Russia's Defense Minister, Anatoly Serdyukov, set off a firestorm of debate in Russia after saying that his military's pride and joy, the Kalashnikov and Dragunov SVDs sniper rifles, are "morally outdated" and that he's considering a plan to buy foreign-made small arms.
The comments were made during a private meeting with members of the lower house of Russia’s parliament just before the New Year, according to Russian media accounts. Serdyukov introduced the plan to buy foreign-made guns as part of larger military reforms that include buying French-made Mistrall Class helicopter carriers for the Russian navy.
The comments caused Russian military officials to jump to the defense of their workhorse weapons.
Kalishnikov rifles, particularly the AK-47, are a proud Russian creation. Built and designed in Russia during World War II, the AK-47 is considered the first true assault rifle. They’re known around the world for their durability in all conditions, firing reliability, ease of use, low production cost and lethality. Military lore holds that an AK-47 can be buried in the mud, dug up a year later and still be fired.
For those reasons it's become a staple for terrorist and insurgent groups around the world. The Russian military began using the AK-47 over six decades ago, and very little has changed since about them.
Criticism of the Defense Minister has come from all angles. The Russian news website, Pravda.ru, quotes prominent gun designer Dmitry Shirayev as saying:
"Foreigners admit that Russian small arms are one of the best in the world. Just show me a foreign rifle which would compete with a Russian one on all specifications, including the integrity level,” Shirayev is quoted as saying. “The main problem here is that Russia does not have anyone to work in the gun-making industry because of low salaries. Purchasing small arms from abroad can entirely destroy the industry in Russia."
Sergei Clussky, a former member of the Russian special forces told Pravda that Serdyukov was speaking out of turn.
"The sitting Russian defense minister is not a military man - this is the problem. How can he judge the advantages and disadvantages of this or that type of weapon? The people who do not have an expert opinion in such questions should not make such important decisions," the Web site quotes him as saying.
Clussky, who once commanded a counter-terror unit, goes as far as to defend the rifle as the terrorist's weapon of choice.
"Terrorists from the Caucasus always use Kalashnikovs and SVDs,” Clussky said. “The funding, which they receive from abroad, gives them a very good opportunity to receive American and French small arms. They often use foreign-made communication systems at times, but they most frequently, if not always, use Russian-made rifles."
Fox News military analyst and retired Maj. Gen. Bob Scales says it not surprising the Russian would be looking for a better weapon, but that no should expect them to “buy American” anytime soon.
"The AK-47 is outdated because of it’s not an accurate weapon,” Scales said. “What I suspect is the Russian are looking for something that's a little bit more refined, a little bit more versatile, more accurate -- and their willing to sacrifice what the AK-47 brought in 1947."
Scales says an accuracy target of 400 meters is not good enough for modern day warfare. The gold standard for weapons in the West is the American M-4, which is accurate to 600 meters and beyond.
But Scales said it's more likely the Russians would look toward something else, like the equally superior German G-1 or the smaller French and British 5.56 rifles. The Israeli Galils, also an unlikely purchase for the Russians, are said to combine the best of western accuracy with AK 47 durability.
The bottom line, Scales says, is that a weapon is not just a piece of technology, it's a statement of the military culture.
“The American philosophy has always been that every rifle is a precision instrument involving the latest technology,” Scales said. But, in Russia it’s the exact opposite. “It has to be a people's weapon. It has to be a weapon that any school aged youth can assemble and dissemble, that any peasant can learn to shoot in 10 to 15 minutes. That’s been the ethos of the Russian military.”
And with 110 million Kalashnikovs produced to date, it’s unlikely they'll disappear anytime soon.