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15 January 2014

Russia's Shiny New Weapons

Acting President Vladimir Putin arrived in Grozny on a SU-27 fighter jet.
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Acting President Vladimir Putin arrived in Grozny on a SU-27 fighter jet.

Russia’s armed forces hope that by investing more in UAVs and robotics they will be able to overcome a shortage of draft-age young men. Fair enough, writes Mark Galeotti, but there are real doubts over whether they have the financial and technological capabilities to make this happen.

By Mark Galeotti for openDemocracy

‘Drones are not toys,’ says Vladimir Putin, and ‘we are not going to operate them as other countries do. It is not a video game.’ Maybe so, but Russia’s ambition to field a powerful military, at a time of demographic pressure, is tempting it towards leapfrogging forward into drone and robot warfare. This already seems to be the idea, reflecting the internal security agencies’ enthusiastic adoption of these remote little helpers, although it remains to be seen if the Russian budget and Russian technology are up to the task.

The thin green line

Although claims of an imminent demographic disaster are overblown, for the near future Russia will have to cope with a shortage of draft-age young men. Efforts to make up the shortfall—and the qualitative problems caused by a reduction of national service to just one year—by recruiting more volunteers are also making little headway. Although the ambition is to raise the total numbers of these kontraktniki [contract soldiers] by 50,000 a year, from 2013’s 241,000 to 420,000 by 2017, it is clear that Russia has a long way to go: even this year’s recruitment tallies are falling short, especially given that most either refuse or are refused re-enlistment after their first three-year term. Ironically, the prospect of a future economic slowdown might make a military career a little more appealing, but for the present, the lifestyle, prestige and pay simply fail to attract and retain enough Russians with the right skills and attributes needed.

As a result, Russia’s military is at only 82 percent of its proper establishment strength. An obvious response to quantitative inadequacy (although that raises the wider question of whether the county needs or could afford the million-man-army that appears to be the Kremlin’s absolute and totemic necessity) is qualitative improvement. Ideally, this would mean increasing the skills of regular soldiers, introducing a corps of seasoned non-commissioned officers—their role as the backbone of Western armies is as real as it is a cliché—and improving the training and professionalism of an officer corps that, at its best is extraordinarily good, but at its worst terrifyingly bad.

There certainly are efforts to make such changes within the context of the wider military modernisation plans. Indeed, there have been for years, which perhaps is testament enough to just how difficult and slow the process can be. The brutal hazing of raw recruits or dedovshchnina is still endemic, most NCOs are still conscripts, and the country’s one and only aircraft carrier is so prone to mechanical problems, it has to travel with an escort of tugs, just in case.

The tempting alternative to quantitative improvement is to buy newer, bigger, shinier weapons and equipment. This tends to appeal to a variety of constituencies: the generals enjoy the gung-ho thrill of ordering and deploying these exciting symbols of martial virility; politicians get dynamic photo shoots in aircraft cockpits and firing ranges; and, perhaps most important of all, the mighty military industrial complex gets a continued stream of orders needed to keep its factories running (and with them the cities depending on these subsidised conglomerates). No surprise, then, that the workers at tank producer Uralvagonzavod were Putin’s ultimate partisans when he began to face protests in the streets.

The massive procurement budgets earmarked for the military— $650 billion in the period to 2020—inevitably means a buying spree of new weapons and equipment. Many of these items are, indeed, overdue and needed. Individual soldiers’ personal equipment and armour lags behind Western counterparts in many ways, and the Ratnik ‘future soldier’ complex of uniform and equipment would indeed be a great step forward. Many others, however, betray a Russian tendency to prioritise firepower over protection and reliability, such as the mighty BMPT (Boyevaya Mashina Podderzhki Tankov, Tank Support Fighting Vehicle), a tank chassis loaded with two automatic cannons, four missile launchers, two automatic grenade launchers and a machine gun.

Droning on

One response in particular to the manpower shrinkage of the military is a renewed interest in drones and robotic weapons systems. In an address to the Duma, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin — whose portfolio includes the defence industries — listed robotic weaponry, drones and advanced automated combat management systems as priorities for the new state arms procurement programme for 2016-25. He wants to see a rapid expansion of Russia’s use of military drones on land, sea and air. Defence minister Sergei Shoigu seems to agree: he has ordered a doubling of the speed of the research and procurement of drones.

Russia has lagged behind the United States and even countries such as Israel and Italy in developing and deploying Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). Only in 2012 did the Defence Ministry form a division to manage drone research and development. This explains why, in the Chechen war, while Pchela-1T and Stroi-P drones helped helicopters and artillery fire on rebels, their success was limited by crude sensors; and they had the advantage of fighting enemies with no anti-air capability beyond just shooting into the skies. Russian-made drones certainly proved relatively ineffective in the 2008 Georgian War.

Catch up

Russia is trying to catch up: some dozen or so Zala-421 and Gorizont-Air-S100 drones will be deployed in the skies over Sochi during February’s Winter Olympics. However, many of these systems are relatively simple or else foreign-built or –designed. For advanced designs, Moscow has had to look abroad. Russia bought Israeli Bird Eye-400, I-View Mk. 150 and Searcher Mk. 2 UAVs, for example, following the effectiveness of these designs when used in the Georgian War; and in 2012 Rogozin discussed a Russo-Israeli joint venture to produce new models. In 2012, the Russian navy ordered eight Teledyne Gavia submarine drones from Iceland; and in 2014, Moscow is apparently planning to trial UAE-built United 40 Block 5 long-range reconnaissance UAVs.

However, Rogozin is an outspoken nationalist who has made much of the need for the Russian military to buy Russian weapons, so he is also pushing the country’s domestic robot and drone sector. A wide range of new designs are emerging, from the wheeled Kompas RURS Reconnaissance and Strike Robot, able to patrol areas autonomously, through to the Altius-M attack drone, Russia’s answer to the missile-armed US MQ-9 Reaper. In between, is a design based on the Berkut VL superlight two-seat helicopter, in partnership with the UAE; and the Eleron-3SV scout drone (with thirty-four on order for 2014), while dwarfing them all is the 20-tonne combat UAV being planned, based on the Sukhoi T-50/PAK FA fifth-generation fighter. Given that the T-50 is still in testing, it remains to be seen whether it will indeed be in the air by 2018, as promised.

The age of the drone

Russian drone technology is far behind that of the United States—according to some, perhaps by twenty years. However, Rogozin is looking to the long term, and Shoigu seems to share his enthusiasm for drones. A specialised military Bezpilotniy Letayuschiy Apparat [Pilotless Flying Equipment, the Russian for UAV] operator training centre has been opened on the outskirts of Moscow. The MiG Skat (‘Stingray’) stealth drone is also now under development. By 2040, Moscow may be deploying massive, long-range nuclear drone bombers, although Rogozin has cast doubts about the survivability of such weapons.

Of course, this is the age of the drone, and Moscow must be wanting to achieve parity with its rivals, especially as China is not only developing its own drones: it is has even, provocatively, demonstrated its maritime attack Blue Shark in simulated action against Russian (or at least Russian-built) ships. Back in 2012, Putin acknowledged that ‘unpiloted aircraft are being used more and more actively in armed conflicts; and I must say, they are being used effectively’ and so ‘we need the full line, including automated strike aircraft, reconnaissance drones and other systems… It is imperative to involve best engineering and science bureaus and centres in this effort.’ To this end, more that 400 billion rubles ($12.2 billion) were allocated toward this through 2020.

Not enough

This might sound like a lot, some $1.5 billion a year, but the US military has been spending some $4 billion on drone research, operation and procurement. Neither does the allocation of resources guarantee results. In 2009, Moscow had spent more than $3 billion on the Bulava submarine-launched nuclear missile programme; today, the weapon still has not been perfected, and estimates of the total project cost are rising towards the $5 billion mark.

Ironically, the Soviets were ahead of the drone game, back in the 1960s and 1970s, now, there are serious concerns about Russia’s near- and medium-term capabilities. Vladimir Anokhin, vice president of the Russian Academy of Geopolitical Issues, has said that while Russia has ‘wonderful teams that have spent decades working on this… we do not have enough hands. We do not have the industrial base, we do not have skilled workers who could produce a massive amount of those drones that we need so much now.’

Even if Russia can build or buy these drones, they require highly skilled technicians and operators to use them to their full potential. Thus, while the potential force multiplier effects of drones and robotic systems might seem a tempting answer to the inevitable dwindling of Russian military manpower, they are not a panacea, certainly not while the generals and political elite remain resistant to recruiting women to combat roles, and unhappy about large numbers of conscripts from the North Caucasus.

Putin says that, for Russia, drone warfare is not a video game; he has to hope that’s true.


For additional reading on this topic please see:
Russian Military Reforms: An Evaluation
Russian Army Justifies Its Reforms
The Future of Conventional Arms Control in Europe


For more information on issues and events that shape our world please visit the ISN's Dossiers and the ISN Blog.


Dr. Mark Galeotti is Professor of Global Affairs at New York University’s SCPS Center for Global Affairs and author of the In Moscow’s Shadows blog.

Editor's note:

This article was orginally published by openDemocracy on 10 January 2014.

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