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Russia Stumbles Over the Secret SAP
by James Dunnigan
August 22, 2013

Russian military officials are arguing over the usefulness of the current military modernization. The basic problem is that the modernization cookbook (thousands of pages of analysis and calculations to justify how the modernization is being conducted) is highly classified and only seen by a few people. Not all of those people believe that this “State Armaments Program” (or “SAP”) makes any sense. But the dispute has been difficult to follow because when discussed in public forums (like in front of the legislature, which has to vote to spend the needed money), no one can make detailed and specific critiques because the SAP details are secret. Critics do say the SAP cookbook is a disorganized hodgepodge of Soviet era military science and unrelated facts and goals. Worse, the SAP apparently does not give any realistic suggestions about how to deal with the corruption in the military and defense industries and the poor management of the defense industries.

The corruption and poor management has created major problems. Many officers are incapable or uninterested in following SAP suggestions for improving combat capability. Many senior officers are still more concerned with getting rich than building a modern post-Cold War armed forces. The defense industry officials are apparently incapable of sustained competence and new weapons are either not developed effectively or built in a shoddy fashion. The troops have been complaining about this for years, and the SAP does little about it (whatever the details are). The critics of SAP want more realism applied to the problems in the military, especially the corruption and the shabby Russian defense industries. 

Meanwhile, a military modernization effort has been underway for most of the last decade, as the government realized it had to do something about rapidly aging military equipment. In many cases, these purchases are essential, because buying new gear basically stopped (with a few exceptions, like ballistic missiles) during the 1990s. Because of that, most of the armed forces are still using Cold War era gear manufactured in the 1970s and 80s. Fortunately, even older (50s and 60s era) equipment was junked as the armed forces shrank 80 percent in the 1990s. Because Russian defense industries (the preferred suppliers) are not really world class, the Russian military is usually getting updated Cold War stuff that is not competitive with the new generations of gear that Western forces are receiving.

According to SAP, in the next decade, at least a third of current gear will be replaced, and in some categories (usually high tech) over 80 percent. The government has been telling the troops about these big plans. If the government does not deliver, morale will take a big hit. This will happen quickly in the navy, for they have been told that more ships will spend more time at sea and very soon. Existing ships can't handle that kind of workload. Thus there are some grounds for optimism in the fleet, for in the last seven years the air force has resumed long range air patrols over areas off the Russian coast, which have not seen Russian navy or air force activity in over a decade. Since 1991 until quite recently, Russian warships spent most of their time tied up at dock, meaning an entire generation of sailors has little experience at sea. This spells defeat in wartime, and the sailors, especially the senior commanders, know it.

The big problem so far is that the new equipment that has been received is not impressive. The troops can get on the Internet and get video and tech specs for a lot of the contemporary Western gear and the Russian stuff rarely looks good in comparison. But at least they aren’t stuck with aging Cold War era equipment that rarely works. 

The Russian armed forces has already come to grips with the fact that it will never return to the glory days of the Soviet Union (which dissolved in 1991). The army was called "the Red Army" back then and the mighty Soviet naval force came to be known as “the Red Fleet.” Back during the Cold War the armed forces had five times as many troops (over five million) and dibs on over ten percent of the national GNP (no one is sure of the exact amount, as the communists were not big fans of accountants and accurate financial reporting). Currently, Russia is playing by West European rules when it comes to military spending, meaning no more than 3-4 percent of GDP going to the military. With a $2.1 trillion dollar economy, growing at 7 percent a year, the generals can expect a lot more cash to work with. But most of this money is going to replace Cold War era weapons, which are now considered out-of-date and of limited usefulness. But all this will only happen if the price of oil and natural gas remains where it is. That is not likely to happen and the future Red Fleet will be a much fainter shadow of what it once was.

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