Leadership: Russian Brigades Brace For The Chinese Threat


October 24, 2013: Russia recently announced that it would accelerate its plan to create 40 more combat brigades by the end of the decade. This conversion was first announced in 2009, and since then 70 brigades have been created. Not all are fully manned or equipped. Only 35 are maneuver (tank or infantry) brigades and only about half of them are at full strength. The other 35 brigades are artillery, engineer, and the like. Converting the force from one based on divisions to one based on brigades was an admission that this two decade old Western practice was the correct solution to the many changes in military equipment during the last few decades. It is uncertain if the army would be able to scrounge up the needed manpower for another 40 brigades but, for the moment, that’s the plan. The basic element of brigade-centric organization is to distribute many of the division and higher level support functions (supply, maintenance, artillery, engineer, communications) to the regiments (which are now brigades) and make the larger units more capable of operating independently and not simply as a subdivision of a division. The brigades are larger in terms of personnel and equipment than the older regiments. New training is required as well.

The brigade decision also included the elimination of many other Soviet era practices. For example, nearly all brigades will be at full strength in peacetime, eliminating the need to wait for reservists to arrive to fill out the unit before it can move out. Another change is moving weapons and ammunition to the brigade’s base, instead of distant locations (a measure partly to prevent mutinous troops from arming themselves). The reforms make it possible for a brigade to be available for combat, or movement to a combat area, within a few hours, not a day or more. Improved training, better leaders, and new equipment are being used to bring Russian peacetime forces up to the same quality level of those in the West, particularly the United States or Britain. The Russians were impressed with the performance of these Western brigades in Iraq and Afghanistan and want to emulate it.

Changes like this are also driven by the fact that the Russian armed forces lost 80 percent of its strength in the 1990s, and for equipment many troops are still getting by with barely operational Cold War leftovers. The shock of this has caused a lot of indecision in the Russian military leadership and the internal debates over what to do. For example, a change in leadership in the military and Defense Ministry in late 2013 brought forth proposals for returning to the use of divisions rather than brigades and rebuilding a large reserve force that Russia had favored for over a century. The reason for this was the possibility of a large war in the east. The only major foe out there is China but China was not mentioned. Nevertheless, China is the major potential threat to Russia. The Chinese Army is three times larger and has 15 tank and mechanized infantry divisions it could place on the Russian border. China is also reorganizing its ground forces into one based on brigades rather than divisions. Still, China has 3 times as many brigades right now. Officially, Russia has ceased to consider Chinese ground forces a threat, as Russian nuclear weapons are supposed to be what would stop a Chinese ground assault. Traditionalists in the Defense Ministry are pointing out that nuclear war would destroy both nations and that the current situation allows China to quickly grab the Russian Far East (which China has long claimed) and then call for a peace conference. This is the sort of tactic China has used in the past and the Chinese are big fans of their imperial past. The pro-brigade leaders won this debate and it is apparently agreed that a brigade-centric army would be more successful in fighting the Chinese threat.





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