Resurrecting Late-Soviet Military Technology

14 May 2015



Recent news items have related that a couple of staples of late Soviet-era military technology may be returned to production and deployment, specifically the Mil Mi-14 (cf. Re-commissioned? Soviet nuke-capable sub-killing copter comeback slated) and the Tu-160 “Blackjack” bomber (cf. ‘Blackjack’ comeback: Russia to renew production of its most powerful strategic bomber).

Mil Mi-14

In many earlier posts I have noted the surprisingly vigorous afterlife of Soviet-era military technology, as the Moskit P-270 “sunburn” anti-ship missile and the VA-111 Shkval supercavitating torpedo remain formidable weapons systems. Much of this Soviet-era weaponry can be retro-fitted with contemporary electronics, turning previously “dumb” weapons into “smart” weapons, i.e., precision guided munitions, making them even more formidable, and, as such, they can fulfill combat roles they could not previously fulfill, and in some cases they can fulfill combat roles that did not previously exist.

The T-14 Armata (industrial designation 'Object 148') is a Russian advanced next generation main battle tank based on the Armata Universal Combat Platform. It was first seen in public (initially with its turret and cannon shrouded) during rehearsals for the 2015 Moscow Victory Day Parade. (from Wikipedia)

The T-14 Armata (industrial designation ‘Object 148’) is a Russian advanced next generation main battle tank based on the Armata Universal Combat Platform. It was first seen in public (initially with its turret and cannon shrouded) during rehearsals for the 2015 Moscow Victory Day Parade. (from Wikipedia)

Russia has, in addition, continued to produce new weapons systems that are the evolutionary descendents of Soviet-era systems, as with the latest air defense system, the S-400 Triumf, recently in the news because Russia has sold or considered selling these systems to China, India, Iran, and Syria, and the newest Russian tank, the T-14 Armata, which was in the news because one stalled in the rehearsal for the May Day parade in Moscow. The resurrection of Soviet-era weapons systems is distinct from these weapons systems in continual production and regularly updated with improvements in technology.

The S-400 Triumf (Russian: C-400 «Триумф»; NATO reporting name: SA-21 Growler), previously known as S-300PMU-3, is a new generation anti-aircraft weapon system developed by Russia's Almaz Central Design Bureau as an upgrade of the S-300 family. (from Wikipedia)

The S-400 Triumf (Russian: C-400 «Триумф»; NATO reporting name: SA-21 Growler), previously known as S-300PMU-3, is a new generation anti-aircraft weapon system developed by Russia’s Almaz Central Design Bureau as an upgrade of the S-300 family. (from Wikipedia)

There is an obvious narrative to account for the return to service of Soviet-era military technology, and that obvious narrative is that Vladimir Putin wants to return Russia to the international stature it enjoyed while the Soviet Union was perceived as a superpower equal to the US. For reasons of national prestige and Russian national pride, Russia is dusting off old weapons systems and at times even returning to former methods of military patrols dating to the Cold War. The most obvious examples of this have been Russian long-range bomber patrols using Tupolev Tu-95 “Bear” bombers, which, with their turboprop engines, are virtually flying antiques. I discussed a particularly striking example of Russian air patrols in Sweden and Finland in NATO?

Russian made P-270 Moskit, AKA 'Sunburn' supersonic anti-ship missile.

Russian made P-270 Moskit, AKA ‘Sunburn’ supersonic anti-ship missile.

There is also an obvious economic rationale for the resurrection of Soviet-era weapons systems, which is that the design and testing of major weapons systems has become so expensive that many of these weapons systems have entered a “death spiral,” such that even if a nation-state could afford the R&D costs, the finished product would be too expensive to produce in sufficient numbers to be combat effective. Updating known weapons platforms can be a much more cost effective way to approach this problem than starting from scratch. Enormous savings can be realized on the testing, training, and deployment phases of a weapons system.

The VA-111 Shkval (Russian: шквал) torpedo and its descendants are supercavitating torpedoes developed by the Soviet Union. They are capable of speeds in excess of 200 knots (370 km/h). (from Wikipedia)

The VA-111 Shkval (fRussian: шквал) torpedo and its descendants are supercavitating torpedoes developed by the Soviet Union. They are capable of speeds in excess of 200 knots (370 km/h). (from Wikipedia)

There is, however, much more going on here than any attempt on the part of Putin to compensate for perceived personal or national failures. The world has changed in its political structure since the post-WWII settlement that shaped the second half of the twentieth century and the immediate aftermath of the Cold War. The political (and technological) changes have changed how wars are fought. I have mentioned in many posts that the paradigm of peer-to-peer conventional engagements between mass conscript armies has effectively fallen out of contemporary history. The Cold War was based on this paradigm, with NATO and the Warsaw Pact roughly equally matched, although sufficiently different in detail that no one could predict with confidence the outcome of a conventional war in Europe, and whether or how a conventional war in Europe would escalate into a nuclear war (and, again, whether a nuclear war in Europe would escalate into globally mutually assured destruction).

Vladimir Putin: compensating for Russian geopolitical weakness?

Vladimir Putin: compensating for Russian geopolitical weakness?

In a post some time ago I discussed what I called the devolution of warfare (followed by Constraint and Devolution and Addendum on Constraint and Devolution). In that post I wrote:

“…war under the nuclear umbrella involved a devolution of war from total and absolute war, including the use of nuclear weapons, to conventional war, using all means short of nuclear weapons, and exercising restraint with these means in order to avoid triggering a nuclear strike. Next, war under the ‘no fly’ umbrella of imposed air superiority involved a devolution of war from everything that has happened since Douhet’s The Command of the Air was published, to a state of combat prior to Douhet’s deadly vision. War under the ‘no fly’ umbrella means war limited to ground combat, almost as though the age of air power had never been known.”

Having just finished listening to the book Level Zero Heroes: The Story of U.S. Marine Special Operations in Bala Murghab, Afghanistan I realized that expectations of warfighting in the twenty-first century have driven the development of rules of engagement (ROE) to the point of negating the overwhelming air superiority of the most technologically advanced nation-states. When each individual decision to drop a bomb in combat is run through a political infrastructure that includes individuals with mixed motives, combat is driven down to a level at which the only actions that can be approved are those taken by individual soldiers with the weapons they carry. This has the effect of giving plausible deniability to a nation-state, as individual soldiers are considered expendable and can be prosecuted if they make decisions in combat that fail to conform with the ideological justifications given for a military engagement.

A remarkable weapon -- if you can get permission to use it.

A remarkable weapon — if you can get permission to use it.

Strategic weapons systems have always been primarily political. The devolution of warfare has meant that the most sophisticated weapons systems are being politicized from the top down, which has the practical consequence that even a superpower like the US engages primarily only in close-quarters small arms skirmishes. The big ticket, expensive, and technologically sophisticated weapons systems are frequently used only for a “show of force” (SOF) in order to intimidate, using the sound of a jet’s engines to obtain a temporary advantage in a combat environment in which a political decision has been made not to make full use of the air assets available.

Devolution of war

There are several possible explanations for the devolution of warfare, and I have discussed some of them previously. One obvious explanation is that war has become too destructive, but human beings love war so much they must find a way of limiting the destructiveness of war if they are going to continue enjoying it, so the devolution of war serves the purposes of limiting war to a survivable level. I have made this argument several times, so I think that it has some merit, but that it is not the whole story. (I recently made a variation of this argument in Existential Threat Narratives.)

Aztec flower battle

Aztec flower battle

There is another approach to this problem that has just occurred to me today as I was formulating the above thoughts, and this is that the history of warfare has exhibited a pattern of settling into a culturally determined routine (such as I described in Civilization and War as Social Technologies in regard to the ritualized violence of the Aztec “Flower Battle”, Samurai swordsmanship, and the Mandan Sundance) which is then interrupted when a geographically isolated region comes into contact with a peer or near-peer civilization, with which it has no established customs of limiting violence to a survivable level. The example that comes to mind is the nearly continual warfare in the Italian peninsula among mercenary armies fighting for individual city-states in the late medieval period, which was, however, not very destructive. At this time, Italy was mostly cut off from Europe by the Alps, but this changed when the French marched into Italy under Charles VIII with 25,000 men in 1494-1498, which brought a new and much less forgiving form of war to the Italian peninsula.

French troops under Charles VIII entering Florence, 17 November 1494, by Francesco Granacci.

French troops under Charles VIII entering Florence, 17 November 1494, by Francesco Granacci.

Human civilization is now effectively global, and that means that no nation-state is truly isolated from any other nation-state. We are not only aware of the activities of our neighbors, we are often (painfully) aware of events occurring in distant parts of the world, which are not so distant any more. No one today could say of any quarter of the world what Neville Chamberlain said of Czechslovakia, “How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas-masks here because of a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing.”

Warfare has become a commons, and if we want to preserve this commons, we must manage it. Hence the world entire may evolve toward global ritualized, symbolic violence of the sort previously only seen in geographically isolated regions. There are no more geographically isolated regions, and with the planet as a single region warfare may tend to evolve in the direction in which it previously evolved in widely separated societies when all enemies were known and conflict was primarily a matter of prestige requirements. Globalization may now be expressed through the unification of warfare under a common set of customs intended to limit and control violence.

There is a sense in which this is a profoundly sad realization, for what it says about human nature, but there is another sense in which this is a hopeful realization, as it points to a human nature that implicitly recognizes an existential threat and modifies its behavior accordingly. If all violence could be transformed into something ritualized, symbolic, and sustainable, we would have a chance to devote our economy and industry toward the long term survivability of our species and our planet with some confidence that destructiveness will be limited from here on out.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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3 Responses to “Resurrecting Late-Soviet Military Technology”

  1. xcalibur said

    World peace and a lack of aggression and violence are wishful thinking. Just like there’s a sex drive, there’s also an aggression drive (adding intellectual curiosity, this lines up with Plato’s tripartite theory of soul, with the rational/spirited/desiring elements). The aggression drive can be seen in many things, like fights, violent crime, the popularity of contact sports, riots, and the willingness of young men to slaughter each other in wars. The capacity for aggression and violence seems to be innate in humans. Given that, the best we can do is channel it into controlled outlets.

    It may be possible to suppress violence and aggression, but I don’t think it’s worthwhile. As destructive as aggression is, it serves an evolutionary purpose to help us survive in a chaotic universe. Besides, if people were sedated and chemically altered to be docile and incapable of aggression, the potential outcomes of this are too dangerous. I could easily foresee a dystopia of slavery and genocide resulting from a population that is mentally incapable of resistance or armed uprising.

    Assuming that it’s too dangerous to modify human nature on a mass scale, that means we’re stuck with all this evolutionary baggage. Aggression, tribalism, passions, intuitive rather than rigorous thought, and so on. It may be possible to bring about subtle, indirect changes through technology, institutions and circumstances. However, we haven’t changed drastically over history so the potential of this is limited, and besides, such changes wouldn’t be predictable or centrally controlled.

    Overall, the raw stuff of human nature is as it is, and that can’t be changed (at least not without creating a situation like that book The Giver I read back in 8th grade). The key is to work with human nature, with all its flaws, and make the best out of it. A better society would have highly refined ritualized violence as an alternative to all-consuming wars or the destabilizing impact of terrorism.

    • geopolicraticus said

      Thanks for your comment.

      I have several times quoted a favorite passage from Freud about aggression:

      “…men are not gentle creatures who want to be loved, and who at the most can defend themselves if they are attack; they are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness.”

      The whole passage, which I have quoted at length elsewhere, is remarkable. Since Freud’s time much work has been done on aggression (and related concepts like territoriality) in evolutionary psychology.

      If one employs a psychodynamic model, any attempt to suppress aggression and violence will likely result in neurotic symptoms and the manifestation of the aggression in oblique ways. Suppression of any instinctual drive over an entire society begets a neurotic society (of which our history is rich in examples).

      So far, we’re in pretty close agreement. (But an interesting question arises: are Plato’s tripartite elements of the soul instinctual drives after the manner of Freud? Can we have a Platonic Freudianism, or a Freudian Platonism?) However, I don’t share your assumption that it is too dangerous to modify human nature on a mass scale. If our civilization does not succumb to existential risk, the spacefaring diaspora of human beings and that portion of the biosphere we bring along with us will undergo an adaptive radiation on a cosmological scale, and this will involve changes in human nature over the long term. Our evolutionary baggage is a contingency of history subject to further contingency, i.e., subject to further evolution. Technology can accelerate evolution, but I don’t think that this change is different in kind (though I am open to counter-arguments on this point). Recently in Astrobiology is island biogeography writ large I argued that technology is biology pursued by other means.

      In the case of technological interventions to alter human nature, which would not necessarily occur over the long term, but could be implemented rapidly once the technology is available, there will be a strong selective effect. In other words, if this technology proves to be advantageous for differential survival and reproduction it will prove to be effective, and will spread rapidly, like the spread of successful genes in a population. If, on the other hand, it proves harmful, it will be selected against.

      I recently saw the film version of The Giver. This story stands in a long line dystopian futurism, with works like Brave New World. There are all kinds of dystopian scenarios that can be worked up around changes to human nature, though I would argue that these are as much about “indirect changes through technology, institutions and circumstances,” and, of course, dystopias can be created from either from biological or institutional changes. It would be an interesting thought experiment to craft a dystopia that was purely the result of changes to human nature and contrast this to a dystopia that was purely the result of institutional changes. And the same for utopias, mutatis mutandis.

      Best wishes,


  2. xcalibur said

    I agree that space colonization (which must eventually happen in my opinion) will cause long term natural change and evolution. I don’t see this as a bad thing, in fact it’s a major positive.

    I also agree that there would be a selective effect in technological alterations to humans (cyborgs, etc.) and that this be unlikely to lead to dystopia. However, there are dangers – for example, the anime series Ghost in the Shell conjures up a scenario where people are modified by cybernetic technology, and a hacker known as the Laughing Man exploits this to cause chaos.

    What concerns me the most is short term, major institutional or biological changes, especially when mandated by a central authority. Forceful mass changes wrought by a small number of decision-makers is very dangerous and could have very disruptive effects, including the creation of dystopia. (for example, while the Great Leap Forward didn’t cause dystopia, it did create famine, violence and death).

    And so, trying to create ideal institutions rapidly at the point of a bayonet, or forcing everyone to take happy pills, present far more dangers than opportunities. With that said, long term changes and/or changes guided by selection effect are not so dangerous and would probably be helpful.

    It would be interesting to compare institutional and biological changes. In creating a new society, they would both take different forms and effects, and they would probably also both be present and interact with each other. But, that’s outside my scope.

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