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On November 8, some 20 people were killed when a fire-extinguishing system apparently malfunctioned aboard the nuclear submarine "Nerpa," which was undergoing sea trials in the Pacific. The tragedy comes just days after President Dmitry Medvedev's speech to the Federal Assembly in which he said, among other things, that the modernization of Russia's military is proceeding rapidly and successfully.

Although media reports note that the "Nerpa" is not yet commissioned and was undergoing tests as a "new" vessel, the fact is that this submarine is older than many ships being looked at for retirement.

Longtime military journalist Aleksandr Golts, writing in "Yezhednevny zhurnal" on November 10, describes how he first visited the "Nerpa" at a shipyard in the Far East in October 2000. At the time, the sub was called the "Bars," one of about 15 vessels in its class that were built beginning in the 1980s. The keel of the "Bars" was laid either in 1991 or 1993, Golts reports, and construction dragged on through the 1990s.

By the time he saw it in 2000, it was 85 percent constructed and already featured its nuclear reactor -- but work had been halted for years because of shortages of parts. "Dismantling it would be more expensive than finishing it," the shipyard's general director told Golts at the time.

After the economy began looking up for Russia, work on the "Nerpa" resumed. At the same time, Russia began building other "modern" weapons systems that had been frozen in the 1980s, including the Topol-M strategic missile system, the Su-34 and Su-35 jet fighters, the next generation of tanks and armored vehicles.

"All of this technology can be called 'modern' only in the sense that no one has actually been building it up until now," Golts writes, pointing out again that the "Nerpa" was "slowly and torturously" built over more than 15 years. He notes as well that the "Nerpa" is the only vessel from that shipyard to be launched in the last 15 years. The generation of Soviet workers who commissioned one nuclear submarine after another has long since retired. Golts reports that the average age of workers in the defense sector is nearly 60.

Modernizing the Russian military is more than just a matter of throwing money at the problem, he concludes. The government is going to need to select priorities and develop them over the long term from the ground up. And Golts sees little evidence the authorities have taken this lesson on board.

-- Robert Coalson

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