August 16, 2013:
Russia was recently reminded that its armed forces are not nearly as effective as the government would like them to be. This became obvious as officials received reports on recent military exercises. On July 20th Russia completed its largest military exercises since the end of the Cold War in 1991. Near the Pacific coast the military assembled 160,000 troops, over a thousand armored vehicles, 130 warplanes, and 70 warships to practice repelling a hypothetical invasion by Japanese and American forces. The large number of conscripts still serving in the army proved to be a source for many problems.
The recent exercises were also a major test for the new organization that the army has adopted. In the last decade Russia has reorganized its combat forces around brigades (rather than divisions) as the basic combat unit. For this exercise the army brought in nine infantry, two air assault, one tank, one naval infantry, and seven artillery (two of them air defense) combat brigades. In addition there were six logistical, five signal, and two NBC (nuclear, chemical, biological) defense brigades. All these troops brought with them over 12,000 vehicles, of which four percent broke down. This was higher than in Western forces but lower than what Russian forces are accustomed to. The railroad troops (long a part of the armed forces) were proud of their ability to move 15,000 troops in at the rate of 1,000 kilometers a day (versus the peacetime standard of 600 kilometers).
One brigade arrived by sea and 8,500 troops were flown in. The ground forces deployed eight UAVs, which made 22 sorties. This is miniscule by American (and Western) standards. There were coordination and communication problems between the army, air force, and navy forces but this was expected. Normally, the three services simulate coordinating with the other services during training and rarely get to do it for real. When it comes time to actually communicate, the three services finally discover errors that have crept into their plans for inter-service communications.
These exercises also made it clear that there were still big problems with conscription. Earlier this year the Russian government 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. That means there are a lot of conscripts in support units and that caused a lot of problems (because of poorly trained and inexperienced troops) during the recent exercises.
The current plan is to increase the number of contract troops to 425,000 (for the army and Interior Ministry) over the next few years. 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, rather than two, there is a tendency 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 (who volunteer for this dangerous service). Most of these young guys take a year to master the skills needed to be useful and by 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.
All this is in sharp contrast to the old days. When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, it had five million troops. 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). 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.
Many of the Russian ground force units were called in on short notice for the July exercise, to test their ability to respond in an emergency. Exercises (especially the surprise or “snap” ones) like this do provide some military training but are also there for propaganda purposes, to reinforce the popular belief that the armed forces are making a comeback from their rapid decline in the 1990s. These particular exercises also reinforce the government claims that America is threatening Russia. Some of the units were moved long distances by air, rail, or road to test the ability to get around the vast distances that characterize Siberia (Russia east of the Ural Mountains) and the Russian Far East (the areas along the Pacific coast).
A Chinese naval task force (19 ships, including detachments of special operations troops) came north to join in with the Russian fleet. Some Chinese special operations troops also came, to participate in ground combat operations.