The State of the Russian Military: An SLD Site Visit


05/26/2011 by Richard Weitz

I have had the opportunity to participate in the first Defense and Security section meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club in Moscow from May 25-27. The discussions focus on the modernization of Russia’s Armed Forces and cooperation in international security. The meeting was co-organized by Russian government RIA Novosti news agency, the independent Council on Foreign and Defense Policy think tank, and the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technology (CAST) research institute. According to its website, “the Valdai Discussion Club provides a global forum for the world’s leading and best-informed experts on Russia to engage in a sustained dialogue about the country’s political, economic, social and cultural development.”

The participants included about a dozen foreign military experts from Belarus, France, Germany, Norway, Turkey, and the United States. Almost a dozen other participants came from various Russian organizations.

On May 25, the first program day, we traveled an hour outside Moscow by bus to visit the 5th Guards Independent Motor Rifle Brigade. The acting commander led us on a tour of what was formerly known as the Division Tamanskaya. We first learned about the history of the unit through an hour-long tour of its museum. The unit was formed as the 127th Infantry Division in Kharkov on July 8, 1940. It achieved full combat readiness the following year, only two weeks after NAZI Germany launched its surprise attack on Stalin’s underprepared Red Army. The unit fought with distinction throughout the war. It also served in the North Caucasus in the late 1990s, helping to “restore constitutional order to Chechnya.” In line with the current Russian military reform program, the division was restructured as a brigade in the last few years.

After the museum tour, we then visited a barracks for the enlisted personnel. We also toured the gym and ate a decent meal in the canteen. Everything looked very nice though the question naturally arises how representative the facilities on display are of conditions in other parts of the Russian military. The brigade is special in at least one respect: the Russian Army uses the unit to test new tactics, techniques, and procedures.

The most interesting part of the tour was the live fire drill. The acting commander explained to us that new recruits undergo three stages of combat training. First, they study theoretical topics in the form of academic lectures. Then they go to the practicing ground near the dormitory to undertake small-scale simulated training. The final stage involves live-fire training in an open field.

We had the opportunity to watch them engage in the latter two stages of live-fire drills. It was quite a show, with loud explosions and fireworks simulating various combat conditions at the practicing ground. We saw units practice artillery attacks, small unit assaults, medical operations, and even nuclear, biological, and chemical decontamination of a tank with soldiers in personnel protection suits. All the soldiers were male conscripts except for a few male officers and technical specialists.

We then saw an exhibition of some of the most modern equipment of the Russian Army. For example, we were given a detailed briefing on the T-90 main battle tank. The commander said that the T-90 had no equivalent in the world. Unlike the M-1 Abrams, which uses a gas turbine engine, the T-90 uses a diesel engine, which is easier to upkeep and more suitable for Russian winters. The T-90 is also much smaller than the Abrams. We also saw the BTR-80 [GAZ 5903] Armored Personnel Carrier, the 2S6 Tunguska integrated air defense system (armed with cannons as well as surface to air missiles), and other combat systems as well as the Ural system of trucks. We also were able to handle a number of small arms and light weapons as well as uniforms and other military equipment.

We then went back to downtown Moscow to visit the RIA Novosti press club for a discussion on recent Russian military reforms, introduced by Sergey Karaganov, chairman of the “Valdai” Club. I had the opportunity to work with Sergey in the mid-1990s, when I was a post-doc at the Center for Science and International Affairs (CSIA) at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. The CSIA, then led by Graham Allison, collaborated with Karaganov’s Institute on several security projects, sometimes in collaboration with a European institution.

At RIA Novosti, Ruslan Pukhov, the head of CAST, reviewed some of the key Russian military reforms. According to his briefing, the Russian army before the reform process began a few years suffered from several major flaws.

These defects included excessively large command and administrative structures given the number of 100,000 combat-ready troops; a disproportionate number of officers and warrant officers, who comprised approximately half of Russia’s military personnel; less than 13 percent of units being fully manned and combat ready; and hardly any procurement of modern weapons. Several other contextual factors drove the reform process, including a radical transformation in Russia’s military-political situation due to the declining probability of large-scale wars and the growing prospects of Russian military involvement in regional conflicts, insurgencies, and counterterrorism operations.

In addition, modern warfare had evolved with network-centric operations and tactics replacing those for deep attacks, resulting in a rising relative importance of the Air Force and cyber systems and decreasing need for traditional conventional ground forces.

One of the main elements of the reform included transitioning from a mass-mobilization army to a smaller number of better trained and effective permanent combat readiness forces, with the undermanned (“cadre”) units consolidated into a smaller number of fully manned and combat ready brigades. Most of the personnel cuts were directed against the officer corps, which was to be reduced by more than half, from 355,000 to 150,000, with all warrant officers eliminated and a new noncommissioned officer corps replaced. The main administrative unit was to change from divisions and regiments to smaller and more flexible brigades. The number of Army units was to decrease from 1,890 to 172 units, the number of Air Force units from 340 to 180, and the number of Navy units from 240 to 123.

The reform also envisaged an end to efforts to replace all conscripts with professional contract soldiers because conscript soldiers are cheaper, provided a large well-trained reserve component after they leave active service, and represent a practice more in harmony with Russian history and tradition.

The problem is that the length of the conscription, 12 months, does not provide sufficient time to train soldiers in modern combat operations. The reforms sought to improve the conditions of conscription by allowing them to serve close to their homes in some cases, by establishing a five-day work week (with two days off), and some less pleasant non-combat tasks (such as cleaning and cooking) outsourced to contractors.

Thus far, the reforms have achieved mixed results. Critics complain they have been proceeding too rapidly, with insufficient development and planning. The Russian government’s ability to provide adequate financial and other resources to the reform process has also been questioned. The transformation of the units has been criticized for having insufficient command, reconnaissance, logistics, and rear services components. The ability of civilians to replace so many military personnel is also uncertain. The Ministry of Defense has also not yet made clear how it plans to train and maintain the reserve component.

Konstantin Makienko of CAST delivered a report on “State Armament Program 2011-2020.” The reforms have sought to increase the large-scale acquisition and procurement of modern military equipment. Most of this equipment is Russian-made, but some foreign systems are being imported from foreign countries to help keep the Russian defense industries, not wishing to lose their domestic market, competitive. In contrast, the large size of the State Armament Program (SAP) 2011-2020 means that Russian defense industries will now give priority to providing weapons to the Russian military rather than manufacturing systems for exports.

The SAP aims to increase the proportion of modern weaponry in service with the Russian military to 30 per cent by 2015, and to 70 percent (up to 100 per cent for some types of weapons) by 2020. The Ministry of Defense (MOD) will spend 19.5 trillion roubles for its share of the program, with other security services paying smaller sums for their orders. The Ministry’s priority procurement areas will be strategic nuclear forces, high-precision conventional weapons, and command, control, computers, and Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) systems. Military research and development  spending will decrease considerably from current levels to 10 per cent of overall spending, while 80 per cent of the MOD SAP will now go to buying new weapons, with the remaining 10 per cent paying for the repair and upgrade of existing equipment.

Under the SAP 2011-2020, the Air Force will procure up to 70 fifth-generation T-50 Fighters, 96 multirole Su-35S fighters, as many as 100 Su-34 frontline bombers, up to 20 An-124 heavy transports, 50-90 Il-476 transports, and as many as 120 Yak-130 advanced jet trainers. The Air Force will also order 900-1000 helicopters, which includes 250 Mi-28N attack helicopters, as many as 120 Ka-52A and Ka-52K attack helicopters, 22 Mi-35M attack helicopters, and as many as 200 air defense systems.

Meanwhile, the Navy will procure 6-8 Project 955A and 955U strategic ballistic missile submarines, 150 R-30 Bulava submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), about 40 R-29RMU-2 Sineva SLBMs, 6 Project 885/885M nuclear-powered submarines, 2 Project 677 diesel-electric submarines, 3 Project 06363 diesel-electric submarines, and 2 foreign-made landing helicopter docks (perhaps France’s Mistral-class ships), 8 Project 22350 frigates, 6 Project 11356M frigates, 1 Project 11661K frigate, and 35 corvettes, including at least 4 of the advanced Project 20381/20385. The Navy will also receive 26 MiG-29K carrier-based fighter planes. The SAP will also finance the repair and upgrade of the Project 11435 heavy aircraft carrying cruiser and the Project 11442 heavy nuclear-powered guided missile cruiser.

The main threat to the fulfillment of the SAP is Russia’s uncertain macroeconomic situation. Another problem could be the persistent weaknesses in some elements of Russia’s military-industrial complex, which has yet to fully recover from the break-up of the integrated Soviet complex in which defense orders received priority resources. The problems with the development program for the Bulava SLBM are particularly indicative of the problem Russian defense firms have in integrating complex weapons systems when a number of small sub-contractors are responsible for developing and manufacturing key components.