Procurement: The Russian Phoenix Has Feet Of Clay


February 20, 2014: In 2013 sales by Russian defense industries were up 28 percent. Those in the West were down and China, which keeps secret a lot of financial data about defense firms, was apparently up, but not as much as Russian firms. That’s because Russia is in the midst of spending about a trillion dollars this decade to restock its military with post-Cold War weapons and equipment.

There was plenty of Cold War era stuff on hand when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. The new state of “Russia” found itself with about half the population of the old Soviet Union and over half of the military equipment. Russia soon found itself unable to care for all the military gear, mainly because it could only afford to maintain 20 percent of its Cold War era military personnel. During the 1990s military leaders tried to maintain more equipment than the remaining troops could handle. The result was widespread deterioration of equipment. If the policy had been to simply scrap as much as possible and only maintain what the available troops could handle a lot of fairly recent stuff would have remained usable. Instead thousands of modern (at least in the 1990s) aircraft, ships and armored vehicles were allowed to fall apart. Some of it was obvious, as with warships that were often visibly rotting away while tied up to a dock (and sometimes capsizing or sinking there). This lost fleet included over a hundred nuclear subs, which soon attracted foreign donations to ensure that the radioactive material in their power plants did not get into the water as the subs literally fell apart from age and lack of maintenance. Satellite photos showed thousands of tanks and aircraft wasting away in remote bases, just lined up and left to rot.

Less visible was the deterioration of the mighty Soviet defense industries. Breaking up the Soviet Union crippled the defense industries as plants were spread all over the Soviet Union and now over a third of them were in one of the 14 new nations created out of the old Soviet Union. That meant many Russian defense plants could no longer get key components from a supplier that was no longer Russian. Moreover, the government cut procurement spending over 90 percent in the 1990s. Defense firms had to diversify or die. Many switched to civilian products, and often went bankrupt in the process. Some survived, of just barely, on export orders.

After the 1990s orders for the Russian military began to pick up and really got going after 2010. At that point the extent of the decline in the Russian defense industries became painfully clear. When the troops got this new gear there were lots of complaints. The stuff didn’t work as it was supposed to or didn’t work at all. This shocked the older troops who were in the military in the 1980s when quality was noticeably higher.

Partly in response to this the Defense Ministry introduced new, and quite strict readiness inspections for units and their new equipment. This uncovered even more serious problems than shabby quality control. Headquarters personnel and troops were not ready for emergencies, in part caused by massive failures of new equipment. Training and maintenance were not being performed as required. All this is nothing new for the Russian army, which has always been beset by leadership and corruption problems. The government has been trying to shake up the military leadership for over a decade now, but in the last two decades of the Cold War (1947-91) the Russian military became very corrupt and inefficient. Turning that around has proved very difficult. Such a situation is not unique, in fact it is quite normal.

The troops did try to use their new stuff and the extent and persistence of complaints made it clear that something had to be done with the decrepit defense manufacturers. The fix here is still a work in progress because the decline of the defense industries is greater than anyone wants to admit.





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