Winning: The Mighty Red Army Turned To Dust

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October 18, 2020: Russia, for most of the 20 th century had the largest number of tanks in service. By the end of the 1990s the Russian tank force was much diminished while the U.S. force was holding steady and the Chinese force was growing. It was no surprise when, in late 2020, Russia revealed that the army had further reduced its tank force to 2,685 vehicles. About 45 percent of these tanks were manufactured or refurbished after 2000. The U.S. and China each have larger, and more modern, tank fleets. So does India, but many of its tanks are older models and all Indian tanks are Russian models. In fact, India has more of the T-90 tanks, the most modern Russian model, than the Russian army does.

Russia also has about 10,000 older tanks listed as “in reserve” but few are operational and most are ready to be scrapped. This is one of the few times the government has admitted that the once mighty Red Army is indeed no more. In 1991, when the Soviet Union dissolved, their Cold War military had about 53,000 tanks. At the time the much-feared Red Army had over 200 active duty and reserve divisions. That force quickly shrank to a force a fifth that size, and much less ready for combat. In terms of actual troops, the Russian army is smaller, and much less capable, than the United States Army. While some troops and pilots have gained valuable combat experience in Chechnya and Syria, the only reliable troops the Russians have consists of about a hundred thousand men, organized into special army, navy, air force and interior ministry units composed of commandos, paratroopers, marines and those that guard the capital.

Russia still relies on conscription, and these conscripts serve for only one year. Because of this most army combat units are losing nearly 40 percent of their troops each year and must replace them with new conscripts. The combat units do most of the training to turn the conscripts into soldiers and not a lot of progress is made before the conscripts leave.

Back in 1991, the Russian (or, rather, Soviet Union) armed forces had five million troops. Today, there are about a million. Three decades of starvation budgets, little training and less procurement have left the Russian armed forces demoralized and, well, defeated. Part of the reason for this debacle was the army generals resisting efforts to shrink the Cold War force in an efficient manner. After the 1990s army leadership was forced by dire necessity to carry out needed changes.,

The overdue reforms of the Russia Army that began in 2008 soon reduced the number of army units from over 1,800 to fewer than 200. Many of the disbanded units were part of the reserve or organizations that had become irrelevant but continued to exist anyway. The army strength was soon about 350,000, including SOF (special operations forces, or Spetsnaz). The combat forces comprised 55 combat brigades; 33 mechanized infantry, four tank and 22 Spetsnaz/commando, airborne or air assault. These brigades are about half the size of American combat brigades and over a third of the personnel are conscripts who serve for one year. The skill levels of troops in these Russian brigades was much lower than for comparable troops in American or British brigades, and elite brigades in French, German and some other Western forces. There are also 28 combat support brigades, eight armed with multi-barrel rocket launchers like the U.S. MLRS, nine with short range ballistic missiles, ten with anti-aircraft missile systems and one engineer brigade.

The reforms basically dismantled the Soviet era reserve system that had maintained over a hundred divisions and hundreds more support units that had equipment but less than ten percent of their troops in peacetime. In wartime these units were quickly manned by reservists, who were conscripts who had recently completed their two years of active service. In the half century since World War II the reserve system fell apart and discarding it was a smart move because it was not worth the cost of maintaining. There was a lot of resistance within the military to ditching the old reserve system, so getting rid of it was a major accomplishment. By 2020 Russia still maintained dozens of mobilization centers manned by a few troops and civilians. This skeleton crew looked after the older tanks and other weapons. These centers also contained uniforms and other equipment to equip reservists. The reservists were local men who had been in the army during the previous ten years. Not all were physically fit for duty but those who were, or were fit enough, were equipped and assigned to reserve combat brigades or as replacements for active duty units. This is all that is left of the old Soviet era reserve system that, after about sixty years, evaporated in the early 1990s.

The pre-1991 reserve system worked well enough to rapidly create dozens of divisions the invading Germans weren’t expecting in 1941. Those reserve divisions were a key factor in Russia surviving that initial invasion. After World War II the reserve system slowly degraded so that by the 1980s it existed more on paper than in reality.

Russian leaders were intensely proud of having the largest tank fleet in the world for over fifty years. While the Red Army largely disintegrated in the early 1990s, the army sought to keep as many of those 53,000 tanks as they could. That did not work out and it wasn’t until the 2008 reforms that there was any official recognition of that.

The 53,000 tanks available 1991 were less impressive when you consider what they were and how they were maintained. About 40 percent of these 1991 tanks were relics from the 1950s, or earlier. At the start of the 2008 reforms there are only about 12,000 tanks, and less than ten percent of them were modern. Back in 1991, about half of the tanks were of questionable serviceability and usefulness. This still left the Russians with 25,000 modern tanks ready to roll west. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, 80 percent of the troops were sent home, and during the 1990s, only a few hundred new tanks were purchased. Most of those 53,000 tanks ended up as scrap.

The 2008 tank force had about 500 T-90s and T80s. These are roughly equal to early model U.S. M-1s. Most remaining tanks were late model T-72s, some of them upgraded with excellent electronics (fire controls systems and thermal sights). Of the 12,000 tanks the Russian army said it still had in 2008, only a few thousand were ready to move and go into combat. In effect, Russia has lost use of some 90 percent of its tanks since 1991. Back then, nearly all those 53,000 tanks were assigned to a combat division. OK, most of those were reserve divisions, but if most of the reservists showed up in wartime, they would know how to get their tanks operational. That reserve system collapsed along with the Soviet Union and by 2006 the Russians could get about 5,000 tanks operational on short notice. That was a big drop from the 1980s.

Worse, a lot of the tanks listed as modern and ready for service were not. So during an early 2010 incident the army insisted that the 200 T-72 and T-80 tanks found in the woods next to a railroad station in the Urals were part of a normal movement of military equipment, and the vehicles were under guard. But people living in village of Elanskaya (outside the city of Yekaterinburg) noted the vehicles were unguarded, and unlocked, but without ammo or ignition keys. Local kids began crawling in and out of the tanks. Videos of all this began showing up on local news programs as well as the Internet. The government controlled national media tried to ignore it at first. Eventually the troops showed up, and then the tanks began disappearing, as trains with flat cars came by at night to pick them up. The situation raised, once more, the issue of the military wasting resources by trying to retain obsolete equipment. This may have made sense at one time, when military technology didn't change as rapidly as it has for the last few decades. Keeping over 12,000 tanks in service, when less than 6,000 were needed, was seen as a waste of resources. In 2007 the army explained that it had sent most of those 53,000 Cold War tanks to the smelters. But as the 2007 episode demonstrated, the military was still spending a lot of money on tanks it doesn't need or can even care for. The army would not comment on why those late model tanks were temporarily dumped in the woods next to the Trans-Siberian railroad. But one can surmise that Russia was building up its tank strength out east, or just looking for some place to hide the fact that it could not care for all its relatively modern tanks.

Even during the Cold War Russia did not have the resources to maintain those 53,000 tanks. This could be seen by the way the Red Army was organized. Although all the Cold War divisions used the same organization, they still came in three different grades of readiness. This system will persisted for some years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and still persists today, at least on paper.

The highest grade of Cold War divisions were in the "Group of Forces" that, until the mid-1990s, was stationed in various Eastern European nations. These comprised 30 divisions (15 tank and 15 mechanized infantry). These divisions were kept at full strength and were the first to receive new equipment, aside from units in western Russia and Ukraine that tried out new weapons and equipment prior to large-scale distribution. When these group of forces divisions returned to Russia after 1991 they lost some of their capability. They no longer got the pick of each year’s conscripts, and the morale of the troops during the early 1990s was quite low because living conditions in Russia were, and still are, quite a bit lower than enjoyed in Eastern Europe. Some of the Group of Forces divisions were disbanded and some officially put on a lower level of readiness. Despite this, the remaining "Group of Forces" divisions remained among the best that Russia had available.

The next grade were the category 1 and 2 divisions within Russia and the former Soviet Union. These comprised 43 divisions (11 tank, 32 mechanized  infantry) in the early 1990s and many of them were due for disbanding or downgrading. They are next in line for new equipment. Generally, they had about ten percent fewer troops and similar reductions in tanks and artillery pieces as well as generally lower equipment levels. Peacetime manning was only 50 to 75 percent, although half a dozen were at full strength. Local reserves, men released from service in the past three years, could bring these units up to strength in a few days and be combat ready in less than a month.

Overall combat value of these category 1 and 2 units varied, but would likely 10-20 percent lower than the elite Group of Forces divisions. A case could be made that their value was even lower, as the Russians tended to reward the best officers with assignments in the better (full strength, Group of Forces) divisions. Those who didn't make the cut were not expected to do these second-string divisions a lot of good. Moreover, there was a substantial disadvantage when a division was mobilized and you find half its men are strangers to each other, and the military. One advantage of the end of the Cold War and subsequent disarmament was the disposal of a lot of older equipment, replacing it with a lot of the newest stuff. At this point, few of the category 1 and 2 divisions had older equipment than the "Group of Forces" class divisions.

Last, there were the category 3 divisions (20 tank and 72 infantry or mechanized). Their equipment levels were similar to category 2 divisions, but it was not only the oldest, but also poorly maintained. A lot of the older equipment was and replaced with newer stuff in the wake of the arms reduction treaties signed as the Soviet Union was breaking up. Moreover, the category 3 divisions were the first to be disbanded because of the arms reduction treaty and dispersion of many divisions among the successor states of the Soviet Union. Most of these divisions just disappeared. Much of their equipment was not even under the control of the divisions, but kept in centralized storage areas. It is from this stored equipment that many post-1991 arms smugglers stole the many weapons that mysteriously showed up in Africa, Asia and South America for about two decades after the Soviet Union collapsed. Manning levels on these category 3 divisions ranged from 10 to 30 percent. Although sufficient weapons and combat equipment were present or assigned to all Category 1 and 2 divisions, transport vehicles for higher formations and Category 3 divisions was to be taken from the civilian economy. Considerable specialist equipment was either obsolete or not present in the 1990s. The reserve troops to be called up to fill out Category 1 and 2 units were those who had been out of the service no more than five years. Most of the equipment was unfamiliar to them. These units required three or four months to become combat ready. The effectiveness of these units was about half that of the group of forces units, if that.  

In 2020 the Russian army has the equivalent of about 18 combat divisions and, on paper, about as many reserve divisions of uncertain utility. The same reality applies to the tank force and now the government admits it.

 


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