Publication: The Military Balance 2018
14 February 2018
In 2017 Russia continued to pursue its aspiration to field a more modern suite of military capabilities and more professional armed forces held at a higher state of readiness. Elements of these forces continue to maintain and sustain the deployment to Syria, where Russian combat forces remain engaged across land, sea and air, and have proven instrumental to the Assad regime’s survival in the six-year-long civil war.
Meanwhile, there are further indications that Russia has moved away from important elements of the ‘New Look’ reforms, which began in late 2008. In March 2017 a presidential decree raised the upper limit on the total number of military personnel from one million to 1,013,628. This constituted the first notional increase in the size of the armed forces for some years. Limiting the maximum numerical strength of the Russian armed forces to one million had been one of the key principles of ‘New Look’, which continued a trend since the end of the Cold War of reducing personnel numbers. Indeed, in recent years the Russian armed forces have numbered under one million. The new requirement to increase personnel numbers is dictated by the accelerating shift from the land forces’ ‘New Look’ brigade structure towards divisions and armies. In 2016 alone, one combined-arms army, four motor-rifle divisions and one tank division were reestablished. These new divisions draw on existing brigades and equipment-storage bases and, as such, this transformation process requires substantial additional personnel strength.
At the same time, a new naval doctrine was approved in July 2017 for the period up to 2030. It identified among the main dangers facing Russia ‘the aspiration of a number of countries, primarily the United States and its allies, to dominate the world’s oceans’. Its ambition included developing capabilities to act as a strategic conventional deterrent, including hypersonic missiles and autonomous systems, from 2025, and preserving Russia’s position as the second global naval power. With the possible exception of its sub-surface capabilities, however, it would appear difficult for the Russian Navy fully to achieve these ambitions. Although Russia has stated its intention to continue its submarine-construction programme, and to develop the navy’s capability to attack land targets with precision-guided, non-nuclear and nuclear weapons, funding for the navy will almost certainly be reduced in the new State Armament Programme (GPV) 2018–27. This makes no provision to build large surface combatants, such as a new aircraft carrier, cruisers and destroyers, before 2025. Despite this, the navy should still achieve some significant, if more limited, ability to pose major challenges to potential adversaries, at least close to home waters.