The document detailing the new Russian State Armaments Program (SAP), covering the years 2018 to 2027, has been signed, according to Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Rogozin, who spoke to Kommersant in an interview in late February. In this timeframe, Russia will spend over $300 billion on the procurement of new military hardware as part of an effort to equip its forces with modern systems.
Military acquisitions will include new fighter jets, missiles, tanks, and warships, with an emphasis on boosting the number of precision weapons in service. Deputy Prime Minister Rogozin detailed the SAP in terms related to NATO, saying, “One should not turn a blind eye to the build-up of NATO’s military potential, the implementation of the global strike concept by the United States, the intention to deploy weapons in outer space, and the deployment of strategic non-nuclear systems of precision weapons. We will have a decent answer to all this, believe me.”[i]
Since 2014, Russian relations with NATO countries have soured over the crisis in Ukraine as well as the deployment of the Russian Aerospace Force to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. At this point, part of the way through the previous SAP, Russia was faced with three challenges, which increased the need for a modernized force while making the development of the Russian military more difficult.
First, rising military tension with a peer competitor on its western border validated Russia’s rearmament plans. Overall, Russian military spending has been dwarfed by NATO spending. According to Forecast International estimates, Russia was outspent over 10:1 on defense in 2014. While this gap suggests a significant difference in power, much of it stems from the size of the United States’ defense budget, which is used to support American military operations all over the planet rather than in one theater in particular.
In Eastern Europe more specifically, however, Russia is able to compete with the NATO countries on its border on a much more even footing. A simulated wargame conducted by the Rand Corporation in 2014 and 2015 suggested that, at that point NATO could not “successfully defend the territory of its most exposed members.”[ii] Given Russian concern about NATO encroachment on its border, maintaining an edge in conventional capabilities along its border with NATO serves as an effective deterrent for Russia, allowing it to successfully defend against a theoretical attack against either its territory or the territory of Belarus and, thereafter, conduct a counterattack against NATO. Russia and Belarus wargamed that scenario last year,[iii] in their “Zapad 2017” exercise.
Elsewhere, the divergence between Russian interests and those of NATO countries, particularly the United States, has become starkly apparent in Syria. The Russian military began conducting air strikes in Syria in 2015,[iv] seeking to shore up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against various insurgent factions, pitting the Russian position directly at odds with the United States’ outlook on the war. While the United States did not provide air cover to Syrian rebels fighting the Syrian Army, it did supply anti-tank missiles, and other equipment,[v] to insurgent factions loosely collected under the “Free Syrian Army” banner. The United States has also on occasion targeted the Syrian military, such as in April of last year,[vi] in response to what the United Nations and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, in a joint report, determined was a sarin attack conducted by the Syrian military on Khan Sheikhoun.[vii]
Russia and the United States maintain a “de-confliction” line between their militaries over Syrian airspace in order to reduce the likelihood of an accident involving both of their forces, but it is clear that the two are pursuing differing objectives in Syria, and military force, in the absence of success on the diplomatic front, has proven key toward shaping the situation on the ground. The results from the Syrian campaign, in terms of both rolling back insurgent forces and securing Russian interests against the United States, demonstrate to Russia the utility of having a modern force.
While the need for a modern force is plain, the second and third challenges related to Russia’s rearmament goals, financing and the sourcing of components, have made the rearmament scheme more difficult, increasing costs while stretching development and delivery timeframes.
Alongside the annexation of Crimea and the subsequent separatist uprising, backed by Russia, in eastern Ukraine, the United States and the European Union imposed a number of sanctions on the Russian economy, which continue to the present. Furthermore, in the second half of 2014, energy prices collapsed. The twin forces, which impacted Russia’s ability to access Western markets and cut into revenues, forced Russia to reduce its defense budget, likely by 3 percent from 2015 to 2016 and up to 7 percent from 2016 to 2017. A further reduction is planned for 2018.
New budget realities have forced Russia to readjust some of its loftier modernization plans. Procurement of the Su-57, a fifth-generation fighter jet, has been pushed back and the initial objective of acquiring around 60 jets has been reduced to a dozen. Prototypes are in combat trials at present, apparently even in Syria, as first revealed by military analyst Wael Al Hussaini, though the jets are not ready for full operational use and may not be until the completion of their “second-stage” engine, flight testing of which only began in December.[viii]
— Wael Al Hussaini (@WaelAlHussaini) February 21, 2018
It is not only the Su-57 that has seen delays. The PAK-DA bomber program has been pushed back in favor of restarting production of the Tu-160. The T-14 main battle tank and newly developed armored vehicles are only being purchased in small quantities for the time being. For the upcoming SAP, Russia’s Navy is expected to focus primarily on submarines and, for surface vessels, corvettes and frigates,[ix] rather than larger ships.
Finally, Russia rapidly encountered the need to replace key components used for its military, which further complicates procurement activity. This process was already ongoing by the time of the Ukraine crisis, but many of the Russian military’s new purchases at that time still relied on foreign-sourced components, particularly from Ukraine. In 2015, Deputy Prime Minister Rogozin confirmed that Ukrainian components could be found in nearly 200 types of Russian military systems, ranging from helicopters to warships.[x]
Engines for the Admiral Grigorovich and Admiral Gorshkov classes of frigates were to be sourced from Ukraine, but, owing to tension between Kiev and Moscow, the former ceased supplying the engines, necessitating the development of replacements. As a result, in order to introduce further ships in these classes, Russia will need to utilize a locally developed engine. The cancellation of the order for Mistral vessels from France over the crisis in Ukraine prompted Russia to develop its own helicopter carrier vessels, which will enter service sometime in the mid-2020s if plans hold.[xi] These vessels themselves are seen as a more practical purchase than the planned new aircraft carrier, which has been pushed into the 2030s.
Russia thus has found itself with a clear need for new military systems, but the cost burden of producing them and replacing foreign-origin components has risen. In light of this predicament, it is not surprising that Russia has hedged on some of its next-generation programs by also procuring upgraded versions of the hardware currently in inventory – more Su-35s, Tu-160s, and T-72s, for example – which should prove sufficient for the time being.
Cost and supply issues should not be overstated, as they have not ground Russian programs to a halt, as evidenced by the expected price tag of SAP 2018-2027, but rather forced adjustments in objectives. That large procurement of new-generation systems is not currently feasible does not mean the picture will remain this way indefinitely. Notably, development of new missile systems has proceeded steadily, ensuring that Russia’s nuclear deterrent is secure. Given that relations between Russia and NATO are expected to remain tense for the coming years, the Russian military will have ample reason to emphasize rearmament.
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[i] Sputnik International, “Putin Signs New State Arms Program Focused on Cutting-Edge Weaponry,” February 26, 2018. https://sputniknews.com/military/201802261061988536-putin-signs-arms-program/
[ii] David A. Shlapak and Michael Johnson, “Reinforcing Deterrence on NATO’s Eastern Flank,” Rand Corporation, 2016. https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR1253.html
[iii] Michael Kofman, “What actually happened during Zapad 2017,” December 22, 2017. https://russianmilitaryanalysis.wordpress.com/2017/12/22/what-actually-happened-during-zapad-2017/
[iv] Derek Bisaccio, “Brief Overview: Russian Intervention in the Syrian Civil war,” Forecast International, November 23, 2015. https://blog.forecastinternational.com/wordpress/brief-overview-russian-intervention-in-the-syrian-civil-war/
[v] Ivan Angelovski, Miranda Patrucic, and Lawrence Marzouk, Revealed: the £1bn of weapons flowing from Europe to Middle East,” The Guardian, July 27, 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jul/27/weapons-flowing-eastern-europe-middle-east-revealed-arms-trade-syria
[vi] Derek Bisaccio, “U.S. President Trump Orders Tomahawk Strikes on Syrian Airbase,” Forecast International, April 7, 2017. https://blog.forecastinternational.com/wordpress/u-s-president-trump-orders-tomahawk-strikes-on-syrian-airbase/
[vii] Rodrigo Campos, “Syrian government to blame for April sarin attack: U.N. report,” Reuters, October 26, 2017. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-un/syrian-government-to-blame-for-april-sarin-attack-u-n-report-idUSKBN1CV3GP
[viii] Franz-Stefan Gady, “Russia’s Su-57 Stealth Fighter Makes Maiden Flight With New Engine,” The Diplomat, December 7, 2017. https://thediplomat.com/2017/12/russias-su-57-stealth-fighter-makes-maiden-flight-new-engine/
[ix] TASS Russian News Agency, “Russia’s armaments program to attach priority to missile ships, nuclear subs,” November 29, 2017. http://tass.com/defense/978115
[x] Pavel Aksenov, “Ukraine crisis: Why a lack of parts has hamstrung Russia’s military,” BBC News, August 8, 2015. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-33822821
[xi] Sputnik International, “Russian Navy to Receive 1st Mistral-Alike Helicopter Carrier in 2022, May 25, 2017. https://sputniknews.com/military/201705251053980288-russia-navy-mistral-carrier/