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Red Square bash masks military ills: analysts

by Staff Writers
Moscow (AFP) May 5, 2008
Moscow won't have seen a traffic jam like it for a generation: intercontinental missiles on mammoth 16-wheel trucks, tanks, and rocket systems threading through the capital to Friday's Red Square parade.

Victory Day is an annual affair, but this will be the first time since the 1991 Soviet collapse that the big guns -- even weapons of mass destruction like the Topol-M nuclear missile -- join the parade.

For Dmitry Medvedev, set to be inaugurated president Wednesday, and for Vladimir Putin, who is switching to prime minister on Thursday, the World War II anniversary bash has a simple message: Russia's military is back.

Yet some analysts believe the show of strength will be as hollow as the Topol missile tubes, which for obvious reasons won't contain their deadly warheads.

"It's just a PR exercise," said Moscow-based military analyst Alexander Golts. "The armed forces are being used for propaganda purposes by the Kremlin."

No one denies that there have been serious advances since the 1990s, when the remnants of the once mighty Soviet armed forces were defeated by a few thousand lightly armed Chechen independence fighters.

In the last eight years Putin has crushed the Chechens, resumed long-range nuclear bomber patrols, and used the obedient state media to inculcate Soviet-style patriotism.

But for all that -- and for all the fanfare on Red Square this week -- dire and systemic problems are eating away at Russia's pretensions to great power status, analysts say.

As the respected Federation of American Scientists wrote in a blunt assessment 10 days ago: "Russia's conventional military capability is so limited that it is virtually irrelevant."

Even with a 16 percent increase in military spending this year, Russia's defence budget amounts to 956 billion rubles, or 40 billion dollars -- less than a tenth of the 515 billion dollar budget under consideration in the US Congress.

The human face of that vast spending gap is the grimy conscript teenager who carries most of the burden in Russia's million-man military and who can appear a world away from volunteer US troops and their Robocop-like gear.

According to Russia's deputy chief of staff, Vasily Smirnov, every third newly recruited conscript is physically unfit to serve, while one in two is barely educated.

Creating a professional army might seem to be the obvious answer, but Russia has tried and failed repeatedly since the end of the Soviet Union -- mostly, analysts say, because of resistance from a bloated and corrupt top brass.

Technically, too, the armed forces are struggling to keep up to 21st century standards.

"The technical gap with the United States is widening. We are pressing to have as many missiles and warheads and so on, when the problem is elsewhere. The revolution in the military sector over recent years has been in information technology, reconnaissance," Golts said. "We still see things from an outmoded viewpoint."

Despite the high-profile resumption of strategic bomber flights, many air force pilots sorely lack flight time, analysts say.

An embarrassing crash of a Russian Su-27 fighter on Lithuanian territory in 2005 was "mostly due to a lack of practice," according to a recent report by Russia's National Strategy Institute.

The mid-air explosion in March of an Su-25 attack plane over far eastern Russia was originally attributed to an on-board weapon malfunction, but turned out to have been caused most probably by friendly fire from an accompanying Su-25.

As for the navy, the Federation of American Scientists said in another report last week that Russian nuclear-powered submarines carried out just three patrols last year, compared to 54 by US submarines.

A much-hyped naval expedition into the Mediterranean at the start of this year, the first in eight years, involved a grand total of four battleships from the rusting and antiquated fleet.

Vitaly Shlylkov, who advises the defence ministry, acknowledges huge difficulties, but says that a corner had been turned under Putin, thanks to a flood of revenues from energy sales.

"These are all growth difficulties and they will be dealt with, because the money is there," he told AFP. "Compared to the 1990s, it's like night and day."

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CIA chief says China's rapid military buildup troubling
Washington (AFP) April 30, 2008
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