The Russian military’s manpower problem

The greatest failures of Russian military reform over the last two years have been in the realm of manpower and staffing. Policy in this area has been wildly inconsistent and has shown no sign of either prior planning or strategic thinking during the reform process. I’ll focus here on just one aspect — the continuing debate over whether the Russian military should be staffed primarily through conscription or by recruiting professional soldiers to serve under contract. I’ll leave aside (at least for now) the equally problematic questions of reductions in the number of officers, education and training, and housing allocation.

(All of these related questions, and many others, are addressed in an excellent pamphlet by Rod Thornton, recently published by the U.S. Army’s Strategic Studies Institute and entitled “Military Modernization and the Russian Ground Forces.” I urge everyone interested in Russian military reform to read this piece — it’s one of the most balanced and informative English-language reviews of the reform I’ve read.)

While the military leadership continues to go back and forth on the question of conscription versus professionalization, it has been largely ignoring the simple fact that there simply aren’t enough 18 year olds in Russia to staff the military at current levels given the current one year term for conscription. The math is quite straightforward. The military wants to have 1 million men in uniform, of whom 150,000 were to be officers and another 150-170 thousand contract soldiers. The number of officers was recently raised to 220,000. This left a need for somewhere between 610 and 700 thousand conscripts per year. Presently, there are 700,000 men reaching the age of 18, of whom only about 400,000 are currently considered draft eligible because of various deferments and health exemptions. Furthermore, the severe drop in the birth rate in the 1990s means that within the next two years, the number of 18 year olds will decline by a further 40%, leaving less than 300,000 draft eligible 18-year olds. So the military will be facing a gap of at least 300,000 (and more likely closer to 400,000) soldiers every year for the foreseeable future unless something is changed.

The military has tried to address this problem by reducing deferments. This has not proved very effective, with only 20 percent of university graduates entering the military. At the same time, more and more young people are leaving the country for education and work, in part in order to avoid having to serve in the military. Another option that has been discussed is to increase the length of conscript service to either 18 months or two years. This is a politically unpopular measure that cannot be undertaken before the 2012 elections and may prove to be difficult to enact even then. It will most likely lead to at least some level of popular protest. My guess is that while there’s certainly some chance that the length of conscription could be increased one or two years from now, it’s fairly unlikely. Furthermore, if it happens, it will signal the rollback of military reform and the victory of the old guard over the reformers.

So that leaves two possible options for dealing with the manpower crisis within the reform paradigm. The first is to greatly increase the number of contract soldiers serving in the military. This has been the stated goal of the reformers over the last two years. But so far they have little to show for their efforts. In their recent Carnegie Moscow Center working paper on the military reform, Aleksei Arbatov and Vladimir Dvorkin point out that over the last 15 years, Russia has actually regressed in its ability to attract professional soldiers. In 1995, the Russian military had 380,000 contract soldiers and NCOs in service. Because of a combination of financial problems and resistance by senior generals, by 2003 this figure had shrunk to 135,000. Subsequent programs to increase the number of contract soldiers to 400,000 failed due to a combination of sabotage by the military bureaucracy, mistakes in implementation, and continuing problems with low pay and lack of prestige for serving in the military. Arbatov and Dvorkin note that only 107,000 contract soldiers are left at this point. This has not prevented the military from promoting new plans to increase the number of contract soldiers to 425,000 in the next few years.

The second option is to reduce the size of the military to a more manageable number. None of the arguments made in favor of maintaining an army of 1 million soldiers make sense. They are usually based on factors such as the country’s size or the length of its borders, rather than on an analysis of the realistic military threats that Russia might face in the foreseeable future. Arbatov and Dvorkin argue that the actual reasons for maintaining the size have to do with efforts by senior generals to preserve the current conscription system. I would add the factor of prestige — the generals want to be seen as leading a powerful military and in the old school world that many of them inhabit, a powerful military is a numerically large military.

Arbatov and Dvorkin propose reducing the size of the military to 800,000. They show that such a size would be sufficient to deal with potential military threats.  They believe that Russia could then have a fully professional military comprised of 220,000 officers and 680,000 580,000 professional soldiers. While this may be a laudable goal down the road, I just can’t imagine how the Russian government could succeed in recruiting such a large number of contract soldiers. A more likely scenario is to continue to combine professional and conscript soldiers, at least for the short term. If we assume that the military can continue to draft around 300,000 conscripts a year for one year of service, the required number of professional soldiers would drop to 380,000 280,000. This is still a reach, but at least somewhat more manageable as long as the government follows through on its promises to increase salaries and improve working conditions in the military.

In the longer term, Arbatov and  Dvorkin make a convincing case for the value of a transition to a fully professional military. The expectation that the future Russian military will be equipped with more technologically advanced weapons means that there will not be enough time to train conscripts serving for one year to use this technology. Furthermore, hazing (dedovshchina) will continue to be a problem as long as young men continue to be inducted into the military against their will. Professionalization is the best way to solve this problem. Finally, professionalization will eliminate the corruption associated with the conscription system, including both systemic bribery used in avoiding the draft and the use of “free” conscript labor for private ends by senior officers. One article in NVO calculated the total value of bribes received during the annual call-up at 138 billion rubles.  Arbatov and Dvorkin point out that the only fully professional unit in the Russian military — the 201st motorized rifle division based in Tajikistan — has long shown itself to have a high level of readiness and no hazing and can serve as a model for every unit in the ground forces.

I agree that full professionalization is necessary. However, it seems to me that it will take at least 5 years (and perhaps 10) to get to the point where the Russian military can recruit enough contract soldiers to make such a transition feasible, and a stopgap solution is needed in the meantime. By improving pay and conditions in the military, the government can show that it is serious about its goal of recruiting and retaining professional soldiers. If contract soldiers are paid and treated well, a sizeable number will stay beyond their initial three year term. This will start to change the military’s image, making further recruitment of professional soldiers easier and allowing the government to eliminate conscription.

Update: Apparently, I can’t subtract very well. Thanks to a reader for pointing out the arithmetic problem above, now fixed.

8 thoughts on “The Russian military’s manpower problem

  1. Dmitri is right. Total confusion reigns when it comes to personnel. An even more difficult problem — the second biggest after corruption — is what to do with NCOs. They change the procedure for training every week, and cannot decide whether to introduce Western style NCOs. Why? For the simple reason that they cannot understand the importance of delegating authority. It is not unusual now days to find NCOs with college degrees in the US military. In Western militaries it is normal for NCOs to be the major force between enlisted personnel (whether conscript or contract) and the officers. The sad thing is that this topic needs a full discussion, but the brass seem to be avoiding it.

    • Dear Mr. Herspring,

      The Russian military is not only rudderless, it also has no experience of a functioning NCO corps. I think it is crude to say they do not want to delegate authority, for they do possess some combat experience and so a significant understanding of the problem. The reason that they seek to delegate to junior officers, rather than NCOs, is an absence of precedent. Furthermore, they lack enough educated and forceful personnel even for officer posts, let alone NCOs.

      Sincerely,

      Peter Green

  2. Dear Mr. Herspring,

    Confusion reigns not only in personnel policy. The Russian military and indeed the Russian state as a whole does not know its ultimate direction. The political leadership is pursuing an expansionist anti-Western foreign policy, but it seems to have no other goal beyond this, except self-enrichment. The military would have had a clear adversary in this situation, the West, but it has become self-evident to all that it is too weak for such a confrontation. As a result, the Russian military has no defined mission, apart from nuclear deterrence and counterinsurgency in the Caucasus. Without a mission, even an effective military leadership would not be able to decide on a personnel policy. Russia has no coherent policy on any substantive domestic issue, so military personnel are in the same position as the rest of the population.

    Peter Green

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