Leadership: Russia Keeps Trying


June 17, 2010: Russia continues reorganizing its military. The latest major change is the elimination of two major headquarters, so that instead of six military districts (each in charge of all the troops and bases in part of the country), there are now four. There is also a consolidation of military airfields. Currently, there are 245 military airfields, maintained at a cost of $127,000 each, per year. Most of these airfields are dual (civilian/military) use, and many are in remote parts of the country. But there are dozens of major air bases, most air force, and the rest navy. The largest ones will be combined into joint air force/navy air bases, with only two solely naval air bases. There will also be 27 smaller air fields equipped to handle air force and navy aircraft. All this is but the latest development in a major effort to reduce and reform the Russian armed forces.

 When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, it had five million troops in its armed forces. Now it's down to about one million in just Russia (which got about half the population of the Soviet Union, and most of the territory). Although the Russian armed forces lost 80 percent of its strength in the last 18 years, a disproportionate number of officers remained. At the beginning of the current round of reforms, the Russian military has about 1.2 million personnel (400,000 in the army itself, the rest in paramilitary units that are largely uniformed and armed like soldiers). But there were 355,000 officers in this force. That's more than one in three, and included 1,107 generals, 25,665 colonels, 99,550 majors, 90,000 captains, and only 50,000 lieutenants. With all that, some 40,000 officers positions were still vacant. The reorganization is eliminating 20 percent of the generals, 65 percent of the colonels, 75 percent of the majors, and 55 percent of the captains. The number of lieutenants is increasing 20 percent. The number of military organizations (about 2,500) are being cut (by 80 percent). Most of these are reserve units, Cold War relics, containing only a cadre of officers. In the event of a major war, reservists (who are no longer available) would be called up to use the stockpiled equipment (also now missing.) The Stavka (general staff) is having its personnel cut 61 percent (to 8,500), and military districts and bases are being consolidated. This eliminates  thousands of officer jobs. Many generals were not happy with all these cuts, but this resistance has, so far, never got beyond sharp words and bitter regrets.

The senior officers (lieutenant colonel and above) are being retired, all others are offered retraining. The money saved goes to training and promoting more NCOs, and enlisting more volunteer (or "contract") soldiers. The Russians want an all-volunteer forces, but have lacked the money to replace all conscripts with higher quality, and more highly paid, volunteers. Note that data on how many troops there are of each rank in the Russian military is still considered top secret stuff, and these numbers were recently released as a Defense Ministry official discussed reforms with the media. This was apparently done to reduce sympathy for the thousands of soon-to-be former officers who might go around complaining that the military is falling apart.

The big problem is lousy morale among the troops. The cause of this goes back over sixty years. After World War II, Russia deliberately avoided developing a professional NCO corps. They preferred to have officers take care of nearly all troop supervision. The NCOs that did exist were treated as slightly more reliable enlisted men, but given little real authority. Since officers did not live with the men, slack discipline in the barracks gave rise to the vicious hazing and exploitation of junior conscripts by the senior, or simply stronger and more ruthless, ones. This led to very low morale, and a lot of suicides, theft, sabotage and desertions. Long recognized as a problem, no solution ever worked.

During the 1990s, when military budgets were cut by over two-thirds, most of the best officers got out, and went on to make their fortunes in the new market economy. That left a lot of career officers who saw no other job prospects. Many turned to corrupt practices to supplement their low military pay. Corruption got out of hand.

The hazing and corruption in the military is a complex issue. For one thing, Russia does not have military police to deal with this sort of thing. During the Soviet period (1921-91), the KGB kept an eye on criminal activity in the military, but was more concerned with loyalty and espionage. The violence and hazing in the ranks was not seen as a big problem. It is now, because Russians can vote, and the parents of young men getting abused while doing their conscript service, are making a lot of noise over this issue. Taxpayers are more interested in what the military is doing with their money.

For any meaningful change to occur in the military, there has to be a major upgrade in leadership throughout the force. The first step is to get rid of the most troublesome and least effective officers. Money for more NCOs and contract soldiers will have to come out of the existing personnel budget. Sacking most of the existing officers seems like the way to go for solving both of these problems

For over a decade, Russia has been desperate to reform its armed forces, particularly the army. Poor discipline, low morale and incompetent performance are all legacies of the Soviet era (1921-1991). Russian commanders, envious of the success of all-volunteer Western forces, have long studied their former foes, and have now decided to adopt a lot more Western military customs. For example, from now on, Russian troops will not be confined to their barracks most of the time. In the Soviet era, the conscripted troops were treated like convicts, and their barracks were more like a prison than the college dormitory atmosphere found in troop housing for Western military personnel. Russian conscripts will now be free to leave the base on weekends, and work only a five day week.

Russia has also admitted that troop pay has to match what is available in the civilian sector, if the military is to get the quality of personnel it wants, and needs. With the number of officers being cut by 150,000, it's easier to afford big pay raises for officers and NCOs. Pay is also being raised for volunteer enlisted troops, as the previous "contract soldier" program did not offer enough money to attract enough suitable recruits.





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