Russian President Vladimir Putin held a series of meetings in Sochi, between May 16 and 19, with representatives from the Armed Forces and the defense industry. These meetings, traditionally held twice a year, were the ninth such occasion since 2013. One of the most important topics on the agenda this time around was the upcoming armament program for the period 2018–2025, which has been receiving extensive attention in the Russian media (Krasnaya Zvezda, May 21).
According to normal procedure, the armament program should have covered the period 2016–2025 and been approved in 2015 (Vedomosti, December 22, 2014). However, in 2015, it was decided that the new program should cover the period 2018–2025 due to the unstable economic situation, which made it impossible to work out adequate short-term economic forecasts (Interfax, February 19, 2015; Svpressa.ru, May 17, 2017). In September 2016, the president stated that the new program should be ready for his approval no later than July 1, 2017 (RIA Novosti, September 20, 2016). That date has now been pushed back to September, according to some sources (Svpressa.ru, May 17; Rns.online, April 20). The reason for the apparent postponement has not been identified, but turf wars among ministries might be one explanation.
The financing of the new armament program has for some time been a tug-of-war between the defense ministry and the treasury (see EDM, September 15, 2016; November 3, 2016; May 25, 2017). Originally, the military settled for 55 trillion rubles ($964 billion), which was later reduced to 30 trillion ($530 billion) (Vedomosti.ru, December 22, 2014). Even 30 trillion rubles was obviously too much for the Ministry of Finance, and in September 2016 it was prepared to allocate only 12 trillion rubles ($210 billion), whereas the military asked for 22 trillion ($390 billion) (Kommersant, September 17, 2016). For the moment, it looks as if the question concerning financing has been settled and, in this context, 17 trillion rubles (approximately $302 billion) has been mentioned (Vpk.name, May 19). That sum is unlikely to satisfy either party and should be compared with the present armament program (2011–2020), which was allocated about 20 trillion rubles ($351 billion).
To a certain extent, both official and other sources give an ambiguous and contradictory message regarding the new armament program (2018–2025). On the one hand, it seeks to cover the whole spectrum of equipment and service branches; but on the other hand, it mentions specific areas that are to be given priority. Russia’s strategic nuclear assets, for instance, will still remain a priority, but experiences from Syria and the conflict in Ukraine will undoubtedly have an impact on future acquisitions (Krasnaya Zvezda, May 21, 23; Kommersant, May 19). Kommersant, referring to a well-placed source, singles out the Ground Forces and the Airborne Forces as the “winners” in the new armament program, in that it will rectify the insufficient funding allocated to these service branches within the framework of the present armament program, which does not reflect the actual role they play in an armed conflict (Kommersant, May 18). And this is despite the fact that Deputy Minister of Defense Yuriy Borisov specifically noted the important need to further develop the Navy (Krasnaya Zvezda, May 23). The emphasis on the ground and airborne forces is also highlighted by other sources: Lenta mentions that one fourth—4.2 trillion rubles ($74 billion)—of the financial assets will be allocated to these two branches (Lenta, May 25). As a result, the Navy will have a modest role in the new armament program, and neither the Shtorm aircraft carrier nor the Lider destroyer are likely to appear in the near-term future (Warfiles.ru, May 18). However, the construction of missile corvettes and light frigates, having proved their worth in the Syrian context, can be expected to continue—the same with both conventional and nuclear submarines. The Aerospace Forces will receive new helicopters and aircraft, including MiG-35s and the fifth-generation PAK FA (T-50), but in slightly reduced numbers—probably 30–37 aircraft (Kommersant, May 18; Topwar.ru, May 17; Vpk.name, May 15). The development of the stealthy PAK DA strategic bomber is said to continue, but at a slower tempo, while the modernized Tu-160M2 strategic bomber will be given priority (Lenta, May 25; Vedomosti.ru, May 17).
In connection with the new armament program it is worth noting what Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin recently said in an interview with Vesti about discarding the modernization of older equipment as this hampers the development of new systems (Vesti, May 20). According to Rogozin, the 2018–2025 armament program will include the development of smart weapons; automated command, control, communications, computers and intelligence (C4I) systems; as well as unmanned vehicles. This was echoed by Deputy Defense Minister Borisov, who added to this list weapons built on new physical principles (Krasnaya Zvezda, May 23). The explicit mention of new automated C4I systems indicates that its implementation remains a headache for the Russian Armed Forces. Indeed, the military will miss its deadline to equip 40 brigades with the ESU TZ tactical command-and-control (C2) system by 2020, as originally planned (Lenta.ru, May 25).
Presently, it seems the final state of the 2018–2022 armament program is still in flux, but its orientation and priorities might become better known by September. Even if the ground and airborne forces are not given priority, new equipment—like the T-14 Armata tank, the Kurganets-25 armored modular platform, the Bumerang amphibious armored personnel carrier, or the 2S35 Koalitsiya-SV self-propelled (artillery) gun—will be introduced and most likely initially in the Western Military District. Yet, these will likely enter service in limited numbers, implying a continued procurement of modernized older equipment, like the T-72B3M main battle tank, despite what Rogozin has said. Additionally, new equipment will also be introduced in the other branches. These will include the S-500 air-defense system, the RS-28 Sarmat heavy intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), new unmanned vehicles, and even a replacement for the French Mistral amphibious helicopter carrier and command ship, which Moscow never purchased because Paris canceled the deal. But delays and postponements, a recurring feature in the present armament program—particularly when it comes to the Navy (see EDM, May 12)—can be expected to continue (RIA Novosti, May 25).