Paper Bear: The State of Russia’s Conventional Weapons Development
Image Source: Sputnik News
By Jake Grant Gore
Though it could not reach the new millenium, the Soviet Union fought through most of a tumultuous century that it began as Europe’s weakest and least-developed empire. While the icons that best represent American international standing may be the logos of our largest businesses or any one of our most famous popular culture figures, the short-lived Soviet state left behind very different items from its rapid ascent and descent for us to remember it by. The USSR may not have had McDonalds, Disney, Levi’s, or Microsoft to be linked to its global image… however it did have Sukhoi, MiG, and Kalashnikov. Since the early days of the Stalinist command economy where industrialization as a means for armament was essentially the primary Soviet economic goal, arms and ordinance production was ingrained as a structural keystone. The support of global Marxist-Leninist rebel groups and states alike throughout the decades was often based around massive shipments of weapons or the tooling to create them, leading to widespread proliferation of Soviet weapons designs throughout the world. Though morbid, it is perhaps correct to say that the infamous AK-47 assault rifle is the USSR’s most important and lasting contribution to the world. This is certainly a legacy that the Russian Federation has not ignored, and recently has become something they’ve tried to rely on to maintain and improve their global standing. However the Russian Federation is by no means the superpower that preceded it, and the poor state of its economy and domestic manufacturing capabilities confirm that American fears of next-generation Russians weapons systems are largely overstated.
Since the Russian annexation of Crimea in March of 2014, the US has pivoted away from being primarily concerned with China to also bolster European defense capabilities out of fear of continued aggression. Crimea represented a major Russian strategic victory in that it gives naval access to the Black Sea, and Russian efforts in Syria have long been concerned with protecting joint Russo-Syrian air and naval facilities there. These recent developments, along with general naval modernization efforts, have suggested to the US that the Russians wish to expand their military power projection capabilities once again. The increased NATO focus on Baltic and Eastern European security since Crimea that has featured near-constant training exercises with multinational battle groups shows very clearly that the US and its allies see Russia as a legitimate threat.
Though the amount of battle-ready US and NATO troops significantly exceeds the current number of Russian forces and many areas of the Russian military continue to employ vastly outdated Soviet designs, the Russian Federation has continuously developed cutting-edge weapons systems both for export and internal use. These range from standard small arms, like the AK-12, that closely mirror technological developments elsewhere in the world to vehicles like the T-14 Armata Main Battle Tank that many believe match Western designs in capability. Between the Armata, the Su-57 (a 5th Generation stealth fighter developed by Sukhoi), the S-500, and a number of interesting semi-autonomous systems, it indeed began to appear that the Russian Federation was somehow to defying economic laws to equal (if not exceed) some areas of Western weapons development. However, recent months have explicitly confirmed that the perceived Russian threat appears to have been overestimated.
Throughout 2018, major Russian weapons projects have been cancelled or seriously jeopardized left and right. First was the Uran-9, a ground-based drone that was tested alongside Russian forces in Syria. Reliability issues were the main reason stated, though when reading between the lines one can hypothesize that there wasn’t money available to work out the kinks in such a design. The aforementioned T-14 Armata, lauded upon unveiling as the greatest tank in the world since the Soviet T-34, was always suspected to have some production problems as many of the specialty parts such as electronic and optical suites would likely have to come from foreign nations which may have embargoed the Russian Federation after Crimea. However as of a few months ago this massive project has been shelved due to costs running too high (Russian forces will instead purchase yet another round of upgrades for their old workhorse, the T-72). Finally, and most damning of all, the Sukhoi Su-57 was officially cancelled in July, also due to budgetary reasons. Not only was this a disappointing end to a hugely expensive program that was long in the making, it represents a Russian exit from the 5th Generation stealth fighter race. Now only the US with its F-35 and China with the J-20 remain capable of producing these cutting-edge jets. The Su-57 debacle happens to be perfectly representative of the bigger picture here: while the Russians have no shortage of excellent prototype systems, sustaining next-generation weapons programs through their entire development cycles unilaterally seems to require the economic might of nations like the US or China.
Russia’s weapons, both old and new, will by no means go away. Russian systems are often highly cost effective and have historically been some of the few that can actually compete with American designs. Ironically, the weak economy that has recently prevented Russia from seeing through some of its more important weapons projects will also necessitate continued manufacturing and sales, as their economy is increasingly reliant on staying the largest weapons exporter in the world next to the US. We do not have to worry about next generation Russian weapons systems being produced in a large enough functional quantity to ever counter American forces in a conventional engagement; quite simply, it would take an economic miracle greater than early Soviet industrialization for their production capabilities to catch up. However as the recent S-400 sale to Turkey proves, the Russian Federation is expert at leveraging its notable weapons exporter status to achieve geopolitical goals. While many believe that the US should focus on preserving its hegemony from Chinese encroachment, it must still keep a careful eye on the Russian Federation to monitor the development and proliferation of their latest designs. However rather than primarily fretting about the development of new conventional weapons, the US has far more to gain by putting its full focus on countering Russian advancements in areas where it does not already have a significant advantage, such as cyberwarfare and anti-satellite systems.