Changing the Military’s Decision-making Culture

The Russian military leadership seems to have finally caught on that the way it commands troops is not adequate for dealing with modern opponents. Historically, the Russian military is known for making even the most minor decisions at absurdly high levels. Field officers have traditionally been expected to clear battlefield decisions with commanders at headquarters, unless doing so would place them under immediate threat. Similarly, since soldiers were traditionally conscripts, they were expected to simply follow orders. Attempts to exhibit initiative were generally frowned upon (notwithstanding the acts of personal heroism from World War II which were glorified in Soviet ideology).

It seems that one of the lessons learned from the Georgia war is that this model is no longer an efficient way to conduct warfare (if it ever was). Top brass is now talking openly about developing a new model, where much more authority is delegated to field officers. As part of this change, training regimens at the military academies have been adjusted to emphasize practical training in the field over lectures on military theory.

Furthermore, the change in mentality is being tied to the recent restructuring of the North Caucasus military district. This restructuring brought the Black Sea Fleet and the Caspian Flotilla under the command of the district military commander. It appears that this change was caused, at least in part, by the recognition that the military’s command and control system functioned too slowly to be effective in combat situations. The hope is that by giving control over all military forces in the region to local commanders, decisions can be made more quickly in response to events on the ground.

This is a good start, but it would be naive to think that delegating authority to a regional commander could speed up decision-making on the ground during an actual conflict. In order to achieve that, the Russian military will need to continue on a path toward a fundamental transformation of its culture, where field commanders and even individual soldiers will be allowed, and perhaps even encouraged, to take initiative in combat, rather than passing the buck to higher-ups.

This would be a big change for the military, and it will take a long time to achieve. But recognizing the problem is a necessary first step on the road to its solution, and the military is taking some initial steps by modifying training programs and focusing its future on professional soldiers rather than conscripts. It will take some years, but it’s at least possible that the Russian army of the future will treat its soldiers as more than cannon fodder and give its field officers more authority to make decisions.