Streetwise Professor

August 6, 2008

The Emperor’s New Military–A Professional’s View

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 9:10 am

Dr. Robert B. Brannon, retired US Navy Captain, and formerly US Naval Attaché to the Russian Federation (1998-2001) provided the following analysis of the Russian military “resurgence” to Johnson’s Russia List. It echoes many points made in various SWP posts, most recently, The Emperor’s New Navy and Oh Yeah? You and What Navy?

The kind of bombastic rhetoric we’ve been hearing and reading lately in the press about Russia’s new strategic and foreign policy planning is not really very unusual, and certainly not without precedent. Although this talk rang hollow for years following the general collapse of the Russian armed forces in the 1990s, it is gaining credibility these days, fueled mostly by rising oil & gas prices, but also by the increasingly sharp divides between Russia and the EU/US over other issues, almost too numerous to name at this point, including at a minimum: NATO enlargement, ABM & CFE, Kosovo, and missile defense. But let me say a couple of words about Russia’s new military plans.

The last time I saw the Kuznetsov [Russia’s sole aircraft carrier] in port near Murmansk her boilers were pierside for extensive repairs (visibly rusting in the snow and ice) and there were weeds growing in her flight deck. The fact that she was recently underway was a marvelous feat of naval engineering – and probably a nightmare for her crew. Russia’s latest claim to aspire to a fleet of 5-6 (deployable) aircraft carrier battle groups in a complete “modernization” of the Russian Navy by the year 2016 is an outrageous thing to say. The shipyards that build and maintain these ships have long since fallen into utter disrepair – in many cases so badly that they could not, in my opinion, be reconstituted. Russia is at least a generation away from building enough ships to create even one of these battle groups.

As for long range bombers deploying to the Western Hemisphere – most of those planes are older than my kids (30ish). They have not been properly maintained since the fall of the Soviet Union and they are in poor condition now. More than half of the aircraft in Russia’s air force are simply not operational – at all. The other half are risky to fly. I would certainly not fly one to Cuba. That said, the Russians have managed some herculean feats with these old dinosaurs lately – long range patrols by Blackjacks and Bears get a lot of attention these days – not just because of the political statement they make, but also because of the simple fact that they managed to get them into the air at all. While it is true that Russia has rolled out a few new aircraft in recent years, the numbers are (2-3 per year).

Finally, submarines – this is the element of force and deterrence that was the last to decay. For years the only military personnel who were paid any kind of salary at all were the submarine fleet sailors – beginning with the boomers but including those assigned to attack boats as well. Still, as the Kursk tragedy in August 2000 highlighted for the whole world, Russia’s submarines eventually met the same fate as everything else in uniform. Despite one new submarine – the Borey class “Yuri Dolgoruki,” – there has been almost no new technology, no new research and development for a very long time. The keel for this single new construction submarine was laid in 1996. Twelve years in the making, there is still no ballistic missile ready to go that fits this submarine’s design. The new tests of the Bulava-M missile are credible, however and that’s one to watch – but remember it is an SLBM – it would be launched from a submarine across a vast trajectory – everything has to match and work perfectly – on the one and only submarine that could deploy with it. Even more important is how many of these cobbled together submarines and missiles could Russia actually build and put to sea? Finally, what’s the aim point?

Many, indeed if not most, of the scientists and technicians who developed what was once a mighty force for Russia have long since died, left, or grown poor and moved on. There is not much incentive today for young people to pursue careers in the defense industry. While it is certainly possible that this could change, especially with tremendous revenues from oil and gas, in an atmosphere almost literally fueled by political rhetoric designed to motivate a nation in its return to “greatness,”
it will still be quite difficult to do and it will take a very long time.

On May 9th this year, Russia’s brand new president, Dimitri Medvedev, said “The Russian military is rising in strength, like all of Russia.” I take him seriously, but I believe it will be a generation before we see anything new paraded on Red Square. Bombastic rhetoric notwithstanding, Russia’s military plans are a long way from sounding credible to anyone who has ever seen them up close. With oil at current prices hey can do a lot more than what they have been doing since the USSR fell, but
they are still a very long way from doing anything on the sort of scale described in their new strategy.

That’s the straight gouge, Captain.

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