Leadership: The Great Russian Train Wreck


December 22, 2012: A decade of reforms in the Russian military have wasted a lot of money and produced little in the way of useful changes. One of the more obscure but interesting failures was an attempt to build a modern, computerized, and networked C2 (command and control) system. Called the Unified Tactical Echelon Command and Control and Fire Control System (YeSU TZ for short, in Russian anyway), the new system was meant to get away from the Soviet era C2 system, which was too slow for modern combat operations. This was made dramatically clear during the August 2008 invasion of Georgia (a former part of the Soviet Union, just south of Chechnya in the Caucasus). Although the Russians won this brief campaign, it was a clumsy and sloppy victory against a much weaker opponent.

By the end of 2008, YeSU TZ was in development. A major goal was to reduce the time it took for an order from the top (in Moscow) to reach a brigade commander in, say, Georgia. In 2008 it had taken 24 hours. YeSU TZ was supposed to reduce this to an hour or less. That did not happen. The problem with this project was that no one was in charge and everyone could make demands or suggestions. This has been the usual cause of similar major development disasters in the United States. As a result, YeSU TZ was developed without much feedback from the actual users or reference to budgetary constraints. By 2010, someone noticed that the equipment to equip one brigade with the required radios, computers, and other gear would cost over $260 million. This was absurd and senior defense ministry officials tried to put someone in charge and, as they later discovered, failed.

One of the problems was the insistence that all the hardware and software come from Russian companies. While there was certainly enough local talent to create the software, most of the people who could make YeSU TZ work were tied up in more lucrative jobs at software companies that did not do military projects or with criminal gangs involved in the current Internet crime wave. Russian industry was nowhere near ready to supply the needed hardware. Worst of all, the Russian military no longer had (if they ever did) uniformed or civilian experts who could tell the manufacturers exactly what was needed. The specs for YeSU TZ appeared to have come from Internet searches for details on similar systems used in Western military forces.

YeSU TZ was supposed to be ready in 2010, but it wasn’t. That led to several hundred million dollars being squandered and only resulting in some more embarrassing field tests. The equipment usually did not work and the developers blamed it on the users. But even highly educated and computer literate officers complained that the YeSU TZ interface was incomprehensible and that even when you did figure it out, the underlying system did not work.

The YeSU TZ project has reached that point where most of those involved are spending the bulk of their time trying to shift blame to someone else. There were several similar development disasters during the Soviet period (1923-91), but they were largely kept secret or pushed forward and produced in small numbers and, after a few years, quietly replaced. These details were discovered during the 1990s, when former Soviet military officials felt free to talk. Now, you have a much harder time keeping anything secret, even if you really want to. YeSU TZ’s problems were kept quiet until recently but it has become such an expensive train wreck that it’s becoming an example of how dysfunctional current efforts to reform the Russian military have become.