Saturday, September 25, 2021

Russia Faces Enormous Challenges in Reviving Its Once Proud Machine Tool Building Industry

Paul Goble

            Staunton, Sept. 22 – Any country that aspires to rapid industrial development and to have all the means to do so within its borders must have a strong machine tool building sector. The Soviet Union developed one in the 1930s and was justly proud of it. But since 1991, that sector has languished, and Moscow faces serious obstacles to its restoration, Nikolay Domnitsky says.

            In the current issue of Russia’s leading publication for military industry, Voyenno-Promyshlenny Kuryer, the security analyst says that while in Soviet times, USSR firms built nearly all of the machine tools its industry needed, by 2014, it was importing 90 percent of them, leaving the sector in collapse (

            Worse, by that time, 44 of the specialized machine tool building firms in the Russian Federation had closed down, leaving Moscow with no choice but to try to buy what it needs abroad and thus giving Western countries leverage over it. “From 1938 to 1991, the USSR was in the top three leaders in this sector. Where is Russia, the heir of the USSR, now?”

            Before 1914, the Russian Empire had approximately 75,000 machine tools, of which 80 percent were purchased from abroad. Domestic production was destroyed during the war, revolution and civil war; and recovery in the 1920s was relatively slow. By 1930, only 34 percent of the machine tools in the USSR were of domestic manufacture.

            But after that time, the sector grew rapidly, and by 1937, 91 percent of the machine tools in the USSR were domestically produced. Moscow still relied on imports, especially from Germany between 1940 and 1941, for high-end tools but with the onset of World War II, it was forced to build its own of this kind as well.

            By the 1980s, the USSR was producing more machine tools than the US and more than anyone else except for Japan and Germany. In the year before the collapse of the Soviet Union, it produced 76,000 of them, although it must be conceded that in some high-tech areas such a computer-assisted machine tools, the Soviet Union too continued to rely on imports.

            But after 1991, the entire domestic sector of machine tool building collapsed. “If in 1990, the RSFSR produced 74,200 machine tools … then by 2019, it was producing only 4719,” a decline of more than 15 times. What it needed when it could afford to purchase it came from abroad, as its domestic firms and supporting research institutes collapsed and closed.

            The main causes of all this, Domnitsky continues, were much-reduced funding, the lack of qualified cadres being produced, the loss of earlier generations of specialists to other work, and the absence of incentives to attract a new generation of machine tool building specialists into the branch. None of those things has yet been corrected.

            Government leaders have been making bold promises, but these promises have not yet been followed up by the kind of investment in the branch that will allow it to even begin to approximate the domestic dominance of production that was the case in Soviet times, the security expert says.

            And talk of returning to that level within a decade is just talk, experts say. In the words of one, it is going to take “a lot longer than that.”

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