Over the last twelve years, it has become customary to refer to the Russian military establishment as decayed, under-armed, under-trained, and under-supplied, thereby effectively writing it off as second-rate. Russia’s long war in Chechnya seems to reinforce the above sentiments, and current writings and reports on the Russian armed forces all point to the dire need for reform and financial assistance across the board. In essence, current analysis seems to indicate that Russia stopped being a viable competitor to the American military sometime after 1992. The media coverage of Russian military technological achievements has been limited to coverage of its fighter jet crashes at international air shows, and an occasional complimentary article on a recent Russian entrant at a military show or exposition.
At the same time, there has been wide and detailed coverage of American achievements in the development of numerous military technologies, especially after the 1991 Gulf War. The United States’ military interest is concentrated on continuing the process of revolutionizing its military affairs with new technologies and tactics that were learned in conflicts and wars very different from the once-possible war between the U.S. and Russia on the European plains. Meanwhile, the Russian military is forced to make do with weapons that should have been retired in late 1980s.
However, even in the current dire circumstances, Russia never stopped being a powerful entity that produced state-of-the-art military technologies — a trend that continued from its inception as a modern state. While its army, navy and air force are in dangerously derelict conditions, every part of the formula for Russia’s resurgence as a military powerhouse is still in place. Russia has been consistently fielding top-notch military technology at various international trade shows, and has been steady in the demonstration of its capabilities.
In spite of financial and economic difficulties, Russia still produces state-of-the-art military technologies that continue to impress the world. One of its best achievements after the dissolution of the Soviet Union has been its armored fighting vehicle BMP-3, which has been chosen over Western vehicles in contracts for the United Arab Emirates and Oman, long located in Washington’s sphere of influence. Russia’s surface-to-air missile systems, the S-300, and its more powerful successor, the S-400, are reported to be more potent than American-made Patriot systems. The once-anticipated military exercise between the Patriot and the S-300 never materialized, leaving the Russian complex with an undisputed, yet unproven, claim of superiority over the American system. Continuing this list is the Kamov-50 family of military helicopters that incorporate the latest cutting-edge technologies and tactics, making them an equal force to the best Washington and the West has to offer.
Additional proof of the strength of Russian military technology is the recently held joint Indo-American air force exercises, the results of which were widely covered in the media. Modern Russian-made Su-30 fighters in service with the Indian Air Force out maneuvered American-made F-15 planes in a majority of their engagements, prompting U.S. Air Force General Hal Homburg to admit that Russian technology in Indian hands has given the U.S. Air Force a “wake-up call.” Furthermore, the Russian military establishment is continuing to design other helicopters, tanks and armored vehicles that are on par with the best that the West has to offer. In addition, Mexico, long a customer of U.S. military technology, has expressed an interest in a limited amount of Russian weapon systems.
Part of such success — limited, but nonetheless crucial to the survival of the Russian military industry — stems from the fact that even in these difficult times, some of Russia’s military factories and its covert cities, once the sites of ultra-secret projects, are still operational and continue to work on essentially the same projects as before the demise of the Soviet Union: the development of military technologies that are on par or better than those available in the West. Since the American military will be fighting its future wars against armies possessing Russian weapons — or derivatives thereof — Washington should pay closer attention to what is happening across the wide spaces of the Russian Federation for three reasons.
One is the simple fact that weapons export is one of the best ways for Russia to earn much-needed hard currency. Already, Russia is the second-largest worldwide exporter of military technology after the United States. As reported in various magazines, journals and periodicals, at present, Russia’s modern military technology is more likely to be exported than supplied to its own armies due to the existing financial constraints and limitations of Russia’s armed forces. This has implications for America’s future combat operations since practically all insurgent, guerrilla, breakaway or terrorist armed formations across the globe — the very formations that the United States will most likely face in its future wars — are fielded with Russian weapons or its derivatives. Even if the Russian government exercises control over the sale and export of its military technologies, given the present derelict state of its military and lack of proper checks and balances, its state-of-the-art technology might end up in the wrong hands.
The second reason has to do with Russia’s growing assertiveness in its “near abroad,” or the states of the former Soviet Union. Russia considers these states in its rightful economic, political and military sphere of influence, and has acted accordingly in some of the U.S.S.R.’s former republics, such as Georgia and Armenia. This justification is particularly applied to oil- and natural gas-rich Central Asian states. Already, Russia is slowly growing weary of the American military presence in that region, and is seeking to bolster its own presence there through closer contacts and military bases. In order for Russia to fully exercise its influence, it would have to field a viable, high-tech military force that is capable of projecting its strength if the need for that arises. Given the developing competition between the United States and Russia for Central Asia, the Russian military will have to field the above-described technologies in order to truly protect and exercise its sphere of influence.
The third reason has to do with Russia’s current military doctrine, which adheres to the concept of multipolarity. The articles of the doctrine state Russia’s conviction that the social progress, stability and international security can only be accomplished in a multipolar world. The doctrine further states that the Russian Federation will work towards the establishment of such a world with all the means at its disposal. Russia cannot be one of the potential powers in this multipolar scenario if its military lacks advanced technologies and if it cannot be considered a state-of-the-art military force on par with U.S. and Western armies. Therefore, it is to be expected that Russia will attempt to field its armies with the country’s best military achievements.
If U.S.-Indian exercises were indeed a “wake-up call,” it is conceivable that more such lessons for the United States can follow. While the United States currently spends more on its military strength than all of its potential competitors combined, one only needs to turn to history to remember that it took Russia less than two decades to build a state-of-the-art navy at the dawn of the 18th century, with which it took on major powers of the day and firmly established itself as one of the world’s superpowers. While the current state of the Russian military is far from where the Russian leadership wants it to be, the country’s support for modern technological developments, and its historical ability to succeed in a short period of time in spite of internal economic weaknesses, should not be underestimated. Russia has yet the chance and ability to someday rival the most technologically advanced states.
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The Shape of Things To Come