Weakened Defense Sector Offering Little New

MTEarlier this year, Algeria returned the Mig-29 jets it bought from Russia, saying the quality of workmanship was poor.
ZHUKOVSKY, Moscow Region -- At a once-secret airfield outside Moscow, test pilot Sergei Bogdan proudly introduces reporters to what was billed as the latest in Russian military aircraft technology, the Su-35 fighter jet.

But the plane is only an upgrade of a 20-year-old model -- and it can't match the speed and stealth of the latest U.S. fighter, the F-22 Raptor, which entered service in 2005.

Vladimir Putin, first as president and now as prime minister, has boasted of new weapons systems and of strengthening the armed forces, raising fears in the West of a Cold War-style military build up. Flush with oil money, the Kremlin is in the market for new weapons.

But Russia's own state-run defense industries, experts say, face a crumbling manufacturing base and pervasive corruption; they have produced little in the way of advanced armaments in the Putin era.

The Victory Day parade on Red Square in May was intended to showcase the nation's military might. Instead, Russia's arsenal showed its age. Most of the planes, tanks and missiles that rolled past Lenin's tomb dated to the 1980s or were slightly modernized versions of decades-old equipment.

Bogdan, affectionately patting his Su-35 in a hangar at Zhukovsky flight test center outside Moscow, hailed its agility, advanced electronics and new engines.

"It's very light on controls and accelerates really well," he said.

But Alexander Golts, an independent defense analyst, said the Su-35 is just one example of how Russian weapons industries are taking old designs out of mothballs and trying to sell them as new.

"The Soviet Union saw a tide of new weapons designs in the late 1980s that didn't reach the production stage," Golts said. "They can be described as new only in the sense that they weren't built in numbers.

Russian officials have spent two decades trying to build a so-called fifth-generation fighter jet equivalent to Raptor, but the plane still hasn't made its maiden flight -- and analysts are skeptical that the first test flights will take place next year as promised.

Mikhail Pogosyan, the director of the Sukhoi aircraft-maker, which is developing the new fighter, admitted that the company has a long way to go. But he added that the pace of construction could accelerate soon.

"I don't think that we are lagging behind in a critical way," he said when asked whether Russia was falling behind the United States in fighter design.


Vladimir Filonov / MT
Sergei Bogdan standing beside the Su-35 at Zhukovsky Airfield on July 7.
As work to build the new plane drags on, another major weapons program also faces hurdles. The new Bulava intercontinental ballistic missile, designed to equip nuclear submarines, has failed repeatedly in tests. Prospects for its deployment look dim.

"The loss of technologies and the brain drain have led to a steady degradation of military industries," said Alexander Khramchikhin, an analyst with the Institute for Political and Military Analysis.

Russia's economic meltdown after the Soviet collapse put many subcontractors out of business, rupturing long-established production links. Assembly plants were left to rely on limited stocks of Soviet-built components or forced to try to crank up their own production.

"Now, when we finally get state orders, plants often can't fulfill them because of the lack of components," Valery Voskoboinikov, a government official in charge of aviation industries at the Interior Ministry, recently told parliamentary hearings.

Despite Putin's pledges to modernize military arsenals, during his eight years as president the military purchased only a handful of new combat jets and several dozen tanks.

Commentators say Russia's military technologies have slipped so far behind the United States and other Western nations that its share of the global arms market could start shrinking soon.

Russian arms sales have grown steadily in recent years, reaching a post-Soviet record of more than $7 billion last year, according to official statistics. Russia accounted for one-quarter of global arms sales in 2003-2007, coming a close second after the United States, according to the latest report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

But Russia has already suffered several recent, highly publicized failures in arms exports, in which the broken subcontractor chain and swelling production costs were widely seen as key factors.

Russia recently failed to fulfill a Chinese order for 38 Il-76 transport planes and Il-78 tankers, leading to the suspension of the deal. Earlier this year, Algeria returned the MiG-29 fighter jets it bought from Russia, complaining of their poor quality.

"The system has been broken all the way down," said Anatoly Sitnov, who oversees the aviation industry in the Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Russia's aging work force presents another challenge. Many highly skilled workers left defense industries in the 1990s for higher-paid jobs in the private sector, and meager wages have hindered the recruitment of younger workers.

The average age of Russia's aircraft industry workers is now 45, and that figure is still rising. "There is an acute shortage of key specialists: turners, welders, millers," Voskoboinikov said.

Obsolete equipment has hurt efficiency. The last major modernization of defense plants occurred in the early 1980s, and much of the machinery used in these factories is even older.

The government has responded by creating huge state-controlled military conglomerates, like the United Aircraft Corporation, saying they will streamline manufacturing. Critics say they will stifle competition, encourage corruption and further weaken Russia's arms industry.

"We built good planes in the past because we had competition between aircraft makers," Svetlana Savitskaya, a Soviet cosmonaut who is now a State Duma deputy, said during parliamentary hearings.

"Pulling all of them together under one roof will end competition and destroy what we had," she said. "But it could make it more convenient for some to steal government funds."