Leadership: The Red Army Turns Pro

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December 3, 2009: Russia reports that its reorganization of its ground forces is continuing, and that the force will be reduced from 1.2 million to one million within two years. The reduction includes the removal of 200,000 officers. Thousands of these officers will remain in service, but as civilians, not officers. This includes many doctors and other technical specialists. All this is intended to end the era of the "Red Army" (the force created by the communists who put together  the Soviet Union in the 1920s.)

Another big change is converting the force from one based on divisions, to one based on brigades. This also includes the elimination of many other Soviet era practices. For example, nearly all brigades will be at full strength in peacetime, eliminating the need to wait for reservists to arrive to fill out the unit before it can move out. Another change is moving weapons and ammunition to the brigades base, instead of distant locations (a measure partly to prevent mutinous troops from arming themselves.) The reforms make it possible for a brigade to be available for combat, or movement to a combat area, within a few hours, not a day or more. Improved training, better leaders and new equipment is to bring Russian peacetime forces up to the same quality level of those in the West, particularly the United States or Britain. The Russians were impressed with the performance of these Western troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and want to emulate it.

The Russian armed forces lost 80 percent of its strength in the last 18 years, but a disproportionate number of officers remained. At the beginning of the 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 includes 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).  Many generals were not happy with all these cuts, but the resistance 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.

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.

 

 


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