May 18, 2010:
Anatoly Kornukov, the former (1998-2002) commander of the Russian Air Force, has joined the chorus of retired generals and admirals criticizing the slow progress in rebuilding the Russian armed forces. Kornukov's recent remarks were particularly critical of Russian air defenses. He was apparently put off by optimistic government statements during the May 9th Victory (in World War II) Day parade. One of the systems showed off in the parade was the new S-400 anti-aircraft missile. Kornukov pointed out that this "new" system was actually developed in the 1990s, and that only two batteries exist, not the fifteen that were the original goal. Worse, Kornukov joined many other critics who bemoan the sharp decline of the Russian defense industry, and the departure of its best people for the more lucrative civilian sector. Because of this, Kornukov believes that Russian military technology is now 25-30 years behind the United States in key areas. While the government found these statements irritating, Kornukov merely repeated what many in the defense establishment already knew.
It's not that the government isn't trying. A year ago, former Russian president, and current prime minister, Vladimir Putin, announced that, despite the current recession, and low oil prices, Russia would continue the big spending begun two years earlier, to rebuild the armed forces. This was a popular move, and considered necessary for "restoring Russia's place in the world" (becoming a superpower again), and making the "Red Army" (a Soviet era term) once more a feared force.
Russia can't become a superpower again, because all those nuclear weapons are great for defending the country, but you need non-nuclear forces to throw your weight around. Since the end of the Cold War in 1991, Russia has lost over 90 percent of its combat power. It was disarmament by starvation (massive cuts in the defense budget) and mismanagement (the military leadership tried to hold on to more equipment than they could afford to maintain or operate, making the situation worse.) Digging out of the hole is going to cost a few hundred billion dollars, and over a decade of effort. The government increased the annual defense budget to $38 billion three years ago, and is spending over $25 billion a year (for the next six years, and the last two) to rebuild the conventional forces. It takes time to rebuild fleets and armies.
The quickest things to fix are aircraft. Thus long range bombers, especially the Tu-95s, were refurbished, upgraded, and kept in the air over international waters a lot. This was mainly a PR exercise for domestic consumption. What also played to the crowd was "resisting NATO." The Cold War enemy was seen as surrounding Russia with anti-Russian alliances. The American anti-missile systems being built in Eastern Europe, to block Iranian missiles from blackmailing Europe, were depicted as an attempt to stop Russian missiles. This appears absurd in the West, but makes perfect sense to most Russians. "They" are out to get us, is what most Russians think. Decades of Soviet propaganda about foreign plots to destroy Russia, enhanced by the widespread destruction of World War II, have left their mark.
But the ground forces are a mess, with most of the weapons and equipment 20-30 years old and falling apart. Over a hundred thousand armored vehicles were junked, or "put into storage" (parked somewhere out-of-the-way, where they could rot quietly) since 1991. Only the best, least used and most recently built stuff has been kept. Even that gear is not much good, and replacements have to be bought in the next 5-10 years, or the army will be reduced to a bunch of guys with assault rifles, mortars and old trucks.
The air force is getting new planes, and more upgrades on existing aircraft. This works for warplanes, with many Western nations using 30 year old, but recently refurbished, warplanes. Ships are another matter, as Russian warships were not designed to be refurbished. So new ones have to be built. The Russians are concentrating on submarines, buying new attack boats (SSNs) and boomers (SSBNs carrying ballistic missiles.) Meanwhile, most of the Soviet era fleet is no longer of any use.