Master and Commanders

Major media outlets covered President Dmitriy Medvedev’s dialogue with five commanders (three Ground Troops, two Navy) at Gorokhovets.  But one’s own look at what was said, and how it was said, is sometimes better.

The Supreme CINC took some surprisingly forthright views and questions from his commanders.  He didn’t make specific promises about providing the troops new assault helicopters, better protected combat vehicles, or tanks.  He just kept saying the GPV will be fulfilled.

Medvedev told one commander “we all know well what kind of army we had” before this most recent reform began in late 2008.  This is funny since it’s a slam on Vladimir Putin, who was responsible for the army’s condition for most of this decade.

Much of the dialogue depends on an artificial dichotomy between combat (combat training) and noncombat (housekeeping) officers, and on the need to shed the latter.  It is easy now, of course, to belittle officers in the 1990s, and much of the 2000s, who tried to keep their subordinates paid and housed, and conscripts from beating or killing each other, at a time when there was not enough money, fuel, equipment, or even troops for training.  A lot of officers neglected those housekeeping duties and turned to private schemes, crime, or corruption in those days. 

The two naval officers practically beg Medvedev for contractees because their conscripts can’t learn their jobs in one year.  The Supreme CINC is supportive, but he won’t do it until the concept is fiscally viable (not a bad idea since the most recent contract service effort was spoiled by failure to deliver pay and benefits that would attract professional enlisted).

And, finally, Medvedev revealed he is committed to finding Russia access to naval facilities abroad to support the Navy’s deployments.

But let’s look at exactly what was said . . .

VDV Colonel Igor Timofeyev, commander of the 56th Independent Air-Assault Brigade, told Medvedev his troops would like Army Aviation to have new helicopter types, for landing troops and providing effective fire support, i.e. all-purpose assault helicopters.  He also said his companies depend on UAZ vehicles for transport, which lack sufficient personnel protection, and can’t mount extra firepower.  Then he gets to his point . . . having seen new vehicles at Gorokhovets, he hopes he will have them in his own formation soon.

Medvedev avoids responding directly:

“Of course, the fact is what we have today is undoubtedly better than what we had at the beginning of this decade, but all this is still very, very far from what we are aiming for.  You mentioned ‘UAZy.’  I could also name other vehicles, I simply won’t do this in order not to put anyone in an awkward position.  But, unfortunately, the degree of their protection from very simple types of armaments, including infantry-type armaments, is practically nil.  We haven’t even been working on proper armor plating for a very long time, because we considered it expensive.  The mission now is to ensure that all transportation means, all our light and heavier types of transport means receive an effective defense against infantry weapons and, if possible, against heavier types of weapons.  This is definitely more expensive, but these are the lives of people, the lives of our servicemen, this is ultimately the effectiveness of the employment of the Armed Forces.  Therefore it’s essential for us to work on this, just as we will, of course, work on and fulfill the State Program of Armaments as a whole.”

The Supreme CINC doesn’t address the colonel’s call for better air support, and he admits the VDV’s vehicles are inadequate, but promises only that everyone’s transport means are going to receive more protection.  But nothing specific.

Next it’s the turn of Colonel Yakov Ryazantsev, commander of the 57th Independent Motorized Rifle Brigade.  Ryazantsev talks about the difficult process of dismissing officers who forgot about combat readiness and combat training or weren’t prepared to work under ‘modern conditions.’

Medvedev took this opportunity to say this is the reason for much criticism of the military reform process:

“Often in the media and in the statements of independent analysts we read very severe things about how the reforms are being conducted, about the condition of the Armed Forces’ combat capability.  This is normal, undoubtedly, because there should be critical stories, should be investigation of what is being done.  We have an open society, and the Armed Forces cannot appear like a closed corporation in this sense.  Nevertheless, sometimes these judgements bear an exceedingly severe character.  Some of them concern dismissals from the ranks of the Armed Forces.  In this context, I have a question for you:  what number of servicemen in your view in percentage terms were dismissed from your brigade?”

Ryazantsev goes one better and gives precise numbers:  415 officers of 611 in the former 81st Motorized Rifle Division were dismissed.  He says they were officers who focused on ‘everyday problems’ rather than the fulfillment of military service duties.

Meandering a bit, Medvedev returns to the issue of combat training vs. housekeeping, saying:

“And we all know well what kind of army we had.  We were just talking about ‘paper’ divisions and cadre sub-units.  That’s all there was.  And not just, by the way, in latest Russian history, but in the Soviet period it was, since every year the number of cadre units increased and increased.  How did this reflect on our combat capability?  It’s clear how.  And officers, unfortunately, who served in such places, were occupied mainly with housekeeping tasks.”

“But today those who aren’t prepared to serve are not allowed to serve.  So what you just said, once again strengthens my certainty in this.”

Next Colonel Valentin Rogalev, commander of the 74th Independent Motorized Rifle Brigade, tells Medvedev he can’t say his arms and equipment are fully adequate, especially when it comes to tanks and BMPs.  Referring to the GPV and plans to modernize 30 percent of equipment by 2015, Rogalev says:

“And we hope, Comrade Supreme CINC, that fundamentally new types of tanks and BMPs with greater firepower and also increased crew protection will enter the arms inventory soon, not as single units, but systematically.  This will significantly raise the brigade’s combat possibilities.”

In his response, Medvedev talks about galvanizing the OPK to produce what the army needs, about the GPV, and about spending money wisely, but he doesn’t promise Colonel Rogalev anything.

Then the Navy took over.  Captain First Rank Sergey Pinchuk described the condition of his Baltic Fleet surface ship brigade:

“In the ship formation I command, 10 years ago there were ships with an average service life of 10-15, but some even with 25 years.  They were mainly technically inoperable, technically unready, insufficiently manned, with minimal supplies, ships generally didn’t go to sea for years.  Today new ships have entered the formation.  They are multipurpose corvette class ships for missions in the near ocean zone.”

“The armaments and military equipment mounted on the new ships allows us to cut personnel on the ship substantially, practically by three times.  And the requirements on this personnel have increased significantly.  Besides officers, these are contract servicemen.  You talked about them today.  In the fleet, large effort on their training, education, creation of favorable service conditions is being conducted.  However, one would like to see that this category of servicemen has also found support at the state level.”

In his response to Pinchuk, Medvedev acknowledges that “we are still just preparing” to support contractees in terms of competitive pay and normal service and living conditions.

One wonders how long it will take to get ready . . . they spent most of the past decade preparing to implement contract service before pulling the plug earlier this year.

Nevertheless, Medvedev insists “I understand this and the Defense Ministry leadership understands,” and we “will return to the issue of supporting contractees in the near future.”

Again, no commitment.

Last up is Captain First Rank Ildar Akhmerov, commander of the 44th ASW Ship Brigade.  Akhmerov describes greatly increased underway time and Horn of Africa antipiracy operations by his four ships, and then concludes the sea time and servicing of complex shipboard equipment and systems are increasing the requirements on the training of all crew members.  The price of a mistake far from Russia is too high.  As formation commander, he says he has to increase the number of contractees on deployed ships by taking them from other ships, because conscripts can’t master complex equipment in their short time.  So in the fleet and the district, they’ve made great efforts in selecting contractees, and providing them housing.  But at present, this issue remains highly important not only at the level of a fleet formation, a district, but even on a state level.

Akhmerov continues saying his ships in the Gulf of Aden need higher quality rear and technical support than other ships.  But Russia has no bases in foreign countries in the Indian or Pacific Ocean where his ships could take on supplies, repair, and get some kind of rest for their crews.  This is presently done by support ships in the detachment of ships, but a shore base would increase the quality of rear and technical support and reduce costs.

Medvedev responds:

“On contractees, I just told your colleague.  We, of course, understand this problem.  And the fact that you have to pull contractees from other ships is not very healthy.  Now we simply have to understand what sum will be sufficient to motivate contractees.  We have discussed this more than once in Sovbez sessions, the Minister and Chief of the General Staff participated in this discussion.  I think here we will need to some degree to proceed from lieutenant’s pay, but for this we need to prepare so that this decision will be financially supported.  But, I repeat yet again, without modern, well-paid, socially motivated contractees in the army, nothing, of course, will occur in the Armed Forces.”

On the issue of foreign bases, he said:

“As you know, bases on the territory of foreign states aren’t created on the order of President of the Russian Federation.  For this, it’s necessary to conduct complex political-diplomatic work . . . .”

“I won’t hide from you that we have some ideas on this issue, but I won’t say them out loud for understandable reasons.  But it’s obvious that when, let’s say, support ships follow ships, this is very expensive and the expenditures are really huge.  And this is very often ineffective when this support train has to drag itself over the territory of the entire world ocean.  In this sense, our current partners have much better conditions, because they have staked out bases in the most varied parts of the world, visit and replenish themselves.  Generally, this is an issue which demands really attentive state interest.”

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