by Patrick Truffer (originally published in German). He has been working in the Swiss Armed Forces for more than 15 years, holds a bachelor’s degree in public affairs from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich (ETH Zurich), and a master’s degree in international relations from the Free University of Berlin.
The purpose of this article is to investigate the factors driving Russian military reform, how the capabilities of the Russian Armed Forces have changed in the last ten years, and how they could change through 2030, based on the latest state armaments program. The first part was about the consolidation phase after the end of the Cold War; the inadequacies that became apparent during the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, and finally the Serdyukov reform. The second part dealt with the progressive improvement of the Russian armed forces as a consequence of military reform, which became evident in the wars in Ukraine and Syria as well as in the major exercises of the last two years. In the third part, the possible further development of the Russian armed forces for the period up to the end of 2030 will be discussed, and a conclusion will be drawn.
Outlook through 2030
Until about 2018, the 2011-2020 state armaments program was the basis for the modernization of the Russian armed forces and amounted to 20.7 trillion rubles, equivalent to about 700 billion US dollars for the entire period or in other words, the yearly budget for the US armed forces. Not even half of this budget was used until 2018, partly because the Russian defense industry is often overwhelmed when it comes to quantity and quality. Although military equipment based on Soviet design is easy to mass-produce, high-volume production and the development of entirely new weapon systems are proving to be difficult. Taking into account the findings from the operation in Syria, the low oil price, western sanctions following the annexation of Crimea and the interference in the war in Ukraine, it became apparent that Russia could not sustain the arms program in the long run. Therefore, in December 2017, Russian President Vladimir Putin approved the new State Armament Program for 2018-2027. Expressed in rubles, it has a budget similar to that of the previous program. Converted into US dollars, it does not even include half of the previous amount due to inflation. Since most military equipment is produced in Russia itself, however, the decline in the value of the ruble against the US dollar is less significant (Richard Connolly and Mathieu Boulègue, “Russia’s New State Armament Programme: Implications for Russian Armed Forces and Military Capabilities to 2017“, Chatham House, The Royal Institute of International Affairs, Russia and Eurasia Programme, Mai 2018, p. 4f, 8, 10).
Even though the armament program is classified, enough details have been published by Russian officials, politicians, press articles, etc. that allow a rough estimate of the further development of armed forces until 2030. Vostok 2018 has already pointed to certain priorities for the next then years. The units, especially the airborne troops and special forces, are to become more mobile and can be mobilized on short notice even over long distances. Procuring new transport and tanker aircraft, therefore, plays an important role. However, extending the operational possibilities of the Antonov aircraft from Ukraine is not an option. These are to be replaced by the Ilyushin Il-476, Il-76MD Candid and possibly the Il-106 Ermak. Mass production of the Il-76MD Candid began in early 2018, but whether the goal of 40 units by the end of 2027 can be attained remains to be seen. (Connolly and Boulègue, p. 4, 15).
The modernization of the nuclear triad will be continued in the new armaments program and will play an important role. For intercontinental ballistic missiles, Russia will have a mix of RS-24 Yars (since 2010) and RS-28 Sarmat (from 2019) towards the end of the 2020s. The RS-24 Yars can carry 3-4 nuclear warheads, the RS-28 Sarmat can potentially carry up to 24 MIRV (likely up to three Avangard hypersonic glide vehicles) depending on size and mass , which should be able to penetrate a missile shield with both conventional and nuclear warheads equipped (Julian Cooper, “The Russian State Armament Programme, 2018-2027“, NATO Defense College, Mai 2018, p. 3). These are two of the new systems that Putin presented to Parliament in his Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly on March 1, 2018. Another proposed system – a still unnamed nuclear-powered cruise missile – will most likely not be completed by 2030, if at all (Jeffrey Lewis and Aaron Stein, “Russia’s Crashing Cruise Missile“, Arms Control Wonk, 11.06.2018). For strategic bombers, Russia will probably have to rely on a modernized Tupolev Tu-95MS Bear and Tu-160M2 Blackjack until the mid-2030s, as the newly planned PAK DA strategic bomber (subsonic speed, but with an operational distance of 15,000 km) will hardly be operational before that. Not listed as a strategic bomber due to the lack of, though retrofittable, mid-air refueling capability, Russia will also have Tu-22M3 Backfire (30 of the 100 will be upgraded to Tu-22M3M), which were used as bombers in the Syrian War. The Kh-47M2 Kinzhal hypersonic air-to-ground missile, another weapon system introduced by Putin, which is also said to be able to penetrate a missile shield, is currently under development and is being tested in the Southern Military District. However, at the moment, it can not be estimated whether this system will be operational by 2030. The three strategic Borei-class submarines are among the most advanced Russian weapon systems and will be gradually supplemented by five additional submarines between 2019 and mid-2025. Together these eight submarines can then carry 128 Bulava intercontinental ballistic missiles, each of which has six nuclear warheads (Connolly and Boulègue, p. 16ff; “Balistic and Cruise Missile Threat“, National Air and Space Intelligence Center, Defense Intelligence Ballistic Missile Analysis Committee, June 2017, p. 33). It is still unclear whether Russia will develop additional new submarines (Project 09852, Belgorod). The Belgorod should carry up to four long-range unmanned underwater vehicles Kanyon (Status 6), equipped with nuclear warheads as announced by Putin (Cooper, p. 8).
Otherwise, the naval fleet no longer receives special treatment. On the contrary, the naval fleet is the real loser of the new armaments budget. The reason lies in the limited capabilities of the Russian shipbuilding and in the Kalibr cruise missiles, which allow smaller and older ships to operate from a distance of up to 2,500 km. Therefore, destroyers, cruisers, corvettes, frigates, and tactical submarines from the Soviet era are to be further modernized, but new large warships are not provided until well after 2030. If it does not sink before then, Russia will only have one obsolete aircraft carrier for the next 10-15 years, Admiral Kuznetsov, which is to be modernized by 2021. In the best-case scenario, eight new Gremyashchiy-class corvettes, three Admiral Grigorovich-class frigates, five Admiral Gorshkov-class frigates, two Lada-class submarines, six Varshavyankas-class submarines, and six Yasen-class nuclear attack submarines will be launched. Fifth-generation submarines will probably be barely produced before 2030. These include the diesel-electric Kalina-class and the nuclear-powered Husky-class. Also, amphibious capabilities will remain at a relatively low level. Currently, there are 4 Alligator-class 50+ year old ships, 15 Ropucha-class 40+ year old ships, and one new Ivan Gren-class ship. Initially, eight Ivan Gren-class ships were planned; six were canceled because of persistent technical problems (Connolly and Boulègue, p. 21; Dmitry Gorenburg, “Russia’s Military Modernization Plans: 2018-2027“, PONARS Eurasia Policy Memos, no. 495, 22.11.2017). Together with Great Britain and France, Russia will remain a medium-sized naval power in 2030, which can concurrently carry out only one major operation over a longer period.
The air and land forces are better off. The arsenal of combat aircraft is to be further modernized. By the end of 2017, this should include at least 186 Sukhoi Su-30MKI Flanker-H, 200 Sukhoi Su-35S Flanker-E, 200 Sukhoi Su-34 Fullback, 24 Mikoyan MiG-35 Fulcrum-F as well as some Mikoyan MiG-29SMT Fulcrum-E and MiG-31 Foxhound. Even though two prototypes have been tested in Syria, and 12-13 Sukhoi Su-57s are expected to be delivered between 2020 and 2025 (but still with an old engine because the development of the new high-performance engine is causing difficulties), it is unlikely that by the end of 2027 a larger number of Fifth-generation combat aircraft will be fully operational (Vladimir Karnozov, “Russia places initial Production Order for Stealth Fighter“, Aviation International News, 03.07.2018; Connolly and Boulègue, p. 18ff).
For ground troops, a total of about 2,700 T-72, T-80 and T-90 main battle tanks are to be further modernized. They are expected to represent the backbone of the ground forces by 2030. Mass production of the T-14 Armata is to begin by the end of next year, but because the main battle tank is relatively expensive in contrast to the modernized T-90M, and apparently being shunned by the armored forces, only one brigade is to be equipped with around 100 units of the new main battle tank by the end of 2027 (“Chapter Five: Russia and Eurasia“, The Military Balance, vol. 118, 2018, p. 177; Connolly and Boulègue, p. 24). Also starting in 2021 a few Kurganets-25 infantry fighting vehicles are expected. For this purpose, 540 BMP-2 infantry fighting vehicle and BMD-2 airborne tanks are to be modernized. Additionally the BMP-3 Dragoon will be produced from this year, which should have similar capabilities as the Kurganets-25, but is much cheaper to produce. The Bumerang infantry fighting vehicle and the T-15 Armata infantry fighting vehicle are currently unavailable – mass production by the end of 2027 is unlikely (Cooper, p. 11). Artillery will be modernized in a first phase with the 15.2 cm 2S19 Msta-S armored howitzer which will be gradually replaced in a second phase from 2020 by the new 15.2 cm 2S35 Koalitsiya-SV, which should be able to shoot precision ammunition up to 70 km (Nicholas de Larrinaga and Nikolai Novichkov, “Russia’s Armour Revolution“, IHS Jane’s 360, 25.04.2016). In addition, Uragan-1M and 9A52-4 Tornado multiple rocket launchers will be procured. In addition to the introduction of a modern fire control system, artillery brigades and regiments will, in the future, be equipped with drones for reconnaissance, surveillance, target acquisition, and target evaluation. The armed forces currently have more than 1,000 unarmed Orlan-10 drones that can remain airborn for around 16 hours and are controlled by a ground station with a deployment radius of around 120-140 km. They will be used for reconnaissance and surveillance and will probably be capable of targeting and evaluating in the medium term. Russia still does not have armed drones (Connolly and Boulègue, S. 18ff).
Two factors are significantly responsible for the reform of the Russian armed forces. First, US and NATO behavior and several international events in 1999 seemed to point to a shift in the balance of power. Russia was powerless against NATO’s eastward enlargement, NATO’s Operation Allied Force, and NATO’s new expansive strategic concept. Despite nuclear armament, the effectiveness of the US precision weapons and the apparent capability gap of the Russian armed forces shook Russia’s status as a major power. This led to a new perception of threat from the US and NATO, a significant change in Russian domestic policy, and a long-term reversal of integration efforts in the Western world order. Together with the increase in government revenues since 2000 due to rising raw material prices, and with a new, self-confident Russian president, the conditions were ripe for a reform of the Russian armed forces. As a result, there was quantitative consolidation and investment in the preservation and modernization of the strategic nuclear arsenal, but there was still little pressure for comprehensive reform. Institutional sluggishness and resistance by the generals stood in the way. Only the second factor, the embarrassing performance for a great power in the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, led both the political and military leaders to a willingness for an uncompromising enforcement of military reform. The necessary restructuring was implemented relatively quickly. Although there were still generals who were against a comprehensive reform, these were moved to retirement by the Russian Defense Minister Anatoliy Serdyukov with the backing of Putin. Influential posts were in turn filled by younger, progressive officers. However, the modernization of the Russian armed forces proved to be a much greater challenge due to the neglected arms industry after the Cold War.
Therefore, the newer weapon systems delivered to the military in large numbers from 2011 are still based on Soviet technology. Nevertheless, in more than ten years since the Russo-Georgian War, Russian forces have been modernized in many ways. An important step was, for example, the introduction of the Ratnik infantry fighting system, which brings the soldiers’ personal equipment up to date. Only with modern equipment and adequate protection can the right soldiers who are disciplined and ready to fight under challenging conditions be found in the long-term. This change could be observed from 2014 with the annexation of Crimea, the War in Donbass, and the military intervention in the Syrian Civil War. The troop commanders are better trained, the troops behave disciplined and are ready for action. Significant improvements in operations management, mobility, logistics, and conventional weapon systems have also been achieved over the last ten years. For example, Russia has limited quantities of precision weapons that can be deployed over long distances from a variety of carrier platforms (Eric Schmitt, “Vast Exercise Demonstrated Russia’s Growing Military Prowess“, The New York Times, 22.12.2017; Lamont Colucci, “The Coming Russian Aggression“, US News & World Report, 10.10.2017). Zapad 2017 and Vostok 2018 point out that the Russian armed forces can defend their territory and that of their allies effectively and sustainably, with the emphasis on the western and southern military districts. Offensive capabilities, however, remain rather conservative if a regional nuclear strike is excluded.
In addition to the sanctions by Western countries and economic problems, the operation in Syria, in particular, has led to an early replacement of the 2011-2020 state armaments program and had a lasting effect on the follow-up program for the period 2018-2027. In the next ten years, a qualitative upgrading of the nuclear triad is to be expected. Russia wants to ensure a reliable second-strike capability in connection with last year’s US Nuclear Posture Review and the planned US missile shield. Combined with the degradation of international arms control treaties, there is a high risk of a renewed arms race.
The conventional weapon systems will also be further modernized in the next ten years. Paradoxically, this is in the interest of the Western world. If the “escalation to de-escalation” doctrine is taken into account, a more conventionally equipped Russia means a lower chance of using nuclear weapons. However, despite full-bodied announcements, the state armaments program for the next ten years is more of an evolution than a revolution. The Russian defense industry has much to catch up to in terms of quantity and quality. With Western sanctions, this is particularly difficult when it comes to electronic systems for the construction of navigation satellites and combat drones and in shipbuilding. Despite visible progress since the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, the Russian armed forces still have a long way to go in terms of modernization.
 There are different opinions on how many Avangard hypersonic gliders the RS-28 Sarmat can deploy. According to Deagel: “the MIRVed Sarmat will carry 10-15 or up 24 Yu-74 nuclear warheads [(Projektname des Avangard Überschallgleiters)] delivering them to suborbital trajectories which will allow them to reach any target on Earth following any trajectory. […] As ICBM the missile is armed with ten 750-kiloton warheads (7.5 megatons) which are at the same time independently targetable (MIRV) and maneuverable (MARV). As carrier, the missile is armed with 16 hypersonic glide vehicles yielding 500 kilotons each (8 megatons) or 24 hypersonic glide vehicles each yielding 150 kilotons (3.6 megatons).”
Clarifications by Bernhard Schulyok, Specialist Officer of the Department of Military Strategy of the Austrian Federal Ministry of Defense, in the context of the 2019 Interdisciplinary Technology Talks (an event in cooperation with the Austrian Armed Forces, the Office for Armaments and Defense Technology, the Austria Institute for European and Security Policy and the Center for Security Studies of the ETH Zurich) showed that the RS-28 Sarmat probably could carry up to 24 MIRV (for example warheads) depending on size and mass, but that only up to 3 Avangard hypersonic gliders were probable. I thank Bernhard Schulyok for the clarifications and the corresponding feedback.