IISS Military Balance Report: Food for Thought and Conclusions

The Military Balance 2015, the latest assessment of the military capabilities of most countries in the world, published by the influential London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), is of special interest. After all, it was prepared during the sharp escalation of international tensions over the Ukraine crisis.

Russia’s “aggressive actions” has prompted the West to carefully analyze Moscow’s military capabilities. Naturally, The Military Balance 2015 is part of this trend. Overall, almost one-tenth of the 500-page assessment is devoted to the Russian Armed Forces and Russian military organizational development, as well as Moscow’s actions in 2014. Furthermore, the Russian Armed Forces merited a special extensive addendum, featuring a map of the deployment of Russia’s main units and combined units. 

The Military Balance 2015 is a high-quality, comprehensive survey of the world’s armed forces, offering a brief but wide-ranging analysis of the main aspects and trends of their development in the context of national economies, politics, and general trends of military development. The sections related to integrated military and military-economic statistics are especially significant and striking. Of course, an expert will spot a lot of inaccuracies in the minutiae, figures and data on the status of the armed forces of particular states. However, in such a comprehensive work prepared by a broad range of authors within a relatively short timeframe, such points of contention and inaccuracies seem inevitable.

The report analyzes the main regional and local conflicts in the world (apart from Ukraine, it gives considerable attention to the rise of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, as well as to Afghanistan) and provides an overview of the most significant arms and military equipment procurement programs in countries across the world. By tradition, certain cutting-edge military technologies are analyzed – this particular issue looks at directed-energy systems and US antisatellite weapons.

The integrated data on military spending across the world, presented, among other things, in the form of infographics (although their assessment methodology in some cases raises doubts) are noteworthy. According to The Military Balance 2015, the top five defense budgets in 2014 included the US ($581 billion), China ($129.4 billion), Saudi Arabia ($80.8 billion), Russia ($70 billion, or 2.5 trillion rubles), and the UK ($61.8 billion). However, in 2015, factoring in the declining rate of the ruble, the recalculation of Russia’s planned spending (3.3 trillion rubles) at the current ruble-to-dollar exchange rate could make Russia drop from fourth to seventh place, below the UK and France, and almost down to the same level as Japan and India.

Regarding the “Russian sections” as a whole, the description of the Russian Armed Forces and its operations is characterized by an effort to maintain objectivity and cover all the main aspects of military organizational development. Fully in keeping with current Western perceptions, an entire section is devoted to the “hybrid warfare” that Russia allegedly conducted in the course of the Crimean and Ukrainian events of 2014 and which is regarded as Moscow’s basic modus operandi for the future.

The Military Balance 2015 Editor's Introduction describes “hybrid warfare” as “the use of military and non-military tools in an integrated campaign designed to achieve surprise, seize the initiative and gain psychological as well as physical advantages utilizing diplomatic means; sophisticated and rapid information, electronic and cyber operations; covert and occasionally overt military and intelligence action; and economic pressure.”

It argues that “hybrid warfare” is a serious challenge to NATO, as it falls in the “grey zone” of the alliance’s commitments and can lead to political division among its members.

The authors note the significant progress made in the quality and capabilities of the Russian Armed Forces today, compared to the Five Day War against Georgia in August 2008. This especially applies to “elite” forces – Spetsnaz (Special Forces) and the Airborne Assault Forces. At the same time, according to the same authors, it would be wrong to automatically project the efficiency of these forces onto the bulk of Russia’s Ground Forces, where progress has been far slower.

They note the chronic problem of the Russian Armed Forces in recent years, specifically manpower shortages and general manpower acquisition problems, which especially affect general-purpose forces. Staffing levels in 2014 are put at 82 percent of T/O strength, which translates into a shortage of about 200,000 men.

New initiatives regarding reserve formations, related to the establishment of reserve commands in all the four main military districts in late 2013, are closely analyzed.

On Russia’s military organizational development financing, The Military Balance 2015 provides a detailed description of the country’s defense spending, which has grown rapidly. However, there are serious doubts that Russia will be able to meet its declared military spending targets, let alone exceed them, given the country’s economic problems.

This goes doubly for the ambitious State Arms Procurement Program for 2011-2020. The authors point out that the program’s first five-year period (2011-2015) accounts for only one-third of spending, with the rest to come in the second five-year period, starting in 2016, which will require spending levels that the Russian economy is unlikely to be able to sustain. According to the publication, a significant portion of arms procurements planned for this period will be either frozen or postponed, especially considering how the Russian defense industry has struggled even to maintain existing production levels. It notes the difficulties that have already emerged in the development of a state arms procurement program for 2016-2025, primarily due to the problems related to long-term economic forecasting under present conditions.

Regarding the data provided by The Military Balance 2015 on the status, numerical strength and positioning of the Russian Armed Forces, apparently they are quite accurate, based on a thorough analysis of Russian and Western sources in the public domain. At the same time, the information about the amount of Russian arms and military equipment cited in the assessment is just a rough estimate. The attached map of the deployment areas of Russia’s main units and combined units is a little outdated, does not reflect the formation of new combined units (for example, the 55th Mountain Brigade in Tuva and the 80th Arctic Brigade in Alakkurti, not to mention the forces in Crimea) and often uses old designations.

Overall, The Military Balance 2015 is a valuable, comprehensive reference guide with a plethora of facts and data. It is also of unquestionable value for the study of Russian military organizational development and the Russian Armed Forces (at least according to the Western interpretation). It should be mentioned here that there are still no comparable publications on the subject available in Russian in the public domain.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.