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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Radical Reforms Looming in Arms Production

I predicted that significant changes to the military were imminent in my Oct. 7, 2008, Moscow Times column, “Medvedev’s New Doctrine.” This was based on several important announcements made at the time by Russia’s military and political leaders. Sure enough, one week later, Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov announced military reforms that were unprecedented for both their scale and their radical approach.

Similarly, I think that several sensational statements made by the chief of the General Staff, Nikolai Makarov, during a recent visit to Mongolia — along with the strong reaction that they caused in Russia — signal that new radical reforms are looming.

This time the discussion concerns changes to the manufacturing component of Russia’s military-industrial complex. Makarov’s comments suggest that the military’s top brass have stopped believing the fantastic stories that they have been hearing for years from the captains of that industry, who sport expensive Versace shirts while begging for more government funding. “Just give us money and we’ll inundate you with amazingly powerful weapons that have no equivalent anywhere in the world,” they promised. Although they did receive substantial funding — 500 billion rubles ($15.9 billion) this year and 480 billion rubles for next year — we have yet to see new, advanced weaponry. And now the Defense Ministry is losing patience.

During his Aug. 26 news conference in Ulan Bator, Makarov blamed the recent failure of the new Bulava intercontinental ballistic missile on deficiencies in the manufacturing chain and said there was nothing wrong with the missile’s design. Yury Solomonov, the former chief Bulava designer who resigned in late July, also focused attention several years ago on the Bulava’s manufacturing weaknesses — in particular, that critical defense subcontractors were disappearing from the missile program’s supply chain. And the absence of even a single supplier renders the whole complex production process completely pointless.

In this case, the issue is not so much a lack of funding. The problem is that no private company can survive in a market economy if it sells only a dozen or so low-ticket missile parts a year. Moreover, many defense subcontractors — particularly on the third and fourth levels in the production chain — have been privatized, and they prefer to pass on loss-producing orders from the Defense Ministry and focus their time and energy on filling more profitable orders from private-sector clients and foreign governments. The Defense Ministry could try to “persuade” the private subcontractors to fulfill its orders by employing all of its available administrative resources, or it could incorporate these enterprises into a “Unified Missile Manufacturing Corporation,” similar to the Unified Aircraft Corporation — then-President Vladimir Putin’s 2006 pet project that combined all of the country’s civilian and military aircraft manufacturers under a government-controlled holding company.

The other option, of course, is to make fundamental changes in the weapons manufacturing sector. Unfortunately, this has not happened. Makarov’s statements suggest that with the existing system mired down in bureaucracy, the Defense Ministry is looking for a new plant — or plants — to manufacture the Bulava. This left me scratching my head, since the current Bulava manufacturer — the Votkinsky factory, located near Izhevsk — is the only factory in Russia producing solid-fuel intercontinental missiles. The only other plant capable of filling such an order is Lockheed Martin in Sunnyvale, California, where the Trident missile is made. Serdyukov would probably get some flack from his boss in the Kremlin if he gave the contract to the Americans.

If the Defense Ministry is forced to rely on Russia’s arms manufacturers for strategic nuclear weapons, it has much more flexibility to shop elsewhere for conventional weapons. It recently came to light that Russia’s airborne troops buy their sniper rifles from Britain and Austria because domestic arms manufacturers do not have the machinery needed to make rifle barrels properly.

And on Aug. 26, Makarov confirmed the rumors that had been circulating in recent months: Moscow plans to purchase a Mistral helicopter carrier from France and then begin producing the same craft in their own shipyards. In my opinion, this is an extremely sensible approach. Neither Russia nor the Soviet Union was ever any good at shipbuilding. And now, to the laments of Russia’s own shipbuilders, Moscow plans to buy a sophisticated warship that is so full of advanced electronics it requires a crew of only 160 to sail. The long-term plan is to set up a completely new shipbuilding industry using Western technology and know-how. Achieving that objective will also require a fundamental restructuring of that branch of the military-industrial complex.

The third sensational announcement from Makarov was the decision to deploy a “new” S-400 air defense system battalion to Primorye, close to North Korea. He explained that the battalion will be charged with destroying any North Korean missiles that might fall onto Russian territory. We can be happy for the fact that Russia’s political and military leaders have finally addressed real — and not the usual imaginary — threats from abroad.

The only problem is the uncertain status of the S-400 battalion. Despite seven years of promises to start assembly-line production of the system, only two S-400 battalions have been delivered to date, and the army won’t be receiving any new air defense missiles in the near future. One week prior to this news, Air Force commander Alexander Zelin announced that completion dates for production of air defense systems had been pushed back. This means that to protect the Far East from the North Korean threat, the Kremlin has only one choice available: remove one of the two air defense systems currently protecting the skies over Moscow and redeploy it to Primorye. But the downside of this move is that it would significantly undercut the military’s ability to defend Moscow from an attack from a short-range missile or aircraft.

An interesting process is unfolding. The huge deficiencies in the country’s defense manufacturing chain has begun to hamper the Defense Ministry’s reform program just as that agency has started to make sensible decisions about reorganizing the armed forces. It is clear that Serdyukov needs to reform and reorganize defense manufacturers as drastically as he is trying to do with his troops.

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