Leadership: Back to the Future With the Red Army


May 3, 2006: The mighty Red Army, the mightiest ground force ever known, born in the wake of World War I, is dying of neglect and controversy. The Russian armed forces are rotting away, because of indecision among political and military leaders. With about a million people currently in uniform, most are using weapons and equipment that, at best, were manufactured in the 1980s. The Cold War ended in 1991, when the Soviet Union dissolved.

More to the point, the Soviet Union went bankrupt, its economy bent out of shape, and starved for investment, because of a 25 year arms race to nowhere. This absurd operation was kicked off when corrupt politicians made a deal with the military leadership, to help overthrow the top guy (Nikita Khrushchev). The politicians basically promised the generals and admirals a blank check, as long as the military stayed out of politics, and let the politicians enjoy themselves. And everyone had a grand time until, two decades later, it was noted that, diverting all the money to military spending, and not replacing civilian factories or infrastructure, had left the country an economic basket case. Saner, and less corrupt, leadership took over, but it was too late. The Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991, and Russia (which was now had about half the population of the old Soviet Union) began to rebuild its economy. While doing this, the military budget was slashed over 80 percent. Even though conscription still provided cheap labor, a third of the force were professional soldiers who got paid a lot more. You still had to feed and house all these people. There was no money for food or fuel (to keep everyone alive through the Winter). So over a million troops were let go, including hundreds of thousands of professionals. Many of these were glad to go. There were far more opportunities in the new economy. The military was just, well, rotting away.

The number of combat divisions shrank from 180 to about 30. The air force stopped flying most of its aircraft. There was no money for fuel. The navy kept its ships tied up at piers most of the time. No fuel. No money for spare parts. Thousands of tanks, jet fighters and ships just wasted away, The cycle of brutal Winter and sweltering Summer destroyed delicate parts (especially any containing rubber, used for tiers and seals.) Batteries died. Things didn't work any more.

There was no money to buy new equipment. In the first five years of the 21st century, the Russian had nearly 20,000 tanks, on paper, "in service." Most were fit only for scrap. During that period, only 15 new tanks were purchased. The Russian arms industries, at least those that had not converted to civilian products, or just gone bankrupt and disappeared, survived by exporting weapons the Russian military could not afford to buy.

It wasn't just a lack of money to buy new weapons, but an intense debate among the military leadership about what to buy. The traditionalists wanted to maintain the traditional (at least since about a century ago) mass army, to protect the country from traditional invasion. On the other end of the argument there were those who pointed to the changed political landscape. Russia, it was now thought, was in more danger from terrorists, in particular, Islamic terrorists. To deal with that, an all-volunteer force of well trained specialists was needed. Russian generals have followed the American experience in Afghanistan and Iraq closely, and believed this was the way to go.

So Russia is in the process of dumping over a century of mass, conscript, armies, and building a new force, more along the lines of what the United States and West European nations have. This will mean that, within the space of two decades (1991-2011), the largest peacetime army in history will be dismantled, including junking over 100,000 armored vehicles and over 20,000 aircraft and helicopters. Replacing this will be a professional force very similar that what Russia had up to the 19th century, before widespread conscription was introduced. Back to the future, so to speak.




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