Streetwise Professor

April 25, 2008

Oh, we won’t give in, We’ll Keep Living in the Past

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 10:17 am

I read somewhere that Jethro Tull released a song titled “Living in the Past” in the early-70s. The Russian military should make this its theme song, if one believes Alexander Golts:

Serdyukov’s initiative to strip the military’s journalists, lawyers and doctors of officer rank is a clear attempt to decrease the number of officers. The army now has 400,000 officers out of a total 1.2 million service personnel. That comes out to one officer for every two soldiers. In most countries, officers constitute not more than 16 percent of a military’s total personnel. In Russia, the bloated number of officers resembles an inverted pyramid, with nearly as many colonels as lieutenants.

But the generals argue that a large number of officers is necessary to maintain a mass-mobilization army — one that could call up millions of reservists to fight a war against NATO. In answer to the charge that the number of colonels has nearly outstripped the number of lieutenants, the generals counter that someone must be available to lead the divisions of reservists.

Regarding the military’s enormous property holdings, generals argue that, while these assets might be superfluous in peacetime, they will be essential in the event of a major conflict with NATO. In defending their mass-mobilization strategy, which is still stuck in an old Soviet mindset, the generals complain about the incompetence and ignorance of civilians running the Defense Department.

First, as I have argued time and again, it is utterly fantastical to imagine a major war breaking out with NATO. One doesn’t know whether the Russian military command knows this and just uses it as a rationalization for their resistance to change, or whether Russian generals are delusional to a man.

Second, granting their delusions that a war with the West is a realistic prospect, basing plans for a conflict with NATO on a mass conscription army completely ignores the lessons of the last 30 years. Mass armies of poorly trained conscripts hurriedly assembled for battle are no match for highly trained professional forces. Period. You’d think that Russia would have learned from Chechnya that conscript forces are a disaster waiting to happen–Russian conscript armies were badly bloodied by nondescript gangs of Chechens with no armor or airpower. They would stand no chance against highly trained American troops with first rate armor, nonpareil air forces, excellent intelligence resources, smart weapons, etc., etc., etc.

Third, demographic realities make creation of a large mass conscript army simply impossible. Russia can barely find enough healthy conscripts to fill the ranks of its peacetime army, let alone field a force twice or three times as large (a size that would be consistent with the bloated complement of colonels.)

I would wager that most Russian generals are not delusional; they know that a war with NATO is the least important of Russia’s potential security challenges; they realize that mass conscription armies are an anachronism; and they understand that even if they wanted to raise a mass conscription army, they don’t have the population to do it. So the most reasonable explanation for their living in the past is that it is comfortable and profitable. Change is hard–and if they know that Russia really faces no military threat, why do the hard work? Moreover, as Golts notes, the military is rife with corruption, and change threatens to derail the gravy train.

Fighting the last war is dangerous if you really have one. Preparing to fight the last war is not so deadly if no conflict is in prospect. The Russian leadership acts as if that is the case, and feels just fine about living in the past.

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