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Op-Ed: Russian military power through the Defense Intelligence Agency’s eyes

(Russian Ministry of Defense)

All opinion articles are the opinion of the author and not necessarily of American Military News.

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This week, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) released “Russia Military Power,” a report that gives an unclassified look at the state of the Russian military today. The 116-page report is a throwback to the height of the Cold War when the Department of Defense issued annual editions of “Soviet Military Power Though a bit hawkish in its prediction for the expected growth and capabilities of the new, modern Russian armed forces, the report is a welcome analysis of where Russia is headed with its military.

Back in 1981, then Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger asked the DIA to prepare an unclassified publication that would lay out the known threats to the U.S. and its NATO allies. “Soviet Military Power” was born and during the next nine years, the printing presses churned out hundreds of thousands of copies that were distributed throughout the government. The more folks who read the publication, the more folks who became further convinced that the threat from the Soviet Union was real and would not get in the way of Reagan’s military buildup. Unlike the most recent report, the early 1980s was often illustrated with artwork depicting the heinous Soviet Union at its most terrifying, and full of menace. One of the most enduring images has a pair of Mi-24 Hinds swooping low over a forest armed not with rockets and missiles, but with tanks filled with chemical weapons. Clouds form behind the helicopters as they spray the agent across wide swaths of the countryside. If that didn’t scare Congress into voting for a larger military, probably nothing was going to.  


Without a doubt that is a purpose of the current report, as well. In fact, DIA announced that “Russia Military Today” is just the first of five reports on “no fail” missions that also include China, North Korea, Iran and transnational terrorism. Lt. Gen Vincent Stewart, DIA director, described this report, as well as the future issues, this way: “These products are intended to foster a dialogue between U.S. leaders, the national security community, partner nations and the public about the challenges we face in the 21st Century.”  

The publication of this report is quite significant, however. After years of trying to reset the U.S.-Russian relationship after the fall of the Soviet Union, especially in the face of the current standoff in Syria, the Pentagon is once again not afraid to point a finger and identify who it sees a threat and why. While the Russian military is nowhere near the size of the Soviet Union’s, it is still a nation that possesses 1,765 nuclear warheads – and for anyone, that is a concern. The report states that since the fall of the USSR, Russia has had to rely on its nuclear arsenal “to deter aggression, resulting in its stated willingness for first-use of nuclear weapons. Russia has been building its conventional force capability along with modernizing its nuclear forces to create a more balanced military.”

(Russian Ministry of Defense)

Economic issues have slowed the desired growth of the Russian military and its race to modernity. Yet this setback has not stopped Russia from intervening in Syria, where it has showcased its latest technology in the form of aircraft and missiles while directly countering U.S. goals there. Combine that with what the report calls a “deep and abiding distrust of U.S efforts to promote democracy around the world… the Kremlin is convinced the United States is laying the groundwork for regime change in Russia…,” and there is good reason for a report like this.

Each part of the Russian military is covered in the report, and each section points to a military that is moving forward with its technology and reorganization. Russia will continue to be a leader in what is becoming a “multipolar” world, and its military will be the leading instrument in that pursuit. Despite relying on many weapons platforms that date back to the USSR, the report states, “The Russian military today is on the rise — not as the same Soviet force that face the West in the Cold War, dependent on large units with heavy equipment, but as a smaller, more mobile, balanced force rapidly becoming capable of conducting the full range of modern warfare.”

It is too early to tell if the assessments put forth in Russia Military Today will be validated by future Russian military capability. Yet the significance of the report cannot be fully underestimated as simple Pentagon propaganda. The threats are real, and although not as significant as they were when the USSR was at its height, Russia and its military need to be taken seriously.

Gary Wetzel is an experienced military aviation photographer and writer. He is the author of two books on A-10 combat operations in Afghanistan and a U.S. Navy veteran, having served aboard fast-attack submarines as a sonar technician.