Challenges Facing the Russian Defense Establishment

The following article originally appeared on the International Relations and Security Network (ISN) of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH Zurich). You can find the original version here.

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Over the last four years, the Russian government has undertaken an unprecedented effort to reform the structure of its military. As part of this effort, it has sought to begin the process of shifting the military to a more professional manning structure, providing it with modern weapons and equipment, and reorganizing it to be prepared to fight the conflicts it is most likely to face in the coming decades. While the reorganization process has proceeded fairly quickly, a demographic crisis and continuing problems in the defense industry will present grave challenges to the military modernization effort in the coming decade.

Military reorganization

At the start of the reform process, Russian military forces had few combat-ready units; most units were staffed only with officers, with the expectation that these officers would command units made up of reservists called up in the event of a major conflict. Planners expected it to take a full year to bring the military to full readiness in such circumstances. This type of structure worked for the Soviet military engaged in the Cold War confrontation with NATO but did not make sense for a military that expected to be involved primarily in local, counter-guerilla and counter-terrorism operations. Being prepared for this type of conflict leads to far less stringent requirements in terms of army strength and mobilization capability, while emphasizing greater professionalism and combat readiness on the part of the military.

To better prepare the military to fight in 21st century conflicts, the Ministry of Defense mandated major changes in command structure to improve command and control. As part of this plan, traditional military districts were eliminated in favor of four Unified Strategic Commands (USCs). Each USC was given responsibility for all conventional military units in its region, in both peacetime and wartime. This was the first step of an effort to create truly joint military forces in which troops belonging to various services are under a single command and able to easily communicate with each other. As part of this change, the military shifted from a four-tier to a three-tier command structure, with combined arms armies and brigades below the USCs. The goal was to make the military more compact and mobile and to allow for rapid troop deployment, all as part of an effort to prepare the military to fight smaller local wars, rather than the huge frontal conflicts of the past.

The second part of the reorganization involved making the brigade the basic unit of the military. The reform created modular brigades that combine three infantry or tank battalions with dedicated reconnaissance, artillery, air defense, logistics, and repair units. These brigades are much more self-sufficient in combat than a regiment, but at the same time more mobile than a division.

The reorganization process was largely completed in 2011. However, the Ministry of Defense is still facing challenges in maintaining the newly formed brigades at a high readiness level and in providing communications equipment to facilitate joint operations involving multiple armed forces branches. These challenges are related to the two greatest problems facing the Russian military: inadequate staffing and outdated equipment.

A continuing manpower shortage

Despite the need for an increase in the number of professional soldiers, the Russian military has largely failed to resolve its manpower shortage. Although it officially has a one-million-man army, actual staffing is around 750,000. The gap between the official position and reality, of course, implies that 25 percent of billets are currently vacant. This does not bode well for the concept of fully manned permanent readiness brigades, which have been at the core of recent military reform efforts.

The manpower shortfall is due to a combination of a rapid decline in the number of 18-year-old men eligible for conscription and an inability to recruit enough contract soldiers to fill the gap in the number of conscripts. Presently, there are no more than 700,000 men reaching the age of 18, of whom only about 400,000 are 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. The number of conscripts called up annually has already declined to 270,000.

Some politicians have sought to address the manpower shortage by proposing an increase in the length of conscript service to either 18 months or two years. This is a politically unpopular measure that will most likely lead to popular protest. Given the fragility of the current political regime, it seems fairly unlikely. Furthermore, if it happens, it will signal the rollback of military reform and the victory of the old guard over the reformers.

The military is instead banking on vastly increasing the number of contract soldiers serving in the military. This has been the stated goal of military reformers for many years. But so far they have little to show for their efforts. In fact, 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 to135,000. Since then, there has been a modest increase to190,000. The MOD has set a target of reaching 425,000 contract soldiers by adding 50,000 per year starting in 2012. To this end, it has increased salaries and improved living conditions for soldiers. Despite these actions, it is falling short of its recruiting targets for this year and is not assured of continued financing for contract soldier recruitment going forward. Given its manpower problems, the military would do better to abandon the fiction that the Russian military has one million personnel and admit that 800,000 is a more realistic target going forward.

Outdated armaments

The Russian military is also facing a crisis in its equipment. Because of a lack of funding, the military received virtually no new equipment between 1993 and 2008. As a result, the vast majority of its armaments are both physically old and based on outdated designs. To deal with this problem, the Russian government has begun to implement a 10-year and $650 billion State Armament Program. The program’s goal is to ensure that 70 percent of the Russian military’s equipment is modern by 2020. The program’s top priorities are to re-equip the Strategic Rocket Forces, the air force, the air defense and space forces, and to provide more advanced command and control equipment for the military.

The program suffers from a number of problems. First of all, when Russian officials discuss their goals for procuring modernized weaponry over the next 10 years, they never define their terms. They do not have a list of what types of armaments are considered modern. In some cases, systems that are based on 20-50 year old designs are described as modern. This inevitably leads to the conclusion that the MOD is implicitly defining modern equipment as any equipment that was procured in the last few years, rather than equipment actually based on new designs.

More importantly, analysts have grave doubts that the program will actually be carried out. Prominent Russian political figures have argued that the government cannot afford to spend such sums on rearmament given the need to revitalize the country’s civilian infrastructure and the need to fund social programs in a deteriorating economic environment. Last summer, senior officials were considering a decrease in procurement funding for the next several years. Some sources indicated that the entire State Armament Program would simply be extended for three years—that is, it would run through 2023 rather than 2020.

Even if procurement funding is maintained at planned levels, there are grave doubts about the Russian defense industry’s ability to produce modern weapons. Only a few enterprises have modernized their facilities and begun to work on new designs. The rest have outdated equipment and are not prepared to fulfill the military’s needs. Most are continuing to lose skilled workers because the civilian sector can pay higher salaries. This is in addition to the disappearance of an entire age cohort (ages 30-50) who didn’t go into the field over the last two decades because of its lack of financing and low prestige. Even companies that have modernized are dependent on subcontractors for their supply chains, and these subcontractors are often in much worse shape.

There are also problems with the defense industry’s organization. As part of Russia’s overall re-centralization 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 dysfunctional — with the more effective units used to keep the effectively bankrupt ones afloat. All this means that the modernization of the industry has only barely begun. And it is difficult to understand how the State Armament Program can be fulfilled without the modernization of the defense industry.

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.