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Russia: Reviving the Red Army
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August 23, 2007: With a bit of fanfare, the government announced that the armed forces are being restored to their former glory. But most of this was a PR exercise. A dozen or so long-range bombers were sent off on the kind of flights that brought them to the borders of distant countries, and triggered a response from air defenses. Military exercises were held with China and several Central Asian states. This sort of thing hasn't been seen since the Cold War ended in the early 1990s. Since then, Russian military power has dropped off the charts. The much feared Cold War era Red Army, of over 200 active duty and reserve divisions, shrank to a force a fifth that size, and much less ready for combat. In terms of actual troops, the Russian army is smaller, and much less capable, than the United States Army. While some troops and pilots have gained valuable combat experience in Chechnya, the only reliable troops the Russians have is a few hundred thousand, organized into special army, navy, air force and interior ministry units.

Back in 1991, the Russian (or, rather, Soviet Union) armed forces had five million troops. Today, there are about a million troops. Fifteen years of starvation budgets, little training and less procurement have left the Russian armed forces demoralized and, well, defeated. But the Cold War generation of officers and troops are passing from the scene. The best of them got out as the civilian economy boomed with opportunities in the 1990s. The worst officers and NCOs are being pensioned off, and the armed forces are being rebuilt. But this process will take a decade, or more, and will produce a smaller, more "Western" military.

Meanwhile, money for maintenance and refurbishment can put a lot of the late-Cold War gear back in service. After a two year refit, the carrier Kuznetzov is back in service. Smaller warships have also been refurbed, and money provided to put them to sea and give the crews needed experience.

This revival of military power will cost several hundred billion dollars, take at least a decade, and is expected to revive the Russian arms and military equipment industries. Right now, most of the military equipment is at least two decades out of date. On paper, Russia has a lot of the same systems found in the West (like smart bombs and phased array radars). But in practice, much of this arsenal actually consists of production prototypes, laboratory models or stuff that was manufactured, but never worked terribly well, and couldn't even find an export customer.

Russia has found customers for its two late-Cold War jet fighters; the Mig-29 and Su-27/30. These are roughly comparable to the American F-16 and F-15/15E, and are sold to countries that can't get the real thing, and need a price break. But Russian warplanes still suffer the stigma of always being losers in air campaigns. The Mig-29/Su-27/30 generation are different as they are built to Western standards. That is, they are sturdy enough to handle constant use for training flights. Alas, most customers for Russian jets are not flush enough to pay for all that expensive training. Thus Russia jets continue their tradition of being target practice for Western fighters.

But Russia sees this revival of their military aviation industry as a way to save their civil aviation industry. This operation, which once had a monopoly on sales to about a third (the less affluent third) of the worlds population, has been reduced to practically nothing. Last year. Russian factories turned out fewer than ten airliners. That's about one percent of the world market. But Russian plants cannot produce to Western standards, and are able to compete, at least on price. If Russia can get some momentum going, they can become the low-cost provider in the civil aviation market.

The new armed forces, which include interior ministry paramilitaries, will comprise fewer than a million, better paid, trained, equipped and led, troops. Because Russia still has its nuclear weapons, it doesn't need a huge army to defend the motherland. And without a huge army, it's much less of a threat to its neighbors.

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