Russia intensifies efforts to rebuild its military machine
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• According to Russian media reports, last year Israel complained to Moscow over Hizbullah's use of Russian-made antitank missiles, which inflicted serious casualties and inhibited Israel's armored mobility, during last summer's war in Lebanon. The Israeli media pointed to the Kornet-E, a new laser-guided rocket that can punch through meter-thick armor at a range of five kilometers, which Russia has officially provided to Syria. Russia denied that the weapons might have been diverted to Hizbullah, however.
The former USSR maintained a sprawling military-industrial complex that absorbed as much as a third of the country's GDP. With the demise of the Soviet Union, defense budgets imploded, the Russian armed forces virtually halted procurement of new weapons, thousands of factories went bankrupt, and skilled workers migrated en masse to other jobs.
Though capital is now flowing back into the defense sector, experts doubt that the Putin-era increases are enough to restore the vast web of specialized industries that kept the Soviet military machine supplied with everything from bullets to antisatellite missiles.
"There have been dramatic increases in procurement funds, but this is not being used efficiently," says Alexander Golts, a military expert with the online newspaper Yezhednevny Zhurnal. "I am dubious about Russia's ability to produce weapons of a truly new generation."
Most Russian arms exports during the 1990s involved sell-offs of Soviet-era stockpiles, including small arms, armored vehicles, and older aircraft. Those fueled vicious wars in Africa and the former Yugoslavia, but did not worry the West much. But Putin-era sales have shifted increasingly to sophisticated weapons, including warplanes, precision-guided munitions, and advanced air-defense systems.
"The US still has a solid lead in the top end of weaponry," says Mr. Cohen. "But at the next level Russia is advancing fast. Geopolitically, it is cornering the market for rogue regimes, such as Iran and Venezuela, and this is most worrisome."
Experts say that about 1,550 Russian firms are now involved in arms production, and they have proven adept at modernizing Soviet designs. For example, the Su-30, which accounted for almost half of all Russia's arms-export earnings in 2005, is a development of the USSR's Su-27 frontline combat jet.
But fresh products, such as Sukhoi's new T-50 "fifth-generation" fighter, could give the industry a needed boost.
"The situation in our military-industrial complex is improving, and this [fifth- generation] project will change our position radically," says Konstantin Makiyenko, deputy director of the independent Center of Analysis of Strategies and Technologies in Moscow. "If India agrees to participate, the [financing] will be better. It could give a big boost to many branches of our military industry."
Still, some experts say that sweeping reforms and more state funding are needed before Russia's arms industry can resupply a flagging military machine with cutting-edge weapons, much less compete globally with Western arms merchants.
"We need a completely new military industry, not just remnants of the old one," says Vitaly Shlykov, a former Soviet war planning official and member of the Russian Defense Ministry's public advisory council. "And these new defense industries will need a lot of attention, and an influx of resources on the level that today is only going into the oil and gas industry."