February 16, 2011

Period of changes in the Russian military

Kaarel Kaas: Since the mid-1990s there have been numerous attempts to reform and modernize the Russian military. All these efforts remained on paper, faded, or resulted in minor reorganisations like merging or splitting different units, or in attempts to increase the number of professional servicemen. However, no substantial changes were ever made and the Russian military remained a smaller copy of the Soviet armed forces until the fall of 2008.

16.02.2011, Kaarel Kaas
In “Russian Federation 2011. Short-term Prognosis.” , Karmo Tüür (Ed.), “Politica” series Vol. 10, Tartu University Press,  2011. Pp. 38-44
Since the mid-1990s there have been numerous attempts to reform and modernize the Russian military. All these efforts remained on paper, faded, or resulted in minor reorganisations like merging or splitting different units, or in attempts to increase the number of professional servicemen. However, no substantial changes were ever made and the Russian military remained a smaller copy of the Soviet armed forces until the fall of 2008.
A major shift occurred in October 2008, when Anatoly Serdyukov, the Russian Defence Minister, launched a military reform that overhauled the previous situation. As a result, during the last couple of years the Russian military have lived in the atmosphere of drastic and real changes.
The crucial points of the so called Serdyukov reform are the structure, chain of command and personnel of the Russian military.
Background and current situation
Until the fall of 2008, the structure and organisation of the Russian military largely originated from the decade following World War II. The earlier system based upon armies, divisions and regiments was abolished and a new structure was set up in which ground forces in the Russian military consist of 85 brigades (39 are general purpose brigades, i.e. motorized infantry and tank brigades). The precise structure of the brigades is still being worked out, but according to the existing plans, a general purpose brigade will become a constantly combat-ready unit consisting of 5000-5500 troops and capable of independent combat operations. Three types of brigades have been proposed: the so called heavy (armed with infantry fighting vehicles and tanks), average (equipped with armoured personnel carriers and tanks), and light brigades (lightly armoured all-terrain vehicles and trucks).
By 2012, when the reform is expected to be finished, the Russian ground forces should consist of 172 units and formations instead of 1980 units and formations, which was the case before the reform.
The Air Force will be re-organised into 180 units instead of 340; the earlier armies-divisions-regiments will be replaced with joint air force bases. The number of units in the Navy will be 123, down from 240.
The earlier structure will be kept in airborne troops, strategic missile forces and space troops.
These structural changes and the downsizing of the number of different units reveal the essential meaning of the Serdyukov reform – a decisive rejection of the military concept based upon mass mobilisation and intended for an all-embracing, grand-scale Cold War-style conventional conflict.
An overwhelming majority of units to be abolished by the reform were/are only partially manned (the so called “cadre units“). In peace time, such units were manned only with 10-40% of the personnel required for full combat readiness, and thus many regiments during peace time actually consisted only of a hundred officers and non-commissioned officers. Such partially manned units were supposed to be fully manned and armed only after mobilisation.
The creation of a huge multimillion war-time army based upon mass mobilisation has been a basis of the Russian and later Soviet military thinking and doctrine since the mid-19th century. A rejection of this concept is of fundamental importance.
During the reform, the earlier four-tier chain of command (military district-army-division-regiment) has been replaced with a three-tier chain of command (strategic command-operational headquarters/army-brigade). It will allow a more rapid, flexible and efficient use of armed forces, eliminating several excessive tiers from the chain of command between units conducting actual combat operations and the headquarters, which direct the combat operations.
Another pillar of the reform concerns the replacement of military districts with joint strategic commands. After 1998 there have been six military districts in Russia, and the Kaliningrad Special Defence District. In December 2010 they will be replaced with four joint strategic commands: West (headquarters in Saint Petersburg), South (headquarters in Rostov-on-Don), Centre (headquarters in Yekaterinburg), and East (headquarters in Khabarovsk). The West Command will have the greatest military potential. It will be organised on the basis of the Leningrad and Moscow military districts, the Kaliningrad Special Defence District as well as the Baltic Fleet and the Northern Fleet.
In contrast to the abolished military districts, all conventional forces in the territory of a strategic command – ground troops, the Navy, air force, airborne troops and special forces (Spetsnaz) – will be subordinated to the new strategic commands. The Moscow-based Staff`s of respective military branches will be responsible only for training, supply, development of military equipment and other supporting issues. During a crisis or a state of war, border guards and the units of FSB, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and the Ministry of Emergency Situations, etc. in the territory of the respective joint strategic command will also be subordinated to the command.
The general number of personnel in the Russian military will be downsized to one million men by 2012 (in 2008, the respective official figure was 1.3 million). Personnel cuts will come mostly at the expense of officers: the number of officers will be 150 000 persons (in 2012), down from 350 000 persons (in 2008). A decrease in the number of officers will be largely achieved through the liquidation of partially manned units; in addition, significant cuts are planned in the central apparatus of the General Staff and the Ministry of Defence. The biggest cuts will be among officers in the rank of colonel and lieutenant colonel; a significant number of generals will be also discharged. A major part of personnel cuts are said to have been carried out by now.
Another important personnel-related change introduced by the reform is to give up attempts to make the Russian military professional, that is, to man a certain amount of units with contractual servicemen on a permanent basis (the so called kontraktniki). The objective of recruiting about 150 000 contractual servicemen set forth under the federal programme of making the armed forces professional (launched in 2002) has never been achieved in reality. According to present plans, the number of contractual soldiers and sergeants in the armed forces will remain within 90,000 – 105,000 persons. All brigades in the state of permanent combat readiness – including airborne troops, which are considered elite troops – are presently manned with conscripts to the extent of 60-70 percent. The period of conscription has been reduced to 12 months starting from 2008.
Forecast for the year 2011
In accordance with the federal budget for 2011-2013 approved in October 2010, Russia’s defence expenditures will grow from 1276.8 billion roubles in 2010 (30.2 billion euros, 2.84% GDP) to 1517.1 billion roubles in 2011 (35.8 billion euros, 3.07% GDP). In 2013 the defence expenditures shall already rise to 2098.6 billion roubles (49.65 billion euros, 3.39% GDP).
Salaries of the servicemen shall rise by 6.5 percent from April 2011, which should more or less compensate them for inflation.
Chronically low salaries as compared to the general living standards, mass discharges from military service because of the reform, major disturbances in the private life of professional officers due to moving and relocation of military units (many officers have had to move to a new place of service on a very short notice; such places are mostly away from larger settlements, limiting job opportunities for the wives and the availability of kindergartens and schools for children) have resulted in an atmosphere of general dissatisfaction and instability in the Russian armed forces. In its turn, it has led to low morale in military units and to open protests against the Defence Minister and the Chief of the General Staff, General of the Army Nikolai Makarov. Defence Minister Serdyukov and General Makarov are both extremely unpopular in the armed forces. Thus, they are both likely to be replaced in 2011. The elections to the State Duma at the end of 2011 and the presidential elections in the spring of 2012 will influence almost any significant decision in Russia next year. The tandem of Putin and Medvedev might perceive the unpopularity of Messrs Serdyukov and Makarov as a potential political and image problem. Therefore, getting rid of them would prevent the frustration of active and retired servicemen from finding an output in political activity.
However, possible changes in the military top brass neither will have impact on nor reverse the military reform which started in 2008. In 2011 we are unlikely to see significant changes in the combat capability of the Russian military; due to the drastic structural changes and re-organisations it is still somewhat lower than before the reform. Implementation and fine tuning of the command and control system based upon the new brigade-based organisation and strategic commands will continue.
Ground forces will be receiving new equipment and weaponry mostly at the same rate as before – sets of armoured vehicles and tanks for four-five battalions per year. Enhancement of night operation ability for the Russian tanks and armoured vehicles will continue by way of installation of night vision equipment produced under the licence of Thales, a French company. Simultaneously, the ground forces will start to receive trial sets of command and communication equipment and the production of unmanned aerial vehicles is likely to start in Russia in co-operation with Israel. However, these developments will not influence combat capabilities of the ground forces.
The Air Force will receive 10 to 20 new Su-30, Su-27M and Su-35 fighters and Su-34 bombers; a second prototype of PAK FA (T-50), a new fifth-generation fighter, is likely to be finished.
As for the Navy, the strengthening of the Black Sea Fleet will continue. Two Neustrashimy class frigates (project 11540) – Neustrashimy and Yaroslav Mudry – will be transferred from the Baltic Sea Fleet to the Black Sea Fleet. As the Baltic Sea Fleet will not initially receive any replacements, its combat capability will temporarily decline.
A transfer of one-two Steregushchy class corvettes (project 20380) to the Black Sea Fleet is also possible.
The Northern Fleet will be strengthened with Severodvinsk, a new generation nuclear Yasen class (Project 885)  attack submarine.
Yuri Dolgorukiy, a new generation Borei class (Project 955) ballistic missile nuclear submarine, will probably be officially commissioned and sea trials of the second submarine of this class – Alexander Nevsky – will start.
Provided the trials of the new submarine-launched ballistic missile Bulava intended for the Borei class submarines prove successful, this missile will be finally deployed in the autumn or by the end of 2011.
If Moscow and Paris manage to agree upon the terms and conditions of the deal, the construction of a big Mistral class amphibious assault ship for the Russian Navy will start in France.
The combat capability of the Russian Strategic Missile Forces will continue to decline owing to the decommissioning of ageing land-based ICBMs. At the same time, the rearmament of the Russian Strategic Missile Forces with RS-24 Yars ICBMs will continue (a variant of RS-12M2 Topol-M missile with multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle, MIRV). In 2011 the Russian armed forces should receive 6 to 12 RS-24 Yars missiles.
The last two years have been a period of dramatic, all-embracing changes for the Russian military.  The reforms have been carried out rapidly and forcefully, figuratively speaking, in a shock therapy mode, but their main objectives – a new structure, a new chain of command, personnel cuts and re-organisation of the personnel structure – have been largely achieved. Thus, in 2011-2012 the Russian armed forces will enter a period of stabilisation and evaluation, consolidation, specification and adjustment of the reform results. The main emphasis will shift to ensuring the combat capability and real and effective functioning of the new structure and strategic command model.

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  1. […] 6 See L.W. Grau and C.K. Bartles, “The Russian Way of War: Force Structure, Tactics, and Modernization of the Russian Ground Forces”, US Department of Defense Foreign Military Studies Office, 2016. A good overview of the measures taken is provided by Kaarel Kaas in an ICDS blog post of 16 February 2011, available at icds.ee/period-of-changes-in-the-russian-military/. […]

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