The first point is that although the Russian government, flush with enormous annual surpluses from being the world's largest combined oil and gas exporter at a time when world demand and prices are higher than ever, has gone on a binge of ordering new ICBMs and fighter planes and many other kinds of defense equipment. The Russian military-industrial sector, therefore, is booming. But its capacity is also stretched to the limit.
The huge resources of plants in the Ukraine, especially in the Donbass industrial region of eastern Ukraine, were lost with the collapse of communism at the end of 1991.
Close cooperation with Moscow continued for many years. But with pro-Western Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko in power in Kiev and Ukraine even looking to buy Canadian CANDU nuclear reactors to break its ancient energy dependence on Russia, those resources are no longer available.
Also, as United Press International's Martin Walker reported this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin's ambitious rearmament and modernization program is putting major strains on the Russian military-industrial complex.
"Senior Russian defense officials are warning publicly that the rearmament program faces collapse, as wages and other costs soar. The cost of the new T-909 tanks has risen by 25 percent in just three months, and the Defense Ministry has stopped announcing the actual production of tanks, missiles and warplanes," Walker wrote.
"The targets for increasing armaments have not been met, even when spending for the program consistently increases," Deputy Chairman Vladislav Putilin told the Military-Industrial Commission in April, according to Walker's report.
Walker also noted that mass production of the long-planned Sukhoi Su-34 fighter-bomber, a crucial component of Russia's planned conventional ground forces and air force revitalization, will not start before the beginning of 2009 at the very earliest.
But the problem is broader than that. Walker noted that First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov acknowledged to the last meeting of the Military-Industrial Commission: "There is a deficit of over 1,500 materials needed in defense. That constitutes a threat to the state's defense capability and economic security."
Walker concluded, "The fact is that the Russian military-industrial complex may have impressive technological skills, but it lacks the skilled manpower, the resource base, the cost control and management, and the advanced engineering capabilities that the rearmament program requires."
The problems that Walker pointed out could be reduced over the next five to 10 years. Under Putin's leadership, Russia has certainly recovered to an extraordinary degree from the impoverished, resource-strapped state of impotence and crisis it suffered under President Boris Yeltsin's disastrous eight years in power from the start of 1992 to the end of 1999.
Putin has made Russia an energy superpower, and that means the Kremlin can afford to pay for the expansion of its resource base, the training of new skilled workers and engineers, and the importation of more modern and efficient management and accounting techniques that its military-industrial sector so desperately needs.
However, regenerating a decaying military-industrial base through command decisions made by a centralized state bureaucracy is not easy, and in other countries has often failed. Britain after the loss of its main empire in India, South Asia and the Middle East in the late 1940s and 1950s faced exactly the same kind of problems that Russia under Putin faces today. Its policymakers were confident they could either ignore them and triumph through the exercise of political will, or make up the shortfalls. They were wrong on both counts.
Major U.S. defense contractors have delivered brilliantly the Patriot anti-ballistic missile system. But crash development of the Ground-based Mid-course Interceptors being deployed in Alaska and California has gone far more slowly and problematically, in large part, as these columns have previously documented, because policymakers in the first Bush administration threw old and successful engineering protocols and procedures employed by the Department of Defense and major contractors out the window. The S-400, as another cutting-edge ABM system, may face similar problems.
The S-400 is a technological marvel and could significantly tilt the strategic balance between the United States and Russia when it is finally fully deployed. But the structural problems in Russian industry that have delayed that process are profoundly important, too. And they are not going away soon.