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With Russia's $650 billion rearmament plan, the bear sharpens its teeth

If Russia can reduce reliance on its aging Soviet-era nuclear missile deterrent, analysts say it could create a 'whole new ball game.'

By Correspondent / February 28, 2011

A Russian serviceman is involved in a range practice at the 7th military base of Russia in Abkhazia.

Valery Matytsin/ITAR-TASS/Newscom

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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.

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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."

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.

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