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The decline of the Russian military during the 1990s was regarded as a natural consequence of the fall of the Soviet Union, a crippled Russian economy and a political leadership searching for identity. Many of Russia’s military assets were allowed to fall into disrepair; while the modernisation of capabilities, or attempts at reform, were minimal. Of what military industry remained in Russia, inefficiency and corruption were rife and it suffered from over-capacity and a lack of research and development investment in advanced weapons systems.

Vladimir Putin’s election as President in 2000 precipitated a fundamental shift in Russian society, its politics, its economy and ultimately within its military. Under his leadership there has been a revival of national self-confidence and pride, a renewed sense of strategic entitlement with regard to Russia’s ‘near abroad’, and belief in Russia’s right to be a great power globally. The military, and in particular its strategic nuclear deterrent, has consistently been viewed as the ultimate symbol of that status. An extensive rearmament programme has been the consequence.

Russian defence expenditure since 2001

In the early years of Putin’s Presidency a buoyant Russian economy, due in large part to high oil and gas prices, resulted in large real terms increases for defence.

The 2008 global economic crisis did precipitate a reduction in defence spending, although this proved to be short-lived and the upward trajectory in defence spending continued after 2009. By 2015 the Russian defence budget was R3.1 trillion (4.2% of GDP). More than triple that of a decade earlier.

Increasing economic uncertainty in 2016 resulted in a 2% fall in the defence budget to R3 trillion. However, the Russian government pledged that the State Armament Plan (SAP) would be protected from cuts. For now the Kremlin appears committed to the modernisation of its military forces, regardless of its economic situation.

Programme of military modernisation

In the early years Putin’s modernisation agenda focused on increasing the professionalisation of the armed forces and improving the terms and conditions of personnel. The Putin administration also pushed for reform and consolidation within the military-industrial complex, which had suffered in the post-Soviet period. The majority of funding for rearmament was channelled into research and development, as opposed to the acquisition of new capabilities.

  • State Armament Plan 2007-2015

 In 2007 the Russian government set out its rearmament agenda. It outlined plans to spend approximately R5 trillion on a weapons modernisation programme that would replace 45% of its entire arsenal by 2015. 70% of that funding would be spent on the procurement of new capabilities and the maintenance of existing assets, while the remaining 30% would be earmarked for military research and development.

Russia’s nuclear triad was one of the biggest beneficiaries of this ambitious modernisation programme, along with the Russian navy. The aim was to achieve “the world’s second largest [navy] by 2027”. Efforts to revitalise the Russian shipbuilding industry were considered fundamental to this plan.

  • 2008 programme of military reform

 In October 2008 the government announced a wide ranging programme of military reform which was intended to establish a more efficient and combat ready forces by 2020. As part of that plan the rearmament programme was to be speeded up. Enabled by large real term increases in the defence budget, the objective was to achieve a level of advanced weaponry equating to 30% of Russia’s total military assets by 2015 and 70% by 2020. Russia’s strategic nuclear forces, the revitalisation of the Navy and addressing the capability weaknesses identified by the Georgia conflict were identified as priorities.

  • State Armament Plan 2011-2020

 In 2011 a new plan for the period 2011-2020 was announced. Building on the previous State Armament Programme, it allocated R19 trillion over the entire period, an almost four-fold increase on the previous armament plan. The aim of bringing the level of advanced weaponry to 70% by 2020 was still a key objective, with nuclear forces and the Russian Navy the largest recipients. The significant levels of additional spending, however, allowed the rearmament plan to be expanded.

Progress against the State Armament Plan

While the priorities of the State Armament Plan have not radically altered over the last decade, arguably the pace of rearmament has not, in reality, reflected aspirations.

The overriding conclusion of many analysts is that the rearmament programme is unlikely to achieve all of its goals within its stated timeframe of 2020. However, it has also been acknowledged that there is no accepted definition of “modern” technologies and Russia may simply move the goalposts in order to achieve its goals.

  • Complicating issues

 The pace of rearmament has been affected by a number of factors:

  • The longstanding inability of the military-industrial complex to meet the demands of the rearmament programme, particularly in the shipbuilding sector.
  • The impact of defence inflation and corruption on a defence budget already affected by low oil prices and an unpredictable economy.
  • The imposition of sanctions following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 which has impacted Russia’s ability to source Western hardware and components. Ukraine had previously also been a major supplier to the Russian armed forces, playing a significant role in the manufacture of transport aircraft, power propulsion units for ships and strategic missiles.

A programme of import substitution measures, aimed at offsetting the impact of Western sanctions, was adopted by the Military-Industrial Commission in May 2014. The cost of the programme has not been revealed but its aim is to substitute 90% of components that were previously sourced from NATO and EU countries, by 2018.

  • How far has rearmament progressed?

 Given the problems in defence budgeting and the domestic military-industrial complex, it is only within the last few years that the rearmament programme is considered to have begun showing tangible results.

In December 2015 the Russian Defence Ministry suggested its target of 30% modernised weaponry by 2015 had been met. By December 2016, 58.3% of Russian military equipment was categorised as modern.

Nuclear forces – In December 2016 Russia’s nuclear forces were equipped with 60% modern armaments. In the last decade Soviet-era ICBM have gradually been phased out and replaced with the Topol-M ICBM and the RS-24 Yars ICBM which has MIRV (multiple target) capability. While 57% of ICBM remain Soviet-era capabilities, estimates have put delivery of the Topol-M and RS-24 Yars ICBM at 40 per year. The replacement programme is thus scheduled for completion by 2022. A new rail-based ICBM, has reportedly been delayed until at least 2020 due to budgetary pressures.

Modernisation of the Russian Navy’s SSBN fleet has also been a priority since 2008. Acquisition of a new class of 8-10 SSBN, equipped with a new submarine-launched ballistic missile, is currently ongoing. The programme is several years behind schedule, however, due to initial problems with the missile system. Three Borei class SSBN had subsequently entered service by early 2016. The remaining SSBN of the class are expected to have some modifications and have been designated the Borei-A. The programme is expected to be completed in the mid-late 2020s.

Modernisation of the Tu-160 and Tu-95 strategic bomber fleet is also currently underway which will allow them to remain in service until the late 2020s-early 2030s.

Revitalisation of the Navy – Alongside the refurbishment and modernisation of legacy platforms, the aspiration is to achieve a new general purpose force comprising 50 major surface ships (including six aircraft carrier), and a fleet of 20 multi-purpose submarines. 50% of the Navy’s allocation of funding under the SAP 2011-2020 was intended for new construction.

Yet, it is widely acknowledged that the Navy’s modernisation ambitions will take time to come to fruition. The naval shipbuilding industry has suffered from years of neglect and under investment; while the Ukraine crisis and the imposition of sanctions is starting to have an effect. The refurbishment of existing naval vessels is progressing, albeit at a slower, and more expensive, pace than originally envisaged. Although several new frigates, corvettes and submarines have already entered service, delivery of new vessels is behind schedule.

The timeframe for the aircraft carrier programme has also proven to be completely unrealistic. Despite initial suggestions work on the future carrier programme is yet to start. Design work is now expected to be completed by 2020, with construction and entry into service planned for 2021-2030.

In December 2016 the Minister for Defence suggested that the level of modern armaments in the naval fleet was 47%.

Aerospace Forces – In December 2016 modern equipment in the Aerospace Force was estimated to account for 66% of assets, a rise of 14% on the previous year. Priorities have been the delivery of new and modernised aircraft and the equipping of missile defence regiments with the S-400 missile defence system.

Effort to modernise Russia’s fast jet capabilities have centred round the large scale procurement of tactical aircraft such as the Su-30, Su-34 and Su-35, and the development of a fifth generation fighter, the T-50, which is intended to be a competitor to the US F-22 Raptor and the F-35. That programme is behind schedule due to problems in the aircraft’s development and testing programme. It is now expected to be accepted into service in 2017, with deliveries of the aircraft commencing in 2018. However, only 12 aircraft of the planned 56 are expected to be procured by 2020.

In the last five years Russia has also made huge leaps in unmanned technologies. In 2011 Russia possessed only 180 UAV systems. That figure now stands at 2,000. The majority of those platforms have been assigned to land and airborne forces with Aerospace Force capabilities limited to intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. It currently has no combat UAV capability, although €9 billion has been earmarked for combat UAV programmes by 2020.

Ground forces– Modernisation of Russian ground forces in the last few years has largely focused on organisational changes and efforts to increase readiness, professionalisation, manning and leadership. As a result there has been little qualitative or quantitative improvement to equipment. Significant progress in these other areas has, however, allowed for a change in tactics, most recently demonstrated by Russia’s ‘hybrid’ operation in Ukraine in 2014.

Much of the ‘modernised’ equipment that the Army has received has been upgraded versions of older models. In December 2016 approximately 42% of assets operated by Russian ground forces were considered to be modern. However, a number of substantial upgrade and acquisition programmes are now starting to come to fruition, and in particular with regard to armoured fighting vehicles. Russia aims to reduce the number of variants in service and field an entirely new generation of armoured fighting vehicles, including new tanks, within the timeframe of the SAP.

Looking forward – the State Armament Plan 2018-2025

The next State Armament Plan had been expected to cover the period 2016-2025. Given the ongoing uncertainty in Russia’s economy, it is now expected to be published in 2017 and will cover the period 2018 to 2025.

  • Defence expenditure

 The Russian Ministry of Defence has requested approximately R24 trillion for its 2018-2025 State Armament Plan. That funding is currently under negotiation, however, as the Ministry of Finance seeks to make 12% cuts in government spending by 2018.

Given President Putin’s commitment to rearmament it is widely expected that funding for the SAP will be ring fenced within the context of these cuts, however, and that the MOD will receive the majority of its funding request.

  • Expectations for the 2018-2025 SAP

 The SAP has always been regarded as ambitious, given Russia’s prevailing economic and domestic circumstances, and expectations for SAP 2018-2025 are no different. The current SAP has already seen many programmes delayed or scaled down and this trend is expected to continue. Should the reality fail to match aspirations, the predominance of nuclear forces is deemed likely to continue and the question then becomes which conventional programmes or areas of capability will be prioritised?

Nuclear forces– The modernisation of Russia’s nuclear forces has long been identified as a priority within the SAP and that is not expected to change. Beyond existing upgrade and rearmament programmes work has already begun on a next generation long-range strategic nuclear bomber (PAK-DA). A prototype is expected in the early 2020s, with production scheduled to begin in 2023 and entry into service around 2030.

However, suggestions that the Ministry of Defence could re-establish the Tu-160 production line has led many to speculate over the future of the PAK-DA programme and whether, given its expense, the Ministry of Defence will be forced prioritise one of the two programmes. Given the importance of nuclear forces in Russian strategic thinking, others have argued that the air force’s nuclear programmes are more likely to stay intact, albeit delayed, at the expense of conventional air force projects such as the T-50 future combat aircraft.

Further vessels of the Borei-A class SSBN are expected within the 2020-2030 timeframe. Work is also expected to begin post-2020 on a fifth-generation SSBN, and equivalent SLBM. Production and entry into service of that next generation SSBN has been earmarked for 2031-2050.

Navy next steps – Revitalisation of the Navy has been a key priority in the last two SAP and, thus far, there has been little indication that this will change. Construction of a new destroyer with advanced strike, air defence and missile defence capabilities and a new fleet of multi-role combat ships have been identified as priorities in the 2021-2030 timeframe. Russia has also recently indicated its intent to construct its own amphibious assault ships, after the French Mistral programme was cancelled in 2015.

Construction on a new fifth-generation multi-purpose submarine is also expected to begin in the next few years. Equipped with an air independent propulsion system, these new submarines will be capable of submerging for weeks at a time and will be much stealthier than existing submarines in the Russian fleet.

Whether the Navy will sustain its current level of funding, however, has started to be questioned by many commentators.

Aerospace Force – Serious delays in the T-50 future combat aircraft programme have already led to speculation that the full complement of aircraft will not be achieved within the 2020 timeframe. Over the period of the next SAP the scope of the programme could feasibly be scaled back, particularly if the decision is taken to prioritise the strategic role.

Ground forces – The main task for the next SAP is to continue the roll-out of the armoured fighting vehicles replacement programme. Production of the new T-14 main battle tank has been extended out to 2025; while other variants of AFV, based on the Armata platform, are also expected to be prioritised. Mass production of the T-15 heavy infantry fighting vehicle will continue; the Kurganets system is expected to enter production in 2019; while large-scale delivery of the Bumerang is scheduled to begin at the same time, ensuring that all of these new armoured vehicle programmes continue well into the next decade.

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