Russia after its Syrian adventure, China’s seaborne ambitions and the Nordic defence business hots up.
After six months of bombing, in March Russian president Vladimir Putin gave the surprise order to bring Russian forces home from Syria, where they had been fighting in support of Bashar al-Assad. The Russian campaign had many goals, from providing the air power necessary for Assad to recapture territory from the rebels to asserting Russia’s role as a diplomatic and military power to rival the US.
It also proved an opportunity for the Kremlin to demonstrate a modernised, technologically capable force. Nightly news broadcasts on state-run airwaves led with reports of ship-launched cruise missiles and precision-guided bombs dropped from Russia’s latest-model Sukhoi fighter jets. (How precise those munitions actually were is a matter of dispute: Amnesty International and other advocacy groups have put the civilian toll of the Russian campaign in the hundreds, if not thousands.) While remaining opaque on many questions, the Russian defence ministry has updated its communications strategy, holding regular media briefings and carrying out a particularly spirited online campaign in order to tout its Syria mission.
The transformation of the Russian armed forces began in 2008 after a short war with Georgia that Russia technically won but that nonetheless revealed the outmoded military’s many inefficiencies. A more streamlined and capable force made an appearance in Crimea in 2014, where Russian special forces were instrumental in laying the groundwork for the territory’s annexation. Last year professional soldiers outnumbered conscripts for the first time – a sign that the Russian army had indeed moved beyond the huge and lumbering Soviet-era force it remained for many years.
Early results from a €355bn modernisation programme delivered a new generation of armaments to match a reorganised and more specialised force structure. Yet Syria was largely an air campaign and did not require Moscow to take or hold territory itself; the real test may not be on the battlefield but regarding the budget, as low oil prices have already forced the Kremlin to cut planned defence spending by 5 per cent.
Hesco, the UK manufacturer of easily transported and erected skeleton boxes that turn into effective barricades when filled with sand and rubble (which it bills as “earth-filled barrier technology”), found huge success during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The company has now been purchased by Belgian security-perimeter provider Betafence, whose enthusiasm for the acquisition reflects a world in which demand for physical barriers is only growing. By one estimate the global market for homeland security and emergency management – including Hesco-style barriers – will be worth €482bn by 2018.
China’s incremental claims over the South and East China seas are about to get a further boost in the form of a floating dock: a huge, self-propelled maintenance facility equipped to support warships and submarines at sea. The vessel, called Huachan No 1, is larger than any similar ship previously deployed by China and recently completed its maiden voyage.
“It would probably assist with longer deployments of larger assets around the artificial islands,” says Alessio Patalano, senior lecturer in war studies at King’s College London, referring to China’s recently constructed islands in the South China Sea. “But I don’t think that’s its primary task. Chinese operations outside the South and East China seas, on the other hand, would be greatly assisted by this type of platform.”
A gift from China has many Bahamians eyeing their own government with suspicion. Earlier this year China sent the island nation €1m for the purchase of anti-riot gear – including automatic grenade-launchers, smoke grenades and more than 10,000 tear-gas canisters – and new instruments for the Royal Bahamas Defence Force’s (rbdf) youth marching band.
The Grand Bahama Human Rights Association has asked for an explanation from the government of prime minister Perry Christie. Neither Christie nor the Chinese embassy in Nassau has so far revealed why China wants to assist in enhancing the rbdf’s capabilities.
In March Norway’s international technology group (and key defence contractor) Kongsberg acquired a 49.9 per cent share in Patria, Finland’s biggest producer of weapons systems and equipment. Patria also owns a 50 per cent share of Norwegian ammunition manufacturer Nammo.
What is the intention behind the acquisition of Patria?
It will help us stand stronger in the ongoing consolidation of the defence industry. With Kongsberg, Nammo and Patria, we are creating a Nordic defence partnership.
What do the companies bring to the partnership?
Kongsberg’s biggest market is in the US and Canada, whereas Patria’s is in the Baltics and eastern Europe. It is a good combination.
What are the implications for Norway’s national defences?
It has been a long-term ambition of the Nordic countries to work more closely together on defence acquisitions and maintenance. As part of the Nordic Defence Cooperation agreements this is an important move towards meeting expectations.
What are the current challenges facing the defence industry?
In Europe each country has its own national-defence supplier – any country wants control of its defences. But strong co-operation has not happened so costs have spiralled. Countries should work together more and industry has to make this possible. That is what our acquisition of Patria aims to do.