Upgrading the Air Force

Friday’s NVO ran an interesting story on the procurement problems facing the Russian Air Force. The picture painted by the report contrasts starkly with the glowing promises made by Alexander Zelin, the Commander in Chief of the Russian Air Force, in a series of interviews back in August. The key points can be summarized as follows:

As a result of attrition of old aircraft combined with a lack of new acquisitions, the Russian Air Force currently has fewer than 500 combat airplanes that are capable of flight. From 1994 to 2003, the Russian Air Force did not receive any new combat airplanes. From 2004 to 2009, the Russia Air Force received only three new combat airplanes — one Tu-160 strategic bomber and two Su-34 strike aircraft.

This contrasts with General Zelin’s claims that by 2020 fully 70 percent of Russia’s aircraft will be new or modernized. New types of aircraft have faced numerous production delays. Sukhoi’s PAK FA, the next generation of  Russian strike aircraft, is a good example. Design on this aircraft began in 2002, with a goal of beginning test flights of a prototype aircraft in 2007. In 2007, it was announced that there would be a delay, but three prototype aircraft would be constructed and flying by 2009. As I write this in late October 2009, official estimates indicate that one prototype may be ready for flight in 2010, though  continuing problems with engine design may lead to further postponements.

The Su-34 strike aircraft has faced similar problems. The introduction of this new aircraft, originally designed in the 1980s,  has been mired in delays. The first test flight of the prototype took place back in 1990, but due to lack of financing and construction problems the first unit did not actually enter service until August 2007. Since then, mass production of the aircraft has been continually pushed back and few have actually entered active service. Given this history of construction delays, the goal of having 70 Su-34s in the air force by 2015 and 200 by 2020 appears more and more unrealistic.

Most of the numerous modernization programs for existing aircraft that have been mentioned by air force officials over the years have either never happened or have been ineffective in improving the aircrafts’ capabilities. For example, the recent modernization of  SU-24, SU-25, and SU-27 aircraft was mostly focused on new electronics, while retaining old armaments developed largely in the 1970s and not really suitable for combat against more advanced opponents. Furthermore, new electronics may not help if the aircraft in which they are placed have a limited lifespan due to age and suffering from limited maintenance and exposure to the elements during the 1990s.

All of these problems with modernization and procurement are the result of a broken and decaying military industrial complex. In the 1990s, the physical plant of most Russian defense industry enterprises decayed as the result of a lack of financing. At the same time, most of the best-qualified specialists retired, were laid off, or left for other fields with better economic prospects. Because of the lack of qualified personnel, defense enterprises have had difficulty keeping to production timelines and the end products have often had significant defects. This has been a particular problem with advanced weapons and weapon platforms, such as aircraft and combat ships. (The most well-publicized example is the Bulava SLBM, which has repeatedly failed test launches due to substandard components.)

The end result is that, much like the Russian Navy, the Russian Air Force is facing the likelihood of further decay in its capabilities, to the extent that its commander in chief is raising the possibility that in the near future it will not be able to fulfill the missions delegated to it by the General Staff.

Housecleaning at the Top

I have previously noted the extent to which Russian military reform was made possible by the removal of Yuri Baluyevsky, the previous chief of the General Staff, and a number of other top generals from key positions. Many other members of the military leadership resigned or were removed from their positions during the last year, in most cases because they opposed the reform. Elena Melnichuk and Vasilii Toropov have published some data on the extent to which the top staff of the Ministry of Defense have been replaced since Serdiukov’s appointment 2.5 years ago. According to their data, of the 50 top military commanders (including deputy ministers, heads of main directorates,  chief commanders, and chiefs of military districts) 44 have been replaced since February 2007.

The housecleaning began almost immediately, with the removals of Anatoly Mazurkevich, Chief of the Main Directorate for International Affairs, and Aleksey Moskovsky, Deputy Minister and Chief of Armament. By the end of 2007, the commanders of the Army, Air Force, and Navy had all been dismissed. All of these were accompanied by corresponding dismissals and transfers of their clients. The goal was to break the military high command’s resistance to radical changes in organizational structure and budgetary priorities. Through both statements at staff meetings and wide-ranging audits of various directorates, Serdiukov sought to spread the message that the widespread theft and corruption that his predecessor Sergey Ivanov could not stamp out would no longer be tolerated. As a clear sign of the seriousness of his anti-corruption effort, Serdiukov assigned the auditing tasks to people who had never worked in the military.

While Serdiukov rapidly cleaned house in the Ministry and in the services, he was not immediately able to break the power of the military General Staff. Although he sought to replace Baluyevsky virtually from the start of his tenure, Baluyevsky was strong enough to prevent his removal for well over a year, while frequently expressing opinions critical of Serdiukov’s positions. Eventually, it became clear that radical reform could not proceed while traditionalists such as Baluyevsky remained in positions of power in the General Staff, which in the structure of the Russian military was responsible for, among other things, strategic planning.  In June 2008, Baluyevsky was replaced with the much more pliable Nikolai Makarov, who has since taking the job shown himself to be a strong supporter of Serdiukov’s actions. Once this change had been made, all was ready for the implementation of radical reform, which began the following October.

Another round of dismissals and resignations followed in the wake of the commencement of reform, including in April 2009 the long-rumored departure of Deputy Defense Minister Liubov Kudelina, who had been brought in by Sergei Ivanov to run the ministry’s finances and had stayed on after his departure. According to one source, her departure was caused by her disapproval of the way some aspects of the reform were being conducted, though other sources have noted that Serdiukov had long wanted her gone, seeing her as a rival for financial control of the ministry.

Around the same time, another round of generals were also asked to retire, including Valerii Evtukhovich, the commander of the airborne troops, the commanders of the Moscow and Far Eastern military districts and, most significantly, Valentin Korabelnikov, the head of military intelligence (GRU). The latter was removed because he opposed the GRU’s reassignment from the General Staff to the Defense Ministry proper and efforts to remove special forces units from the GRU’s jurisdiction.

In the end, these firings, retirements, and resignations allowed the minister and his supporters in the Defense Ministry to create an unprecedented situation. All of the top military officers are now either fully in favor of the reform or, at the very least, silent about their opposition. The conflict between the ministry and the General Staff, which has been a constant part of the Russian military’s disfunction since the late 1990s, is no more; the general staff have been vanquished and no longer have any political clout. This has made both the rollout of the reform and its continued implementation despite trying political circumstances possible. Success will depend on keeping military bureaucrats from quietly sabotaging the effort and keeping the rank and file from openly expressing their fear and discontent.

Where does the Russian Military Stand after a Year of Military Reform?

The first announcement of the impending military reform came on October 14, 2008. Most analysts assumed that the proposals were just talk and would remain on paper, either through bureaucratic stonewalling or through lack of financing for the reform effort. Now, a year into the process, there are no doubts that the reform is for real and is virtually unstoppable.

Causes for the Start of Reforms

Although the high command has been uncharacteristically silent on the thinking behind the reform, information on the reasons that the process was initiated has recently started dribbling out. Most interesting is the recent statement by Ruslan Pukhov, the director of Russia’s Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies. He argues that the reform began at the beginning of Putin’s second term as president, when top people in the presidential administration began to ask why, despite the increase in financing for the military, its effectiveness continued to decline. They decided that something needed to be done with the lack of transparency in the military financial system, which fostered widespread corruption. They also decided that Sergei Ivanov, Putin’s handpicked Defense Minister, was failing at his task of reforming the military and that the job had to go to someone from outside the “force structures”, someone who would not “treat the military as a shrine at which one should pray but as a broken mechanism, which he has been tasked with fixing.”

But even with the appointment of Anatoly Serdiukov as Minister of Defense, it took several years to break the power of reform opponents and begin the process of radical reform. Last summer’s war with Georgia seems to have been the final straw. According to the same article in Profil, Nikolai Makarov (the chief of the General Staff) has spoken of the lack of pilots able to carry out missions in wartime and of his difficulty in finding top officers with sufficient battlefield experience to command troops during the conflict.

Serdiukov seems to have taken the tasking of “fixing the broken mechanism” very much to heart, in pushing through the reform plan without regard for the widespread opposition both in the military and among outside experts. In this, he seems to have the full support of both the president and the prime minister, as shown by his ability to prevent the financial crisis from derailing government financing for reform.

A New Kind of Army

Russian officials and analysts are gradually beginning to speak more openly about the changes in threat assessment that have accompanied the reform effort. As Pukhov stated, the political leadership finally recognized that the West, while not Russia’s friend, is also not Russia’s enemy, and Russia neither wants to nor is able to fight a war against it. Once they had recognized that neither the US nor Europe was truly a military threat to Russia, they had to give up the notion that Russia had to be prepared to fight a global conventional war and begin to transform the Russian military into a force able to fight local wars in the near abroad.

It has been difficult for the Russian leadership to announce this shift openly, because of the continued emphasis on anti-Western (and especially anti-American) propaganda as a way of distracting the population from domestic political and economic problems.  Events such as the recent Zapad-2009 military exercise in Belarus, which was designed to simulate the defense of Russia and Belarus from a large-scale invasion from the West, feed the continued perception that the Russian military views NATO and the West as a potential military threat. But given the structure of the newly reformed military, this is an illusion. The truth is that the Russian military of the future will not be capable of fighting a major war against NATO, but will have to depend upon its nuclear arsenal to deter against the possibility of such a conflict. Instead, the military will focus on improving its capabilities to fight against insurgencies and local adversaries — in other words the kinds of wars they have actually fought in the last 10-15 years.

This change in focus meant rejecting the mass mobilization army of the Soviet period and turning to a fully professional mobile army — one in which all units are fully staffed and where joint operations are the norm. To this end, once the transformation is complete, we should expect the complete elimination of conscription. While some reform opponents argue that this transition is going to destroy the army’s fighting potential, others argue that the damage from maintaining the current ineffective system would be greater than from any reform effort, as the current army is simply not able to fight.

Potential Roadblocks

While many generals are openly or secretly opposed to the reform, they no longer present a serious threat to the reform effort. The most outspoken opponents of the reform effort have been removed from their positions over the last two years. Those who remain in the ranks understand that they can only preserve their careers if they keep quiet.

There may be more of a challenge from rank and file soldiers and especially junior officers, who fear that the reform will cause them to lose their jobs and do not trust the government to provide them with the housing they are owed when they leave the service. In fact, the provision of housing for retirees has been slowed by a combination of the financial crisis and unrealistic targets for building and acquiring new apartments.

At the moment, official data from the Defense Ministry states that 90 thousand officers are owed housing. There was a plan to build somewhere between 45 and 60 thousand apartments during 2009-2010. But because of lack of financing, only slightly more than half of this target will be met in the alloted time frame. At the same time, the Finance Ministry has increased funding for military housing acquisition for 2010 from 81 billion rubles to 113 billion rubles, with the goal of providing all retiring officers with housing by the end of 2011. I would guess that there will be further slippage, but the target will be met within the next 3-4 years.

Junior officers are also unhappy with efforts by the Defense Ministry to avoid giving officers who are being laid off  the additional compensation that they would normally be owed.

What Comes Next

The structural reorganization part of the reform effort is now more or less complete. The new brigade structure is almost fully in place and will be completed by December 1. The following steps will be much less visible to the public, as officers and soldiers get used to working in the new command structure, while officers from eliminated units continue to be laid off gradually as housing and money for severance payments become available. We should also expect to see more exercises similar to this summer’s Kavkaz-2009 and Ladoga-2009, where the military learns how to function in a more coordinated and mobile environment.

In the longer term, as sergeants begin to graduate from training courses in 2011, and especially as the number of 18 year olds drops precipitously in 2012, we should expect an increased focus on hiring professional soldiers and the subsequent total elimination of conscription. To this end, salaries for professional soldiers and for junior officers will be raised by 2013 in order to make serving in the military more attractive and to increase retention.

New equipment remains the missing part of the puzzle. While purchases of some big ticket items (such as the Mistral) from abroad might fill gaps, the military will not be able to afford too many foreign purchases. The only hope for the military to receive modern equipment to go along with their modern force structure is for Russia to revive its defense industry, which will require significant investment on the part of the government. There have not really been outward signs that the government is planning to make such expenditures, but given how few leaks preceded the rollout of the organizational reform, this does not mean that such plans are not being made.

Update on Shamanov

It seems that the saga of General Shamanov I wrote about in my last post has reached a quick and relatively quiet end. After a brief investigation, the defense minister announced that Shamanov had received a warning for conduct incompatible with his position (nepolnoe sluzhebnoe sootvetstvie).  Shamanov announced that he accepted the punishment. What this means once you get past the terminology is that there will be no consequences for Shamanov beyond the negative report in his personnel file (something he probably cares little about). He will remain in his position and will not be subject to a criminal probe.

It seems that Shamanov retains the support of  Serdiukov and/or his superiors. This may be because of a combination of his popularity in the military ranks and his role in planning and carrying out the military reform.

The Hunt for General Shamanov

The Russian press was consumed last week with the case of General Vladimir Shamanov, the commander of Russia’s airborne troops. According to reports first published in Novaia Gazeta, Shamanov ordered special forces based near Moscow to stop a prosecutor from carrying out a search of a factory owned by his son-in-law, who is wanted for attempted murder and is currently in hiding abroad.

The story was based on wiretaps of cell phone conversations between Shamanov and one of his subordinates. (Shamanov, naturally, claims that the recordings were edited to create a false impression of what actually took place. He notes that the special forces never actually arrived at the factory and the search was carried out without incident.) These recordings were leaked to Novaia Gazeta, which published an expose on September 21. The next day, the Ministry of Defense launched an internal investigation of the incident. As several Russian commentators have pointed out, this is very unusual — such incidents are almost always swept under the rug.

Writing for RFE/RL, Mark Galeotti argues that the investigation, and the concurrent distancing of top brass from Shamanov, is the result of poor timing on his part. In Galeotti’s words, “He drew attention to the misdeeds of the officer corps at the very time that they are looking forward to a boom time for corruption.” Furthermore, this occurred at a time when the military is trying to shed its image (if not the reality) of being a highly corrupt organization.

I would argue that while this is certainly a part of the story, there is more to it than that. As Russian media sources have pointed out, the order for a wiretap on top airborne troops officers had to have come someone highly placed in government. Furthermore, both the leak and the rapidity with which the decision to launch an investigation were taken point to a desire to remove Shamanov by someone highly placed either in the government or in the Defense Ministry.

As is so often the case in Russian politics, the key question is who would benefit from Shamanov’s disgrace. Writing in the weekly newsmagazine Profil, Elena Mel’nichuk argues that the most likely cause of the scandal is an effort to discredit defense minister Anatoly Serdiukov by forcing him either to defend a subordinate publicly exposed as corrupt or to remove him, thus costing him a valued ally in his efforts to reform the military.

I think the likeliest source is actually the opposite. I would not consider Shamanov a Serdiukov ally. He certainly was politically savvy enough not to oppose military reform outright. For this reason, he kept his position and was not forcibly retired like so many other top generals. At the same time, he used his direct connections with Prime Minister Putin and other top government officials to prevent Serdiukov from applying the restructuring measures to the airborne troops. This supposition fits with the speed with which the military high command agreed to investigate Shamanov after the initial publication of the story.

It may be that this whole scandal is an effort to destroy a general who, despite his outward show of loyalty to Serdiukov and the Chief of the General Staff Nikolai Makarov, is seen as too independent to be controlled. If in coming weeks Shamanov is removed and the airborne troops then subjected to the same restructuring as the rest of the armed forces, this  may prove to be the reason behind the whole story.