The "Almaz" Central Design Bureau is one of those institutions which in Soviet times were shrouded in a dense fog of secrecy. The holy of holies of the country's air defenses seldom revealed itself. And then only to initiates. For example, when our antiaircraft gunners downed the U.S. U-2 spy plane piloted by Powers in 1960, few people knew that the chief credit for this belonged to "Almaz." The United States, which had come to believe in its own technical superiority, was shaken by what happened at that time.
It also had a shock two years ago at the arms exhibition in Abu Dhabi. Demonstrating its accuracy of fire, the S-300 PMU antiaircraft missile system did not just hit the target but literally made matchwood of it. A direct hit on the "bull's eye" is an extremely great rarity for this kind of weapon. When the Russian defense industry suggested to the Americans a contest with the Patriot, their ABM favorite, they had the strength only to modestly decline.
To this day the S-300 is an unsurpassed weapon. But its creators have long been regarded no longer as kings or as the elite of the "sovereign's people." The state has abandoned them along with their science and technology to the mercy of fate, and they are waging a desperate but so far unsuccessful struggle for survival, as though putting into practice the guiding principle of the "new Russians" who have come into the Kremlin: Whoever works does not eat. Less than one-half of the central design bureau's more than 12,000 staffers are left. The wage of the leading developers is approximately 160,000 rubles. Clearly, the music in Bauklotz [German store in same building as "Almaz"] is playing not for them. Many have been sent on leave without pay and are trading in potatoes and consumer goods. Those who are a bit more dexterous use laser beams to draw patterns on boards and feed themselves by means of this craft.
The enterprise had an experimental production facility of priceless importance. An entire plant which employed 3,000 machine operators! Now this subdivision hardly exists. In a month of Sundays you would not find the printed circuit boards that used to be made there. But without them nothing can be made.
The element which is destroying the central design bureau has a terrestrial origin and is, of course, called the reform. On its commencement the scientific collective, one of the leading ones in the country's military-industrial complex, was broken up into 30 state and small enterprises. Obviously, the leadership hoped that in this way, in small fragments, it would be possible to keep afloat.
"But this straw of salvation soon snapped," Valeriy Vasilyevich Smurov, chief of a central design bureau section, said. "Far from everyone managed to survive. Then the State Committee for the Management of State Property lassoed us and dragged us into privatization.... At first the central design bureau was on the list of untouchable defense enterprises. But then it was switched to the category of small stores and, despite stubborn resistance from the collective, it was, by hook or by crook, dropped from the state cart at the beginning of this year."
The central design bureau's present orphanlike existence is best reflected in the arithmetic of its funding. Last year the developers asked for several tens of billions of rubles for the program of the very latest antiaircraft missile system but received just one-fourth of what was required. And half of that amount was in treasury bond papers! The papers had to be sold to a commercial bank, which gave out cash after first pocketing approximately 30 percent of the amount due to the technicians.
Not a single kopek has been received for the current year. The designers live on hope. It is pinned on the government decree "On Measures To Stabilize the Economic Position of Defense Complex Enterprises and Organizations," published at the end of 1994. They particularly liked the draft concept for state regulation of the defense industry, which came into being in the Ministry of the Economy. The point is that it gives the central design bureau the chance of being transformed into the State Science and Production Center.
"If we proceed from Russia's interests, this would really be the best option," Valeriy Vasilyevich believes. He has faithfully served the motherland's defense for over 30 years and is accustomed to thinking in a statesmanlike way. Now that the reform has washed young people out of the collective, it is mainly middle-aged people with sound education who are left in the central design bureau. They cannot grasp the fact that any other decision could be adopted. Hence the optimism to which they cling.
The collective of developers of the "Almaz" Central Design Bureau is still perfectly capable. The backbone is still preserved there and is capable of exercising manufacturer's servicing of weapons at a combat post, as well as carrying out technical and organizational management of the complex collaboration among scientists, production workers, and air defense units.
But time is passing, and its passing is not reflected in the best way in the structure of the country's air defenses, which are in need of timely and qualitative servicing and updating. Having finished off the aforementioned decree, the government's hand has, as it were, turned to stone. Unless emergency measures follow now to rescue "Almaz," the irreversible process of its disintegration could begin. If this happens, then we shall have to start making active use of chevaux-de-frise, the world-famous design bureau's developers joke mirthlessly.