Eager to get Western defense technology to fill its defense gaps without having to spend years and billions of rubles developing it locally, Russia is increasingly partnering with cash-strapped Italy.

Russia's acquisitions have already benefited Europe—it is, for instance, acquiring French Mistral helicopter carriers—and Moscow is now on the hunt for Western armored fighting vehicles (AFV). Officials evaluated several European designs, including the Rheinmetall Boxer, the GD-Mowag Piranha and the French VBCI, before aiming for the Italian Freccia VBM (Veicolo Blindato Medio) infantry fighting vehicle (IFV), as well as the Centauro AFV, which can be armed with a 105-mm or 120-mm gun. A trial campaign is going on in Russia involving a 105-mm version.

The Russians' approach is methodical. They conduct an initial market and technology assessment, then select the vehicles that best suit their requirements and visit factories to evaluate them. Then they ask for a test campaign to be carried out in the harsh Russian environment (meaning extreme heat and extreme cold, deep mud, river crossings, swamps, etc.).

If all goes well, the Russians finally sit down to craft an acquisition program. Often a straight buy is ruled out, given the numbers involved and the desire to allow Russian industry to learn state-of-the-art technologies. In the AFV arena, Russia is interested in advanced mobility solutions, protection and armor, firepower, the latest fire control and communications. Russia would like to customize foreign systems by adding its own subsystems, and asking the contractor for specific modifications of the basic design.

For instance, Russia has decided not to change its standard weapon systems calibers. The current ones will be retained. Some preliminary assessments are being carried out to see if Russian guns can be modified to fit into modern, remotely controlled turrets. Oto Melara is involved in these technical evaluations, including automatic reloading systems for heavy guns. At the same time Russia believes it does not posses a light, short recoil gun which can be fitted on an 8 X 8 AFV.

Russia wants to allow its own AFV industry to be involved in the production and support of the foreign vehicles and to acquire the skills to produce new designs. At the same time, Russian military authorities are resisting the pressure from their industrial complex to get Russian funding to develop required systems locally. Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, is adamant he does not want to commit time and money to an all-Russian approach, unless there is a reasonable prospect of quickly getting state-of-the-art systems that provide the required capabilities.

If there is a new main battle tank, it will be locally designed, but the Russian defense ministry is not willing to wait years and accept risks and cost increases to allow local industry to develop lower-end systems. In the AFV case, the army is eager to get new vehicles to replace older designs that have been intensively used and are either obsolete or time-expired.

In theory, deliveries of the new AFV should start as soon as 2015, but it is quite possible this date will slip to the right. Procurement of the whole complement of specialized variants (including command post, recovery, ambulance, mortar and so on) is envisioned.

The Russian appetite for Italian technology is not limited to AFVs. It is also known that Russia is interested in Beretta small arms, including the new ARX-160 assault rifle is in service with the Italian army. Russian army representatives have been briefed on the Italian army's Future Soldier program as well as on the Forza Nec network-centric/digitalization program. Italian authorities have made it clear they will screen the technologies, but in principle there is no veto.

Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov visited Italy, following a bilateral meeting held in Moscow last April. He met his Italian counterpart, Giampaolo di Paola, and then visited several Italian defense companies. The Italian economic development minister, Corrado Passera, in turn, went to Russia in July. Military-to-military meetings took place in parallel. And Russia is interested in creating a new corps of military police and is considering the Italian Carabinieri as a potential model.