2 Nov 2020
AAFTER THE With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the once powerful Russian armed forces were brought down. Moscow bus drivers earned more than fighter pilots. Starving soldiers were sent to look for berries and mushrooms. Corruption was rife – a general was accused of hiring a MIg-29 for illicit drag races between cars and jets on a German airfield. “No army in the world is in such a miserable state as ours,” lamented a Minister of Defense in 1994. Yet few armies have rebounded in such a spectacular way. In 2008, Russian forces missed a war with Georgia. In response, they were transformed from top to bottom.
It started with large sums of money. Russian military spending roughly doubled between 2005 and 2018, measured in purchasing power-adjusted exchange rates. Although much of the budget is secret, Russia’s annual military spending is likely to be between $ 150 billion and $ 180 billion, according to Michael Kofman of the Center for Naval Analyzes, a think tank in Virginia. This is about three times more than Great Britain and almost 4% of GDP.
Much of that money has been spent on kit. Over the past decade, Russia has added around 600 new planes, 840 helicopters and 2,300 drones, estimates University of Birmingham’s Julian Cooper. While 99% of Russian armored vehicles in 2007 were classified as “old” – that is, introduced into service more than three decades ago – today, 27% are fully modern, according to a study published by the ” International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), a think tank in London, September 29. Russian warplanes went from a 97% legacy to a 71% modern legacy around this time.
Major investments have been made in precision missiles such as the land-based Iskander, sea-launched Kalibr and air-launched Kh-101, setting up range targets across Europe (see map) . Ten years ago, the idea that the Russian Navy could accurately strike targets in Syria from warships in the Caspian Sea would have been science fiction, notes Dmitry Stefanovich of IMEMO, a research institute in Moscow. “Now it is a reality. In a European war, the idea would be to use such missiles to threaten civilian and military infrastructure far behind the front lines on the ground, ensuring that a conflict over, say, Tallinn would spread far to the west. of the Rhine.
Russia’s ultimate goal is to create a “reconnaissance strike complex” – originally a Soviet idea – in which data from vehicles on the ground, drones in the air, satellites in space and Radio signals emitted by enemy units are collected, processed and fed into weapons in real time. Any “sensor” (eg, a drone) can feed a target to any “shooter” (such as a distant ship), with targets prioritized and hit, ideally, in a matter of minutes. Although Russia is behind America and probably China in this ambitious endeavor, it has made “huge leaps,” says Dima Adamsky of IDC Herzliya, a university in Israel.
The Russian forces are not only better armed, but also more agile. With improved readiness, Russia could likely send 100,000 troops, equipped with heavy armor, to a European hot spot within 30 days. NATO might struggle to muster half the number of lighter forces during this time. About 5,000 of the Russian airborne troops are said to be on two hours’ notice. The soldiers are kept on their toes with huge drills. The most recent, Kavkaz (Caucasus) 2020, involved 80,000 people and ended on September 26. “Russia has traded mace for tempo,” concludes Lieutenant-General Jim Hockenhull, chief of British defense intelligence.
The Russian armed forces have the added benefit of being bloodied in combat. While Russia and China may have comparable weapons, the quality of forces, in terms of training and combat experience, is “day and night,” Kofman said. In Ukraine, for example, Russia practiced armored warfare and artillery duels, experimenting with the use of cyber attacks and drones to provide targeting information to its guns. Syria, where more than 63,000 Russian personnel have served, has been a testing ground for precision strikes, air defense against swarms of rebel drones and the use of unmanned vehicles.
Russian officers in Syria have even shown signs of letting go of the Soviet legacy of strict, top-down command and acting with more autonomy and creativity, a practice known as “mission command,” observes. Mr. Adamsky. This, he said, would be “a major departure from Russian military tradition.” And in both countries, Russia has honed its electronic warfare skills by jamming radios, radar and drones. Russia’s fake GPS the signals in Syria were even strong enough to bamboozle civilian airliners in Israel.
Not everything has been fixed, of course. Viktor Murakhovsky, a former officer who now edits a military newspaper, is positive about the reforms. But he says shipbuilding is slow and the country lags behind rivals in long-range drones. New TThe -14 Armata tank, the new generation Su-57 warplane and the new submarines have all been delayed. Although Russia is adept at blowing things up in space, its aging fleet of reconnaissance satellites has shrunk over the years, with modernization complicated by Western sanctions. The biggest problem of all, Kofman says, is the limited capacity of the Russian defense industry, including the lack of trained personnel, machine tools and components.
The trade-off between hardware and humans is also evident. Although the troops are no longer hungry, their pay is not very high. Murakhovsky points out that a qualified tank commander in his twenties can expect just over 43,000 rubles ($ 532) per month in peacetime, lower than the national average. “In my opinion, this is not enough. The morale of the conscripts, who still represent 55% of the land forces, remains low, and the short duration of their service limits their usefulness in combat. Although the days of leasing warplanes are over, last year Russian military prosecutors announced 2,800 military officials had been charged with corruption. The amount stolen is approximately $ 90 million.
The military renaissance didn’t buy peace of mind, either. In a war with NATO, Russia “would have treaty superiority for a limited period”, concludes the IISS, but would be overwhelmed if the conflict dragged on. In recent years, Mr. Putin has therefore worked to ensure that a conflict does not drag on. He has invested heavily in nuclear forces, unveiling a host of frightening weapons such as hypersonic gliders, radioactive torpedoes designed to pollute coastal areas, and nuclear-powered cruise missiles capable of circling the Earth indefinitely. Missiles like the Iskander, Kalibr, and Kh-101 can also carry conventional and nuclear warheads (NATO officials point out they would have no way of knowing which one until they land). For Russian generals, the hope is that their rekindled strength means nuclear weapons will never be needed.
For its part, NATO largely focused on the Russian threats to the Baltic states and the challenges of strengthening Europe over the weeks and months. He underestimated how Russia’s new firepower could be used in a shorter, sharper and larger war that would extend far beyond the Baltic states. Its planners and the national politicians who set military budgets and priorities must adjust their strategies and spending in light of these new threats. ■
Correction (December 11, 2020): The map has been changed to include North Macedonia as a member of NATO. Apologies.
This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the headline “Putin’s New Model Army”