x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Russia plans major military reform

Moscow to reduce drastically number of officers as analysts highlight forces' lack of tactical excellence.

Dmitri Medvedev, Russia's president, left, with Col Gen Nikolai Solovtsov, the commander of Russia's Strategic Missile Forces, centre, and Anatoly Serdyukov, the defence minister, at the Plesetsk cosmodrome.
Dmitri Medvedev, Russia's president, left, with Col Gen Nikolai Solovtsov, the commander of Russia's Strategic Missile Forces, centre, and Anatoly Serdyukov, the defence minister, at the Plesetsk cosmodrome.

Russia is launching the most radical reform of its armed forces since the collapse of the Soviet Union, designed to turn a lumbering Cold War-era army into a modern fighting force. The plans follow a mixed performance by the Russian army in its five-day war against tiny Georgia in August. Russian analysts have highlighted basic weaknesses - lack of night-vision equipment, non-working radios and poor air cover - despite massively increased defence budgets in recent years.

The London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) has concluded that Russia's quick victory was the result of the US-trained Georgian army collapsing, not any tactical excellence. Had the Russian army faced a "more resolute enemy", it would have suffered heavy losses, the IISS said in a briefing paper. These conclusions have strengthened the hand of Anatoly Serdyukov, the reforming defence minister, who this week revealed plans for a dramatic cull of the 335,000-strong officer corps that makes up no less than one-third of the army's total manpower.

By 2012, officer numbers will be cut to 150,000, with the focus on younger ones in charge of combat units in place of the military bureaucrats who occupy prime real estate in the heart of Moscow. More than 200 generals will be retired, but that will still leave Russia with 900 generals for its million-strong armed forces. In the United States, by contrast, an army of half that size has only 306 generals.

Not surprisingly, the officer corps has put up resistance to Mr Serdyukov, a civilian who formerly headed the Federal Tax Service, an agency that inspires the same respect as the old KGB in the past. "The old school is well entrenched in the defence ministry and Serdyukov will have to go head-to-head with them," said Col Christopher Langton, a senior fellow at the IISS. "But the signs are that he can succeed where his predecessor failed. He is a good manager and a tough one."

In June, the minister won a battle against the old guard when he forced out Gen Yuri Baluyevsky, the chief of general staff. The general had opposed his plans to civilianise military jobs, sell off office space in Moscow and move the navy headquarters to St Petersburg. The port city is the home of the defence minister and his patron, Vladimir Putin, the prime minister. Col Langton said the influence of the old guard was clear, not just in the determination of old officers to hang on to their posts and perks but also in the old thinking still dominant in the defence ministry. This had led to "tactical deficiencies" in the Georgia campaign.

Mr Serdyukov made clear his vision for the future when he praised the role in the Georgia campaign of the Russian airborne division, a professional - not conscript - unit that is part of the strategic reserve. The 58th Army, based across the border from Georgia whose main task has been fighting Chechen rebels, was first into battle. But it was not up to the task of taking on the Georgians, who were better equipped to fight at night. Gen Anatoly Khrulyov, its commander, was wounded in an ambush.

The army's technical weakness was apparent when some soldiers lost contact with their units once on Georgian soil and begged to use foreign reporters' mobile phones. The army rushed to install Russian mobile phone masts to make up for the failure of the military radios. Poor equipment almost led to a battle on the outskirts of the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, which would have raised the conflict to a full-blown international crisis. In a muscle-flexing gesture, the Russians sent a column of 80 tanks and armoured vehicles towards Tbilisi, with instructions to turn away just before reaching the Georgian defences. But some of the vehicles broke down, and lost contact with the rest of the column. When the stragglers set off again, they lost their way and were about to blunder into the Georgian army. Journalists on the road pointed them in the right direction.

Most surprisingly, the Russian forces had no reconnaissance drones - even though Russia sells such equipment for export. This led to the Georgians - equipped with Israeli-made drones - shooting down seven Russian aircraft, though only four of these have been acknowledged. The size of the army has fallen drastically since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, when it numbered about three million. But reform of its structure has always been resisted, even while recruitment has collapsed. This has left it packed with officers, who often carry out menial tasks that in a western army could be done by a private.

The officer cull is going ahead at a time when Dmitri Medvedev, the Russian president, is promising a dramatic boost to military power. The nuclear arsenal is to be renewed by 2020. A unified air and space defence system will be set up. Russia plans to become the world's second naval power, building six carrier battle groups over the next 20 years. The army will be mobile, and in "permanent readiness", he has promised.

All these promises might suggest that Russia is preparing for a new Cold War. Russian media have even suggested that recent military exercises were a simulation of war with the United States. The independent Russian defence analyst Pavel Felgenhauer, who takes a sceptical view of the military establishment, dismisses these promises of global military reach as "nonsense" designed to win over the opponents of military reform.

The government's plans were "contradictory" and probably way beyond any conceivable defence budget, he wrote in the independent Moscow newspaper Novaya Gazeta this week. A unified air and space defence system was beyond Russia's capability, while air superiority over US and Nato forces would "require more than 100 years". Mr Felgenhauer questioned how the defence ministry could provide pay-offs, pensions and houses for 45,000 retiring officers a year while grappling with such a drastic rearmament programme. But Col Langton, of the IISS, believes Russia is determined to project force abroad again.

"There cannot be a new Cold War because there is no ideological struggle," he said. "But we will see increased competition between the Russians and the Americans. The Russians are intent on exerting influence where they see fit." In the Kremlin view, the August war showed the limits of US power on Russia's borders. In Kremlin jargon, the "unipolar world" - in which the United States was the unchallenged superpower - has ended, making way for a "multipolar" arrangement where Washington is one of several powers.

If the Russians are right, then Georgia will never join Nato, while the US Navy will think twice in future before holding exercises in the Black Sea. The next area of competition, according to Col Langton, will be the Mediterranean and North African regions. Plans for a permanent Russian naval base at Tartous in Syria clearly show Moscow's plans to project sea power once again around the Middle East.

aphilps@thenational.ae