Potemkin Innovative Army

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When I listened to a televised report of President Vladimir Putin's visit Wednesday to the Gromov Flight Research Institute, Russia's main flight-test center in the Moscow region, I couldn't believe what I was hearing. Not only did the institute's staff give a demonstration of the Su-35 -- which they referred to as the "very latest" fighter aircraft in the Russian arsenal -- but they informed the president that it had undergone its first test flight only the day before. Before an audience of millions, they duped Putin in the most brazen manner. You can easily open any encyclopedia of military aircraft and see for yourself that the Su-35 took its maiden flight 20 years ago. Twelve Su-35s were built by the mid-1990s, and now they are telling Putin that another 12 Su-35s are currently undergoing test flights. I strongly suspect that these are the same aircraft that have been around for more than a decade.

This story may be a precursor to what we can expect from a government that promises to build an "innovative army" by 2020 to which Putin referred in a speech before the State Council on Feb. 8. Putin said the foundation for such an army would rest on the development over the next couple of years of "new types of arms that are equal to those held by other states -- and in some cases superior."

One year ago, then-Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov presented a list of the so-called latest weaponry that, according to Putin, would constitute the military's "innovative development." But none of the items on the list is new. Since the Topol-M missile was developed in the late 1980s, the technologies it employs will already be 30 years old in 2015. The Iskander missile was deployed in the early 1990s, and the same is true of the C-400 air defense system. The Su-34 fighter bomber is equally "new." By the time Russia's military technology finally reaches the production stage, it is already obsolete. Therefore, Putin's innovative army of 2020 will really be based on military technology that dates from the last century.

Most amazing is that Russia is playing military catch-up while other global powers such as the United States, Britain, France and even China are undergoing what defense experts call a revolution in military affairs. These countries were on the cutting edge of information-technology breakthroughs in the 1990s, and this allowed them to bring real-time battlefield data to commanders in the field -- whether on land, sea, air or space. The uncertainty about the enemy's battlefield movements -- which was once considered an inevitable aspect of armed conflict -- is now gradually dissipating thanks to these new information technologies. For example, witnesses on the ground tell me that there is now a constant noise from the buzzing engines of unpiloted aircraft in the skies over Afghanistan and Iraq. The drones carry video cameras that relay a bird's-eye view of any piece of territory a commander is assigned to manage. Every officer, right down to the level of a platoon commander, can view the activity in any conflict zone with the aid of a laptop computer. On a larger strategic level, these technologies provide complete and unchallengeable battlefield superiority.

But Russia has done practically nothing in this high-tech sphere. Ivanov, now first deputy prime minister, recently revealed the total failure of Russia's Global Navigation Satellite System. The program's creators had promised for the last decade that the system would give both civil and military users advanced positioning capabilities, which is clearly essential to the military's precision-weapons systems. It turned out that domestic industries could not manufacture all of the components necessary for the system. If the country's military brass were serious about creating an innovative army, they would focus their energies on information technologies.

Russia's military leadership established the post of deputy minister for computer science, but to get an idea of how useful this department will be, it is enough to read the report by Alexander Burutin, deputy chief of the General Staff: His definition of "information wars" is the threat of a hacker attack on the country's computer networks.

However you look at it, there is no basis for hoping that Russia will create the innovative army Putin has promised. This is because the Kremlin promises one thing, and the armed forces move in exactly the opposite direction. And for that matter, so does the rest of the country.

Alexander Golts is deputy editor of the online newspaper Yezhednevny Zhurnal.