Russian T-14 tanks drive during rehearsal for the Victory Day parade in Moscow. Photo Credit: Reuters.
By: Madison Creery, Columnist
While the U.S. is concerned about competing against Russia’s next-generation weapons, Russia is struggling to get them off the production line. The legacy of economic turmoil following the collapse of the Soviet Union continues to impact the Russian defense industry’s capacity to produce truly new and advanced weapons.[I] Although the modernization of Russia’s nuclear triad and air defense systems has been–and will continue to be–a priority of the Russian government, its ability to develop weapons in other sectors has come to a crawl. While Russia’s military might should not be underestimated, the success from its 2020 state armament program is quickly wearing off.[II] Russia must now overcome the more formidable challenge of bringing truly new designs to serial production.
The Russian Defense Industry: Playing Catch-Up
Over the last ten years, Russia has undertaken a massive military modernization program that set out to raise its share of modern equipment from an estimated 15% in 2010, to at least 70% by the end of 2020.[III] While Moscow claims that this share of new equipment is on track to now reach 67% modernization by 2020, “modern” does not always mean brand new.[IV] Instead, “modern” is a combination of procuring new systems while simultaneously upgrading existing platforms, allowing the Russian military to reach “modern” standards by improving old, proven platforms.[V] Although Russia has been striving to rebuild its military power, the legacy of the Soviet Union’s collapse and the pressure from economic sanctions have further hindered Russia’s efforts to truly modernize its military.
Over the course of Russia’s last state armament program (SAP), the Russian defense industry was able to deliver weapons systems based on well-established, Soviet-era designs in relatively large quantities. This included significant amounts of fourth-generation Su-35 fighter jets, hundreds of modernized T-90 main battle tanks (MBT), along with thousands of trucks and armored vehicles based on older core designs.[VI] However, when it came to delivering genuinely new (i.e., post-Soviet) weapons systems, Russia’s defense industry proved far less successful, encountering delays, cost-overruns, and major technical difficulties[VII] While encountering delays when developing advanced weapons is not unusual for any country, Russia has faced far greater obstacles than its rivals due to the fall-out from the Soviet Union’s economic crisis.[VIII] During the 1990s and early 2000s, human capital and technical expertise, as well as its machinery and factories, deteriorated as the government made massive cuts to defense spending.[IX] Unfortunately for Russia, before it could adequately address this issue its defense industry hit another major obstacle in 2014.
Before the annexation of Crimea, Russia’s dependence on Ukrainian-made weapons was at all-time highs.[X] However, after Russia’s actions, the U.S. and its Western allies imposed hefty sanctions on key components used in Russia’s military production, as well as suspended almost all defense-industrial trade with Ukraine. This suspension directly affected more than 3,000 parts, components, and final products for over 200 different weapons systems .[XI] By 2016, the Russian Ministry of Defense reported that the impact of sanctions posed a “serious challenge” for the military industry.[XII]
The Struggle for Next-Generation Weapons
As early as 2018, significant gaps in Russia’s military modernization program became apparent.
For example, in the race for next-generation stealth fighter jets, the U.S. has built and delivered over 350 F-35s.[XIII] Russia, on the other hand, has only developed 11 prototypes of the Su-57, running into frequent issues with engine development.[XIV] Just last year, India announced its withdrawal from its joint venture with Russia to co-develop and produce the Su-57, citing concerns over Russia’s inability to develop a next-generation engine for the aircraft.[XV] This decision has only amplified the increasingly unsustainable costs of the Su-57.[XVI] In the interim, Russia has been forced to fly pre-production versions of the Su-57 with a legacy NPO Saturn engine, the same company who has struggled to develop turbines for Russia’s new Admiral Gorshkov-class of frigates.[XVII]
The T-14 Armata MBT–presented as the devastating super-tank of the future–has also run into problems of high costs, recurring design flaws, and continued delays to serial production. When it made its debut at Russia’s 2015 Victory Day Parade, all anyone remembered was its embarrassing break down on Red Square, not its supposed next-generation technology.[XVIII] As acknowledged by the former Deputy Defense Minister Yuri Borisov, the Armata MBT is becoming too expensive for mass acquisition relative to existing tank programs, at a cost of nearly $4 million per tank.[XIX] While Russia originally intended to mass produce and field as many as 2,300 T-14s by 2025, this number has been reduced to roughly 100.[XX] To cope with the current serial production delays, Russia has chosen to instead modernize the older T-90M.[XXI] India has even elected to invest in the T-90M over Russia’s next-generation T-14, recently securing a $1.93 billion contract for over 450 tanks.[XXII]
There is also Russia’s next-generation Prospective Aviation Complex for Long Range Aviation (PAK DA) stealth bomber, a program comparable to the U.S.’s own B-21. Initially proposed as a priority of the Russian military, its development has been hampered by the decision to instead invest in modernizing the Soviet-era Tu-160 bomber.[XXIII] While funds are getting poured into the Tu-160 modernization program, PAK DA has been pushed to the sidelines, with a serial production date now pressed back to the late 2020’s.[XXIV] Considering Russia has already invested roughly $573 billion into restarting the Tu-160M2 program, it is likely Russia will continue to defer serial production of PAK-DA.[XXV]
Where to Go From Here
Although fielding next-generation weapons remains a priority for Russia, economic constraints and the struggles of import substitution have forced it to choose between keeping pace with the U.S. or modernizing old equipment as a cost-savings solution. As Russia continues to increase investment on interim programs, this comes at the price of reduced resourcing for next-generation weapons. Due to financial constraints, both from an already handicapped defense industry as well as from Western sanctions, the Russian military will most likely follow the path of buying more of what its defense industry is good at producing: modernized legacy systems. Russia’s domestic defense production is simply unable to handle the demand or to meet the technological challenges presented by locally manufacturing items that were previously imported.[XXVI] As Russia comes to terms with its current fiscal reality and own capabilities, it will continue to move towards advanced, but not truly modern, weapons standards. For now, Russia’s pursuit of next-generation weapons will continue to remain just out of reach.
[I] Andrew Osborn, 2019, “Despite Putin’s Swagger, Russia Struggles to Modernize its Navy,” Reuters, February 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-russia-military-insight/despite-putins-swagger-russia-struggles-to-modernize-its-navy-idUSKCN1QA0U7?utm_source=RC+Defense+Morning+Recon&utm_campaign=1ed7216ca3-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2019_02_21_08_45&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_694f73a8dc-1ed7216ca3-84945261.
[II] Dmitry Gorenburg, 2017, “Russia’s Military Modernization Plans: 2018-2027,” PONARS Eurasia, November 2017, http://www.ponarseurasia.org/sites/default/files/policy-memos-pdf/Pepm495_Gorenburg_Nov2017.pdf, p. 5.
[III]Connolly and Bouledgue, “Russia’s New State Armament Programme,” , p. 5.
[IV] Bettina Renz, Russia’s Military Revival, Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2018, 67; Stratfor, 2019, “Russia: Procurement Plans Reflect the Military’s Modernization Struggles,” Stratfor, January 2019, https://worldview.stratfor.com/article/russia-procurement-plans-reflect-militarys-modernization-struggles-putin.
[V] Russian Defense Policy blog (2017), ‘What Does Modern Mean?’, 18 November 2017, https://russiandefpolicy.blog/2017/11/18/what-doesmodern-mean/.
[VI] Connolly and Bouledgue, “Russia’s New State Armament Programme,” p. 8.
[VIII] Ibid, p. 9.
[IX] Tomas Malmlof, “The Russian Defense Industry,” in “Russian Military Capability in a Ten-Year Perspective – 2016,” ed. Gudrun Persson, Swedish Defense Research Agency (FOI), December 2016, p. 153.
[X] Malmlof, “The Russian Defense Industry,” p. 154.
[XII] Regiony Online, 2016, “Importozameshchenie – ‘blesk I nishcheta’ rossiiskogo oboronno-promyshlennogo kompleksa” [Import sanctions – the “rise and fall” of the Russian military-industrial complex], Regiony Online, January 2016, http://www.gosrf.ru/news/21738/.
[XIII] Lockheed Martin, 2018, “F-35 Lightning II Program Status and Fast Facts,” Lockheed Martin, August 2018, https://www.lockheedmartin.com/content/dam/lockheed-martin/aero/documents/F-35/F-35%20Fast%20Facts%20-%20August%202018.pdf, p. 2.
[XIV] Connolly and Bouledgue, “Russia’s New State Armament Programme,” p. 19.
[XV] Franz-Stefan Gady, 2018, “India Pulls out of Joint Stealth Fighter Project with Russia,” The Diplomat, April 2018, https://thediplomat.com/2018/04/india-pulls-out-of-joint-stealth-fighter-project-with-russia/.
[XVI] Franz-Stefan Gady, 2019, “Russia to Offer China Su-57 Fifth-Generation Stealth Fighter,” The Diplomat, April 2019, https://thediplomat.com/2019/04/russia-to-offer-china-su-57-fifth-generation-stealth-fighter/?utm_source=RC+Defense+Morning+Recon&utm_campaign=381f6ffad4-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2019_04_01_11_43&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_694f73a8dc-381f6ffad4-84945261.
[XVII] RIA Novosti, 2017, ‘Fregat “Admiral Flota Kasatonov” mozhet vyti na khodovye icpytaniia letom’ [The “Admiral Kastonov” frigate may begin exercises in the summer], RIA News, November 2017, https://ria.ru/arms/20171108/1508421766.html.
[XVIII] Ryan Pickrell, 2019, “Russia is Installing Toilets in the Wildly Expensive T-14 Armata Battle Tanks it Can’t Afford.” Task & Purpose, March 2019, https://taskandpurpose.com/russia-t14-armata-tank-toilets.
[XIX] International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), The Military Balance, Routledge, 2019. IISS, The Military Balance 2019, p. 177; Brad Howard, 2018, “Russia Can’t Afford its Fancy New T-14 Armata Main Battle Tanks,” Task & Purpose, July 2018, https://taskandpurpose.com/russia-fancy-armata-tanks-broke.
[XX] Pickrell, 2019, “Russia is Installing.”
[XXII] The Moscow Times, 2019, “India to Buy Over 450 Russian Tanks Worth $2Bln – Reports,” The Moscow Times, April 2019, https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2019/04/09/india-to-buy-over-450-russian-tanks-worth-2bln-reports-a65146.
[XXIII] Franz-Stegan Gady, 2017, “Russia: Strategic Bomber Upgrade ‘Top Priority’’, The Diplomat, August 2017, https://thediplomat.com/2017/08/russiastrategic-bomber-upgrade-top-priority/.
[XXIV] Dmitri Gorenburg, 2018, “Russian Air Force Procurement Plans.” Russian Military Reform, January 2018, https://russiamil.wordpress.com/2018/01/24/russian-air-force-procurement-plans-2/.
[XXV] Matthew Bodner, 2018, “Modernized Tu-160 to Boost Russia’s Long-Range Striking Power,” Defense News, February 2018, https://www.defensenews.com/smr/munich-security-forum/2018/02/12/modernized-tu-160-to-boost-russias-long-range-striking-power/.
[XXVI] Connolly and Bouledgue, “Russia’s New State Armament Programme,” p. 30.