July 20, 2020
Russian Armed Forces: Military Modernization and Reforms
Since Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, Russia has
technological challenges, it remains unclear whether Russia
undertaken extensive efforts to modernize and upgrade its
will be able to fully produce and deploy these systems.
armed forces. In the years ahead, these efforts are expected
to continue focusing on modernizing military equipment, as
well as improving combat readiness and coordination
Russia’s official authorized personnel strength is 1,013,628.
across service branches. Command and control, electronic
The Russian Ministry of Defense in late 2019 stated the
warfare, recruitment of professional soldiers, force structure
Armed Forces were 95% staffed, while experts estimate the
changes, and logistics also are likely to be priorities for
actual number is lower. Two major goals of the reforms
development. Some Members of Congress have expressed
started in 2008 were a reduction in personnel strength and a
interest in understanding the extent of Russia’s military
focus on professionalization. Opposition from the military
modernization and reform efforts as they assess the nature
and recruiting realities meant those goals were scaled back.
of Russian threats to the United States and its allies and
Subsequently, Russia has relied on a hybrid mix of draftees
partners in Europe and other regions.
on one-year conscription terms and volunteers under term
contracts. Professional (contract) soldiers are prioritized for
State Armament Plan Priorities
front-line combat and elite units. The Navy and Aerospace
Russia’s military modernization priorities are detailed in
Forces have higher levels of professional personnel due to
10-year plans called State Armament Plans (GPVs). GPV
technically demanding missions. Additionally, although the
2020, covering the years 2011-2020, focused on funding the
Russian Armed Forces have experienced some success in
Navy and Aerospace forces. The plan also prioritized
recruiting professional soldiers, poor retention rates mean
increasing the military’s professionalization and
that staffing goals remain unmet. The goal of 425,000
readiness—including through recruitment campaigns and
professional soldiers by 2017 went unfulfilled; the goal has
snap military exercises.
been revised to 476,000 by 2025. Additionally, efforts to
create a Western-style noncommissioned officer (NCO)
The latest plan, GPV 2027 (covering 2018-2027),
corps have been abandoned, with junior officers filling
prioritizes Russia’s ground forces and improving its rapid
NCO positions and professional soldiers instead focusing
reaction forces, including elite Spetsnaz, Naval Infantry,
on fulfilling technically complex roles.
and Airborne and Air Assault Troops (VDV). In particular,
strengthening mobility and command and control remains a
Figure 1. Russian Armed Forces Personnel
focus, as well as implementing lessons learned from
Russian interventions in Ukraine and Syria—such as the
importance of reconnaissance and heavy artillery.
Equipment procurement likely will continue to stress
heavily upgraded legacy systems. The ability of Russia’s
defense industry to produce new systems is limited, and
financial constraints likely will push procurement decisions
toward cheaper but proven designs.
Despite low oil prices and a negative economic forecast,
IISS Military Balance 2020, Jane’s Sentinel Security
Russia likely will prioritize funding GPV 2027 ($330
billion in 2018 dollars), which has more limited scope and
aims than GPV 2020. Economic pressured may curtail
Rapid Reaction Forces Reforms
ambitions for GPV 2027.
VDV, Spetsnaz, and Naval Infantry forces form the core of
elite, rapid reaction forces and are some of the
most capable and modernized units in Russia’s military.
A central priority for GPV 2027 is the development of long-
They play a crucial role in Russia’s power projection
range and precision-strike capabilities. This includes sea
capabilities, with many units having gained operational
and air-launched cruise missiles (3M-54 Kalibr, Kh-
experience in Ukraine and Syria. Rapid reaction forces are a
101/102), land-based short and intermediate-range missiles
focus for GPV 2027, under which they are to receive
(9K720 Iskander-M, 9M729 Novator), air-launched
increased funding for professional troops and equipment.
ballistic missiles (Kh-47M2 Khinzhal), and hypersonic
The VDV and Naval Infantry are expected to gain
missiles (3M-22 Zircon, Avangard). Russia has invested
capabilities, such as tank battalions and army air support,
resources into developing long-range precision-strike
which would increase their ability to operate independently.
capabilities in large part because it has long viewed the U.S.
Additionally, since 2015 the VDV has sought to expand its
advantage in this area as a serious threat. Due to cost and
personnel numbers and is likely to do so in the near future.
Russian Armed Forces: Military Modernization and Reforms
Ground Forces Reforms
Design issues and production flaws have delayed the
Russian ground forces have undergone significant changes
introduction of new, fifth-generation fighters (Su-57) and
in staffing, organization, and equipment in recent years and
bombers (PAK-DA). Additionally, VKS continues to suffer
are set to receive relatively high levels of funding under
from a lack of transport, early warning, and air-to-air
GPV 2027. Reforms started in 2008 sought to transition the
refueling planes. The separation from Ukrainian aircraft
ground forces away from the Soviet legacy of partially
producers since 2014 has negatively affected Russia’s
staffed divisions into fully staffed brigades that could
ability to modernize its transport fleet, with domestic
operate independently. These modular brigades were
producer Ilyushin struggling to fulfill orders. Russia has
believed to be better suited to counterinsurgency conflicts
relied upon upgrading Soviet-era bombers. Significant
in Russia’s immediate region. It was also seen as important
effort also has been put into developing new air-launched
to reduce the size of what many considered to be a bloated
cruise, air-to-air, and air-to-ground missiles. Russia
officer corps. Resistance from the military and lessons
struggles to produce precision-guided bombs.
learned in Ukraine, however, convinced the military
leadership to transition some units back into a
The Air Defense Forces (VKS) also have introduced new
division/regiment structure, which is better suited to large-
advanced air-defense systems, including new long-range
scale conventional conflict; the result is now a mixture of
and ballistic air defense (S-400), medium-range (S-350),
divisions and brigades. These units are further organized
and short-range, point-defense systems (Pantsir-S1/M).
into combined arms armies , along with brigade/division
Russia also is testing a new generation S-500 air-defense
level artillery, air-defense, missile/rocket, support, and
system, which is to complement current systems. Observers
generally consider Russia’s air-defense systems to be some
of the world’s most capable.
Increasing mobility and firepower are priorities for Russia’s
ground forces. Russia’s experience in the conflicts in
Ukraine and Syria underscored the importance of artillery
The Russian Navy’s modernization efforts have led to an
and tank units, as well as the importance of integrating
increase in the number of ships and in certain capabilities.
reconnaissance and intelligence capabilities. Modernized
During GPV 2020, the Russian Navy introduced a new
equipment, such as tanks, has centered on heavily upgraded
frigate class (Project 22350), smaller corvette class (Project
versions of Soviet-era weaponry that are cheaper to produce
20380/85, Project 22800), and numerous smaller coastal
and maintain. Additionally, the ground forces are being
and patrol craft (Project 21630/1, Project 22160).
equipped with updated missile artillery, mobile artillery,
Additionally, new ballistic missile submarines (Project
and heavy caliber artillery and mortar systems. At the same
955/A) and attack submarines (Project 885/M, Project
time, Russia is experimenting with certifying company or
636.6) are being introduced into service. Russian
platoon size units within each division as air-mobile
shipbuilding has struggled to fill production gaps created by
capable and increasing the size of reconnaissance units.
the severing of relations with Ukrainian shipbuilders and to
maintain production rates of new ships and s ubmarines.
Increasing the share of professional soldiers remains a key
Another priority is the development of the Zircon
modernization goal for the ground forces. Most combat
hypersonic anti-ship missile to complement the Kalibr
units are composed of professional soldiers, which are
cruise missile for use on both ships and submarines.
crucial to improving both combat readiness and
effectiveness. Conscripts, however, still make up a large
With less funding under GPV 2027, the Russian Navy plans
percentage of the overall force, despite being excluded from
to prioritize increasing the number of new designs in the
combat by Russian law. Additionally, scheduled and snap
fleet, as well as modernizing certain older, Soviet-era
exercises are increasingly important for improving the
designs (including submarines) to extend their service life.
readiness of the Russian ground forces, testing new
Design projects for larger ships have been put on hold, with
equipment and tactics, and improving coordination with
the Navy centering its power projection capabilities on the
other service branches.
new classes of frigates and sea-worthy corvettes. Russia’s
sole aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, is undergoing
Aerospace Forces Reforms
repairs, but accidents and complications have delayed its
Since 2008, the Aerospace Forces (VKS) have introduced
return. Russia’s expeditionary capabilities also were
new fighters, helicopters, and upgraded long-range
hampered by the 2015 canceled sale of two French-built
bombers. Most new systems are based on Soviet-era
Mistral-class amphibious ships due to sanctions over
designs but are upgraded to include the latest technology.
Russia’s occupation of Ukraine’s Crimea region.
The first stage of the modernization effort focused on
designing and accepting these new systems for service—
For additional background and resources, see CRS In Focus
including new multi-role and attack helicopters. Some
IF11589, Russian Armed Forces: Capabilities
, by Andrew
procurement decisions appear to be aimed at boosting
export markets and sustaining domestic defense sector
interests. In the future, VKS is expected to strive to increase
Andrew S. Bowen
, Analyst in Russian and European
the share of modern fighters and fighter/bombers and to
continue struggling to produce new fifth-generation
Russian Armed Forces: Military Modernization and Reforms
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