Leadership: January 20, 2004

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Russians are looking at their past to come up with ideas on how to  reform their armed forces. Currently, the Russian armed forces are a poorly led, trained and equipped force based on some good, and many bad, ideas developed during seven decades of Soviet rule. Some Russians are suggesting that concepts developed, and used, with great success in the 18th and 19th centuries be revived. Many of these reforms came from czar Peter the Great (beginning in the late 17th century) and only a few of them apply today. 

Peter standardized training and cracked down on corruption. This meant that he set up a system that insured that training was done and that troops were fed and housed adequately, and paid on time. These are all problems with the current armed forces.

The Soviets actually regressed in some ways. Peter the Great's system encouraged the promotion of experienced and capable NCOs to officer rank. Thus most of the company commanders, and many battalion commanders, were former enlisted men. Officers who had been promoted from the ranks tend to make the most effective combat commanders, and the czarist army tended to be very effective at that level. But the Soviets, noting that the revolution which overthrew the czar had been largely led by these NCOs, and officers who had been sergeants, developed another system. The Soviets eliminated the career NCO and established a system that eventually put more emphasis on political reliability than military ability. The Soviets also introduced the "political officer." This guy represented the Communist Party and was deputy commander in every unit. The political officer could relieve the commander he was assigned to, and veto any of that commanders decisions. The Soviet reforms never really worked, and were largely abandoned during World War II so that the Germans could be defeated. But after the war, the Soviets went back to their old, inefficient ways.

Peter the Great's system of cultivating professional NCOs and selecting the best officers for promotion also had one rather unique aspect. This was the selection of officers for promotion via secret ballot by other officers. A senior officer would select two or three most likely candidate for promotion to command a battalion or regiment. All the officers in the regiment would then vote, via secret ballot, for the officer they thought best qualified. Some criticized this system as favoring the most popular and personable officers. But it didnt work out that way. The officers voting knew they were selecting the guy who would lead them in combat. So it was a matter of life and death, not doing a favor for a drinking buddy, to choose the best man. And this was what happened again and again until the system was dropped in the 19th century. Many of the most successful generals in Russian history got promotions from because of this method. It was politics, more than military necessity, that led to the system being eliminated. Would this election of officers work today? No one knows. But the Russians are desperate enough to get their armed forces into fighting condition that they might try it.

 


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