Center for Strategic Communication

Robot subs, sea-based missile interceptors and new intercontinental ballistic missiles. The Kremlin is promising a major upgrade to its arsenal. And if even some of those promises are met, it could cause a serious shift in the global balance of power.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has been one of the strongest boosters of an upgraded military, but it’s not going to be easy to keep up with the U.S., and now China. Beijing announced last month it’s building a string of drone bases along its coastline, and is starting to show off the prelude to a proper navy. There are also lingering questions whether Beijing has tested a powerful new ICBM.

“We should make a breakthrough in the modernization of our defense industry, as it was done in the 1930s,” Putin said last week. The president — who is attempted to lead a flock of endangered Siberian cranes to safety this week by hang-glider — regularly makes statements along these lines. But the boosterism also guarantees if the U.S. has a certain kind of weapon or machine, or wants it, then Moscow assures the world that it’s working on it too.

Case in point is Russia’s new drone submarine. On Friday, we learned Russia is developing an unmanned underwater drone built along the lines of a 1980s-era mini-submarine called the Project 865 Piranha. Only two Piranhas were ever built, but Russia hopes to apply the lessons to a drone sub. “The U.S. Navy is moving along similar lines,” said Anatoly Shlemov, defense contracts chief at the Kremlin-owned United Shipbuilding Corporation. That would be an ostensible reference to the Pentagon’s Actuv unmanned sub hunter, which Darpa hopes will give the Navy the means to quietly follow and track diesel subs for months at a time, and do so relatively cheaply.

More pronounced is Russia’s missile program. This week, Strategic Missile Forces commander Col. Gen. Sergei Karakayev told RIA Novosti a new liquid-fueled ballistic missile will be ready by 2018, replacing Russia’s old solid-fueled R-36M2 Voyevoda missile (or SS-18 Satan, as known by NATO), which dates back to the Cold War. In recent years, Russia has also developed a solid-fueled ICBM called the Topol-M. But a new liquid-fueled missile has one big advantage over both, namely that it may give Moscow — in six years — the means to defeat a NATO missile shield in Europe.

One reason: Liquid-fueled rockets are really heavy, and have the weight and power to lift multiple warheads at once. And when there’s multiple warheads screaming at your defenses — and all it takes is one to slip through for you to lose a city — that’s enough to question the feasibility of an expensive shield in the first place. (Speaking of missile shields, Russia is also looking at building new missile interceptors similar to the U.S.’s ship-based Aegis system.)

Now the likelihood of catching up to par with the U.S. anytime soon is going to be nearly impossible. When Putin talks about modernizing the defense industry, he’s responding to a growing crisis that Russia hasn’t yet been able to manage.

According to an analysis by RusBusinessNews, in five years Russia’s defense industry may risk “shutting down manufacturing of missiles and tanks because of the increasing shortage of human resources.” There’s a severe shortage of engineers, for one, compounded by a shrinking population, and young people choosing to leave industrial work for law careers and service-sector jobs. Industrial wages are low and equipment is growing obsolete, and companies are slow to develop a “corporate culture” with services like daycare and clubs to attract fresh workers.

Chinese People’s Liberation Army missile launchers. Photo: CCTV

But if Moscow is desperately trying to stop a downward spiral, Beijing is managing a steady rise, and has the time and resources to experiment with the Chinese army of tomorrow. The navy is a good place to see it. “So long as China’s strategic surroundings remained hospitable and the United States was content guaranteeing safe passage through international waters and skies, the [People’s Liberation Army Navy] could pursue leisurely ‘fleet experimentation,” wrote Naval War College professors Toshi Yoshihara and Jim Holmes on Tuesday.

That means starting out by building lots of different types of ships, but not producing any particular class en masse. Then, after studying what works best, the next step is to incorporate those designs into modern warships. The professors point in particular to the Type 052D destroyer, which China looks to now be setting down at the rate of two per year. That also means augmenting those ships with drones, and expanding the presence of Chinese robots to protect the Pacific coast. Late last month, China’s military announced that it is planning to build 11 new drone bases along the coast for snooping over the ocean. China is also planning to launch eight ocean-monitoring satellites into orbit by 2020. Two of those are radar satellites, while two others watch ocean currents and four are “for observing sea color,” according to the Xinhua News Agency.

What’s scarier are China’s missiles. They’d be the main weapon in the event of a war the U.S. Navy. But China’s missile programs — and especially nuclear programs — are super-secretive. In August, China reportedly tested a new submarine-launched ballistic missile. And late last month, China was reported to have tested a new intercontinental ballistic missile in July called the Dongfeng-41, which has a purported capability to deliver multiple nuclear warheads. But there are lingering questions and conflicting reporting over what China tested, exactly.

Gregory Kulacki, a China analyst at the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, doubted the reports that China tested an ICBM. “China’s nuclear posture is shrouded in secrecy and is difficult to discern, even by Chinese academic and military experts,” he wrote. If China really did test an ICBM, it could be a sign Beijing may be looking at building better ways to deliver its nukes. If not, then it’s a sign China may be comfortable with sticking to upgrading its conventional forces, for now.

The reports of an ICBM test, which first appeared in the U.S. press, were later repeated by Chinese state television, but that doesn’t necessarily imply government approval, either. China’s defense ministry did confirm that the military conducted recent missile tests, but did not elaborate on their nature.

Which goes to demonstrate the difference in how Russia and China sees themselves on the international stage. Had Russia tested a new intercontinental ballistic missile, Moscow-based news agencies would be the first ones to tell the world. In China, it’s a lot more secretive. But Russia also has a lot more to prove.