A recent article about Russia’s military in the US journal the National Interest republished by Russia Insider starts with the following statement:
“The trend toward greater automation, including the use of remote control weapons and AI-driven autonomous warfare, will increasingly put the Russian military at a disadvantage.
Russia does not have the technology to match Western automated systems and lacks the capabilities to develop such systems on its own in the foreseeable future. Russia’s defense industry is well behind Western militaries in automated control systems, strike drones, and advanced electronics of all kinds.
The Russian government has recognized these gaps and, until recently, was attempting to rectify them through cooperation with the Western defense industry.
However, the freezing of military cooperation between NATO member states and Russia in the aftermath of the annexation of Crimea and the concurrent imposition of sanctions by most Western states will preclude the rapid acquisition of advanced military and dual-use technology by Russian defense firms for the foreseeable future.”
This theme – that Russia lacks the technology to compete with the West in weapons development – has been a constant of Western commentary about Russia since the 1930s.
It has been repeatedly proved to be untrue. Examples are legion. Here are some of the most famous:
1. The shock the Germans experienced in 1941 when they came up against Russian tanks like the KV1 and the T34, which were more advanced than their own;
2. The shock the US experienced in 1949 when the USSR exploded its first nuclear bomb;
3. The shock the US airforce suffered in the 1950s when it came up against the MiG-15 in Korea;
4. The still greater shock the US suffered when the USSR in 1957 launched the world’s first artificial satellite, proving it had the capability to strike the US with intercontinental missiles;
5. The shock in the 1960s when the US airforce found they were unable to achieve aerial dominance over Hanoi against a North Vietnamese airforce equipped with Russian fighters;
6. The shock the Israelis suffered during the 1973 Yom Kippur war when they came up against Russian supplied anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles;
7. The shock during the 2006 Lebanon war when the Israelis again came up against modern Russian anti-tank missiles.
Since the 1970s there have been no occasions when the Western powers have had to fight an enemy equipped with the most modern Russian weapons. However recent defeats in simulated air combat by the Indian airforce equipped with Russian fighters of the US and British airforces suggest that if they did the results might be devastating.
US and Israeli concern about the sale by Russia of S300 anti-aircraft missiles to Iran also suggests concern on the part of Western militaries about the capability of Russian weapons, as do reports that the US navy was deterred from close deployment near Crimea during the March 2014 Crimean crisis by the deployment of Russian land-based anti-ship missiles there.
The article in the National Interest does make one point that is in part true. This is that Russia did fall heavily behind the US in drone warfare.
This was not however because of technological backwardness. The USSR in the 1980s had an advanced drone programme. The reason it never came to fruition is because the USSR collapsed and Russia, which emerged out of the USSR, was caught up for decades in an existential crisis, which forced it to bring military procurement plans to a stop.
Russia does now have an active drone programme, the first examples of which are now entering service.
A similar point can incidentally be made about Russia’s GLONASS satellite navigation system. This would have been in full operation decades ago – and soon after the US introduced GPS – if the USSR had not disintegrated when it did.
The reality – as the record and the present situation both show – is that there is approximate technology parity between the the US and Russia. Since the US spends so much more than Russia does on defence, it can sometimes bring a particular technology into service more quickly than Russia can. However the Russians have repeatedly shown that whenever a technological gap arises they can quickly close it. The cornucopia of new weapons now appearing in Russia shows that has in no way changed.
The persistence of this myth of Russian technological backwardness is remarkable given how often it has been proved wrong. At one level it shows how entrenched myths about Russia are.
It explains many of the problems US war fighting has experienced since the end of the Second World War.
The belief that Russia – the US’s chief military adversary and historically the main supplier of weapons to the US’s opponents – is far behind the US technologically has repeatedly led to the US over-investing in technology whilst neglecting other critical parts of its military system. This approach is guaranteed to fail when it turns out that the enemy is not so technologically backward after all.
It is true – as the article in the National Interest says – that Russia will not waste its money by duplicating every weapon the US produces. At the same time some of the Russian strategies the article in the National Interest discusses make sense irrespective of cost or technological considerations.
Given the heavy dependence of drones on secure communications it makes for example perfect sense for the Russians to develop their already very advanced electronic warfare systems in order to jam them. There are in fact already scattered reports of US reconnaissance drones being successfully brought down by jamming whilst overflying Crimea and Iran.
Overall however, with its comments about Russian technological backwardness and its flesh-creeping talk of Russian cyber warfare, the article in the National Interest tells us less about Russian military plans and capabilities than about the illusions and prejudices of the author.