The Russian military's exercises in futility
April 24, 2001
y an odd twist of fate, recent large-scale cutbacks in the Russian armed forces have coincided with an unprecedented cooling in U.S.-Russian relations. The United States is trying to play world policeman, assert Russian generals following the latest airstrikes against Iraq. And Moscow continues to oppose U.S. plans to deploy a National Missile Defense system (NMD), saying this would undermine the existing international security system.
Russia's defense bosses aren't just verbally turning up the heat. Throughout the country last week, the military held command exercises. These included the "launch" of two strategic intercontinental missiles, a simulated attack by Tu-22 Backfire bombers against American bases in Japan and flights by Tu-95 bombers to the point in the Atlantic from where it would theoretically be possible to launch missiles against U.S. territory.
Even though secrecy is once again the order of the day in Russian defense circles, officials weren't able to conceal the scenario drawn up by General Headquarters for the latest military exercises. The scenario's premise was multi-front, large-scale war against the United States and its European and Asian allies.
Ironically, General Headquarters' scenario is in direct contradiction to plans for reform in the armed forces approved by that same General Headquarters. This reform plan is also highly secret, but it became difficult to keep it under wraps once thousands of troops got wind of it.
Despite numerous promises from the Kremlin, planned reform looks like just another series of cutbacks plus some so-called organizational measures. The biggest cuts can be expected in Siberia, the Far East and in the Kaliningrad Oblast. Cuts will also affect Russian troops in Trans-Dnestr and in the South Caucasus. Some army corps will be disbanded. In total, the armed forces are set to lose 360,000 servicemen and 100,000 civilians.
Of course, if this means, as the Russian leadership says, a properly maintained army able to guarantee at least a minimum of the country's defense requirements, then this is a welcome step.
There's hope that Russian soldiers will soon be able to eat their fill and even get some real combat training from time to time.
But what is most surprising is that while the plan's authors propose cutting the armed forces by one-third, they've decided to put off making real qualitative changes to the Army.
As far as it's possible to judge, no changes are on the cards for officer training and education. This means that, instead of training versatile military professionals, Russia's military academies and institutes will continue to churn out what could essentially be called military tradesmen – soldiers who know their drill plus one type of military technology, such as a plane, tank or armored troop carrier. The country's military and political leadership still doesn't see the need for a corps of professional sergeants.
As for the idea of ending the conscription army, it looks to have been consigned to the dust heap. What reform plans boil down to is an attempt to revive the Soviet armed forces, only at a quarter of their former size.
This is the reform-plan authors' biggest mistake. The Soviet Army was conceived as a mass army. Soviet generals worked under the assumption that Western armies would be well-trained and equipped and planned their operations around the principle of Soviet numerical superiority. This was why the Soviet Army at one time had 3 million soldiers and only 60,000 tanks. The premise was that a Soviet soldier would be killed in his first battle but would be replaced by a soldier from the reserves.
Mass troop cutbacks undermine the basic principles upon which this kind of army functions. Officers will lose the right to carry out orders without thought to possible losses. They will have to provide their soldiers with serious combat training at levels much higher than current standards – which aren't applied anyway for lack of money. But there is no evidence of steps being taken in this direction, nor of work on new regulations.
The latest exercises show that no one has thought about the fact that it makes no sense for a drastically shrunken army to perform the same military missions as a large one. A country should take its own military capability into account when defining a potential enemy.
If Russian generals are to be taken seriously when they say that the United States and other NATO members are a real threat to Russia, the best response would be to fully mobilize the economy in order to ensure nuclear parity. But in reality, all this talk of the NATO threat is purely political – Russian generals and politicians take pleasure in feeling themselves at least a tiny bit equal with the United States.
Russian generals see it as beneath themselves to train their troops to fight in limited local conflicts. That's why the experience of the first Chechen war was not studied in a single military academy. That's also why – instead of working on realistic conflict scenarios such as serious domestic turmoil in Ukraine or Belarus (which Russia's main export routes cross), instability in the North Caucasus and infiltration of rebel groups into border regions with Kazakstan – General Headquarters persists in planning "big wars" in which they can send in the strategic bombers.
The problem is not just one of clinging to Cold War stereotypes. The problem is that seriously training the armed forces to respond to today's real military threats would force Russia's generals to admit that our country is no longer a great military power, despite possessing the world's second-largest nuclear arsenal.
Text source: Alexander Golts, The Russia Journal, February 24, 2001