May 3, 2020:
The new Russian assault rifle, the AK-12, is finally being delivered to regular infantry units. The first such unit to receive it is the 150th Motor Rifle Division of the 8th Army in the Southern Military District. The AK-12, which looks like (and is) a much updated AK-47, was finally accepted into service in 2018 and deliveries began. The first to get it were special operations and airborne units in 2019.
The government, after years of pressure and complaints from combat commanders, agreed in 2015 to make the AK-12 part of the new “future soldier” (Ratnik) set of gear for its infantry. As of 2015 Ratnik was obviously not complete and had not undergone any combat testing. That took place in 2016 by Russian troops newly arrived in Syria. Ratnik is basically the kind of gear American troops began receiving in the 1990s. In particular modern type (and still in use) bullet proof helmets and vests.
Troops began getting Ratnik (minus the AK-12 and some electronic items) in 2015 and by 2017 200,000 sets of Ratnik had been delivered. That was enough to equip all the combat troops because the current Russian Army is, for the first time in history smaller than that peacetime American army. The Russian force has 350,000 troops compared to the U.S. Army with 560,000.
The current Russian ground forces consist of eight “armies” but most of those armies only have one division and a few brigades. Not all of these units are at full strength. Russia is making the most of this and seeking to equip all these troops with the most modern equipment. That became a lot more expensive towards the end of the Cold War (1980s), and especially after the 1990s when Western forces came up with a growing number of more effective weapons and items of equipment that made their troops much more effective, and expensive to equip.
After 1991 the newly independent (of Russian control) countries of East Europe rushed to join NATO and equip their troops to NATO standards. At the same time, China was also modernizing its ground forces while using the U.S. and NATO as the standard to match. A modernized Chines army was something Russia never had to face. For centuries China had outdated military equipment compared to Russia and that did not begin to change until the 1990s. Now the Chinese are ahead of Russia and that irks Russian military commanders who realize that ultimately China is the major threat to Russia.
China had eagerly adopted the AK-47 in the 1950s and manufactured their own as the Type 56 assault rifle. China has since built over ten million of those and still makes them, mostly for collectors. After the Type 56 China has developed four more generations of new assault rifles. The AK-12 is an effort to at least stay even with Chinese assault rifle developments.
While the AK-12 fires the same 5.45/39mm round as the current AK-74 it replaces, and costs 25 percent more, the new rifle has outperformed the AK-74 in extensive field tests and troops now prefer it. The AK-12 is also available in a version that fires the old AK-47 round (7.62x39mm) that was introduced in 1944 and is still popular in many countries. The AK-12 also keeps the basic design principles of the AK-47 alive into the 21st century and tries to do it better than China.
This all began with a Russian World War II veteran, Mikhail Kalashnikov, who came up with a brilliant rifle design that so impressed his bosses that they named it after him. AK means Avtomat Kalashnikova which literally translates as “Kalashnikov Automatic”. This was no fluke. Kalashnikov had always been into mechanical things and grew up in Siberia where rural folk could own a rifle for hunting. So young Mikhail was familiar with how rifles operated in addition to being a mechanical genius. Kalashnikov was conscripted in 1938 and because of his small size was assigned to a tank unit. There his ingenuity and mechanical skills came to the notice of his superiors, who praised and encouraged him. During 1941 he was badly wounded in combat and spent six months recuperating. During that time he came up with some brilliant ideas for a new rifle design. This was instigated by complaints he heard from wounded infantry soldiers. He wrote to the senior officers who had praised his skills before the war. That got him transferred to a weapons development organization. Among his many innovations and designs over the next five years was the AK-47, which began replacing all older infantry rifles in 1949. Kalashnikov died in 2013 but, until the end, he hunted and innovated, backing things like the Ratnik concept and the AK-12.
The Ratnik system is the Russian version of an American concept pioneered in the 1980s ("Land Warrior") and resulted in the introduction of new body armor, personal communications, wearable computers, night vision devices, and personal medical equipment. Several European countries have followed, especially the German Infanterist der Zukunft (“Infantryman Of The Future”) Russia did the same but was stalled by cash shortages and debates over whether a new infantry rifle was needed. Unlike the United States, Russia included a new rifle design (AK-12) as part of its Ratnik gear. There was a lot of opposition to the AK-12 within the Russian high command, but at the troop level, there was an even more vigorous and louder call for something to replace the Cold War era AK-74.
The entire Ratnik collection underwent final acceptance tests in late 2013. All the items of Ratnik (firearms, body armor, optic, communication and navigation devices, medical gear and power supply systems, plus uniform items including knee and elbow pads have been tested and accepted. The new rifle was more of a problem until the government finally backed the AK-12. How the AK-12 came to be was quite an epic undertaking. The Russians have made several attempts to develop and introduce a replacement for the AK-74. Some new designs even made it into combat. For example, some special operations units got the new AN-94 in the 1990s while most troops continued to use the elderly (in design and manufacture) AK-74s. The troops wanted something that could match the improvements in Western assault rifles. The firm that designed most Russian assault rifles since the 1940s had designed a new assault rifle (AK-12) in response to that but the Russian Defense Ministry stalled efforts to even test it. That resistance was finally overcome and the AK-12 recently passed the tests.
The AK-12 uses a lot of the basic AK-47 design principles but adds many new features popular in Western assault rifles. The AK-12 is but the latest in a long line of innovative Russian infantry weapons. Appearing for the first time towards the end of World War II, assault rifles have since become the standard infantry weapon, almost entirely replacing bolt-action and semi-automatic rifles. The first generation AK was the AK-47 followed by the AKM in the 1960s, then the AK-74 (which was somewhat similar to the U.S. M-16) in the 1970s, and limited numbers of the AN-94 (a much improved AK-74) in the 1990s. Over fifty million AK-47s and AKMs were made, most of them outside Russia. Production, on a small scale, continues. It is still the most numerous assault rifle in use.
The AK-12 is a 3.3 kg (7.3 pound) weapon that is 943mm (37.1 inches) long with a 415mm (16.3 inch) barrel. It can be fitted to fire one of four calibers: the original 7.62x39mm of the AK-47/AKM, the 5.56x45mm of the M-16, the 5.45x39mm of the AK-74, or the 7.62x51mm NATO rifle/machine-gun round. The AK-12 can use AK-47/AKM magazines when firing 7.62x39mm ammo.
There are a lot of small but important changes in the AK-12. The stock is adjustable. The charging handle is easily used whether you are left or right handed. There is an improved safety switch, pistol grip, hinged top cover, muzzle break, iron sight and (smaller) ejection port. The AK-12 has Picatinny rails (the U.S. developed standard for attaching all sorts of accessories). The fire control switch now allows for single shot, full automatic, and three round bursts. The AK-12 is inherently more accurate because of improved barrel rifling. The AK-12 handles more easily, has a longer effective range (up to 600 meters), and apparently has the same ruggedness of the original AK-47. That last item was put to the test, as the Russian military has agreed to put some AK-12s into the field, where their performance under combat conditions that could be monitored.
The AK-12 was not the best (from a technical point of view) candidate for Ratnik but the senior generals opposed it. Part of the problem was that there was not a pressing need for a new AK in Russia. For example, in 2011, Russia stopped buying new AK-74 rifles. Since they already have ten million AK assault rifles (most of them older AK-47 and AKM models) in stock and only a million military personnel on active duty (and about as many in reserve units) buying more assault rifles was deemed wasteful. This did not stop the purchase of special small arms for commandos and other specialist combat units.
The new policy did not stop work on the new AK-12 (also called the AK-200). Meanwhile, an improved AK-74M was introduced in 1991, and is still in service. This is a 3.4 kg (7.5 pound), 94.3 cm (37.1 inch) weapon with a 41.5 cm (16.3 inch) barrel. It has rails for sights and such and can use a 30 or 45 round magazine. Rate of fire is 650 RPM on full auto, and max effective range was 600 meters. The AK-74 looked like an AK-47 and used the same technology.
Some five million AK-74s were built, most before the Cold War ended in 1991. North Korea manufactures a copy of the AK-74 called the Type 98. The AK-74M was the basis for the AK-12, and the two weapons are very similar, with the new rifle having more flexibility and capacity for accessories.
Meanwhile, several additional AK-74 variants have been developed and put on the market. The AK-101 fires the 5.56mm NATO round and has a 30-round clip. The AK-103 fires the 7.62x39mm round used in the original AK-47, for those who have concerns about the ability of the 5.45mm round to stop enemy troops. The AK-102, 104, and 105 are compact rifles designed for the export market and are available in 5.56mm NATO, 7.62x39mm, and 5.45x39mm calibers. All have 30-round magazines. This proliferation of models is meant to handle niche markets, which manufacturers of cheap AK-47s are not interested in. The AK-12 will be another something special, in this case a new assault rifle for Russian 21st century infantry, along with all the other Ratnik gear.