Military Embedded Systems

In a war with Russia


February 26, 2016

Ray Alderman

VITA Technologies

EVOLUTION OF WARFARE Blog. In my previous posts I've discussed the different generations of warfare and where the U.S. military falls today and how it clearly is still the most powerful military. That said Russia has been flexing its muscle in Eastern Europe the last couple years and I thought it would be good to do an analysis of their military capability and see which generation of warfare their capability falls under. We will start by looking at the basic stats.

Russia has 147 million people, less than half of the U.S. population of 320 million. The life expectancy of a Russian is 71 years: 77 for women and a very low 64 for men, since they drink three bottles of vodka per week on average. About 25 percent of Russian males die before the age of 55. U.S. male life expectancy is 76, which probably says something about drinking beer. Until recently, more Russians were dying than being born. With Russian men dying-off early, they don’t have a growing labor or military pool. While sporadic heavy alcohol consumption would suggest an increase in birth rates, the Russians seem to drink so much vodka that everybody just goes to sleep after the party.

Russia is the largest country in the world by land area at over 17 million square kilometers, 1.8 times the size of the U.S. at 9.1 million square kilometers. One third of the country is iced over most of the year, especially upper Siberia. Russia has nearly twice the coastline of the U.S., but much of that resides in the frigid zone which severely limits the number of navigable ports for their navy. Their Europe-facing ports (Arkhangelsk and St Petersburg) are ice-blocked for part of the year, which is why they annexed Crimea to gain the warm water port at Sebastopol, and why they support Assad in Syria, to maintain access to the port of Tartus. Without access to those two ports, the Russian surface navy would have few ships at sea in fall and winter.

Russia’s GDP is about $2 trillion, compared to the U.S. at $17 trillion. And Russia’s economy declined by nearly 4 percent in 2015, due to sanctions and the 70 percent decline in oil and gas prices. The Ruble has fallen in value by more than 50 percent recently. Like Saudi Arabia, Russia is a petro-economy. You need a healthy economy to fight a war, and Russia doesn’t have one.

Russia has about 770,000 active duty military personnel, compared to the U.S. at 1.3 million. They have a conscripted military: every non-exempt male must serve in their armed forces for twelve months. Without a substantial vodka ration, I doubt those soldiers and sailors are very happy. Their military budget was $90 billion in 2015, and the U.S. was over $600 billion.

When you look at the Russian navy, they have about 270 warships, compared to the U.S. at about 300. They have only one aircraft carrier, and it stays in the Black Sea most of the time. The U.S. has ten carriers, operating all over the world. Russia has 70 submarines against the U.S. at 72, according to Their navy is aging and antiquated, considering they inherited most of those platforms from the Soviet Navy. When Russia opened their naval base at Tartus, they had to buy six decommissioned old cargo ships from Turkey and other countries. They painted Russian names on those rusted hulks, and used them to transport supplies to Tartus, and to their new airbase at Latakia. The Turks thought they were buying the old cargo ships for scrap steel.

As for military aircraft, Russia has about 3,500 total planes, versus the U.S. with 13,800. Of those, they have 1,200 tactical aircraft while the U.S. has 3,300. They have 181 long range bombers and the U.S. has 157, according to sources. But again, the reliability of these Russian planes is questionable. A third of the Russian aircraft involved in Syria are grounded due to equipment failures. Five of their warplanes crashed in the last half of 2015 due to malfunctions. Russia had to construct a forward airbase in Latakia, Syria for their bombing missions against the rebels trying to overthrow Assad. US missions in Syria and Iraq launch from bases in neighboring countries and our carriers.

Russia has more than 15,000 tanks compared to the U.S. with 8,800. And those Russian tanks are also questionable from a reliability standpoint. Some sources say they have 22,000 tanks, but many of them date from the Soviet era. The bigger issue in this discussion is the training and morale of their conscripted soldiers and their officers. Their rigid top-down authoritative structure suggests that if their command and control communications are disrupted, those in the field are hesitant to take the initiative and will just wait for orders from Moscow.

Russia has some special operations forces, the Spetsnaz units numbering about 5,000 to 10,000 troops. And they have a very broad system of effective air defense missiles, to protect the homeland from attack. They spend much of their budget on defensive weapons rather than offensive weapons. And, they may have some advanced electronic warfare jammers, if you believe the reports. One of their SU-24 bombers allegedly disabled all the air defense systems on the USS Donald Cook, a state-of-the-art U.S. Navy Aegis destroyer, in the Black Sea back in April 2014.

As you can see from this anecdotal data, Russia’s military is organized and equipped primarily for 3rd generation ground warfare. They have no significant reach with their navy or their air force, except locally against the Baltic states, the Middle East, and Europe. That’s why the game plan at NATO for many years was to stop a Russian tank invasion of Germany at the Fulda Gap.

Ultimately, it’s Russia’s nuclear weapons that allowed them to take over Crimea, invade Ukraine, and threaten Eastern Europe. Russia has about 8,000 nuclear warheads (the U.S. has about 7,300 not counting those held by our closest European allies). Again, we must question the operational readiness and reliability of those Russian nukes. Many of them are archeological remnants of the Soviet Union.

According to recent war game simulations by the Rand Corp., the Russians could roll tanks into NATO members Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania and overtake them in 36 hours with impunity. So, don’t expect the same results America had in 2003 in Iraq with our fifth generation warfare (5GW) weapons, in a conventional battle with the Russians (see While NATO didn’t do anything significant when the Russians invaded and annexed Crimea, or when they sent troops and weapons into Ukraine, there is a developing plan to place U.S. and European tank divisions in the three vulnerable NATO countries to deter Putin's antics in far Eastern Europe.

What could motivate Russia to invade the Baltic states? When you look at a map, you will see Kaliningrad (previously Konigsberg) wedged between Poland and Lithuania. This is part of Russia, according to the WWII agreements, but disconnected from the mainland. It is only accessible to Russia by air or sea. To connect Kaliningrad to Russian territory, they would have to invade Latvia and Lithuania. This is now called the Suwalki Gap. Kaliningrad is an important Atlantic seaport for the Russian navy.

Russia is not a world power and Putin doesn’t want a war with the U.S. He would rather just continue his aggressive expansion into the Middle East and far Eastern Europe, and become a regional power. But the Russian economy and military are already strained by the dramatic fall in oil prices and their involvement in Crimea, Ukraine, and Syria (respectively). If we just set-up defenses in the threatened NATO states and wait, Russia will probably go bankrupt again like they did in 1991, undergo regime change, and we’ll start the game over. For more on this, read

The web is packed with information and articles on Russia’s military power, if you want to do more reading. In the next installment, we’ll take a look at China.