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Russia's Military In The Throes Of Change

Is Russia's military stuck in the past?
Is Russia's military stuck in the past?
From the Russian military standpoint, the war in Georgia in August was a disaster. As one writer put it, "It turns out that a 21st-century army did not go into battle -- it was a Soviet Army with models from the 1960s and 1980s. For this reason, rather than a no-contact war, we had classical all-arms battles." As a consequence, Moscow is moving ahead briskly with a plan to modernize its military and bring it up to world standards by 2020.

The problem is that Moscow has done nothing for the last 10 years. For example, only three warships were built during that time. Russian commentators argue that the equipment in defense factories is outdated, and most of the specialists are ready for retirement, while some have observed that by the time Moscow produces a new plane or tank, it will be 10 years out of date as a result of the country's technological lag in the defense sector. Furthermore, the dip in global oil prices could hurt the Kremlin's effort to move forward in this area.

Nonetheless, Moscow is planning a major shakeup of its military establishment that, if carried through to completion, will be the structural equivalent of the late Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov's "revolution in military affairs." Based on the direction the reforms appear to be taking, the Russian military could well be unrecognizable even to those who have watched the evolution of the Soviet and Russian armed forces closely.

Consider the changes that appear to be under way at present. First, numbers. The officer corps is being cut from 355,000 (there are 400,000 slots, but only 355,000 are filled at present) to 150,000. The military will have 1 million troops under arms, and that means one officer for every 15 soldiers (as opposed to the current one for every 2.5). This means cutting the number of generals from 1,107 to 886 (primarily in logistics, since much of that work will be civilianized), and colonels from 25,665 to 9,114. Majors will be cut from 99,550 to 25,000, while captains will go from 90,000 to 40,000 and all 140,000 warrant officers will be eliminated. The only rank to gain will be lieutenants, and they will go up by 10,000.

Even the hitherto sacred General Staff and Defense Ministry will take hits --- from 21,873 to 8,500. Physical fitness tests are also being introduced, much to the chagrin of Moscow's overweight officers: in the first part of 2008, 26 percent of all young officers tested failed.

In addition, the number of educational institutions will be cut from 65 to three military and educational centers, six academies, and one military university. Eighty percent of all military lawyers will be let go, and the number of physicians will drop from 7,967 to 2,200. By 2010, if not sooner, reformers hope Russia will have a 100 percent professional army, backed up by a reserve force of conscripts who serve one year of active duty (which is hardly long enough to master modern military technology).

Growing Resistance

There are also major structural modifications under way. Instead of four levels of command (military district, army, division, and regiment), the Russians will move to three (military district, operational command, and brigade). Most importantly, Moscow has decided to create a noncommissioned officer (NCO) corps. This is a revolutionary step for an organization that finds it extremely difficult to delegate authority, and it is unclear how well it will work. So far, the attempt to attract what are called "kontraktniki" (contract soldiers) has not worked very well -- because of low pay and inadequate housing -- although the Kremlin is working on both.

Officers are understandably upset. Morale is said to have plummeted, with rumors that senior officers will select those to remain in service who "show their appreciation in material ways." Thousands of officers are worried about their futures. Will they just be dumped on civilian society after 10 or 12 years of service? So far, their complaints have had little impact. The chief of the General Staff and first deputy defense minister, General Nikolai Makarov, appears to have tried to silence what criticism there has been. Given the enormity of changes, such criticism will likely continue

It appears that Makarov is a figurehead charged with implementing changes ordered by Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, a man with almost no military background. Serdyukov was brought into the ministry from the Federal Tax Service to get a handle on the rampant corruption and theft that was decimating the military.

In addition to instituting new rules for the procurement of equipment and weapons, Serdyukov also decided that a major shake-up in force structure was in order, and has not been bashful about implementing one. Unfortunately, from the standpoint of the officer corps, he has the full support of both President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

There have been several attempts at military reform since the Soviet Union collapsed, so it is not surprising that many doubt this latest effort will work. In my opinion it will -- provided that the Medvedev administration puts enough money into the creation of a professional force, if there is a major breakthrough in weapons production, and if the Russian officer corps can be convinced to delegate authority to NCOs and junior officers. The only thing one can say for sure is that this administration appears to be more serious about turning things upside down and producing a Western style military than any of its predecessors.

Dale Herspring is a professor of political science at Kansas State University and the author of "The Kremlin And The High Command: Presidential Impact On The Russian Military From Gorbachev To Putin" (2006). The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL