Assessing Russia’s Military Strength
Apr. 17, 2017
There is a popular point of view in some of Russia’s political circles, especially among those who profess monarchist views and cling to a famous meme of 1913 Tsarist Russia development statistics, that WW I was started by Germany to forestall Russia’s industrial development which would inevitably challenge Germany’s plans on domination of Europe. A somewhat similar argument could be made for the WW II, but, in general, preventive wars are nothing new in human history. While “preventive” argument may or may not be a valid one regarding WW I, there is no doubt that it could be used, among others, when explaining the origins of a war.
A classic example of such “preventive” war is, of course, US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the mayhem which ensued there when US, as was stated then, “prevented” Saddam from obtaining Weapons of Mass Destruction, that is nuclear weapons, which, of course, he never had and wasn’t intent on obtaining. It is becoming increasingly clear that “preventive war” has become a preferred instrument in the hands of Washington establishment, be it Iraq, Libya or Syria.
But what about Russia, one may ask, or China. Are “preventive wars” against them possible? Taken at face value the question may seem strange—both China, and especially Russia are nuclear armed states which can defend themselves. They do have deterrents and that supposedly should stop any attempt on any kind of war on them. This all is true but only so far. One may consider the current geopolitical situation in which China has all but created a new alternative economic power pole, and in which the US finds herself increasingly in the position of the still extremely important but second and, eventually, even third place player in Eurasian economic development. The United States doesn’t like being in second and doesn’t take such a reality kindly.
But for Washington, whose political discourse is based on American exceptionalism and foreign policy now is defined completely in terms of military power, emergence of a “peer” military power is absolutely unacceptable. While China is an economic giant and is now arguably the largest economy in the world, she still has a long way to go until she becomes a true “peer” to the United States militarily. This is not the case with Russia. It becomes also true when one begins to look at doctrinal and technological developments both in the US and Russia. The contrast is startling, even if one considers a very dubious US intelligence analysis on Russia.
Russia’s military doctrine and posture are explicitly defensive. Power Projection in Russian strategic considerations is secondary, if not tertiary, to the defense of Russia proper and her immediate geographic vicinity which can roughly be defined as about 80-85% of territory of the former USSR. This is not the case with the United States who is a consummate expeditionary power and fights wars not on own territory, and whose population and political elites are not conditioned by continental warfare.
Arthur J. Alexander in his “Decision Making In Soviet Weapons Procurement“ came up with quantification of what he called “classes of forces” (or constants) influencing aggregate defense expenditures for USSR. This quantification remains virtually unchanged for modern day Russia. To quote Alexander, two of the most “heavy” constants he mentions are: “History, culture and values–40-50 percent. International environment, threat and internal capabilities–10-30 percent”. Taken by their maxima, 50+30=80%, we get the picture. 80% of Russia’s military expenditures are dictated by real military threats, which were, time after time over centuries, realized for Russia and resulted in the destruction and human losses on a scale incomprehensible for people who write US military doctrines and national security strategies. This is especially true for Neocon “strategists” who have a very vague understanding of the nature and application of military power—expeditionary warfare simply does not provide a proper angle on the issues of actual defense. The nation whose 20th Century losses due to wars from WW I, to Civil War to WW II number roughly in 40-45 million range, would certainly try to not repeat such ordeals. Even famous Russophobe and falsifier, Richard Pipes, was forced to admit that:
Such figures are beyond the comprehension of most Americans. But clearly a country… must define “unacceptable damage” differently from the United States which has known no famines or purges, and whose deaths from all the wars waged since 1775 are estimated at 650,000—fewer casualties than Russia suffered in the 900-day siege of Leningrad in World War II alone. Such a country (Russia) tends also to assess the rewards of defense in much more realistic terms.
In layman’s lingo, the United States lacks geographic, historic, cultural, economic and technological pressures to develop and have a coherent defensive military doctrine and weapons which would help to implement it. As Michael Lind writes:
The possibility of military defeat and invasion are usually left out of discussion….in the United states and Britain. The United States, if one discounts Pearl Harbor has not suffered a serious invasion from 1812; Britain, though it has been bombed from the air in the (20th century), has been free from foreign invasion even longer….Elsewhere in the world, political elites cannot as easily separate foreign policy and economics.
Russia lives under these pressures constantly and, in fact, Russians as ethnos were formed and defined by warfare. Russia is also defined by her weapons and it is here where we may start looking for one of the most important rationales for anti-Russian hysteria in Washington which have proceeded unabated sincethe return of Crimea in 2014, in reality even earlier.
1. The Western analytical and expert community failed utterly in assessing Russia’s both economic and, as a consequence, military potential. The problem here is not with Russia, which offers unprecedented access to all kinds of foreigners, from businessmen and tourists to political and intelligence (overt and covert) professionals. The problem is with Western view of Russia which as late as three years ago was completely triumphalist and detached from Russia’s economic realities. That is the reality not defined by meaningless Wall Street economic indices.
It took a complete and embarrassing failure of the West’s economic sanctions on Russia to recognize that the actual size of Russia’s economy is about that of Germany, if not larger, and that Russia was defining herself in terms of enclosed technological cycles, localization and manufacturing long before she was forced to engage in the war in Georgia in 2008. Very few people realistically care about Russia’s Stock Market, the financial markets of Germany are on the order of magnitude larger, but Germany cannot design and build from scratch a state of the art fighter jet, Russia can. Germany doesn’t have a space industry, Russia does. The same argumentation goes for Russia’s microelectronics industry and her military-industrial complex which dwarfs that of any “economic” competitor Western “economists” always try to compare Russia to, with the exception of US and China, and then on bulk, not quality, only. Third or Second World economies do not produce such weapons as Borey-class strategic missile submarines or SU-35 fighter jets, they also do not build space-stations and operate the only global alternative to US GPS, GLONASS system.
Whether this lesson will be learned by the combined West is yet to be seen. So far, the learning process has been slow for US crowd which cheered on US deindustrialization and invented a fairy tale concept of post-industrial, that is non-productive, virtual economy.
The Russian economy is not without problems, far from it—it still tries to break with the “heritage” of robbery and deformities of 1990s and still tries to find its way on a path different from destructive ideology of Russia’s “young reformers” who still dominate policy formulation, be it from the positions of power or through such institutions as notorious High School of Economics.
Yet, it seems this economy which was “left in tatters” or was an economy of a “gas station masquerading as a country”, is the only other economy in the world which can produce and does produce the whole spectrum of weapons ranging from small arms to state-of-the-art complex weapon and signal processing systems. No other nation with the exception of the US and Russia, not even China, can produce and procure a cutting edge military technology which has capabilities beyond the reach of everyone else.
Here, the US establishment, also known as the Neocon interventionist cabal, it seems, has begun to wake up to actual reality, not the fictitious one that the US can allegedly create for itself. Such as the fact that Russia, in a planned and well executed manner, without any unnecessary fanfare, launched a complete upgrade of her naval nuclear deterrent with the state of the art SSBNs of Borey-class (Project 955 and 955A). Three submarines of this type are already afloat while other 5 are in a different stages of completion and this is the program which most of US Russia “analysts” were laughing at 10 years ago. They are not laughing anymore.
Today it is US Navy which is in dire need for upgrade of its nuclear deterrent, with the youngest of Ohio-class SSBN, SSBN-743 USS Louisiana, being 20 year old. The future replacement of venerable Ohio-class SSBNs, a Columbia-class is slated to go into production in 2021 that is if the R&D will go smoothly. But one has to consider a feature which became defining of US R&D and weapons procurement practices—delays and astronomical costs of US weapons, which, despite constantly being declared “superior”, “unrivaled” and “best in the world” are not such at all, especially for the prices they are offered both domestically and abroad. As in the case with above mentioned Columbia-class SSBN, the GAO expects the cost of the whole program to be slightly above 97 billion dollars and that means that the average cost for each sub of this class will be around 8.1 billion dollars. That is much more than the cost of the whole—8 advanced submarines—program of Russia’s naval nuclear deterrent.
And this single example demonstrates well an abyss in fundamental approaches to the war between US and Russia: not only do Russian weapons rival those made in US, they are much-much less expensive and they provide Russia with this proverbial bang for a buck, also known in professional circles which deal with strategy and operation’s research as cost/effectiveness ratio. Here, United States is simply no competition to Russia and the gap not only remains, it widens with ever-increasing speed. As Colonel Daniel Davies admitted: “The truth is, the United States is nowhere near as powerful and dominant as many believe.” That brings us to a second issue, of doctrines, operational concepts and weapons themselves.
2. A complete inability to see the evolution of Russia’s Armed Forces is another failure which not only irritated but continues to irritate US military-political establishment since it proved them completely wrong. Economic “blindness” factored in here very strongly—it was inevitable in a system that looks at the world through a grossly distorted Wall Street monetarist spyglass. Many times it was pointed out that direct linear comparison, dollar-for-dollar, of military budgets is wrong and does not reflect real military, in general, and combat, in particular, potentials in the least.
While the US Navy was busy spending 420 million dollars per hull on its 26-ship fleet of Littoral Combat Ships (LCS), Russian Navy spent two times less per unit on a frigates whose combat capabilities dwarf those of any LCS in any aspect: ASW, Air Defense and Sensors, including the ability to launch supersonic anti-shipping cruise missiles from 600 kilometers and land-attack missiles from 2500. The same goes to much smaller and even much cheaper missile corvettes of Buyan and Karakurt classes which can engage any US Navy’s targets, let alone something of LCS caliber.
Experiences with a technological embarrassment known as F-35 merely confirm the fact that US is being tangled in a bizarre combination of unrealistic doctrinal views, unachievable technological and operational requirements and, in general, a complete failure to follow Sun Tzu’s popular dictums of “Know Thy Enemy” and “Know Thy Self”. On both counts the US policy makers and doctrine mongers failed miserably.
As late as two years ago a number of US Russia’s military “experts” declared that Russia’s ground forces return to division structure was merely “symbolic”. Symbolic they were not, with Russia resurrecting both divisions and armies as appropriate operational-tactical and operational-strategic units in order for a large scale combined arms operations. While following closely the evolution of US forces within the framework of initially much touted Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA), Russia never changed her focus on the large scale combined arms operations. This came as a nasty surprise on 08/08/2008 when the elements of the supposedly “backward” Russian 58th Army demolished NATO and Israel trained, and partially equipped, Saakashivili’s Army in a matter of 96 hours. Nobody celebrated this victory and Russian Army was subjected, somewhat justifiably, to scathing criticism from many quarters. But it was clear already then that combined arms operations of large army units remain a principle method of the war between peer-to-peer state actors. The issue then, in 2008, was that US didn’t consider Russia a peer and even near peer “status” was grudgingly afforded due to Russia’s nuclear arsenal.
Things changed dramatically after the coup in Kiev and junta unleashing a war in Donbass. Brigade and Division size forces there engaged in a full blown combined arms warfare, including head to head armor clashes, employment, especially for LDNR forces, of full C4ISR capabilities and Net-Centric warfare principles. So much so that it created a cultural shock for US military’s COIN crowd, which got used to operate in the environment of total domination over its rag-tag lightly armed guerilla formations in Iraq or Afghanistan.
And it was then, and later, in 2015, demonstrated by Russia’s Syria campaign, that the realization of an inability to defeat Russia conventionally began to dawn on many in D.C. establishment. Thus the whole premise of last quarter century “Pax Americana”—alleged conventional military superiority over any adversary—was blown out of the water. American military record of the last quarter century is not impressive for a power which proclaimed herself to be a hyper-power and as having the most powerful military in history. As US Marine Corps Captain Joshua Waddle bitterly admitted:
“Let us first begin with the fundamental underpinnings of this delusion: our measures of performance and effectiveness in recent wars. It is time that we, as professional military officers, accept the fact that we lost the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Objective analysis of the U.S. military’s effectiveness in these wars can only conclude that we were unable to translate tactical victory into operational and strategic success”.
Delusion, of course, being the fact of US expecting a decisive tactical and technological superiority on the battlefield. Overwhelming empirical evidence tells a completely different story:
1) United States military in future conflicts will have to deal, in case of conventional conflict against near-peer, let alone peer, with adversary who will have C4ISR capability either approaching that or on par with that of the US. This adversary will have the ability to counter US military decision cycles (OODA loop) with equal frequency and will be able to produce better tactical, operational and strategic decisions.
2) US real and perceived advantage in electronic means of warfare (EW) will be greatly reduced or completely suppressed by present and future EW means of adversary thus forcing US forces fight under the conditions of partial or complete electronic blindness and with partially or completely suppressed communications and computer networks.
3) US will encounter combat technologies not only on par but often better designed and used, from armor to artillery, to hyper-sonic anti-shipping missiles, than US military ever encountered.
4) Modern air-forces and complex advanced air defense systems will make the main pillar of US military power—its Air Force—much less effective.
5) Last but not least, today the US military will have to deal with a grim reality of its staging areas, rear supply facilities, lines of communications being the target of massive salvos of long-range high subsonic, supersonic and hyper-sonic missiles. The US military has never encountered such paradigm in its history. Moreover, already today, US lower 48 are not immune to a conventional massive missile strike.
But above all, if to finally name this “peer”, which is Russia, and that is who pre-occupies the minds of former and current Pentagon’s and National Security brass, in case of conventional conflict Russians will be fighting in defense of their motherland. Here Russia has a track record without equals in human history. Meanwhile, if the current military trends continue, and there are no reasons for them to stop, the window of opportunities for the Neocon cabal to attack Russia conventionally and unleash a preventive war is closing really fast (if it ever existed). That is what drives to a large extent an aggressive military rhetoric and plans, such as National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster’s doctrine and war mongering.
By mid 2020s Russia’s rearmament program will be largely complete, which will allow Russia’s Armed Forces to field and float a technology which will completely prevent NATO from exercising any illusions about the outcome of any conventional war in Russia’s geographic vicinity, including her littoral, and that will mark the end of US designs on Eurasia by military means. It wouldn’t matter how many carrier battle groups US will be able to move to forward areas or how many submarines, or how many brigades it will be able to deploy around Russia it will not be able to defeat Russia conventionally. With that, especially when one considers China’s growing military potential, comes the end of Pax-Bellum Americana, the one we all hoped for this election cycle.
At this point, the only locality where the US can hope to “defeat” Russia is in Syria, to reassert, even if for a little while longer, itself as “greatest military in history”. But even there the window of opportunities is closing fast since the Russian conventional response in Europe would be devastating. As Colonel Pat Lang’s blog noted: “If Russia decides to call our bluff and escalate things Trump will likely preside over a public humiliation that will explode America’s military delusions of grandeur”.
Today, the United States in general, and her military in particular, still remain a premier geopolitical force, but increasingly they will have to content with the fact that the short-lived era of self-proclaimed superiority in every single facet of modern nation-states’ activity is over, if it ever was the case to start with. Will the US “Deep State” unleash a preventive war to prevent Russia from serving US with the pink slip for its position as world’s chaos-monger or will it be, rephrasing the magnificent Corelli Barnett: “US Power had quietly vanished amid stupendous events of the 21stCentury, like a ship-of-the-line going down unperceived in the smoke and confusion of battle”. This is the most important question of the 21st Century so far, but knowing US deep state ignorance of Russia one can never discount its insanity and an acute case of sour grapes.
Andrei Martyanov has extensive knowledge of naval issues, and has been published in US Naval Institute Proceedings. Using the handle “SmoothieX12,” he has written over 130,000 words of comments at The Unz Review, overwhelmingly on Russian and military matters.
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