Russia's booming arms sales 'a con'

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Russia's arms industry, which once bled the civilian economy dry and supplied weaponry to rogue regimes around the world, is in such desperate straits that it may not be able to deliver on its contracts.

Russia's arms industry, which once bled the civilian economy dry and supplied weaponry to rogue regimes around the world, is in such desperate straits that it may not be able to deliver on its contracts.

On paper, Russian arms exports look stronger than they have in almost a decade. Last year Moscow signed $3.5bn (£2.5bn) in military export contracts, giving it fourth place in the global arms bazaar after the US, Britain and France.

Russia's death merchants have made headlines lately by offering to sell advanced Awacs planes to China, tanks and submarines to Iran, helicopter gunships to Turkey and a carrier-borne fighter wing to India. But the Kremlin's armoury is almost bare, say experts, and the modern weapons systems being touted to potential customers may not exist.

An example is the Beriev A-50E, an Awacs-type early-warning and electronic counter-measures aircraft which Russia is trying to sell to its traditional customer, China. News of this set off alarm bells in Washington, which fears the plane could upset the military balance between China and Taiwan. Russia has deployed earlier versions of the plane since 1980. But the existing aircraft's electronics and radars are considered far inferior to US or Israeli-produced systems, and the Chinese have demanded a drastic upgrade. Moscow insists it can match the US plane in five years, but needs huge sums in development money up front.

Also in trouble is a $1.3bn deal to sell 40 Sukhoi Su-30MKI fighter planes to India, under negotiation for several years. Experts say Russia has so far managed to deliver only a few modified copies of an older aircraft, the Su-27, in place of the promised Su-30s. "India has paid Russia several hundred million dollars to help develop the Su-30MKI, but the new superfighter continues to be a mirage," said Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent Moscow-based defence expert. "It would seem that we are taking the Indians for a ride."

Two months ago Moscow gave a Soviet-era aircraft carrier, the Admiral Gorshkov, to India on condition that the Indians pay $650m to refit the vessel. But the Soviet navy scrapped its three sister ships years ago, after the Yak-38 vertical take-off fighters they were designed to carry failed to work properly. The Russian military has promised to adapt an existing front-line fighter, the MiG-29, to meet India's needs, but experts say the Gorshkov's deck is too short.

"Russia doesn't even have a facility for testing carrier-borne planes any more," said Vitaly Shlyikov, a former deputy defence minister, now an independent military expert.

"These are just desperate marketing ploys. Most of our sales pitches these days are little more than a confidence trick, because Russia lacks the capacity to produce many of the armaments it is promising. Our military, as well as our arms exporters, have been living for 10 years on stockpiles amassed for World War Three. These are now exhausted.

"There was recently a huge fanfare in the press because we managed to build a single Tupolev Tu-160 supersonic bomber, the first in over 10 years. But it was assembled from parts dragged out of old warehouses. That's no achievement."

A decade ago, some 1,700 Soviet defence plants were churning out enough guns, warships, tanks, aircraft and ordinance of all types to equip a superpower's vast armed forces, plus those of dozens of allies and clients. Today, barely 10 per cent of those factories are still functioning.

In the Soviet era a quarter of the economy was devoted to the military, but last year Russia spent the equivalent of $5bn : hardly enough to feed its giant conscript army, much less acquire new weaponry. "The forces have kept going by upgrading existing weapons, and won't be in a position to buy new ones in any quantity until at least 2005," said Valentin Rudenko, an expert with the independent military news agency AVN. "Money from foreign sources is all that keeps some design bureaux and production lines alive, but it's not enough."

Last month President Vladimir Putin merged two key agencies and put a former KGB colleague, Mikhail Dmitriev, in charge of all future Russian arms sales. Analysts say the plan is to centralise control and concentrate income from weapons exports, in the hope of salvaging something from Russia's disintegrating military-industrial machine.