In major conflicts practitioners and historians might argue whether, as Napoleon, Hitler and Stalin believed, morale is more critical to success in warfare than materiel. But in minor wars that have to be confined in time and extent the quality of military technology could matter more. The Russians traditionally relied on the weight of numbers (massed infantry and mechanised formations) to overwhelm the enemy. Their strategic missile forces have done the same – look at the new super-heavy Sarmat ICBM, for example: once again, the weight of payload compensates for inaccuracy of delivery. Perhaps the mobile SS-20 IRBM deployed in the late 1970s was the exception to the rule as an accurate counter-force missile that could target air bases and airstrips with a relatively low error probable.
Yet for local warfare this approach is simply not an option. Here technology matters more; though, as the hopeless US experience in Afghanistan demonstrates, it is no substitute for astute diplomacy shaped by stark realism. Local warfare is, however, what Russia now does as the prestige projection of Putin’s power, yet the quality of its diplomacy lags well behind its technological capabilities. “The Chinese are laughing at the Russian Federation’s Technological Bankruptcy” is the sensational title of an article in Nezavisimaya gazeta on 17 April, written by the deputy head of its economic department.
Drones have been used since the new millenium. The Americans deployed an MQ-1 Predator against an Al-Qaida leader in 2002. Since then the evolution of the drone has moved apace as both a weapon and a reconnaisance vehicle. Anastasiya Bashkatova points out that the only drones that the Russians produce are copies of outdated Israeli weapons. Yet the Russians are the world’s second largest suppliers of armaments worldwide. Having failed in this crucial sphere of warfare technology, Russia has turned to China to construct drones. The one-time tutor now has to go cap in hand to the one-time student for help. The days when the Chinese were given weapons technology by the Russians has long since gone. The roles have been reversed.