August 1, 2010:
In late July, the Russian leadership agreed to increase annual defense spending by 60 percent (to $66 billion) over the next two years. During the last two years of global recession, their defense budget was cut by 15 percent. Everyone got cut except the nuclear weapons units. Despite Russia's huge size (17 million square kilometers, the largest nation in the world) and long borders (20,000 kilometers worth on land, another 37,000 of shoreline), it's primary means of national defense is its nuclear weapons. The army is a ramshackle force, smaller than the U.S. Army, and much more poorly equipped. Most of the million troops in the Russian armed forces are paramilitary forces working for the Interior Ministry and other branches of the government (like the FSB, which controls border guards.) These forces get by with assault rifles, machine-guns and low tech land transport, patrol boats and aircraft.
The Russian army is in desperate need of new weapons, especially armored vehicles. The navy needs new ships and the air force needs new aircraft. All three services are getting by with rapidly aging Cold War era equipment. An example of the extent of this problem can be seen in what happened to the Cold War era Soviet tank force. Russia recently cut its tank force again, from 22,000 to about 6,000. Sixty percent of these 6,000 will be in storage. The remaining 16,000 tanks will be scrapped. Twenty years ago, the situation was quite different. At the end of the Cold War in 1991, Russia had about 53,000 tanks in service (about 40 percent of them relics from the 1950s, or earlier). Over the last two decades, some 30,000 tanks were scrapped. Back in 1991, about half of the tanks were of questionable serviceability and usefulness, but that still left the Russians with 25,000 modern tanks, ready to roll west. No more. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, 80 percent of the five million troops were sent home, and, in the next decade, only a few hundred new tanks were purchased.
The current tank fleet has about 260 T-90s and 1,200 T-80s (a third in storage). These are roughly equal to early model U.S. M-1s. Most of the current Russian tanks are late model T-72s, some of them upgraded with excellent electronics (fire controls systems and thermal sights).
For the last decade, no matter how many tanks the Russians say they had, only a few thousand were ready to roll, and go into combat. In effect, Russia has lost the use of some 90 percent of its tanks since 1991. Back then, nearly all those 53,000 were assigned to a combat division. OK, most of those were reserve divisions, but if most of the reservists showed up in wartime, they would know how to get most of their tanks operational. That reserve system collapsed along with the Soviet Union, so now, the Russians have faced the fact that they can only get about 5,000 tanks operational on short notice. That's a big drop from the 1980s.
The Russian tank fleet is outnumbered by what NATO has available, and is only slightly larger than China's. As much as Russian commanders dislike this, they have finally faced the facts, and decided to retain only as many tanks as they can actually maintain and operate.
Similar patterns of decline were suffered by the air force and navy. Over 10,000 aircraft have been scrapped since the Cold War ended, and only a few hundred new (or refurbished) ones put into service. Over a hundred nuclear submarines have been scrapped, and less than ten put into service since the 1990s.
Even with the new, higher, spending, it will take a decade or more to replace the elderly weapons most Russian troops are armed with.