are being asked to produce. The ability of the Russian defense industry to design and produce new weapons has been declining for 20 years. The best workers—those left over from Soviet times when the industry was well funded and a highly prestigious place to work—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 modernization, the industrial plant began to deteriorate. By the start of the Putin presidency, even the allocation of additional financing was not enough to counteract the decline in the defense industry’s ability to produce high quality products. This decline will have to be reversed if the Russian military is to be successful in producing new high-tech military equipment.