The State of the Airborne Troops

A few days ago, NVO published a lengthy interview by Viktor Litovkin with General Vladimir Shamanov, the  commander of Russia’s airborne troops. Litovkin got answers to some questions that have long been circulating among observers of the Russian military.

Maintaining the old organizational structure

First of all, he addresses the issue of why the VDV was the only service (other than the strategic nuclear force) to retain a divisional structure, rather than shifting over to brigades. He argues that the divisional structure was kept because it was tried and true practice. While the ground forces, air force and navy were all undergoing wholesale restructuring, there was a need to retain one combat force that would be prepared for combat while these changes were going on.  Shamanov goes on to say that the VDV was able to react quickly to the Georgian attack on South Ossetia at a time when the ground forces were being shifted to a brigade structure. This is an odd response, both since the shift to brigades was announced in October 2008, three months after the Georgia War, and because the ground forces’ 58th army was  very involved in that conflict. Airborne troops did arrive first, but rapid response is their job, isn’t it?

Furthermore, if the main reason that the division structure was retained had to do with keeping one combat force stable while the others were being reformed, wouldn’t the airborne troops have been shifted to a brigade structure once the organizational transformation of the ground forces was complete? There are two possible implications: either the military’s top commanders are not yet satisfied with the combat readiness of the ground forces’ new organizational structure or Shamanov is not giving the real reason for the VDV’s retention of the divisional structure. Perhaps the rumor that Shamanov simply had enough pull to shield the VDV from the organizational reform is the real story, but obviously not one that can be shared by an official source.

In any case, Shamanov notes that some organizational changes are coming to the VDV. Instead of regiments, in the near future the VDV divisions may be comprised of brigades. Also, each division now includes an anti-aircraft missile regiment, armed with 9K35 Strela-10 short range SAM systems, 9K38 Igla man-portable SAM systems, and ZU-23-2 autocannons. The VDV and the General Staff are currently working out whether the airborne troops might have their own helicopter regiments in the future. Another option is to have army aviation regiments or brigades that operate as part of the VDV without being formally included in VDV command structures. The incorporation of helicopter units will first be tried out by the 7th VDV division in the Caucasus, with the first test to come in the Kavkaz-2012 exercises this fall.

Shamanov also briefly addresses the question of the VDV’s position in the overall military chain of command. The VDV is still subordinate directly to the Chief of the General Staff, but in some situations its units could be commanded by the commanders of individual operational strategic commands. Furthermore, the 98th division and 31st brigade are also part of the CSTO rapid reaction force and subordinate to that organization.

Manpower and social needs

Manpower is the second major topic of discussion in the interview. Shamanov notes the increasingly important role that professional soldiers are playing in the VDV. Currently, contract soldiers make up 40-45 percent of the troops across all services. He believes that the official goal of reaching 80 percent by 2016 is eminently reachable. He points out that since military salaries were increased in January, the army has been able to be selective in choosing who serves in the military. At the same time, conscription will be retained in order to maintain some mobilization potential and to socialize one segment of the country’s youth. This all sounds great, but I’d like to see some specific numbers on recruitment of contract soldiers in the last 2 months. Otherwise, it just sounds like more of the type of empty generalities we’ve all heard too many times before.

Shamanov also talks extensively about the role of sergeants in the VDV. Currently, most of the sergeants serving in the airborne troops are technical staff (i.e. former warrant officers), who are currently being trained in 10-month  courses in Omsk according to the old warrant officer training program. There are also some technical sergeants trained in other specialized schools in fields such as communications and servicing anti-aircraft weapons. But this summer, the VDV will receive the first cohort of sergeants graduating from the three year training program in Riazan that is designed to train sergeants to command troops. While this first class will be just over 200 people, they will form the basis of the new corps of command sergeants. Again, this sounds great, but the Russian military will need a lot more of these sergeants before there will be much effect on overall discipline in the force.

Shamanov briefly addresses the question of officer housing, as well. Since VDV units are mostly located in large cities, they have fewer problems with housing and spousal employment than other services do. They tend to attract contract soldiers who already live in the city and need neither housing nor jobs for their wives. Instead, the service focuses on creating comfortable conditions for service within the VDV. They have also pretty much resolved the issue of wait lists for apartments for retiring personnel. The one exception is those who want an apartment in Moscow — they have a choice of waiting for a long time or accepting an apartment well outside the city.

New technology and training

Shamanov notes that the VDV is increasing its participation in multi-national and bilateral exercises, including a two week counter-terrorism exercise in Colorado with US Special Forces coming up in May 2012. During this calendar year, the VDV will also participate in CSTO rapid reaction force exercises in Armenia, the SCO exercise Peace Mission 2012 in Tajikistan, and an exercise with Ukrainian paratroopers on Russian territory.

As far as new equipment, Shamanov focuses primarily on UAVs. VDV is currently using domestically produced Grusha UAVs for reconnaisance, though he is not fully satisfied with the quality of the device’s optics. Nonetheless, its use has improved artillery accuracy by 20 percent. He would also like to receive attack UAVs, with a range of 50-100 km. For now, there are no such domestic UAVs in production and there are no plans to buy foreign UAVs for the VDV.

To conclude, Litovkin asks Shamanov about the biggest unsolved problems facing the service. Shamanov lists two — increasing the amount of modern equipment used in the service and improving the quality of conscripts drafted to serve. He pins his hopes on Rogozin’s energy in speeding up production of new equipment and military-patriotic clubs in schools increasing the physical preparedness of young men before they are called up. I’m not sure which is more likely — Rogozin creating an effective and efficient Russian defense industry or a new DOSAAF turning Russian teenage boys into models of physical fitness.

Will the Kirov cruisers be restored?

I owe readers a final report on Center-2011, and also the rest of the update on Navy procurement, but I can’t pass up the argument that seems to now be brewing between the military correspondents of NVO and Izvestiia. In today’s NVO, Viktor Litovkin launches a broadside against what he terms the “sensationalist” coverage in Izvestiia (though he doesn’t refer to that paper by name, it’s clear enough from the description), arguing that its recent articles on the upcoming removal of Aleksandr Shliakhturov, the head of the GRU, the scrapping of Russia’s remaining Typhoon submarines, and some other topics were all denied by defense officials.

I take no particular stand on this argument. We all know that defense officials are paid to deny certain news right up until the minute that they are officially announced. We will see soon enough whether Shliakhturov retires, whether the Typhoons are scrapped, and whether Russian soldiers continue to wear berets. What made this particular article by Litovkin interesting and relevant is that most of it is devoted to arguing about whether the Kirov cruisers that I discussed in my last post will actually be modernized and returned to the fleet.

Litovkin is skeptical, because 1) he could not get confirmation from the Ministry of Defense and 2) there is no money for this task in the current state armaments program. These don’t seem to be definitive reasons, after all 1) the ministry spokespeople may not be authorized to make an official statement and 2) if a political decision is made to go ahead, money will be found quickly enough. The SAP-2020 is not a bible and changes along the way should be expected.

But Litovkin adds some interesting commentary on why this project is not very feasible and would be a bad idea even if it were. He notes (and here I think Kramnik would agree with him) that these cruisers would not have an obvious mission for the Russian navy. They were originally designed to fight American aircraft carriers, a task that is not very relevant to the 21st century Russian navy.

He then points out that Russian shipyards do not currently have the capacity to carry out this modernization. There are only a few shipyards that have sufficiently large drydocks, and most of these are already being used for other tasks. Sevmash in Severodvinsk is fully occupied building nuclear submarines (both Borei and Yasen class). Zvezdochka in Severdvinsk has the capacity, but doesn’t have a license to work on nuclear reactors, which would be one of the main tasks of the repair. Severnaia Verf in St. Petersburg is fully booked building smaller ships. The Baltic Shipyard in St. Petersburg, which originally built the ships in the 1970s and 80s, could do it but is near bankruptcy because of various political conflicts. It may well be closed and taken over by interests seeking to develop its territory for commercial ends.

Given this list of shipyards, I wonder whether the push for restoring the Kirov cruisers is, in fact, an effort by the Baltic Shipyard to counter the efforts to close it. If it is the only possible candidate to modernize the ships, and a decision is made to go ahead, then the shipyard will gain a new lease on life and powerful political protectors who could ensure its survival for at least the next decade.

Of course, it could be longer than a decade. Litovkin points out the danger of corruption through dolgostroi, as a number of Russian shipyards have used long-term construction and renovation projects such as the Vikramaditya project (10 years) and various nuclear and diesel submarines to get continuing financing from the Russian budget and from foreign governments. Specific instances of theft of state funds in connection to the overhaul of the Peter the Great and Admiral Kuznetsov in recent years do not inspire confidence either.

Litovkin concludes that the only benefit to overhauling the Kirov cruisers would accrue to specific individuals, while the Russian navy would derive little use from the ships. By and large, I would have to agree with this assessment.

By the way, here are some pictures of the three ships under discussion which give a sense of their current condition… (from worst to best). Pictures originally found here.

1. Admiral Lazarev

2. Admiral Ushakov

3. Admiral Nakhimov

Another round of reorganization

According to Viktor Litovkin, the Russian military is about to undergo another around of reorganization. The current system of six military districts and seven armies will be replaced by four “operational-strategic directions,” broken down as follows:

  • The Western direction will include the current Leningrad and Moscow military districts, the Kaliningrad special district, and the Baltic and Northern Fleets.  It will be headquartered in St. Petersburg next door to the Admiralty.
  • The Southern direction will include all of the North Caucasus and part of the Volga-Urals military districts, the Black Sea Fleet, and the Caspian Flotilla. Its headquarters will be in Rostov.
  • The Northern direction will include the Siberian and the rest of the Volga-Urals military districts and will be based in Ekaterinburg.
  • The Eastern direction will include the Far Eastern military district, the Kamchatka special district, and the Pacific Fleet. The headquarters will be in Khabarovsk.

In each case, the direction headquarters will control all troops in their area, including naval and air force units and air defenses, with the exception of Strategic Rocket Forces, which will remain under separate command. At the same time, the headquarters of each of the separate services (i.e. the ground forces, navy, air force, and air defenses) will be transformed into structural divisions of the General Staff.

The transformations are to occur imminently, as there are already plans to test this system in the Vostok-2010 exercises, scheduled for July-August 2010. The main goal of these exercises is to test the integration of all military command and control systems.

These exercises will involve the entire Far East from Lake Baikal to the Pacific Ocean and will consist of a “modern combined arms operation,” including airborne and amphibious landings in hostile territory, counter-terrorism operations, and rocket and artillery attacks. The air force and navy will both have prominent roles, with the Navy in particular involving two cruisers — the Peter the Great and the Moskva.

The goal of all these transformations is to reduce the number of layers of command from sixteen to three, hopefully thereby increasing the speed and accuracy of military decision-making. The idea is that with this new simplified command system and improvements in communication equipment, “the chief of the general staff will be able to call any company or platoon commander” and vice-versa.

Litovkin argues that given the current condition of the Russian military, the goals of this exercise sound like science fiction, rather than anything that could actually be accomplished. I too am skeptical of the military’s ability to implement the reorganization and train people to use all this new communications equipment in the 2-3 month window prior to the start of the exercises. But even if these moves are delayed, they are at least signs that the military is continuing to head (albeit slowly) in the right direction.