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Battlefield as showroom: Russian arms gain new luster after Syria campaign

Russia's brief but successful campaign in Syria has attracted international arms buyers, and could boost sales by $6 billion in 2016.

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    Russian Su-25 ground attack jets are parked after returning from Syria, at a Russian air base in Primorsko-Akhtarsk, southern Russia, last month.
    Olga Balashova/Russian Defense Ministry Press Service/AP
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There's nothing quite like a victorious war to change perceptions about a country.

Russia's reduced-but-ongoing military intervention in Syria appears to have already accomplished several of its intended geopolitical goals. But it may also be yielding a surprise windfall: stepped-up orders for the weaponry that starred in the globally televised Syria mission.

Russian media are reporting that arms exports, which were almost $15 billion last year, might leap by as much as $6 billion this year as generals, particularly in non-US aligned countries, decide they want some of those strike fighters, attack helicopters, tanks, and other ordnance that is now perceived to be effective. The business daily Kommersant cites inside sources as saying that new orders are coming in from countries like Vietnam, Indonesia, Algeria, and Pakistan, while the official TASS news agency reports that Latin America has become the fastest-growing market for Russian armaments.

"During the Syria operation, quite a few new weapons systems were introduced, and this gave a real impetus for a number of foreign countries to open talks and sign contracts with us," says Igor Korotchenko, director of the independent Center for Analysis of World Arms Trade in Moscow. "Attack aircraft and air defense systems are the core of military operations today, and so this is what is in demand. The more Russia demonstrates its independent capabilities, the more countries will be interested in our exports."

Syria as showroom

The brunt of the Syria operation was carried out by old Soviet-era warhorses like the Su-24 and Su-25 ground attack fighters. But the Russians also showcased some of their newest hardware – all available in export versions – including the advanced Su-34     strike fighter, the Su-30 multi-purpose fighter, and the Mi-28 ground attack helicopter.

Moscow also re-equipped the Syrian Army with Russia's new tank, the T-90, one of which was seen in a viral YouTube video surviving a direct hit from a US-made TOW anti-tank missile. Better advertising can't be bought.

Perhaps just to confound Western observers, the Russians also displayed some advanced technology that is not yet for sale, particularly the hitherto unknown Kalibr sea-launched cruise missile, which was fired from warships in the Caspian Sea.

Experts say the main surprise for the West was not so much the technology, but the Russian military's ability to deploy to a distant battlefield and sustain operations at a stiff pace for almost six months.

"Prior to September 2015, most Western analysts of the Russian military believed that Russia was not capable of conducting a serious military operation away from its borders," says Dmitry Gorenburg, a senior researcher at the Center for Naval Analysis in Washington.

Largely under the radar screen of Western observers, a series of sweeping military reforms over the past decade have transformed at least parts of Russia's dysfunctional Soviet-era armed forces into a highly mobile, professional service. Everybody got a glimpse of its new capabilities with Russia's lightning takeover of Crimea two years ago.

With its performance in the Syria operation, there is clearly fresh respect for the Russian military as well as interest in its equipment.

"What has impressed potential customers is the Russian Air Force's ability to carry out a sustained air campaign in a relatively harsh desert environment," says Mr. Gorenburg. "Just last summer, the main news had to do with the frequency of accidents and crashes among Air Force combat planes. Now the new narrative is about the effectiveness of Russian air operations."

The limits on supply

But Russia's military-industrial complex still suffers from a lack of deep infrastructure and has so far been unable to mass produce most of the advanced weaponry displayed in Syria, says Alexander Golts, currently a visiting researcher at Uppsala University in Sweden.

"There is no network of subcontractors to produce all the components, so it has to be done in-house. That's very expensive," Mr. Golts says.

Russia's main producer of air defense systems, Almaz Antey, has had to build a huge complex to make every single part of its famous anti-aircraft and anti-missile weapons. Other producers have to scrounge for parts, may suffer from major bottlenecks, and their products just might not live up to their advertising, Golts says.

"It's all about perceptions. If there was a tendency in the past to underestimate Russia's military capabilities and equipment, there is a danger that the pendulum could swing too far in the other direction," he adds.

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