Russia intensifies efforts to rebuild its military machine

At a major security conference this past weekend, Russian President Vladimir Putin blasted the US for its militaristic approach to foreign policy, saying its actions were "nourishing an arms race."

But little noticed amid the sharp US and European response to Mr. Putin's comments is Russia's burgeoning military-industrial complex, generally thought to have collapsed with the Soviet Union.

The cold war days when the USSR matched the US missile-for-missile may be gone. But experts say that Russia is increasingly capable of turning out cutting-edge weaponry and selling it to countries that are shunned by Western suppliers.

"The fact that our country is playing a leading role in the world in the sphere of export of military production is a sign that the Russian defense industry has not only survived but has a powerful potential for further development," Sergei Chemezov, the head of the state arms-export monopoly Rosoboronexport, told a political meeting late last year.

Russian defense budgets have been soaring since Putin came to power, buoyed by a rising tide of petroleum income, and are set to jump by 23 percent in 2007 to a post-Soviet high of $32.4 billion. Moscow does arms business with over 70 countries, including China, Iran, and Venezuela, and in 2006 exported $6 billion worth of arms.

"Under Putin there has been a wish and an attempt to go beyond the Soviet inheritance," in developing high-tech military capabilities, says Ivan Saffranchuk, Moscow director of the independent World Security Institute. "Now there's cash, and a good political situation, to intensify that effort."

Missiles for Iran

• Last week Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov unveiled a $189 billion rearmament program that will replace about half of Russia's current military equipment by 2015. Among the armed forces' acquisitions will be a completely revamped early-warning radar network, new intercontinental missiles, a fleet of supersonic Tu-160 strategic bombers, and 31 new warships, including aircraft carriers.

• Last month Mr. Putin offered to partner with India to build a futuristic "fifth generation" fighter plane, which Russian designers is already under development and could be flying as early as 2009. Only the US has so far managed to field one of these new era combat jets – which have breakthrough capabilities of stealthiness, supersonic cruising, ultramaneuverability and over-the-horizon electronic visibility. And at $260 million per model, the new F/A-22 Raptor is by far the world's most expensive warplane.

• Russia is already supplying India with the Sukhoi-30MKI, an advanced "fourth generation" warplane that consistently defeats its Western counterparts, such as the frontline US fighters, the F-15C and F-16. Versions of the Su-30 are also being sold to China, Venezuela, and Malaysia.

• At a recent press conference, Putin said that Russia has nothing to fear from US missile defense systems because the new Topol-M intercontinental ballistic missile has stealth characteristics that enable it to penetrate the American shield. "But this is not all," he added, mentioning a "new generation ... of strategic weapons systems," against which missile defense systems would be "powerless."

• In January, Moscow announced it had completed deliveries of 29 sophisticated Tor-M1 mobile antiaircraft batteries to Iran, and Mr. Ivanov hinted that Russia might also supply S-300 long-range air defense weapons. Experts believe that the Tor-M1, which can track 48 targets simultaneously, could seriously complicate any potential air strike on Iran's nuclear facilities.

"The Tor, in combination with the S-300, would provide a large envelope of protection to the Iranian nuclear complex," says Ariel Cohen, an analyst with the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington.

• 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.

Key supplier for 'rogue regimes'

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."

Overhaul needed

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."

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