Leadership: Red Army Rebuilding Stumbles

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March 18, 2010: Russia has cut its armed forces twelve percent (to about a million troops) in the last two years, and received billions of dollars in new equipment. Military bases are being refurbished, with special attention paid to housing for the families of career troops. The government is making good on its pledge to rebuild the armed forces. All this is part of an effort to save the Russian armed forces, especially the glorious, Soviet era "Red Army." Things aren't going so well.

The senior political leadership is finding out that some problems are not getting fixed simply by applying more money. Efforts to purge the forces of over 100,000 unneeded (and not very effective) officers is running into stiff resistance. The senior generals and admirals want to at least let these men remain until they reach retirement age, and leave with dignity, rather than being, in effect, fired. Technically, the politicians could push this purge through. But this would make a lot of senior officers, including bright ones that the country really needs, very angry. So there's something of a standoff, despite the corruption that still persists among officers, especially those the government wants to get rid of.

Meanwhile, attempts to improve the quality of the lower ranking troops is running into one problem after another. Soviet era habits and customs leave the troops surly, unresponsive and not very effective in combat. This is overcome by having some elite units (with higher pay and better leadership). But this still leaves most of the troops wallowing in the past. The government is upgrading training and pay for NCOs and officers, but this will take a decade to have any meaningful effect, and might even fail. Despite all that, the reform efforts press on.

A year ago, former Russian president, and current prime minister, Vladimir Putin, announced that, despite the current recession, and low oil prices, Russia would continue the big spending begun two years earlier, to rebuild the armed forces. This was a popular move, and considered necessary for "restoring Russia's place in the world" (becoming a superpower again), and making the "Red Army" a feared force once again.

Russia can't become a superpower again, because all those nuclear weapons are great for defending the country, but you need non-nuclear forces to throw your weight around. Since the end of the Cold War in 1991, Russia has lost over 90 percent of its combat power. It was disarmament by starvation (massive cuts in the defense budget) and neglect (the military leadership tried to hold on to more equipment than they could afford to maintain or operate, making the situation worse.) Digging out of the hole is going to cost a few hundred billion dollars and over a decade of effort. The government increased the annual defense budget to $38 billion three years ago, and is spending over $25 billion a year (for the next six years, and the last two) to rebuild the conventional forces. It takes time to rebuild fleets and armies.

The quickest things to fix are aircraft. Thus long range bombers, especially the Tu-95s, were refurbished, upgraded, and kept in the air over international waters a lot (and the Norwegian coast). This was mainly a PR exercise for domestic consumption. What also played to the crowd was "resisting NATO." The Cold War enemy was seen as surrounding Russia with anti-Russian alliances. The American anti-missile systems being built in Eastern Europe, to block Iranian missiles from blackmailing Europe, were depicted as an attempt to stop Russian missiles. This appears absurd in the West, but makes perfect sense to most Russians. "They" are out to get us, is what most Russians think. Decades of Soviet propaganda about foreign plots to destroy Russia, enhanced by the widespread destruction of World War II, have left their mark.

But the ground forces are a mess, with most of the weapons and equipment 20-30 years old and falling apart. Over a hundred thousand armored vehicles were junked, or "put into storage" (parked somewhere out-of-the-way, where they could rot quietly) since 1991. Only the best, least used and most recently built stuff has been kept. Even that gear is not much good, and replacements have to be bought in the next 5-10 years, or the army will be reduced to a bunch of guys with assault rifles, mortars and old trucks.

The air force is getting new planes, and more upgrades on existing aircraft. This works for warplanes, with many Western nations using 30 year old, but recently refurbished, warplanes. Ships are another matter, as Russian warships were not designed to be refurbished. So new ones have to be built. The Russians are concentrating on submarines, buying new attack boats (SSNs) and boomers (SSBNs carrying ballistic missiles.)

All these purchases are made along with exhortations to improve quality and reliability of Russian weapons. Despite exports of nearly $9 billion worth of weapons a year, Russian weapons still have a well deserved reputation of not being as dependable, or effective, as their Western counterparts. As a result, even Russia is shopping for Western weapons and components for some of their own needs.

 


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