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Russian Army - 2008 Serdyukov Reforms

In 2008 reforms were initiated by Russian Defense Minister Anatolii Serdyukov to fundamentally change the personnel composition and structure within the Ground Forces, to be finished by 2012. The new management system was borrowed from the NATO / US experience. In practice, however, these plans proved to be “unbaked” and required online corrections and removal of deficiencies.

In October 2008 Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov was moving to convert army divisions into brigades. Unfortunately, brigade level tables of organization, as well as the organization of their battalions, companies and platoons, were not known. Moreover, it was unclear whether the new brigades will have infantry-heavy or tank-heavy battalions with light infantry regiment status, as some analysts predicted. No plans for dividing divisional artillery and air defense units, for subordinating the brigades to tactical commands and for facilitating their cooperation with military district commanders had been published. The high command of the Russian armed forces said the newly established brigades would retain their honorary names and banners.

On the eve of the radical changes, widely referred to as “giving the armed forces a new look”, the Russian Army was in fact still holding on to the main features of its Soviet predecessor. However, compared to the Soviet Army, it had deteriorated substantially in almost all the basic parameters – the quality of combat training and personnel, motivation, modern equipment, or even simply in terms of new weapons and military hardware.

While the total number of personnel in the Armed Forces was 1.35 million, the actual strength of combatready forces, as shown by the experience of the two Chechen wars, was no more than 100,000.

Specific areas of ongoing reform as of October 2008 were reducing the strength of the Russian Armed Forces from 1.35 million in 2007 to 1 million in 2012. Eliminating reduced-strength combined units in the Army and the conversion of all combined units to Permanent Readiness Forces, while reducing the number of units and combined units in the Armed Forces, as well as military bases. In other words, it is the de facto renunciation of a mass mobilization army in favor of a more professional and combat-ready outfit.

Transitioning the Army to brigade organization and abolishing the divisional, corps and army levels. Changing the personnel structure to the normal “pyramid” structure. Reducing the number of officers from 335,000 to 150,000 (this threshold was subsequently raised to 220,000). Dissolution of the warrant officer corps.

The restructuring of divisions into brigades commenced in October 2008, and the standard make-up of the new brigades was approved in December 2008. The reform proceeded at a brisk pace throughout 2009. Most of the changes were in place by June 1, and the remaining ones should follow by December 1, 2009. Some of the new brigades had already taken part in several exercises. The results of these exercises were being used to fine-tune the final structure.

The reformed Russian Army consisted of 40 regular combat brigades, including 4 tank brigades, 35 motorized rifle brigades, and one ‘cover’ (fortification) brigade. All four of the new tank brigades had been formed from pre-existing 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.

The actual make-up of the new brigades is not much different from the brigade structure that was introduced in the early 1990s. It essentially follows the model established by the independent brigades that existed in the period of 1993-2008. The core of the new brigades was the former tank and motorized rifle regiments of the Soviet Army, but with a stronger logistics component, and with some additional combat support (artillery, air defense, etc) that was previously situated at the divisional level. So essentially the new brigades were the old regiments, but with additional artillery, air defense and logistics.

Organizationally, this allows for a relatively straightforward process of forming new brigades from the old regiments. A tank brigade includes three tank battalions (each armed with 31 tanks) and one motorized rifle battalion.

A motorized rifle regiment is made of three motorized rifle battalions and a single tank battalion (with 41 tanks). Each brigade keeps the former regiment’s two artillery battalions, and gets an additional rocket artillery battalion. Its existing mixed SAM-artillery air defense battalion is bolstered by an SAM battalion. Each brigade therefore has a new artillery and air defense command and control chain.

There are two types of brigades: tank and motorized rifle. There are also at least five variations of the motorized rifle brigade. Two of them rely mostly on infantry combat vehicles (BMP), another two on armored personnel carriers and their amphibious versions (BTR and MT-LBV-M), and one is a mountain motorized rifle brigade.

The numerical strength of an independent motorized rifle brigade in peace time is 3,500-4,400 servicemen, including some 300 officers. The commander has the rank of major general. The make-up of a mountain motorized rifle brigade is quite different - it is essentially a light formation, designed for combat in mountainous areas. The structure of these brigades was approved back in 2007 for the newly created 33rd and 34th Mountain Motorized Rifle Brigades stationed in the North Caucasus.

As part of the ongoing reform, the MoD disbanded almost all the machine-gun & artillery’ formations (which were part of the fortifications on Russia’s Eastern borders, mainly with China). Most of the fortifications themselves would apparently be demolished, and the rest are to be mothballed. The only remaining formation of this type - indeed, Russia’s only remaining Army division - is the 18th Machine-gun & Artillery Division, stationed on the four disputed South Kuril islands, which Japan claims as its own.

As of early 2008, the Army (not counting the Airborne Troops) had 24 divisions (three tank divisions, 16 motorized rifle divisions, and five machine-gun & artillery divisions), 12 independent rifle and motorized rifle brigades, plus two divisional strength military bases (in Armenia and Tajikistan). That made for a total of about 112 tank, motorized rifle, and machine-gun & artillery regiments or brigades. The ‘new-look’ Army has 40 deployed brigades and brigade-strength bases (4 tank brigades, 35 motorized rifle brigades and one ‘cover’ brigade).

The main change was a move from the current vertical chain of command of the Armed Forces, a military district - army - division - regiment structure, to a united strategic commands (USC) - operative command [Armies] - brigade regime, in order to increase efficiency by abolishing redundant elements. Except for some postwar changes, the Russian army's structure had remained virtually the same since 1945-1946. Four-regiment divisions were the main tactical units, while the recruitment system aimed to swell troop strength in wartime. But any local conflict can be won without resorting to mobilization.

The previous system comprising military districts, armies, divisions and regiments is giving way to another system that will consist of military districts, tactical commands and brigades. The brigade structure seemed to be more flexible and better suited for local conflicts because divisions are too cumbersome and regiments lack the required weaponry and equipment for conducting independent operations. Army brigades are supposed to be used as mobile permanent-readiness units capable of fighting independently with the support of highly mobile task forces or together with other brigades under joint command.

Mobile permanent readiness brigades, consisting of battalions, were to be capable of operating tactical maneuver groups, either independently or together with other brigades under joint command. In addition, each military district established rapid response brigades, which will most likely be formed out of airborne units. The non-combat (‘cadre-strength’) units with a minimal / reduced manpower were eliminated, and all army units were ‘troops of permanent readiness’ (combat units). In 2009, the structure of the Armed Forces was to chang from division-regiment based to the brigade-based one (except the Airborne Landing Forces and Strategic Missile Forces). The mumber of Military Units in Russian Ground Forces went from 1,890 in 2008 to 172 by 2012.

Another important change as part of the new brigade structure was the transition towards a three-tier command system comprising Military District Command, Operational Command, and the actual brigades. Some 23 divisions were to be disbanded (with the exception of the 18th Machine-gun & Artillery Division stationed on the South Kuril Islands, and of the airborne divisions). The existing divisions, combined services armies and army corps would be replaced by brigades, all taking orders from their respective Operational Commands. These Commands would use the Western ‘joint’ setup structure, whereby a single Operational Command will be in charge of all the forces in its area of responsibility, including aviation, air defense, missile units, etc.

Changes in the personnel composition of the Armed Forces include reducing the commissioned officers' (CO) numbers from more than 400,000 in 2008 (over 30% of the current 1,200,000 servicemen) to around 150,000 (15% of the future 1,000,000). The cutback would mostly affect Logistics and staff COs and Generals, while the number of First and Second Lieutenants will increase from 50,000 to 60,000. A reduction in CO numbers will be accompanied by a boost in the size of the sergeant corps. The sergeant corps will play a much larger role in the future Russian Army. Well-trained and experienced professional sergeants will ensure fast and effective training of privates, both contract soldiers and conscripts.

Many of the specialized support [non-manuever] "brigades" had staff headcounts of only a thousand troops or fewer. The 70th Separate Signal Brigade at Naro-Fominsk had fewer than 400 troops on hand when it was disbanded. Others appear to be no more than small command staffs - as of the year 2011 the 119th Logistics Brigade at Orlovskie Dvoriki had only 24 persons on staff. A number of the units designated as "regiments" in fact had only a few dozen troops on hand.

While it might be tempting to think of this as indicative of under-manned units, it would be more helpful to think of these small units as over-officered. The post-Soviet Russian Army had a massive over-supply of officers. While drafted privates and sergeants could painlessly melt away, a too-rapid down-sizing of the officer corps could have produced political problems for Russia's rulers. Even too much constraint on promotion opportunities could have produced problems. So the answer, much like the army of Myanmar, was to over-officer small units.

On 29 May 2009 a working group of State Duma Deputies and military experts, originally set up in November 2008, delivered a report to Medvedev and Putin that called for rolling back Serdyukov's "baseless" reforms. The report argued that the Russian army must retain its four-tier command structure, as opposed to a three-tier command structure as Serdyukov decreed. According to the report, Russia should also not continue with plans to fire 205,000 military officers, nor liquidate warrant officers from the military.

The working group argued that it was not possible for Russia to have an army that was composed of 70 percent contract soldiers. It also recommended turning over responsibility for military reform to the State Duma so reform could be carried out publicly, rather than "secretly" in the MOD. Indeed, Nezavisimaya Gazeta reported the Russian Security Council will meet to discuss the pace of military reforms. An unnamed source in the Kremlin was quoted as saying military reforms will be slowed down as the GOR reassesses their efficacy.

Vedomosti, however, quoted an unnamed MOD official as saying this report reflected the opinion of many officers dissatisfied with Serdyukov's reforms may deprive Serdyukov of the financial resources needed to continue reforming the military.

Serdyukov's reforms aimed to end Russia's 300-year practice of relying on mass mobilization to defend the country and instead rely on high-tech weaponry and mobility. Because these reforms represent such a departure from well-established practice, they continued to meet opposition. As long as Serdyukov enjoyed the support of Medvedev and Putin, however, his job would remain secure and reforms would continue.




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