21st Century Russian Military Reform – Practice and Sustainability

By Clay Moore

T-14 Armata Tank Source: Wikimedia Commons / Соколрус

The Moscow Victory Day parade on May 9th featured a new main battle tank design, the T-14 Armata, along with a suite of additional armored vehicles ranging from self-propelled artillery to new infantry fighting vehicle variants.  The sharp appearance of these new toys represents the ideal results of what the 21st century Russian military structural and spending reforms were intended to produce.  However, simply parading a few demonstration models in front of adoring crowds does not indicate a healthy, modern defense industry, as wars are seldom won with one tank.

In this post, I will briefly analyze the organizational impact of the 2008 structural reforms of the Russian Armed Forces.  Additionally, I will examine the progress of Russia’s 10-year State Armament Program, which aims to introduce modern weaponry to over 70% of its forces by 2020.  I will conclude with a review of the sustainability of the modernization program.

The 1990s and the first decade of the 2000s featured relatively little activity in the realm of true structural armed forces reform.  One attempt in 1997 succeeded at increasing the amount of divisions capable of being on a 24-hour deployment alert-level, as well as established a three-tier force readiness structure.  Under President Putin’s first term, funding was increased to coincide with additional state revenues from higher hydrocarbon prices.  Additionally, it was an attempt to move away from the “mass mobilization” model towards a smaller and more capable professional armed forces structure.  Enlisted pay was increased and mandatory conscript service time was reduced, however systemic issues such as corruption, violent hazing of new recruits, and the use of rapidly-ageing equipment and armored platforms ensured that effective reform and capability remained elusive.1

In 2008, Defense Minister Anatoliy Serdukov launched an extensive, structural re-organization of the Russian armed forces.  A main pillar of the reform effort was a reduction in pre-existing officer numbers; however the reforms also attempted to create a professional non-commissioned officer corps.  Additionally, the reforms sought to bring the number of active servicemen down from 1.2 million active duty personnel down to 1 million.2  The reduction was not limited to ground forces; the Russian navy was brought down by half, from 240 to 123 units.  The air force was reduced from 380 to 180 units, while also losing 70% of their air bases.3

A consolidation of military districts in 2010 allowed the reforming military to geographically focus on divergent security threats to the Russian state.  The reforms downsized from six military districts down to only four joint strategic commands (JSC), and also integrated naval fleets into the joint command structure.4  The western JSC focuses on potential conflicts with technologically-advanced NATO forces, while the Siberian far eastern JSC concentrates on fighting traditional mass army formations, such as what Chinese forces would consist of.  The southern JSD is located between the Black and Caspian Seas.  Along with the central JSC, which consists of the middle-lands around the Urals, the southern JSC focuses on non-conventional threats such as insurgency, Islamic extremism and terrorism.  This specialization is logical due to the presence of Dagestan and Chechnya, along with the increasingly non-Russian ethnic demographics of the Idel-Ural region.

Another observable trend in the organization of ground forces is the shift away from divisions towards the creation of independent brigades.  Despite an attempt to bring in more contracted volunteers to fill the ranks of the basic infantry, the main bulk remains conscript-led, with professional operators largely limited to the airborne, spetsnatz, artillery crews, and other technical services.  This need for professional expertise in a localized unit formation led to the creation of Battalion Tactical Groups (BTGs).  These BTGs attain coordinated combined arms capabilities by permanently assigning armor, artillery, and air defense with mechanized infantry on the battalion level.  This also allows a degree of flexibility in implementing proxy forces into a more traditional Russian technical command structure.  This is why observers have seen Chechen mercenaries and local separatists fighting with great coordination with Russian heavy weaponry in eastern Ukraine in recent months.5

As of 2015, the State Armament Program 2020 (SAP-2020) is half-way through its lifespan.  The program’s intent was to modernize all aspects of the Russian military’s equipment and vehicles, in all services.  The initial target goal was to achieve 70% modernization by 2020, from only 10% at launch date.  The broader Russian defense budget went from $41 billion in 2010 to $78 billion in 2014, making Russia into the 3rd highest defense spending country in the world. 6

The Russian air force was one of the primary beneficiaries of the newly allocated resources.  The funds would be used to procure the T-50 PAK FA 5th gen fighter, a new long-range bomber, the PAK DA, as well as bolstering numbers of pre-existing platforms such as the SU-35 and the SU-34.  However, in April 2015, Yuri Borisov, the Deputy Minister of Defense, stated that the PAK FA program may be put on hold due to the current economic conditions.7 A halt of the program would be emblematic of the troubled development cycle that the platform has endured, as it featured structural issues from the start, and even required designers to develop a new powerplant design. 8

Over 42% of the funds in the SAP-2020 are directed towards strategic missile forces and aerospace defense.  This decision underscores the reliance on tactical ballistic missiles that Russian military strategy has evolved around.  The S-400 air defense system, along with the RS-24 ICBM, are already being paraded through Moscow, while the S-500 remains in development, despite initial expectations of a 2013 release.9 Naval forces were to receive more Borei-class submarines, as well as the Mistral-class amphibious assault ships from France, which ended up being scrapped due to Russia’s stance in the Ukrainian conflict. 10 Additionally, designs of a new aircraft carrier were proposed, however it’s very unlikely that it will enter service before 2020.  It’s clear that much of these expenditure decisions were made to maintain the rather dilapidated defense industry that the Russian Federation inherited, both in terms of technical expertise and manufacturing capacity.

Russian ground forces are the beneficiaries of relatively modern vehicle platforms such as the Armata, which features a chassis that supports artillery, main battle tank, and armored personnel carrier capabilities.  Kit has improved at the individual level as well, with the Ratnik infantry combat system, as well as a new Kalashnikov model, the AK-12.  However, as with the issues in the other services, these new systems and equipment remain woefully underutilized and cost-limited.  Taken as a whole, only 16% of Russia’s military is considered by the Kremlin to actually be modernized. 11 The expectation by 2015 was to be at least at 30%. 12

This highlights a disruptive trend in which set “X-year plans” are enacted at great cost, but by nearly every measure, the reality does not meet the expectation.  This year, the Ministry of Defense just announced that a new 2016-2025 SAP will be enacted, with drastically lowered funding.  The allocation is expected to drop from $899 billion to roughly $593 billion.13 The economic winds that affected this re-adjustment also are seen in the remainder of the SAP-2020 plan, which calls for only $45 billion for the remaining five years.  2014 ended up being a rough year for the Russian economy due to plummeting oil prices, western sanctions, as well as limited manufacturing capacity.  These are the main drivers of the re-adjustment of the SAPs.

In lieu of drastically increased oil prices and a lifting of the Western sanctions, the current defense spending levels are entirely unsustainable.  However, this is only the case if the Kremlin decides not to cut discretionary funds such as pensions and healthcare.  It’s unclear exactly how much the Russian citizenry is willing to suffer for a larger defense budget.  The Russian deficit is relatively low, as it’s only expected to increase by less than 1% going into 2016; the national debt is only 8% as well.14  These figures appear to indicate that the Russian government would successfully be able to continue its defense trajectory while maintaining discretionary spending.  However, due to the hydrocarbon-dependent structure of the Russian economy, along with signs that the demographic recovery is finally coming to a head (death rates are creeping up again, mainly due to weak healthcare capabilities15), the Russian defense budget growth will have difficulty continuing on its current trend line.

The extent to which this incoming apex of defense spending will affect capabilities is difficult to predict, as it heavily depends upon the specific features of a future conflict.  If the Kremlin expects to utilize tactical nuclear capabilities against NATO should a conflict occur in the near future, then its investments in tactical missile platforms will seem to be worth the hardship.  However, if the state budget becomes heavily compromised and cuts in discretionary spending leads to protests on the streets, then the platforms will be of little use.  The defense industry is likely to remain a questionably competent, costly, slowly modernizing drag on the already-wounded budget of the Russian Federation.

Works Consulted

  1. “Advancing, blindly” The Economist. Sep 18, 2008
  2. “Reform of the Russian Armed Forces” RIA Novosti. Dec 12, 2009
  3. Moscow Defense Brief #2. 2010 p.22-24
  4. “Russia sets up four strategic commands” RIA Novosti. July 14, 2010
  5. “The Russian Military Forum: Russia’s Hybrid War Campaign: Implications for Ukraine and Beyond” Center for Strategic and International Studies. Phillip Karber. Mar 10, 2015
  6. “Russian Defence Spending trends” IHS Jane’s. Craig Caffrey. Nov 17, 2014
  7. “Russian Next Generation Stealth Fighter to Fall Victim to the Russian Financial Crisis?” The Aviationist. Jacek Siminski. Apr 7, 2015
  8. “Russia’s Most Advanced Fighter Jet’s Troublesome Childhood” The Aviationist. Jacek Siminski. Oct 18, 2013
  9. “Russia’s State Armaments Program 2020” PONARS Eurasia Policy Memo No. 125. Dmitry Gorenburg.
  10. “France’s Hollande moots cancellation of Mistral deal with Russia” Reuters. Apr 22, 2015
  11. “Russia’s Military Will Get Bigger and Better in 2015” The Moscow Times. Matthew Bodner. Dec 8, 2014
  12. “Russian Military Budget” GlobalSecurity.org
  13. “Update: Russia to develop new defence plan for 2016-2020 by end of the year” IHS Jane’s 360. Nikolai Novichkov. Jan 8, 2015
  14. “Russian Defence Spending trends” IHS Jane’s. Craig Caffrey. Nov 17, 2014
  15. “Russia’s Death Rate is Surging and its Not Clear Why” Forbes. Mark Adomanis. May 6, 2015 – Data from RosStat

Clay's picClay Moore is a Master’s Candidate at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce.  He focuses on Russian and Eastern European economics and security.  Questions?  Comments?  Opportunities?  Feel free to email him at cjm0192@gmail.com


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