How to save money on the military

In last Friday’s NVO, Ruslan Pukhov takes on the always controversial topic of how to reduce military expenditures. He notes that the plans set out by President Putin in his article on security issues require a high level of financing, which may not be available if the price for oil and natural gas declines or if Russian economic growth slows down. He mentions that the Ministry of Finance is discussing the option of reducing defense expenditures by as much as 0.5 percent of GDP. If that plan comes to fruition, how would the savings come about?

Pukhov proposes two primary areas for cost reductions. First, he points out that no one has ever explained why Russia needs a one million man army. That level of manpower is excessive for dealing with local and regional conflicts, while more serious conflicts with NATO or China can be deterred with nuclear weapons. Russia’s poor demographic situation means that even without the cost considerations, Russia will not be able to maintain a million man army in the next decade. I have previously noted that even now there are only 750,000-800,000 personnel serving in the military, while 20-25 percent of billets are vacant.

But Pukhov goes farther, arguing that military manpower could be cut to 700,000 or even 600,000 by way of eliminating 6-8 brigades in the ground forces. This would result in significant savings on staffing and training, with little negative effect on overall combat readiness.

The second area for savings is in procurement of equipment and weaponry. Here, Pukhov makes the argument that given Russia’s geography and the nature of the potential threats it faces, the navy provides the least value for the price. Ships and submarines are of course notoriously expensive items and it is true that the most likely source of conflict for Russia will come from across its southern border, where naval forces can play no more than an auxiliary role. At the same time, the Russian Navy is likely to play an important role in protecting sea lanes in the Arctic and in guarding offshore oil and gas extraction facilities in the Pacific. It would also play a crucial role in any potential future conflict in East Asia. So I was initially dubious about Pukhov’s call for downsizing the fleet.

However, if you look at the details of his recommendations, they primarily concern the ongoing shift from a blue water navy to a coastal protection force. While this has been the de facto strategy for Russian naval development for the better part of the last decade, recently the MOD has made statements indicating that it will seek to restore the RFN as a global force. Pukhov rejects this initiative, specifically by calling for the cancellation of the pointless project to restore the Soviet-era nuclear cruisers. This is a recommendation I fully support. I know that boosters of the RFN will respond with data about how powerful these ships can be. My response is that power is one thing, but usefulness is a different matter. There is simply no way that the project’s cost can be justified given the lack of missions for such ships in current Russian military strategy.

Pukhov’s second recommendation is to cancel the purchase of Mistral ships. Here I am a bit more skeptical. These are very expensive ships, no doubt. But they will provide value for the RFN in three ways. First, they can serve as a helo-carrying amphibious assault ship, a capability largely lacking in the current RFN. Second, they can serve as command ships for specific fleets. And third (and still the main reason for the deal), by building two ships in Russia, the deal will contribute to the ability of Russian shipbuilders to construct modern ships of various types in the future. So there may be value here. But if the budget axe does fall on the Russian Navy, then it would no doubt be more effective to cancel this project than the new frigates and corvettes that are to form the core of the Russian Navy for the next 20-30 years.

Whether or not one accepts Pukhov’s specific recommendations, his article serves a useful purpose in calling our attention to the kinds of hard choices that the Russian military will have to make should the rumors of impending budget cuts come true.