The Perfect Soldier: Special Operations, Commandos, and the Future of Us Warfare by James F. Dunnigan
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Why The Russian Army Is Fading Away
by James Dunnigan
March 15, 2013
The Russian government recently bowed to public pressure and agreed not to send conscripts into combat. Only “contract soldiers” (higher paid volunteer troops) will do combat, unless there is a general war. As a result of this new policy, combat training of conscripts will be reduced from six to four months. Actually, training was cut in half but conscripts will not be sent to a combat zone (as in the Caucasus) until they had been in uniform for at least four months. The actual wording of these new regulations allowed conscripts to be sent to do non-combat jobs in the Caucasus, where terrorism is quite common. This was not publicized. These new rules were issued with no fanfare but the word quickly got around and parents of draft age (18-26) men were outraged. This was seen as a subterfuge to save money (less training for draftees) at the expense of the young conscripts and still send them to dangerous service in the Caucasus. While the conscripts would not be chasing after Islamic terrorists down there, they would be targets for terrorist attacks and would, because of the training cuts, be less able to defend themselves. The parents figured that out themselves. The military saw the change as necessary because conscripts are only in for a year now, rather than two, and extensive training is costly and largely wasted because most of the conscripts leave after their year is up. The larger problem is that Russia has fewer and fewer people to conscript and a very difficult time attracting volunteers.
Currently the military has 220,000 officers and 200,000 "contract personnel" (higher paid volunteers, who fill most of the NCO and specialist slots). Thus most of the troops are conscripts, and it's getting harder and harder to find enough people to coerce into uniform. The armed forces needs over 600,000 conscripts a year but can only obtain about 400,000, and that number is declining each year. Most of the missing troops were young men who were conscripted but never showed up. The barracks are thinly populated and the situation is becoming a major national scandal. So now it is generally agreed among the generals that conscription has to go and better troop supervision (via competent sergeants) has to be established. Russians note with fear that the Chinese now have an army three times the size of theirs and spend three times as much on defense. China is also building an effective NCO corps, something that has long made Western forces much more effective.
The current plan is to increase the number of contract troops to 425,000 over the next few years and use a special six week training and selection program, to make sure the right people are signed up. The six week course is a series of training and testing sessions that determine if candidates can handle the stress of military life and possess enough maturity to avoid the traditional abuse inflicted on new troops and help stop those who are still bullying their fellow soldiers. These new contract soldiers are also selected on the basis of willingness to make a career of the military and eventually take on more responsibilities (becoming NCOs, technical specialists, or officers). To meet the goal of 425,000 contract soldiers the military will have to bring in 50,000 new contract soldiers a year. If that goal is achieved most of the enlisted troops would be contract troops and professional enough to eliminate the bullying among the conscripts. But army service is so despised that even competitive (with civilian jobs) pay and better living conditions is not attracting as many qualified volunteers as needed.
The biggest problem with keeping conscription is that the number of 18 year olds is rapidly declining each year. The latest crop of draftees was born after the Soviet Union dissolved. That was when the birth rate went south. Not so much because the Soviet Union was gone but more because of the economic depression (caused by decades of communist misrule) that precipitated the collapse of the communist government. The number of available draftees went from 1.5 million a year in the early 1990s, to 800,000 today. Less than half those potential conscripts are showing up and many have criminal records (or tendencies) that help sustain the abuse of new recruits that has made military service so unsavory.
With conscripts now in for only a year now, rather than two, the military is forced to take a lot of marginal (sickly, overweight, bad attitudes, drug users) recruits in order to keep the military and Ministry of Interior units up to strength. But this means that even elite airborne and commando units are using a lot of conscripts. Most of these young guys take a year to master the skills needed to be useful and then they are discharged. Few choose to remain in uniform and become career soldiers. That's primarily because the Russian military is seen as a crippled institution and one not likely to get better any time soon. With so many of the troops now one year conscripts, an increasing number of the best officers and NCOs get tired of coping with all the alcoholics, drug users, and petty criminals that are taken in just to make quotas. With the exodus of the best leaders, and the growing number of ill-trained and unreliable conscripts, the Russian military is more of a mirage than an effective combat (or even police) organization.
The government found that, even among the contract soldiers, the old abuses lived on and that most of the best contract soldiers left when their contract was up. It was because of the brutality and lack of discipline in the barracks. The hazing is most frequently committed by troops who have been in six months or so against the new recruits. But this extends to a pattern of abuse and brutality by all senior enlisted troops against junior ones. It’s long been out of control. The abuse continues to increase because of the growing animosity against troops who are not ethnic Russians.
All this is in sharp contrast to the old days. When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, it had five million troops in its armed forces. Now it's less than one million in just Russia (which has about half the population of the Soviet Union but most of the territory). Although the Russian armed forces lost over 80 percent of its strength since 1991, a disproportionate number of officers remained. A decade ago the Russian military had 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. With all that, some 40,000 officer positions were still vacant. The reorganization eliminated over half of them but left many surviving officers bitter and in a bad mood.
Russia has tried to change public attitudes towards the armed forces by publicizing all the new changes and programs. But word got around that most of these efforts failed. Blame that on the Internet. Polls constantly show that most military age men do not want to serve in the military and the main reason is the hazing and prison-like conditions in the barracks. The new generation of NCOs and better troop living conditions are meant to provide an atmosphere that will not scare away conscripts and volunteers.
The Russian military has other problems as well. Corruption investigators believe that about 20 percent of the military budget is lost to corruption and outright theft. So just spending more money on the military is not an easy fix either. Worse, many, if not most, Russian arms manufacturers are corrupt and incompetent. This has gotten so bad that many reform minded generals and admirals prefer to buy foreign weapons. This means paying more but the quality is much higher and you get stuff on schedule. Getting the corrupt officers out of the military may prove more difficult than eliminating the young bullies.