A Bit More on the Mistral Purchase

There were some additional details on Russia’s decision to purchase French amphibious assault ships published in yesterday’s Vedomosti.  It seems that the ship to be purchased is the third one of its class, which was originally intended for the French Navy and is currently already under construction. An additional 3-4 ships will be built under license, most likely by the St. Petersburg “Severnaia Verf” shipyard. This shipyard belongs to Sergei Pugachev, a billionaire who has long been considered to be a member of Vladimir Putin’s inner circle. The total cost of the project (for a total of 5 ships) could be as much as 1.5 billion Euros.

The author of the Vedomosti article questions the extent to which the Russian Navy can afford such a purchase, which is significantly larger than the annual appropriations for shipbuilding to date. He also expresses doubts about the utility of such a craft, since its main purpose is expeditionary warfare and it is unclear where Russia is planning to conduct such operations.

The unstated supposition is that political favoritism, rather than the actual needs of the military, is driving this purchase. I find this to be the most likely scenario as well, with the added ingredient of the Defense Minister wanting to make a dramatic statement that foreign procurement is here to stay.

That said, the Mistral will significantly increase the Russian Navy’s expeditionary capability, especially if it is equipped with a full complement of hovercraft and helicopters, allowing for amphibious landings reagrdless of terrain or onshore facilities. The Mistral is also highly automated, and therefore needs only 160 crew to operate — a potential boon to a military that may find itself with an insufficient supply of professional soldiers and sailors.

Of course, the question of what the purpose of this additional capability would be still remains. Perhaps Russia seeks to be able to chase down pirates on shore? The other alternative — to prepare for an invasion of Crimea — still seems politically unlikely. But the job of the military is to be prepared for possible conflicts entered into by political leaders. Perhaps the military is making sure that, if a decision  to invade a neighboring state from the sea is made at some point in the future, it will be ready to carry it out.

The Russian Navy and Procurement Abroad

Today’s news that the Russian Navy has made a deal to purchase a French Mistral-class amphibious assault ship presents final proof that the defense ministry is aiming at a radical shift in procurement. As Alexander Khramchikhin wrote in NVO a couple of weeks ago, the goal is to shift the mentality from the military being in the service of the military industrial complex to the MIC returning to its stated purpose of serving the needs of the military.

After months of discussions, this is the first major piece of military hardware to be purchased by Russia from abroad in decades. Russia (and the Soviet Union before it) was perhaps the only country in the world to procure all of its military equipment domestically. The SIPRI database of arms transfers lists only three items purchased by Russia from abroad. The comparable list for the United States (for 1991-2008) is ten pages long.

There have been other signs of a shift in procurement policy in recent months, including the purchase of British sniper rifles and Israeli UAVs, but the purchase of a warship with a likely price tag of around half a billion dollars dwarfs these previous acquisitions and signals that Russia is now willing to purchase any type of military equipment from abroad.

A Declining Navy

It makes sense to start this radical change in procurement policy with the navy. The Russian Navy was perhaps the most neglected military service in the 1990s and while the increase in its financing in the last decade has helped it to resume training and deployments, its warships are almost all Soviet vintage and are not being replaced at an adequate rate.

According to a recent overview, the current RFN order of battle lists 29 nuclear attack submarines (14 operational), 19 diesel subs (16 operational), 1 aircraft carrier, 6 cruisers (4 operational), 19 destroyers (13 operational), 7 frigates, 21 amphibious landing ships (12 operational), and 108 smaller ships (77 operational). I exclude SSBNs from this list, as they are more properly discussed as part of Russia’s strategic nuclear forces.

Only four new ships have entered service in the last 10 years. The rest are at least 20 years old and will need to be retired in the next 10-15 years, if not sooner. There are few ships in the pipeline – just three Saint-Petersburg class diesel subs, the Admiral Gorshkov frigate, three Steregushchii class small frigates, and the Severodvinsk nuclear submarine (which has been under construction since 1993!). The first ships of the St Petersburg and Steregushchii classes took 10 and 7 years, respectively, to build. Some reports indicate that the St Petersburg has serious technical problems, which has caused it to be in sea trials for over two years. (For more on the state of the Russian Navy, see the linked reports.)

Khramchikhin writes that given current rates of replacement, in 10 years there will be only 50 warships of any size left in the Russian Navy. Domestic shipbuilding corporations have proven themselves to be incapable of rebuilding the Russian fleet, not because of a lack of financing, but because of a loss of technology and personnel, combined with corruption and lax quality control standards.

Given this situation, purchasing foreign ships seems to be the only solution, at least for the short term. Furthermore, the threat of foreign competition may encourage Russian shipbuilders (and other defense contractors) to get their house in order, knowing that the alternative is going out of business entirely. In the past, Russian defense corporations have felt secure knowing that the government could not let them disappear entirely. Now for many companies there will be no such guarantee.

The Role of the Mistral

The Mistral is a modern helicopter-carrying amphibious assault ship with a displacement of 20 tons that can also be used as a command and control ship. It can carry 450 soldiers and up to 70 vehicles. The French version includes a 69 bed hospital. Two such ships are currently in use by the French Navy, having been commissioned in 2006 and 2007 respectively.

It is not clear why the Russian military chose to begin its shift to foreign procurement with an amphibious assault ship. One could argue that it needs new frigates (or perhaps even destroyers) much more than it needs new amphibious ships. The Admiral Gorshkov-class frigate is being built very slowly, while there are no plans at all to replace the aging and unreliable Sovremenny-class destroyers. Without new blue water ships like these, the Russian Navy will inevitably be reduced to a coastal defense force in the coming decade or two.

Perhaps this purchase is more palatable because the Soviet Navy bought the bulk of its amphibious ships from Poland, so there is no existing domestic shipbuilder whose niche is being taken away by this decision. But that is not reason enough to spend half a billion dollars on a ship. Especially given that amphibious ships generally last longer than other kinds of warships (since they don’t need advanced weaponry) and Russia’s existing LSTs were mostly built in the 1980s and can serve for another 20 years.

Some will see this purchase as another piece of evidence that Russia may be planning for the possibility of another war with Georgia or even an attack on Crimea. This is not entirely out of the question – all militaries must prepare for the likeliest potential conflicts, and another conflict in the Black Sea involving the Russian Navy is certainly more likely than a war with China or with NATO. But what is more significant is that this purchase, if followed by the promised further purchases of ships of this type (or even an agreement on cooperative production of additional units), may indicate that the Russian Navy is going to shift to a coastal defense role for the foreseeable future, while hoping to restore a strong blue water capability 15-20 years down the road.

Conscription and Military Reform

I returned from a brief vacation to find out that this blog had been recommended on The Monkey Cage and Lawyers, Guns and Money. Thanks to Josh and Robert!

More substantively, I wanted to respond to the following comment made by Matt on Lawyers, Guns, and Money:

This isn’t bad but leaves out two huge factors that have slowed Russian military reform and might well derail this, too.  You can’t understand the situation if you leave these factors out and that they are not mentioned at all makes me a bit worried about the author’s take.  First, the huge swaths of poorly trained conscripts do not just sit around and get abused by older troops and the like (though they do that, too.)  They form private work-forces for officers, especially high-ranking ones.  These troops build dachas for officers, but are also hired out to private people as workers.  The officers get the money and the troops essentially none of it- they are just ordered to do the work.  (I have very close personal experience of this.)  So, reducing the number of poorly trained draftees would put a big, personal, financial crimp on many officers, a serious reason why they have opposed reduction.  Knowing this and taking account of it is essential for understanding the situation there.  Secondly, when an officer retires he has, traditionally, be guaranteed housing.  The move to vastly reduce the officer corp has, for 15 or more years, floundered on this fact, as there are not enough buildings, especially where people will live, to put all the officers who will supposedly be forcefully retired, and the government has been afraid of what would happen if they are not passified somhow.  With the (government sponsored) increase in nationalism over the last 10+ years, large groups of angery, militarily trained men are not something one wants, and the government has been smart enough to know this.  Again, if you don’t take this into account you can’t understand the situation.  If anything I’d suggest that these factors are as important or even more important than those considered in the article for understanding the failings so far of military reform in Russia, and why we should not assume they will work this time, either.

Matt raises two important points. On the question of conscripts acting as private work-forces for senior officers, this is has absolutely been a huge problem. But it is also one of the reasons the civilian leadership of the country has decided to press ahead with the reform. The list of top officers who have been removed from their positions for resisting reform in the last year is extensive, and I’m sure that their opposition to end corrupt practices such as this one played a role in their removal. For whatever reasons, Putin and co. have decided to tackle military corruption and are refusing to succumb to the full court press against reform. The length of service for conscripts has already been reduced, and the number of conscripts will decline in comming years due to demographic factors. Regardless of what the officers want, this makes the transition to a professional (or almost entirely professional) military essential for Russia.

One other thought on conscripts: the elimination of a number of exemptions means that conscription will no longer only target Russian of the lowest status. And that (together with the drop to 1 year of service) may spell the end of the brutal hazing that has been endemic in Russia for decades.

On the question of housing: this is a very serious problem, and one I did not address in my initial post due to space constraints in the original memo. It needs to be addressed in some detail and with reference to materials that I don’t have on hand right now, so I will have a separate post on this issue in the next week or so.

Russian Military Reform and Russia’s Regional Dominance

In recent months, Roger McDermott has written some of the most incisive analyses of the Russian military. His analysis of the significance of the reorganization of the Russian General Staff was one of the first indicators that the military reform started by the Defense Ministry last October was something more than the usual empty talk we had come to expect. Subsequent analyses detailed the problems bedeviling Russia’s air force, the potential impact of last winter’s financial crisis on prospects for reform implementation, and the manpower crisis facing the military as a consequence of the reduction in the length of service for conscripts. In recent articles, McDermott has with great precision described the weakness of the Russian military, arguing that this weakness was one of the main factors that made Russia’s leaders finally realize that reform was absolutely necessary.

Given these analyses, I found McDermott’s most recent analysis somewhat surprising. Once again, he is right on in criticizing most analysts’ penchant for underestimating the objectives and progress of the reform program or dismissing it entirely. As he quite accurately states, “this is no public-relations campaign…. The Russian military is changing fast; few are able to perceive the sheer breathtaking scale of these changes…” And finally, the goal of the reform “is to produce mobile, permanent-readiness formations capable of intervention within a readily short period,” which will “enhance [Russia’s] capability to project power within its near abroad.”

At the same time, McDermott spells out the challenges facing the reformed Russian military in the near future, including an “ailing defense industry” that is having immense trouble producing the new weapons the Russian military will need to replace its aged Soviet relics, difficulties in establishing a reformed military education system, and the length of time needed to create the “culture of promoting individual initiative embodied in the NCO concept.” I could add some other difficulties, including most critically the manpower crisis inherent in a plunging population of young adults, especially when combined with inadequate pay for the professional soldiers slated to replace the existing conscript force.

Given the excellent analysis throughout the piece and in McDermott’s previous work, I find his conclusions rather puzzling. The key paragraph in full states:

While any comment on the policy implications is premature, it is likely that the Russian conventional armed forces will emerge in the next few years as an unrivaled dominant force within the former Soviet space; capable of sudden, decisive intervention, with minimal damage to the country’s international credibility.

I’m not sure how this is possible, given all the problems he has spelled out above. The current transformation will certainly create a military that is more effective than the current one. But it will still lack modern communications equipment and other basic items such as night vision equipment both for tanks and for individual soldiers. It will take at least a decade to restore the air force to a fully functioning state. Without effective air cover, future interventions in the region may have some of the same problems that plagued the 58th army in the early stages of last summer’s war in Georgia. And as McDermott notes, it will take time for personnel to get used to the new command structure.

Now it may be that the Russian military will emerge as “an unrivaled dominant force” in its region, but if so, this will mostly be because of the weakness of its neighbors, not because of its own strength. What’s more, this is a position it already held before any reforms began, as shown by the ease with which it defeated the Georgian military last year. But other neighboring countries with relatively weak military forces may prove much harder to invade successfully, if the country is large enough or its forces choose to fight a guerrilla campaign. This is why Russia will not find it easy to invade countries such as Ukraine or Kazakhstan, even if its leaders may want to do so. As for Central Asia, China may have something to say about Russia becoming an unrivaled dominant force in that region.

I read the doctrine behind the Russian military reform as focused not on increasing Russia’s ability to invade other countries, but on make it more capable of rushing ready forces to potential areas of instability in the North Caucasus or elsewhere along its long land border.  Some may see this view as naive, especially in light of the new Russian law on military missions abroad. However, that law seems to me to be more of a prevenative warning to Georgia and Ukraine, rather than a signal that new military actions aimed at neighboring states are forthcoming.

I am also confused by McDermott’s statement that the military reform “will not contribute to improving interoperability with NATO forces for future peace support operations. ” It seems to me that an increase in mobility and readiness for the bulk of Russia’s military forces can only help interoperability. Furthermore, Russian forces haven’t done so badly working together with NATO and EU forces in recent years in the former Yugoslavia and in naval anti-piracy operations off the Somalian coast. The lack of political will (on both sides, to some extent) to engage in further cooperative operations of this type seems to be much more of a block to cooperation than a lack of military interoperability.

Finally, there is the question of international credibility. Even if McDermott is right in that Russia will soon be able to militarily dominate its neighbors, there is no way that it will be able to do so without grave repercussions to its standing in the international community. The international reaction to Russia’s response to last year’s Georgian attack on South Ossetia was quick and severe. One might say that there were few lasting consequences for Russia, but things might be very different if attacks on neighbors were a) unprovoked and/or b) came to be seen as part of pattern of belligerent action on Russia’s part.

Russia’s New Model Army: Radical Reform in the Russian Military

Last August, the Russian army undertook its first offensive action on foreign soil since the end of the Afghanistan war in 1989. After the initial outburst of patriotic fervor faded, the Russian military did not have long to bask in the glory of its first definitive military victory in many years. In early October, the civilian leadership of the Ministry of Defense announced a radical restructuring of the armed forces, one that, if enacted in full measure, would completely change the military’s structure and mission capabilities for the foreseeable future. More than nine months have passed since the initial outlines of this reform were announced. This memo will describe the reform’s main goals, the military’s reaction to it, and the extent to which it has been implemented. It concludes with a discussion of the likely trajectory of the reform process.

A Radical Break

On October 14, 2008, Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov announced that, over the next four years, the Russian military would undergo a radical restructuring. The main elements of the reform were to include the following:

  • A cut in the total number of military personnel from 1,130,000 to one million, including a cut in the total number of officers from 355,000 to just 150,000. The General Staff would be particularly affected, with 13,500 of its 22,000 personnel positions slated for elimination;
  • Remaining officers and contract soldiers will see a significant pay increase over the next four years. The hope is that this will help retain officers, aid in recruiting contract soldiers, and reduce incentives for corruption;
  • Henceforth, all military units will be considered permanent readiness units and be fully staffed with both officers and enlisted soldiers. The previous practice of maintaining numerous units staffed only by officers will be eliminated. Prior to the reform, only 17 percent of all units were fully staffed.
  • The existing 140,000 non-commissioned officers (NCOs) will be replaced by 85,000 professional sergeants trained over the next three years;
  • The four-tiered command structure will be replaced with a three-tiered structure, with the brigade serving as the basic unit;
  • The military’s Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) will be cut in size and subordinated directly to the civilian defense minister (it was previously under the control of the chief of the general staff);
  • Numerous overlapping military institutes and medical facilities will be consolidated.

This reform was made possible, as Pavel Baev has described, by the removal of many top military commanders at General Staff headquarters, including Chief of the General Staff Yuri Baluyevsky in the summer and early fall of 2008. These commanders were replaced by generals sympathetic to Serdyukov’s reform agenda or beholden directly to the defense minister for their careers.

These reforms amount to the complete destruction of Russia’s mass-mobilization military, a legacy of the Soviet army. Such a change was completely anathema to the previous generation of Russian generals, who continued to believe that the Russian military had to be configured to protect the country from a massive invasion from either Europe or China. This perception explains the military leaders’ reluctance, for two decades, to dismantle key aspects of the old Soviet army and, most especially, its vast caches of outdated and unneeded weapons overseen by an equally vast number of officers with very little battlefield training and no combat experience. These officers and weapons are the remains of an army designed to fight NATO on the European plains and have served no functional purpose since the end of the Cold War.

However, this reality contradicts the culture and interests of Russia’s military elite, who were educated to regard the Soviet army as a world-class military that could match any adversary, including (and especially) the United States. For them, the transformation of the Russian military to a smaller and more mobile force, equipped to fight local and regional conflicts, primarily against insurgents and other irregular forces, is damaging to morale, prestige, and future funding. It was thus inevitable that they would resist these reform efforts at all costs.

Past reform efforts have foundered because they were opposed by the military’s top leadership. As president, Vladimir Putin understood that military reform could not succeed unless the power of the generals was taken away first. He did this gradually, putting civilians in charge of the Defense Ministry and then breaking the power of the General Staff. Once Baluyevsky and his immediate subordinates were replaced with Serdyukov’s supporters, the plan could proceed. But the intensity of resistance to reform among top generals was such that, even then, Serdyukov felt he could not announce the ultimate goal of the reform: the elimination of the mass mobilization army left over from the Soviet Union.

The Counterattack

Immediately after the announcement of the reform program and in the months that followed, traditionalist figures in the military and analytic community did their best to derail the reform. They were helped in this effort by the Defense Ministry’s poor handling of the rollout of the reform package. Rather than putting out a complete reform package, various aspects of the reform were announced piecemeal over a period of two months. These announcements usually did not take the form of official documents; reform measures were simply mentioned in speeches and interviews by top civilian and military officials such as Serdyukov and the new chief of the general staff, Nikolai Makarov. Many of the details mentioned in the various speeches contradicted each other, and the extent and sources of financing for the reform were left unclear.

As a result, reform opponents did not have to focus on the substance of the reform and were initially content to criticize the various inconsistencies of and secrecy surrounding the program. The majority of the substantive criticisms focused on fears that the government would not be able to provide officers forced to retire with the apartments that were legally guaranteed to them. This became a focus of reporting on the reform efforts, especially in the aftermath of the serious downturn in the Russian economy after the collapse of oil and stock prices in the late fall of 2008. Analysts repeatedly stated that given the country’s budget deficit, it seemed virtually impossible for the government to build or buy the tens of thousands of apartments necessary to fulfill the obligations to retiring officers.

At the same time, some critics argued that, if implemented, the planned reforms would destroy the Russian army as a functioning military force. They argued that only a mass mobilization army would be able to withstand an attack by China in the Russian Far East. In their analyses and interviews, these experts calculated the necessary size of the Russian military based on either the area of the Russian Federation or the length of its border. Given Russia’s size, this method allowed them to justify a numerically large army, though they never questioned why Russia would need to defend its land border with Kazakhstan or what role the military would play in protecting its vast interior land area.

Staying the Course

Despite this criticism, the Defense Ministry’s civilian leadership has pressed ahead with their reform plans. Furthermore, both President Dmitri Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin have expressed their support for Serdyukov and his reform plans on several occasions in the last six months. In the first round of personnel cuts, several hundred generals and other senior officers were dismissed in the first months of 2009. The transition to a brigade-based structure commenced on schedule, with 46 of the 90 new brigades formed by the end of June. The rest are expected to be formed by December 1. This means that, as far as retaining the mass mobilization army is concerned, the point of no return has already been reached.

Serdyukov has continued to systematically remove opponents of the reform from their positions, including the heads of the medical service, the military housing agency, and the Navy’s chief of staff. The removal in April of Valentin Korabelnikov, the head of military intelligence, was particularly critical, as the GRU was traditionally independent of the Defense Ministry and was seen as the last bastion of opposition to Serdyukov’s reform program.

At the same time, Russia’s financial troubles have had an impact on the implementation of reforms. In April, the relocation of the naval headquarters from Moscow to St. Petersburg was postponed. The deadline for reducing the number of officers was extended from 2012 to 2016, giving the government more time to arrange for apartments and to finance pensions for thousands of retirees. The two-year program for professional sergeants, which had been planned to start in February, was delayed until September, likely because there was not enough time to recruit the requisite personnel or develop a training program in time for a February start. This delay will inevitably result in more time passing before the transition from NCOs to professional sergeants can be completed.

These delays, however, appear to be mere bumps in the road for the military reform juggernaut. After almost two decades of false starts and unfulfilled promises, the current iteration of military reforms seems destined to fundamentally change the Russian military.

The Future of the “New Model Army”

Given recent developments, it appears that, sometime in the next 3 to 5 years, Russia will have a more or less functional modern professional army, one that is able to fight effectively in the kinds of conflict in which Russia has actually engaged over the last twenty years. The new structure will allow the military to be more effective in fighting small wars on difficult terrain against adversaries that are likely to combine traditional military tactics with irregular warfare. This is the main, if unstated, goal of the reform. It is thus not surprising that the reforms have left the paratroopers largely untouched; they are a force that is already effective at the tasks for which the new military will be designed.

Largely missing from the discussion among either proponents or detractors of the reform effort has been the question of how to make this “new model army” more effective. While the elimination of the mass mobilization model and the move to professionalization are excellent first steps, there has been very little discussion of the extent to which the new Russian military will still be equipped with old Soviet weapons. The various rearmament programs promulgated by the government in the last ten years have all shared one feature: none has come close to even partial implementation.

Once the initial conflicts surrounding the personnel reforms are resolved, the Russian military will have to deal with the fact that the country’s military industrial complex is no longer capable of producing modern weaponry in the quantities necessary to reequip the Russian military in a timely manner. In the short term, it will have to shed its insistence on buying only domestic military hardware and make more purchases from abroad, such as the unmanned drone aircraft it recently purchased from Israel. In the long term, it will have to reform and modernize its defense industry, a project that may also require foreign assistance.