Frank Ledwidge, University of Portsmouth
Every year, the May 9 Victory Day parade in Moscow showcases the latest in Russian weapons systems – and this year’s, of course, had special meaning. The weaponry looked good on the parade ground – but how well are Russia’s high-tech weapons performing on the battlefield?
As always in Russia’s Victory day parade, tanks and armoured vehicles took centre stage. Most prominent among them was the T-14 Armata. Western analysts have been poring with some degree of trepidation over this system since 2015 when the tank first appeared. It is a significant advance over all previous Russian tanks, which were and are adaptations of old Soviet designs.
The trouble from the Russian army perspective is that there are very few of these tanks available. Credible Russian reports indicate that the programme is suffering problems with production and complexity and “is a hostage to the many new technologies in it”. As if technical problems were not enough, the company making the Armata is in financial trouble.
If all goes according to plan – rare enough in any military procurement programme – this tank will begin full-scale production this year, too late for this phase of the war in Ukraine.
Other, less formidable tanks were also prominent, notably the various modernised versions of the T-72, which have taken heavy losses in Ukraine, especially from anti-tank missiles supplied by the US, UK and other European countries. Rather more concerning to Russian generals in the longer term was the first reported loss in combat of the T-90M, the most formidable tank in Russian combat service today, which also made an appearance at the parade.
Trundling after the tanks and assorted armoured vehicles on the parade was the Uran-9 autonomous combat vehicle. This is designed to work without an operator on roads or, in more difficult terrain, as a remotely controlled tank.
It also appears to have been tested in Syria, where there were serious issues with the remote control systems, which were apparently unable to find or hit enemy targets at anything like a useful range. The Uran-9 is probably a decade or more from being an effective weapons system.
Moving away from the ground the Victory Day air display was cancelled due, it was said, to the weather – although it was bright and clear in Moscow that day. So we did not get to see Russia’s “aerospace force”, as it is called, in full panoply. Then again, we have not seen it quite as dominant as expected in battle either.
In terms of the latest models, the Russian aerospace force seems to have used the Sukhoi Su-57, Russia’s only stealth fighter, in combat at least once. This is the nearest equivalent to the Lockheed F-35, the US’s top-of-the-range jet.
It is significant that the decision was taken to risk it in action since its slightly older but formidable brothers the Sukhoi Su-34, and Su-35 – equivalents to the American F-15s and European Typhoons – have taken surprising levels of casualties.
The largest losses of manned aircraft have been sustained by Russia’s fleet of sophisticated and modern Ka-52 “Alligator” attack helicopters, which are similar to US and UK Apaches.
Not enough precision
Russia’s precision-guided missiles (PGMs), such as the Iskander-M ballistic missile that was on display at Monday’s parade, do not seem to be meeting expectations. A significant number are failing to reach their targets or explode on contact.
Equally worrying for Russian planners is that having fired well over 2,000 PGMs, their stock is running low. As a US defence official said this week:
They’re having inventory issues with precision-guided munitions and they’re having trouble replacing PGMs, and we do believe that the sanctions and the export controls, particularly when it comes to … electronic components, has had an effect on the Russian defense industrial base and their ability to restock PGMs.
This is bad news for Russia in the medium and long term. As a result, Russia is using ageing munitions that are less reliable, less accurate and more easily intercepted.
One particular type of PGM has attracted particular attention. Air-launched Kinzhal hypersonic missiles were not seen over Moscow this year, but were very evident at the 2018 Victory Day parade. A dozen or so hypersonic missiles have been used against Ukrainian targets, initially in March, the first time such weapons have been fired in combat, and again this week in an attack on the city of Odesa.
These sound fearsome and they are formidable weapons, but in reality they are not game-changers, being valuable more in presentational than tactical terms in a conventional war.
It is worth remembering that many ballistic missiles are hypersonic. The difference here is that the Kinzhal have a certain manoeuvring capability meaning that they cannot realistically be shot down by Ukrainian air defences.
That Ukraine’s air defences and air force still exist at all is, of course, partly a testament to Russian operational failure, as well as the Ukrainians’ own exceptional planning and operational foresight.
None of Russia’s high-tech wizardry, even if it worked as advertised, would have saved its army from the less-than-favourable situation in which it now finds itself. Russia’s problem is not sub-par performance of advanced weaponry. There are to put it mildly, plenty of recent western examples of failed, exorbitantly expensive weapons projects. War is the most brutal of testing grounds – and every country loses vast quantities of equipment in combat.
Russia’s problems are conceptual, not technical and are situated at all levels of war from poor strategic leadership to the unprofessional nature of its soldiery, even before we consider the skill, armaments and motivation of Ukrainian troops. These issues lie at the root of every Russian failure, not underperforming weaponry, and they are why Russia’s army may well be destined for defeat in the field.
Frank Ledwidge, Senior Lecturer in Military Strategy and Law, University of Portsmouth
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