Russian Combat Training: Quantity Versus Quality

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 108

Russian T-72 tank

In an interview with the defense ministry publication Krasnaya Zvezda, Major-General Aleksandr Zhuravlev the Commander of the 2nd Combined Arms Army (CAA: headquarters in Samara) outlined the challenges his forces will face during Tsentr 2011. This operational-strategic exercise will be the main test for the Central Military District (MD) and much of the battalion and brigade level training is geared towards ensuring its “success.” Explaining that training has intensified by 1.5 times compared with the same period in 2010, Zhuravlev stated that the training of staffs and subunits within the brigades will focus upon bringing them to the highest level of combat readiness, advancing to loading areas and organizing the rehearsal of combat operations (Krasnaya Zvezda,, May 12).

The functioning of the joint strategic command as well as the three-echelon command and control system will be tested and refined. Planning for the exercise drew upon the experience of Vostok 2010, and according to Zhuravlev, command and control will be perfected by September 2011 at army-brigade and military district-army levels. The 2nd CAA commander stressed that the primary concern is training officers, principally artillery, missile and air defense personnel and specialists in electronic warfare, radiation, chemical and biological warfare, while also selecting candidates for contract service sergeants (Krasnaya Zvezda, May 12).

Major-General Vasily Tonkoshkurov, the Commander of the 41st CAA (Novosibirsk) is more circumspect. Krasnaya Zvezda has profiled the training of tank crews within the 41st CAA motorized rifle brigades on training ranges in western Siberia. A number of officers drawn from these T-72 tank crews gathered in the officers club in Novosibirsk to hear a summary of their progress delivered by General Tonkoshkurov. However, the commander justified the need for a principled analysis of standard firing to identify the best crews and expose shortcomings and “errors in judgment” in these training exercises. Focusing on the latter, Colonel Corneliy Babiy the Chief of the Combat Training Department in the 41st CAA pointed out serious errors committed by soldiers and sergeants in firing from guns and the PKT machine guns. These included the failure of tank commanders to issue target designations to gunners to destroy targets on the battlefield; commanders remained silent after observing rounds being undershot or overshot and offered no corrections. Babiy also indicated that a number of servicemen were too late in firing the first round against a gunnery target, noting that the enemy is not expected to wait for Russian tank crews to open fire. Many tank snipers were found to destroy an enemy armored vehicle after discharging three rounds, though the number of snipers who fired twice with any degree of precision “could be counted on one hand.” Babiy complained that crews were inadequately trained in eliminating delays to firing (Krasnaya Zvezda,, May 18,, March 26).

Prizes were distributed to the best servicemen among the leading tank crews, based on achieving “the goal of the standard firing.” Training has been stepped up, aiming at conducting live fire practice twice weekly including one at night and 150 hours of training are devoted to standard firing, yet serious underlying issues remain unaddressed. Krasnaya Zvezda’s correspondent Tara Rudyk asked how high is the standard of combat training. The level of tank crew proficiency attained was only a “three” which is the lowest mark assigned to the satisfactory category, which the majority of the tank crews are unable to achieve (Krasnaya Zvezda, May 18).

Major-General Yury Stavitskiy, the Commander of the Engineering Troops, also notes problems associated with reforming the armed forces, both structurally and in terms of equipment. Stavitskiy emphasized that the engineering troops are in a transition period, as they switch to a brigade-based structure. In the future, engineering brigades will be formed within each of the four MD’s though they currently function in regiments. Some new equipment has reached the engineering troops, including obstacle clearance, demolition and railroad building hardware. Officers in the engineering troops are trained in the Combined-Arms Academy in Moscow and at the Tyumen and Nizhniy Novgorod Military Institutes of the Engineering Troops. In Nizhniy Novgorod, ten-month courses for sergeants prepare specialists and technicians in subunits. In August 2010, secondary vocational training programs were launched in Tyumen, lasting two to ten months, to train sergeants for commanding engineering platoons. In December 2010, a new three-month course was initiated in Tyumen to train conscripts for the posts of commanders of engineering teams. Junior specialists are trained at the inter-branch regional training centers of the Engineering Troops (in the Volgograd Oblast and Khabarovsk Krai) in three-month courses organized in 19 specialties –including the commanders of controlled mining teams and field water supply teams, drivers of various types of engineering vehicles, excavator operators, crane operators (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, March 17).

Stavitskiy highlighted key problems facing the engineering troops; foremost among these is the supply of new hardware.  The new self-propelled fleet-2005 (novyy samokhodnyy park-2005), MTU-90 bridge layers, and the TMM heavy mechanized bridge with improved characteristics are still to be introduced. New road building machines, obstacle clearing and reconnaissance vehicles will also be procured, but the challenge is fitting these subsystems into the planned automated command and control system. In other words, the greatest problem will be systems integration (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, March 17).

Nonetheless, the weaknesses of Russian combat training run much deeper. General Zhuravlev alluded to this when he observed that ahead of Tsentr 2011 a portion of conscript soldiers and sergeants will be discharged and that fresh conscripts will participate in the exercise. Agreement has been reached between the military commissars and the General Staff elements overseeing the exercise to ensure that conscripts arrive immediately at units and formations to begin their training (Krasnaya Zvezda, May 12).

The “new look” brigades mix contract and conscript personnel, which limits their operational capability and deployment options. Paradoxically, having abandoned the cadre or “skeleton units” the defense ministry has opted for a force structure that merely mimics “permanent readiness.” In addition to resistance among the top brass to new approaches to warfare, combat training concentrates on quantity rather than quality, while the biannual hemorrhaging of the majority of personnel from the units prevents time-phased approaches to combat training and reduces its institutional memory. Devising innovative approaches to combat training is clearly necessary, though its potential will be hampered until the issues of recruitment and retention are resolved.