Revolution in Military Affairs: Challenges to Russia’s Security

Pavel Podvig, “Revolution in Military Affairs: Challenges to Russia’s Security”, Presentation at the VTT Energy STYX Seminar, Helsinki, Finland, 4 September 2001


Pavel Podvig

Presentation at the VTT Energy STYX Seminar, Helsinki, Finland, 4 September 2001

The revolution in military affairs is a term that can be used to describe different concepts and ideas. However, as the term implies, all these concepts have one thing in common-they all predict revolutionary transformation in warfare that would change wars are fought and, as a result, change the way the society thinks about war.

In fact, the idea of a revolution in military affairs would not be so popular and appealing if revolutionary changes were not happening already. The end of the cold war has altered the international security environment so profoundly that we are still struggling to reconcile our understanding of security, still largely shaped by the cold-war confrontation, with the new situation.

Technological progress adds to the confusion by producing technologies that promise to provide total dominance at a battlefield or to intercept ballistic missiles in space, thus expanding the limits of the possible. At the same time, new possibilities tend to come with new vulnerabilities, sometimes creating the impression that the technological advances make the world less, instead of more, secure. Besides, the huge disparities in technological capabilities and available resources between the West and the rest of the world might create incentives for some countries to obtain weapons of mass destruction and means of their delivery, which creates new uncertainty and instability.

The place that belongs to Russia in the processes that is associated with the transition from the cold war and the technological revolution is rather unique. Russia inherited the nuclear status of the Soviet Union, most of its military and industrial infrastructure, and, with them, the history of mistrust and confrontation with the West. At the same time, Russia’s economy does not correspond to the status of a major power that the Soviet Union once had. As a result, the current changes in security environment come at the time when Russia is undergoing a thorough and painful transformation and trying to find its place in the emerging security network.

Although Russia could hardly contribute to the technological revolution directly, it certainly will be affected by it. Besides, Russia would be able to influence it to some extent. As discussed in this paper, Russia seems to have serious concerns about the impact that the revolution in military affairs might have on its security. The paper also attempts to describe a possible course of action that Russia might take to protect its interests, trying to capitalize on the potential of its military industry. In the end, we argue that Russia’s interests, as well as those of the West, would be better served by finding ways to address its most serious concerns and integrate Russia into the emerging security mechanisms.

The promises and challenges of the RMA

The revolutionary changes in military technology and the effect that they may have on the nature of warfare present a formidable challenge to Russia as it struggles to define the threats to its security in the post-cold war world and transform the military and the military industry that it inherited from the Soviet Union. So far, the legacy of the cold war proved strong enough to ensure that the security debate is dominated by the ideas of confrontation with the United States and NATO. Although in recent years we have seen attempts to reexamine threats to Russia’s security in a way that would pay more attention to potential instabilities at Russia’s southern border, a conflict with NATO remains firmly in the list of scenarios that the Russian military consider plausible.

The growing gap between the capabilities of the western militaries and those of the Russian armed forces only reinforces the concerns that the Russian leadership and military has always had about the developments like the expansion of NATO or continuing work on missile defense. Russia seems to believe it is the only possible target that would justify these developments and feels uneasy about the new military capabilities getting closer to its western border.

The first and the most obvious reason for Russia’s concern is that the advances in military technology, revolutionary or not, do make the military forces more capable and could potentially provide the kind of a battlefield dominance that Russia could not counter. The fact that Russia in effect lacks adequate conventional armed forces and those that it has could be easily overwhelmed, only adds to the concern. However, the problem would not be as serious if the numerical disparity was the only issue. After all, it has been the reality ever since the disintegration of Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact. The technological gap could add a new dimension to the current misbalance; the one that Russia is afraid could potentially undermine its role as a major power.

The revolutionary nature of the changes brought by new technologies is not limited to the transformation of the warfare. A much bigger promise of today’s technologies is that they could change the way the society look at military conflicts and the limits of use of military power. The truly revolutionary transformation that we are witnessing is that war increasingly seems a relatively bloodless affair. The greatest promise of battlefield dominance, informational or otherwise, of stealthy and stand-off weapons that can strike targets picked by remote sensors with very high accuracy, is that they could reduce casualties in a conflict to a very low and therefore acceptable level.

The pursuit of technologies that could reduce casualties comes as a direct response to the shift in public attitudes toward war that was apparent in virtually all post-cold war conflicts. As the stakes in conflicts grow increasingly smaller, the society is willing to tolerate fewer and fewer casualties on either side. It is not surprise, therefore, that the revolution in military affairs concentrates exactly on the technologies that help avoid loss of troops and could significantly reduce collateral damage.

One of the consequences of this is that if the promises held by the revolution in military affairs materialize, even incompletely, they may significantly lower the threshold of military intervention. And this is exactly the outcome that Russia is worried about, for it believes that the new capabilities might open a way to a more aggressive interventionist policy of the United States and NATO, which may well challenge Russia’s interests in various regions and especially in areas close to the Russian borders.

An example of a technology that could potentially make military intervention easier and which has so far caused the strongest negative reaction from Russia is missile defense. Although it is not normally considered part of the revolution in military affairs, missile defense has all characteristics that could make it essential for future conflicts. The reason for this is that ballistic missiles are among those weapons against which there is virtually no protection (note that they are not alone in this category), whether the task is protection of troops or of civilian population. This makes ballistic missiles an ideal deterrent weapon in a variety of conflicts and explains the attention that is given to countering the threat of their use. The ability of ballistic missiles to target civilian population and the U.S. territory and carry weapons of mass destruction only reinforces their deterrent effect and gives missile defenses even higher priority.

Whether missile defenses could live up to the expectations and provide an adequate means of countering a ballistic missile threat is still an open question. What is important is that it gives a perfect example of a technology that offers means of reducing losses in a conflict to a manageable level and therefore provides greater flexibility in use of military force.

Russia’s vulnerabilities

As we discussed earlier, Russia considers this flexibility alone as a threatening development. In addition to that, Russia tends to see itself as the primary target of the systems based on new technologies. For example, Russian officials have repeatedly stated that they believe that the Unites States is building its missile defense system to counter Russia’s strategic forces. Although this belief is certainly erroneous, it became a powerful argument in the Russian debate.

The concern about the weakening capability of the Russian conventional armed forces vis-à-vis their western counterpart may seem misguided, for the Russian military doctrine openly declares reliance on use of nuclear weapons, that is supposed to compensate for the weakness of the conventional force. However, the ability of nuclear weapons to play a significant role in future military conflicts should not be overestimated. While the nuclear weapons will still be able to prevent a direct confrontation between nuclear states, they may prove to be too powerful an instrument in conflicts of lesser value. In any event, the utility of nuclear weapons as an instrument of political influence or as a tool of solving real security problems seems to be rapidly eroding.

This erosion is illustrated by virtually every military conflict of the last decade-from the Gulf War to the war that Russia fights in Chechnya and to the NATO operation against Yugoslavia in 1999. Although it can be argued that nuclear weapons played their role in the Gulf War, deterring Iraq from using weapons of mass destruction, without conventional forces the outcome of that war would have been quite different. As Russia discovered in 1999, its nuclear weapons did not guarantee that its objections against NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia would be taken into account. This point was advanced further when Russia was effectively denied a role in the settlement that followed the operation (although it probably could not have provided an adequate force even if it was not). The operation in Yugoslavia showed that without a strong conventional military, Russia’s participation in the new security mechanisms in the world would be symbolic at best.

The lesson of the Chechnya war is even more serious, since it clearly demonstrated that Russia lacks adequate means of dealing with Chechnya-type conflicts, which, by many estimates, represent the most serious and realistic threat to Russia’s security.

Another source of concern for Russia is its inability to maintain parity with the United States in the area of strategic nuclear weapons. When Russia and the United States fulfill their START I Treaty obligations by the end of this year, Russia will have about 5000 deployed strategic nuclear weapons. However, Russia will have to continue to reduce its strategic forces, as most of the current weapon systems will be reaching end of their operational lives. As a result, Russia will cut its strategic nuclear arsenal to the level of about 1000-1200­ warheads by 2008-2010. In fact, Russia will have some difficulties with maintaining its strategic arsenal even at this relatively low level, so it might have to reduce the number of weapons even further. The United States, on the other hand, would be able to maintain its arsenal at the current level of about 5000 warheads, even though it will not deploy as many warheads on a regular basis.

Although the decline of the Russian strategic nuclear arsenal creates its own problems regardless of other developments, the rapidly progressing capabilities of precision weapons add to these problems by raising concerns about vulnerability of the strategic forces to a conventional attack. Studies done in Russia show that some of the currently deployed precision-guided munitions and smart weapons already have the capability to destroy such targets as hardened missile silos. With development of advanced sensors and discrimination technologies, land-mobile missiles could also become vulnerable to an attack. The same can be said about submarines, which spend most of the time in port, and bombers. The trend in this area clearly works against Russia’s nuclear forces, since smart accurate weapons will be getting cheaper and more reliable and, therefore, more common, while the number of nuclear platforms is unlikely to grow.

Taken together with the development of a missile defense, the growth in precision weapons arsenal does appear to the Russian military to be a concerted effort aimed at undermining the capability of Russian strategic forces. The military seem to believe that at some point a coordinated non-nuclear strike could knock off a significant portion of the Russian strategic force, leaving the defense with the task of dealing with the rest.

As we can see, the promises of the revolution in military affairs, as they are seen by Russian military, are mostly threatening developments that may have an adverse effect on Russia’s security. And though it is far from clear whether the promises of the new technologies, as well as Russian fears and concerns about them, would ever materialize, it is impossible to ignore the fact that they have significant impact on the way Russia thinks about its security and to a large extent will shape Russia’s military policy in the coming years.

Competing choices

It is the understanding that it cannot afford to ignore the advances in the technology of warfare and the changes in the nature of military conflicts that are associated with them that will drive Russia’s response to the revolution in military affairs. This understanding is to a large degree is shared throughout the political and military establishment. However, the issue of how exactly Russia should adapt to these changes has not been settled yet. The reason for the uncertainty is caused primarily by the lack of consensus about the nature of threats that Russia will face in the future.

Among the various threat scenarios discussed in Russia, the one of confrontation with the West still dominates the security debate. However, the views on the possibility of a conflict of this kind, as well as the strategies for dealing with it, are very different. This reflects the changes in the relationships with the West in the last decade as well as the evolution of the views on the nature of a conflict should it ever take place.

According to the view that almost all Russian military and security analysts share, the only possible way of dealing with a threat of a confrontation with the United States is to resort to nuclear weapons. The Russian military doctrine, adopted in April 2000, specifically reserves the right to use nuclear weapons in response to a full-scale non-nuclear aggression with the apparent goal of deterring it. The text of the doctrine does not say, perhaps intentionally, what kind of nuclear capabilities Russia might need to deter a conventional aggression, but the common understanding of the doctrinal language is that it means reliance on tactical nuclear weapons. To support the doctrinal statements, the military usually refer to the concept of extended deterrence that once was the foundation of the NATO policy aimed at preventing a conventional Soviet aggression in Europe.

Although the analogy with the NATO doctrine is probably wrong, it is so deeply entrenched in the military thinking that we will probably have to accept inevitable reliance on tactical nuclear weapons that results from the belief that Russia needs tactical weapons to deter NATO. Although Russia seems to adhere to the policy of keeping its tactical nuclear weapons at centralized storage sites, the military and political leadership gives rather high priority to questions of maintaining the tactical nuclear arsenal.

In dealing with issues of nuclear response, however, Russia seems to be careful not to plan for nuclear escalation of any possible conflicts. A number of military exercises conducted in the recent years showed that the military are considering non-nuclear responses, as well as scenarios that would demonstrate the willingness to use nuclear weapons, but would stop short of an actual use. The attention given to these scenarios seems to indicate that military planners realize the limited utility of nuclear weapons and are trying to emphasize the importance of being able to counter a possible aggression with non-nuclear means.

Although this thinking seems to be in line with the recent trend in the Russian military, which tends to pay more attention to conventional forces, it is clear that Russia lacks adequate conventional weapons to be involved in a major non-nuclear confrontation with the United States or NATO. The question is then whether Russia should aim at acquiring such a capability and whether it has means to do so.

An ability to withstand a confrontation with a technologically superior adversary does not necessarily require matching its technological prowess. In most cases, countermeasures that can defeat sophisticated technology or complicate its task prove to be easier and less expensive than the technology itself. A competition of this kind would still require considerable effort, especially as the technology advances further, but Russia seems to be able to sustain this competition if it is able to find the necessary resources. The question of resources, though, is the key one in this issue, for Russia may need them for other developments that may be far more important for Russia’s security.

Despite the attention that Russia is paying to the threat of military confrontation with the United States and NATO, it could be argued that such a confrontation is probably the least plausible threat, especially if compared with the threat that may be posed by the instability along Russia’s southern borders. Whether or not we believe that the terms “international terrorism” or “ islamic radicalism” adequately describe this threat, as the Russian leadership does, we cannot ignore the fact that the combination of poverty, corruption, and political repressions in Central Asia has created a potentially very unstable region. The continuing war in Chechnya shows that the consequences of any Central Asian conflicts spilling over to the Russian territory might be very serious.

Although a use of military force is the least adequate way of dealing with these threats, Russia would probably need an army that is able to contain possible conflicts at its southern borders. In fact, the current Russian leadership is trying to steer the military reform in the direction that aims at providing this kind of capability. And this is exactly where the requirements for two different types of armed forces-one that is capable of countering the United States and NATO and the other, oriented toward containing insurgency-type conflicts-became virtually incompatible, for they are competing for the scarce resources in the military budget.

Financing and managing the military

In the past three years, the budgetary situation in Russia has significantly improved. This was partly due to the ruble devaluation in 1998, but primarily it was the result of raising oil prices. Growing tax revenues and improved fiscal discipline allowed the government to pay some debts to the military and military industry and generally improved the situation with funding. Nevertheless, in real terms the level of military spending has remained inadequate to the armed forces that Russia has to sustain.

In 2001, the national defense part of the budget is 215 bln rubles, which amounts to 18% of all government spending and about 2.8% of the GDP. This year the government asks the parliament to approve national defense spending of about 280 bln rubles, which represent a slightly smaller share of the total budgetary spending-17.4%.

The main problem that has been plaguing the Russian government ever since the breakup of the Soviet Union is that the armed forces are very inefficient. The expenses associated with personnel and maintenance are disproportionately large and take up about 70% of the military budget, while according to the Russian ministry of defense’s own estimates, these expenses should not exceed half of it.

The money that is left for procurement and R&D are hardly adequate to support a genuine renovation of the military. Taken at the current exchange rate, the total procurement and R&D budget of 70 bln rubles is a mere $2.4 bln. Even if we assume that the ruble purchasing power in military industry is higher, Russia is spending no more than $7.5-10 bln a year on research and procurement. Historically, R&D takes about a quarter of this amount, which would be $1.8-2.5 bln in 2001 (estimated at purchasing power parity). For comparison, the United States has been spending on military R&D about $40 bln annually in the last decade.

In order to increase the share of military budget that goes to research and development, the Russian leadership initiated a reform that aims at significant reductions of military personnel. One of the goals of the reform is to increase the share of R&D and procurement to 50% from the current 30%. In addition to that, the ministry of defense plans to postpone all major procurement programs until at least 2005 in order to increase the share of research and development.

Another potential source of revenues for the military industry is arms export. In fact, the arms export supported many military enterprises in the last decade when the government orders all but dried up. The new Russian leadership apparently considers arms export an important part of the strategy aimed at supporting the military industry and lends its political support to various arms sales deals. As a result, in 1999-2000 the revenues from arms sales abroad have reached $3.6-3.7 bln a year and according to the defense industry analysts could grow to about $4.5 bln in the next few years. The profits of the industry are somewhat higher to estimate, but apparently, they are big enough to allow the enterprises to reinvest them and finance various R&D programs independently from the government.

The problems of the armed forces and military industry are not limited to inadequate financing. The lack of competent management on almost every level and the lack of transparency in decision-making that would provide at least some degree of control over the policies, very often lead to serious setbacks. A number of programs that would be vital for maintaining an effective military are struggling for survival.

One of the examples of a gross mismanagement is the history of the Glonass satellite navigation system that was build in the Soviet Union to provide positioning capabilities similar to those provided by the U.S. GPS system. Accepted for service in 1993, the Glonass system has never reached full capacity. A series of reorganizations of the military space forces resulted in almost complete collapse of the system, which now includes only six working satellites instead of 24, required for successful operation. The efforts of the Russian government to save the program by commercializing it were thwarted by the rivalry between various agencies that were responsible for maintaining the program.

In an attempt to improve the efficiency of the military industry and boost arms sales, the Russian government initiated a reform that would consolidate military enterprises and provide clearer lines of authority in the industry. Right now, it is difficult to say whether the reform will be successful and whether it will bring the desired results, for the final concept of the reform is still somewhat vague. Nevertheless, the government seems determined to carry it out.

Countering the revolution in military affairs

All these developments-the emphasis on research as opposed to procurement, and growing governmental support of the military industry and arms sales-clearly indicate that Russia is trying to protect the competitiveness of its military industry and seems to be giving to this task much higher priority than to the immediate procurement needs of the armed forces.

Although in some areas the Russian military enterprises can be at par with the most advanced developments of the western industry, the general technological level of Russian industry does not allow it to compete with that of the United States or Europe directly. This is especially true in the case of information technologies that are supposed to provide the foundation for the revolution in military affairs.

Instead, Russia could concentrate its effort on providing technologies that would be aimed directly at defeating the “revolutionary” ones. These technologies may range from simple jammers aimed at disrupting operation of precision munitions to air defenses that would defeat stealth technology and from decoys and other penetration aids that would directly defeat missile defenses to cruise missiles that would circumvent them. There is no doubt that Russia will be able to find a market for this kind of technologies and that this market will grow as the gap between the military capabilities of the United States and its allies and the rest of the world continues to grow. So far, the Russian leadership seems to be content with a possibility of Russia’s playing this role and this possibility has enjoyed general support from the military and military industry.

A closer look at the policy that would promote Russia’s role as a leader of a “counterrevolution in military affairs” shows that Russia stands to gain very little from such a role. Its security and its role in international affairs would be much better served by reforming its armed forces in order to provide a professional, well-equipped, and well-trained army, capable of acting in close coordination with armed forces of other countries. Without such an army, Russia will very soon find itself isolated and excluded from most of the international security arrangements.

The concerns that Russia has about the impact that the new military technologies, such as missile defenses, could have on the capability of its strategic forces are largely misguided. By taking relatively simple and asymmetric steps, Russia could easily neutralize any missile defense deployment. For example, the political capital and efforts that Russia has spent fighting off the U.S. missile defense program should have been spent solving more urgent problems of Russia’s security, for it is absolutely clear that in the unlikely event the United States deploys a missile defense system, Russia could easily defeat it with simple countermeasures.

At the same time, it should be noted that the drift toward a rather confrontational stance vis-à-vis the United States and its allies is not entirely driven by a conscious choice of the Russian leadership or the military. In large part, it is a result of the cold-war inertia in the Russian and western security policy. A number of steps undertaken by the United States and NATO, such as expansion of NATO and its intervention in Yugoslavia or missile defense development, have also contributed to this trend. As far as the support for the military industry and the more aggressive arms sales policy are concerned, these are motivated more by the need to help the industry to survive difficult times than by anything else. All this suggests that the confrontational trend that appeared in the relationship between Russia and the United States and its allies in the recent years could and should be reversed.

Engaging Russia

This analysis suggests that although Russia has a number of serious concerns about the impact that the technological progress in military affairs may have on its security, most of these concerns could not and should not be dealt with by pursuing policies that lead to a confrontation with the United States and its allies. The best way to address these concerns is to work toward integration of Russia into the post-cold war security mechanisms and ensuring that Russia has a voice in international affairs in general and in those that may directly affect its security in particular.

Pursuing this policy, however, would present a very big challenge for Russia as well as for the West. The degree of mistrust inherited from the cold war is still very high. Besides, a number of political decisions made in the last decade, complicated the situation even further. Still, the Russian leadership has made it clear that it wants Russia to be part of Europe and this aspiration reflects the views that dominate Russian public opinion.

There are still major obstacles on the way toward Russia’s integration into the European economic and security mechanisms. Russia certainly has the most work to do, since it cannot count on the integration if it fails to build a truly democratic society with transparent mechanisms of societal control over the government. Although now the Russian society seems to be moving into a different direction, there is hope that eventually it will realize the importance of creating genuine democratic mechanisms. Europe and the United States have very important stakes in this process, since a failure to engage Russia and make it a fully democratic society would seriously undermine the efforts aimed at building a more secure world.