A strategy for military reform

In early 2011, the Russian Institute of Contemporary Development (INSOR) released a massive report entitled “Discovering the Future: Strategy-2012.” The idea is to develop an agenda for Russia’s development during the next presidential term. The section on security issues and the military was authored by Alexander Golts and Mikhail Krasnov. Golts appears to be the lead author of the part on the military. In this report, he first goes through the reasons for the likely failure of the reform effort. This consists of a few fairly familiar points that I will simply list in bullet point form:

  • The current conscription system is not equipped to deal with the sharp decrease in the number of 18 year olds that is coming in the next 2-3 years.
  • Conscripts do not have the training (and often also lack the abilities) to work in a modern, technologically sophisticated army.
  • Junior officers are unable to improve their qualifications because they are increasingly having to spend all their time training new conscripts. This will hinder the introduction of modern equipment into the Russian military.
  • The military’s structural reform is incomplete, with unified strategic commands not much changed from the old military districts.
  • The organization of Russian defense industry is completely ineffective. As a result, the State Armaments Program will fail.

In other words, these are the usual complaints with the system. What I find far more interesting is Golts’ proposal for how to make military reform successful. I’ll address his main points in a bit more detail.

First, Golts argues that the president should announce that the military will transition to an all volunteer force by 2018. Given previous failures in this regard, this will require a high level of transparency, as well as a guarantee of adequate funding. Golts sets the level at no less than 3.5% of GDP, with a significant percentage of that funding set aside by law for military reform goals. The military would shrink to 400-500 thousand.

Recruitment would have to increase significantly to compensate for the end of conscription. In order for this to happen, conditions for soldiers serving in the military would have to improve. Golts suggests something like a Russian GI Bill, with the government giving assistance for receiving an education after the end of the soldier’s service or providing credits to help in starting a business. Most importantly, contract soldiers would have to receive a salary that would be greater than the Russian average.

Golts believes that the military education system would also have to be significantly revamped, with the establishment of several dozen training centers that would focus on training sergeants in disciplines such as administration, psychology and pedagogy. In other words, the goal would be to train leaders who could become, in effect, junior commanders. By training several thousand such sergeants each year, by 2017 the military could have its core of 50-60 thousand professional sergeants who could be counted on to maintain discipline in the barracks and would ensure that volunteer soldiers are trained in professional ethics and how to act morally. This is vital because it is likely that for the first several years after the end of conscription, most volunteers will be far from the best examples of the younger generation.

The education of officers would also have to change. Cadets would receive a high level education in the sciences and humanities. The former would allow them to understand how to use advanced weapons and military technology, while the latter would allow them to understand their place in a rapidly changing world. Promotions would be based on merit and the system would have to be fully transparent, something like the up or out system used in the United States.

Golts then turns to the structure of the military’s top organizations. He advocates transforming the Ministry of Defense into an agency staffed primarily by civilians whose job would be to translate the policies developed by the country’s civilian leadership into the language of military orders. They would also be responsible for orders of weapons and equipment and for budgeting and other financial matters. Military operations would be based on orders that would go directly from the Minister of Defense to the four Unified Strategic Commands. The General Staff would have no direct role in operations. Instead, it would focus on strategic planning and would provide policy recommendations to the Minister of Defense and Russia’s political leaders on the nature of military threats facing the country and how to counter them.

National defense would depend not on the number of soldiers in uniform, but on a combination of threat detection by spy satellites, the ability to mobilize rapid response forces, and the use of modern long-range precision-guided weaponry. Necessary equipment could be stored at bases near areas where conflicts might be more likely, such as the Caucasus, Central Asia, or the Far East. This type of military would be designed primarily to fight in local or regional conflicts. Nuclear weapons and participation in global missile defense would ensure Russian security from larger threats.

The military-industrial complex would be reformed as well. Rather than funding the full range of military procurement, as in the current SAP, the Russian government would focus on a few priority projects in the area of high tech, such as command and control, communications, and intelligence systems.

Such a fundamental reform of the Russian military would include the establishment of a functioning system of civilian oversight through the State Duma, the press, and a system of independent analytical institutes. This would also require changes in budget and secrecy laws in order to allow the release of much more detailed budget information to the public.

This is a very good plan, obviously modeled in large part on the American military. But unfortunately, it is also very much pie in the sky, as far as the Russian military is concerned. While Serdiukov & co have taken on the generals on many issues, a reform this wide-ranging would be opposed not just by the generals but also by the country’s civilian leaders. Despite Medvedev’s occasional statements on modernization, these leaders are not really all that interested in the greater openness and transparency that are a fundamental part of Golts’ plan. They also would likely be less than happy about the reduction in opportunities for corruption that would have to come with any plan for greater financial openness.

So we are far more likely to be left with Golts’ other option — muddling through, with a few minor improvements and cosmetic changes that do not do much to make the Russian military more prepared for the conflicts of the 21st century than it is today.