Ask a Russian what the country makes well, and the answer, more often than not, will be the Kalashnikov rifle.
Russian-made cars may be rickety, and its passenger airplanes such fuel-guzzlers that even the country’s flag carrier, Aeroflot, has switched to a mostly Western fleet. But Russians could always point with pride to the fearsome reputation of their weapons — the Kalashnikov and the MIG and Sukhoi fighter jets.
Indeed, until recently, Russia’s military exports were second in volume only to the United States.
But in today’s Russia, the $40 billion military equipment industry is withering alongside civilian manufacturing.
Once-legendary Russian weapons are suffering embarrassing quality-control problems. Algeria, for example, recently returned a shipment of MiG jets because of defects.
An aircraft carrier refurbishment for India is four years late and hundreds of millions of dollars over budget.
In perhaps the most poignant sign of trouble, Russia’s own military is now voting with its rubles: Moscow is in talks with France to buy four French amphibious assault ships. If a deal is struck, it would be Russia’s most significant acquisition of foreign weapons since World War II. The purchase of Mistral-class ships would be “the most salient example of the deficiencies in the Russian defence industry,” said Dmitri Trenin, a military analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, a policy research organisation.
Even as military manufacturing shrank to 4.28 per cent of gross domestic product last year, down from 20 per cent under communism, Russia’s armed forces relied on domestic producers for nearly every screw and bullet in the arsenal. Self-sufficiency in military manufacturing was a “sacred cow” of national security, Trenin said.
Many experts say the decline began with the end of the Soviet Union. When Russia became capitalist, they say, so did its military industry. Like much of Russian industry, it was privatised haphazardly. For example, factories and the engineering departments that designed what these factories made were sold separately.
Over time, this had a deleterious effect on quality. Big companies that inherited export contracts with China, India and the Middle East made profits on older designs and legacy parts but did little to upgrade.
The end of generous Soviet military budgets, too, caused assembly lines to creak to a halt at tank and airplane factories.
And many engineers have emigrated, leaving a work force that is near retirement.