The million man army does not exist

For months, I’ve been arguing that the Russian military does not actually have the one million soldiers that it officially lists as serving in its ranks. A recent article by Aleksei Nikolskii in Vedomosti confirms my argument with official statistics.

Nikolskii cites an official report by Nikolai Pankov, the MOD State Secretary, to Defense Minister Anatoly Serdiukov. According to this document, in April 2012 the total number of people serving in the military included 160,100 officers, 189,700 contract soldiers, and 317,200 conscripts. In other words, 667,000 people. In addition, there are medical personnel, cadets, faculty at various military academies, and some other types of personnel that are not included in those statistics. But even adding those in, Nikolskii notes that according to a source in the MOD, the total number of military personnel would not exceed 800,000.

Back in December, I came up with some very similar calculations that led me to estimate a total strength of 750,000. As Nikolskii rightly points out, given Russia’s current demographic situation, there’s simply no way to maintain a million man army without increasing the number of contract soldiers to 500,000.  The current goal is to add 50,000 a year until they get to around 420,000 in 2017. I have my doubts on whether that’s an achievable target, but much will depend on whether the new higher salaries for military personnel prove sufficiently attractive. I haven’t seen any numbers on the number of new contract soldiers recruited since the higher pay rates went into effect at the beginning of January. It seems to me that if the effort had been highly successful, it would have led to a publicity effort. So the longer the military maintains its silence on the question of contract soldier recruitment in 2012, the more skeptical I get about the success of its effort.

In the meantime, I’m glad to see that more and more Russian experts are coming around to the position that the military should abandon the fiction that the Russian military has one million personnel and admit that 800,000 is a more realistic assessment of the current manning situation. The gap between the official position and reality, of course, implies that 20 percent of billets are currently vacant.

This does not bode well for the concept of fully manned permanent readiness brigades, which has been at the core of the Serdiukov reform. The concept is still a good one, of course, but it may be better for the Russian military to cut the number of brigades and keep the ones it has fully staffed than to operate with the fiction of fully staffed brigades, as it seems to be now.



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.

Makarov takes down Gareev and the military’s old guard

By now, there have been a number of articles analyzing Nikolai Makarov’s speech at the General Assembly of the Russian Academy of Military Sciences. At the risk of repetition, let me add my two cents to the discussion.

A fundamental critique of the military’s academic establishment

It seems to me that the most important part of the speech is Makarov’s clear statement that Russian military science had failed to provide the Russian military with methods for adapting to the new forms of warfare being used by the armies of all other major world powers. Between the advent of network-centric warfare in the early 1990s and the announcement of Serdiukov’s miltiary reforms in 2008, there was no effort to introduce modern information management systems into the Russian military. Instead, the various military academies and institutes continued studying the old wars, assuming that in the future, the Russian military would be called upon to fight World War II yet again, and what’s more, do it with World War II era technology and tactics.

In the speech, Makarov took several digs at the head of the Military Academy, 87 year old General Makhmud Gareev. In particular, he arrived late, missing Gareev’s opening speech. In other circumstances, this might be seen as a symptom of his tight schedule, or could even be blamed on Moscow traffic. But given that the bulk of Makarov’s speech was focused on criticizing the Academy’s performance under Gareev’s leadership, there can be no doubt that this was a deliberate snub. Furthermore, Makarov made a snide comment about the Academy continuing to conduct research on topics such as guerrilla warfare during World War II, which he argued had been studied sufficiently and could not contribute to the future development of the Russian military. Makarov went on to note that the problems weren’t limited to the Academy, but were common to most military academic institutes.

The result of this academic failure was seen in the Russian military’s performance in the 2008 war with Georgia. As he has in the past, Makarov argues that this was the proximate cause of the start of radical military reform. In this speech, he notes that the problems made evident by Russian performance in this conflict required drastic measures even though the military’s academic establishment had failed to provide a theoretical basis for the reform. The result was a rather explicit confirmation that the leadership is seeking to transform the Russian military into a modern army that will use highly trained forces and the latest technology to engage potential enemies. Of course, the road from here to there will be long and potentially uneven, but as I’ve argued before, at least the will is there.

To this end, I have to disagree somewhat with Aleksandr Golts’ skepticism on this account. While he is happy with Makarov’s speech, he argues that until this speech, he was not sure that Makarov supported the new approach. It seems to me that Makarov has all along been the chief proponent of radical reform among the military’s senior ranks. This is why Serdiukov appointed him to be essentially his right-hand man, and why he is one of the few senior officers who were not retired during Serdiukov’s house cleaning.

New training for new technology

The second key point made by Makarov in his speech related to the introduction of advanced information technology into the Russian military and into its training regimen. Makarov pointed out that currently, if the staff is prepared, it takes 5-6 hours for a brigade commander to make a plan on how to conduct combat operations and to send out orders to his subordinates. It then takes another 5 hours for the field officers to make their decisions on the basis of these orders and pass them on to their subordinates. Using digital technology and modern information management systems, he argued that it takes Chinese commanders just 20 minutes to do what Russian commanders require 10 hours to accomplish.

In order to train Russian officers to use such methods, the Ministry of Defense purchased two simulator training systems that are able to simultaneously train 3000 soldiers each. These systems will be based in Nizhny Novgorod oblast and will allow the military to train an entire brigade, from commanders all the way to infantry soldiers. The actions of each soldier will be videotaped and analyzed, with the goal of examining the extent to which soldiers are able to take initiative and use creative thinking to carry out their orders and achieve their individual and group goals. In the German system, soldiers are only allowed to train on actual equipment after they have passed the simulator training. Makarov noted that the goal of the Russian army is to have all ground forces brigades pass through such training.

Makarov’s arguments on this topic lead to a couple of thoughts. First of all, the purchase of training systems from Germany indicates yet another potential avenue for cooperation with NATO. While Makarov went out of his way to note that the software and training programs used at this facility will be purely Russian, the shift to a German-designed simulator-based training system will undoubtedly help promote interoperability between Russian and NATO forces, potentially pointing toward greater cooperation at some point in the future.

Second, note the comparison to China. Russian military types may have gotten used to comparisons to advanced NATO countries, but arguing that China is much better at warfighting than Russia is a calculated move designed to show just how backward Russia is in network-centric warfare.

Finally, if the Russian military is going to get serious about shifting to high-tech network centric warfare, it’s going to need to have soldiers and officers that have the know-how to make use of such technology. And that means getting away from conscripting the dregs of society. Which brings us to Makarov’s final key point.

The contract soldiers strike back

Makarov made two important statements about manpower in this speech. First of all, he argued that the recent announcement that the number of officers in the military will be increased from 150,000 to 220,000 does not mean that the army will simply hire back 70,000 of the recently retired officers. That had been the assumption when Serdiukov first made the announcement about the increase in the total number of officers a few weeks ago. Makarov, instead, argued that the new officers will primarily be technical specialists and will not be those who were recently laid off.

Second, he reiterated Serdiukov’s recent announcement that the number of contract soldiers will be increased to 425,000. The type of contract soldiers the military will seek to attract will be fundamentally different than in the past. Rather than trying to press conscripts to sign a contract to stay on for another three years, they will focus on hiring soldiers who are capable of mastering the complex technology with which Makarov hopes to equip the Russian military. To this end, salaries for contract soldiers will be 2-3 times higher than in the past (25,000 rubles/month).

Makarov noted that the General Staff has studied the experience of East European states such as Poland, Bulgaria, and the Czech Republic in shifting from conscription to a contract force. Soldiers in these countries receive $1100-1200/month in salary and housing allowance. The Russian military hopes to reach this level of pay in the foreseeable future as well. (Note the use of East European states as a model. This is yet another calculated effort to provoke the more hidebound generals.)

Furthermore, he made it clear that the contract soldiers will form the core of the Russian military, with conscripts making up no more than 10-15% of the total force. This is a very interesting statement that has not gotten the attention it deserves. If there are 425,000 contract soldiers and 220,000 officers, and 15% of the total force is made up of conscripts, some simple arithmetic indicates that the total force will consist of 760,000 soldiers and officers, of whom 115,000 would be conscripts. In other words, Makarov was implicitly indicating that the Russian military is going to a) give up on the million man army and b) drop its target of having 200,000+ conscripts. Both of these developments are inevitable given Russia’s demographic situation for the coming decade, but so far the military leadership has stuck to its manpower goals despite the obvious impossibility of reaching them in the near future.

So what we have is a slightly oblique statement of a fairly radical vision of reform. Makarov is betting on a smaller, more high tech military. Furthermore, his presentation was calculated to put down the military’s old guard, as symbolized by the Military Academy’s 87-year old director. In the coming months and years, we shall see to what extent he is able to implement this vision.

Women in the Russian Military

In last week’s NVO, Mikhail Bogoslovskii argues for solving the Russian military’s manpower problems by introducing conscription of women. There are currently around 10-15 countries in the world that conscript women into the military, out of around 90 that have some kind of conscription.  The most prominent of these is Israel, where women serve for 21 months.

Bogoslovskii bases his argument on notions of equality and fairness, noting that conscription is essentially a tax on the poorest and least socially connected young men in Russian society. The costs of this tax, he argues, include the feminization of higher education and therefore the entire education system, as many men who serve in the military and then go straight to the working world would otherwise attend university. (I’ll skip over the sexist generalizations about how this damages Russia by depriving it of the “brainier” male part of society. ) He cites research that having a son conscripted into the military lowers a family’s income by 15 percent, without taking into account the decrease in earning potential through work experience (or education) not gained during that year.

Bogoslovskii then focuses on some of the positive aspects of having women serve in the military. He notes that though they are on average physically weaker than men, they have higher stamina. He makes various other arguments, often self-contradictory, about benefits women would derive from serving in the military. These boil down to women gaining experience and self-confidence from serving in the military.

But rather than focusing on Bogoslovskii’s arguments, I want to address the general question of whether this is a potential solution for the Russian military’s manpower problem and, if so, how this would impact the Russian military and Russian society. In terms of pure numbers, having women serve would certainly help solve the manpower problem. Right now, there are about 900,000 18 year old men in Russia. Of these, only around 300,000 are draft-eligible, given current regulations and exemptions. The Russian military at its current strength needs about 800-850,000 enlisted soldiers, including both conscripts and contract soldiers. There are currently around 200,000 contract soldiers in the military. If we assume that the number of draft-eligible 18-year old women in Russia would be approximately equal to the number of men, adding 300,000 women conscripts would pretty much solve the military’s manpower problem.

What would be the impact of such a solution? First of all, we should make clear that women already serve as contract soldiers. In fact, if Bogoslovskii’s data are right, they already comprise 50 percent of Russian contract soldiers. There are also a number of female officers, though in percentage terms, this is a pretty low number. Most Western military services have integrated women over the last several decades, and though the road was not always smooth, there are now many roadmaps on how to do this successfully. Many female Russian emigres (and their daughters) have been conscripted into the Israeli military, so Russian military leaders could use that experience as a model.

Clearly, such a step would be a huge cultural shift for the male-dominated world of the Russian military. But it might have a lot of positive consequences. First of all, I would imagine that such a step would decrease the ubiquitous problems with hazing. There have been a number of studies that have shown that the presence of women in a social group reduces intra-group aggression, and there seems to be no reason to think that the Russian military would be any different in this regard. Furthermore, problems with alcoholism may also decline, as Russian women on average drink less than men. While unit cohesion may initially be affected by the presence of women, in the long run, the decline of hazing should lead to improvements in this sphere as well.

Overall, while this would clearly be quite a radical step for the Russian government to take, it has the potential of both solving the manpower problem and improving the conditions for conscripts. It would certainly be easier politically than extending the length of conscription service back to 18 months or two years.

Ukraine’s military in even worse shape than Russia’s

The Ukrainian military seems to be in complete disarray. I don’t regularly follow the Ukrainian military, so I apologize if the following is in some way incomplete or misleading. It is based on an article in the most recent issue of NVO.

Once we get past the usual tendency of much of the Russian press to make fun of Ukraine and especially the Ukrainian language (such as the continual references to Ukraine’s “zbroinye sily”) and the slightly ludicrous connection between underfinancing of the Ukrainian military and political arguments that Russia might soon attack Ukraine, there is some interesting information in the article.

First of all, the Ukrainian military is woefully underfinanced. To maintain its existing level of functionality, the Ukrainian military required 17.7 billion hryvnias (about $2.2 billion). The actual level of financing in the 2009 budget was 8.4 billion hryvnias (just over $1 billion), which is equivalent to 0.87 percent of the country’s GDP.  After public protests by head of the general staff, funding was increased to 11.7 billion hryvnias, although one-third of that money was to come from special one time revenues from property sales. The financial problems were so bad that a large number of Ukrainian military bases had their power shut off due to non-payment of electricity bills.

The result of this level of underfinancing has had a devastating impact on training, with 96 percent of military staff receiving no practical training whatsoever. Air force pilots from the rapid reaction force get only 10 hours of flight training per year, while other pilots receive virtually none at all. In large part, this is because the air force receives virtually no fuel (4000 tons in 2009 versus a requirement of 65-70,000 tons).

Equipment is also deteriorating. 88 percent of Ukrainian military aircraft are incapable of flight. Only 30 of the air force’s 112 fighter aircraft are considered combat-ready. 70 percent of navy ships and 40 percent of tanks and artillery are not combat-ready. The only major new systems received by the military in the past year were two new tanks.

My only personal interaction with the Ukrainian military bears this out. Back in 2005, I was involved in a study that examined the possibility of greater US naval cooperation with the Ukrainian Navy. This was in the immediate aftermath of the Orange revolution and hopes were high. Ukrainian naval commanders were eager to meet with my team and made it clear that they would accept any overtures for greater cooperation. But they persistently rejected our requests to see their ships with various excuses. It was clear that they were embarrassed at the condition of these ships and did not want the extent of their deterioration to become widely known.

The deterioration of training and equipment is compounded by what seems to be a complete leadership vacuum. Yuri Yekhanurov, the last defense minister, was removed by parliament last summer. No replacement has been appointed, nor is there any chance that one will be appointed before the upcoming presidential elections. In early October, Sergei Kirichenko, the chief of the general staff (i.e. the country’s top military officer) submitted his resignation in protest at the lack of concern for the military’s problems among the country’s political elite.

At the same time, Ukraine is doing better than Russia in terms of manpower. 53 percent of Ukrainian soldiers are professional. Salaries and benefits are quite competitive with the civilian economy and there is virtually no prospect of actually having to participate in combat.

At the same time, the military has no problems with the draft. In fact, in the current year there are 18 candidates for each available spot in the military draft. This is the result of a combination of high levels of unemployment among young men in the aftermath of the economic crisis, improved job prospects for draftees after the completion of their service (they can get jobs more easily in the police forces or in private security services), and the disappearance of hazing in the Ukrainian military after the break-up of the Soviet Union.

The implication of this article for the Russian military is that a transition to a professional military is possible as long as economic incentives are properly aligned and living conditions (included freedom from hazing) are adequate.

Conscription and Military Reform

I returned from a brief vacation to find out that this blog had been recommended on The Monkey Cage and Lawyers, Guns and Money. Thanks to Josh and Robert!

More substantively, I wanted to respond to the following comment made by Matt on Lawyers, Guns, and Money:

This isn’t bad but leaves out two huge factors that have slowed Russian military reform and might well derail this, too.  You can’t understand the situation if you leave these factors out and that they are not mentioned at all makes me a bit worried about the author’s take.  First, the huge swaths of poorly trained conscripts do not just sit around and get abused by older troops and the like (though they do that, too.)  They form private work-forces for officers, especially high-ranking ones.  These troops build dachas for officers, but are also hired out to private people as workers.  The officers get the money and the troops essentially none of it- they are just ordered to do the work.  (I have very close personal experience of this.)  So, reducing the number of poorly trained draftees would put a big, personal, financial crimp on many officers, a serious reason why they have opposed reduction.  Knowing this and taking account of it is essential for understanding the situation there.  Secondly, when an officer retires he has, traditionally, be guaranteed housing.  The move to vastly reduce the officer corp has, for 15 or more years, floundered on this fact, as there are not enough buildings, especially where people will live, to put all the officers who will supposedly be forcefully retired, and the government has been afraid of what would happen if they are not passified somhow.  With the (government sponsored) increase in nationalism over the last 10+ years, large groups of angery, militarily trained men are not something one wants, and the government has been smart enough to know this.  Again, if you don’t take this into account you can’t understand the situation.  If anything I’d suggest that these factors are as important or even more important than those considered in the article for understanding the failings so far of military reform in Russia, and why we should not assume they will work this time, either.

Matt raises two important points. On the question of conscripts acting as private work-forces for senior officers, this is has absolutely been a huge problem. But it is also one of the reasons the civilian leadership of the country has decided to press ahead with the reform. The list of top officers who have been removed from their positions for resisting reform in the last year is extensive, and I’m sure that their opposition to end corrupt practices such as this one played a role in their removal. For whatever reasons, Putin and co. have decided to tackle military corruption and are refusing to succumb to the full court press against reform. The length of service for conscripts has already been reduced, and the number of conscripts will decline in comming years due to demographic factors. Regardless of what the officers want, this makes the transition to a professional (or almost entirely professional) military essential for Russia.

One other thought on conscripts: the elimination of a number of exemptions means that conscription will no longer only target Russian of the lowest status. And that (together with the drop to 1 year of service) may spell the end of the brutal hazing that has been endemic in Russia for decades.

On the question of housing: this is a very serious problem, and one I did not address in my initial post due to space constraints in the original memo. It needs to be addressed in some detail and with reference to materials that I don’t have on hand right now, so I will have a separate post on this issue in the next week or so.