Challenges Facing the Russian Defense Establishment

By Dmitry Gorenburg

Over the last four years, the Russian government has undertaken an unprecedented effort to reform the structure of its military. As part of this effort, it has sought to begin the process of shifting the military to a more professional manning structure, providing it with modern weapons and equipment, and reorganizing it to be prepared to fight the conflicts it is most likely to face in the coming decades. While the reorganization process has proceeded fairly quickly, a demographic crisis and continuing problems in the defense industry will present grave challenges to the military modernization effort in the coming decade.

Military reorganization

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At the start of the reform process, Russian military forces had few combat-ready units; most units were staffed only with officers, with the expectation that these officers would command units made up of reservists called up in the event of a major conflict. Planners expected it to take a full year to bring the military to full readiness in such circumstances. This type of structure worked for the Soviet military engaged in the Cold War confrontation with NATO but did not make sense for a military that expected to be involved primarily in local, counter-guerilla and counter-terrorism operations. Being prepared for this type of conflict leads to far less stringent requirements in terms of army strength and mobilization capability, while emphasizing greater professionalism and combat readiness on the part of the military.

To better prepare the military to fight in 21st century conflicts, the Ministry of Defense mandated major changes in command structure to improve command and control. As part of this plan, traditional military districts were eliminated in favor of four Unified Strategic Commands (USCs). Each USC was given responsibility for all conventional military units in its region, in both peacetime and wartime. This was the first step of an effort to create truly joint military forces in which troops belonging to various services are under a single command and able to easily communicate with each other. As part of this change, the military shifted from a four-tier to a three-tier command structure, with combined arms armies and brigades below the USCs. The goal was to make the military more compact and mobile and to allow for rapid troop deployment, all as part of an effort to prepare the military to fight smaller local wars, rather than the huge frontal conflicts of the past.

The second part of the reorganization involved making the brigade the basic unit of the military. The reform created modular brigades that combine three infantry or tank battalions with dedicated reconnaissance, artillery, air defense, logistics, and repair units. These brigades are much more self-sufficient in combat than a regiment, but at the same time more mobile than a division.

The reorganization process was largely completed in 2011. However, the Ministry of Defense is still facing challenges in maintaining the newly formed brigades at a high readiness level and in providing communications equipment to facilitate joint operations involving multiple armed forces branches. These challenges are related to the two greatest problems facing the Russian military: inadequate staffing and outdated equipment.

A continuing manpower shortage

Despite the need for an increase in the number of professional soldiers, the Russian military has largely failed to resolve its manpower shortage. Although it officially has a one-million-man army, actual staffing is around 750,000. The gap between the official position and reality, of course, implies that 25 percent of billets are currently vacant. This does not bode well for the concept of fully manned permanent readiness brigades, which have been at the core of recent military reform efforts.

The manpower shortfall is due to a combination of a rapid decline in the number of 18-year-old men eligible for conscription and an inability to recruit enough contract soldiers to fill the gap in the number of conscripts. Presently, there are no more than 700,000 men reaching the age of 18, of whom only about 400,000 are considered draft-eligible because of various deferments and health exemptions. Furthermore, the severe drop in the birth rate in the 1990s means that within the next two years, the number of 18-year-olds will decline by a further 40%, leaving less than 300,000 draft eligible 18-year-olds. The number of conscripts called up annually has already declined to 270,000.

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Dmitry Gorenburg is a Research Scientist at CNA, a non-profit think tank, where he conducts research on ethnic politics, ethnic identity, Russian regional politics, Russian military reform, and Russian foreign policy. He is also the editor of the journals Problems of Post-Communism and Russian Politics and Law and a Fellow of the Truman National Security Project. From 2005 through 2010, he was the Executive Director of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies. Reprinted under Creative Commons license.

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