Attrition: The Russian War On Bad Habits


November 16, 2011: Russia is very serious about upgrading the quality of its military personnel. So serious that it has instituted physical fitness tests for its officers. Last year, some 20 percent officers were dismissed (or forced to retire) for repeatedly failing the physical fitness test. This year, the initial failure rate was 4.4 percent, and these officers have one more chance to pass the test. A lot more officers are going to the gym regularly, and more gyms are being built on or near military bases.

Russia is also finding that more and more conscripts or volunteer recruits are not in such great shape physically. Some Russian officers have noted similar problems in the West, and China. Russian officers have been paying a lot more attention to their Western counterparts in the last decade. That's because Russia has discarded the old Soviet approach (where "quantity has a quality of its own") and gone with the Western model of a smaller, but more high-tech and professional force.

The Russians are finding there is a lot to learn from the Americans, who have also been fighting a war for the last decade. The U.S. Army has drastically changed its basic training in that time. The army also had to contend with another, unexpected development, one that the Russians are also dealing with. The enormous growth in computer entertainment and subsequent massive reduction in exercise teenage boys get. As a result, one of the biggest problems American military recruiters have is unfit young Americans trying to enlist. It shouldn't be that way, for there are 32 million people in the prime military age group (17-24). But because of bad lifestyle choices, less than 15 percent of them are physically eligible for service. Each year, the armed forces have to recruit 180,000 new troops. The military is allowed to waive some physical or mental standards, and this means that only about 20 percent of those 32 million potential recruits qualify. Each year, recruiters have to convince 2.7 percent of those eligible that they should join up. It's a tough job, made worse by a generation that eats too much, exercises too little and doesn't pay enough attention in school.

Some 57 percent of potential recruits are lost because they do not score high enough on the aptitude test the military uses to see if people have enough education and mental skills to handle military life. Many of those who score too low do so because they did not do well at school. A lot of these folks have high IQs, but low motivation. Most of the remainder are not eligible for physical reasons. The most common physical disqualifier is being overweight. Nearly a third of the people of military age are considered obese. The big folk who are eager to join, are told how much weight they have to lose before they can enlist, but few return light enough to sign up.

During World War II, the percentage of acceptable recruits was more than double what it is today. Young men and women were in better physical shape, fewer got into trouble with drugs or crime, and military educational standards were not as high because there were more non-technical jobs available.

The sharp decrease in physical fitness means that the service, especially the army, has had to changes its basic training to include more exercise that will get recruits into shape. That was one of the reasons why, two years ago, basic was increased from nine to ten weeks. After tracking the performance of the 10 week trainees, the army found that the additional week was well worth it.

The extra time was not just being used to enable trainees to learn their basic military skills better. Commanders and NCOs in combat zones have been complaining that many newly recruited combat support troops reach them not-quite-ready for combat. The problem, it turned out, was lessons being learned, but not pounded home so they would still be there when the new soldier reached the combat zone. The Russians have encountered the same problem, and are also adjusting their basic training to deal with it.

This led to a lot of other changes. There was far more emphasis placed on firing weapons, and doing the kinds of things you actually do in combat. For example, the army cut back on the long distance running, and instead got the troops used to sprinting short distances carrying all the weight (over 25 kg/55 pounds) of weapons and combat gear. Troops were also shown the best way to pull, or carry, a wounded buddy out of harm's way. Actually doing this a few times makes the trainee aware that they can do it, and how hard it is. Sure beats going through that for the first time while you are under fire.

The traditional sit-ups and push-ups have largely been replaced by "whole body" exercise. This is also needed because of the increased emphasis on hand-to-hand combat. But this is a new form of brawling, based on what troops actually encounter in combat. To this end, the army has developed a special form of close combat it calls "combatives." The army has even made it into a competitive sport. The Russians have also turned a lot of military skills into competitive activities. In some cases there are cash prizes. For example, officers who achieve the highest scores in the tests receive a large cash bonus.



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