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.

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Why is the Russian defense industry in such bad shape?

In recent weeks, I have been writing about how the Russian defense industry has shown itself to be incapable of providing the military with high quality weapons, platforms and systems, despite the relatively abundance of financing for military procurement over the last few years. But why hasn’t the money been spent on modernizing plants and hiring experienced workers?

An article in today’s NVO describes one source of problems for the industry. It argues that modernization of these kinds of plants can only be carried out with secure government funding. And it further notes that there is plenty of financing available for this. The problem is that while money for the coming calendar year is usually allocated in November, it doesn’t reach the intended recipient until the end of the third quarter (i.e. August-September). And not all recipients receive all of the sums they have been allocated.

This uncertainty means that they cannot order new equipment until the money arrives. At this point, they are faced with a legal requirement to spend all allocated money in the current fiscal year (i.e. before December, as the fiscal and calendar years in Russia match). Since the complex (and often unique) equipment that is required for real modernization to occur needs several months to be designed and built, it cannot be ordered in August-September.

But the money that is received must be spent on something, or else it will not only be lost, but the recipient is likely to receive a reduced allocation for the following year. So the money is spent on cheap standard equipment, which is not strictly needed for modernization, but at least the money isn’t going completely to waste. And the recipient can send in reports to the government stating that new technologies have been purchased, the percentage of new equipment at the factory has increased, etc. But in real terms, no actual modernization has occurred.

The question of what this money is doing from November to August is left unanswered, though two options strongly suggest themselves — either there is corruption and the money is used to accrue interest for private individuals or there is bureaucratic incompetence in the administration and it just takes a long time for money to be transferred to the intended recipient. Most likely, both of these factors are at play.

If this analysis is correct, the implication is that improvements in the state of the defense industry are impossible without changes in the financing process. The easiest path would be to relax the restriction that requires allocated financing to be used in the current year. That would allow recipients to order needed equipment whenever the money does arrive, without worrying about having their future allocations cut. This seems to be much more realistic than actually eliminating corruption or increasing administrative efficiency in the Russian government.

(NOTE: I will be traveling for the next couple of weeks. Updates will resume sometime in early January. Happy holidays!)

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.