Moscow Defense Brief

Russia’s Army Reform Enters New Stage

Ruslan Pukhov

I n October 2008, Russian Defense Minister Anatoliy Serdyukov announced a new stage of military reform, and the most radical transformation of the Russian military machine since the Red Army was born in 1918. The MoD set about implementing the new strategy with gusto – most of the structural changes had been implemented by December 1, 2009. The reform has affected the army’s numbers, structure, command system and officer training.

The key elements of the reform are as follows:

  • Accelerate the downsizing of the armed forces to 1 million people by 2012;

  • Reduce the number of officers (from 335,000 to 150,000 vacancies) and restructure the officer corps;

  • Centralize the officer training system by reorganizing 65 military schools into 10 “systemic” military training centers;

  • Reorganize and downsize central command, including the MoD and the General Staff;

  • Bring in more civilian staff into the army’s logistics and auxiliary services;

  • Eliminate cadre-strength (skeleton) formations and bring all units up to permanent readiness status;

  • Reorganize the reserves and their training system;

  • Reduce the number of units, formations, and military bases;

  • Reorganize the Army into a brigade system, abolishing the division, corps and army echelons; and

  • Reorganize the Air Force and Air Defense, abolishing armies, corps, divisions and air regiments to replace them with a new structure of airbases and aerospace defense brigades.

There has been much media hype over the cuts of the central military command, reorganization of the military training centers, redundancies in the officer corps and the abolition, to all intents and purposes, of warrant officers.

Meanwhile, the sweeping structural transformation of the Russian Armed Forces in 2009 – especially the Army, the Air Force and Air Defense – has largely remained below the media radar, both at home and abroad. This lack of attention is entirely undeserved: in the space of just 11 months the Russian Armed Forces have been rapidly reshaped in the “new look” (“novyi oblik”) mold, which is radically different in many ways from the traditional model of the Red, then Soviet, then finally Russian Army. Strangely enough this revolutionary transformation spearheaded by Minister Serdyukov has attracted very little attention.

Army transformation

The main thrust of the reform has been to abandon the traditional Soviet and Russian model of a mass mobilization army. The idea is that in peace time the new Russian Army should be made of fully-manned formations which are always ready for combat duty – the so-called permanent readiness forces. All skeleton-strength units are to be disbanded. All Army formations should be fully manned, i.e. become permanent readiness forces. To that end, Russia is moving away from conscription and towards professional military service. The increase in the numbers of permanent readiness forces will compensate for the overall downsizing of the Army. The skeleton-strength units, manned in peace time by officers without any private soldiers, are to be disbanded. That means than many officer vacancies – most of them senior – will be axed.

Another important change as part of the new brigade structure is the transition towards a three-tier command system comprising district command, operational command and the actual brigades. The existing divisions, combined services armies and army corps are being replaced with brigades, all taking their orders from their respective operational commands. Eight such commands were to be set up on the basis of the existing combined-services armies, but those plans remained on paper throughout 2009 and, so far, the old armies structure is still in place. Six strategic commands are being set up on the basis of the six existing military districts. The commanders of the districts have been put in charge of the respective new strategic commands.

Prior to the launch of the reform in 2008, the Russian Army (not including Airborne Troops) had 24 divisions (3 tank divisions, 16 motorized-rifle divisions and 5 machine-gun-and-artillery divisions); 12 independent motorized-rifle and rifle brigades; plus two division-strength military bases in Armenia and Tajikistan. In practice, out of those 24 divisions and two military bases, only five motorized-rifle divisions and one base were fully manned in 2008. Three of them were in the North Caucasus military district (the 19th, 20th and 42nd divisions), one in the Moscow district (the 3rd division) and one in the Volga-Urals district (the 27th division), plus the 201st military base in Tajikistan. The rest of the division-strength formations had just one or two regiments fully manned. Only about 13 per cent of the Army’s formations could be deemed permanently combat-ready.

Over the course of 2009, 23 divisions were disbanded and their elements used to form 40 new brigades and brigade-strength military bases. That number, correct as of 1 December, includes four tank brigades, 35 motorized rifle brigades and one “cover” (fortifications) brigade. Only two division-strength formations still remain: the 18th machine-gun-and-artillery division stationed on the South Kuril Islands, and the 201st base in Tajikistan. All four of the new tank brigades were assembled from elements of the old tank divisions. Of the 35 motorized rifle brigades, 10 had been in place before 2008, 21 have been formed from pre-existing motorized rifle divisions, and another four have been newly created using equipment stored in the reserve depots. Most of the new brigades had been formed by June 1, 2009. They have been taking part in various exercises starting from last spring, and the lessons learnt during those exercises are being used to make certain adjustments to the structure of the new formations.

All the new brigades are permanent-readiness forces, which means that the proportion of the Army formations that have permanent combat-ready status is now 100 per cent, up from the pre-reform figure of 13 per cent. At least 95 per cent of the vacancies in the new brigades have been filled; some brigades are already fully manned, and all of them are fully supplied with equipment and provisions.

As of late 2009, a total of 85 new brigades have been formed in the Russian armed forces as part of the reform. Apart from the 40 combined arms brigades, that number includes nine missile brigades, nine artillery, four rocket-artillery, nine air-defense and one engineers brigade, plus a communications brigade, a electronic warfare brigade, and some others. The seven existing special task force (“spetsnaz”) brigades have retained their special status, and a new experimental reconnaissance brigade has been created in Mozdok, in the North Caucasus. Many support formations have had their status downgraded to regiment or battalion.

The existing army storage and repairs depots have now become the main reserve component of the Army. Those depots are essentially big warehouses holding enough arms and equipment to field a military formation of a certain size. More than 60 such depots have now been formed; most hold enough equipment to field a brigade, including 15 combined-arms brigades (one tank brigade and 14 motorized-rifle brigades). In the “new-look” Russian army, the function of serving as mobilization centers now resides with military schools and regional training centers.

There have been some vacillations over whether to make the same structural changes in the Airborne Troops - but after Gen Vladimir Shamanov was appointed their commander, it was decided to leave the divisional structure intact. The service has retained all its divisions (two Airborne and two Air-Assault). The divisions themselves have been beefed up. The number of independent airborne and air-assault brigades has gone up from three to four, and plans are afoot to create another two (so that each of the six military districts could have one). By 2015 the Army will also have 18 new army aviation brigades, following the decision to reverse the transfer of army aviation service to the Air Force command.

Air Force, Air Defense and the Navy

The newly merged Air Force and Air Defense has also undergone radical structural transformations and cuts.

The old Soviet regimental structure of Air Force formations, which dated all the way back to 1938, has been abandoned. The new basic formation in this type of service will be the airbase rather than the old air regiment. Each airbase will include the command, one to seven air squadrons, an airfield service battalion and communication units. The idea is to bring all airborne and ground support units under a single airbase command. Many believe this structure has been borrowed from Belarus, where it was introduced quite a while ago.

A total of 52 airbases had been formed by the end of 2009, replacing 72 Air Force and Air Defense regiments, 14 previously existing airbases and 12 independent air squadrons. The total number of Air Force and Air Defense formations has been slashed from 340 to 180.

All air division HQs have been disbanded, and the airbases take their orders directly from the new Aviation commands. Seven such commands have been set up to replace the old aviation armies, as well as Air Force and Air Defense armies. The 37th Air Army of the Supreme Command (strategic aviation) has been reformed into the Long-Range Aviation Command. Similarly, the 61st Air Army of the Supreme Command (military transport aviation) has been restructured into the Transport Aviation Command. The old Special Task Force Command (and its 16th Air Army) now forms the core of the new Operative-Strategic Aerospace Defense Command, which has special status and is responsible for air defense of Moscow and almost the entire Moscow Military District. Another four territorial commands have been set up to replace the six former Air Force and Air Defense armies, which were subordinated to their corresponding Military District commands.

The Air Force training system has also been reformed. The Gagarin Air Force Academy and the Zhukovskiy Air Force Engineering Academy have been merged to become the Zhukovskiy-Gagarin Air Force Academy with an HQ in Monino. All pilot training has been centralized under the single Krasnodar Aviation Institute.

The Air Defense Forces, which are now part of the Russian Air Force, have undergone serious restructuring. All the former air defense divisions and corps have been disbanded and replaced with 13 aerospace defense brigades, which combine fighter aviation air bases, SAM regiments and radar regiments. These 13 brigades have been distributed between the Operative-Strategic Aerospace Defense Command and the four Air Force and Air Defense commands.

As part of the reform in 2009, the Russian Air Force and Air Defense wrote off large numbers of old and obsolete hardware, including aircraft, and shed a lot of personnel. Some 50,000 officer vacancies were expected to be cut in this service as part of the reform.

Meanwhile, the Russian Navy was spared any radical reorganization in 2009. Important steps have been made, however, to simplify its structure and reduce the number of Navy formations, which should eventually fall from 240 to 123. The brunt of the cuts so far has been borne by the Navy Marines: the only Marine division (the 55th, of the Pacific Fleet) has been downgraded to a brigade. The Caspian brigade has been disbanded altogether, and the remaining four brigades have been reformed into regiments.

What next?

The overarching idea behind Minister Serdyukov’s reform is that the shape of the Russian Armed Forces should be dictated by the new nature of the conflicts Russia may have to face. These are primarily local conflicts, mostly on the territory of the former Soviet Union. Such conflicts require a strong rapid-reaction armed force that can be permanently maintained in a combat-ready state. For its defense against other great powers (primarily USA and NATO) Russia will now rely on its nuclear deterrent. It is perfectly obvious that neither the present, nor the foreseeable future holds the threat of a sudden large-scale land invasion of Russia. Any adversary even theoretically capable of such an invasion (the USA, NATO or China) would require a long time to mobilize, deploy and concentrate a large land force on our borders. That gives Russia a long enough period of threat before any possible war, so the requirements to the reserve strength of its armed forces need not be as stringent as before. The country will have long enough to mobilize, which means that there is no longer a need to maintain the skeleton-strength formations in peace time. In the event of mobilization there will be plenty of time to assemble and deploy additional military formations.

To the adherents of the old dogmas, and those who still discern the need to prepare for a large-scale conventional military conflict with the West in the best traditions of World War II, the Serdyukov reform is a demolition of the country’s core defense infrastructure. But the main reason why the reform is unpopular among the military is, of course, the redundancies. No wonder then that its proponents have been taking so much flak. Minister Serdyukov and the top brass therefore well deserve credit for steering the course of the reform so firmly throughout 2009, despite all the criticism and resistance, as well as the difficult economic situation following the world financial crisis.

Nevertheless, all the changes implemented in 2009 are only the first and relatively easy stage of the coming radical transformation. So far, the reform has been limited mostly to administrative reorganization. Each new military formation (the commands, brigades and airbases) is essentially just a structural shell with a new table of organization. Each will now have to be filled with the actual content and then brought fully to life to become an effective and well-coordinated fighting force. That task is compounded by the need to start training the personnel in the use of the new hardware, now that it has finally begun to arrive. Add to that the overall goal of having military units and formations always prepared for action, ready to deploy within a few hours of receiving their marching orders, and the whole undertaking becomes rather daunting. Essentially Minister Serdyukov and his team now have to prove over the course of 2010 that the massive reorganization of the army in 2009 was the right thing to do, and that the “new-look” armed forces have really become more capable and effective than the “old-style” army. The year 2010 will truly make or break the Serdyukov reform.

Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST)
Russia, Moscow, 125047, 3 Tverskaya-Yamskaya, 24, office 5
phone/fax: (+7-495) 775-0418.