Who’s Afraid of the Russian Ground Forces?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 9 Issue: 51

Colonel-General Aleksandr Postnikov shaking Vladimir Putin's hand (Source: armyrecognition.com)

In the aftermath of the Russian presidential election, the military top brass awaits the return of the real commander-in-chief to the Kremlin as well as a government reshuffle and a clarification of the long term aims of the Armed Forces’ reform. And meanwhile, the future shape of the Ground Forces has briefly resurfaced. Despite raised expectations that the reform initiated in 2008 might markedly improve standards and the share of modern and new equipment in the inventory, reality is slowly dawning on the leadership of the Russian Army. In the ensuing scramble among the services to maximize their share of the rearmament program to 2020, the army will prove to be a poor cousin of the high-tech Aerospace Defense Forces, the Navy and the Air Force. This reality check was evident in recent interviews by Colonel-General Aleksandr Postnikov, the Commander of the Ground Forces, as he described the future brigade structure, manpower issues and the prospects for acquiring new weapons and equipment (Krasnaya Zvezda, February 29; Moskovskiy Komsomolets, February 21).

One of the most basic blunders of the reform – creating standardized “one-size-fits-all” brigades hurriedly in 2009, only to “discover” that these were too heavy and slow to move during operational-strategic exercises – necessitated correction. Naturally, Postnikov stressed the model now revolves around heavy, medium and light brigades, with the addition at some future stage of Arctic brigades. However, on the precise details in relation to forming the Arctic brigades Postnikov was unclear. He stated that the Ground Forces are “ready” to create an Arctic Motorized Rifle Brigade in the near future, but explained that it could not be implemented until specialist equipment is procured. The technical requirements relate to the Ground Forces anticipating the arrival of modern armored transport and towing vehicles by 2015. In order to achieve optimal protection and mobility the “Arctic” and mountain brigades must be equipped with such hardware. While the generic brigade-based structure has evolved since 2009, the real appearance of brigades capable of protecting Russian interests in the Arctic remains a work in progress. Equally, the task of introducing professional sniper subunits in the army will only be completed by 2015 (Krasnaya Zvezda, February 29).

Much deeper challenges facing the Ground Forces’ brigades link manpower and modern weapons and equipment. General Postnikov returned to the theme of introducing a new cadre of highly trained and professional non-commissioned officers (NCOs), even saying that in the future these NCOs will be “fathers” to the soldiers and serve as role models. Since the reform began the top brass have frequently made similar sounds, but failed to deliver on either an actual conceptual framework for the NCO cadre, or how they will be recruited, trained and retained in sufficient numbers (Moskovskiy Komsomolets, February 21).

Introducing such key personnel and generally raising standards within the Ground Forces will depend upon vastly hiking both the quality and numbers of contract personnel. During his interviews, Postnikov continued to make the nonsensical claim that by reducing the length of basic training for conscripts from five to three months, this was acting to counter-balance the negative impact of infusing the brigades with large quantities of twelve-month serving conscripts. He gradually made more sense by referring to the fact that the conscripts are ignored when combat readiness is measured in the Russian Armed Forces. Indeed, as the number of contract personnel increases year-on-year until 2017, the priority will be placed on the positions that “determine combat readiness,” which means technical specialists and other more training-intensive postings. However, the top brass have declared the randomly “magical” figure of 425,000 within a notional total of “one million” as the overall target in the latest large-scale contract personnel recruitment drive. Postnikov clarified the current situation in the Ground Forces, saying that 30 percent of its personnel are kontraktniki, and expressed the hope that by 2017 this will reach 40 percent. So, despite the defense ministry setting the target to recruit 50,000 contract servicemen annually until 2017, it appears that the Ground Forces will not be the major benefactor of this process (Krasnaya Zvezda, February 29).

The Ground Forces’ brigades, according to its commander, presently rely on 70 percent conscripts serving for twelve months rotating in and out of the brigades twice each year, with all its negative implications for combat training and unit élan. Solace is offered in the rearmament program, and by 2020, it promises to reach the holy grail of 70 percent new or modern weapons and equipment in the inventory. Postnikov elaborated on the arrival of modern models of weaponry in the Ground Forces to date, referring to this occurring in units of the missile troops, artillery, reconnaissance, electronic warfare and communications units. More than 10,000 armored and military vehicles have been purchased, including BTR-82A armored personnel carriers (APCs), repair and recovery vehicles, Kamaz and Ural multi-purpose vehicles, as well as modernized T-72 tanks and BTR-80 APCs. Up to 2,000 units of communications equipment have also been purchased, which is likely to be replicated this year. Postnikov has often promoted the adoption of network-centric approaches to military operations, and fleetingly referred to the new automated command and control system in his recent interviews, but only to say that its developmental work will continue in 2012 (Krasnaya Zvezda, February 29).

Faced with multiple challenges ranging from manpower issues to the level of modernization of the Ground Forces in the next decade and beyond, Postnikov emphasized the defensive nature of the Russian Army: “All missions, and they are many, in support of security and in participation in special operations – should such a need emerge to support order and the territorial integrity and sovereignty of our state – and for participation in peacekeeping operations will require primarily entities of the ground troops” (Moskovskiy Komsomolets, February 21).

Postnikov appeared to signal that the Ground Forces is finding it particularly difficult to square the claims of the reform and modernization with the real conditions it experiences. With its share of modern or new weapons and equipment still hovering at around 12 percent, and heavily reliant on brigades manned by 70 percent conscripts – further weakened by the absence adequately trained NCOs – the ability of these units to deploy in theater is certainly open to question, and their expeditionary capabilities will remain low for some time to come.

To learn more about Russia’s efforts to modernize and reform its Armed Forces, see The Reform of Russia’s Conventional Armed Forces by Roger McDermott.

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