Reform plans will change the structure of the Russian Armed Forces

The most radical military reforms in Russia’s post-Soviet history were announced by Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov yesterday. The military will have to part with its accustomed categories, inherited from the former USSR: armies, divisions, and regiments.

The most radical military reforms in Russia’s post-Soviet history were announced by Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov yesterday. The Defense Ministry faces the task of sending superfluous generals into retirement (attempted unsuccessfully by previous defense ministers) and more than halving administrative personnel numbers. Most importantly, the military will have to part with its accustomed categories, inherited from the former USSR: armies, divisions, and regiments.

Each of post-Soviet Russia’s defense ministers, from Pavel Grachev to Sergei Ivanov, made some mention of initiating comprehensive reforms; as a rule, however, the results boiled down to details such as merging the Air Force with the Air Defense Forces, or having the Ground Forces absorb Army Aviation, or handing over all units on the Kamchatka Peninsula to the Navy. As a result, the Russian Armed Forces of 2008 are like a shrunken copy of the bulky and outdated Soviet military machine that was geared to fight a global war.

The last person who tried to lobby for his own military reform ideas was Yuri Baluyevsky, chief of the General Staff when Sergei Ivanov was defense minister. His hobby-horse was the idea of establishing territorial command centers in strategic directions – North, East, and South – to partially replace military districts and the equally numerous Moscow command center. This proposal even reached the stage of some specific directives being signed, but went no further: Baluyevsky was dismissed.

But now it appears that the defense minister’s inner circle has been working on an even more radical plan all along. Baluyevsky’s strategic plans extended no lower than military districts and particular armies, but now the entire “district-army-division-regiment” hierarchy is to be replaced with a new hierarchy: “district-operations command center-brigade.”

A Defense Ministry source told us that procedures and timeframes for disbanding numerous divisions and regiments remain unknown as yet, but many of the top brass have already realized that this will be done. Most of the retired officers and civilian experts we approached for comments are inclined to regard Serdyukov’s plan as a mixture of common sense and “elements of voluntarism.”

Army General Igor Rodionov, a former defense minister, says that the accelerated transition to a brigade-based system may be directly linked to the war in South Ossetia: “This victory in a limited theater of military operations has convinced the national leadership that success in any modern conflict depends on having small and mobile units. But only a major war will show whether this decision is correct.”

Ruslan Pukhov, director of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, says: “The proposed brigade-based model is certainly more progressive – it’s used by all the world’s leading militaries. A structure based on divisions and regiments is hopelessly outdated.”

Experts say that the transition to a brigade-based system is also linked to Serdyukov’s announcement of a steep increase in the number of senior lieutenants and lieutenants in the troops by 2012: from 50,000 to 60,000. Yet the overall number of officers will be less than half of the current number. Serdyukov explained that this is being done in order to give the military commanders for “specific units, not hypothetical storehouses.” The current number of generals (about 1,100) will be cut to 900. Personnel numbers at the Defense Ministry’s central staff and military administration bodies (a total of 21,813 people) will be reduced to 8,500 by 2012.

A source at Defense Ministry headquarters hinted that the personnel cuts decision is drawing outrage from “conservative officers accustomed to the old ways. But there won’t be any backdowns on this – the decision has been made at the very highest state level.” According to our source, Serdyukov has already taken steps to neutralize the potential political, economic, and social risks of sweeping redundancies: he held an “explanatory meeting” with the seven presidential envoys in federal districts. Our source said: “Minister Serdyukov emphasized that each officer should and will know what the future holds for him: where the cuts will be made and to whom, who will be transferred where, and who will be paid compensation. Now these matters will be passed further down the line to regional leaders and mayors.”

In his statement yesterday, Serdyukov also clarified the question of establishing Rapid Response Forces. No fundamentally new troops will be established. Instead, each military district will have a brigade of paratroopers (six brigades in total). Airborne Troops spokesman Alexander Cherednik told us that no instructions have been received yet regarding which reserves will be used to form these brigades or who will command them. But the Ground Forces already have two paratrooper brigades and a separate paratrooper attack regiment, not commanded by the Airborne Troops. This system may be used to form four additional brigades. The Airborne Troops have 34,000 personnel at present, including four divisions, one brigade, special task regiments, communications regiments, a training center, and a separate helicopter squadron.

The decision to establish some new paratrooper brigades also stems from the results of the five-day war in Georgia, and it’s directly related to Armed Forces cuts. “Given Russia’s large territory and small army for covering dangerous directions, the only solution is being able to redeploy units quickly,” says Vitaly Tsimbal, military economics research director at the Transition Economy Institution. But the question of a united command remains crucial. Alexander Khramchikhin, chief analyst at the Political and Military Analysis Institute, says that if military transport plane pilots and the actual paratroops are reporting to different commanders (typical practice in the Russian Armed Forces), we might as well forget about a rapid response to anything.

According to experts, another important question is determining the place of the new operation command centers within the military of the future, if the military districts are to be retained as well. As Khramchikhin notes, traditional military terminology implies that these structures are at the same level – so they are mutually exclusive.