By Fred Weir – Mon Feb 28, 4:22 pm ET
Moscow – The graying bear is getting a make-over. Russia's military is launching its biggest rearmament effort since Soviet times, including a $650 billion program to procure 1,000 new helicopters, 600 combat planes, 100 warships, and 8 nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines.
Analysts say Russia, while already the world's fifth-largest military spender, needs strong conventional forces to reduce its overreliance on its aging Soviet-era nuclear missile deterrent. Valentin Rudenko, director of the independent Interfax-Military News Agency, says it could create "a whole new ballgame."
"For about two decades we've had no real modernization, at least not like what's being proposed now," he says. "Russia will finally have a modern, top-level armed forces that are capable of protecting the country."
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Deputy Defense Minister Vladimir Popovkin last week announced the unprecedented new outlays, which will see a massive re-equipping of Russia's strategic nuclear deterrent as well as its conventional forces. The Defense Ministry today said the "modernization drive" will begin this year with the deployment of new generations of air defense and antimissile weapons by Russian ground forces.
The impressive shopping spree comes on the heels of a painful military reform that severely downsized Russia's conscript Army, eliminating 9 out of 10 Soviet-era units and cutting 200,000 officers. The goal now, experts say, is to equip Russia's new lean-and-mean, largely professional armed forces to face 21st-century threats. These are mainly considered to be regional conflicts such as the brief 2008 Russo-Georgian war, which highlighted military shortcomings.
Skepticism over spending
Much of the new spending will go toward revamping Russia's naval forces, which are slated to receive new submarines, 35 naval corvettes, 15 frigates, and 4 Mistral-type helicopter-transporting amphibious assault ships. Two of the $750 million Mistrals will be purchased from France, and two are to be constructed in Russian shipyards.
Some experts are deeply skeptical of the expenditures – especially the expensive purchase of Mistral helicopter carriers, which are designed to project power around the globe rather than fight the defensive and local wars that Russian military doctrine declares as the country's main priority.
"It's hard to see what our Navy needs these Mistral money pits for," says Viktor Baranets, a former defense ministry spokesman who's now military correspondent for the Moscow daily Komsomolskaya Pravda. He says they may be prestigious, "but they require a huge amount of protection. At any time, half the Russian Navy may be employed just escorting these ships around the world."
The new submarines will be designed to deploy a brand-new long-range nuclear missile, the Bulava, which has failed half of its flight tests so far. "Defense ministers can make promises, but no designer or engineer can promise that the Bulava will be operational in time," says Mr. Baranets.
Uncertainty over new stealth fighter
Experts point out that most of the new weaponry to be procured is actually based on old, Soviet-era designs, including the Mi-28 helicopter gunship, the Mi-26 transport helicopter, and the Sukhoi Su-35 multirole fighter plane.
"These are all designs from the late Soviet period, and not really new at all," says Alexander Golts, military expert with the online newsmagazine Yezhednevny Zhurnal. "The lack of fresh designs shows the underlying weakness of our military-industrial complex."
The only truly new weapons being rolled out, says Mr. Golts, are the trouble-plagued Bulava missile and the much-hyped "fifth-generation" fighter plane that Russia is reportedly developing with India.
"We don't know enough about this Russian fifth-generation fighter to tell whether it is the real thing" – a futuristic stealth fighter comparable to the US Air Force's F-22 and F-35 warplanes – "or if it's just a jumped-up version of something old," says Golts.
Critics say that despite the huge sums of money slated to be injected into the rearmament program, it is far short of the amounts needed to revive Russia's moribund military-industrial complex, which has lost the vast network of subcontractors that existed in Soviet times.
"This is not the first time the Kremlin has talked about military modernization," says Golts. "But all previous programs have failed."