Russia has one of the largest and most powerful militaries in the world. The Armed Forces of the Russian Federation or the Russian Armed Forces has around a million active-duty personnel and at least two million reserve personnel on top of its air force and tank force, a navy fleet that includes a fleet of ballistic missiles submarines, and a stockpile of nuclear weapons.
Explaining the Military Strength of Russia: Key Notes on the Capabilities of the Russian Armed Forces
Facts on Military Expenditures and Budget Allocation
National security is one of the top priorities of Russia. This is evident from its budget allocation aimed at advancing further the capabilities of the Russian Armed Forces. The 2021 Fact Sheet from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute showed that the military expenditure of the Russian government totaled USD 61.7 billion in 2020.
The total military expenditures of Russia in 2020 represented 4.1 percent of its gross domestic product, and it also represented 3.1 percent of global military spending. These figures ranked Russia as the fourth-highest when it comes to military expenditures, following India with USD 72.9 billion and preceding the United Kingdom with USD 59.2 billion.
Note that the same 2021 Fact Sheet showed that there is a 26 percent change in the military spending of Russia from 2011 to 2020. Another dataset from Trading Economics indicated that it has been spending at least USD 60 billion since 2011 except when it amped its spending in 2015 and 2016 with USD 74.6 billion and USD 80 billion respectively.
But where exactly does Russia spends its military budget? It is interesting to note that downsizing was one of the key elements of the 2008 Russian Military Reform. Part of the plan was to reduce the number of its military personnel across different branches with special emphasis on ground forces, the air force, and its navy.
The goal of the military reform was to transform the Russian Armed Forces into a modern and deployable task force while taking into consideration budget constraints. The plan emerged as a response to the realizations from the 2008 Russo-Georgian War. Russia was victorious but the conflict made it clear that its military needed further reform.
A 2016 analysis by A. E. Fernandez-Osorio showed that the war with Georgia revealed the shortcomings of the Russian military equipment. Part of the 2008 Russian Military Reform was the 2010 State Armaments Program that aimed to equip the Russian Armed Forces with modern weapons and equipment for a 10-year period spanning from 2011 to 2020.
Military Technology and the Russian Defense Industry
Understanding the strength of the Russian Armed Forces also requires examining and understanding its capabilities relating to military technology and innovation. Both technological competencies and the capacity to innovate are critical determinants of how modern and advanced the military strength of a particular country is.
Note that Russia has its own defense industry, which has been considered as one of its critical infrastructures and a strategically important sector that has become the largest provider of employment in the country. The combined output of the United States and Russian Federation defense industries account for more than 50 percent of all major weapons export.
Russia has local shipbuilders that it has contracted to build navy ships that include modern-generation nuclear submarines and fast attack submarines. These shipyards are also capable of providing routine service maintenance and repairs on existing fleets. However, the country does not have the capability to build aircraft carriers due to constraints in resources.
The country also has the capabilities to manufacture its own aircraft. Vladimir Putin initiated the consolidation of aircraft producers in the country in 2005 under the United Aircraft Corporation, a Russian aerospace and defense corporation comprised of private and state-owned aircraft manufacturers, with joint ventures with foreign aircraft manufacturers.
Included in the product portfolio of the United Aircraft Corporation are various fighter aircraft such as the Sukhoi, Mikoyan, and Yakovlev series of jet fighters, carrier and auxiliary aircraft, and the more advanced supersonic combat aircraft such as the Tupolev series designed primarily for long-range travel and maritime strike bombing.
The local defense industry of Russia is also capable of researching and developing a range of military hardware and weapons to include small arms and light weapons such as handguns, rifles, sub-machine and machine guns, hand grenades, grenade and rocket launchers, and landmines, among others, as well as heavy artilleries and missiles.
Russia has also deployed advanced weaponry. The country has a range of hypersonic missiles that can travel fast while remaining undetected by most radar and interception systems. The 3M22 Zircon anti-ship hypersonic cruise missile has a range of 1000 kilometers. It also has hypersonic glide vehicles such as the strategic Avangard weapon.
Composition and Organization of the Russian Armed Forces
The Russian Armed Forces dived into three branches: the Russian Ground Forcers or the Russian Army, the Russian Navy, and the Russian Aerospace Forces. There are also two independent arms of service: the Strategic Rocket Forces that controls land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles and the Airborne Troops that carries light and airborne infantries.
Regarding its size, note that the military composition of Russia is the fifth-largest in the world in terms of active-service personnel. The Armed Forces also has about two million reserve personnel on top of its close-to-a-million active-service personnel. Note that it is mandatory for male citizens aged between 18 and 27 to be drafted for a year of military service.
It is also important to highlight the fact that Russia has been regarded as the second-most powerful military in the world after the United States due to different factors. The number of its personnel is one. The in-house defense industry is another. But the most deciding factor is its stockpile of nuclear weapons, which is considered the largest in the world.
However, apart from this stockpile, the Russian Armed Forces is one of the three militaries that operate strategic bombers. The other two are the United States and China. It also operates the second-largest fleet of ballistic missile submarines, the largest tank force, and the second-most powerful air force and navy in the world.
A ball-park figure estimates the number of tanks to be around 12500 and armored vehicles to be around 30000. It also has around 14000 artillery guns that can be transported using land-based vehicles or to other continents using naval vessels and aircraft. The country also operates around 600 naval vessels and around 70 submarines.
In his report for the Forbes, Sebastian Roblin noted that the modern Russian Aerospace Forces has been reduced in terms of fleet size over the years as part of the 2008 Russian Military Reform. However, despite this reduction, the air force has become more capable in terms of deployment time and flexibility in case of available missions and targets.
Nuclear Capabilities and Weapons of Mass Destruction
Nuclear capabilities are integral to global superpowers. Remember that its large stockpile of nuclear weapons is one of the defining strengths of the Russian military. The country owns more than half of the documented and reported 14000 nuclear weapons of the world. For comparison, the United States has reported nuclear weapons numbering to 5500.
A 2021 fact sheet published by the Arms Control Association with data from the Federation of American Scientists estimated that Russia has 4497 strategic nuclear warheads and another 1458 strategic deployed nuclear warheads on 527 intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and strategic bombers.
Several arms of service or branches have been identified and tasked to oversee the control and launch of these nuclear weapons. The Russian Strategic Rocket Forces controls land-based nuclear warheads while the Russian Navy oversees nuclear missiles in submarines and the Russian Aerospace Forces controls air-launched nuclear warheads.
Russia also has its own Institute for Nuclear Research that operates under the Russian Academy of Sciences. It is a scientific research center founded in 1970 and located at the heart of Moscow tasked to develop and initiate fundamental research activities in the field of atomic nucleus, elementary particle and cosmic ray physics, and neutrino astrophysics.
The Russian defense industry works with the Russian government and the Russian Armed Forces to develop military hardware and relevant technologies for nuclear weapon delivery. One of the technologies developed is the RS-28 SAMAT or the SATAN 2, which is a liquid-fueled, MIRV-equipped, super-heavy thermonuclear armed intercontinental ballistic missile.
Information obtained by foreign intelligence have also suggested that Russia has been developing a nuclear torpedo called the Status-6 Ocean Multipurpose System that is capable of deploying 100 megatons of energy and generating a tsunami wave of up to 500 meters tall while evading several anti-missile defense systems such as laser weapons and railguns.
On top of its nuclear arsenal, the military strength of Russia has also been defined by its arsenal of other weapons of mass destruction and non-nuclear weapons arsenal. For example, it has thermobaric weapons or vacuum bombs, including the infamous bomber-deployed Aviation Thermobaric Bomb of Increased Power or the “Father of All Bombs.”
The U.S. Department of State also asserts that Russia maintains an offensive biological and chemical weapons program. Note that the former Soviet Union operated the largest program for biological weaponry during the 1970s. The Russian government has been accused in using chemical weapons in the Syrian War despite being a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention.
Cyberwarfare Strategy of the Russian Armed Forces
Another testament to the strength of the Russian Armed Forces is its strategic use of digital technologies to develop and implement a cyberwarfare strategy. Because digital infrastructures have become part of the critical infrastructures of a country, cyberwarfare can be used to target the computer systems, power grids, and financial markets of a rival country.
Russia has been accused of launching numerous cyberwarfare tactics against its rivals. These include denial of service attacks, introduction of different types of malware, internet surveillance, hacking or hacker attacks, persecution of online dissidents, and dissemination of disinformation and political propaganda.
The Russia-Ukraine conflict is one of the notable examples of the cyberwarfare capability of the Russian Federation. Alleged series of cyberattacks have been launched to cripple strategic military targets of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. One example is the use of an Android malware that targeted the Rocket Forces and Artillery of the Ukrainian military.
A report by the United States government showed that Russia was behind a massive power outage in Ukraine in 2015 that left more than 200,000 Ukrainians without power. There was also an alleged attempt by pro-Russian hackers to disrupt the 2014 Ukrainian Presidential Election, specifically to alter vote tallies and delay the transmission of results.
Several other reports both by the American government, the NATO, and other researchers have noted that Russia has a program for targeting different facets of American society. These range from government offices and agencies, to critical industries and sectors such as the energy sector, as well as more specific businesses and the financial markets.
Another tool of the Russian cyberwarfare strategy is disinformation and the spread of pro-Russian and anti-West political propaganda. This specific communication strategy has different goals and objectives. Included are the creation of panic among target information consumers, maintaining a facade on the global stage, and disrupting the flow of quality information.
Summarizing the Military Strength of Russia. Understanding How Powerful the Russian Armed Forces in a Nutshell
Russia undeniably has one of the most powerful militaries in the world. Its military spending is one of the determinants discussed above. Of course, budget would not matter if it is not directed toward value-creating expenditures. But the Russian government has demonstrated the proper use of its military budget based on its current military capabilities.
Two of the notable factors that contribute to the strength of the Russian Armed Forces are its size and composition, as well as its large stockpile of nuclear weapons and the corresponding nuclear delivery capabilities. As mentioned, the Russian military has one of the largest active-service personnel, air force and navy fleets, and tank forces in the world.
The arsenal of nuclear weapons of Russia is also one of the best in the world. The country has a large stockpile of nuclear warheads that can be readily deployed in a wide range and accurate locations through various means: via land using static bases or movable military hardware, via air using hypersonic combat aircraft, and via sea using nuclear submarines.
Another factor that contributes to the military strength of Russia and its status as a military superpower is its local defense industry that is capable of developing and innovating new technologies related to hardware and equipment, as well as other auxiliary functions that can support the overall operation and requirements of the Russian Armed Forces.
Without a doubt, the Russian military is a force to reckon with. The strength of the Russian Armed Forces can be best characterized as a well-rounded and multi-faceted military that is considerably self-sufficient to a certain extent and can mount a defense in case of threats to its territories and sovereignty and offense in case of its political expeditions.
FURTHER READINGS AND REFERENCES
- Arms Control Association. 2022. “Nuclear Weapons: Who Has What at a Glance.” Arms Control Association. Available online
- Da Silva, D. L., Tian, N. and Marksteiner, A. 2021. “Trends in World Military Expenditure, 2020.” SIPRI Fact Sheet. Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Available via PDF
- Fernandez-Osorio, A. E. 2016. “2008 Russian Military Reform: An Adequate Response to Global Threats and Challenges of the Twenty-First Century.” Cient. Gen. José María Córdova. 14(17): 41-82. Available online
- Roblin, S. 2021. “Russia’s Modernized Air Force Is Smaller But More Capable—Here’s What It’s Procuring Next.” Forbes. Available online
- Stamm, S. and Sender, H. 2022. “Cyberattacks, Hacks and Misinformation: The Many Fronts of Russia’s Hybrid War in Ukraine.” The Wall Street Journal. Available online
- Trading Economics. 2022. “Russia Military Expenditure.” Trading Economics. Available online