Russia has been saber-rattling so hard that cracks are forming in the blade and the hilt seems to be falling off. The military has been embarrassed by a number of of high profile failures and missteps in the past few years.
To be clear, the Russians aren’t helpless and certain units are deadly. They have a large nuclear arsenal, some of the world’s quietest submarines, and an impressive new tank. But here are six reasons Russian military planners can’t be sleeping easy.
1. Their planes keep falling out of the air.
An Su-24M tactical bomber and a Tu-95 strategic bomber crashed in separate incidents in July, two MiG-29 fighters crashed in June as did an Su-34 strike fighter. In total, these crashes cost the lives of four Russian service members and resulted in the groundings of the Tu-95 and MiG-29 fleets.
Meanwhile, the replacements for the aging fighters keep getting cut back due to funding problems, a theme which will recur in this list. Also, Russia claims that it is building new Tu-160 bombers and developing a brand new bomber, but industry experts think it is frankly not feasible for the Russians to find the required high-skill workers or money to do everything at once.
2. Their only aircraft carrier needs a tug boat escort and can’t launch fully-armed planes.
The Russians have one carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov. The ship was launched in 1985 and began active duty in the fleet in 1991. In 24 years, it has served only four frontline deployments. It requires tugs to accompany it in deepwater in case it breaks down at sea and needs to be refueled every 45 days. The crew has trouble completing the refueling missions however, sometimes spilling the fuel across the ocean instead.
Meanwhile, even when everything is working to plan, the Kuznetsov has troubles. It isn’t a proper carrier and launches aircraft from a bow ramp rather than catapults, limiting her jets to low takeoff weights with limited fuel and ammunition. Plumbing problems in the ship limit the number of functioning latrines to 25 for her full crew of nearly 2,000. In 2011, U.S. Navy ships trailed the Kuznetsov to her home port to rescue the Russians if the ship sank.
Russia is planning a larger, more robust new carrier but it would still rely on ramps for two of its four launching positions, would require refueling every 120 days, wouldn’t have many ports it could be parked in, and may be too expensive and complex for Russia to actually complete.
3. They rely on conscripts and soldiers forced into contracts.
Russian Gen. Mikhail Mizintsev, then-head of the National Center for Defense, bragged in 2014 that “two army brigades, 12 special forces units and five battalions of airborne troops and marines were manned entirely with contract servicemen,” according to RT, a Russian media outlet. But, that’s the first time the Russian military has had more contract soldiers than volunteers in its history. And, first-term contract soldiers aren’t “volunteers” the way they are in America.
In America, all service members are volunteers who don’t have to serve in the military unless a draft is ordered. In Russia, males between the age of 18-27 must serve in the military, either one year as a conscript or two as a “volunteer.”
4. Even their domestic displays of power keep going wrong.
In July, a Russian Navy Day celebration saw a missile frigate fire at a target only for the missile to fail, spinning through the air and breaking apart meters from the ship, a display of an anti-aircraft missile failed in April when the missile fell back to the ground, and one of Russia’s premier new tanks broke down during a rehearsal for the country’s Victory Day Parade.
Tragically, a helicopter also crashed during an air show Aug. 3, killing one of the pilots.
5. Their funding situation is bad and getting worse.
While Russia continues to spend heavily on defense, the upgrades will eventually be limited by what the rest of the economy can bear.
Russia, crippled by sanctions, falling oil prices, and a weakening currency, has been forced to cut their purchase plans for fighters and new tanks. Some Russian contractors have attempted to sell the nation new helicopter carriers after a deal with France fell through, but there are reports that Russia can’t afford new ships anyway. Meanwhile, Russia’s largest economic ally, China, has questionable loyalty to Moscow.