The Truth Behind Russia’s “Ultramodern” Military

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Russian defense expert Aleksandr Golts pores deeply into the latest disaster to strike the Russian Navy, an accident on board an atomic submarine which took 20 lives. Golts goes on to explore the state of the Russian armed forces as a whole, suggesting that Russia’s “ultramodern” re-equipped technologies are little more than outdated designs from the Soviet Union. The article first ran in the Yezhednevny Zhurnal online newspaper.

A Leopard Named Seal
Aleksandr Golts
November 10, 2008
Yezhednevny Zhurnal

If it were up to me, I would strictly forbid Russian commanders from making statements about the constantly growing might of our armed forces. Remember, all it took was for Vladimir Putin to call a Security Council and declare the coming ascent of our defense capabilities, when the Kursk submarine sank. Afterwards, speaking with his subordinate public in 2006, Putin boasted that a new class of missile carrying submarines would be introduced in the near future. Then it became clear that there were no missiles for them. Yet another test of the Bulava rocket ended in failure. And now it appears that that this increased “foresight” gets passed on with the Kremlin Cabinet.

Already we see Dmitri Medvedev declaring in his Address to the Federal Assembly: “Regarding the re-equipment of the army and navy with new, modern equipment, I have already taken the relevant decisions.” And two days later, [Russia’s] “newest” atomic submarine, the Nerpa [(Russian for seal)], has an accident during its sea trials resulting in the deaths of twenty people. To all appearances, the fire-extinguishing system turned on my mistake. In this case, all compartments are closed off, and all the space is filled with inert gas. Those located in the compartments were doomed to death.

Representatives of the naval forces rushed to assert that the boat had not been handed over to the navy, and that its crew was from the factory. The subtext is very simple – nothing can be blamed on the Admirals, all the more so since most of those killed were civilians. However, the fact that the military officers dodged the bullet extremely dexterously (they have a wealth of experience –they explained that the Kursk was sunk by the Americans, and that the Bulava had an “electrical discharge”) does not provide an explanation for the accident.

In truth, the tragedy illuminates all the problems of re-equipping our armed forces. It just so happens that I saw this atomic submarine eight years ago, in October 2000. Though truth be told, it was named the Bars [(Russian for leopard)] then. And it was the most dangerous unfinished construction project in the Russian Federation. Fifteen submarines of this class were built in the USSR. The Bars was pledged either in 1991 or 1993 at the Amur shipbuilding facility. And construction middled along until the mid-90s, as long as stockpiles of components built during Soviet times still remained (it was assumed that armaments must be built even during atomic warfare). Afterwards, both money and components dried up.

I caught the factory’s management at a practically catch-22 situation. The ship was built to 85 percent –but nobody wanted it. Moreover, the submarine was already equipped with an atomic reactor. As result, the small amount of money sent to the plant from the [federal] budget was spent on maintaining the necessary temperature in the docks. And since it had become dangerous, getting rid of it was anything but simple. “Salvaging it is more expensive than finishing it,” the factory’s general director, Nikolai Povzyk, had asserted then. “To cut out the reactor, the ship must be hauled by sea to Bolshoi Kamen, to the plant where Pacific fleet submarines are reclaimed. And that’s more than a hundred kilometers. Besides, then the ship would need to be hauled back. Their plant isn’t designed to take apart such gigantic ships.”

The whole city was full of rumors that the ship would be sold at any moment, or would be leased to India. Ten years later, the rumors started to match with reality. Stories appeared in both Russian and Indian newspapers that the sub had been leased to India.

But by all accounts, the ship was not completed with Indian money. Some good fortune happened. Not with the Amur shipbuilding facility. With the whole country. Oil prices rose. The government had enough money to complete the Bars, now renamed the Nerpa. Roughly the same thing happened with all the other weapons systems, which have now been declared “ultramodern.” [The authorities] decided to produce them. However, the Topol-M rocket, the Su-34 and Su-35 aircraft, the tanks and mechanized infantry vehicles were all developed in the 80s. That is to say 20 years ago. This military hardware can only be called modern because up until now, no one manufactured it. There is even less basis to consider military hardware like the Nerpa, which was built painfully and at great lengths over 15 years, to be up-to-date. Only God knows what happened to the submarine’s equipment, as it sat in the slip dock for several years. Even more questions come up regarding who worked on completing it and how they did it. The Nerpa is the only submarine from the Amur factory to be launched in fifteen years. During this time, the work crews changed more than once. Those who built atomic submarines one after another in the 70s and 80s have either quit or gone into retirement. The average age of workers in Russia’s defense establishment is nearing 60. And that’s on average, in all branches, including those with reasonably good wages. What can one say about those working at the factory, who scraped by on bread and water for more than ten years.

Does this mean that any attempt to re-equip the Russian army is doomed to failure? Not in the least. We simply need to cease competing with the US, define the priorities of military construction and concentrate on them. Then, we will have the means to resolve and debug any element of military hardware in a quality way before we start using it.

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