Weapons: Something To Parade About

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May 22, 2015: on May 9th 2015 Russia commemorated the 70 anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945 with the largest ever parade for annual event. For the first time since the Cold War ended in 1991 the Victory Day parade showed off lots of new weapons. This included the new Ratnik infantry weapons and equipment ensemble, the new T-14 tank and T-15 IFV (Infantry Fighting Vehicle) and new artillery weapons, ballistic missiles and lots of other fairly new stuff.

Meanwhile many of these new systems are being tested in combat. That is happening in eastern Ukraine where Russia is officially not involved but the evidence on the ground provides ample proof that Russian troops and equipment (some of it very new) is in use. Ratnik and new rocket launcher weapons have been seen in Ukraine, along with new electronic warfare equipment. This last item does not make much of an impression in a parade, but Ukrainians and their NATO advisors are collecting a lot of useful information on how useful this innovative and effective electronic jamming and eavesdropping gear is.

While the tank and electronic warfare equipment is pretty innovative, 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”), and 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. 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, and power supply systems plus uniform items including knee and elbow pads) have been tested and accepted. Some 70,000 sets of Ratnik gear have been ordered. Initially only elite troops will get Ratnik while the rest of the ground forces will be stuck with the AK-74 assault rifle and older infantry gear into the 2020s. That’s because of continuing money problems.

The new T-14 tank is a big deal for Russia as it is the first major innovation in tank design since World War II. Russia has been trying to develop a radical new tank design since the 1960s. That resulted in the T-64, T-72 and T-80. The only design that survived all the hype was the T-72, but it was not radically new, just a refinement of designs that appeared early in World War II and quickly replaced all competing designs and became the basis for all modern tanks (T-72, M-1, Leopard and so on). When it was clear (by the 1980s) that the T-72 was the best they had, several new versions appeared, not all of them Russian. But it was obvious (especially after several wars) that the T-72 was inferior to Western designs. Russia needed something radically new that worked. Sort of a T-34 for the 21st century.

Russia sought to create another breakthrough design and after several false starts they believe they finally have a winner in their new “universal combat platform” called the Armata system. The first prototypes of this vehicle began testing in 2013 and the Armata platform is currently being used for the construction of the new T-14 tank prototypes. This vehicle uses the engine and tracks as well as the heavily armored crew capsule of the Armata system. Added to this is an automated 125mm gun (and 32 shells and missiles) in a turret. There is also a RWS (remote weapons station) for a 30mm autocannon and another for a 12.7mm machine-gun. In addition to the weapons the crew of three would operate several sensor systems (thermal, vidcams and AESA radar) and an automatic defense system for protection against missiles and weapons like RPGs (shaped charge rockets used by the infantry). The three man crew operates all these systems from a heavily armored capsule. There is no one in the turret. All this is in a 55 ton vehicle that requires the services of additional maintenance personnel nearby (behind the fighting) who would help fix problems and assist the crew in maintaining all this complex equipment. Prototypes of the T-14 are supposed to be available for field testing in 2015 or shortly thereafter. It was expected that one of these prototypes would make a public appearance soon and the Victory Day parade was the perfect showcase.

The 2015 Victory Day parade was always the largest held in the country. But the parades rapidly shrank in size and attendance in the 1990s. The trend towards larger and larger Victory Day parades began in 2011 what there was the (up until then) the largest ever featuring 20,000 troops and a growing array of new weapons. World War II (the Great Patriotic War in Russia) is still a very big deal. The conflict killed nearly 30 million Russians, a figure that was a state secret until the Cold War (and the Soviet Union) ended in 1991. Before that, the Soviet government downplayed their wartime losses, which were about twice what the Soviets would admit to. The war was a catastrophe for Russia, destroying much of the economy, in addition to causing widespread hunger and privation. It took decades to repair the worst of the damage and the annual victory celebration was a reminder of all that was sacrificed then regained. But things change. By the 1970s, older Russians were beginning to complain that memories were starting to fade. Younger Russians were put off by the forced celebrations and constant propaganda extolling the efforts of the Communist Party in defeating the German invaders. When the Cold War ended, the annual parades continued, but without the forced attendance. The government is now trying to maintain Victory Day as something important for most people. Thus the big parades since 2011 (where the event cost a record $43 million). It's become less a celebration of how great the Communist Party was, and more about how the Russian people came together to defeat a common enemy.

 


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