27 May 2014

The Road Map of Russian Military Modernization

The Economist has a fantastic and concise look at Putin's military reforms and the context in which Russia is modernizing with the intent of projecting those forces on the "near abroad".

A first step was the appointment as defence minister in early 2007 of Anatoly Serdyukov, a 45-year-old former furniture salesman who was once part of Mr Putin’s St Petersburg clique. Something of a bulldozer, Mr Serdyukov was not afraid to take on the military top brass. But the real catalyst for modernisation was the 2008 war in Georgia. The brief campaign confirmed Mr Putin’s belief that Russia could use hard power in its near-abroad without risking a military response from the West. But it also laid bare the army’s failings. Ian Brzezinski of the Atlantic Council says: “The sloppy performance was a ‘come to Jesus’ moment in the Kremlin.” Russia achieved its goals, but with difficulty against a tiny foe.

Mr Serdyukov smashed through the remaining resistance. The size of the armed forces would be cut from 1.2m to about 1m. The bloated officer corps was to be slimmed by almost 50%, while the creation of well-trained NCOs became a priority. Conscription would stay, but better pay and conditions would create a more professional army. The reforms replaced the old four-tier command system of military districts, armies, divisions, and regiments with a two-tier system of strategic commands and leaner, more mobile combat brigades. Nikolas Gvosdev of the US Naval War College says: “The intention was to be able to throw force around in the region and create ‘facts on the ground.’”

A fast-rising defence budget provided more money for maintenance and training, allowing large-scale exercises to become routine, while funding pensions and housing for retired officers. Mr Serdyukov also set out to instil better accountability and to attack corruption that, by some estimates, was siphoning off a third of the equipment budget. But the biggest reform was a ten-year weapons-modernisation programme launched in 2010, at a cost of $720 billion. The aim was to go from only 10% of kit classed as “modern” to 70% by 2020. According to IHS Jane’s, Russia’s defence spending has nearly doubled in nominal terms since 2007. This year alone it will rise by 18.4%.

Reform backed by money has transformed Russia’s military effectiveness. Progress has continued even though Mr Serdyukov was replaced 18 months ago (ironically, after a corruption scandal) by the more emollient Sergei Shoigu. Yet attempts to create a more professional force and better NCOs have been only partly successful. There is a big gap between special forces, such as the GRU Spetsnaz who took over Crimea, the elite airborne VDV troops, and the rest. Conscripts, who only do a year’s service, cannot handle sophisticated equipment.

There are also demographic problems caused by a low birth rate and poor health: Russia has too few fit young men. The defence ministry likes to talk of a million men under arms, but the true figure is more like 700,000. Nor is it easy recruiting 60,000 professional soldiers a year. Mr Gvosdev points to glossy ads offering good pay and “a great life” but the army will struggle to meet its target of a force that is 40% professional. As for the re-equipment plan, the defence ministry’s definition of “modern” is slippery, says Keir Giles of the Conflict Studies Research Centre. It often just means newer versions of old designs. Better planes, helicopters, tanks, missiles and ships are getting through, but only slowly.

One reason is that the defence industry remains quasi-Soviet, inefficient and riddled with corruption. Much of its output is updated late-Soviet-era stuff. Until the T-50 stealth fighter appears in small numbers towards the end of the decade, the mainstay of the air force will remain upgraded SU-27s and MiG-29s that first flew in the 1970s. The navy is getting new corvettes and frigates, but the industry cannot produce bigger vessels: hence the order of two Mistral ships from France. The army is to replace Soviet armour with the Armata family of tracked vehicles, but not yet.

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