Reacting to Felgengauer

A good friend asked for a reaction to Pavel Felgengauer’s latest piece.

This author agrees with many of Felgengauer’s views, though not all of them.  In particular, this observer is unable to declare, like Felgengauer, that Russia’s military reform is failing abjectly, despite its uneven results.

Let’s look at his article.

Mr. Felgengauer presented the essence of Defense Minister Serdyukov’s dustup with Prime Minister Medvedev last week.  Serdyukov said outright, if the PM wanted to fire someone for failing to prepare semi-abandoned military towns for handover to regional authorities, he should fire him.

You may have read on these pages, the problem of no-longer-needed military towns is an enormous one.  There’s a veritable archipelago of hundreds of voyengorodki throughout Russia.  They’ve long since lost their purpose and support from the Defense Ministry.  Fixing them to transfer to civilian control is an enormous task, probably beyond the Defense Ministry’s current financing and capabilities.

One Putin campaign pledge for 2012 was not to foist broken down military infrastructure on Russia’s regions and localities.  And, though left unsaid, the problems of voyengorodki are connected to the military housing woes.  If more apartments were ready for occupancy, there might be fewer ex-servicemen living in the archipelago of former military towns.

Felgengauer could have written about how the Serdyukov-Medvedev flap reflects wider tensions in Russia’s ruling elite.  Between Putin’s people and Medvedev’s.  He did say the scandal showed the latter’s relative powerlessness.

Felgengauer might have clarified for some folks that, under the constitution, the Defense Minister answers to the President first, and the PM second.  Not so for most ministers.

He mentioned the situation harked back to Serdyukov’s reported ambivalence about continuing in his job.  There was also pre-election talk that Serdyukov might be replaced at the start of Putin’s third term.  But Felgengauer concludes Putin wanted to keep him in the post regardless.

Felgengauer suggests Serdyukov might suffer a “mental meltdown.”  He could have reacquainted readers with the temper and frustration Serdyukov showed the VDV in Ryazan in late 2010.

Turning to strictly military issues, Felgengauer concludes, “. . . the actual capabilities of the military after almost four years of Serdyukov’s reforms are questionable.”

Despite efforts to move away from reliance on hollow units, and increase permanently ready units, woeful undermanning (Vedomosti, June 9) leaves newly formed army brigades crippled, “with most of them not ready to be used in combat as full units in any circumstances.”

He continues:

“Most of the soldiers are one-year serving conscripts, called up two times a year, so half of them at any moment have been serving less than 6 months — not yet trained to be battle-ready at all.”

Let’s examine all this a bit.

Undermanning certainly exists.  The lack of detail on the strength of Russia’s new brigades make things somewhat sketchy.  If (a very big if) the brigades aren’t large, 300,000 conscripts might stretch to cover them, barely.

If the 45 maneuver units have only 3,000 draftees each, that’s 135,000.  Add maybe 60,000 (40 x 1,500) in other brigades, and Russia uses 200,000, or two-thirds, of its conscripts for the Ground Troops.

If these brigades are fully equipped and can depart garrison in an hour or two, they’re technically permanently ready.  But, as Felgengauer points out, six months is not adequate time for combat training, so it’s not clear what missions they can accomplish.  The issue is more combat capability than readiness.  Permanent readiness is a starting point, not an end in itself.

Felgengauer rightly notes that Serdyukov’s reform has lacked a strategic objective and defined doctrine.  One might say it’s failed to prioritize goals, problems, and threats.  Felgengauer says “attempts to meet all other possible threats [besides the U.S. / NATO] resulted in thinly spreading out limited resources.”

This author agrees completely.

Felgengauer ends, weakly, saying military food service was outsourced to make conscript service more attractive, and Putin might abandon it.  He views it as a failed military reform.  It may be, but outsourcing was really introduced to keep draftees in training 100 percent of the time rather than in non-military duties like KP.

We’ll return to the issue of whether military reform is succeeding or failing another time.

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5 responses to “Reacting to Felgengauer

  1. I think the problem is in Russia’s uncertainty regarding its role in the world, and consequently, that of its armed forces and what it wants them to be.

    IMHO, another failure has been the reform being treated as something, that once completed, will deliver a modern and efficient fighting machine, whereas the process of modernization is a continuous one, involving introspection and analysis over many years.

    It would be beneficial for the Russian MOD to change its thinking regarding the delivery of weapons and technologies it views as modern under the current reform effort, towards prioritizing innovative thinking and better thought out strategic planning.
    To put it simply, technologies considered modern and even cutting edge today might no longer be so by the time the Russian military completes its reform effort and finds itself still lagging.

    • You’re right, the aim point of the reform, the time it takes to get there, and any failures along the way will all leave the Russians somewhere short of where they wanted to be. But they can always launch another wave of reform.

  2. Russia ended the cold war with a percentage of the Soviet military, with a lot of its new stuff forward deployed towards the west.
    When the Soviet Union split up Russia ended up with a lot of rear areas that suddenly became front lines.
    More than that the previous force structure was designed to operate with Warsaw Pact countries in a joint effort to deal with NATO level threats.
    Follow this split with 15 years of pretty much neglect and not funding, and then someone expects suddenly everything will be OK?
    The reforms were talking about through all of the nineties and 2000s but nothing that actually cost money really got done unless it was cheap or would save money in the short term.
    The only structure that got proper funding was the nuclear triad and AFAIK it is doing its job… which hasn’t really changed that much ironically.

    The Georgian Invasion of South Ossetia in 2008 was a wake up call for the Russian leadership… they suddenly realised that looking at scratch built UAVs made by Russians at airshows and telling them they look nice does not make a modern army.

    Prototypes at Airshows and Arms Shows is all that the Russian MIC (military industrial complex) did for 15 years because there was no money do do anything more.

    The problem is that when your army is ignored and your MIC is left twiddling its thumbs doing nothing there is no on switch to fix everything over night.

    NATO didn’t get all that flash colourful gear overnight, most of it took decades to perfect and trillions of dollars to make and take to a real war every other year and then revise the designs and remake.

    Israel make good UAVs because they have spent enormous amounts of money making them and using them in the field and learning from their mistakes.

    It is not that the Russian MIC is broken, Israel has spent decades perfecting UAVs.

    Things were never going to happen overnight… just look at the construction of a house… you start by clearing away the existing section and then you dig a big hole for the foundation.

    If Pavel was commentating on that he would be complaining that even a cave would be more comfortable to live in than a hole in the ground and that things are worse than they were before.

    Perhaps if some of his criticisms were constructive, or even if he said some positive things about the reforms without the cynicism he would appear to be less than what he is… a foreign agent.

    CNN and the BBC love to chat to him because his views and comments match theirs… in fact any article in the British Guardian newspaper could be written by Pavel for all we know.

    Not that I am suggesting that criticism is a problem, but criticism without offering alternatives is actually just whining, and he does it to get a paycheck from foreign entities who would hate to see Russia succeed… because Russia is still communist after all.

    Some problems will never be solved…. every Army has problems and some can’t be fixed because people are not perfect.

    AFAIK the Russian government has set things in motion and new equipment is entering service, old obsolete equipment is being disposed of and lots of changes are being made. Some changes will solve problems and some wont. Some changes might even make some things worse, but no one really knows what will happen till these changes are tried.

    • I don’t agree with everything you’ve said, but I think some points you make are especially on the mark. Credit should be given for just getting a real military reform underway. And the process will make some things a bigger mess in the short- and medium-term. And not every fix the Russians apply will work in the long-term. There has probably never been a reform that was 100 percent effective. Thanks again for your perspective.

  3. I am amazed people still consider Felgenhaur to be an expert on anything- he has zero technical knowledge of the subject, and is more often than not completely wrong on any military or political analysis. His pieces drip with bias, and his act has been exposed too many times at this point. One just needs to take a look at the esteemed organizations that contact him for “expertise”…

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