Leadership: A Sergeant Major Away From Salvation


November 5, 2011: After over a decade of false starts and failure, the Russian Army believes it has a workable plan to create an efficient force. That would be a big improvement. For most of the last century, the peacetime Russian Army has been a mess, and the main reason has been the lack of non-commissioned officers (NCOs, sergeants). Conscription has been a contributing factor, as too many troops were just there for two or three years, and left just as they were becoming useful. The latest plan will expand the number of volunteers, who are paid a competitive (with civilian jobs) wage and must meet high standards. From these volunteer, or "contract" ("kontrakti" in Russian) soldiers, NCO candidates are being selected and sent to special NCO schools. Russian officers have examined such schools in Western armies, and adopted techniques they believe would work in Russia.

The army generals have also accepted the fact that Western NCOs come in many different flavors. Many of these NCOs are just technical specialists, while others are supervisors and leaders. Russia accepts that NCOs must be trained to be able to take over command if all the officers are killed or disabled. This actually happened during World War II, but this made Communist Party leaders nervous. They noted that during the communist revolution in 1917, many of the rebel leaders had been NCOs in the Czarist army. The communists also noted that this was not the first time this had happened. It had occurred several times in the last two centuries, most notably during the French revolution of the 1790s.

So after World War II, the ratio of officers to troops was expanded, and professional NCOs practically disappeared. With that, morale plummeted and discipline disintegrated. The dismal effects of this policy were obvious anytime Russian troops came under fire (Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, Afghanistan in the 1980s). But the problems were ignored. Russian leaders continued to believe that "quantity had a quality all its own." It does, but with the rise of the machines, it no longer works with poorly trained and led armies.

But now there is a declining birth rate to contend with (there are far fewer young men to recruit) and the end of the police state (making it easier to evade conscription, which most potential conscripts do), Russia can no longer rely on quantity or make up for a lack of quality. So now Russia is developing the type of senior NCOs (1st Sergeants to run company size units and Sergeants Major to assist commanders of larger units) that make Western forces so capable.

Russia has tried to avoid going with an all-volunteer force, as most other European nations have done. Partly it was a lack of money, partly a reluctance to do away with the tradition of conscription. Because of the lack of NCOs, conscripts have had an awful time for decades, and this has become a source of popular discontent. The Soviet government managed to suppress popular unrest over this. But after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, fathers, and grandfathers, and especially their wives, were no longer going to quietly endure this mess, and the abuse their sons were exposed to. So now the government is simultaneously trying to eliminate the hazing of new recruits, and flooding the army with competent NCOs. The latter is the real cure for the hazing, as NCOs spend a lot more time in the barracks, and with the troops. A competent NCO can calm things down in the barracks. In the West, they do it all the time.

But there are still lots of problems. Conscripts only serve 12 months now, hardly enough time to turn young civilians into anything militarily useful. Most of the kontrakti were trained in the old army, and easily slip into the old bad habits (hazing and bullying younger troops, even fellow kontrakti). The new, trained, NCOs are arriving slowly, and find themselves in an uphill battle against "tradition." Many of these NCOs are simply not renewing their contracts, and leaving. Change does not come easily in the Russian army. But if the Russians are ever to have a capable military, they have to create credible 1st Sergeants and Sergeants Major.


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