Attrition: Russia Fires Most Of Its Colonels

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October 20,2008:  The Russian armed forces lost 80 percent of its strength in the last 17 years, but a disproportionate number of officers remain. Now the government is planning a large scale purge of the bloated officer corps. Currently, the Russian military has about a million personnel (400,000 in the army itself, the rest in paramilitary units that are largely uniformed and armed like soldiers). But there are 355,000 officers in this force. That's more than one in three, and includes 1,107 generals, 25,665 colonels, 99,550 majors, 90,000 captains, and only 50,000 lieutenants. With all that, some 40,000 officers positions are still vacant. The proposed reorganization would eliminate 20 percent of the generals, 65 percent of the colonels, 75 percent of the majors, and 55 percent of the captains. The number of lieutenants would increase 20 percent. The number of military organizations (about 2,500) would also be cut (by 80 percent) over the next four years. Most of these are reserve units, Cold War relics, containing only a cadre of officers. In the event of a major war, reservists (who are no longer available) would be called up to use the stockpiled equipment (also now missing.) The Stavka (general staff) will have its personnel cut 61 percent (to 8,500).

The senior officers (lieutenant colonel and above) will be retired, all others will be offered retraining. The money saved would go to training and promoting more NCOs, and enlisting more volunteer (or "contract") soldiers. The Russians want an all-volunteer forces, but have lacked the money to replace all conscripts with higher quality, and more highly paid, volunteers. Note that data on how many troops there are of each rank in the Russian military is still considered top secret stuff, and these numbers were recently released as a Defense Ministry official discussed reforms with the media. This was apparently done to reduce sympathy for the thousands of soon-to-be former officers who might go around complaining that the military is falling apart.

After World War II, Russia deliberately avoided developing a professional NCO corps. They preferred to have officers take care of nearly all troop supervision. The NCOs that did exist were treated as slightly more reliable enlisted men, but given little real authority. Since officers did not live with the men, slack discipline in the barracks gave rise to the vicious hazing and exploitation of junior conscripts by the senior, or simply stronger and more ruthless, ones. This led to very low morale, and a lot of suicides, theft, sabotage and desertions. Long recognized as a problem, no solution ever worked.

During the 1990s, when military budgets were cut by over two-thirds, most of the best officers got out, and went on to make their fortunes in the new market economy. That left a lot of career officers who saw no other job prospects. Many turned to corrupt practices to supplement their low military pay. Corruption got out of hand.

The hazing and corruption in the military is a complex issue. For one thing, Russia does not have military police to deal with this sort of thing. During the Soviet period (1921-91), the KGB kept an eye on criminal activity in the military, but was more concerned with loyalty and espionage. The violence and hazing in the ranks was not seen as a big problem. It is now, because Russians can vote, and the parents of young men getting abused while doing their conscript service, are making a lot of noise over this issue. Taxpayers are more interested in what the military is doing with their money.

For any meaningful change to occur in the military, there has to be a major upgrade in leadership throughout the force. The first step is to get rid of the most troublesome and least effective officers. Money for more NCOs and contract soldiers will have to come out of the existing personnel budget. Sacking most of the existing officers seems like the way to go for solving both of these problems.

 


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