Main Reforms of the Serdyukov Era


2012-11-14 by Richard Weitz

The August 2008 Georgia War created an opening for Serdyukov and his team to pursue more radical military reforms.

In addition to inadequate communications and other technical problems with defense equipment, these shortcomings included cumbersome command arrangements, low unit readiness, and poor leadership throughout the chain of command. Many of these problems were recognized long before the Georgia War, but the conflict, which Russia won only after suffering high losses, helped provide a catalyst for addressing them.

Furthermore, the reformers focused on developments which facilitated change. Above all a radical transformation in Russia’s threat environment due to the declining probability of large-scale wars and the growing likelihood of Russian military involvement in regional conflicts such as Georgia underscored the need for change.

Russia’s new defense minister, Sergei K. Shoigu, left, President Vladimir V. Putin and Col. Gen. Valery Gerasimov meet at the Kremlin. Credit:

NATO did not even hint at any type of military action during the Russia-Georgia War, while China has taken pains to stress that its military buildup, partially based on purchased Russian weapons and acquired Russian military technologies, was directed primarily to China’s south and east and not at all against Russia.

In contrast, regional contingencies were high on the list of tasks facing the Russian military.

  • MOD contemplated renewed military actions against Georgia,
  • Insurgencies in the north Caucasus were becoming more aggressive,
  • Central Asia was experiencing renewed terrorist threats,
  • the Russian military might need to intervene to prevent or end a war between Armenia and Azerbaijan,
  • and the Russian Navy was engaged in a logistically challenging counterpiracy operation in the Gulf of Aden.

Finally, the nature of modern warfare had clearly changed since Soviet times, with network-centric operations depending on space and cyber systems ascending in importance over the traditional conventional and protracted land wars that the Soviet military had been optimized to fight.

Key Goals of the Reform

Exploiting the sense of disappointment and concern about the performance of the Russian military, Sedyukov broadened his military reform efforts from focusing mostly on corruption and procurement to a more comprehensive campaign to restructure the entire Russian armed forces.

The key goals were:

  1. Streamlining the command structure,
  2. Raising combat readiness,
  3. Simplifying battlefield communications,
  4. And modernizing major weapons systems.

On October 14, 2008, Defense Minister Serdyukov publicly announced his intention to undertake a comprehensive reform of the Russian armed forces.

In the following months, Serdyukov moved to introduce major changes affecting every branch of the Russian armed forces:

  • Reducing active-duty personnel to one million overall by 2012, officers from 335,000 officers to 150,000, while replacing more short-term conscripts with more long-term contract personnel;
  • Reducing the number of military units, garrisons and bases, including by eliminating  the Army’s incompletely equipped and manned “cadre” units and retaining mostly units that can be rapidly deployed; replacing Army divisions and regiments with a “brigade-based” structure; and replacing Air Force armies, corps, divisions, and regiments with a system of “aviation bases” and “air defense brigades”:
  • Reorganizing the central military command, including the Defense Ministry and the General Staff, and replacing Russia’s traditional military districts with four Unified Strategic Commands that encompass all the conventional military formations and branches of Russian armed forces;
  • Reorganizing the military reserve system as well as centralizing and standardizing active-duty personnel training by consolidating 65 training centers into 10 major institutions;
  • Outsourcing non-military functions such as logistics, supply, and procurement to military contractors;
  • Modernizing Russia’s conventional and nuclear forces.

A core goal of the Serdyukov reforms was transitioning the Soviet-era traditional mass mobilization military designed to win another global war with the West into a force optimized to fight local conflicts and counterinsurgencies.

Key Aspects of Reform

This new Russian armed forces has a smaller number of better-trained and more ready units, with brigades replacing the previous order of battle of divisions and regiments except in the elite Airborne troops.

Reformers see the brigade as considerably more maneuverable due to its smaller size, but the brigades must rely on separate support units for the artillery fires, air defense, reconnaissance, communications, and other key functions that were more often an organic part of the larger divisions.

The change in the main administrative unit from divisions and regiments to brigades required gutting the number and units, many of which were little more than skeleton formations supervised by a few officers pending their activation and troop replenishment in time of war.

The Soviet military had a system of tiered readiness with many undermanned “cadre” units having almost no personnel in peacetime but a full complement of senior officers. These units were mostly eliminated, though a few were consolidated into a smaller number of fully manned and combat ready formations. The number of Army units has been decreasing from 1,890 to 172 units and the number of Navy units from 240 to 123.

Russian Air Force units (regiments, squadrons, et cetera) have been merged into a smaller number of new “aviation bases,” while the total number of units in the Air Force has been planned to go down from 340 to just 180.

In addition, the Air Force consolidated many of its airports and began using some civilian airports. The weapons and other equipment released from the disbanded combat units have been transferred to the remaining formations or, in the case of the oldest or least useful items, simply scrapped.

In pursuit of a more agile command structure, the Ministry has pared down the old four-tiered Russian organizational structure (Military District-Army-Division-Regiment) into three levels of command: Military District-Operational Command-Brigade. The reduction in the number of intermediate commands should help to streamline operational command and avoid awkward situations, such as when slow and clumsy communication channels during the Georgia War resulted in some units of the 58th Army being commanded by the General Staff, some by the Military District, some by the army staff, while some units lost command guidance entirely at times.

In addition, the previously six military districts have been reorganized into four, each with a corresponding operational-strategic command. Their heads have command authority over all the units and formations in their district except those of the strategic nuclear forces.

Other rear services were also sharply consolidated, included replacing single service logistical bases with a smaller number of joint supply centers at higher levels of command. The MOD now uses civilian service providers for non-combat support functions such as providing food and laundry.

Another prominent theme pertains to substantial reductions in numbers of both personnel and various secondary support and logistical units across military branches.

The officer corps was in the process of being reduced from 350,000 to only 150,000, though Serdyukov eventually announced his intention to re-employ an additional 70,000 officers, apparently to avoid having to pay for their housing and other military retirement benefits. Under current plans, by 2017, there will be 220,000 officers, 450,000 contract service members, and 300,000 conscripts. By 2020, the number of conscripts is supposed to fall to 145,000.

The MOD has also sharply reduced the number of military educational institutions because there are now fewer officers to educate.

For the first few years, Serduyokov led the reform charge, with Russia’s political leaders largely staying in the background in the face of massive attacks on Serduykov for the unavoidable disruptions caused by the reforms.

Putin and Reform

But in his election campaign for president earlier this year, Putin expressed strong support for the controversial military reform program, arguing that Russia had no other choice.

“Had we decided not to change anything, and limited ourselves to gradual and partial reforms,” he wrote. “We could have sooner or later lost our military potential entirely. We could have lost the Armed Forces as a viable organism.”

Putin acknowledged that the reform process “was a very difficult process that affected tens of thousands of people.

This inevitably involves mistakes, offenses and discontent. Public reaction was strong, including in the Army community itself.” Putin argued that only a comprehensive and far-reaching reform would work given the depth of Russia’s military problems. “We are changing an extremely complex institution that has accumulated lots of defects.

All kinds of errors, excessive zeal on the part of certain officials, insufficient information and the lack of feedback channels, formal implementation of instructions – these are all real problems of the current reform.”

Putin pledged to make some changes in the reform process but basically reaffirms the current course: “We must identify all these problems and adjust certain decisions, at the same time continuing the general policy of systemic reforms in the Armed Forces.”

But a rising tide of criticism, which amplified Serdyukov’s problems with corruption and marital infidelity, finally led Putin to jettison the chief reformers, if not their ideas, last week.