Murphy's Law: December 12, 2003


The Russian navy is being picked apart by larcenous sailors, rendering ships and weapons useless. Realizing that the electronic equipment in ships and aircraft contain significant amounts of precious metals, sailors have been plundering ships for circuit boards that will yield silver, gold and other precious metals. Unfortunately, this sort of thing is an ancient Russian military tradition.

We don't think of an army or navy as a bunch of thieves, but the reality is that there is much to steal and soldiers and sailors have long been considered light fingered. Part of the discipline imposed in the armed forces is strict accounting of all the weapons and equipment on hand. Unfortunately, the Russian armed forces have always been considered the most prone to all manner of theft and pillaging. When the Soviet Union existed, the theft was tolerated, to a point. There was so much stealing (or "losing" weapons and gear, which was actually sold to civilians) going on that senior officers realized most of their people would have to be jailed if there was a real crack down. Generals and admirals leaned on their officers to keep the theft down as much as possible, but it was difficult to even catch someone at it. In the navy, the alcohol used in torpedoes often disappeared when sailors really, really needed a drink. Another infamous case saw the crew of a T-62 tank selling their vehicle to a Czech innkeeper. Markets outside military bases usually featured a section where all manner of military equipment was for sale (although weapons were not openly displayed.) 

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the money to keep the huge armed forces going disappeared as well. As a result, hundreds of warships could no longer be used (no money for fuel or spare parts) and were just left tied up. Same with aircraft and much else. It didn't take long for the sailors to realize that those rusting hulks contained much useful (to civilians) loot. Radios, refrigerators, furniture, kitchen equipment and so on all began to disappear. Sometime in the 1990s, some enterprising sailors discovered how to disassemble electronic circuit boards and recover salable parts and the precious metals that were used in these boards. Someone calculated that a nuclear powered submarine contained about a ton of silver, 65 pounds of gold and 45 pounds of palladium. Each filter used for the subs air regeneration system contains nearly five ounces of palladium and sell for $2,000 on the black market. The theft has gotten to the point where police raids have yielded manuals describing which components of ships are valuable, and how to remove them. 

In the last few years, the looting has apparently escalated to the point where criminal gangs have been fighting over who has control of which base. In the last year, at least ten people have been killed as gangs used violence to try and maintain control over handling the plundered parts from particular bases. 

Until recently, the government was able to keep most of this out of the press. But the gang violence, and increasing reports of ships, aircraft, missiles and other equipment "inoperable" finally resulted in media attention. While in the past the looting was confined to older gear that was not likely to be used, now even new stuff is at risk. This is another reason why many officers want a professional, all-volunteer, armed forces. The current conscript system puts a lot of unhappy young men in uniform, and pays them a few dollars a month. These guys don't want to be there, and if some local gangster offers them a few hundred dollars to help get some military gear off the base, there is usually no reluctance to go for it. The new equipment is under guard all the time, but often the guards are conscripts. In recent years, officers have been found participating in the looting as well. Last year, 147 sailors were investigated for theft, and half of them were officers. Since all the old Soviet era equipment has been pretty well picked over, the new stuff is just about all that's left. And if the theft problem cannot be solved, the Russian armed forces will end up consisting of frustrated officers, thieving conscripts and inoperable equipment.


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