The Old Dependables: Russian Weapons in 21st Century Regional Conflicts

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Written and produced by SF Team: J.Hawk, Daniel Deiss, Edwin Watson

It would seem that one of the first rules of early 21st century regional warfare is “Bring Lots of Russian Weapons”. Starting with small arms like the AK assault rifle family, the PKM general purpose machine-gun, and naturally the RPG-7 whose reputation is such that it entered common English-language use as “rocket-propelled grenade”, and ending with the T-55 and T-72 tanks, the BMP-1 and -2 infantry fighting vehicles, and the dreaded Mi-24 “Hind” family of attack helicopters, these weapons are practically a staple of these wars and there is no prospect of that changing any time soon. While Russia is hardly the world’s biggest arms manufacturer, and these classes of weapons are manufactured in many other countries, there is not a single US, British, French or German weapon that has reached the iconic status of the aforementioned Russian types. This is a remarkable state of affairs, since 100 years ago, in other words in 1920, Russia was not known as the global arms trendsetter that it is today.  Indeed it is now the benchmark against which all others are compared.

The “Soviet school” of arms design and manufacture, which is still unsurpassed today, began its existence during the Five-Year Plans of the 1930s. These represented a crash program to industrialize and arm the Soviet state against the imminent threat of Nazi aggression arising from the German quest for more Lebensraum, the blueprint for which had been clearly spelled out in Hitler’s Mein Kampf, which had been published as early as 1925. The goal at the time was to design weapons, often on the basis of foreign examples, that would satisfy a tough set of criteria. First and foremost, the weapons had to be effective and competitive against whatever the adversaries would bring to the battlefield. Second, they had to be soldier-proof, in the sense of being rugged, reliable, and easily mastered by hastily mobilized reservists or even by the civilians that would be needed to flesh out the wartime Red Army. Third, they had to function well in every terrain and climate of the vast territory of the USSR, including in the tundra, desert, swamps, and of course every infantryman’s ubiquitous friend—mud. Four, they were to be readily manufactured using relatively simple techniques, inexpensive materials, by a semi-skilled labor force, and remain operational even when operating at the end of a very tenuous logistical tether during prolonged, sustained warfare.

The record of the Great Patriotic War shows how successful Soviet engineers were in achieving these objectives, setting the stage for several decades of continued incremental and occasionally revolutionary progress in military technology. No matter how sophisticated the weapon, these four sets of criteria continued to inform Cold War era design priorities.

Fast-forwarding into the early 21st century, it turns out MENA regional conflicts are fought in the sort of conditions for which the 1930s Soviet engineers were preparing. Harsh environmental and climate conditions, tenuous logistics, hastily trained troops, absence of infrastructure, long-lasting conflicts—all of that is present in abundance in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Libya, but also in Afghanistan and even Ukraine.

In contrast, Western weapon systems are at their best when the situation is exactly the opposite: professional armies, fighting short wars, surrounded with ample infrastructure and receiving massive logistical support, ideally in not overly uncomfortable weather and terrain. In other words, US and European weapons are at their best when they are used in relatively short wars fought on the well paved over and densely populated European continent. When these conditions are met, Western weapons actually do outperform their Russian equivalents. When they are not, the performance gap closes and is even reversed, particularly when armored vehicles and helicopters are incapacitated due to lack of necessary maintenance and spare parts. Remarkably, this is not even a recent phenomenon. Napoleon Bonaparte’s military acumen was at its highest when his armies were operating on the network of Roman roads, ideally in agriculture-intensive provinces where his soldiers could “live off the land”. Once that built-in logistical support ended and Napoleon found himself operating in the austere conditions of Spain, eastern Europe, and ultimately Russia, his army found itself out of its element. Napoleonic cavalry horses were as unacclimated to the harsh conditions of that early 19th century Eastern Front as German motorized units a century and a half later. Or NATO forces today.

The unsuitability of Western weapons for lengthy wars in austere conditions was made plain by the phenomenon of the FOB, or forward operating base, that has become the bane of existence of NATO armies and the subject of countless memes. US military personnel have even coined the term “fobbit” to describe those who spent their entire deployments in Iraq or Afghanistan on FOBs, without ever venturing “outside the wire”. NATO forces’ logistical requirements were so enormous that their mission quickly became “sustainment” and “force protection”, due to the need to protect the supply convoys feeding the FOBs. So many troops were tied down on these missions that the number of troops available for actual operations was only a small fraction of the forces that at one time numbered over 100,000 troops.

Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states quickly learned the same lesson during their disastrous campaign in Yemen. Saudi M1 Abrams tanks were theoretically more than a match for anything the Houthis put in the field, not that it made any difference because the fuel requirements of the 1,500 hp gas turbine operating in a hot and dusty environment were such that they proved the Saudis’ Achilles Heel. Time and again, rapid Saudi advances into Houthi territory first petered out and then had to retreat once the supply columns following the armored units were ambushed and destroyed. There is considerable photo and video evidence of Saudi tanks falling into Houthi hands because they banally ran out of fuel. Iraq’s own experience with the M1 was hardly more impressive, with the country eventually opting for supplies of T-90S tanks from Russia.

In contrast, various Libyan factions, the Houthi rebels, and of course the Syrian Arab Army have all managed to keep their T-55 and T-72 tanks operational for years on end, in difficult conditions and even before the large-scale Russian involvement in Syria. Russia’s own operations in Syria have not degenerated into an exercise in sustaining and protecting bases. With only about 5,000 personnel in all of Syria as of early 2020, or half of the US and NATO contingent at the Bagram airbase in Kabul, Afghanistan, alone, Russian forces were able to accomplish a wide range of combat and support operations, in collaboration with Syrian and other allied forces, against tenacious foes far better equipped than the Taliban ever was and enjoying extensive Western financial and military support. While the Russian assistance mission was an eye-opener in many regards, in others it was a continuation of the long-standing Russian military culture of fighting prolonged conflicts in austere conditions.

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