Moscow: Russia’s military intervention in Syria appears to have achieved many of its stated goals, but it’s also yielded one unexpected benefit for Moscow: global interest in Russian weaponry is growing, and the order books of the state arms exporter Rosoboronexport are expanding.
As the Russian military displays its mettle in its first foreign conflict in decades, Russian media are reporting that the export of weaponry such as strike fighters, attack helicopters, tanks and other ordnance– which were almost $15 billion last year – might leap by as much as $6 billion this year, particularly to non-US aligned countries. The business daily Kommersant cites inside sources as saying that new orders are coming in from countries like Vietnam, Indonesia, Algeria and Pakistan, while TASS news agency reports that Latin America has become the fastest-growing market for Russian armaments.
For Russia, currently suffering from an extended drop in the global price of its main exports, oil and gas, it could be a bonanza that keeps on giving.
Moscow has been trying for years to move beyond its traditional arms clients – especially India and China – and cultivate markets that traditionally rely more on US and European arms. It’s been greatly hampered by the perception that most Russian weapons are slightly modified Soviet designs that cannot compete with their Western counterparts. There’s nothing like a successful little war to make people sit up and take fresh notice.
The brunt of the Syria operation has been 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, and the Su-30 multi-purpose fighter. After withdrawing a big portion of the fixed-wing force from Syria in mid-March, the Russians sent in larger numbers of their new generation of helicopter gunships, the Mi-28 and the Ka-52 “Black Shark”, which are reportedly as effective as their US-made counterparts .
Moscow also re-equipped the Syrian army with modern T-90 tanks, one of which was seen in a viral YouTube video surviving a direct hit from a US-made TOW anti-tank missile. You can’t buy better advertising than that.
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.
After a Russian Su-24 was shot down by Turkish air defences last October, Moscow deployed late-generation S-400 air defence missiles to Syria, prompting a wave of consternation among US-led coalition members over the Russian ability to impose anti access/area denial, known as A2/AD, effectively creating a Russian-dominated no-fly zone over Syrian airspace.
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.
The former Soviet military machine, and the industrial complex that supported it, has been decaying since the collapse of the USSR a quarter-century ago. But Russia got a wake up call when war broke out with neighbouring Georgia in the summer of 2008. Though the Russia won that contest against tiny Georgia, it suffered unacceptable casualties and saw gaping vulnerabilities in its armed forces exposed.
Since then, and under the radar screen of Western observers, a series of sweeping military reforms 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 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.”
And, for the first time, Russia is fielding new weapons that are not merely jumped-up designs from the old Soviet cupboard. These include the new Armata tank, a range of new strategic missiles, and the much-discussed T-50 “fifth generation” fighter plane.
But Russia’s economic crisis has forced cuts in military spending, and brought postponements in many of the most ambitious weapons projects. Some experts suggest that the slowdown in some of those projects, such as the fifth generation fighter, is not motivated by lack of cash but an inability to meet the technological requirements.
Another problem is that 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. The Soviet industrial machine, which reliably produced everything from assault rifles to intercontinental missiles, is long gone. Most of the big design bureaus and key industrial facilities may have survived, but thousands of little factories that used to support them went bankrupt and were closed down years ago.
“There is no network of subcontractors to produce all the components, so it has to be done in-house. That’s very expensive,” says military expert Alexander Golts, currently a visiting researcher at Uppsala University in Sweden.
Russia’s main producer of air defence systems, Almaz Antey, has been forced 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, he suggests.
“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.
Fred Weir is a senior Moscow-based journalist