Last week I was in Russia for a conference. While there, I got a chance to meet with Aleksandr Golts, one of the most reliable Russian experts on the Russian military. Here are some thoughts on our discussion.
Manpower and the Demographic Problem
Golts noted that the greatest problem facing the Russian military is the lack of 18 year olds for conscription. Between now and 2020-2025, the cohort of 18 year olds eligible for conscription will consist of no more than 600-650,000 men per year. Meanwhile, 700-750,000 are needed to fully staff the desired million man army. And various deferments and exemptions will inevitably reduce those numbers even further. There are few good options for maintaining a conscript-based military, especially since an increase of the term of service to 18 months is politically unpalatable and could not possibly be adopted until after the 2012 elections. By that point, it might be too late to avert a collapse of the military’s manpower system. (Golts was skeptical of the need for that many people to serve in the Russian military, but that’s a separate issue.)
He argued that contract soldiers are better than conscripts anyway, because the military does not have to spend as many resources to train them, even if they only end up staying for a single term of 3-5 years. The implication is that Golts supports the initiative to increase the number of contract soldiers to 425,000, announced at the March 18 military collegium meeting (which was the date of my interview with Golts). The idea is that this effort will succeed where previous ones have failed because of the concurrent increase in salaries for soldiers and officers.
Golts pointed out that the recent decision to partially reverse the cuts in the number of officers had two sources. First, the military had not been able to build apartments for all the retiring officers. Second, the regime had been scared by last fall’s protest meetings that were organized by the VDV veterans. In the run-up to next year’s elections, it didn’t want to have to deal with 200,000 articulate and well-trained 30-40 year old men who had good cause to hate the regime.
Golts was highly pessimistic about plans for rejuvenating Russian military industry, arguing that the military industrial complex (OPK) is actually regressing. Furthermore, it is not a complex at all, as the leading enterprises lack subcontractors to provide basic parts for final assembly. In the Soviet period, these parts used to be provided by civilian factories, who used to lose money on their manufacture. Now that there’s no Gosplan to force them to provide these components, this part of the process has broken down. Instead, the components are manufactured at the final assembly plant, but the process is slow and the product is of poor quality. Problems with the production of basic components has caused numerous defects in sophisticated weapons systems, including the Bulava SLBMs.
There are also significant problems with staffing. In the Soviet period, military industry used to be the best place to work, but now because of lower salaries and a lack of prestige it is much less attractive than the civilian sector.
(I should note that other analysts in Moscow — including those from CAST — disagreed with this assessment of the cause of problems in Russia’s defense industry, arguing that it’s in better condition than Golts believes and that supply chains for the more advanced enterprises continue to function.)
At the same time, for 15-20 years, there was no R&D work being done. With the exception of the fifth generation fighter plane and the Bulava, all of the plans for new weapons systems being used even now are no more than modifications of Soviet-era plans developed in the 1980s.
There are also problems with the OPK’s organization. As part of Russia’s overall recentralization under Putin, the Soviet-era sectoral ministries were largely restored as holding companies (United Shipbuilding, United Aircraft, Rostekhnologii). Many of the constituent units of these companies are disfunctional — the more effective units are used to keep the effectively bankrupt ones afloat. For example, Rostekhnologii controls 570 companies, a quarter of which are bankrupt.
Golts argues that because of all these problems, Russian OPK actually reached its maximum construction capacity back in 2005. Since then, increased financing has just led to higher prices for new state orders. Rather than attempting to reform itself, the industry is focused on coming up with new ways to absorb the vast increase in financing earmarked in GPV 2020.
Prognosis for the future
One of the main problems with the GPV, according to Golts, is that there is no prioritization — the military wants some of everything. At the same time, the Mistral deal was designed to be a wake-up call to the OPK — to make it clear to them that the military will no longer be satisfied with the old ways of doing business with defense industry. That doesn’t mean that OPK reform is inevitable; everything depends on how long Putin and his team will continue to support Serdiukov.
Unlike military reform, reform of the defense industry is likely to result in the exacerbation of undercover battles over the division of profits and resources. The leaders did not know the scope of the military’s problems when they charged Serdiukov with pursuing the reform. Now the likelihood is increasing that changes in the structure of the defense sector will affect the stability of the entire political system, because OPK reform will inevitably affect the distribution of control over lucrative rents among members of the inner circle. Previous aspects of military reform either didn’t affect rent payments or could be used to restructure rent flows away from generals and toward members of the inner circle.
One issue that will be critical for further reform but has not received sufficient attention in the domestic press is the extent to which cooperation with Western militaries is necessary for the success of Russian military reform. Serdiukov understand that he can’t really create a modern military with today’s officers. What is needed is a radical change in the military education system. To this end, he has created a working group to study foreign expertise on this issue. There is an effort underway to adopt Western models for operational planning for the Russian military. However, full adoption may have to wait for new generations of Russian officers.