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.




2 thoughts on “How to save money on the military

  1. I think you are being short sighted.

    A modern Navy needs air cover and there is two ways of dealing with that… land based and ship based.

    Land based is cheaper but basically limits you to your immediate geographic location.

    Ship based is more expensive but also much more capable and can be used to extend the vision and reach of any group of ships.

    If you have aircraft carriers then ships designed specifically to protect those ships are worth the investment.

    The US shows all the time the usefulness of a carrier group that can be sent to pretty much any coastline within days.

    The US uses it both to intimidate and to reassure depending on the situation.

    A Navy without carriers is like an Army without an Air Force, and with NATO and US interventions they deal with the Air Force first to prevent it from preventing them from taking out the leadership of the country they have decided to liberate from democracy.

    Very simply if Russia had a strong navy and could have sent a carrier group to sit off shore I think the Kosovo campaign might have turned out rather different. Of course without Kosovo independence then South Ossetia and Abkhazia would still be autonomous regions of Georgia.

    Equally your logic is fundamentally flawed… Your argument is to cut funding now because the economy MIGHT become worse in the future. As Russia grows as a nation it will expand its interests into different regions… the difference between being a regional power and a global power is your NAVY.

    It is not about invading and bombing people… in fact in many ways for Russia it would be the opposite… if there was a Russian carrier helping to enforce the no fly zone in Libya then what happened probably would not have happened. I am pretty sure the arrival of Russian vessels in Tartus had an effect on western plans for Syria.

    If you give up on a significant military then the west will just treat Russia as it has done in the 1990s. I am not suggesting a 5 million man armed force that can invade europe, that would be an enormous waste, but one million is not that much considering it includes all the services of Army, Air Force, Strategic Rocket forces, Navy, and Aerospace Defence Forces. Russia is the largest country in the world afterall.

    Carriers like the Mistral will be invaluable for humanitarian missions. How much good will does the US get for its global humanitarian work… probably not as much as it deserves… but then its other activities tend to undo the good work in many places too.

    If the Russian Navy had a single Mistral vessel when Myanmar had problems a few years ago many many lives could have been saved. I mean a load of 16 medium helicopters and landing vehicles and trucks in addition to the command facilities and the 100 bed hospital on board.

    I am sure the government would have been very appreciative of that sort of help from Russia and the result would be an expansion of ties as well as confidence that Russia can be there… you can’t buy good relations, but a non partisan offer of help wins friends and potentially can create business ties.

    Seeing Russia help Myanmar in that region would make other countries there realise that Russia can be a good partner for business and security too.

    I am sure there are plenty of countries in central and south america and indeed in asia and africa that have little trust in the US but see no real alternative that can have a presence in their region to counterbalance them.

    Russia, with a strong navy… not necessarily a big navy, could fill those shoes.

    Russia does not need 100,000 ton 16 billion dollar carriers like the US and I am not suggesting they do.

    Countries don’t become great world powers and then decide to build a strong navy… it happens the other way around… a strong navy give global reach and global influence… whether it is keeping the peace or just showing the flag.

    The most important thing is that money spent on your navy goes into your economy and creates technology that has value. China and India still buy Russian naval vessels, when all the problems are sorted out the new Lada class will be a the conventional sub to beat. The Talwars are excellent world class Frigates.

    Russia has lost most of the Warsaw Pact Market to NATO. To recover your economy you really need to think globally and a navy is the only option to become a global power for Russia.

    The future is very difficult to predict. In 1980 I rather doubt the British thought that in 2 years time they would be sending a task force to the South Atlantic. For Russia before Saakashvili invaded South Ossetia I think the expectation of a conflict was very low on their radar horizon.
    The sudden and unexpected attack snapped them back to reality and they suddenly realised that a change of government in Japan, an earthquake, a Tsunami, a failing economy. What if a new political party decides to run for election on a “lets get back the northern territories” campaign… unlike the Georgian Navy the Japanese navy is very well equipped even if it is focussed on defence. Several Japanese officials have already suggested that Japans laws on their defence force being a purely defence force could be changed to allow certain changes in force structure and training… and from the experience of South Ossetia Russia cannot rely on the US and West for support to stop the invasion…

    Mistrals have a clear and obvious mission in both the Pacific and the Northern Fleet and the support ships they will need and the infrastructure upgrades they will need will be good for the Navy.

    • GarryB,

      I’m not going to respond to everything in your post, as I just don’t have the time, but just a couple of quick points. First, the argument to cut funding is not my argument, but Ruslan Pukhov’s. And I very much support Russia having a strong navy. But (and this is my second point) there’s a difference between having a strong navy and just throwing money at it. Refurbishing the cruisers is just a waste of money. Maybe having the Nakhimov would make sense, as it is in ok shape. But refurbishing the other two will be worse than the Vikramaditya mess. It’ll be a giant money sinkhole.

      Eventually, the Russian navy should have carriers. But first, it must replace the aging smaller ships. The shipyards are in bad shape and have only so much capacity anyway. This is why the focus for the next 10 years must be on small ships that can maintain coastal defense and sea lane protection for the medium term. Once those programs are complete, they can start building new destroyers to replace the Udaloys (and the Sovremennyis, though those are already useless). And only after that can they afford to start thinking about carriers. Otherwise, they’ll spend all their money on carriers without the protection ships that carriers need to function effectively.

      Finally, if you’ve read my previous posts, you’ll know that I think the Mistrals may be quite useful for the RFN. Not as useful as Gorshkov frigates, but useful nonetheless. My point was just that if they’re going to get their procurement budget chopped, then canceling the Mistrals would make more sense than canceling the Gorshkovs. But it would be better if they kept both.

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