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The Lessons of the Kursk

August 20, 2000|Lawrence J. Korb | Lawrence J. Korb, director of military studies at the Council on Foreign Affairs, was assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan Administration

NEW YORK — Twenty years ago, the Soviet Union was a superpower with arguably the most potent military in the world. In 1980, Ronald Reagan captured the presidency in no small amount by promising to close the window of vulnerability that existed between the armed forces of the U.S. and Soviet Union. But the past two decades have not been kind to the Russian state and its military.

In the 1980s, the Soviet Union's command economy prevented the military from taking advantage of the revolution in weapon technology. Soviet generals and admirals were dumbfounded at the weapons wizardry the United States displayed in the Persian Gulf War.

If anything, the last decade has been worse. The end of the Cold War led to thedisintegration of the Soviet Union and the collapse of the Russian economy. Russian military spending dropped by roughly 90%, and the country's prestige and influence plummeted accordingly. Unfortunately, the same downward adjustment did not occur in the minds of Russia's political and military leaders.

The tragedy unfolding at the bottom of the Barents Sea is a metaphor for the decline of Russian military power and influence since the end of the Cold War. But if the 118 brave sailors aboard the submarine Kursk are not to die in vain, Russia's leaders must draw at least three lessons from this terrible incident.

First, for the foreseeable future, Russia cannot afford to be a military superpower and thus should not keep trying to act like one. The U.S. military needs substantially more money for pay, training and equipment even though the defense budget is more than $300 billion and close to its average during the Cold War. Depending on the exchange rate used, the Russian defense budget ranges from $5 billion to $50 billion a year to support a military force comparable in size to that of the U.S. The Russian submarine force is as large as that of the United States. Consequently, its equipment is not properly maintained, its crews do not receive the requisite training and its personnel are so poorly paid, less than $100 a month for officers, that they frequently desert or moonlight to make ends meet. Some sailors in the Northern Fleet steal batteries from submarines and sell them on the black market because they are not paid for months at a time.

Because of budget cuts, the Russian fleet has been forced to scrap its deep-dive rescue vehicles that may have saved the crew of the Kursk. Nor was the Kursk equipped with pressurized escape capsules that could have lifted the crew to safety. The Russians cannot even afford to place stabilizing equipment on its other rescue vessels. As a result, they have been unable to deal with stormy weather in the area of the damaged sub.

Second, the Russians are now part of the international community, and they should begin to act like it. If the U.S. could enlist Australians to help fight fires in the Western part of this country, surely the Russians could have asked much earlier for help in rescuing the sunken submarine. The Kursk became disabled early in the morning of Aug. 12, yet the Russians refused to ask for help for more than four days, losing precious time in dealing with the crisis. Because of that delay, the British rescue vessel could not arrive on the scene until one week after the Kursk hit the seabed.

As a member of the international community, the Russians no longer need to conduct extensive exercises designed to repel an attack on its northern borders by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The exercise in which the Kursk was participating involved the Northern Fleet confronting an unnamed foreign aggressor that strongly resembled NATO.

In addition, the Russians should move quickly to take Washington up on its offer of providing the physical dimensions for escape hatches that would be compatible with U.S. Deep Submerged Rescue Vehicles. Most of the world's maritime nations have already taken us up on the offer.

The third important lesson is that it is time for the Russians to abandon conscription. Its system of forcing young men to serve in the military has broken down. Escaping the draft in Russia today is far easier than it was in the U.S. in the 1960s. Those unfortunate enough not to escape are not motivated to master the skills required to work on a nuclear submarine. Even when the U.S. had a draft, it would not accept conscripts in the Navy, let alone on a nuclear submarine. A smaller professional force would be much more in keeping with Russia's current military status.

The Kursk was the pride of the Northern Fleet. Launched five years ago, it was a symbol of Russia's determination to maintain parity with the U.S. But the events of the last two decades demonstrate that Russia cannot compete with the United States. Like Britain and France, it must adjust to the end of its empire. The longer Russia tries to maintain the fiction that it is a great power, the more brave Russian military people will die needlessly. *

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