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.

Vostok-2010: Another step forward for the Russian military

The recently concluded Vostok-2010 exercises showed that the Russian military is making progress in achieving its goals of major structural reform. This was the first major Russian military exercise in recent memory that did not involve a scenario consisting of a major frontal battle. As Alexandr Golts pointed out in his analysis, this sort of scenario is very convenient for public relations purposes, but does not contribute much to improving military preparedness. Instead, the exercises consisted of a number of smaller episodes, consistent with the announced scenario of fighting irregular armed formations, counter-terrorism and (for the Navy) anti-piracy operations. The exercises focused on mobility, with a particular emphasis on ensuring success in the logistical sphere. According to General Nikolai Makarov, the Chief of the General Staff, the location of the exercise in Siberia and Russia’s Far East was selected specifically in order to make the transport of troops and their resupply relatively difficult, due to the large distances, sparse population, difficult climate, and poor state of transportation in the region.

Testing a Force Projection Capability

The exercises showed that the Russian military is capable of projecting force over long distances relatively quickly. For this purpose, a large number of bomber (SU-24) and fighter-bomber (SU-34) aircraft were sent directly from central Russia to the Far East on what was supposedly the longest non-stop flight for these types of planes. This was made possible through multiple in-flight refueling operations. Furthermore, an infantry brigade was sent from Ekaterinburg to Primorskii Krai, though it was transported without heavy weaponry, such as tanks and artillery, all of which it received from a local base upon arrival.  Golts notes that this was the first time in his memory that the Russian army had conducted such an operation.

It was carried out successfully and in the assigned time period, though Golts also points out that the weapons provided for the brigade had been selected in recent months especially for this purpose. Had this been a real emergency and the brigade forced to make do with randomly chosen stored equipment, they would have almost certainly faced severe problems due to mechanical failures. But this is a known problem for the Russian military, and one that is to be addressed over the coming decade through a rearmament program. The important takeaway from this exercise is that Russian military planners are seriously preparing for contingencies that require the rapid transfer of troops from one region to another. Golts is right in arguing that if this capability becomes widely developed, there will be no need for the military to maintain a million-man army in order to protect Russia’s gigantic territory. Instead, planners will simply need to make sure that they have well-maintained supply depots located in all likely zones of potential conflict and be prepared to send brigades to those regions in the event a conflict suddenly broke out.

Simplifying the Command Structure

The new simplified command structure was the second aspect of the reform that was tested by Vostok-2010. The replacement of divisions by brigades was the first step of this effort, and it was successfully completed last year and tested to some extent in last falls major exercises. The current exercises went further, examining the possibilities provided by the recently announced transition to a joint command system, where four geographically-based strategic operational commands (SOCs) control all of the troops on their territory, including ground forces, the air force, the navy, and assorted support staff. The goal is to reduce the levels of command from 13 to three. In the previous system, in addition to the command system “center-military district-army-division-regiment,” troops also received commands from their service headquarters and various central General Staff commands. The current system will consist of three levels — SOC – operational command – brigade. This reform will lead to the elimination of thousands of officer positions in various headquarters in Moscow and around the country. According to General Makarov, this transition will be completed in early 2011 and will mark the end of the military’s structural transformation.

The new system received a preliminary test in Vostok-2010, with a single SOC commanding troops from the Siberian and Far Eastern military districts, as well as the Pacific Fleet and assorted air force units, including those from other districts brought in specifically for this exercise. Initial reports indicate that the system performed according to expectations. At least, there have been no indications so far of problems with the command system during the exercises. Furthermore, whereas electronic command systems were present only for show during Zapad-2009 and the other major exercises last fall, this year for the first time such systems started to play a role (though still only limited) in the actual conduct of the exercise. These included (according to media reports about the exercise) videoconferencing equipment used in decision-making, computer modeling used in targeting anti-aircraft missile systems, and digital analytical systems.

Not a big deal for most armed forces, but certainly an advance for a military that is still not able to provide each soldier with his own analog radio, much less any kind of modern electronic communications system.

A Step in the Right Direction

One item that was noted repeatedly by generals discussing the conduct of the exercise was that conscripts who had only been in the service for 1-2 months exceeded all expectations of their performance. It was made clear that they did not do as well as contract soldiers or those conscripts who had been inducted last summer, but it was clear that the military leadership was trying to emphasize that the army could continue to function despite its problems with attracting a sufficient number of contract soldiers to fill the new brigades.

Overall, the Vostok-2010 exercise made it clear that the leadership of the Russian military has a clear vision of the kind of army they would like to build and that they are making progress in achieving that vision. One aspect of that vision is a significantly reformed logistics and supply system, a topic I will discuss in detail in my next post. Once this system is restructured and the new Strategic Operational Commands are stood up next year, we will likely see the end of the constant organizational changes that have marked the first two years of reform. The period of structural reorganization appears to be drawing to a close and the next steps are likely to be focused primarily on solving the manpower problem and endowing the newly restructured military with new weapons and equipment.