Russian Armed Forces Reform: VDV Experiences Zero Progress

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 153

Russian Airborne Forces (Source: film-onlin.info)

On August 2, the elite Russian Airborne Forces (Vozdushno Desantnye Voiska –VDV) celebrated its 81st anniversary. Senior officers in the VDV commented on their experience of what the defense ministry calls the “new look.” Lieutenant-General Vladimir Shamanov, the Commander of the VDV, confirmed that the “winged infantry” had no progress to report on the reform of manpower or on modernizing its weapons and equipment. Areas of glacial progress in procuring modern command and control equipment is currently limited to one division with additional problems linked to integrating such a system at tactical level (Ekho Moskvy, July 30).

General Shamanov has had a slow and painful return to active duty following his road traffic accident in Moscow in October 2010, which has since involved specialist surgery in Munich. As Shamanov met the press in the defense ministry on August 1, his determination to put the accident behind him was marked by his promise to resume parachute jumps. But Shamanov’s assessment of the course of the reform and its implications for the future of the VDV was more sobering. Shamanov referred to raising the numbers of contract personnel in the VDV to “50 percent” as the most difficult task facing the “blue berets.” It is worth recalling that in August 2010, Shamanov confirmed a decline in the VDV’s combat readiness since the Russia-Georgia war in August 2008. He explained that downsizing the Russian officer-corps had witnessed cutting by 40 percent the number of officers in VDV to 4,000 (400 of these were demoted to sergeant posts), 7,000 contract soldiers and sergeants, with the remainder of the total manpower of 35,000 consisting of conscripts. In other words, the combat readiness of the VDV was mitigated by retaining 69 percent conscripts, serving for twelve months and rotating out of the units twice annually (http://ria.ru/interview/20100802/260908344.html, August 2, 2010).

Shamanov said that more than 40 percent of the specialties in the VDV demand several years of training and suggested an optimal structure for the VDV: 12 to 15 percent officers (closer to 15 percent), contract sergeants 50 percent to 55 percent and conscripts 20 percent to 25 percent (Ekho Moskvy, July 31, 2010). On August 1, 2011 only gazeta.ru reported Shamanov’s comments on manpower. An “inadequate social package” and a whole range of “other factors” had prevented the VDV from recruiting sufficient numbers of kontraktniki. Achieving a benchmark of 50 percent contract personnel, or exceeding it, would remain a critical challenge over the next five years. Shamanov then stated that following the completion of the spring draft 12,000 conscripts entered service in the VDV, from which it is possible to establish the present numbers at 69 percent of the overall manpower: precisely the same as reported in August 2010 (http://www.gazeta.ru/politics/2011/08/01_kz_3719553.shtml, August 1).

While low kontraktniki numbers in the VDV may be a point of neuralgia for the defense ministry, Shamanov’s observations on the complex task of military modernization were in some ways even more damning. Based on his familiarity with airborne forces in France and Germany, Shamanov said the VDV is seriously considering procuring foreign military hardware.  However, based on the existing modernization plans by 2020 the VDV will acquire new equipment, including transport planes. “We are putting our main hopes in the State Armaments Program, which provides not only for the modernization of the Il-76, but also for the building of about 20 Ruslan [An-124] planes,” Shamanov said. Speculation that new BMD-4M armored vehicles would soon reach the VDV appears premature; it is still being tested and as yet does not meet defense ministry criteria. It is due to replace the older BMD-2 procured around 1985, which currently constitutes 92 percent of the entire armored equipment in the VDV (http://www.gazeta.ru/politics/2011/08/01_kz_3719553.shtml, August 1).

Developing fifth-generation armored vehicles is proving to be surprisingly challenging, possibly reflecting problems with Russian armor, though the prototype BMD-4M will shortly be tested. Shamanov characterizes the BMD-4M supported with upgraded Sprut anti-tank guns as being the VDV’s main fleet in the future, but he is still uncertain as to when these will appear: “There is no clear understanding on the timeframe” (Interfax, August 1). Shamanov reiterated his view that army aviation should be transferred out of the control of the Air Force, as well as offering his ideas on forming helicopter regiments to rectify this imbalance in the VDV (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, August 1).

Aleksandr Pinchuk’s account of Shamanov’s press conference in Krasnaya Zvezda began by stressing his asses and elbows approach to combat training, with over 112,000 parachute jumps in the first seven months of 2011. In October, units from the 108th Air Assault Regiment will participate in joint exercises with Belarus and Ukraine. In September, the 31st Air Assault Brigade, Ulyanovsk and part of the 98th Airborne Division, Ivanovo will feature in the “Tsentr 2011” exercises (http://redstar.ru/2011/08/03_08/1_07.html, August 3). The article portrayed the VDV as being in step with military developments and though it referred to extensive procurement needs, there was little indication of the scale of the challenges involved, or how Shamanov had linked introducing new hardware and modern communication systems to the need for more contract personnel. An earlier report in Krasnaya Zvezda highlighted the VDV’s role in the new 20,000-strong Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) Rapid Reaction Forces. Claiming that the standard issue D-10 parachute is the best in the world, the problems associated with an increasing tendency among the CSTO members to procure weapons and equipment from China, France, Turkey or the US were creating unforeseen issues in achieving force interoperability (Krasnaya Zvezda, July 29).

Lieutenant-General Nikolai Ignatov, the Deputy Commander and Chief of Staff of the VDV, told Ekho Moskvy that the airborne forces had “practically completed” its transition to the “new look,” contradicting Shamanov’s assessment. The VDV had also almost completed its involvement in the work surrounding the State Defense Order (Gosudarstvennyi Oboronnyi Zakaz –GOZ) for 2012, making no mention of the problems associated with implementing this year’s GOZ. Ignatov heralded the dawning of a new age in command and control for the VDV, with the introduction of the latest Andromeda-D system in the 76th Air Assault Division, Pskov and its final procurement throughout the VDV by 2015; which will cut decision-making time by “50 percent to 60 percent” (Ekho Moskvy, July 30).

In stark contrast to statements by Army-General Nikolai Makarov, the Chief of the General Staff, suggesting that by 2016 the Armed Forces will be manned by 70 percent contact personnel, Shamanov indicates the opposite phenomenon in the VDV. Shamanov’s task, if he remains its commander, will be to guide the airborne forces to achieving parity between contract and conscript servicemen. In 2010, the VDV’s military council decided to establish in each formation one immediate deployment subunit, (podrazdeleniye pervoocherednogo primeneniya) an airborne battalion or an air assault battalion manned by 70 percent kontraktniki. These battalions are maintained at a higher state of combat readiness in the event of a crisis demanding rapid deployment (BOSS, July 14, 2010). However, with 69 percent conscript manning in the VDV, it is clear that the Russian state is not anticipating becoming involved in war any time soon.