Dangers Looming Ahead
No. 4 2015 October/December
Andrey Frolov

Expert of Russian International Affairs Council.

Potential Military-Technical Threats to Russia up to the 2030s-2040s

The well-known human needs graphically shown in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs should probably be revised to add one more – knowledge of the future. This is necessitated by both existential factors (which make religion eternal) and practical ones (knowledge of the future helps to get prepared for it in advance or turn it to one’s profit). The “new normal” has moved from purely theoretical discussions to political discourse at the top official level in Russia, reflecting not only the recognition of accelerating political and economic processes in the world, but also the understanding of their outcome in a span of twenty, thirty or even fifty years.   

Vladimir Putin noted the importance of these processes back in 2012 when he was prime minister. In his pre-election article on Russia’s defense and security, Putin wrote: “We need a response system for more than just current threats. We should learn to look ‘beyond the horizon,’ and assess threats thirty or even fifty years away from now. This is a serious objective which requires us to mobilize the resources of civilian and military science and use reliable algorithms for long-term forecasting.”

Clearly, the future cannot be foretold simply because there are too many variables and unexpected factors involved, which in recent years have generally been referred to as “the black swans.” However these are rather social and political factors (natural anomalies excluded) as well as technological achievements. But the latter require much time and large investments, which cannot go unnoticed by professional observers.

Identifying potential threats is much more important for Russia since it has to maintain military parity with the West and China, which are in a much better financial and economic position. The “cost of a mistake” in determining priorities and ways to respond to future threats can be quite high. Long-term military-technical forecasting becomes even more essential since the threat assessment conducted by the Russian Security Council covers a period of no more than twelve years, leaving much room for applied military-technical and military-political prognostication.

What are the main military and technological threats that may create the biggest risks for Russia in the 2030s-2040s? Some of them are mentioned in Vladimir Putin’s program. These include long-range high-precision munitions, space capabilities, information warfare (cyberspace), and – in a more distant future – the creation of weapons based on new physical principles (beams, geophysical and psychophysical methods, waves, genes, etc.). While not belittling the role of nuclear weapons, he stressed that a new generation of armaments produce comparable effects, but they are more “acceptable” from the political and military point of view. This led to the conclusion that the role of nuclear weapons in the strategic balance will gradually decrease.

Speaking of future threats, one should keep in mind that they do not come out of the blue and, as a rule, remain without response for only a short time. There are factors that affect their emergence and help prepare for them and work out countermeasures. They are analyzed below along with the main potential military and technological threats. 

The prime source of such technologies is the West and China. Their analysis is based on an assumption that the role of the state will not change in the review period and that these technologies will be employed mainly to provoke a hypothetical interstate conflict, which, paradoxically as it may seem, is less and less probable in its classic form. In other words, new technologies will either be a factor of intimidation (similarly to nuclear weapons) or will somehow fall into the hands of non-state actors to be used in armed conflicts.

This article does not seek to provide a complete overview of future threats, but merely aims to bring this issue to light.


To begin with, one should answer the question: Why would new military technologies be developed in the future? The obvious answer would be to accelerate combat operations, cut their costs, minimize losses in personnel and materiel, and incapacitate the enemy or reduce its response potential as much as may be practically possible. The warring sides (provided one side is a Western country) will try wherever possible to avoid attacking each other’s civilian population (due to the spreading humanistic values in the West and their deep penetration into society).  

It is obvious that new technologies cannot be hidden from a potential enemy nowadays. In other words, it will become known quite fast that a new weapon is under development, most likely through a third-level subcontractor or judicial investigation. For example, several hitherto secret R&D projects or even finished products came to light in Russia during court proceedings. Much information about new military projects in China is leaked, intentionally or not, through its segment of the Internet.  

Political will, resources and time are important factors needed for the emergence of a new technology. If any of them is absent, the development of such a technology can be seriously limited or even stopped completely. This has happened before to the Soviet lunar program (lack of time), the U.S. Strategic Defense Initiative (scaled down), and Sweden’s nuclear weapon program in the 1960s (lack of political will).   

Essentially, the same factors affect the emergence of “counter technologies,” and, even with necessary production capacities and human resources committed, their development may take years. The Soviet atomic bomb would be the best example.

Another important condition for employing cutting-edge military technologies is the use (and further development) of compact, high-capacity and autonomous power supplies because new military systems will need more and more energy. This is already happening to military platforms where increasingly more systems become fully electrified and the number of power consumers using such platforms is growing. This can be seen at all levels from the future combat gear to electromagnetic catapults aboard new aircraft carriers.

Oddly enough, mass production of power supply units for a new generation of military platforms will require free access to natural resources (primarily rare-earth metals), a developed chemical industry, and advanced materials research capacities. Otherwise, the possibility to create and maintain such power sources will be limited.


Perhaps the most critical and obvious threat is a potential enemy’s ability to destroy Russia’s nuclear forces in a first-strike attack, without using its own nuclear weapons but rather by employing high-precision systems. The point is that a potential enemy will surpass Russia in the quality of precision-guided munition and that Russia will have no adequate response capabilities to launch under attack and retaliate. Also, an enemy’s preparations cannot be detected solely by technical means. America’s huge stocks of BGM-109 Tomahawk missiles and JDAM and JSOW guided bombs, France’s advanced hypersonic missiles with nuclear warheads in Europe (intended to replace ASMP-4 cruise missiles), and new Chinese missiles already jeopardize Russia’s strategic capabilities which are relatively small and limited by New START. 

Given the currently known programs to develop new nuclear delivery vehicles and missiles defense systems, one can assume that no revolutionary solutions that can pierce Russia’s present strategic shield will be created in the review period. The main threat may come from a new round of arms race, with emphasis most likely placed on quantitative supremacy in the number of delivery systems and nuclear warheads, and on the modernization and expansion of missile defense to reduce Russia’s response capability, at least partially, as well as on further development of precision weapons, including those deployed on hypersonic platforms and unmanned aircraft. 

Speaking of weapons based on new physical principles, one should remember that they can massively destroy military and economic infrastructure in a short time with surgical strikes. They will also diminish the role of traditional strategic nuclear forces, to be almost a hundred years old by that time, and largely eliminate the potential of conventional weapons as we know them. Also falling into this category are new biological and genetic weapons that can be used selectively against individual, group or multiple targets. Some of the new systems known today include airborne lasers tested in the United States and Russia, and an electromagnetic railgun in the U.S.

It is somewhat unlikely for the time being that a potential enemy will start producing weapons based on new physical principles (even though work on such projects is already underway Russia), but inability to create an effective counter system is a serious risk. As with strategic nuclear forces, the best deterrence against the use of new weapons would probably be the principle of mutual destruction rather than their interception or the scrapping of their delivery systems.

Deployment of weapons in outer space will also endanger strategic nuclear forces by making them vulnerable to a first strike and rendering them unable to launch under attack or retaliate. Moreover, space-based platforms will allow a potential enemy to attack Russia’s strategic facilities without using its own nuclear forces. For example, the United States is developing an unmanned X-37B space plane, the purpose of which remains unknown so far.

The unpreparedness of Russian industry to conduct deep space exploration and orbit heavy payloads (using a system similar to the Soviet Energia-Buran space shuttle or the abandoned Angara A7 heavy-duty rocket) is a risk factor that warrants attention (an alternative would be compacted payloads that can be delivered by existing carrier rockets). However, Roscosmos will have to cut its programs in the next four years, thus delaying the development of a new heavy-lift launch vehicle until after 2020-2025, at best. So the only option left is to use solutions capable of destroying comparable weapons, such as the new S-500 Prometheus long-range air defense and anti-ballistic missile system. Responding to this threat in the 2030s-2040s will require the development of completely new systems integrated with orbital platforms.

Similarly, a potential enemy may create (space-based or other) systems for constant surveillance over Russia’s territory, thus making it senseless for the Strategic Missile Forces to keep mobile missile units on the ground. To this end, the United States is building a long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicle (RQ-4 Block 30 Global Hawk capable of remaining airborne for more than 32 hours), which will prove increasingly effective in gathering intelligence and providing virtually real-time data by using constantly perfected surveillance capabilities.

Another threat is coming from a new generation of cyber weapons that can paralyze Russia’s government and army command and control systems as well as critical infrastructure facilities. It is hard to assess how well the Russian Armed Forces are prepared to respond to the use of such weapons and potential attacks simply because this is extremely sensitive information that is kept out of the public domain. But as Russia gets integrated deeper into the global information space by the 2030s-2040s, the number of its vulnerabilities will increase. A possible solution could come with deliberate regression whereby the use of microchips or the Internet will be banned. For example, several years ago Russia’s Federal Security Service purchased typewriters for creating and processing classified documents.

 The advent of psychological weapons increases the feeling of anxiety and weakens discipline among the troops, and hinders their operations. This category also includes weapons targeting humans only, protective equipment notwithstanding. The role of unmanned combat systems will grow steadily until the 2030s-2040s, but they may need control centers operated by people, and command units where decisions will also be made by people.


Financial factors may be the main hindrance. The budget of the State Armament Program Up to 2020 will most likely be slashed in 2015-2020, and the adoption of the next program up to 2025 will be delayed. This will slow down the delivery of new equipment and weapons. Priority will most probably be given to the procurement of existing platforms to replace obsolete Soviet-era ones. The results of large-scale use of old weapons by the Ukrainian army in Donbass are more than obvious. The Russian army is better off, but the share of outdated systems is also quite big. In addition, defense budget cuts will suspend or halt some R&D projects to create new weapons that should enter service in the 2030s-2040s.

The declining quality (moral and physical) and quantity of personnel in the Armed Forces is an equally serious challenge. The lack of motivated and trained specialists will make the use of modern weapons impossible and result in their loss even without any effort on the part of the enemy. This highlights the need for a special long-term program to make military service and employment in the defense industry more attractive, and improve people’s health.  

Add to this the inability of the defense industry to launch production of new weapons because of outdated manufacturing equipment that cannot be replaced, aging personnel, underdeveloped materials science, and ineffective chemical industry.  

The defense industry development program for 2011-2020, which allocates three trillion rubles for the modernization of defense enterprises, is a step in the right direction, but its full implementation and the ability of armament manufacturers to fulfil their plans are jeopardized by the current financial and economic situation.  

Another serious risk stems from Russia’s participation (or possible involvement) in several armed conflicts outside the country, which will require utmost exertion of strength, primarily the financial one. Considering the risk of a possible conflict inside the country, the need to maintain strategic parity with the United States and China, and create completely new weapons, such exertion may become fatal for the national economy even if it regains the average GDP growth rates it showed in the late 2000s. Apparently this will significantly slow down the development of new armaments.     

It must be noted that apart from Russia only the United States and China will have the ability to create a wide range of new technologies in 2020-2050, which makes it easier to monitor concrete military-technical threats and work out effective countermeasures. However the United States will develop new weapons in cooperation with its closest allies (Great Britain, Israel, and possibly Japan), which will accelerate R&D and reduce production and procurement costs for America, but at the same time make it harder for Russia to provide an adequate and timely response.