Vladimir Putin has made a priority out of expanding and updating the military capacity of the Russian military, but there is still much heavy lifting required to move beyond the mechanical and human rust of the Soviet era.
MOSCOW - "Our military can now match the West!" There is no shortage of pride from Sergei Skorniakov, deputy commander of the Yaroslav Moudry, the crown jewel of the Russian navy's Baltic fleet.
The battleship has been presented as a symbol of the "Renaissance" of the fleet, moored in a naval base in Kaliningrad, the Russian enclave tucked between Poland and Lithuania, where the Kremlin is threatening to deploy its Iskander close-range missiles and S-400 anti-aircraft missiles. The majority of the men are now volunteers rather than conscripts; both the control crew and the sailors on deck have seen their salaries double. Aboard the ship everyone repeats that they finally feel respected after the military reforms of Vladimir Putin, the past and current occupant of the Kremlin.
But the Yaroslav Moudry also illustrates the limits of Russia's military modernization. The 4,500 ton heavily armed vessel, which came out of the shipyard in 2008, is based on a model from the time of the USSR -- the control room is still decorated with red stars, symbols of the Soviet regime. Computers are rare here, and the communication equipment seems to have come from a nautical museum.
"Modernization is happening. We are gradually equipping ourselves with new weapons," responds Vice-Admiral Viktor Tchirkov, the general commander of the Baltic fleet.
Modernizing is a priority for the entire army, and Putin has promised a "rearmament like no other." Some 23,000 billion rubles, or nearly 600 billion Euros, will be spent over 10 years in the Russian military-industrial machine. More than 10% of this sum will be devoted to the first and only attempt at a major overhaul of its factories.
The head of the Kremlin has certainly set his ambitions high: by 2020, he is aiming to transform 1 million underpaid, underequipped and undermotivated men into a professional army of 145,000 soldiers. Some 400 modern ballistic missiles should be delivered, as well as eight strategic submarines, 20 multipurpose submarines, 50 surface vessels, over a 100 pieces of military spacecraft equipment, 600 modern planes, 1,000 helicopters and 28 new anti-aircraft missiles.
The figures leave experts perplexed. Most of them, however, praise Putin's proposed reforms, which are being orchestrated by the Minister of Defense, Anatoliy Serdyukov. However, the plans are "impossible" to respect from a technical standpoint, says Alexandre Konavolov, an independent expert. "The military-industrial estate is living too much off of the ruins of the Soviet era, and is therefore incapable of producing a modern army," he explains.
"For a rearmament of such an extent to succeed, Putin should repeat what he has done in the army: reform it from the top down," warns Alexandre Golts, another renowned military commentator.
Ruslan Pukhov, part of the Cast think-tank, says Putin is well aware that "the problem isn't money, it's our production capacity."
One obstacle to modernization is corruption, with military commanders usually benefitting from large accumulations of wealth through murky transactions. The Defense Minister has now demanded to be informed of any manufacturing costs beforehand, while the Kremlin now wants to limit the portion of contracts to any one arms company to 20 percent (25 percent in the navy) in order to limit any possible abuses of power.
"There needs to be clear rules. The level of corruption has already decreased due to the regulation of purchase offers," Ivan Konavolov assures, another journalist specializing in defense matters. "But the temptation is all the bigger now that the government has placed large sums of money on the table to finance modernization. Lobbies are powerful, and too often, those who are ordering equipment are close to those that control procurement deals..."
There is also a structural problem. At the time of the USSR, when a large amount of manufacturers supplied the army in one way or another, factories would often manufacture products destined for military use. The system used to work when it was under a regime that was ready to go to war on all fronts and took on the mass production of arms. This is no longer the case. Disorganized delivery chains now suffer from chronic failures in quality-control systems.
Old stuff, old men
These problems have many causes. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the industrial sector exploded into multiple companies with largely unknown owners that the Kremlin wanted to group into vast conglomerates. "But these vertical integrations were forced, without real evaluation of production capacity and without control of finances," Alexandre Golts says.
Another explanation: from the young, inexperienced recruits to the aging commanders of the Soviet era, the military-industrial machine suffers from a lack of skilled managers in their 30s and 40s in the engineering sector. With many specialists having left for better paid jobs, the armament industry could not attract the best graduates from the Science Academy like in the days of the USSR. Innovation, as a result, has been largely crippled.
The order from France last year of two Mistral helicopter carriers also created tension, but the ministry's message remained clear: if manufacturers do not modernize, the army will buy from abroad. This would have a major effect on Russia's military, which is still one of the world leaders in exports, with a new $12 billion record in sales last year.
Export markets have saved numerous Russian businesses, with external orders allowing them to survive for ten years despite the absence of national orders after the collapse of the USSR. Amongst these orders were Almaz Antey, with its anti-aircraft defense systems; a group which today does not have enough production capacity to meet new demands and which is finally planning to build two more factories.
The military industry has faced bitter failures. Some 5 billion rubles (125 millions euro) have been squandered by the Vega company in producing a new drone. The project finally had to be given to a private civilian company, and by waiting for a hypothetical Russian plane, Moscow was forced to give it to Israel.
The war against Georgia in August 2008 showed the concrete weaknesses of an army lacking modern equipment at the height of its ambitions: Russia prevailed, without a doubt, but only by fighting the old-fashioned way. "The majority of wars today are regional," says Alexandre Golts. "The army must therefore rearm itself for other conflicts. Its priorities should be drones, "smart weapons' and means of communication."
Read the original article in French.