June 27, 2017
Russia’s military modernization efforts are entering a critical stage. The state armaments program (GPV), covering 2018-2025, is due to be finalized in September. The plan will determine not only the country’s weaponry capabilities well into the 2030s, but also the strategic direction of the Russian military at large. Early indications point toward a significant downgrade in Russia’s maritime ambitions as Moscow amps up its focus on continental power.
As Russia evaluates where its military will be heading over the next several years, the Kremlin’s primary constraint will be financial. After almost two decades of explosive growth, Russia’s defense budget has started to face considerable headwinds in recent years, since a sharp decline in oil prices in 2014 curtailed the country’s financial freedom. Its fiscal challenges culminated this year, when the Kremlin cut the defense budget by 5 percent. The reduction, the first since the 1990s, means Russia won’t be able to achieve its official goal of modernizing 70 percent of its forces by 2020. The total funds in the 2018-2025 GPV are expected to be just half of what the Defense Ministry was hoping for. Consequently, the Kremlin will have to make tough decisions about how the Russian military prioritizes its investments. Economic turbulence and industrial issues have already delayed finalizing the GPV by two years, and Russia can no longer afford to postpone decisions on matters of its military future.
A Sinking Ship
Key parts of the Russian navy, meanwhile, are in desperate need of funding. Though the navy has undergone some notable modernization programs over the last decade, for the most part it still relies on small or aging warships. The Russians have not built a new type of surface warship larger than a frigate since the end of the Cold War, and the country’s sole aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, was first launched in 1985. If Moscow wants a powerful oceangoing navy with large surface warships and carrier aviation, it has no choice but to allocate substantial funds to its navy as part of the 2018-2025 GPV.
But it’s already becoming clear that the necessary funding won’t materialize. The Russian Ministry of Defense appears to be prioritizing established — and less risky — weapons programs over new ones. That puts Russia’s navy at a disadvantage because the force has not undertaken a large surface combatant program since the Soviet Union collapsed. Furthermore, the limited defense budget will focus on cost-effective weapons systems rather than on pricey flagship programs, leaving no room for the enormous expense of building large warships. Dimming Moscow’s maritime prospects all the more, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, a key figure overseeing the defense industry, said in May that unlike the United States, Russia is not a maritime power. Instead, he emphasized, it is a continental power. (In the same vein, Rogozin questioned the need for Russia to field an aircraft carrier.) A meeting in mid-May between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Kremlin military leaders confirmed these statements, and Russian media later announced that the development of destroyer warships and a new aircraft carrier would be indefinitely postponed.
Putting the Money Where It Matters
Still, at least one part of Russia’s naval dreams will avoid the chopping block: nuclear submarines. The country’s top defense consideration has long been its nuclear deterrent, which involves a troika of land-based missiles, nuclear-capable bombers and nuclear ballistic missile submarines. During the Cold War, nuclear submarines were so prized that the Soviet surface navy became more or less an auxiliary arm of its submarine force tasked with protecting the underwater craft using a bastion strategy. Russia’s military will continue to value its nuclear deterrent above much else in the years ahead.
Aside from ample funding for nuclear submarines in the upcoming GPV, early signs suggest Russia is further strengthening its air force. The Kremlin will put money into more strategic transport aircraft and advanced combat jets, with a focus on upgrading fourth-generation jets as opposed to pursuing newer, more cutting-edge models such as the T-50 stealth fighter. Russia will also home in on investments to make its air and ground forces more nimble, flexible and lethal, including precision-guided munitions; enhanced electronic warfare capabilities; upgraded command and control equipment; space assets; and improved intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance gear, namely drones.
As for the regions that are set to benefit most from the 2018-2025 GPV, the expectation is that Russia will keep focusing on its Southern and Western military districts. The zones are responsible for important operational areas including the Baltics, Ukraine and the Caucasus. The Kremlin will also prioritize the Arctic Joint Strategic Command — which will receive military district status by 2020 — because it involves a key portion of Russia’s nuclear forces and aligns with the military’s strategic focus.
Russia’s defense priorities reflect what the government perceives as its greatest security threats. From Moscow’s perspective, the No. 1 risk remains the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s encroachment on its western flank, which calls for a powerful nuclear deterrent reinforced by dependable and lethal ground and air forces. Russia is increasingly embracing missions that involve projecting power into distant regions — from the Arctic to Syria — as well, so long as the areas have a friendly ground base from which to operate. With these considerations in mind, the Kremlin will place high value on building up a light and flexible ground force with an enhanced strategic air transport fleet. Moscow recognizes, after all, that it cannot be a great maritime power and a great continental power at once.