Streetwise Professor

March 7, 2010


Filed under: Uncategorized — The Professor @ 1:47 pm

Roseanne Rosannadanna has apparently weighed in on Russia’s highly touted policy to replace a 19th century-style mass conscription army with a volunteer force based on “contract” soldiers:

Roseanna Rosannadanna Nevermind

Specifically, Russian Chief of the General Staff Nikolai Makarov has announced that the army will continue to rely on conscripts rather than transition to a volunteer force (per EDM):

Controversy returned to the Russian Chief of the General Staff and First Deputy Defense Minister, Army-General Nikolai Makarov, following an interview on February 25, during which he seemed to signal a policy reversal on the issue of further developing contract personnel numbers (Kommersant, Russia Today, Interfax, February 25). Makarov pointedly asserted, “We are not going to switch to contract service. Too many mistakes have been made, while the task of building a professional army has not been fulfilled. So the decision was made that conscript service will remain in the armed forces,” adding that, “We are increasing conscription and cutting down the contract component. We have realized that contract servicemen must be trained using new methods.” Sensationalist interpretations of his comments were offered, among others, by, which claimed that he was in effect “tearing up contracts” (, February 26). Moreover, some critics suggested that his plans contradicted part of the new military doctrine signed by President Dimity Medvedev on February 5.

Nevertheless, Makarov was actually simply highlighting that for the time being the possibility of using kontraktniki as the basis of the armed forces is unrealistic. This reflects the awareness that the future backbone of the line units will be the new professional non-commissioned officers (NCO’s), trained in courses lasting two years and ten months at Ryazan, and these will not serve in units in any meaningful numbers until 2013-2015 at the earliest. Equally, had Makarov fallen into the trap of advocating professionalizing the force structure and abandoning conscription, his critics would have denounced him for promoting unaffordable plans.

Strategy Page has more:

It was thought that getting rid of conscripts would do the trick [of getting rid of ?????????; search on that term in Youtube if you want to see more videos of the practice–and if you can stand watching gratuitous brutality]. Not so. Although the volunteers were in for more than three years, rather than two (and now one) for conscripts, the lack of effective NCOs saw the bad habits persist. Thus the need to develop professional NCOs to keep things under control in the barracks.

Volunteers cost a lot more than conscripts, but there is not enough money to do away with conscription. Russia uses some volunteers, especially for combat duty in places like Chechnya. These troops get paid on a scale equal to, and, with combat pay, above civilian wages. Conscripts get a few dollars a month. The volunteers expected better living conditions, and often didn’t get it. So they left.

The hazing has been one of the basic causes of crimes in the Russian armed forces. The hazing accounts for 20 to 30 per cent of all soldier crimes. This has caused a suicide rate that is among the highest in the world. Poor working conditions in general also mean that Russian soldiers are nearly twice as likely to die from accidents, or suicide, than American soldiers.

With hazing, and the resulting poor morale and discipline, the military is also unable to keep many of its experienced and capable NCOs. Many of the best ones have been leaving the military, despite better pay and living conditions. All noted the problems, caused by hazing, as a major reason for getting out.

Conscription itself, and the prospect of being exposed to the hazing, has led to a massive increase in draft dodging. Bribes, and document fraud, are freely used. Few parents, or potential conscripts, consider this a crime. Avoiding the draft is seen as a form of self preservation.

The Russian lack of sergeants (praporshchiki) has been difficult to fix. Just promoting more troops to that rank, paying them some more, and telling them to take charge, has not done the job. So going back to look at how Western armies do it, the Russians noted that those foreign armies provided a lot of professional training for new NCOs, and more of it as the NCOs advanced in rank.

So the Russians opened an NCO Academy. It will eventually take 2,000 NCOs a year, and put them through a 34 month course in how to be a superior NCO. Much of the instructional material is being borrowed from the West, where similar NCO schools have been around for decades. None of these schools, however, keep their students for nearly three years. But the Russians know that they have to break a chain of tradition (hazing among troops, deferring all decisions to officers, and so on) that has crippled the Russian army for over half a century. Thus the long course, in an attempt to drill the bad old ways out of these carefully selected troops, and inculcate new methods borrowed from successful professional armies in the West. The graduates of these academies will become platoon and company sergeants (1st Sergeants) and sergeants major for battalions. They will, as in the West, have the respect and trust of the troops, and serve as an intermediary between the officers and the troops. As in the West, the new NCOs will look after the welfare of the troops, especially when the officers are not paying as much attention as they should. The new NCOs will be paid as much as a high ranking officers ($1,100 a month), which will help attract the most suitable candidates. [This pay compresssion will also serve to tick off the officers, and thereby create other kinds of morale and leadership problems.]

A three year training program is bizarre, and a testament to how bad the problem must be.  It essentially means that training of NCOs must be hermetically sealed from what transpires in the units and the barracks, for long periods of time, for fear that exposure to the prevailing unit/barrack culture will ruin the NCO.  But this will just create more problems.  In the US military, and the British and French and other capable forces, NCOs develop by coming up through the ranks and experiencing what the privates and lance corporals experience; learning by doing is the essence of becoming “an intermediary between the officers and the troops.” This informs their actions as NCOs.  Moreover, in addition to their shared experiences, the continued connection between NCOs and their charges is what builds trust and respect (for those who deserve it–and leads to trouble for those who don’t).  The grunts know that the sergeants know what it is like to be a grunt.  That’s unbelievably important.

In contrast, Russian NCOs parachuting into units from their three year isolation will be viewed with suspicion, as out-of-touch outsiders.  Moreover, knowing the way that identifying anyone as “special” affects they way that they view others not so designated, and the way that the unspecial view them, the new NCOs will tend to look down on their subordinates, and their subordinates will resent them.  Their subordinates will also doubt whether their sergeants really know what it is like to be a Russian private.  Moreover, the pay compression is hardly calculated to make the officers all that fond of the NCOs either.

In brief, the Russian military, and the army in particular, seem stuck in a very bad equilibrium with no way out.  The current system has led virtually anybody but the most marginal and desperate to attempt to avoid conscription; Wellington’s description of his soldiery seems to fit Russia’s:

A French army is composed very differently from ours. The conscription calls out a share of every class — no matter whether your son or my son — all must march; but our friends — I may say it in this room — are the very scum of the earth. People talk of their enlisting from their fine military feeling — all stuff — no such thing. Some of our men enlist from having got bastard children — some for minor offences — many more for drink; but you can hardly conceive such a set brought together, and it really is wonderful that we should have made them the fine fellows they are.

The differences are that: (a) the Russian army is theoretically on the French model in which everyone serves, and has all the disadvantages thereof without any of the compensating benefits, and (b) it is highly doubtful that the Russian system has made its soldiers “fine fellows.”

But the alternative of creating a professional force with elan and morale is beyond reach, and the extreme measures intended to achieve it are unlikely to succeed.  What Russia needs is NCOs that are essentially the best of the men whom they command, only older and more experienced; a special caste of NCOs will come with its own special problems.

This makes the second part of the EDM article all the more amazing.  It states that Russia is attempting to move to network centric warfare, based in part on the less than stellar performance of the army in the Georgian War (which is pretty amazing since the units involved were among the best in the service).  But network centric warfare depends crucially on trained and motivated soldiers.  A conscript army is unlikely to cut it, even (especially?) if leavened with a number of NCOs created in isolation from the units they are supposed to lead.

I continue to believe that it is a very clear understanding of the debilitating dysfunctions of the Russian military that is a major source of the government’s paranoia about NATO.  Look, even if it wanted to, NATO couldn’t realistically invade Russia; the numbers are too small, and the logistical obstacles too daunting.  And it really, really, really, doesn’t want to.  But to Russian leaders already marinated in paranoia, the knowledge that their military is really an empty shell–at best–can only intensify that paranoia.

* Maybe it’s Nirvana instead of Roseanne Rosannadanna: Nirvana Nevermind

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  1. mr professor,

    you don’t need a doomsday device to fend off governments doing bailouts. You just need the government to pass a law putting it outside the scope of the Fed/Treasury/FDIC’s powers, except maybe to act as a bankruptcy DIP lender. And then have a criminal statute imposing say 10 – 50 years in prison for regulators that do any transaction with a significant purpose of assisting a troubled financial entity outside this regime, and prevent legal opinions from being used as a defense to the criminal statute.

    Comment by mr mr — March 7, 2010 @ 4:16 pm

  2. In a spooky coincidence, I went to a Nirvana tribute concert in Odessa tonight… you’re freaking me out SWP.

    Comment by Howard Roark — March 7, 2010 @ 5:57 pm

  3. @mr mr — You are basically positing a legal framework for a doomsday device–one that would automatically impose huge penalties on regulators tempted to intervene. The primary problem is that you couldn’t bind future Congresses, which could, and likely would, whip out the check book when some future Hank Paulson/Ben Bernanke team comes to tell them that the world will come to an end unless they pass a gazillion dollar bailout the world will end. Moreover, there are ways of potentially circumventing even what you propose. Never underestimate the imagination of regulators/legislators when it comes to finding ways to circumvent constraints.

    @ Howard. LOL. I have that effect on people. But I would have to say that I can’t imagine anything much freakier than a Nirvana tribute in Odessa. Tell me more.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — March 7, 2010 @ 6:48 pm

  4. @Howard: Odessa, TX or… the Odessa, you know 🙂

    Comment by LL — March 7, 2010 @ 8:32 pm

  5. @LL–They don’t wear Stetsons in the Odessa where Howard is.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — March 7, 2010 @ 9:15 pm

  6. A three year training program is bizarre, and a testament to how bad the problem must be. It essentially means that training of NCOs must be hermetically sealed from what transpires in the units and the barracks, for long periods of time, for fear that exposure to the prevailing unit/barrack culture will ruin the NCO.

    AFAIK, these NCO’s are required to undergo the standard 1-year draft. So they would have first hand knowledge of what transpired in the units – the only issue being that by the time they rejoin the Army their knowledge would be 3 years dated. Right?

    Comment by Sublime Oblivion — March 8, 2010 @ 6:53 pm

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