Streetwise Professor

September 26, 2010

Well, At Least This Time It Didn’t Blow Up

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 2:09 pm

There has apparently been another failure of the Russian Bulava SLBM–or, perhaps more accurately, a scrub before another failure.  The Russian SSBN Dmitri Donskoi returned from the Russian missile test firing range without having fired a Bulava:

On September 10, Aleksandr Emelianenkov reported that the Dmitri Donskoi, a Typhoon-class SSBN adapted for test launching the Bulava, had sailed from Severodvinsk to the missile launch area where the Russian navy tests its ballistic missiles in the White Sea and then had returned to port without executing the anticipated 13th test launch of an RSM-56 Bulava SLBM. The SSBN returned to base with no explanation and so the anticipated test of Bulava on September 9-11 was postponed without setting a new launch date. Serdyukov on his return to Moscow from Paris, and before his departure to Washington for talks with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, only commented that the no launch was imminent and said: “Most likely, this will happen in September and definitely not at the beginning of the month.” Emelianenkov, noting the series of failures that has plagued the Bulava, stated that insiders within the Russian military-industrial complex had asserted that everything was ready for the test launch and there were high hopes of success.

Who knows?  Maybe they tried to launch, but it fizzled in the tube.  Or maybe, the pre-launch diagnostics identified a problem.  But it sure didn’t go right.

Rolling heads lend credence to the theory that this was yet another episode in a litany of failures:

Shortly afterwards the Russian press reported a major shake-up in the leadership of Bulava development. Its long-time leader, Yuri Solomonov, the chief engineer in charge of the development of the solid-fueled Topol M upon which the Bulava was based, was removed from the Bulava project but left in charge of land-based Topol M development. By order of Anatoliy Perminov, head of Roskosmos, (Federal Space Agency) Aleksandr Sukhodolsky, the former design director at the Moscow Institute of Thermal Technology, will assume direction of the Bulava project. Solomonov sold the defense ministry and navy on the idea that the adaptation of the Topol M to sea-based launching would be a relatively simple technical problem. However, in the last six years out of twelve test firings only five were officially listed as successes. Unnamed sources close to the project say that actually only one test led to a warhead impact in the test area.

Contrast this serial charlie foxtrot with the truly delusional announcements regarding Russian military spending plans for the next decade:

Deputy Prime Minister, Sergei Ivanov, told journalists that a new 10-year government rearmament program will allocate some 22 trillion rubles ($710 billion) to produce and develop new weapons. According to Ivanov, the defense ministry will receive 19 trillion rubles ($613 billion) while the other Russian military services will receive 3 trillion rubles ($97 billion); 20 percent of the total being spent on research and development and the rest on the procurement of weapons (RIA Novosti, September 22).

To put these numbers in perspective.  Total German defense spending is about $41 billion/year.  French: about $64 billion.  UK: $58 billion.  China (officially–i.e., not to be believed): $100 billion.  Current Russian expenditure: about $60 billion, or 3.5 percent of GDP.

So, Russia is supposedly planning a delta in spending approximately equal to current spending, and bigger than total French, UK, and German spending.  Since procurement currently accounts for about a quarter of the Russian defense budget, this translates into a four-fold increase in procurement spend.

Why do I say delusional?  Let me count the ways.

First, as the Bulava fiasco shows, the quality of the Russian defense manufacturing is somewhere between dodgy and awful.  They can’t produce stuff now.  So they’re supposed to design and produce four times as much stuff in the next ten years?

Second, even Medvedev recognizes that the defense industrial base is a disaster:

This week President Dmitry Medvedev chaired a special session of the Commission of Modernization and Technological Development of the Russian Economy, attended by ministers, administration officials, defense industry chiefs and several prominent Russian billionaire oligarchs.  The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the state of arms production and call for radical improvements. The proceedings at a military electronics and avionics factory near Moscow were secret, but in his public opening remarks, Medvedev scolded the defense industry for its backwardness, its inability to “innovate” and produce modern equipment to rearm the Russian military. “The situation is quite bad, quite heavy,” announced Medvedev, “In many instances the Russian defense industry is unable to significantly increase production of high-tech equipment despite greater financing.” According to Medvedev, “we lag behind industrial developed nations” while continuing to develop slightly modernized versions of Soviet-era weaponry instead of making something new.

To translate: our defense manufacturing sucks.  So let’s quadruple spending!

Makes sense to me!

Third, Russia’s biggest military problem, believe it or not, isn’t hardware, it’s software–the people.  The experiment to professionalize the army was a colossal flop, and has been shelved.  The conscription system is broken, and will get only more so as the consequences of the demographic catastrophe of the 1990s and early-2000s for the size of the recruit pool begin to be felt.

But fixing the software problem is probably impossible.  It’s a heck of a lot easier to spend money on hardware–and a lot more lucrative for the spenders, if you know what I mean.

To summarize: no industrial base to build all these new weapons; no trained manpower to use them. I’m sure everything will work out just swell.

In his increasingly lame fashion, Medvedev is attempting to sell the military modernization as an integral part of his drive to modernize the Russian economy, with huge technology spillovers from the military to the civilian sectors:

Medvedev promised more defense spending and announced that defense industry innovation will not only modernize the armed forces, but also promote “the development of the entire economy.” Medvedev recalled the Soviet experience during the Cold War when the “innovative defense complex” determined the development of the material base of the Russian economy. The defense industry must become “a generator of innovation” and modernization. Medvedev proposed forming a Russian equivalent of the US  Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), first established in 1958 as a response to the Soviet launching of Sputnik in 1957 (, September 22).

After the meeting, Defense Minister, Anatoliy Serdyukov, told journalists some “75 percent of military technologies may be used in the civilian economy.” According to Serdyukov, technologies developed to produce new fighter jets, bombers, ballistic missiles and rockets may be used “in the civilian sector,” but the drain of ideas and specialists abroad is hampering development (Interfax, September 22).

This is utterly fantastical.  The vaunted spillovers have seldom been realized in western economies, and are less likely to be realized in Russia given the security establishment’s Gollum-like obsessive possessiveness when it comes to information and technology.

[Bonus laugh: look at the picture of Medvedev in uniform in the EDM piece.  He makes Dukakis in a tank look like Sergeant Stryker. And he has a penchant for getting photographed in uniform, and holding weapons in ways that make him look far more dangerous to himself than anyone downrange.  I bet Putin encourages Medvedev to make a fool of himself in this way.]

Russia has indicated that it will, for the first time, make large arms purchases overseas–including in the US–to meet its ambitious (i.e., insane) rearmament goals.  There are several things striking about this.

First, it is a pretty stunning admission of the implosion and obsolescence of Russia’s indigenous capacity.

Second, the kinds of equipment it is looking for reveals its self-identified weaknesses, most notably UAVs and communications gear.

Third, the Obama administration is probably just dumb enough to sell, all to preserve the reset fantasy.  But it should ask: against whom would Russia want to use these weapons? Is it in the American interest to enhance the combat power of Russia?  The question answers itself.

Moreover, beware the Russian negotiating tactics, as revealed by the ongoing Mistral saga with France.  They do a deal, in which France says that it will just sell a hull and the rights to build additional hulls in Russia, but no technology transfer.  Then Russia says it expects to get the technology too, and puts pressure on the French by opening a tender for bids for helo carriers; South Korea’s Daewoo has expressed interest in bidding.   The French are now between a rock and a hard place.

This is just an application of the tried-and-true divide-and-conquer/disaggregation strategy so often employed in energy.  Russia will play this game again and again in the weapons arena too.

Given that the Russians are quite open that their intention is to do to the West what the Chinese have done to them for years: buy weapons and then duplicate, not to say steal, the technology, this is a mug’s game.  Which is to say, anticipate the Russian’s putting this plan into overdrive while Obama is in office.

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  1. Some more:

    Comment by Ostap Bender — October 6, 2010 @ 8:54 pm

  2. And some pictures of Georgians enjoying Russian “hospitality” and “Brotherliness” courtesy of the Russian government.,r:1,s:0,r:9,s:64,r:3,s:159,r:20,s:30

    Comment by Andrew — October 7, 2010 @ 1:57 am

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